He began work as a sports journalist in his teens. Aged 80, Brian Glanville tells Charles Nevin that you need to persist and not exaggerate your influence ... 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012

On the Thursday, Brian Glanville had fallen with a crash in the foyer of Holland Park underground station, hurting his back and damaging his hand. But it was only his left hand, so he continued with his plans for a visit to Norwich on the Saturday, where he watched the home football team draw 3-3 with Blackburn Rovers, then composed his usual plainly erudite report before completing the 200-mile round trip back to London. Glanville is 80.

And, it has to be said, not particularly impressed with such feats. “My wife was very cross with me for going to Norwich, but I thought I would go because I felt I could, and it worked.” Football reporting, too, is not allowed to get above itself: “It’s not an art form and if you try too hard the result is bathos.” Nor does he regard it as a very hard job, even if he is perhaps the last sports journalist filing his match report the traditional way, sans laptop, dictating straight down the telephone from notes. (Newspaper copytakers are now a thing of the past: splendidly, Glanville employs the services of his son and grandson, who file his piece by computer for him.) 

Still, it has also to be said, Glanville has been doing this a long time: he started freelancing about football while he was still a public schoolboy at Charterhouse, and published his first book, a ghosted autobiography of the Arsenal great, Cliff Bastin, when he was 20. He has also written more than 20 novels, five collections of short stories, nearly 30 football books and not as many plays as he would have liked. Mellowing, it seems, is not advised should you wish to number among the octogenarian-employed. Glanville, despite all his success, remembers his mistakes in his football reports (two goals misattributed, thick fog, Brighton, 1950s) more than his triumphs. And the missed chances and bad luck for his plays and playwriting still irk. He quotes an Italian saying on luck he is fond of: “Se faceva capelli, nascono senza teste” (“If he was making hats, people would be born without heads”). 

He lived much in Italy in his earlier years, in Florence and Rome. He walked into the offices of Corriere dello Sport in Rome as a 17-year-old on holiday and was given work on the strength of an already substantial cuttings file, despite having no Italian, a gap subsequently remedied by residence and “Teach Yourself Italian”. He covered the 1960 Olympics in Rome for the Sunday Times and has reported on 13 football World Cups. He has seen England follow and surpass the highly monied example of Italian football and thinks the “People’s Game has been taken away from the people…the money has absolutely ruined football, I think…As soon as they formed the Premier League I called it ‘The Greed is Good League’, and I’ve never felt wrong to do so.”

After the Rome Olympics, Glanville became a sports columnist, the Sunday Times’s first. He began by backing the fight by English footballers against the maximum wage, which was then £20 a week. “Now players make more in a week than I can ever hope to make in a year…I don’t think it’s entirely my fault, but I take some of the blame,” he says, demonstrating that not always taking yourself entirely seriously is also important for longevity. It’s an attitude helped by being first introduced to the game at Bognor Regis Town by a romanticist of an Irish Jewish dentist father whose clients included Max Wall, Bud Flanagan and other music-hall turns. Brian’s children are talented disparates: Mark is a professional singer; Toby is a photographer; Liz, Toby’s twin, teaches at university in Rome; and Jo edits the campaigning magazine Index on Censorship. The only cliché to which they conform is that Liz and Jo follow their mother, Pam, a former magazine editor, in having little interest in sport.

Glanville has two pieces of advice for those hoping to embark on a 60-year writing career: first, to persist, “and if you’re any good, you’ll get there”; and second, to avoid the mistake of exaggerating the influence and importance of journalists and journalism, while continuing to challenge the influence and importance of others. You had, he said, just got to go on: he played for the Chelsea Casuals, the magnificently eclectic and artful parks team he helped found, until he was 69, and still remembers being kicked by the comedian Ronnie Corbett. And now he is ready to take his laptop to matches, and make his family redundant.   

Charles Nevin is a freelance writer who spent 25 years on Fleet Street. He is the author of "The Book of Jacks"

Photograph by Nick Ballon