What a performance
This week saw the passing of Hugh McIlvanney one of the true giants of sports writing on these islands. Such was his way with words that you suspected he could easily have followed his brother Willie and become a novelist. Indeed some of his prose is almost poetic in the manner it illuminates those great moments in sport. The Ayrshire boy once put his success down to the fact that his old man insisted he and his 3 brother went to the library once each week and this made them avid readers. Education was to be the vehicle of social mobility for the McIlvanney boys although nothing could erase the gritty working class voices they brought to their chosen professions.
Willie was to find great success with his Laidlaw crime novels while Hugh was to illuminate the world of sports writing with his undoubted gifts. He was famously photographed helping Billy McNeill fight his way through the throngs of ecstatic Celtic fans to receive European football’s ultimate prize in 1967. When writing of Celtic’s triumph in Lisbon saw him in sparkling form as he described the scene at the end of the match in the dressing room of the Estadio Nacional.…
‘’When he had been rescued from the delirious crowd and was walking back to the dressing rooms after Celtic had overcome all the bad breaks to vindicate his confidence Auld – naked to the waist except for an Inter shirt knotted round his neck like a scarf – suddenly stopped in his tracks and shouted to Ronnie Simpson, who was walking ahead. "Hey, Ronnie Simpson, what are we? What are we, son?" He stood there sweating, showing his white teeth between parched lips flecked with saliva. Then he answered his own question with a belligerent roar. "We're the greatest. That's what we are. The greatest." Simpson came running back and they embraced for a full minute.’’
A friend and trusted confidant of those legendary Scottish managers, Stein, Busby and Shankly; McIlvanney wrote of Jock’s relationship with his prize asset the mercurial Jimmy Johnstone with such affection and humour that you warmed to him. In one memorable passage he described Jimmy’s relationship with Stein in the following way…
‘Ye know he’s got spies everywhere,’ that marvellous little eccentric once told me staring into my face with eyes as large as dish aerials. ‘He’s even got spies in the noggin.’ For a moment I thought Jimmy was suggesting some infiltration of his mind, a touch of the Manchurian Candidates; then I latched onto the fact that The Noggin was a pub. Stein would ring the bar and ask in a quiet voice for Mr Johnstone. When Jimmy reached, unsuspecting for the receiver he would be blasted several feet into the air by an explosion of the old familiar vituperation.’
McIlvanney adored the flawed genius that was Jimmy Johnstone, seeing in him all the brilliance and self-destructiveness of the quintessential Scottish hero. Football was played by men like Jimmy with a style, grace and no little courage in an era when players were not adequately protected from the more destructive and immeasurably less talented defenders who sought to stop them by any means. His thoughts on the passing of Jimmy in 2006 bear witness to the fondness he had for him…
‘Solemnity was always handed its coat early in Jimmy Johnstone’s company and something as ordinary as death had no chance of altering that. What else but laughter could be the predominant sound when the wee man was buried in his native Lanarkshire on Friday? The shadow cast by the horrors of diminishment that punctuated his improbably long struggle against the implacable ravages of motor neurone disease, and by knowing he was only 61 when his resistance was finally exhausted, was a darkness bound to yield to a thousand memories of somebody driven — sometimes destructively, often hilariously — by an instinctive conviction that life was meant to be lively. All of which guarantees that Johnstone will not be remembered simply as a footballer of electrifying virtuosity, though he was certainly that, with a genius for surreally intricate dribbling so extraordinary it is impossible for me to believe any other player before or since quite matched his mastery of tormenting, hypnotic ball control at the closest of quarters. As I have acknowledged in the past, other wingers might fairly be rated more reliably devastating (Garrincha, George Best, Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews are obvious candidates) but none of them besieged opponents with such a complex, concentrated swirl of deceptive manoeuvres or ever conveyed a more exhilarating sense of joy in working wonders with the ball.’’
