Obituary: Kevin McCarra, Scottish football writer

Kevin James McCarra, journalist. Born: February 1 1958; Died: October 24 2020, aged 62

Kevin McCarra, talented and modest
Kevin McCarra, talented and modest

It does not happen so much now, if at all, but there were days when Scottish football reporters were sent to cover English football matches on a fairly regular basis. On such occasions, it was always a bonus to spy a friendly, recognisable face sitting in the press box pews. Andrew Smith can vouch for this. Sent down to Old Trafford by Scotland on Sunday (SoS) to report on a meeting between Manchester United and Leeds United, he was understandably keen to give as colourful an account of the match as possible in order to justify the miles travelled.

United had come out to a tune Smith was desperate to identify to augment his report and he spent the opening minutes of the match bobbing from colleague to colleague to see if anyone knew the title. No one did. When an increasingly anguished Smith got to Kevin McCarra, his fellow Glaswegian as well as erstwhile SoS scribe, a gentle voice told him to relax. “Just write what you see, Andrew,” McCarra advised.

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The trouble was, McCarra always tended to “see” more clearly than pretty much everyone else in the press box. Or so it seemed, judging from his output. He might as well have carried a surgeon’s scalpel in his satchel for there were few others who carved out words with such precision. Not that there was ever any hint of it being a torturous process. Reading his reports in the following day’s paper –whether in SoS, the Sunday Times, the Times, or, latterly, the Guardian – was an enjoyably effortless pursuit. With his understated, elegant command of prose, he could turn match reports involving such unpromising ingredients as no goals into art forms.

Take this intro from a 0-0 draw between Celtic and Rangers from 1993: “Even the unexpected can be drab,” writes McCarra in SoS. “Old Firm meetings may produce ill-feeling and anxiety in vast quantities, but they will usually provide you with a goal or two as well. This was the first time in nine years that Celtic and Rangers have been scoreless against one another. The surprise was tedious.”

He could tell the story of a game in 900 words like few others and rarely used the post-match comments from managers and players as a crutch. Indeed, in the same Old Firm match report, rather than cram in paragraphs of often meaningless quotes, he simply notes there was “modest contentment from both managers”. He trusted his own analysis. Crucially, so did the reader. Later in the above dispatch from Parkhead, he reflects how, “at its best, football resembles a good conversation. It flows easily and everyone has their say.”

McCarra, who has died aged 62 of Alzheimer’s disease, did as much as anyone to ensure SoS became an essential part of the newspaper scene so soon after its launch in 1988. After graduating from Glasgow University with a degree in Scottish literature, McCarra worked for a spell at an arts centre in Glasgow and was asked to curate an exhibition about Scottish football. A subsequent commission to write a well-regarded book on the game, 1984’s A Pictorial History of Scottish Football, led, aged 30, to a staff job at SoS.

Fellow Scot Patrick Barclay, a former chief football writer at the Sunday Telegraph and the Times, believes this comparatively late introduction to journalism was beneficial. “He had a longer ‘fan’ background and that maybe made him a bit less cynical than some of the others in the press box,” he said.

Although a keen Celtic supporter who never forgot how it felt to be a fan, McCarra brought reasoned, equable reporting to the pages at a time when Rangers were the dominant force in Scottish football.

“Kevin filed one of his immaculate match reports, and I stuck on a headline, one I thought was clever and which might have been a bit saucier than was usual at the time,” recalled former SoS sports editor Kevin McKenna this week. “Kevin waited about a week before saying, in that quiet, professorial way that he had, ‘Kevin, I just thought that was a bit inappropriate…’ ”

It was never McCarra’s style to be provocative for the sake of it. Writing baubles tend to be distributed around those with a yen for sensationalism. That was not McCarra’s way and he might have suffered for it in terms of awards. The widespread respect he garnered was its own reward. He was quiet and learned without ever being over earnest.

One of his early nicknames in the press box was “The Brain”. He proved that there was no need to be part of the pack to prosper. You could be yourself, follow your own path and still be popular and well respected. This proved to be just as true south of the Border, where the tributes paid to McCarra so far have been every bit as heartfelt as has been the case in Scotland.

Beneath one piece by football writer Jonathan Wilson on the Guardian’s website there are more than 300 comments from readers praising McCarra’s work, with some even recalling personal experiences of his generosity.

McCarra moved to London in 2002 to succeed David Lacey as the chief football writer at the Guardian. He and his wife Susan based themselves in Stoke Newington. There have been several accounts of McCarra driving reporters home from games despite the journey taking him well out of his own way back to north London. On one occasion he offered Hugh MacDonald, down from Glasgow to report on an Arsenal match for the Herald, a lift to the club’s rural training base outside London for the pre-match press conference. It later emerged McCarra wasn’t even meant to be there himself. It had been his day off.