Odds against life after the final whistle

Despite the demise of the doyen of British sportswriters, reports of the demise of  sports journalism have surely been exaggerated — for now

Robert Low

Any of the tributes to the sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney, who died in January at the age of 84, concluded with the observation that the era of great sports writing had ended with his passing. McIlvanney himself thought he was the end of the line. Describing with typical elegance how today’s journalists don’t get the same access to the biggest names in sport that he had enjoyed, he wrote of his heyday: “It was all a far cry from having to create a story out of some player’s brief babblings on Twitter. I envy the present generation of sportswriters their youth, but not their operating conditions.”

But is it true? Did McIlvanney operate in a Golden Age that will never return? He was certainly the pre-eminent British sportswriter of his era, which ran from the early 1960s almost to the present day: he was well past his eightieth birthday when he retired with some reluctance from the Sunday Times, where he wrote a column, a couple of years ago. Before he moved there in 1993 he wrote for three decades (with only one interruption, a year on the Daily Express) for the Observer, which he joined in 1963 from the Scotsman. I worked alongside him on the Observer for about five years, first as deputy sports editor, then sports editor, so I had ample opportunity to see from close up how he operated.

I didn’t know before I read Hugh’s obituaries that it was the editor of the Scotsman, Alastair Dunnett, who transformed him into a sportswriter by giving him a collection of articles on boxing by A.J. Liebling, the great American journalist and author. It was always apparent to me that Hugh took his literary inspiration from across the Atlantic, embellishing the pithy, anecdotal manner of the finest American sportswriters with a sort of Celtic romanticism that evolved into a style that was all his own. His three great loves were boxing, horse racing and football, and he liked nothing better than to head off to New York, Chicago or Detroit to report on the great American fighters of his time, most notably Muhammad Ali, with whom he developed a close working and personal relationship. He also loved to mingle with the hard-bitten Runyonesque American boxing fraternity of trainers, reporters and assorted hangers-on, with whom he felt totally at home.

Hugh was not averse to the odd bout of fisticuffs himself after a typically lengthy session in one or more of Fleet Street’s pubs and drinking clubs once he had delivered his main feature of the week. But to me, a newcomer to sports journalism, and to many other young journalists, he was always kind and considerate, although we would be wary of contradicting him once he got going on one of his pet subjects, whether it was the evils of Thatcherism or the deficiencies of the England midfield. I experienced both sides of his temperament in the first week I stood in for the sports editor, Peter Corrigan, when he went on holiday. Probably under strict instruction from Peter to help me out, Hugh filed his main feature, a long interview with the football manager Lawrie McMenemy, on Friday morning, well before his normal deadline of Friday evening. He came into the office to check the proof with his usual meticulous attention to detail, then left. Unfortunately, that meant he had rather too much time on his hands before the football match he was due to report on from Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground on Saturday afternoon. He was meant to start dictating his report to a copytaker at half-time (topping and tailing it on the final whistle) but nothing arrived as the afternoon wore on. Then a copytaker rushed in to say that a garbled report was being filed on Hugh’s behalf by Peter Batt, an equally colourful sportswriter from the Sun, with Hugh clearly audible in the background dictating amendments. Both were clearly the worse for wear. Somehow a sub-editor managed to cobble together a report for the first edition combining the disjointed dictated copy with agency material, and the saga went on for successive editions through the evening, with Hugh trying to fix things down the telephone when clearly in no state to do so. I needed a couple of drinks myself by the time the last edition had gone, but never dreamt of even mentioning it to the editor: it was all part and parcel of dealing with a prodigious if sometimes wayward talent. I don’t suppose the po-faced puritans who run national newspapers nowadays would be amused by such antics, but I look back on that era with nothing but fondness.

You might say that such an episode is hardly evidence of a Golden Age of anything except riotous behaviour, but editors and managements tolerated it because writers like Hugh produced the goods when it mattered and they sold newspapers. The misbehaviour has pretty well disappeared, but has the talent survived? I believe it has and that there are just as many fine sportswriters at work in Britain today as in McIlvanney’s heyday.

It’s worth remembering that Hugh wrote for five decades for Sunday newspapers, which afforded him plenty of time in which to talk to his subjects and write up the results. It is no coincidence that his successor as columnist on the back page of the Sunday Times sports section, David Walsh, is perhaps the best sportswriter now at work in Britain. His courageous investigation into the cyclist Lance Armstrong lasted for years, despite the ever-looming threat of legal action. He eventually played a major role in proving that Armstrong was a serial drugs cheat. However, Walsh is much more than an investigative journalist; he is a writer who, as McIlvanney did, seeks to tease out those elements that make great sports people special.

