Obituary: Glenn Gibbons, sports writer

Born: 30 January, 1945, in Glasgow. Died: 20 October, 2014, in Glasgow, aged 69

Glenn Gibbons: Insightful and independently minded Scottish sports journalist
Glenn Gibbons: Insightful and independently minded Scottish sports journalist

IN a professional career spanning five decades, Glenn Gibbons forged a reputation as one of Scotland’s most independently minded and insightful sports journalists.

Primarily a football correspondent, he utilised his pugnacious and often acerbic style of writing to telling effect throughout the dramatically different eras of the sport in this country of which he was a colourful chronicler and sharp observer.

Glenn was born in Maryhill in Glasgow and raised in Cowcaddens during an era of post-war ration books. He attended St Charles Primary and St Augustine’s Secondary schools, showing an early aptitude for the written word. At the age of 15, he enjoyed a year as an exchange student in Portland, Oregon, which he said shaped his personality and changed his view of the world.

Like many football writers, his initial ambition was to succeed on the field of play. A centre forward of fairly prolific note, he helped the St Joseph’s Boys Guild team win five trophies in the 1962-63 season. But although he went on to play at junior level and had trials at Barnsley, it was on the printed page that Glenn was destined to make his mark on the game he loved.

He learned his trade at DC Thomson, working in its Glasgow office. He joined in 1967, operating mostly for the Sunday Post and Weekly News, but also covering matches for the Dundee Courier and Evening Telegraph.

They were heady days for Scottish football, with club sides consistently excelling in European competition. It is perhaps best to allow Glenn’s own words to recount the first of his many trips abroad following the fortunes of Scottish teams. It was a European Cup, second round, second leg match between Benfica and Celtic in November 1969, which the side managed by Jock Stein – an individual who Glenn admired greatly – won on their way to the final in Milan six months later. It could scarcely have provided him with a more eye-opening introduction into the sharp end of the business.

“Celtic’s march to Milan that season would also take them past Fiorentina (champions of Italy) and the supposedly invincible English champions, Don Revie’s Leeds United,” he wrote of the experience many years later.

“It was a sequence that, nowadays, seems unimaginable. But it would begin with another mad night in Lisbon, one that would leave this 24-year-old novice sports journalist with ineradicable memories of a wildly eccentric first foreign assignment.

“Traditionally poor travellers, Benfica had lost the first leg at Celtic Park so comprehensively – by 3-0 – that the Celtic players fancied themselves to win the return. One even gave me £50 to have on with Glasgow bookmaker Tony Queen, who travelled to the European matches on the team plane.

“His investment had turned to dust before half-time. Under siege from the outset, the heroic John Fallon’s goal was breached by Eusebio after 36 minutes, and a second from Graca followed very soon after. Eusebio, not fully fit, clearly believed he had done his bit and spent the second half in the press box, watching over my shoulder.

“The third goal came from Diamentino in stoppage time and caused a level of chaos I haven’t witnessed in more than four decades since. The referee, Dutchman Laurens van Ravens, signalled full-time as the ball crossed the line and, with fans invading the pitch and van Ravens taking the teams to the dressing-rooms without re-starting the match, nobody knew if the goal stood.

“Five minutes elapsed before word came that Benfica had tied the aggregate score and there would be extra time. The confusion on the pitch was matched by the calamity in the press box. Thanks to the primitiveness of telecommunications in those days, a phone company employee was able to look at the clock, reckon the match was over and disconnect the temporary lines the Scottish newspapers had installed. The Reuters man had a permanent line and he asked his office to go into action.

“As the press corps waited for rescue, Geoffrey Green, the venerable correspondent of The Times, was asked if he had had any luck. ‘No, dear boy,’ he said, ‘I’ve decided to send my stuff back by the seaward route, in a bottle’.”

Glenn eventually filed his report by more orthodox means, the first of many he would dispatch with panache from the scenes of success and failure for Scottish teams through the next 40 years.

In 1975, his talents were sought by the Scottish Daily Mail. Working out of Glasgow for the next 12 years, Glenn also followed the fortunes of world lightweight boxing champion Jim Watt. On leaving the Mail in 1987, he undertook a successful freelance career. Already writing a weekly column for The Observer under the Patrick Glenn “house” name, he also served The Guardian and Daily Telegraph.

In 1999, he joined The Scotsman as chief football writer, and as the latest name in a line which included legendary figures Hugh McIlvanney and John Rafferty, Glenn did not take long to make his mark as he was named Scottish Sports Journalist of the Year in 2000.

In addition to his daily duties, he also held committee positions with the Scottish Football Hall of Fame, where he was on the judging panel, and the Scottish Football Writers’ Association.

Golf and horse racing were two of his other passions and he was a regular part of The Scotsman’s team of reporters at the Open championship for several years.

But it was through his writing about football, those who played, managed and administered it, that Glenn will be best remembered. It earned him the close confidence and friendship of luminaries such as Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Aberdeen and Manchester United manager, who led the tributes to him following his death on Monday following a lengthy illness.

There were more warm words yesterday from Fergus McCann, the former owner and chief executive of Celtic whose takeover and subsequent tenure of the Glasgow club was covered closely by Glenn.

“I had the pleasure of knowing Glenn for over 20 years,” said McCann. “He was a fine journalist and a man of great principle and of considerable talent. I am greatly saddened to hear of his passing. His independent and brave voice and the ability to see and convey the bigger picture brought him great respect as one of the best sports writers of his time. My prayers are with his family. May he rest in peace.”

Glenn is survived by his wife Mary, son Michael and daughter Samantha, and grandson Ollie. His funeral takes place on Friday at St Dominic’s Church in Bishopbriggs at 9:30am, followed by a service at Daldowie Crematorium in Uddingston at 11:30am.