Brian Woolnough: Doyen of tabloid football journalists
Thursday 20 September 2012
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."
Brian Woolnough, author, journalist and broadcaster: born 1948; married Linda (one daughter, two sons); died Weybridge 18 September 2012.
Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart bromance continues: X-Men star gushes about 'pussy cat' BFF Patrick Stewart
David Cameron stung by jellyfish: PM hurt after ignoring advice of locals while on holiday
South Korea ferry: Vice principal rescued from sinking ship found hanged
Hollande's affair: Catherine Deneuve and Sophie Marceau in war of words over President's relationship with Julie Gayet
Kim Jong-un, crowds and contraband kit: Inside North Korea with the the Pyongyang marathon winner
The food poverty scandal that shames Britain: Nearly 1m people rely on handouts to eat – and benefit reforms may be to blame
US Navy christens huge $3 billion destroyer ship USS Zumwalt that appears as a fishing boat on enemy radar
Scottish independence: It is the English who should be on their knees, begging the Scots to vote ‘No’
Nigel Farage fatigue? Half of voters ‘immune’ to Ukip’s appeal
Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back
Refugee facing deportation from Sweden saved by fellow passengers refusing to let plane leave
- 1 KFC 'sorry' after lesbian couple are kicked out of Bath restaurant for 'heavy petting'
- 2 Dylan Tombides: West Ham confirm 20-year-old striker has died after battle with cancer
- 3 24 people applied for the 'world's toughest job', here are their interviews
- 4 'Sinful': Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy comes under attack
- 5 PFA Player of the Year: Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard all nominated as Liverpool dominate award shortlist
£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...
£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...
£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...
£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...