Hugh McIlvanney dies aged 84


Hugh McIlvanney at the Football Writers’ Association Gala Tribute Dinner in 2018. (Photo credit: Football Writers’ Association via Facebook)

Scottish sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney has died at the age of 84, after a battle with cancer.

McIlvanney, widely considered to be one of Britain’s greatest sports journalists, was born in Kilmarnock and began his journalism career with local newspaper The Kilmarnock Standard, after leaving high school. He then went on to work long term for The Observer and The Sunday Times, for 30 and 23 years respectively.

McIlvanney was known for his football and boxing reports, especially the 1966 FIFA World Cup where England recorded their famous victory and the 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ between Muhammad Ali & George Foreman, possibly the most famous boxing match in the world. He claimed the greatest ‘scoop’ he had was when he found himself in Ali’s villa, hours after the fight in Zaire.

Due to his illustrious career, McIlvanney formed close and personal relationships with some of the most successful football managers to come from Scotland: Sir Matt Busby, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Sir Alex Ferguson. Fergie even asked McIlvanney for help with producing his autobiography – Managing My Life.

Despite witnessing some of the most famous events in sporting history, McIlvanney had to write about some heartbreaking events, including the death of his friend Stein who sadly suffered a heart attack at the conclusion of a 1985 Scotland vs Wales match, for qualification to the 1986 World Cup. He was also present at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, where 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and subsequently murdered by a terror group. McIlvanney also reported on the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.

When McIlvanney decided to retire in 2016 after a 60 year career, Muhammad Ali was one of the first to pay tribute to the great man. Ali said: “His words were a window to the lives, the courage, the struggles and the triumphs of the great champions of his time. He has contributed richly to the fabric of our sport”.

McIlvanney was awarded an OBE in 1996 for services to journalism, given the Lifetime Achievement Award by The Scottish Press Awards in 2004, and is currently the only sports writer to be voted Journalist of the Year. McIlvanney also became the first journalist to be inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame, just two years ago, with an induction to the Scottish Football Hall of Fame in 2011.

Although he started his career in Scotland, McIlvanney was respected across the world – evidenced by the sheer amount of tributes pouring in. Former England star Gary Lineker tweeted: “Very sorry to hear that Hugh McIlvanney has died. Truly one of the greatest sports’ writers of all time”.

Former Aberdeen keeper – turned journalist – David Preece also paid his respects: “There are writers you will read whatever they write. Hugh McIlvanney was one of those writers”.

Former BT Sport commentator Derek Rae called McIlvanney “Scotland’s most gifted journalist’.

In a tribute to Hugh McIlvanney’s work, The Guardian has selected six of his best articles. The Rumble in the Jungle and The Thriller in Manila feature top of the list, and it comes as no surprise. Not only were they two of the greatest boxing matches to date, the way McIlvanney writes about the events makes you feel as though you were actually there. Also on the list; the 1966 World Cup Final, Celtic’s 1967 European Cup win in Lisbon, boxer Johnny Owen’s tragic last fight and the aftermath of Matt Busby’s retirement.

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