Kevin McCarra, who has died aged 62 of Alzheimer’s disease, was football correspondent for the Guardian from 2002 to 2012 and prior to that a football writer for the Times, Sunday Times and Scotland on Sunday. One of Scotland’s finest sportswriting exports, he was blessed with original thinking, a deep and genuine understanding of football, and an extraordinary talent for phraseology that allowed him to turn what might otherwise have been mundane match reports into works of art.
He was born in Glasgow, the youngest of three children, and grew up in Clarkston, on the outskirts of the city. His mother, Adele, was a pharmacist who later went into science teaching, and his father, Joe, was also a teacher.
Having attended Holyrood secondary school in Glasgow, Kevin took a degree in Scottish literature at Glasgow University, becoming heavily involved in the Third Eye Centre, a contemporary arts venue. At that stage lecture halls looked to be his natural domain, and after graduation he enrolled for a PhD.
However, an invitation from the Third Eye Centre to curate an exhibition about Scottish football was followed by a commission to write a book entitled A Pictorial History of Scottish Football, which was published in 1984. In turn that led to writing work with Scottish Field magazine. Kevin’s deft touch and sharp observations quickly caught the eye of the newly established Scotland on Sunday, which in 1988 took him on as a staff writer – and the PhD was ditched.
When the entrepreneur Fergus McCann saved Celtic football club in 1994 Kevin was at the forefront of reporting on the story and shortly afterwards he accepted a move to the Times, initially as Scottish football correspondent but later covering English matches after the direct intervention of the newspaper’s editor prevented a move to the Scotsman.
It was at the Times during one particularly raucous European football night at Ibrox that Kevin dictated to the copytaker down the phone that the Rangers manager Walter Smith had “returned to his previous central defensive pairing of Richard Gough and Gordan Petric” – only to find the phrase rendered into “tedious central defensive pairing” when it appeared in the paper the following morning.
There was, however, never any prospect of Smith, Petric, Gough or anyone else in the football world becoming angry with Kevin. Similarly, even in such a tribal environment as Glasgow, where support for either half of the Old Firm is generally kept under wraps, he had no fear of revealing his lifelong allegiance to Celtic, as even Rangers fans knew he would not allow that to cloud the judgment in his work. His writing was of sufficiently high quality and balance to render such thoughts redundant.
In 2002 he succeeded David Lacey as the main footballing writer at the Guardian, moving with his wife, Susan Stewart, an investment banker, whom he had married in 1986, to Stoke Newington in north London.
During his time at the Guardian Kevin was a constant source of support to other journalists, both established and aspiring. Self-deprecating about the scale of his own talent, he felt uncomfortable at receiving so many emails from inquisitive teenagers keen on pursuing a life in the sports media. He regarded his own route as too unorthodox to be helpful and was perhaps unaware that even just a return communication from someone of his standing – which he always gave – would nonetheless be gratefully received.
Support was not reserved for the young: in the late 2000s, when Hugh MacDonald, then a sportswriter with the Herald in Glasgow, arrived in London to preview a Champions League tie involving Arsenal, Kevin drove him to the club’s rural pre-match press conference and then back to his hotel. It only emerged later, and by accident, that all of this took place on Kevin’s day off.
He also allowed me to stay in his home after being instrumental in arranging some work experience at the Guardian. Many years later a ticking off arrived by email for my use of “plethora” in relation to opportunities missed during a football match. True to the word’s definition, which relates to a larger amount of something than is needed, he reminded me that “teams cannot create too many chances”. If such a note had arrived from any other journalist, ego would have led to annoyance, but from Kevin it produced only a smile. In an industry where cynicism is embedded, he stood out for his kind, gracious and graceful approach. No one had a bad word to say about him, and that spoke volumes.
In 2012 his book Celtic: A Biography in Nine Lives was published; he had written several others over the years, mainly about Scottish football and beginning with One Afternoon in Lisbon (co-written with Pat Woods in 1988) about Celtic’s European Cup glory in 1967.
In 2012 he left the Guardian to return to Glasgow. Susan gave up her job and spent more and more of her time helping him as his health deteriorated. Season tickets at Partick Thistle and Celtic allowed for plenty of football to be watched, and there were trips, too, to Venice, their favourite city – but nothing like the time for travel that they had planned.
He is survived by Susan and his brother, John.
• Kevin James McCarra, journalist, born 1 February 1958; died 24 October 2020