Ever since I was a teenager, I have struggled to sleep. Not every night but many nights, and often for no reason.
The night of Sunday, 7 October 2007 was one of those nights – as hard as I tried, I could not sleep. But on this occasion there was a reason. For the following day I was starting the job I had craved since, well, I was a teenager – sports journalist for a national newspaper. It was to be my first day at the Guardian.
Anxiety coursed through my body and while I did eventually doze off, I felt a wreck come Monday morning. Excited, yes, but also incredibly nervous, and I remained that way until I got to the office in Farringdon. Thankfully I calmed down once there, and especially so after being greeted by my new colleagues. Friendly faces everywhere with one in particular putting me at ease. That beaming smile, those warmest of words; they belonged to Kevin McCarra.
I’m telling you this because Kevin died from Alzheimer’s on Saturday. He was 62. It’s no age and I can only imagine the immense grief his family and friends are feeling right now, no one more so than his wife Susan. The messages that have flowed on social media since Kevin’s death was announced show his loss has been felt more broadly too, by those who read his work and especially by those who knew him. Because to be in the presence of Kevin McCarra was to be in the presence of the nicest, kindest human being you could wish to meet.
That’s what I remember most about Kevin. He was a wonderful writer but the world is full of wonderful writers. What there isn’t enough of is people so completely good you are left wondering whether their heart is made of actual gold. That was the Kevin I knew throughout our time together at the Guardian, and no more so than on that first day.
He didn’t have to do it. He was the Guardian’s football correspondent, one of the leading sports journalists in the country. On top of that he was busy, writing his regular Monday-for-Tuesday column. But not long after I had taken a seat at a spare computer, Kevin came over. Even now I can vividly remember him putting out his hand and saying hello in that rapid, high-spirited Glaswegian voice.
He asked me how I was doing and how my journey in had been. He also asked me about my journalism career and which football team I supported, and not once did I get the sense he didn’t actually care what I said. Because Kevin did care and at that moment, as I settled into a dream professional existence, he made me feel not only welcome but valued. It’s the type of thing you never forget. The type of thing you never stop being thankful for.
And it was always there with Kevin, whether in the office or at a game. A “hello”, a “how are you?”, a genuine keenness to know what’s been happening in your life. More so there was a willingness to go above and beyond, as I experienced in August 2008 having been asked to assist Kevin in covering Manchester United’s Premier League visit to Portsmouth.
It was a Monday night match and, as such, there was a problem. By the time I had filed, the last train back to London would have gone and I needed to be on it as I didn’t own a car. Work were not willing to pay for a hotel so unless I could sort out getting home I couldn’t do the gig, and I really wanted to do it given covering teams as big as United was a rarity for me back then.
So I decided to ask Kevin whether I could get a lift back with him – he not only said yes but, having written his match report, waited with no fuss in the Fratton Park press room as I wrote my reaction piece. He sat there for the best part of an hour and batted away every one of my apologies for delaying him. And then, after I had filed, he drove me home. Literally, all the way home.
As Jonathan Wilson puts it in his utterly magnificent tribute to Kevin, he was a man without malice. He was also free of ego, which for someone of his standing in his profession was remarkable. And it was those two things, along with all that warmth and kindness, that led to so many people doing so much to help find Kevin after he went missing in Avignon during Euro 2016.
The search was a success but, at that moment, it became clear to those who didn’t already know that something deeply troubling had taken grip of this most gentle of souls. I include myself in that group and it became an immediate source of regret that I had reached out to Kevin only once after he left the Guardian in 2013, a phone call during which he told me about life back in Glasgow and the book he was writing about his beloved Celtic.
Kevin sounded happy but the reason I called in the first place was to check on him given there had been signs during his final months at the Guardian that things weren’t quite right health-wise. So really I should have done more – called again, or even travelled to Scotland to see him. But I didn’t and, come 2016, my worst fears were confirmed. By then, anything I could do for Kevin was too little, too late.
That is the wider lesson here. We all can do more to stay in touch with those who have had an important, lasting impact on our lives. The great individuals who, for whatever reason, have drifted away. Because if you don’t do it today, tomorrow may never come. Trust me, I know.
Rest in peace Kevin, and thank you. For everything.