An age when sportsmen thought for themselves

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The Independent Online
A VIEW shared by many after the dizzy climax to last week's Open Championship at Carnoustie was that the claret jug slipped from Jean Van de Velde's grasp because of a breakdown in communication with his caddie.

Just a simple "Why not hit it with this", some felt, might have caused the excitable Frenchman to think twice about playing the final hole as though there was a bonus for dumb behaviour.

Muhammad Ali once said: "There sure is a lot of crazy people in this world" - and maybe that's all you need to know about the calamity that befell Van de Velde when holding a three-shot lead with one hole to play.

In any case, the impression held here is that even if Jack Nicklaus had been on the bag Van de Velde would not have responded to words of a cautionary nature.

Van de Velde's reluctance to seek advice and the passive role adopted by his caddie would not have gone entirely unremarked 20 or 30 years ago. But today, in the money jungle of professional sport, it was seen as support for the blind theory that personal initiative should not be encouraged.

I don't know when this notion first grew up but the famed boxing trainer, Angelo Dundee, was wisely deaf to it when given the task of licking a young Cassius Clay into shape at his gymnasium in Miami.

When Clay first arrived gnarled old pros shook their heads, holding out no future for a fighter who obeyed none of the tenets they held sacrosanct. Clay held his hands low, by his hips, and instead of slipping punches he pulled away, swaying so far out of range that he often appeared to be hopelessly off balance.

But in Dundee's mind a bad habit was only one that didn't work. Marvelling at the astonishingly precise judgements Clay made, even under the heaviest fire, Dundee sensibly confined himself to minor refinements and astute matchmaking.

In time Dundee merely supervised training and maintained an orderly corner. Ali, as he became, chose his own strategy, most famously in Zaire when he drained George Foreman's power to regain the heavyweight championship.

A personal favourite among sporting anecdotes concerns the instruction given out by Keith Miller to the cricketers of New South Wales when deputising as captain. "Scatter," he said as they took the field.

Anyone who scorns entirely the precepts of sporting scholastics had better be prepared for disappointments but there is now plenty of evidence to confirm Sir Matt Busby's fear that intellectual overkill would be the ruination of football.

No wonder, then, that the best and most frequently repeated stories about sport are from a time when performers were expected to think for themselves.

"We'll have to watch Stan Matthews," a player stated in Northern Ireland's dressing-room before a match against England at Windsor Park, Belfast. "There'll be thousands watching him," replied the team's witty trainer, Gerry Morgan. "You stop him."

Hearing Jimmy Murphy's half-time complaints about the tackling put in against England, the Wales captain, Dave Bowen, protested: "But we haven't stopped knocking them over." Murphy was unimpressed. "Yes," he snorted, "but the bastards keep getting up."

In the day of the dossier, coaches and psychologists are trying to find out what's inside players' heads. Wish them luck. They need it.

Mayo Smith, a baseball manager, once said: "Open up a ballplayer's head and you know what you'd find? A lot of little broads and a jazz band."

In a crisis, tennis players look for coded signals from their coaches in the grandstand. Cricket is no longer just about batting, bowling, fielding and the cunning application of experience, individual and collective, but team meetings and intense motivation.

Any number of coaches argue that most games players have no conception of the big picture. "They're probably the most uniformed bunch in any profession," one recently said.

Doubtless, if this fellow had been alongside Van de Velde on the 18th fairway last Sunday he would have pulled a seven-iron from the bag and said: "Behave yourself. Lay up with this. And don't forget, I'm on for 10 per cent of the prize-money."

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