Hugh McIlvanney was not noted for his exceptional writing on football alone. Many claim his boxing writing is the equal to anything he ever produced and helped him to become the first and as yet only sports writer to be awarded the Journalist of the year award. He covered the famous ‘rumble in the jungle’ fight between the veteran Muhammad Ali and formidable George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Some feared for Ali’s safety as he was by that point 36 years old and facing a man with a fearsome reputation for destroying opponents with his brutal punching power. History records though that Ali stunned the boxing world who didn’t give him a chance by knocking Foreman out after using his famous ‘rope a dope’ approach. The world’s press were desperate to interview Ali but it was McIlvanney who found out where the Champ was staying and took a taxi out to his villa. He knocked on the door and told Ali’s bodyguard he was here to interview the Champ and was admitted into the house where he and Ali talked for two hours about the fight. It was the scoop of a lifetime and it was the Miner’s son from Kilmarnock who got it.
On a more sombre note he also covered the brutal fight in Los Angeles between Johnny Owen of Wales and Mexican Lupe Pintor. The brave little Welshman fought in a very hostile environment against a ruthless and determined opponent. McIlvanney said of Mexican fighters...
‘No fighters in the world are more dedicated to the raw violence of the business than Mexicans. Pintor comes out of a gym in Mexico City where more than a hundred boxers work out regularly and others queue for a chance to show that what they can do in the alleys they can do in the ring. A man who rises to the top of such a seething concentration of hostility is likely to have little interest in points-scoring as a means of winning verdicts.’
Owen fought valiantly but was in the end stopped by a brutal combination of exhaustion and a never ending barrage of punches from Pintor. In the twelfth round he was knocked out in a brutal manner which was to cost him his life. McIlvanney had his concerns about the Welshman fighting in the heat and enmity of Los Angeles where the home crowded screamed their support for the Mexican fighter from the first to last. He noted what a quiet, almost shy young man Owen was outside the ring and wrote with his usual eloquence...
‘Our reactions are bound to be complicated by the knowledge that it was boxing that gave Johnny Owen his one positive means of self-expression. Outside the ring he was an inaudible and almost invisible personality. Inside, he became astonishingly positive and self-assured. He seemed to be more at home there than anywhere else. It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.’
For those of us though who followed football, it was McIlvanney’s writing about the beautiful game which will live on. After a clash with England Manager, Alf Ramsay, at a press conference, the clearly angry England boss said to him, ‘How many caps have you got?’ seeking to belittle the opinionated Jock and take him down a peg or two. The pugnacious McIlvanney was not a man who gave ground in an argument and replied, ‘I could send a turnip on a world tour but it’s not going to return an expert on geography.’
As a Celtic fan it was of course his writing about the golden era of our club’s history which I enjoyed most. In the aftermath of Lisbon he wrote with such style about how Celtic and their followers had enthralled the people of Lisbon and smashed the defensive style of Inter which was strangling creative football. He said…
‘Today Lisbon is almost, but not quite, back in Portuguese hands at the end of the most hysterically exuberant occupation any city has ever known. Pockets of Celtic supporters are holding out in unlikely corners, noisily defending their own carnival atmosphere against the returning tide of normality, determined to preserve the moment, to make the party go on and on.
They emerge with a sudden flood of Glasgow accents from taxis or cafes, or let their voices carry with an irresistible aggregate of decibels across hotel lounges. Always, even among the refugees who turn up at the British Embassy bereft of everything but the rumpled clothes they stand in, the talk is of that magical hour-and-a-half under the hot sun on Thursday in the breathtaking, tree-fringed amphitheatre of the national stadium.
At the airport, the impression is of a Dunkirk with happiness. The discomforts of mass evacuation are tolerable when your team have just won the greatest victory yet achieved by a British football club, and completed a clean sweep of the trophies available to them that has never been equalled anywhere in the world. It was hard work appearing so relaxed and the effort eventually took its toll on Stein when he made a dive for the dressing rooms a minute before the end of the game, unable to stand any more. When we reached him there, he kept muttering: "What a performance. What a performance.’
So we say a farewell to Hugh McIlvanney a man who graced sports writing with his in depth knowledge of the subject and a vocabulary built by the visits he and his brother made to the local library in their youth. Many of today’s writers would do well to study the great man’s work and raise their game. In an era where dumbing down and settling for mediocrity is common he offers a glimpse of what real sports journalism is about. He makes the reader feel as if they were there witnessing the events he is by the sheer skill of his writing. Perhaps his contribution to sports Journalism could be summed up in the words of Jock Stein after that historic game in Lisbon; "what a performance.’
Well played Hugh and thank you.