Farewell, Wooly: Steve Curry pays tribute to a giant of sports journalism
14:21 GMT, 18 September 2012
Legend: Brian Woolnough
It was one of those wine-fuelled pre-season lunches that retired Sky Sports boss Vic Wakeling used the hold for chief football writers in a private dining room at Shepherd's restaurant in Westminster.
Owner Richard Shepherd popped in, told a few jokes and departed around 7pm. The only people left were Vic, Brian Woolnough and myself enjoying a few glasses.
As always, the debate was about football.
Wooly was presenting reasons why
Graham Taylor should still be given the benefit of the doubt as England
manger. Mine was the contrary view.
became quite heated and Vic, puffing on a cigarette in those
pre-no-smoking-days, was sitting back enjoying the debate. We retired to
the pub next door for a game of pool but the cut and thrust continued
Vic said suddenly. 'This kind of debate goes on in every pub every
night. You guys work in the game. Why don't we get a few of you round a
table, forget the cameras are there, moderate the language and we have a
Thus began Hold The Back Page, the Friday night show that captivated fans across the country. Brian was chosen to chair the programme. That was in 1994 and, 18 years on, the concept still draws an audience. And Brian has always been there, like a captain at the wheel.
But Wooly will no longer select the subject matter, to guide the participants on the subjects for discussion, to tease comments from his guests, to combine humour and significance, and to steer all around the table into fascinating conversation.
I had met Brian as a young reporter on The Sun, a serious news gatherer. As a chief football writer on a rival paper, I dreaded the late night call from my own boss to say Wooly had got another exclusive.
Farewell: Wooly (centre) pictured with Danny Fullbrook and Steve McClaren
We travelled the world and he was excellent company. A man with strident views on sport, he was as a younger man, a formidable fast bowler. He was always ready with a view but prepared to hear the counter-argument.
Fiercely ambitious, he climbed to the top of his profession without, as far I can recall, ever losing his temper. A fierce inquisitor at press conferences, he had a way of asking the difficult questions without giving offence. And he always delivered them from the front row where he could look the manager concerned in the eye. He was up front.
I remember seeing Wooly in hospital after the very first operation. As ever he was cheerful. He stayed so to the end. When his much younger Daily Star colleague Danny Fullbrook also had cancer, he counselled him warmly and sympathetically even though he knew his own battle was far from over.
We were colleagues on the Barclays Manager and Player of the Month panel and though he knew he was ill, he attended the lunches with as much enthusiasm as he ever did.
In the last few years as a Chief Sports Writer at the Star, his views were expressed stridently and without extravagant language. It was the voice of the terrace fan.
Brian so much wanted to end his career on a high. He has done that in the esteem of his colleagues. And he will be pleased with that.