Obituary: Hugh McIlvanney, much-honoured doyen of sports writing

Hugh McIlvanney (Picture: PA)
Hugh McIlvanney (Picture: PA)
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Hugh McIlvanney, sports writer, Born: 2 February 1934. Died: 24 January 2019, aged 84.

Hugh McIlvanney, who has died aged 84, was for almost 60 years the commanding ­figure in the world of sports writing, widely acknowledged as the outstanding practitioner of his craft, not only here, but, in the well qualified ­opinion of some, throughout the ­English speaking world.

He set the gold standard to which others aspired and as a result of the consistently excellent quality of his ­articles particularly on ­boxing, football and horse racing, elevated sports writing to a higher plane, according it true ­literary worth.

Reflecting on the calibre of his writing in an apt sporting context, one commentator remarked that to describe him as ‘great’ was rather like ­saying that Muhammad Ali was a ­useful heavyweight.

McIlvanney attracted a sackful of ­honours and ­distinctions, among them British Sportswriter of the Year ­seven times, Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards in 1981 (the first sports writer so honoured and, until 2012, the only one), and the Nat Fleischer Award by the American ­Boxing Writers’ Association in 1986 (the first ‘foreign’ ­writer).

He was also appointed OBE in 1996 for services to sports writing, won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 at the Scottish Press Awards, was inducted into the Press Gazette Hall of Fame in 2005 (one of only two sportswriters), was awarded an ­Honorary Doctorate from De Montfort University in 2009 and, in the same year, induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the USA, induction into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame in 2011 and, in 2017, induction into the National Football Museum in England, the first football writer admitted.

While a list of awards reflects the esteem in which he was held, it cannot capture the enthralling magnificence of his prose, the detailed and compellingly reasoned pieces dotted with imagery and allusion to a broader ­perspective outwith sport that somehow managed to articulate exactly how readers felt about an event or personality while heightening their appreciation. The anthologies of his articles on boxing, football and horse racing contain ­masterpieces of the genre.

Perfectionism was his byword but in its attainment he underwent ­agonies, ­considering the writing process “excruciating” as he obsessed over the exact word, phrase, or even punctuation.

He acknowledged his “chipping and sculpting” was “over the top” at times but it produced memorable quotes on leading sports figures – Lester Piggott (“a volcano trapped in an iceberg”), Sir Matt Busby (“greatness does not gad about…it settles on a precious few”), Jimmy Johnstone (“solemnity was always handed its coat early in his company”) and innumerable reflections on Muhammad Ali.

His relationship with Ali, whom he considered the greatest single figure in the history of sport, was special and developed from 1974 when Ali defeated George Foreman in Zaire to reclaim the world heavyweight crown.

McIlvanney went uninvited afterwards to Ali’s villa outside Kinshasa in the early hours of the morning on a hunch and succeeded in interviewing him for more than two hours, culminating in a fascinating article which concluded in a prescient suggestion that Ali should perhaps quit now.He later joked that he was so tired he had to excuse himself to leave just as Ali was “getting into his stride”.

One advantage McIlvanney acknowledged that he enjoyed over later colleagues was the access to leading sports ­figures, which has since diminished thanks to agents, media officials and multi media communications.

He also enjoyed the benefit of writing mainly for Sunday newspapers, which allowed him more preparation time, sometimes resulting in staying up continuously for 40 hours to complete an article.

Best known for his writing he was also a ­captivating speaker with a rich, ­measured and sonorous voice that spoke as he wrote and kept listeners eager for every word.

That was well demonstrated in his wonderful 1997 BBC TV programme, The Football Men, on the lives of Jock Stein, Bill Shanky and Matt Busby, with whom he shared a close affinity, as he also did with Sir Alex ­Ferguson, whose first autobiography he helped write.

Hugh Montgomery McIlvanney was born in Kilmarnock to William and Helen née Montgomery, the third of four children, the others being Betty, Neil and William, the acclaimed novelist.

He was brought up in a ­loving supportive family, initially in a tenement before ­moving to a council house in St Maur’s Crescent, where at first he and William shared a folding bed in the living room.

The household was imbued with strong working class ­values, his father having once been a miner. His mother he described as a “miracle worker” who made ends meet on a very low income. Although both parents had minimal education, his mother leaving school at 13 to work in a mill, books were always around and his elder siblings were voracious readers. His mother was a poetry lover and from an early age he and ­William “rejoiced in the power of words”.

He attended Hillhead Primary School before going to James Hamilton Junior ­Secondary and, briefly, to Kilmarnock Academy. His journalism career began by chance after taking part in a debating ­competition as a 16-year-old against adults, in which he came second.

Having impressed judge John Lyon, editor of the ­Kilmarnock Standard, he began there as a news reporter before moving to the Scottish Daily Express and The Scotsman. He valued highly that grounding as a reporter for its input into sports writing. The Scotsman editor Alistair Dunnett persuaded him to turn to sport after giving him a copy of the boxing book The Sweet Science, by AJ Leibling, a writer whom he adored, as he also did Shakespeare.

In 1963, he moved to the Observer for 30 years with a year out at the Daily Express, covering news, and joining the Sunday Times in 1993 until retiring in 2016.

A convivial man who considered himself a ‘Founder Member of the Enemies of Moderation’, he was the best of ­company and generous with his time, although occasionally confrontational.

His children Conn and Elizabeth, born during his first marriage, survive him as does Caroline, his third wife.