All Britain cheers the All England hero

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The Independent Online
A stute followers of the twists and trends of our sporting scene will not have neglected to notice a subtle switch in the tenor of national allegiance last week. We suddenly became British again. The eruption of Englishness that almost engulfed Euro 96 subsided as quickly as it had flared and the kingdom was reunited.

This is not to imply that the hot flushes planted on millions of English cheeks by Tim Henman were in any way less fervent than those engendered by the football team but there was a distinct difference. The knicker- wetters of Wimbledon were happy to share the source of their joy with the rest of this one nation of ours.

Henman is as English as a morris dancer's stick but he was identified by all, even the rabid tabloids, as very much a British hope. So much so, that when young ladies turned up at the gates of Wimbledon their faces were decorated not with the cross of St George but the Union Jack - which is almost as difficult a challenge for the face-painters as it is for some politicians.

For this involvement, much thanks from the neighbours. It is, however, no less than we deserve. The absence of a genuine Wimbledon challenger over the past two or three decades has been loudly wailed over and perceived as a failing of Great Britain as a whole. Since the back streets of Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast have been just as culpable in this continuing disgrace, it is only fitting that we should all have a slice of the hope Henman has resurrected. They might be called the All England Club but they are all heart, too.

Neither was there any tribal discrimination at the other major sporting event of the week. For historical reasons, our cricket team crusades under the name of England but their ranks are not barred to those born elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the team is more like the United Nations but that reflects cricket's enduring links with the Commonwealth and is stronger for it.

The Olympic Games, the most nationally binding of all sporting events, is shortly to be thrust upon us and we face the many trials, and the odd test-tube tribulation, of that jamboree as Great Britain and take pleasure in the success of our compatriots no matter from what part they hail. Whatever our inner divisions, it is proper that we face the greatest tests as one people.

Unfortunately, this view does not pertain in certain other sports. In rugby, we are now locked in an impasse that threatens not only the Five Nations' Championships but the future of the British Lions. No matter how seriously we take our annual battles against each other, the Lions have been a vital part of rugby's motivation. No one with memories of 1971 or who saw television's re-run of the 1974 tour to South Africa last week would need to be convinced about that.

Yet the Rugby Football Union's solitary stance since being blinded by Sky Television's offer of riches beyond the dreams of even the truest and bluest of amateurs continues to threaten the entire fabric of our domestic game. We can only admire the courage of the Welsh Rugby Union in rejecting an offer from Sky last week which would have richly rewarded them but would have left the Scottish and Irish stranded at the poor end of the market. Everyone trusts that the English will now re-think an act that could severely harm the game and re-align themselves with their British partners and negotiate deals that will ultimately bring greater benefits to all.

In football, apart from at amateur level, no team representing Great Britain has ever competed in a major championships. This is not England's fault. They, and the other three home countries, are far too jealous of their individual status even to think about it. We could have had a GB team in the Under-21 tournament at the Olympics this month but the four associations didn't even contemplate it. Thanks to the blazer-brigade's keen sense of self-preservation, they wouldn't dream of sanctioning a move that might persuade Fifa to press for the four home unions to become one, permanently. Heaven forbid that will ever happen but the appearance of a Great Britain team in the World Cup would not be a bad idea.

For all their accomplishments in Euro 96, England would have benefited from the addition of one or two Celts; Ryan Giggs, to mention only one. West Germany, for instance, have merged with East Germany to telling effect; Matthias Sammer, to mention only one. I don't mean in every competition; just the World Cup.

Now we've proved that Britain is not populated by drunken ogres - not too many of them, anyway - England are now thinking of applying to stage the 2006 World Cup. Germany are their main rivals and might have the political clout to snatch it. But what if England made their application as Great Britain? What if we pooled our resources? Football would really be coming home then. Wales are building a fancy new stadium. Scotland and Northern Ireland each have one on the drawing board.

One nation, one team. Could we bear to come together in 10 years time? Just to try it? There could be support for such a move. John Major's decision to return the Stone of Scone to Scotland was, I fancy, less of a gesture of unity than a guilty conscience over David Seaman's fortunate penalty save.

RAIN that affected Wimbledon last week at least allowed us to see the naked truth about the place. In any other sport, and at most other venues, a contest of the significance of Tim Henman's on Thursday morning would have been witnessed by a packed crowd. When he began his match against Todd Martin at 11am, barely 4,000 of the the Centre Court's 13,000 sets were occupied and they were pitifully slow to fill up. The royal party rushed in two hours later.

A mass volume of support early on, when his opponent was struggling with his serve, might have made a big difference to Henman but thousands who would have deliriously supplied it were outside, ticket-less, while the socialisers were preening themselves elsewhere. At least, it demonstrated how many genuine fans manage to get into the Centre Court these days and should be a warning to all other sports. We know that it is all about getting bums on seats, but there is a heavy onus on organisers to ensure that they are bums of a much higher quality than that lot.

BETTING on Euro 96 exceeded pounds 60m. No doubt a tidy amount was gambled on Wimbledon and an even bigger lump will go on golf's Open Championship. All will be subject to a 9 per cent surcharge. Of these percentage points, the Government takes around 7 in tax while the remaining 2 go to the bookies.

This outrageous anomaly arises because in racing the residue after tax goes back to the sport. But no such arrangement is in place for the other sports that attract our wagers. Out of Euro 96, therefore, the bookmakers purloined an extra pounds 1.35m. In football's transfer market, this sort of money wouldn't buy you a 40-year-old Italian but it would do enormous good in the game's less buoyant areas. Bookies are among Parliament's favourite people but they should no longer be allowed to hold back this bounty from all the sports they live off.

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