Ian Wooldridge, probably the best known British sportswriter, and the first winner of the SJA’s Sports Writer of the Year award, has died. He was 75.
Wooldridge had been ill for some time with cancer, though he continued to write his much-admired columns, often in considerable discomfort, until the week before he died.
Wooldridge left Brockenhurst Grammar School in Hampshire with just two O levels and after National Service he worked on the New Milton Advertiser, the Bournemouth Times and the News Chronicle and Sunday Dispatch before the Chronicle‘s merger with the Daily Mail in 1960.
It was as a cricket correspondent that he first made his name. He adored the sport and the people in it, from Denis Compton to Richie Benaud, the former Australian captain and television commentator, one of his greatest friends.
But he covered every major sporting event for the Daily Mail, including 10 Olympic Games, with an enthusiasm and lightness of touch that gained a worldwide following.
His long and distinguished career saw him fly upside-down with the Red Arrows air display team, hurtle down the Cresta Run at St Moritz and take part in the famous Pamplona Bull Run.
His work was so admired that by the early 1970s, he was given his own weekly television sports magazine programme on ITV. By 1986, the Mail was able to announce its delight in signing Wooldridge to a Â£1 million, four-year contract. Indeed, during his career, Wooldridge became so famous that, like the sports stars he reported upon, he hired the services of IMG, the agency founded by the American businessman, Mark McCormack, to manage his affairs.
A career-long member of the SJA and its predecessor organisation, the SWA, according to immediate past chairman, Peter Wilson, Wooldridge was always supportive of the Association and its activities. “He would write notes of support and encouragement, to me and previous chairmen,” Wilson said today.
“Even last Christmas, he wrote a letter because he was unable to be at our Sports Awards, but including a donation towards that year’s chosen charity. As well as a much-admired writer, he was an active member of the SJA. He will be much missed.”
Wooldridge’s enthusiasm and lightness of touch gained him a worldwide following and a string of awards, testament to both Wooldridge’s ability and his popularity. He was twice newspaper columnist of the year, and after winning the Sports Writer of the Year jointly with Hugh McIlvanney in 1976, the first year it was presented, he went on to win the accolade another four times and he was four times the sports feature writer of the year.
He also won awards for his lifetime contribution to sports journalism. Wooldridge, a committed royalist and a great friend of the Princess Royal, was awarded the OBE for his services to journalism.
Last summer, his contribution to journalism was recognised by the London Press Club at Claridgeâ€™s, where he was presented with the Edgar Wallace Award for fine writing, one of British journalismâ€™s most prestigious prizes, which has previously been won by the likes of Keith Waterhouse, Simon Jenkins and Martin Bell.
Donald Trelford, the chairman of the Press Club, said Wooldridge was â€œmore than just a sports writer, he is a journalist of the highest calibre and master of the written wordâ€.
In his tribute to Wooldridge today, media commentator Roy Greenslade said that Wooldridge’s death “robs us of a giant of sports journalism, not to mention one of the industry’s true gents”.
Wooldridge, talking of his career while collecting another award, once said: “I started, aged 16, on the New Milton Advertiser with two O-levels in English and art. It has gone in a flash. At the Mail I was a dogsbody for quite a while, then cricket correspondent for eight years and then I took over the column. It’s just been such an enjoyable life.
“Journalism has changed a lot. I was brought up in an era when we worked on dry martinis and long lunches and the friendship of great mates. We had a wonderful time and we never broke a confidence.”
By the time of his death, Wooldridge’s fame was such that his passing was even announced on the BBC’s national news bulletins on Radio 4’s Today programme.
Ian Wooldridge leaves a widow, Sarah, and three sons.
Read Frank Keating’s obituary of Ian Wooldridge on Guardian Unlimited by clicking here (may require registration)