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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager / Section Manager - Airport Security

£40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a critical role within the secur...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45-55k

£20000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company is an established, ...

Recruitment Genius: E-Commerce Manager - Fashion Accessories

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Senior / Assistant Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Exciting new position available at an independ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn