McIlvanney: 50 years of pre-eminence

On Monday night, in a presentation made by Sir Michael Parkinson, the SJA President, and with a congratulatory message from Manchester United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Hugh McIlvanney received the SJA’s highest honour, the Doug Gardner Award for services to sports journalism and the SJA. Here, STEVEN DOWNES explains why

It is all too easy to burnish a bygone era and make it glisten a little more in the memory, to make a case for saying that fings ain’t wot they used to be. But four decades ago, there truly was a golden age of sport.

From the time when Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy, to Lester returning to the Derby unsaddling enclosure yet again, seeing the noble Hemery step over hurdle after hurdle at world record speed, or watching poor Lillian battle down the home straight one last time. Staying up late to listen to Our ‘Enery bleed for Britain, or Ali rumbling in a jungle, or waiting for news of Illingworth, Underwood and Snow from a cricketing battlefield on the other side of the world. To watching Nicklaus or Watson strolling down the 18th fairway after another sun-blessed Open, to thrilling to Jock’s Stein’s Glaswegians beating the might of Europe, or seeing Georgie boy racing down the wing, or Pele forcing Banks to make that save.

This was a special sporting time. And at the heart of much of it was Hugh McIlvanney, a sports writer and some time broadcaster with the rare skills to be able to get close to his subjects and convey the real excitement and meaning of what was going on around him, to endorse them with a Runyonesque literary quality rarely found on the pages of the other sections of our daily or Sunday papers.

What other British sports writer has been immortalised in the life story of gonzo writer Hunter S Thompson? Ralph Steadman, who illustrated Thompson’s books, reminisced about the Rumble in the Jungle, when Ali won his world crown back from George Foreman, in The Joke’s Over: “So, there we all were, trying to get on the Exodus Special. Norman Mailer was there, George Plimpton and Hugh McIlvanney, to name drop just a few…”

For me, certainly, the chance to read Hugh McIlvanney once a week was why I got my dad, in a staunchly News of the World household, to start buying the Observer, Hugh’s then home. Undoubtedly McIlvanney is one of the significant reasons why I wanted to go into this profession, probably along with almost every other writer on sport of my generation, and a few generations since, too.

The awards he has won ” six times the Sports Writer of the Year, from the 1970s when the gongs were first handed out, through the 1980s and into the 1990s ” only tell a small part of the story. The accolade of being the only sports writer ever to win the Journalist of the Year prize explains a small part more.

But what meeting Hugh McIlvanney and then working with him will tell anyone is that behind the gloriously, meticulously written reports, there is a heart of gold, of a man who is kind and considerate to his colleagues, with advice and anecdotes. And usually a pint of Guinness or glass of champagne, too.

A year ago or so, I was trying to pull together some content for the SJA’s 60th anniversary, to illustrate the work of the Association, the characters in the business, and some of the great sporting moments during the last six decades. Knowing Hugh’s publisher, I approached them to request use of a chapter from one of his collections of journalism. Hugh soon got back to me. “Which one do you want to use?”

“It’s a hard choice, Hugh. So many… What would you like us to use?” I could not decide whether to use something from his football or his boxing archive.

There was a short pause. “Use one from each,” said the man, and proceeded to suggest the right ones to use, too.

McIlvanney’s generosity is matched by his loyalty to old friends. A few years ago, and the SJA British Sports Journalism Awards were staged at the Radisson Hotel in the West End. Hugh insisted on lighting his Cuban cigar, to the consternation of the hotel staff, but was going nowhere until he had ensured he had presented his old mate Jim Lawton with his feature writer of the year award.

He has friends outside the press box, too, notably the most successful manager in the history of Manchester United. When Alex Ferguson was in the process of seeking a collaborator for his autobiography, Managing My Life, he wrote that it was “simply a matter of getting the best sports journalist of our time to write it”.

Flattered, perhaps, but certainly not awed into fawning. When putting together the paperback edition of his book McIlvanney on Football, Hugh wrote a sentence that only he could have penned: “There was a point in the preparation of this book when it was in danger of being afflicted by another kind of epidemic, a nasty outbreak of afterthoughts.”

Earlier in the same introduction, he criticised the direction in which football journalism had gone: “In recent years… there has emerged a breed of football journalists who appear to be unable to put pen to paper or fingers to Tandy until some player or manager has interpreted the action for them. They cannot function unless fuelled by quotes. You feel that if they went blind their working efficiency would be unaffected, but if they went deaf they would not have the first idea of what happened on the park. Their method is a plague, and it’s spreading.”

After a career spanning nearly 50 years, McIlvanney continues to write his column each week for the Sunday Times, though he is less often at the big sporting events of the day, as he once was. But as he was at pains to point out on Monday night, citing the still spry, 92-year-old Sir Peter O’Sullevan (another iconic sporting figure with whom he has collaborated on books past), McIlvanney’s far from ready to finish and hang up his laptop just yet.

But in McIlvanney’s absence from today’s sporting events, and in the absence of his assessment of those events, you cannot help but deduce that at least part of the reason that the memories of Moore and Pele, Ali and Cooper, of Piggott and Nicklaus, have managed to linger for so long is because McIlvanney was there.

Read McIlvanney on this website:

McIlvanney on the state of the business and how to become a sports journalist

When Johnny Owen’s courage let him down

The Best years of our lives

The SJA would like to thank Sir Alex Ferguson, MUTV, Peter Wilson, of the Sunday Times, and David Walker, of the Sunday Mirror, for their efforts in arranging the presentation on Monday evening of the Doug Gardner Award, for services to sports journalism and the SJA, to Hugh McIlvanney

For news of other SJA award-winners, click here

SJA dates for your diaries

Wed Mar 17: SJA Sporting Lunch with triathlon world champion Alistair Brownlee. Two-course lunch plus a glass of wine of beer, £20 for SJA members, £25 for non-members. To book, contact Mary Fitzhenry or by phone on 020 8946 9601 or 07946 545084 (please indicate whether a vegetarian meal is required).

Mon Apr 12: A Question of Boris:The SJA’s second “Sporting Question Time”, this time with London Mayor Boris Johnson at City Hall. This will be strictly for SJA members only. To book your ticket, click here to send us an email with your name, SJA membership number and address, writing “Sporting Question Time with Boris” in the subject field

Mon Apr 12: SJA Spring Golf Day , to be staged at Surbiton GC. To book, contact Paul Trow (07973 862747).

Thu Apr 15: SJA 2010 Annual Meeting , at offices of UK Sport

Mon Apr 19: SJA/LOCOG guided tour of Olympic Park, 2pm For booking details, click here.

Sun Apr 25: SJA Cricket Day. Enjoy corporate hospitality with friends and colleagues, and bring along your partner, as Lancashire take on Surrey. Tickets £65 each. Click here for booking details.

Mon Sep 13: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill GC. To book, contact Paul Trow (07973 862747).

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