There are sports writers and then there was Hugh McIlvanney. News of Hugh’s passing broke this afternoon, just a week short of his 85th birthday.
A proud Scotsman, Hugh was born in the South West county of Ayrshire and had almost six decades in the industry, before retiring in 2016. He started with local newspaper ‘The Kilmarnock Standard’, before moving to the ‘Scottish Daily Express’ and ‘The Scotsman’, but it was his 30 years at ‘The Observer’ and a further 23 years with ‘The Sunday Times’ that cemented his legendary status.
With a back catalogue that included the 1966 World Cup,
the Rumble in the Jungle,
the terror attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Thriller in Manila
and the Hillsborough stadium disaster, Hugh gained a reputation for being THE best. A skilled, talented writer, he had the ability to majestically go past the action in front of him and write about the stories behind as well as sport’s wider significance. Away from the newspapers, Hugh wrote numerous books, primarily about boxing and football and also wrote and narrated tv and radio documentaries including one in 1970 about George Best.
It’s fair to say that no-one wrote about Best quite like McIlvanney – show me someone else who could have described him as having ‘feet as sensitive as a pickpocket’s hands’ or sum up the man by saying ‘Best walked out of football prematurely at the highest level four decades ago yet, amazingly, he always remained the potent symbol of what we have lost from the fabric of our lives and from the spirit of the national game.’
Often described as Britain’s greatest ever sports writer, he received numerous awards during his career and was the first, and for some time, only sportswriter to be Journalist of the Year. He was awarded the OBE in 1996 and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Although I grew up in an era where McIlvanney was already well established, I quickly learnt that he was first among equals; someone to respect and admire and to be glued to when he spoke or wrote. I’m sure that over the next few days many words will be written about him, with anecdotes aplenty and I look forward to those reflections. Although a sad time for so many, it also allows us to revisit and reflect on the work of a true leader in his field and it’s not every day you get to do that. Make sure you read the old articles, they are something else. RIP Hugh.
Follow Aiden on Twitter