Kevin McCarra: an appreciation

I FIRST met Kevin McCarra in the early 1980s not long after I arrived at the University of Glasgow. Our first encounter did not carry any promise of lasting friendship. It was in the common room of the Catholic chaplaincy where the indulgent padre had allowed me to doss down after another Valpolicella bacchanal in the nearby students’ union.

Kevin and his set were lamenting the delinquency of younger students the previous night at a football film night. Gradually, through the clammy fog of drink, it became clear the houndstooth brigade sipping tea virtuously on the other side of the room were talking about me and my chums. I slunk away to continue my slumbers in English Lit ordinary.

Kevin was a kindly and indulgent man though, and out of the rubble of that first contact an unlikely 40-year friendship ensued. This came to an end last Saturday when Kevin succumbed to the predations of early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 62.

Soon after our first introduction he was managing the amateur football team I had co-founded. We had initially named it the Vatican Strollers but felt compelled to shorten this to The Strollers. There was nothing sinister or edgy about this. We had recently been blessed with the addition of an older student who operated at a far higher and more sophisticated level of football than any of us.

This chap was studying divinity for the purpose of saving souls for the Church of Scotland. As we had no intention whatsoever of letting the one, true, holy and apostolic faith get in the way of our promotion push from the third division we turned our back on the Vatican.

Kevin, in the brutal football lexicon of the West of Scotland “couldn’t kick his own a***” but he had an abiding love for the game and a cultured understanding of the way it should be played. A few years later he began to deploy this professionally when he forsook an academic calling in the field of Scottish Literature to pursue a career writing about football.

In an article for Scotland On Sunday, years later, he recalled his days as a football boss. In this he noted the presence of abandoned sofas on many of Glasgow’s public pitches and suggested some of us were inclined to lie down on them rather than remove them.

Within a few years Kevin had become that newspaper’s main football writer and was coveted by many of the big titles south of the Border. I would join Kevin at Scotland On Sunday when I was appointed Sports Editor and my time working with a team that also included Graham Spiers and Jonathan Northcroft (now chief football writer of the Sunday Times) were the most carefree of my career.

You didn’t really “edit” or manage journalists like these in the normal sense. They each brought an implacable precision and chiselled finesse to their match reports and interviews so that, for a while, football writing became something to which bright, young football aficionados might aspire.

Kevin’s writing was suffused with intelligence and insight. Few words were wasted. Those that remained were put to work and made to perform small miracles of style and design.

In a previous generation men such as Hugh McIlvanney at The Observer and John Rafferty at The Scotsman had awakened football supporters to the possibility of elegance in match reports. It’s within their tradition that Kevin, as a football journalist, should be placed.

For his gifts as a football writer at several of our most important titles Kevin deserves the obituarist’s salute. But his qualities as a man, to which several have already borne witness, are more important.

You weren’t expected merely to sink or swim in the grand tour of Scottish football writing. This would have been considered too easy. You must swim with alligators. The first indication you have been accepted following months of gruff acknowledgements and outright exclusion might be the use of your Christian name rather than just ‘You’.

Kevin, though, had a predisposition to decency. He was incapable of withholding kindness. This often manifested itself inconveniently on busy Tuesday mornings when I would take unsolicited calls from unknown hopefuls who had managed to obtain my direct office line. “Mr McCarra told me to call you about work experience.”

This is not to suggest Kevin was some kind of saintly presence landed amongst thieves. Tributes this week have featured the word “nice” but he could deploy icy put-downs when required. On one occasion he waited an entire week to chastise me quietly for a smartypants heading on one of his back-page jewels. “Yes, very clever, Kevin,” he told me, “but this is a serious game of football, not a Christmas pantomime.”

Some who are blessed with a fine intellect bear it impatiently as though it’s a burden that must be borne for the good of humanity. Kevin wore his lightly. On conversing with those, like me, whose understanding of tactics was ragged he would lean in to convey the impression he valued your lumpen observations. He was a prince in this old business of ours, and I am missing him.

Throughout his career he was sustained by the love, companionship and wit of his wife, Susan, who remained constantly at his side during the drawn-out days of his final illness. God rest him and God bless her.