Hugh McIlvanney: A giant among sporting greats

He is the only sportswriter to be Journalist of the Year, has just been inducted into journalism's hall of fame and, more importantly, he got the scoop on Ali's tactics in the Rumble in the Jungle. Ian Burrell meets Hugh McIlvanney

Kinshasa, Zaire. 30 October 1974. Ali-Foreman. "The Rumble in the Jungle." At ringside were sitting some of the greatest names in sportswriting: Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Kilmarnock's Hugh McIlvanney.

Even three decades later it is still widely believed that this contest - regarded by many as the greatest sporting event of the 20th century - was decided by a carefully rehearsed tactic employed by Muhammad Ali to weaken his bigger opponent: retiring to the edge of the ring to draw energy-sapping but ultimately futile punches. This theory, embraced by Mailer and Plimpton and outlined in Mailer's classic book The Fight as Ali's "grand theme", has it that Ali planned to use his "rope-a-dope" technique all along.

"Bollocks," says McIlvanney, using a rare expletive, one memorably employed in a recent television interview by Sir Alex Ferguson, a fellow west-of-Scotland sporting titan and whose autobiography he ghost-wrote.

There is "no question", McIlvanney maintains, that only during the fight itself did Ali make his decision to abandon his famed "dancing" and go to the ropes. "The idea it was some premeditated plan is nonsense," he says. "It was more of a triumph that such a brilliant improvisation had come to him in a crisis."

The reason that McIlvanney, unquestionably Britain's greatest sports journalist, is so emphatic in his rejection of Mailer's thesis is that - unlike the American literary colossus - he got the scoop from Ali himself.

True, Mailer managed to force his way into Ali's dressing room in the aftermath of the sensational eighth-round knockout victory. But - as he has said - "never did a man proceed to do less with his exclusive", eliciting from the new champ the observation that: "I have stolen the jam and it tastes good."

McIlvanney, then working for The Observer, undertook a different journalistic approach. Realising that Ali would not be able to sleep after the early-morning fight, the British reporter (accompanied by Ken Jones of the Sunday Mirror, now of The Independent) decided to head for Ali's villa at N'Sele, 40 miles from Kinshasa. When the champ returned, hours later, they were invited indoors and, for more than two hours, given a private explanation of Ali's winning tactics, the fighter speaking as he chowed down steak and eggs prepared by his two cooks.

"Truth is I could have killed myself dancin' against him," Ali revealed. "He's too big for me to keep moving round him. I was a bit winded after doin' it in the first round, so I said to myself, 'let me go to the ropes while I'm fresh, while I can handle him there without gettin' hurt'."

McIlvanney walked out of the villa, feeling like he was laden with treasure.

It was for such journalistic foresight, as well as for the brilliance of his observation and the elegance of his prose, that McIlvanney was last month included in the Press Gazette Hall of Fame, as one of the 40 newspaper greats of the modern era. It is far from the first recognition of his talents - McIlvanney being the only sportswriter to have been named Journalist of the Year, and having more awards than anyone else in his discipline.

So when George Best died on 26 November, the outpouring of emotional tributes from all sections of the media did not dampen the anticipation for McIlvanney's "Voice of Sport" column in The Sunday Times that weekend. Where would the man who had observed at first hand the cream of the sporting talent of the past half century place the Belfast boy in his own hall of fame?

In the Petersham Hotel in Richmond, sitting at the end of a long table in a meeting room that looks down on the River Thames, McIlvanney reveals that, in spite of the sense of conviction that emanates from his famously well-researched journalism, he often sits down to write with a sense of trepidation. This was particularly the case with his retrospective on Best.

"I don't go into the writing of any piece with dreams of triumph. I go in with a neurotic fear of a screw-up, and that obviously applies to that piece. I was reassured by the simple reality that there was justification for the celebration of Best's talents and the scale of that celebration. Best was extraordinary."

In his piece that Sunday, McIlvanney put into words Best's uncanny ability to convey the beauty of football even to those otherwise convinced that it is a game without merit.

"Trying to explain how or why the sight of men playing about with a ball can hold countless millions in thrall from childhood to dotage is a task beyond rational argument," wrote McIlvanney. "But we never needed anything as prosaic as logic when George was around."

He says that in writing his piece he was gripped by an "anxiety of doing it justice" and an awareness that, in view of the time he had spent in proximity to the player, he "had a responsibility of a kind".

As one senior football correspondent observed, McIlvanney "didn't disappoint".

Best, he wrote, possessed "mesmerisingly deft feet combined with an acrobat's balance, unlimited inventiveness, nerveless insouciance and killing pace to make his running at defenders irresistible..." But McIlvanney's praise was qualified. Not, as was the case elsewhere in the media, by stories of a talent wasted by alcohol-fuelled excess, but by a sense of proportion when measuring Best's sporting talents. Resisting the temptation to describe the Ulsterman as the best ever, he noted that others had been superior team-players.