Walsh is not alone. His Sunday Times colleague Stephen Jones has long been the most authoritative rugby writer in Britain: his reports on big internationals are sometimes the only reason I buy his newspaper any more, while the Observer’s Kevin Mitchell is a worthy successor to McIlvanney, particularly on boxing. There are still fine journalists at work on the dailies. Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail is a wonderful columnist, Owen Slot of The Times another excellent rugby writer, Paul Hayward of the Telegraph a stylish all-rounder, while my old colleague Scyld Berry, long since removed to the Telegraph, and the former England captain Michael Atherton are the equal of cricket writers of any generation since the great days of Neville Cardus and R.W. Robertson-Glasgow.

Sports journalists have long muttered about former players being employed to impart their knowledge when they can barely write their own name, but there is a long history of newspapers hiring retired stars like Atherton for their inside knowledge. On my first Saturday on the Observer sportdesk, I answered the phone to hear a frail voice saying, “It’s Len here. Is my copy OK?” Len turned out to be my boyhood hero Sir Len Hutton, filing his 300-word comment on the Test match.

Atherton combines style, erudition, a terrific contacts book and an intimate knowledge of the game to provide the best daily commentary on cricket in British newspapers. But will the sports business allow such writers to thrive; and, more importantly, will the print media survive for much longer to give them a platform?

Many of the tributes to McIlvanney contrasted the access he enjoyed to some of the biggest names in sport — such as Muhammad Ali, Sir Alex Ferguson, Jock Stein (the hugely successful manager of Glasgow Celtic) and the racing trainer Vincent O’Brien — with the obstacles today’s writers face. Most sports stars are now surrounded by agents and PR representatives who grant limited access to journalists and then only on condition that they ask anodyne questions and plug the products the stars are paid to promote. McIlvanney came from the same working-class background as Ferguson and Stein, who were happy to spend time with him and talk freely in the knowledge that he understood them and would write honestly about them. Sometimes, we would fret that his circle of contacts was a bit limited. One week Peter Corrigan informed me that Hugh would be interviewing the Chelsea footballer (and fellow Scot) Charlie Cooke. As neither Chelsea not Cooke were performing with much distinction at the time, I asked Peter why. “Because Jock Stein’s on holiday,” he replied laconically.

Footballers don’t give out their mobile numbers any more: instead, journalists track their wisdom via their Twitter feeds, a disastrous development since  they have no opportunity to ask questions that might spark an interesting story. After a match, a player may be put up for interview at a press conference at which he will provide anodyne replies. Many journalists just take their quotes from the post-game television interviews, from which anything of interest rarely emerges. A similar situation affects showbusiness journalists. In their heyday, the best ones counted the great names of stage and screen as personal friends: in Britain they would go drinking with the likes of Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole and wrote about them from personal knowledge. Not so today: interviews are strictly rationed and the subjects usually have copy approval, meaning they can change or delete anything they don’t like before publication. As with sports, newspapers are reduced to reprinting photographs from the stars’ Instagram posts and little else.

Television makes the job of sports reporters even more difficult. Why do we need to read a report of a football match when we have seen the highlights the previous evening, including eight replays of all the goals? There isn’t much left to say, yet newspapers still do a superb job in providing comprehensive sports coverage, particularly on Sundays and Mondays after the weekend action, operating under the tightest of deadlines. But for how much longer?

I always ask young people (by which I mean anyone under the age of about 35) what media they consume. For a lifelong print journalist such as myself, the answers are dispiriting. Virtually none of them buy newspapers, though they may pick up the odd free one to read on the way to work. They get all their information via their phones or, at work, computers. They are not interested in long reads, nor do they have the time for them. You only have to look at your fellow passengers on Tube, bus or train to see that most of them are looking at their phones, and increasingly watching films on them. In such a world, what long-term future is there for any sort of journalism, whether on sport or anything else? Newspaper groups are investing heavily in their online editions in a bid to keep younger readers and one can only wish them well. But the much ballyhooed new online information providers like Buzzfeed and Vice have recently run into difficulties, laying off staff and cutting back on news coverage: if they can’t make the new journalism work, what long-term future does anyone have? Hugh McIlvanney may have timed his departure from the newspaper scene at just the right moment.

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