In memory of Hugh McIlvanney. The greatest sportswriter.

In memory of Hugh McIlvanney. The greatest sportswriter.

The great and the good will gather on Thursday. The venue will be St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street. It was in that once upon a time exciting street that I was first introduced to a man whose writing I had relished when, as a teenager, Sunday newspapers were enjoyable reads.

I’d like to have been there for the memorial service being held in honour of the greatest sportswriter of my lifetime, Hugh McIlvanney, who passed away in January. I feel sure the tributes will be warm and witty.

I don’t get back to the UK for funerals these days. If I returned each time an ex colleagues from newspapers or television died, my carbon footprint would ensure the world came to an end any day now. That’s the problem with no longer being the “young upstart.” All of a sudden you find those you idolised are not immortal after all.

I didn’t have the chance to get to know Hughie well. I’d happily make him a brew when he visited the offices of United Newspapers to see his good friend, my colleague Alan Hubbard. It was the 1970’s and McIlvanney was at the peak of his powers. He, Hubbard, Ken Jones, Colin Hart, James Lawton, Norman Giller and friends would exchange notes and experiences of watching the greatest fighters and footballers.

In that era when Fleet Street was the greatest place to work, I would sit in awe as these giants of sports journalism would talk. I doubt I said a word. Close friends though they were, I always noticed that Alan Hubbard didn’t interrupt Hughie when he was in full flow. There were plenty of laughs when the son of Kilmarnock visited our offices in Tudor Street, opposite the Daily Mail where another great writer, Ian Woolridge, would be penning his own pearls of wisdom.

We went to the pub, naturally. This was Fleet Street at a time when you did your work and went to the pub. Often in time for them opening the doors at Noon. Or to the den of drinkers, Scribes, just around the corner from the office.

I was ludicrously lucky to be there. To survive in newspapers. To still have a working liver. To be a spectator in the company of the best sportswriters to ever walk this earth, including Hugh McIlvanney.  His voice. His presence. His wit. His way with words. It was a dream come true. The four Grant boys had grown up reading his words on the greatest sportsman of all time, Muhammad Ali, and the greatest footballer to ply his trade in the English league, George Best.

Hugh on Georgie boy: “He appeared to regard gravity as an impertinent con-trick unworthy of being taken seriously, gracefully riding tackles that looking capable of derailing a locomotive.”

hugh mcilvanney at the races

At the races. McIlvanney in his heyday at The Observer

Hughie was a hell raiser. The stories of him taking on all comers when he’d had a few drams are legendary. Observer colleague Kevin Mitchell, another man who knows how to write about boxing, said: ”After one altercation before a rugby international in Edinburgh, he returned from the briefest of settlers with his antagonist to declare: ‘A man of my age should not be behaving like that.’ And then he laughed heartily, adjusting his tie.”

Hughie spent valuable time in the company of Ali. From the days when a young boxer called Cassius Clay burst on to the fight scene, up to the very end of Muhammad Ali, the greatest wrote about the greatest. It was fitting that the two men became friends.

Kevin Mitchell says: “Hughie’s fascination with Ali was firm from beginning to the end. He would regale us with stories of spending quality time in his company, away from the nonsense of the press conference. McIlvanney and others of his era grew up with such access and treasured it, and there can be no doubt they had a more profound understanding of their subject and the various players in the drama of sport than is available to the current generation.”

McIlvanney was a rounded individual. He loved the books of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (thanks for that tip, Hughie). He worshipped the dance moves of Fred Astaire. He compared the performance of actor Stephen Rea in The Crying Game to anything Laurence Olivier or other acting greats delivered.

At one stage of their respective careers, both Hugh McIlvanney and his drinking buddy Alan Hubbard left sportswriting behind. It was a madness born of the fact that their first love, boxing, was changing. Not for the better.

Alan went off to work for Saga Holidays. A job he soon left after a passenger threw himself from a cruise liner before the ship had left English waters. McIlvanney, in demand by editors worldwide, began to write on serious news stories of the day. Fabulous features that included interviews with IRA terrorists who scared the life out of a man who was slow to be frightened of anything or anyone.

Both men returned to writing about sport. I’d argue that the finest work from Hugh McIlvanney was published in the sixties and seventies. Most often when he wrote for the only respectable newspaper left today, The Observer.

mcilvanney friends with ali

Like so many who cared for Ali, he wished the great man had quit the ring sooner. For all that McIlvanney and Hubbard were excited to be at the so called Thrilla in Manilla, when Ali fought Joe Frazier for a third time, Hugh wrote: “Maybe both Ali and boxing should quit while they are ahead.”

Those who travelled the world in his company would recount how Hugh was not at one with the changing world of journalism, especially technology. He needed help to turn on a computer. Like me, he’d rather time had stopped in the era of manual typewriters. But progress ensured our fingers would no longer be covered in Tippex and newsprint.

Kevin Mitchell reflects: “Hugh belonged at the ringside, with a cigar. I always had the impression that, after Muhammad Ali, and maybe Sugar Ray Leonard, not too many fighters excited him as either practitioners or characters worth studying.

“Journalism had managed to grow and shrink simultaneously, technology widening the audience but taking a little of the raffish soul out of the exercise. I got the impression Hugh wasn’t that sad to leave when he did.”

For my part, the next time I got to spend in the company of Hugh McIlvanney was in the crowded surroundings of the annual William Hill Sports Book Awards ceremony. Decades after I first met him, I simply stood there watching the man. As in awe as I had been forty years earlier.

I dared to ask Hugh for an interview on camera. I so wanted to sit down with the man and have him recall the best days of his career. He politely declined and I respected his refusal. A year later, when I foolishly allowed myself to agree to help a journeyman ex footballer write his autobiography, I asked Hughie for advice. After all, this is a man who had worked with Sir Alex Ferguson on such projects.

Hugh advised me thus: “Get everything down on paper, and don’t write a word until the money is agreed, the deal is in writing, signed by both of you, and lodged with a lawyer.”

But I’ve already started working on the project, I replied.

“Oh dear” said the great man. “Then I can’t help you.”

He was right. I abandoned the book project when the subject of it moved the financial goalposts. A gentleman’s agreement only as good as long as both men are gentlemen. How I wish I had asked Hughie for advice sooner.

vernon with hugh mcilvanney

40 years after our first meeting. Hugh and I

I saw him at the book awards bash in subsequent years. I watched on as he advised younger scribes and was polite and patient in so doing. I’m told by fellow judges that there was still fire in the belly. He fought his corner on the judging panel, dismissing books he considered unworthy of such an award and spoke lyrically in support of others.

He rarely missed the awards ceremony. Only ill health and the death of one his greatest friends, the former racing commentator, Sir Peter O’Sullivan, kept him away.  When his fellow fine wine and cigar loving friend O’Sullevan passed away, Hugh wrote of him: “He was great company. He didn’t just enhance occasions. He enriched lives.”

Of which the same can be said about Hugh McIlvanney.

In paying tribute to O’Sullevan, he borrowed the words of the great American journalist Red Smith: “Dying is no big deal, the least of us will manage it. Living is the trick.”

Hugh McIlvanney lived life well and to the full. He mastered the trick.

One thing is for certain. I’ll never see his like again.


If you’re too young to have read his finest sports features, if you want to read great sports journalism, I urge you to seek out the work of Hugh McIlvanney. Books such as McIlvanney on Football,  McIlvanney on Boxing, McIlvanney on Horseracing and The Hardest Game are still out there, available in paperback, hardback or Kindle form.


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