Leaning forward on the table, he says: "I wouldn't find it easy, in fact, I would find it impossible to say that George was a greater player than Pele, or Maradona, or Cruyff, or Di Stefano. George was essentially an individual marauder... but George did not understand the game the way Pele did, or the way Maradona, certainly Cruyff and Di Stefano did. They knew every nuance of team play... they knew where everyone was on the park, what their functions were and what their relevance was."

Furthermore he thinks that the widely-cited suggestion that Pele regarded Best as the greatest player of all time - the Brazilian once indicated as much on British breakfast television - is "nonsense - I don't think Pele thinks there was ever a greater player than Pele and I actually agree with him."

McIlvanney is at 72 still an imposing figure, well-dressed and with a red handkerchief protruding from his breast pocket. His Havana cigar, intermittently sparked back to life with a blue plastic lighter, gradually generates a thin cloud of smoke in the high-ceilinged room but lasts him well beyond the three hours of the interview.

Just as he warns against unnecessary exaggeration of Best's talents, so he questions some of the "eulogy" in the observations about the man himself.

"The willingness of some people to present George as some kind of renaissance man - claims have been made for him as some kind of intellectual - [is] a bit silly. George was a highly intelligent, warm and generous fellow, not withstanding the alcoholic dishevelment that engulfed his life," he says.

It is also, he feels, unwarranted to overstate the depth of relationships between player and journalist. "I don't like the tendency of people to talk about their deep friendship with George when what they had was a friendly journalistic association," he says, while not mentioning any names.

The Times journalist Matt Dickinson described McIlvanney as "one of the foremost chroniclers of Best's career" but the Scot is reluctant to portray himself as a confidant. "Throughout George's adult life I was a journalist who was on extremely friendly terms with him. I wouldn't belittle the concept of friendship... by saying we were close friends. I didn't see enough of him to qualify as a close friend."

McIlvanney is a notorious stickler for accuracy, though he qualifies the value of even this admirable quality.

"I'm a real brow-clutcher when a mistake gets through. It's a neurosis, I know it's not a strength. There's no balance about it. I should have a much more mature and sensible attitude but the neurosis is too deeply implanted," he says.

While other reporters seek quotes from players and managers after games, McIlvanney's questions have often been simply fact-checking exercises. Travelling home from a game in the north-west of England, he once got off the train to phone a correction, after learning from a fellow reporter that a shot onto the crossbar had been slightly deflected by the goalkeeper. This conscientiousness cost him his last train to London and he spent the night in Crewe.

His high standards may well be born of his profound sense of missed opportunities when he was very young.

Born in 1933, he grew up on a housing estate in Kilmarnock, and his limited formal education still gnaws at him, even though in adult life he has become well-read and erudite. "I was the top boy at primary school but my friends were all going to the junior secondary school and the headmaster, who was a bit of a fool - I don't think he was a malicious fool - didn't inform my parents about what was happening. I should have gone to the academy."

He criticises his 12-year-old self for "misreading the game" and, by the time he did transfer to Kilmarnock Academy, he did not have the Latin required for university. So he made sure he took school lessons in those basic tools of the reporter's trade, shorthand and typing.

He joined the Kilmarnock Standard after impressing in a speechwriting competition. He later worked as a news reporter for the Scottish Daily Express and then The Scotsman, covering murder trials and fire disasters.

This grounding in news he describes as "one of the most important phases of my working life". He was reluctant to join the ranks of Scottish "fitba" reporters and was only persuaded to turn to sports journalism in his mid-20s, after an editor gave him a copy of the classic boxing book, The Sweet Science by AJ Liebling, a writer who has been an enduring influence.

Even now he guards against appearing superficial in his work. "I've always considered myself a reporter. I hope I don't write pieces that rely on phrase-making, I hope there's a reasonable amount of substance in them. Even if it's a comment piece I hope it's based on a reporter's attitudes and instincts."

Those instincts have served him well when the worlds of news and sport have merged, usually in horrific circumstances, such as the terror attack on the Munich Olympics in 1972 and the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989. At Munich, while some "very big name sports writers were completely done in by it", McIlvanney found it helpful to start filing copy. "When you are doing something like that the horror of it is liable to overwhelm you but it is better to be able to do something, even if it's just chronicling what you are seeing, than to be completely helpless."

His Fleet Street career has not been solely concerned with sport. The Observer allowed him to write occasionally on politics and on his great love, theatre. He particularly enjoyed the opportunity to spend a fortnight with Tom Conti, analysing the task of transferring a show to Broadway, in this case Who's Life Is It Anyway?

