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11 March 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 7:02am

Hugh McIlvanney will be named a bully, braggart and bore – but he had a rare gift

As McIlvanney retires from sports journalism, it is worth remembering why to read him on Muhammed Ali or Matt Busby was to read a very fine writer indeed.

By Michael Henderson

A wonderful sportswriter retired last week. Hugh McIlvanney’s reports adorned the pages of the Observer and the Sunday Times for half a century. At his best, when the shine was still on the ball, his work was so notable – and quotable – that he was named Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards. He remains the only sportswriter to have held that honour.

At 82, McIlvanney believes his race is run. Others, taking a more detached view, reached that conclusion years ago. For the truth is, for at least the last decade of his career, he was a long-winded bore. Although the Sunday Times banged him out last week with many hurrahs, and his reputation deserved no less, readers under the age of 50 may wonder what all the fuss was about.

To understand why so many people admired McIlvanney in his pomp, all those doubters have to do is turn to his collected writings on boxing and football, the sports that brought out the best in him. To read McIlvanney on Muhammad Ali, Bill Shankly and Matt Busby is to read a very fine writer indeed.

The Observer, which he joined in 1963 after coming down from Scotland, caught the real writer. An unabashed romantic, who understood writing to be a gladiatorial contest conducted with a pen, he sought to knock out supposed rivals with the quality of his prose. There are other ways of writing, as Brian Glanville, Ian Wooldridge and Frank Keating demonstrated, but McIlvanney’s temperament was more volcanic.

“I’m still the best at what I do,” he would tell anybody who cared to listen. As years went by, fewer people wanted to listen, particularly those who shared his company on boxing trips, where his hectoring manner was not to all tastes. “Dear old Hughie,” a Sixties contemporary once said. “He keeps banging on the door, demanding admission. We let him in a long time ago.”

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The heroic style, appropriate for heroic performances, became mannered and the romanticism occasionally lapsed into sentimentality. There are only so many times that even the most tolerant reader can enjoy “the thrilling relevance of those thrusting runs” before the relevance becomes less thrilling and the runs peter out in a cascade of unnecessary adjectives.

Employed by the Sunday Times as a columnist, a role to which he was utterly unsuited, the marvellous reporter was often unreadable. The sentences that once sang became so labyrinthine in complexity that the reader got lost in the maze. Away from boxing, which was always his strong suit, McIlvanney appeared to worship at the feet of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the flatulent Victorian who gave us “a dark and stormy night”.

One evening in April 1998, at an Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, I caught the McIlvanney of whom so many had spoken. He turned up late, not entirely sober, and tried (without success) to dominate the table. When we went downtown to the Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village he fell asleep, but not before denouncing Geoffrey Green, the much-loved football correspondent at the Times, as “an impostor”. Green, a decorated army officer who really could handle his drink, famously filed his reports without taking a note. No wonder he got Hughie’s goat.

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McIlvanney’s anger was only partly assuaged by the quality of his writing. But even in those golden days, the boy from Kilmarnock could never forget that it was his brother, Willie, who was the novelist in the family. Read The Kiln, Willie McIlvanney’s book about their Ayrshire upbringing, and salute the brothers for what they both did. Hugh McIlvanney, bully, braggart and bore, was blessed with a rare gift.

This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho