A rare gift of courage

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The Independent Online
THE other day a friend telephoned from our former transatlantic colonies, and in the process of conversation acquainted me with a sad story, one to make you shiver and give up thanks for being able to get around this sporting life.

He had been in California spending some time with Willie Shoemaker, the American jockey, one of the greatest horsemen in history, who has displayed astonishing fortitude since an appalling car accident nearly three years ago left him paralysed from the neck down.

Shoemaker, 59, has a dozen or so horses at work, supervising their preparation from the wheelchair he guides by alternatively blowing into and drawing on a tube. Because it is of a highly personal nature I shall not repeat one of the two things he admits to missing most, the other being simply the feel of a horse. 'Just to reach out and touch one would be a joy,' he told my friend.

Unfortunately, there all too many others in a similar predicament, and without Shoemaker's financial advantages, but when considered in the light of 8,333 winners (Sir Gordon Richards with 4,870 is the highest achiever in British racing) his case appears particularly poignant. 'It breaks your heart to see Bill the way he is now,' my friend added, 'but amazingly he just gets on with things.'

I am thinking about those words at a time in sport when seldom a day passes without reports of pathetic complaints, unseemly strife and behaviour so childish that it would draw swift retribution in any decent play school.

Indeed, it seems the exception today when sportsmen in this country (generally, the women are better adjusted) do not come across as bewildered, unreasoning, mixed-up guys lost in the dream-world of children's games.

Alistair Cooke wrote: ' . . . The irresistible thing is to say that old people always lament the morals and manners of the young and are always wrong. The fact that is often overlooked is that sometimes the old people are right; and the trick is to know when you are living in one of those times.' Not being in either makes the trick that much more difficult to perform. However, I am absolutely sure that the sense of values in sport has become screwed up.

Certainly, it is now unusual to be in the company of sports persons who have an uncomplicated appreciation of the good things that have happened to them, and a capacity for honest, unquestioning gratitude. Where would you find people today who, when asked why they should be grateful for their chance in sport, why they should feel it necessary to thank anybody for letting them do what they can do well, would answer: 'Maybe I don't have to, but just the same I'm grateful'?

This, more or less, is what Nat Lofthouse, the former Bolton Wanderers and England centre- forward, could be heard saying last week when interviewed on BBC television. Proud to be Bolton's president and of the progress they are making in the FA Cup, he played when there was a paltry maximum wage and bonuses in the Football League were pegged at pounds 2 for a win and pounds 1 for a draw.

In The Football Man, published in 1968, Arthur Hopcraft elegantly wrote: ' . . . He (Lofthouse) never could have matched the careless flourish of affluence that came to young footballers in the Sixties. Yet, as a young player in the years of social liberation after the Second World War, he could give rein to his relish for the spotlight and the modest fruits of the game . . . he talked about one memorable early morning in Bolton: 'The team was going to South Africa for nine weeks. I'd left my house at half past seven to be picked up by the coach at the bottom of the road. There's a works down there and the men were all rolling in. Half past seven, that was, and I was there with my cases going to South Africa for nine weeks, all paid with pounds 2 a day spending money.' Lofthouse conveyed a sense of victory, not just pleasure, when he said that.'

A short while after these thoughts began to crystallise into a theme came the news that Paul Gascoigne had caused much disgust in Italy by belching in response to questions put to him on television after being left out of the Lazio team against Juventus.

Gascoigne, justifiably, is admired for rare footballing gifts and the tenacity that helped him recover from a dreadful injury. But, and not for the first time, his behaviour prompts the notion that he should be told go off and play with the other children.

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