He also had a two-year spell at the Daily Express, writing news reports and features, including an interview with the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and it clearly irks him that some appear to have the impression that "it didn't work out". McIlvanney claims: "It worked out beautifully as far as I was concerned and certainly as far as they [the Express] were concerned."

But he says he felt that the Express was becoming an "ailing ship" and returned to The Observer, which he then felt was his "spiritual home". He joined The Sunday Times in 1993.

As the peerless "Voice of Sport", he is not about to argue that the most important news is carried on the back pages. "I love sport and I think many lives would be severely diminished without it... [but] I despise the tendency to make it more important than it should be. It's a wonderful adjunct to life but when people make it the central concern of their existences at the expense of rather more fundamental concerns then they're just suffering from a kind of craziness," he says.

He thinks match reporting is "arduous" and "taxing" and that, considering the often limited financial rewards, it is hardly worth such a "hell of a job. We know anything we write in a newspaper doesn't have any lasting value, but match reports represent that problem in a very vivid way. They're awful things to do," he says.

This consciousness of the impermanence of newspaper articles is surely the more profound against the success of his younger brother, the novelist and poet Willie (with whom he is close), who did go to university. "I was once complaining [to Willie] about the regret - which is definitely there - about not going to university. He said: 'What difference does it make? You've read the same books anyway. What you're writing is as worthwhile as people who are writing a lot of books.'"

But the journalist doesn't seem convinced by this. He has published a series of books containing collections of his articles on football, boxing and horseracing, which have given his work a greater life-span.

"I'm delighted when people suggest that bits of the book have lasted not too badly. I suppose that's what I'd like people to think about my work," he says. "But I hate the idea of someone who works for the newspaper thinking about something beyond. The best photographers don't think of the portfolio. I wasn't thinking about collections."

He regrets that newspaper sports pages have become obsessed with obtaining quotes from famous figures at the expense of encouraging writers to make their own observations. "If they can attach a platitude to a big name it's more important than an intelligent comment from one of their own guys," he says. "[Journalists] have almost lost the use of their own judgement because they've spent so much time relying on seeing the game through a prism of the reactions of a big player or manager. Those reactions are almost always self-serving."

But even though television now dominates football, McIlvanney says there is still a role for writers. "You have got to play to your own strengths and do things they don't do. Interviewing on television in sport is usually an absolute farce. Every question's an invitation to a lap of honour. I think we can do a bit better than that."

He sympathises with younger football reporters on the grounds that the game "has been enveloped now in an atmosphere of corporate PR. It's all press conferences and sound bites."

But McIlvanney does not live in the past. "I think Rooney is miraculous. I think he is incontrovertibly a great player," he says. "He's got wonderful feet, pace when it counts, balance, terrific strength but above all a sense of the game - he knows where to be. It's quite stunning how maturely he has played the game since his teens, although obviously there hasn't been much maturity about his behaviour at times."

Even when he talks of his greatest sporting hero, Muhammad Ali, he is careful to qualify his admiration. "Technically there were far better boxers around. Sugar Ray Leonard was a far better boxer technically and even at heavyweight there were people who were better because there was a lot that was amateurish about the way Muhammad fought," he observes. "But he was God's amateur and he always had a way of beating people."

He is admired both by those who read him and those he writes about. Sir Alex Ferguson is in both of these categories. In the acknowledgement to his autobiography, Managing My Life, the Old Trafford boss wrote: "Once the decision to go ahead with this book was taken it was simply a matter of getting the best sports journalist of our time to write it."

The journalist, typically, makes light of it, pointing out that Ferguson wrote out 250,000 words himself, in long-hand. As for the acknowledgement: "It was over the top."

From the master's own pen

ARKLE'S VICTORY OVER MILL HOUSE IN THE GOLD CUP, CHELTENHAM 1964

"As [Arkle jockey Pat] Taaffe, who had planned it all that way, began to close on the turn at the top of the hill, the incredible Irish support, the farmers and stableboys and priests, roared in unison: 'Here he comes.' It was like a beleaguered army greeting the hero who brings relief. He came all right, to run the heart out of Mill House, and that great horse was never the same again."

PELE IN HIS POMP, MEXICO, 1970

"Pele says that when he woke next morning he seriously wondered if he had been dreaming. The sight of his medal at the bedside only partially reassured him and he telephoned his wife Rose at home in Brazil to ask: 'Are we really the champions?' Rose, who was seven months pregnant with their second child, told him she had felt a severe pain when he scored the first goal. She must have been one of the few people in Brazil who did."

GEORGE FOREMAN VS MUHAMMAD ALI, ZAIRE, 1974

"We should have known that Muhammad Ali would not settle for any ordinary old resurrection. His had to have an additional flourish. So, having rolled away the rock, he hit George Foreman on the head with it."

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