A giant of our profession who became part of our Sunday mornings
By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
Brian Woolnough, possibly the most famous face in football writing, died today aged 63.
Wooly, as he was known, started on the Esher News, moving to the Evening Post in Hemel Hempstead before starting a 27-year career with The Sun where he became chief football writer. In 2001 he moved to the Daily Star as a sports columnist but became well known to the football world through talkSPORT and Sky Sports where he initially hosted Hold The Back Page in 1994 and, more recently, the Sunday Supplement.
As a football writer Woolnough became one of the first “scufflers”, digging for news and some would say no one has done it better. Popular among colleagues even on rival newspapers, he would greet us with his trademark: “My dear old thing…” At some ungodly hour in the morning at an airport, Woolnough would somehow be in a good mood, unique among Fleet Street’s bleary eyed finest. A long-standing member of the Football Writers’ Association, Wooly seemed incapable of not smiling.
His appearance could be deceptive and Martin Lipton, the Daily Mirror’s football correspondent, said: “When I first met Brian which was 20-odd years ago, I couldn’t believe that this elegant, well-spoken man was actually the chief football writer of The Sun. As I got to know Brian I realised he was a terrific journalist, a fantastic bloke and a wonderful friend for many years.
“We spent a lot of time together in a lot of places. Nobody loved cricket more than Brian, which was his passion. He was so excited when England won the Ashes. He had a great love of life and sport.
“He was a trialblazer in many ways. Apart from being one of the first scufflers, he became the master of the back page story. Then he made the move from the written media to broadcasting where he became such a familiar face all over the country. He became part of our Sunday mornings.
“People looked up to him, he was a proper sports journalist and a proper bloke. He was the life and soul of trips.”
Daily Express football correspondent Mick Dennis, who worked alongside Woolnough at The Sun for a spell, said: “At The Sun Brian was a story-getter and those in the business realise that is the hardest skill. When he developed his second career in broadcasting he made it look very easy.
“What impressed me was that the Sunday Supplement, which he hosted initially with Jimmy Hill…he made sure the show was never all about him. He facilitated football conversations and the programme became a must-watch for fans across the country. He mastered two branches of our profession like nobody else has done.”
Daily Telegraph football correspondent Henry Winter remembers Woolnough the family man as much as Woolnough the football writer. Winter said: “Brian was a big family man. We’d be walking through the dark streets in some far flung place and he’d be talking with such pride about what his sons and how they were doing at university. That’s my abiding memory of Brian. He’d ask how my kids were doing, he was very selfless like that. We’d be at Heathrow at six in the morning clutching all the first editions and the first thing he’d ask is: ‘How the family?’
“He was a high-class scuffler. What I particularly liked about Brian the journalist is that he really cared about the game. He understood how much it meant to people and he’d never belittle it. At the same time he was never so in awe of football people that he wouldn’t ask the hardest question, but he’d do it in such a caring way. That’s why, in his later years, he proved such a great presenter on Sky Sports. He was a natural scuffler and a natural broadcaster.
“He knew exactly what he wanted to say and despite having a producer screaming in his ear, he was always so relaxed. I’d put him up with the top broadcasters that football television has seen.”
Neil Ashton, the football news correspondent of the Daily Mail, spoke of the passion Woolnough had for his job. Ashton said: “He was proud to be in the position he had and rightly so. Brian had enormous pride in whatever he did and had an incredible passion for the job. When I started out he was a very authoritative figure in the industry, his presence almost statesman-like whether he was in the press box, a media conference or a bar. As a young journalist I knew that Brian was more old school and I wasn’t just going to walk in and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Brian Woolnough. Respect had to be earned.”
Ashton has been hosting the Sunday Supplement in recent weeks and said: “Whenever I was on the show with Brian, I watched it back to learn. He always kept the three guests involved in the chat, no one was ever isolated. While I was asked to fill in on the short term, whoever does the job permanently is following someone with immense dignity.”
Mark Irwin, football correspondent of The Sun, recalls that when he was with the Daily Mirror, the football writer he was most likely to receive a late night call about when the first editions dropped was Woolnough. “If he had a story, you knew there was something in it,” said Irwin.
“When I joined The Sun he was chief football writer and everyone looked up to him. He was such a nice fellow, not the Big I Am. To survive for 27 years at The Sun tells you something about Brian. When he got a story, people took note.
“He was also the first of the new TV generation and opened the door for the rest of us, enabling others to cross over from print to broadcasting.”
Patrick Barclay, columnist for the Independent on Sunday and Evening Standard, said: “As a journalist I think he was a giant in our profession. He was our answer to Robin Day or Jeremy Paxman. He would ask the question that other journalists hoped someone else would ask. It is not easy to ask hard questions of our heroes and Brian never shirked it. This had much to do with his genuine love of the England team.
“While professionally he never suffered fools, as a person he was much softer, very kind and considerate. On Sunday Supplement he would, if necessary, gently guide guests away from blunders as much has he could, though it never stopped him from ridiculing me if he thought I’d gone too far and I loved him for that.
“I got to know Brian during the 1984 European Championship, the summer when John Barnes scored his famous goal in Brazil. The leading sports commentators were still in South America as Euro 84 got under way. Brian and I plus a couple of others constituted the English press corps, that’s how much things have changed. At one stage the entire press pack was travelling around in one car armed with a Michelin guide and a piece of paper on which to write our daily 300-word report.
“Brian then went on to master the art of television, becoming a national figure in the football community. He became probably as good a broadcaster as he was journalist, which is saying something.
“Most importantly, he was a good man and a great family man. It is sad he has been denied what would have been a long and happy retirement with his family.”
Daily Star sports editor Howard Wheatcroft said: “Brian was the doyen of his generation of sports journalists and had been the senior figure in football journalism for a long, long time. To my mind he also paved the way for journalists being called upon as pundits.
“When the era of rolling sports news began, such was his standing that he was in demand from virtually day one – and up until the end he was still the best of the lot.
He was a big man in many ways, but he was never arrogant and had an incredible appetite for hard work.”
It is only three months since the death of the Daily Star’s chief football writer Danny Fullbrook at the age of 40, also from cancer, while former FWA chairman Dennis Signy died earlier this year.