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Football without the clichés
by Asa Butcher
Issue 3
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McIlvanney On Football
Hugh McIlvanney
Mainstream Publishing Co (Edinburgh) Ltd, 1994
Hugh McIlvanney is a craftsman. A painter of words, a sculptor of vocabulary and a metaphor magician. Page after page provided a concrete foundation for those goals, players and magical moments shown numerous times on the television, never meaning anything to somebody like me born in the late Seventies. Match Of The Day would ask viewers to pick their favourite World Cup goal but there was never any context for a maturing football supporter when choosing between Tostao and Bobby Charlton.

McIlvanney On Football
has been 35 years in the making; the book collects together many of his greatest articles written for national newspapers, such as The Observer and The Sunday Times, during three decades of sports journalism. Hugh McIlvanney has steadily built a solid reputation among fellow journalists and has a kinship with giants of the game that is clearly reflected through his writing; his respect for particular players and managers cannot fail to rub off on the reader.

From his first piece on the 1960 European Cup Final at Hampden Park to the 1986 World Cup game between Uruguay and Scotland there is a generous sprinkling of all things Auld. McIlvanney is Scottish and having been bought up in the industrial West, he naturally has a place in his heart for others who grew up around the coalfields and down the mines of Lanarkshire and southern Ayrshire. His belief that Scotland produced three of the greatest managers and most formidable individuals the game has ever known is hard to contend, when the trio are Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and, the Big Man, Jock Stein. A bias continues when he highlights the wonders of the present generation of Scottish success stories with Alex Ferguson, Kenny Dalglish and George Graham topping his list.

'The Big Man and Other Giants' and 'World Cups' make up the two largest sections of the book, while a smaller section titled 'Issues' concentrates upon the darker aspects of the game. McIlvanney's interpersonal expertise is outstanding throughout the first section and has the ability to obtain the deepest insight of the interviewee or subject. In his article on Jimmy Greaves and his fight with alcoholism, 'Greaves gets by on his own spirit', the compassion of the journalist is prevalent. The high-esteem thought of this ex-player was summed up with his quote "when we say that British football is unlikely ever again to know the riches brought to it by Greaves...we are dealing in reality, not nostalgia."

Nostalgia is absent from McIlvanney’s writing since the articles are a compilation of work previously published, however in his introduction he does state that he has always seen the game through his own eyes and not relied upon somebody else to interpret the game for him, like some journalists today. The rules that govern his writing are self-imposed; there is common sense, justice in his methods and a preserved moral standard. Clichés are almost absent from the book, except for the piece on Bobby Moore's death when he remembers Moore exchanging shirts with Pele in 1970 recognising that, for them, brotherhood in sport had meaning.

The passing of a legend provoked McIlvanney to produce some of his best work and the pieces included portray the character of both the author and the deceased. Celebration of their lives was the key component, whether it was Stein, Shankly, Busby or Moore he knew how to elevate them above being a successful component of the game and champion them as a great human beings. His words could have been used as a eulogy at their funeral, of Sir Matt Busby he wrote, “he could be passionate about football without losing perspective about its place in relation to the deeper concerns of the heart.”

Recognising the humanity of players and paying tribute to those who keep their feet on the ground and acknowledge their roots is prominent in the interview with the irrepressible Brian Clough, then manager of Nottingham Forest. The opening paragraph illustrates the difficulty of motivating Clough to talk about motivation, although he was quite happy to open his heart, offer a plain-spoken opinion on the subject that resulted in a very colourful article. McIlvanney’s reputation in the world of soccer is powerful enough to be permitted, by Alex Ferguson, to be the first to interview the young Ryan Giggs.

It comes as no surprise to learn that McIlvanney has been a regular winner of the prestigious Sports Writer of the Year, seven times no less, and has the unique distinction of being the only sports journalist to be voted Journalist of the Year, when you read literary genius such as the day Kenny Dalglish becomes a gusher of controversial quotes, stones will be queuing up to give blood transfusions, and of George Best’s balance, it would have made Isaac Newton decide he might as well eaten the apple.

Following on from the profiles are a number of articles that examine the issues English and World football are facing. Following the Hillsborough disaster there were many knee-jerk reactions and an absence of common sense, however McIlvanney put forward a deeply intelligent feature that stirs the imagination and comments on society as a whole. One paragraph highlights the need for football as an escape from the drabness imposed by unemployment and poverty and from the terracing they can, for an hour or two at least, look down on Yuppiedom with unanimous contempt.

Rampant hooliganism, reckless and dangerous elbowing and Clive Thomas making his opinions about referees heard are all featured in the ‘Issues’ section, although taking the death of Graham Taylor’s regime as an issue was one of the highlights. It took me a couple of minutes to compose myself after he wrote: “Let us remember that the favoured alternative to Palmer was not a Bobby Charlton or a Bryan Robson in his prime. It was Sinton, and anyone who believes his involvement from the start would have caused England to seethe with penetrative ideas has seen something this watcher has missed.”

Throughout his last section McIlvanney focuses on the World Cup dramas that have unfolded over the decades. Two of his best pieces involve England, the first was their 1966 World Cup final which was the first time I had ever read the match and the second was the 1970 match against Brazil in Guadalajara that seems to be an example of perfect football and sports reporting. Brazil appear to share a place in the author’s heart with his native Scotland, they are accredited with playing the game beyond a professional standard and are depicted as Herculean in matches. When they played one another and Scotland lost 4-1, McIlvanney wrote in defense of the losers, “when Brazil is in an attacking mood a goalkeeper is liable to feel that his efforts are as futile as sticking brown paper on the windows during a nuclear attack.”

Time after time the author has his finger on the pulse appropriate reaction and comments to World Cup events, he was disgusted by Uruguay’s uncouth behaviour in 1986 describing them as ‘having psychopathic paranoid tendencies’, echoed the footballing opinion of this household that Shilton should have squashed Maradona, physically punched the ball out and never given God a chance, while his level-headed opinion on the press vilifying Bobby Robson for deciding to return working for PSV Eindhoven after the 1990 World Cup reminded us that the worst of the country’s hooliganism has nothing to do with tattoos, beer bellies or Union Jack singlets. World Cup profiles on figures such as Hagi and Romario provided depth to the headlines they usually garner on the sports pages as goal scorers, exhibiting their struggle to the top and their respective backgrounds.

One of the few criticisms that could be found with McIlvanney On Football was repetition of some of his favourite phrases that have been used over the years. His pet phrase seemed to be the reminder that over the past eight World Cup tournaments, England have won their way through only three qualifying series – it begins to get under your skin as an England supporter. I believe occasionally reading this would bring more enjoyment than ploughing through it in a couple of sittings.

Overall the book was an eye-opening read and provided a great deal of context to the football that has surrounded me since my first tentative years as a young football supporter. Now I have moved on beyond the need to memorise factoids and statistics, the soccer equivalent of the taxi drivers Knowledge. Beyond the Panini sticker album and recreating a Lineker goal at the park is the vibrant history, the tantalising folklore and gifted soccer legends that the game has produced over three decades, Hugh McIlvanney has, to quote part of his introduction, “raised my spirits and deepened my attachment to what I regard as the most beautiful and exhilarating of all team games.”

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