Hugh McIlvanney remains the matchless Master

NORMAN GILLER nips behind the paywall for a glimpse of the Master’s work, and to hear the latest about Rupert Murdoch’s plan for a replacement for the News of the World

A little news to brighten the embattled world of Rupert Murdoch: his talented troops at The Times and Sunday Times are producing what I consider the finest sports service on the interweb. What a pity it’s hidden out of sight behind a paywall that is so intimidating to visitors that I am convinced it frightens would-be punters away for fear of being fleeced.

The Master: McIlvanney

The gifted web designers at Wapping must work harder at making the first impression a more friendly one, conveying the message that once behind the wall there is a treasure island of the best sports writing on the planet.

I have recently gone against my principles and started paying a subscription to the Wapping website, and I can honestly say that it is cheaper than chips but twice as tasty.

There is a 30-day trial period for £1, and then various tariffs starting at £6 a week. To read one man alone it is worth the entrance money. I give you The Master, Hugh McIlvanney, now the Sunday Times Voice of Sport and still the only sportswriter ever to be named as Britain’s Journalist of the Year.

For more than 40 years, I have scribbled in Hugh’s writing shadow. He is up there with my all-time heroes like Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Daman Runyan, Red Smith, AJ Liebling and the only two British sportswriters in the same street, Ian Wooldridge and George Whiting.

Yes, the likes of Pat Collins, James Lawton and Martin Samuel are class acts, but I know they will concede they have to bow the knee to McIlvanney.

In the dim and distant past Hughie and I have had some wild adventures. Once, with a bread knife in my hand, I invited him to leave my home after he had punctured a party mood with his kilned-in-Kilmarnock threat of violence.

Some time later we were legless members of a press corps who disgraced ourselves by our raucous behaviour during a Geoff Hurst testimonial dinner at the London Hilton. That was the night a pissed-as-a-pudding Peter Batt insisted on singing My Way with the band, and fell head first off the stage after completing the line, “And now the end is near …”

Our unrehearsed and unwanted cabaret continued with wild fistfights (I floored Straw Dogs author Gordon Williams with an ABA-perfect left hook), and Hughie stripped down to the waist, prepared to take on all-comers. And we call the fans hooligans!

I was reacquainted with Hughie recently in sad circumstances, at the funeral of our mutual friend Peter Batt and then, 48 hours later, at the final farewell to our fighting hero Henry Cooper.

The McIlvanney volcano is now dormant as he gallops towards 77 (although he will want to punch me on the nose for writing this homage to my writing hero), and I have told him how lucky he was that most of his hell raising was done when he was in an alcohol-induced stupor, and so unable to recall the worst of his transgressions.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” he told me in that distinctive Scottish burr that could have been the model for Sean Connery, minus the lisp. “I’ve never had the luxury of alcoholic amnesia. I have total recall of everything I have ever done, and even now I wake up in the middle of the night and groan, asking myself, ‘Did I really do that?’”

Astonishingly, he may not even be the finest writer in his family. Like Hughie, his novelist brother William can conjure magical words and phrases on to the page that make you wonder what on earth they put in the water on the Kilmarnock council estate where they grew up. Surely not finest malt whisky?

To watch McIlvanney at work is not a pretty sight. He carves slowly like Leonardo, chiselling out every word with care and consideration. He is often the last to leave the press box, having worried every word to the newspaper destination like an anxious parent seeing his kids off to their first day at school.

Havana cigar in hand like a conductor’s baton, he becomes lost in a cocoon of concentration as he weighs each sentence with Shylock-style money-lending deliberation. His words are his currency and he will not relax until every dot and comma is accounted for. Hughie cannot write anything without total commitment; even a note to the milkman produces the agony of creation.

This all brings me to the Best of McIlvanney. So for a change this column will have some memorable words to read rather than my drivel, although even mentioning myself in the same paragraph as Hugh is like the vamping pianist that I am trying to claim comparison with Lang Lang.

Here are some examples of the Master at work, printed here to encourage the young, aspiring sportswriters as to the standards to follow (you can read Hugh every week behind the wall at Wapping or in the printed Sunday Times). This is as good as it gets:

Real Madrid’s historic 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final at Hampden Park, reproduced from a running report:
“Fittingly, the great Glasgow stadium responded with the loudest and most sustained ovation it has given to non-Scottish athletes. The strange emotionalism that overcame the huge crowd as the triumphant Madrid team circled the field at the end, carrying the trophy they have held since its inception, showed they had not simply been entertained. They had been moved by the experience of seeing sport played to its ultimate standards.”

Arkle’s victory over Mill House in the 1964 Gold Cup at Cheltenham:
“As Arkle jockey Pat Taaffe, who had planned it all that way, began to close on the turn at the top of the hill, the incredible Irish support, the farmers and stableboys and priests, roared in unison: ‘Here he comes.’ It was like a beleaguered army greeting the hero who brings relief. He came all right, to run the heart out of Mill House, and that great horse was never the same again.”

"Never mind the time, son. Just write down the date": Best was a source of constant writing inspiration for McIlvanney

Pele and Brazil’s 1970 World Cup triumph in Mexico:
“Pele says that when he woke next morning he seriously wondered if he had been dreaming. The sight of his medal at the bedside only partially reassured him and he telephoned his wife Rose at home in Brazil to ask: ‘Are we really the champions?’ Rose, who was seven months pregnant with their second child, told him she had felt a severe pain when he scored the first goal. She must have been one of the few people in Brazil who did.”

George Best scores a special goal:
Best had come in along the goal line from the corner-flag in a blur of intricate deception. Having briskly embarrassed three or four challengers, he drove the ball high into the net with a fierce simplicity that made spectators wonder if the acuteness of the angle had been an optical illusion.

“What was the time of that goal?” asked a young reporter in the Manchester United press box. “Never mind the time, son,” said an older voice beside him. “Just write down the date.”

The 1974 Ali/Foreman Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire:
“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.”

Statuesque: Bugner, right, in the fight few thought he won, against the late Henry Cooper

And here are some nuggets:

The late January weather on Ayr racecourse: “It was the kind of wind that seemed to peel the flesh off your bones and come back for the marrow.”

On boxer Joe Bugner: “… the physique of a Greek statue but fewer moves.”

Brian Clough: “His record as a manager has a whiff of alchemy about it.”

On Carlos Tevez: “Whatever it costs Manchester City to get rid of him is a tolerable outlay on disinfectant.”

Frank Bruno in the ring with Mike Tyson: “Bruno was no more competitive than a sheep in an abattoir.”

Bobby Moore: “He could play tag with a fox and never get caught.”

Bob Paisley: “His feeling for the game is too deep ever for him to be immune to its romances …”

Maradona: “Surely there has not been such a pelvis since Elvis was in his prime.”

And his great friend George Best: “… feet as sensitive as a pick-pocket’s hands”.

Yes, McIlvanney the Master … even when hidden behind a wall.


NEWS REACHES ME from this side of the Wapping Walls that the Sun On Sunday will soon be ready to rise on the first of a series of dummy runs, with a January launch in their sights.

As reported here some weeks ago, Mike Dunn is masterminding the sports end of things and he has been recruiting staff from the News of the World team.

Insiders who have seen mock-ups of the paper tell me it is more a twin of The Sun than a revival of the NOTW, with sport guaranteed a lion’s share of the pagination.

I wonder if this will prompt the Mail to revisit their celebrity-driven tabloid, with Kelvin McKenzie as a leading voice?

This was put on the backburner when the Mail on Sunday gathered thousands of the wandering former NOTW readers. Get ready for 2012 to kick off with a huge circulation war, with sport playing a major role.

Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here