The Passing of Hugh McIlvanney

Throughout the winter of 2004/2005, I had an afternoon off work every week. My depression was back again, but on this occasion my employers were pretty determined to do something about it before I did something to myself and booked me in for three months of CBT in a townhouse overlooking the northernmost corner of Regents Park in London. I would take the train back from the office in Hertfordshire, have my hour of venting, and by three o’clock the afternoon was mine, all mine. Although I am by nature a champion procrastinator, for once I used this couple of hours at the tail end of the afternoon productively. I’d abandoned reading books several years earlier, but had started to feel that I should redress this balance, so for around six months every Thursday afternoon, I would walk back from Regents Park, through Camden Town and up to a book shop on Kentish Town Road, whereupon I’d choose a book and buy it, giving myself six and a half days to read it before repeating the cycle after my next visit.

On one of these Thursday afternoons, one book in particular stood out to me. My relationship to football and literature had previously been somewhat sporadic. I’d been a When Saturday Comes reader since 1988 and a subscriber since 1993, but my conscious lack of literary voraciousness had meant that I’d missed out on a great deal of outstanding football writing. I read The Independent rather than The Guardian, but I was fully aware of the name Hugh McIlvanney, a titan of sports writing and journalism, and to see an anthology of his football writing, McIlvanney On Football, on the shelf in this shop was an opportunity too good to pass up. The CBT didn’t “cure” my depression. You can’t “cure” depression. All you can really do is learn to try and live with it, and I haven’t always managed that with unqualified success in the intervening decade and a half. This particular Thursday afternoon, however, did change my life.

To be present a major sporting event is to witness something unique within our culture. It will make newspaper headlines around the globe, so you’re watching the news unfold before your very eyes. There is no script, but you’re watching a piece of unscripted theatre to which nobody knows the ending until the whistle to call time blows. For all the benchmarks within our world against sport is measured, it occupies its own space, plays by its own rhythm, carries its own urgency. And expressing that to a mass audience, to be able to convey the blood, sweat and tears that come with it, and frequently under the most punishing of time constraints, is a rare, rare skill indeed, which very seldom receives the praise it deserves.

The past, so goes the truism, is a foreign country. They do things differently there. It’s easy to forget this, of course. These days, we can see just about any sporting event that we want to live, in crystal clear high definition. Fifty or sixty years ago, however, the world was a different place. Far from everybody even owned a television set, and the majority of those who did would be watching on black and white sets, often through a blizzard of the snow of interference. Even the biggest football matches would only be documented from at best a couple of camera angles. Until 1966, there weren’t any in-play replays of things that had just happened. And the same constrictions applied to reporters. There were no on the whistle reports or think-pieces, automatically produced for instant gratification. No broadband access points, only (often unreliable) telephone lines down which reports would be transcribed back to newsrooms, in the midst of a din of background noise.

Yet Hugh McIlvanney wrote about football like somebody producing poetry whilst being prodded with sharpened sticks. His words were peppered with love, humour, and more than occasionally cynicism. He could articulate the sights, sounds and scents of any sporting event at which he was present. Sometimes he would wander from his subject, yet the retained the skill to make every word that he wrote feel vital. And in an era during which relations between the press and those within the game were considerably more relaxed than they are now, he could tease memorable quotes from the giants of the game, managing to be a friend of the likes of Jock Stein or Matt Busby – it is surely no coincidence that these managerial goliaths shared such a kinship with him when they all came from similarly tough working class environments in Scotland’s central belt – without ever compromising on either his or their integrity.

Hugh McIlvanney brought football to life for me, and he remains a pinnacle of sport writing to which anybody who ever commits words to paper or screen should aspire, even though the likelihood of any of us ever getting close to matching him are vanishingly small. When I started writing about the game myself, almost thirteen years ago, his work was the first that I returned to, if only to get a sense of how it should be done, a feeling of what I should aspire to, however remote and unlikely it may have seemed then, and continues to seem now. I still stand at the bottom of that particular mountain, squinting at the summit, but how could I be unhappy at this when the view is so exquisite? The word “legendary” is vastly overused in the modern world, but in this case its entirely appropriate, and the gushing eulogies that will pour out onto news websites and social media this weekend couldn’t be more fitting as well as being, on the part of those who write them, completely heartfelt. We will, in a very literal sense, not see his like again. Thank you, Hugh. My depression will never be cured, but your writing sure as hell cheered me up.