Tributes paid to McIlvanney, the ‘Shakespeare of sports writers’

Hugh McIlvanney, the “Shakespeare of sports writers” who scaled the heights of British journalism during an illustrious 60-year career which began at The Scotsman, has died at the age of 84.

Hugh McIlvanney is inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of fame by his friend Sir Alex Ferguson in 2011. Picture: SNS
Hugh McIlvanney is inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of fame by his friend Sir Alex Ferguson in 2011. Picture: SNS

Particularly noted for his football and boxing coverage, he worked for a series of titles including The Scotsman, Observer and Sunday Times, covering the most significant sporting events of his age. Beginning at his local paper, the Kilmarnock Standard, he went on to witness the 1966 World Cup final and the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974.

After the bout, which saw Ali regain the world heavyweight title, he was one of only a handful of people to be invited back to the boxer’s villa, later describing the interview as his greatest scoop.

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For more than two hours, he sat with Ali as he ate steak and talked about his remarkable victory. “It was by far the greatest privilege I’ve ever had as a reporter,” Mr McIlvanney said later.

The first paragraph of his resulting article read: “We should have known that Muhammad Ali would not settle for any ordinary old resurrection. His had to have an additional flourish. So, having rolled away the rock, he hit George Foreman on the head with it.”

The brother of the late crime novelist William McIlvanney, he also wrote a number of books on football, boxing and horse racing, which have become classics of their genres.

He had close relationships with some of the UK’s greatest football managers, including Manchester United’s Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, Liverpool’s Bill Shankly and Celtic’s Jock Stein. When Sir Alex needed advice on his autobiography, he used Mr McIlvanney as a consultant.

Asked to name the finest footballers he had ever seen, he named Pele, Diego Maradona, Alfredo Di Stefano and Lionel Messi – with honourable mentions for George Best and Johan Cruyff.

He was inducted into both the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Scottish Football Hall of Fame in 2011 for his services to both sports.

Mr McIlvanney was also awarded an OBE in 1996 and named the Sports Journalists’ Association’s writer of the year six times before finally retiring in 2016.

The sports journalist Graham Spiers described him as a “genius”.

“I know the word is used quite glibly, describing a person as great and a genius, but these terms apply to McIlvanney. He was probably without peer in my trade,” he told the BBC.

“He was once called the greatest sports writer in the English-speaking world.

“And anyone who had McIlvanney on Boxing, or McIlvanney on Football, or McIlvanney on Racing will know he was kind of the Shakespeare of sports writers. He was a legend.”

Gary Lineker, the former England striker and current BBC Match of the Day presenter, described Mr McIlvanney as “truly one of the greatest sports writers of all time”.

He wrote on Twitter: “His gravelly Scottish voice will be missed almost as much as his wonderful copy.”