Beware the country road to exhaustion

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The Independent Online
The sound of Porto being slammed on Wednesday was only slightly louder than the stamping of Alex Ferguson's foot on the suggestion that once Manchester United have finished with their players this summer some of them can be commandeered for duty with England. Similar manifestations of defiance were displayed by Roy Evans of Liverpool and Newcastle's Kenny Dalglish.

We are surrounded by robust reminders from other sports that the ancient conflict between club and country is just as active as ever and, indeed, may be on the brink of one of its more virulent periods. Certainly, there have been few massed growls as threatening as that which greeted Glenn Hoddle's proposal to enter England into a tournament in France in June.

With matches against France, Brazil and Italy, the tournament looks interesting at first sight but the clubs who supply England's players reacted aggressively. "Crazy" was the verdict of the Liverpool manager Evans to this addition to the schedule of players who are likely to be on their knees long before June. Ferguson went into further detail about how unfriendly these internationals are to clubs.

If United reach the European Champions' Cup final on 28 May, there will be only a five-week break before training resumes at Old Trafford on 4 July and Ferguson wants his players to be enjoying as much rest and recuperation as possible. It is not an unreasonable desire.

Whether Hoddle will soldier on with those players he can recruit or back out of the tournament altogether depends on what he feels can be gained from playing matches of little consequence with a patchwork team. It is a question each of the British countries needs to address quite seriously.

Whose players are they anyway? That could well be the question of the decade. National FAs have a similar power of conscription to that of the government. When your country calls, you come running; not, however, for friendly encounters. A player is then entitled to weigh his patriotism in one hand and his pay-packet in the other - assuming, of course, that his wrist is strong enough.

The Welsh, who have suffered more than the others from the problems of prising their sons and grandsons from the grasp of their English employers, have been complaining that Ryan Giggs has never played for his country in a friendly match. But if you were grading young Ryan's priorities you would have grave difficulty in recognising the importance to his development of any stray opponent the Welsh manage to pick up.

What is important is that when they have a vital match, as they do against Belgium later this month, Giggs is in good shape to assist. After his part in the Porto blitz on Wednesday I don't think the Welsh should be anything but grateful to those responsible for his present standard.

But that match carried a powerful message. United have more formidable foes to meet before we can justify going any further overboard about them but the indications are that we have exciting moments ahead in Europe. It is Ferguson's strength that, following his rebuff to England's claims on his players, he was able to unleash a United performance attractive enough to prompt questions about who we'd prefer to be represented by on the wider stage - England and her three less influential neighbours, all striving to qualify for next year's World Cup, or a series of triumphant club teams such as United of which all Britain can feel proud?

Even Hoddle, appearing on ITV's panel that night, was moved to refer to United as "we". There are only five Englishmen in the side but we all knew what he meant. One doesn't have to be a United fan to identify with them on nights when they represent our game so spectacularly. There is room for club and country but no one appreciates one getting in the way of the other and there is every incentive for the national associations to sort out a less haphazard agenda.

More forgivable, because it is still in an alien situation, rugby union has an even more urgent problem in this respect. Conflicting priorities between club and country have inflicted unprecedented casualty lists on Wales and England in advance of their meeting in Cardiff on Saturday.

The arrival back home of England's cricketers, their tans disguising the strain of a long haul around the world, reminds us that cricket is no stranger to the same problem. The County Championship starts in six weeks or so and some of the counties have pre-season tours. Did they need that exhausting and less than encouraging winter more than they needed a rest for what is going to be a tough summer?

Sportsmen are continually told that their country needs them. It wouldn't be disloyal every now and then for them to ask why.

SPORTING phone-in programmes represent radio and television at their cheapest - they cost little to stage and they appeal mainly to cranks and weirdos. The people who phone in are often just as bad.

The only point worth marvelling at about these programmes is how one or two of their practitioners have managed to cultivate personalities out of the largely meaningless dialogue over which they preside. There are far more interesting and more satisfying ways of discussing sporting topics and controversies but the BBC's decision to jettison Danny Baker last week probably doesn't indicate a re-think. They'll just find someone else who will be given enough rope to run amok.

The excesses that finally caused Baker's departure came after Mike Reed's much-discussed penalty award against Leicester City when the broadcaster "encouraged unacceptable behaviour" towards the referee. "Most referees," he said, "deserve a slap around the face."

This, and his rudeness to callers, added to a lengthening list of abuse. Last year, he urged angry Tottenham Hotspur fans to throw their programmes on the pitch; he said the Millwall chairman was "bent" and wished terminal illness on Brighton directors.

Baker also waged a constant campaign against his phone-in rival David Mellor - but, unfortunately, this wasn't enough to save him.

WALLOWING in enough boxing nostalgia to cause a nose-bleed, I was fortunate to attend a function held at the Cardiff County Hall on Friday to launch a new and fascinating biography of the great Tommy Farr (Man of Courage, The Book Guild, pounds 18.50) by Bob Lonkhurst.

Lonkhurst claims that Farr was the best British heavyweight of all time and he wasn't getting any arguments from a throng that included Howard Winstone, Eddie Thomas and Cliff Curvis. Among the legendary stories circulating was one from Curvis about the night Farr fought Eddie Steele at Crystal Palace in 1933.

Everything was going well until Farr was beset by an irresistible call of nature at the end of the sixth round. Unfortunately, the minute between rounds was not enough for him to get to the toilet and back so Steele took the fight which is listed in Farr's record as "Lost (Retired) Round 7". It must be the only recorded instance of a boxer falling between two stools.

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