Journalist known for his peerless sportswriting

Born: February 2, 1934;

Died: January 24, 2018

HUGH McIlvanney, who has died aged 84, was a peerless sportswriter whose journey from a Kilmarnock tenement to the sides of such as Muhammad Ali, Vincent O’Brien and Sir Alex Ferguson was marked by the diligence of the most scrupulous reporter and a capacity for writing sentences that resonate decades on.

McIlvanney was without equal as sportswriter but his ventures into other areas of journalism offer convincing evidence of his greatness as a writer beyond the touchline or ring.

The son of William McIlvanney and Helen McIlvanney, he was born in 1934. The family was completed by Betty, Neil, and William, the celebrated author. They lived at first in a high street tenement before moving to a housing estate.

McIlvanney’s considerable inheritance was drawn from both parents. His father, disillusioned by the pits after the General Strike, took labouring jobs which kept his small frame in superb shape. He was a fine example of that most dangerous of species - the 5ft 4in West of Scotland male. His lack of education, the curse of the working classes, was leavened by his articulacy and his delight in constructive argument.

His brazen physicality, honed on the sites and exhibited through harmless strong-arm stunts in the home, was passed on to his sons. He and William both frequented boxing gyms, but Hugh never fought, not, at least, under Marquis of Queensberry Rules. His sporting life extended into the RAF during his national service where he was a formidable 440 runner.

However, his legacy from his mother was to be more enduring. She loved reading, particularly poetry. On certain afternoons, the McIlvanney curtains would be drawn and Hugh, aged 14 or 15, and William, several years younger, would listen to and write poetry.

Indeed, William recalls coming home from the dancing aged 17 and finding his mother waiting up for him. She was reading the Rubaiyat.

Hugh was educated at Hillhead Primary School, but eschewed the delights of an academy education by opting to join his mates at James Hamilton Junior Secondary.

There his talent was discovered and encouraged by two teachers, Charles Rosamunde and Doddie Hay, and he joined the Kilmarnock Standard before graduating to the Scotsman where he wrote news and feature articles.

His transfer to sport was taken with some trepidation as McIlvanney feared he would be constricting himself to being “a fitba’ writer”.

McIlvanney’s subsequent move to The Observer was followed by an extraordinary outpouring of remarkable journalism, whether it be an interview with Ali or an account of Tom Conti on Broadway.

He also worked for the Daily Express and ended his career, and life, at the Sunday Times. An immensely generous professional, he had a devotion to the trade of journalism, though he produced art.

His work is marked with a fluency which conceals an inner tension. The style is seamless but every word has been hewn as if from stone.

Once travelling back from an international football match in Wales, he realised in a conversation with fellow pressmen that he had made a minor, inconsequential mistake in his filed copy. As the train steamed on to London, McIlvanney was last seen at a rural station phoning London to correct the aberration.

This extraordinary reportorial instinct was allied to a talent that meant the only way to deny him sportswriter of the year for the umpteenth time was to make him a judge. He also became the first sportswriter to be named journalist of the year. He was also awarded the CBE in 1996 and is a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame.

His humour always carried the edge from his West of Scotland upbringing. When Celtic were demolishing Leeds in the European Cup semi-final of 1970, he idly asked of his English counterparts: “Do you think Leeds would survive in the Scottish first division?’’

Words rarely failed him but when they did his fists could be powerful persuaders. He once clashed with Norman Mailer who was in head-butting macho mode as writers gathered in America for an Ali fight. The scorecards are not extant but Mailer was indisputably awarded the silver medal, perhaps accompanied by a Purple Heart.

McIlvanney was hailed in the USA, however, for his prose rather than his pugilism, hence his introduction to boxing’s hall of fame and the friendship and admiration of the estimable Budd Schulberg. Brilliant on football, insightful and self-deprecatory in horse-racing and gambling, McIlvanney ranks for many as the best boxing writer, certainly since his hero, AJ Liebling.

He is survived by his daughter, Elizabeth, an academic, a son, Con, a businessman and his wife, Caroline. His brother William, the novelist, died in 2015 at the age of 79.

McIlvanney wrote in his obituary of Jock Stein: “He was utterly Scottish . . . his was the kind of loyalty to his roots that made his principles universal.’’ It serves an epitaph to a writer of sublime gifts and a character of substance.