A wise man for all season gets shirty

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FATHER CHRISTMAS fidgeted nervously before the disciplinary committee of the Heavenly Events Sports Federation as the chairman's stentorian voice intoned a list of indictments written on a parchment scroll as thick as a yuletide Swiss roll. As eve ry charge shot like an arrow through the ermine-lined red robes that enveloped his pounding breast, the silver-haired Noel supremo yearned more and more for the old days.

How heartwarming and uncomplicated it had been, how rich and genuine had been the spirit, how simple their pleasures. But these days you can't force natural joy on to folk, any more than you can roast chestnuts on a radiator. And as for the Heavenly Events Sports Federation...

Well, who was he to challenge the decision to rationalise and regulate all earthly manifestations of the divine will in sport into one organisation in order to maximise customer choice and boost market confidence? Blessed are the holy - and bigger will be their slice of the lottery share-out.

"But where had trust gone?" he mused, as the chairman's voice droned on about poor old Rudolph, whose drug test showed an abnormally high ratio of Algipan in the nose region. And he winced at the accusations that a bung had been accepted during negotiations for a replacement reindeer from a shady Laplander. Bung! What a horrible word for one man's appreciation of another. What is Christmas these days if it is not one big bung? Kids have bungs to keep them happy and quiet, husbands and wives bung each other tinselled sweeteners and businessmen bung their clients to keep them faithful. We ought to rename it Bungmas, he thought to himself.

Suddenly, his reverie was interrupted by a sharp rise in the tone of the man sitting opposite him. "Furthermore," thundered the chairman, "we come to the most important of the many complaints against you - the matter of seasonal goodwill. Why do you think we employ you, dress you in these expensive clothes and build you this image of boundless bonhomie? So that for one month a year you can spread happiness around sport and pump up the feel-good factor.

"May I direct your attention to the United States, where our American branch has got the entire country wetting its knickers with goodwill over a picture called Miracle on 34th Street. That's how to make people feel warm and schmaltzy about Christmas. Now, compare that to our sport at this festive time. It has never been in a more woebegone, miserable state. Any more like this and we'll finish up below Easter in the Heavenly Events Premier League and you know what happens to you then?"

Father Christmas nodded, his rosy cheeks wobbling sullenly. "I've tried," he said, "but results have gone against me."

"I'm not surprised," retorted the chairman. "Look at Wales. You were told to cheer up that downtrodden country and what did you give 'em? Vinnie Jones. They get murdered by Bulgaria on Wednesday and now the country is even more suicidal than before. And we're getting reports from all over the world of Welsh-born pensioners burning their birth certificates in case their grandsons get called up by them."

"But they liked Vinnie," protested FC. "It wasn't his fault that Bulgaria were so superior. Jones had never played international football before and he should be compared with the other Welsh players not with the Bulgarians. He passed well, was Wales's most effective player because of his long throw-ins and came nearer than anyone to scoring. That's not bad for a start, and when he kissed his Welsh shirt in an unashamedly theatrical gesture at the end he got an ovation.

"If the Bulgarians thought he gave them a rough time it didn't stop at least three of them trying to change shirts with him. But he'd already agreed to swop with Stoichkov. Imagine it, the great Stoichkov going home with Vinnie Jones's shirt, even if he does intend to clean the car with it. If Vinnie upset anyone it was his own team-mates. He harangued them throughout and when asked on Welsh television what he thought of the Welsh performance he might have selected better words than: "We were crap at the back."

"That reminds me," said the chairman. "What about the England cricket team? How can sports fans enjoy Christmas when our cricket team is getting a large amount of sage and onion in Australia? Why couldn't you arrange for Shane Warne to have the chicken pox and not Devon Malcolm? It is sheer neglect, and to make matters worse you allow the second Test to be played over Christmas and to be on TV.

"This will not only make them preoccupied and grumpy over the holiday. It will keep them glued to the TV all night and make them too tired to join in family celebrations."

"I just thought," stammered FC, "it would be a pleasant diversion from all that cold turkey."

"Speaking of cold turkey," said the chairman. "How's that Paul Merson getting on? There, for once, was a shining example of sporting compassion for a boy who succumbed to the pressures of having more money than sense by gambling and cocaine sniffing. Butinstead of thinking only of punishment the FA reacted with understanding to give genuine help to the boy. How fitting for this time of year and what a glaring contrast to the fate of Diane Modahl.

"This has been our greatest disappointment so far in this festive season. We thought the timing was perfect for her. She would be cleared by the British Athletic Federation, the faith, love and respect of all her fellow-athletes would be vindicated in time for her to take her place as the fairy story on top of the Christmas tree. And what happens? She gets found guilty, receives a four-year ban and the press turn on her."

"It's not my fault," sniffed the sobbing symbol of the season. "I can't help it if the scientific evidence goes against her."

"Bah," snorted the chairman. "The fact remains that the nation still finds it impossible to accept she should have that much testosterone in her body. If turkeys had that much of the stuff, it would be a toss-up who'd be eating whom on Sunday. There has to remain a doubt. Are they so scared of the IAAF that they prefer to cast a shadow on her rather than the testing?"

"One final point," growled the chairman. "It has not escaped our notice that rugby union players have spent the year happily trampling, gouging and biting their opponents with hardly a sanction raised against them. A young man plays in the Varsity Match after playing just three unpaid games for a professional rugby league team and he is suspended for 12 months. This is not a slight on Christmas, this is an offence against humanity. Have you anything to say before we pass sentence?"

The benevolent white-bearded one rose to his feet, smoothed down his crumpled robes and said with as much dignity as he could summon: "I can think of only two suitable words to say to you - Merry Christmas."