A time without sleaze

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The Independent Online
As it is that time of the year again, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, holly and jingle bells and all that jazz, let me tell of a man who came bearing gifts.

The gifts borne by the distinguished artist, Harold Riley, to his 60th birthday lunch in Manchester this week were affection, friendship and, yes, love, wrapped in warm conversation and tied with the bright ribbons of nostalgia.

Importantly, to my mind, there was no talk of sleaze. In view of recent events you may think that an odd oversight on our part, but nobody present saw fit to dampen the glow of marvellous reminisence by intruding thoughts of profit and corruption. The a i r was clean.

The actor, Albert Finney, spoke of sport's greatest strength - uncertainty, parts played and witnessed in ignorance of the outcome.

In truth, it was the spirit of sport we had come to celebrate and Riley presided benevolently. A man of wise and independent virtue, as a teenager he was required to choose between a professional contract offered by Manchester United and becoming one of the youngest students ever to attend an illustrious institution, the Slade School of Art.

A contemporary in the United youth team of the man-boy, Duncan Edwards, who gained a full cap at 18 and was tragically prevented from becoming surely one of the greatest English footballers, Riley concluded: "I can never hope to be anywhere near as good as Duncan but perhaps there is remote chance that I am another Rembrandt."

Riley would go on to paint the Pope, John F Kennedy and members of the Royal Family. He formed a deep friendship with Sir Matt Busby and drew close to great golfers, most notably Henry Cotton and Jack Nicklaus.

A portrait that hangs in Salford University depicts Cotton at the completion of his swing when winning the 1935 Open Championship at Sandwich. "It's superb," a lady said to Riley, "but at that time you could only have been a child. "Madam," Riley replied, "I'm not aware that Rembrandt witnessed the Crucifixion."

Any number of people in sport prize the sketches Riley has given them. Sir Bobby Charlton and Pat Crerand are no exception. In keeping with the mood, Charlton recalled the day he arrived in Manchester from the North east to be met by Busby's assistant, the redoubtable Welshman, Jimmy Murphy.

"I know you'll be happy here," Murphy said with characteristic enthusiasm. "I've got a terrific footballer for you to play with. He's big, strong and quick. He can shoot. He can head. He can play the ball short or long. When I've smoothed the rough edges, this lad, Duncan Edwards, is going to be a tremendous player."

In a marvellous profusion of memories, the scandals and cynicism now occupying sport were driven from our attention. Nobody felt it necessary to pick their words as carefully as a cat picking the fish from the bones. What struck me, too, was the mutual respect of men from different sporting fields: Dave Sexton, Alex Murphy, Cliff Morgan, Peter Oosterhuis. You didn't want the day to end.

Morgan told of his friend, Richard Burton, arranging to be informed of Welsh progress against England at Twickenham while on stage in matinee at the Old Vic, and a letter received from him when laying gravely ill in a German hospital. Burton wrote (Morgan captures his voice uncannily) "My homes are available to you, everything provided, including sticks and coal. If you need anything as mundane as money, please call."

It was not first time I have heard the sentimental re-creation of a period I lived through, and though nostalgia, a common affliction in many of my generation, was stirred it also gave me the shudders. Why?

Because outside an exclusive lounge at Manchester airport, one adorned with splendid examples of Riley's work, not only of sport but scenes depicting the history of his birthplace, Salford, waited a sporting world I am no longer certain about. To be sur e it isn't Harold Riley's world.

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