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McIlvanney on Football, by Hugh McIlvanney

Posted on August 29, 2011 by samh

McIlvanney on Football, by Hugh McIlvanney (1999)

HUGH McIlvanney is one of the best sports journalists to have ever graced the Sunday papers. This book represents a collection of his best football writing, spanning a career of nearly 40 years.

The book, at first glance, does not look all that large, but a second look reveals it to be a dense, 350-page volume of more than 70 articles mainly for The Observer which are arranged thematically, rather than chronologically.

The reader does not have to wait until the end to get to McIlvanney’s views on recent events in football: they are side by side with accounts of famous events such as England’s 1966 World Cup victory. And that article is typical of his writing: although McIlvanney conveys all the essential facts, he makes it into a story that captures the imagination and not just the stats. For example, he begins his 1966 piece with an evocative description of Wembley Stadium and the “bright sunshine and squalls of driving rain”. His description of George Best is also fascinating: his “resilience for so slight a figure and balance …would have made Isaac Newton decide he might as well have eaten the apple”. McIlvanney certainly knows how to turn a phrase. He is Scottish, so this book is also a history of Scottish football as much as a history of world football. His piece on the death of Celtic manager Jock Stein is especially moving.

He also, in more than one piece, criticises the tabloid press: the reader realises just who the real journalist is and who are the hacks. This is a good book to dip in and out of; and there is hardly an important figure or issue left out. McIlvanney has been at the sharp end of football and he does not mince his words. This is an education in journalism and football, as well as a good read.

Review by Sam Hawcroft

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