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Hugh McIlvanney RIP

Hugh McIlvanney, the respected sports writer, has died aged 84.

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  • The finest sports journalist of my lifetime.

    RIP Hugh
  • Remember him from the days when I worked at Reuters. Entertaining meal breaks in the pubs around Fleet Street. ;-)

    Excellent sports writer. RIP.
  • Lovely man. Great writer. RIP
  • Yes. Great writer, good proud Scotsman.
    RIP
  • Legendary writer, always used to enjoy reading his pieces in the Sunday Times. RIP
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  • Hugh McIlvanney: Wee man leaves massive legacy
    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. His own recollections in latter years were shot through with much remorse for the suffering his alcoholic excesses had inflicted on his wife Agnes and their children, and with appreciation of the saintly tolerance he had been shown. But his family’s devotion to him never wavered, which was the strongest of all testaments to his essential lovability.

    Jinky was a one-man archive of outrageous escapades and incredible-but-true anecdotes, most of them woven around the mixture of breathtakingly mischievous audacity and incorrigible naivete which, on his drinking expeditions, made trouble and himself mutually magnetic. The most celebrated tale records how he was set drifting alone in a rowing boat with oars but no rowlocks out towards the dawn horizon on the Firth of Clyde, while inebriated Scotland teammates on the Ayrshire shoreline belatedly ceased catcalling and began a panicky and nearly disastrous attempt at rescue as a blurred version of his tuneful singing voice seeped faintly across the water like that of a ghostly gondolier.

    Other stories, however, accumulated in remarkable volume and variety. A favourite that surfaced last week deals with the time he turned up at a friend’s door close to midnight with three Harlem Globetrotters in tow (presumably if one of them had turned rowdy Jimmy could have butted him in the kneecap). And, of course, there was the running theme of a perennially fraught relationship with his incomparable Celtic manager, Jock Stein, which had all the volatility and theatrical intensity of the tempestuous love affair it undoubtedly was.

    Stein’s innumerable abilities included an exceptional talent for frightening, cajoling or outsmarting difficult players into line. But Johnstone’s repertoire of waywardness was so outlandish and inexhaustible that Jock once assured me soberly that anybody assessing his achievements in football shouldn’t focus on the cabinet-load of trophies his management brought, though they included the European Cup captured in 1967 when Celtic defeated Internazionale of Milan in Lisbon to become Britain’s first continental champions and, miraculously, did so with an entire team of players born within a short drive of their stadium. No, Jock said, the outstanding feat of his career was keeping Jinky at the top of the game five years longer than might have been expected. It involved endless variations on the good-cop-bad-cop routine and, occasionally, a bit of both in the same ploy, as when an ostensibly innocent telephone call to a pub that was going like a fair would bring Johnstone cheerily to the receiver, only to find his ear being blasted by a rage with the explosive effect of an ejector seat.

    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.

    That last characteristic gave an extra dimension to the impact of watching him play for Celtic and Scotland. It went beyond excitement or aesthetics or entertainment. When he was at his best, the performance was so extravagant and idiosyncratic, so full of wildly imaginative impertinences and a small (5ft 4in) man’s defiance of the odds that it touched us profoundly but lightly, as sport should. The natural reaction was not to gasp in awe, which would have been in order, but to smile or even to laugh out loud.

    Since the majority of football followers are too young to have witnessed his prime, it must be regarded as a blessing that there exists enough video evidence to provide at least a powerful flavour of his spellbinding uniqueness. The screen can show sufficient examples of his capacity to mesmerise and ample proof of the productivity of a magic reinforced by fearlessness, spurting pace, athletic strength and acrobatic elasticity of movement, excellent striking of the ball and an alert eye for releasing a telling pass just when it appeared that the personal demoralisation of opponents was his sole concern.

    To run the tapes is to ask sadly why his astonishing arsenal of gifts was so shamefully under-recognised at international level by the awarding of a mere 23 Scotland
  • RIP.
    Was lucky enough to see him at a Glasgow Film Festival event just a couple of years ago - he looked fit and healthy and I would have said he was in his 60s if I didn't know differently! It was actually an event in honour of his younger brother, William, an equally talented writer - of novels, but a rather more troubled character. William died just a few months later.
  • Great writer. Much enjoyed by me.
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  • What a brilliant writer.
    RIP
  • Great writer, RIP
  • RIP
    Simply the best
  • A great writer on sport and a mesmeric radio voice on the characters, politics and the details of Football, Boxing and the Olympics.

    RIP.
  • Used to buy the Observer, always read his report/any additional piece first. Good to read his Jimmy Johnstone piece, great writing.
  • A giant of his profession ..RIP...
  • We will not see the like of his prose and insight again. A journalist of sensitivity,in love with words and expression.
    Shocked to hear of his passing.
    Can't wait to see his reports on Heaven.
    RIP Hugh and many,many thanks.
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