Brian Woolnough: Doyen of tabloid football journalists

 

It was the late-night call dreaded by all football reporters, particularly the foot-soldiers in the tabloid circulation wars. When Brian Woolnough provoked a panic on the sports desks of the national daily newspapers with another exclusive, editors wanted to why their back page did not have the story.

Woolnough, who has died of bowel cancer at the age of 63, was the doyen of British red-top football journalists. He built his reputation for breaking big stories during 27 years with The Sun, where he graduated to the position of chief football writer, and had cemented it over the past 11 years as chief sports writer for the Daily Star.

Having established himself in print journalism, Woolnough seamlessly carved out a parallel career in television. As host of the Sky Sports show Hold the Back Page in the 1990s he facilitated impassioned but controlled debate among fellow scribes, and he exuded relaxed authority as presenter of Sunday Supplement. He also wrote 14 books, ranging from eye-witness accounts of the England reigns of Terry Venables and Kevin Keegan to others about or in collaboration with Glenn Hoddle, Malcolm Macdonald, Rodney Marsh and Ken Bates.

He was a tall, heavily built man, and Woolnough's was an imposing presence in the press boxes of Europe and beyond. At media conferences, such as the pre-match briefings by a succession of England managers, the man universally known as "Wooly" would sit in the centre of the front row, ready to pursue forensic questions in a disarmingly charming manner.

As a boy growing up in Surrey he had harboured dreams of becoming a fast bowler – cricket remained an enduring passion – but a knee injury forced a reappraisal. When he was 16 his mother spotted an advert for a cub reporter on the Esher News, and it was there that he met Linda, his wife of 38 years, when they were trainee reporters. Woolnough moved to the Evening Post in Hemel Hempstead and then to United Newspapers before being head-hunted by The Sun in 1974.

What he brought to the paper – then in its early years under Rupert Murdoch's ownership, with its heavy emphasis on sex and sport – was a scalpel-sharp sense of what made a story, and a bulging contacts book. If he was not the first of the breed, he came to epitomise "the scuffler" (an epithet at odds with his elegant attire and well-spoken demeanour), namely a journalist prepared to root around doggedly and get his hands dirty in order to unearth or stand up a "line".

Woolnough's time at The Sun coincided with the increased scrutiny of the England team and manager by the travelling pack of "number ones". He was part of a group of senior correspondents whose meetings with Graham Taylor during the 1992 European Championship finals in Sweden became fractious affairs. Indeed, he was involved in his paper's demonisation of Taylor as a "turnip" after defeat by the host nation, though in later years he apologised to him on camera.

The following year, defeat by the Netherlands in Rotterdam meant it became virtually impossible for England to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Woolnough's urge to nail the story, perhaps combined with his patriotism, found him confronting the German referee in his changing-room, demanding to know why Ronald Koeman had not been sent off for a "professional foul" on David Platt.

In 1999, by which point he had been compering Hold the Back Page for five years, the Daily Mirror attempted to poach him. He stayed with News International, where he had become associate sports editor, but only until 2001, when the Star's broader brief and a hefty pay rise prised him away.

Jimmy Hill's Sunday Supplement, as it was originally called, first aired on Sky Sports in 1999, with Woolnough, the co-presenter, taking over in 2007 as sole host to a trio of fellow journalists. The set was a breakfast/brunch table and, showing a talent for keeping all the guests involved in the conversation, he led a discussion of topical football matters and dissection of the day's newspapers.

Woolnough's rising TV profile did not diminish his appetite for writing. In 2004, after watching Norwich City lose 4-0 at Chelsea, he branded them a "gutless" side who would "stink out the Premiership", adding: "I hope they go down, and good riddance." Despite receiving 450 irate emails and being condemned by the local press, he soon attended a match at Carrow Road and fronted up his critics by agreeing to be interviewed on Radio Norfolk. Norwich were relegated.

Even this summer, while struggling against his illness, he was producing strident "Wooly's World" columns for the Star. England's new manager, Roy Hodgson, was, he decreed, "a safe pair of hands rather than the character England needed".

His mastery of two strands of sports journalism prompted lavish tributes from colleagues, Patrick Barclay hailing him as "our answer to Robin Day or Jeremy Paxman", always ready to "ask the question that other journalists hoped someone else would ask". Woolnough himself would have enjoyed Sir Alex Ferguson's comment. "He asked good questions," he reflected. "Sometimes too good."

Phil Shaw

Brian Woolnough, author, journalist and broadcaster: born 1948; married Linda (one daughter, two sons); died Weybridge 18 September 2012.

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