Comment: The day I was stitched up by Sir Alf

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The Independent Online
SIR ALF RAMSEY didn't suffer fools gladly which is why I never got on with him. Not that our relationship was ever going to be the slightest bit chummy, me being the number three football reporter on the old Sun and he being manager of England. In those circumstances it is very difficult not to appear a fool, so desperately arch were the questions such wretches had to ask.

It was fine for the top writers. He knew them by name and, although always guarded, felt able to vouchsafe enough information for them to do their work. But further down the pecking order the crumbs were strictly rationed.

We were ones to be seen huddled together at a strategic distance from the training pitch waiting hours to ambush him on the way to the dressing- room to which he used to scamper at the end of the session. More often or not, he eluded us and Plan B involved a stake-out between the dressing- room and the team bus. All we wanted was a bit of injury news - a groin strain would bring tears of joy - but it was like getting blood out of a stone.

It was worse after matches at Wembley. While the star writers were fashioning the deathless prose up in the Press box, we were shivering in the cold and draughty Wembley tunnel waiting to get a quote from Alf to supply to our superiors and to collect any titbit that might get us a couple of inches in the paper next morning.

Eventually, he would emerge and even after a resounding victory would have a discouraging look on his face as he stood in the dressing-room doorway.

Whatever the result, he would declare it as "quite satisfactory" in that deliberate, quiet and clipped tone. I hadn't heard him speak before his elocution lessons so I wasn't aware of his natural voice. There was the odd lapse but what came from his mouth was a credit to the hard work he must have put in. But it didn't help to ease the strain of these uncomfortable forerunners of the modern Press conference.

I remember one game that possessed very little in the way of excitement or interest but one England player whose name I've forgotten had been carried off injured. I ventured to ask what had been wrong with him.

"He has a cut leg," Alf replied.

"Did it need stitching?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

"How many stitches?" "Why do you need to know that?" "Well," I stammered, "if it's two stitches, it is minor. If it's 20 stitches, it is quiet serious." He glared at me for a moment and, with a perfectly delivered sentence I can remember vividly to this day, said: "Suffice to say, the wound has been stitched." Thereupon, he turned abruptly on his heel and disappeared back into the dressing-room. The score would have been 10 out of 10 from the elocution teacher but 0 out of 10 from the lads.

This was before his World Cup triumph and matters didn't improve thereafter. Certainly, my stock suffered further when he was advised that not only had I backed West Germany at 25-1 two months before the World Cup but that when Wolfgang Weber scored the last- minute equaliser in the final, I was the sole occupant of the British section of the Press box to leap up and shout "Go On My Son".

But the abiding memory is one of admiration for what he achieved and the single-minded way in which he set about it. But by creating a cocoon around his squad and treating everyone else as interlopers he offended the haughty dignity of certain Football Association councillors who would eventually get revenge with their appalling treatment of him.

Even his players had to watch their ps and qs just as carefully as he had to watch his "haitches" but their reaction since the news of his death speaks its own praise of his many qualities. Little did we humble hacks know then that our minor confrontational cameos would develop into the corrosive atmosphere of conflict that now marks the relationship between the England coach and the Press.

It was ironic that Alf should pass away just as the love affair between the media and Kevin Keegan was being passionately consummated on the back pages.

The induction of a new England coach is inevitably a triumph of optimism over reality but Alf's memory added an unwelcome grimness. To get the nation off his back and on to his side, the coach has to do nothing less than win the World Cup. The story of Sir Alf Ramsey adds a sad epitaph - even that is not enough.

THOSE fascinated by sports people's wages have had a good week. On the day it was revealed that Kevin Keegan's future reward as England coach was to be pounds 1m a year, the official review of Premier League finances reported that players' salaries had gone up by 40 per cent in the past year with the top players collecting twice as much as Keegan. Maybe he should heed market forces and pick only the players earning more than he does.

The same day brought news of a threatened rebellion by women tennis players who are disappointed that the rise in Wimbledon prize money this year still leaves them short of the men's total. The winner of the women's singles will receive pounds 409,500 while the champion man gets pounds 455,000. They don't accept the argument that the men, who play five sets, have to work harder for their money; or that the female earning capacity is bigger.

Jana Novotna earned more from winning Wimbledon last year than Pete Sampras because she won the women's doubles as well, which is a far more achievable success than it is for a man. In fact, the top 10 women each went away with more winnings than the top ten men.

And don't they realise that Duncan Ferguson, our highest-paid footballer, has to play for 10 weeks to earn pounds 400,000? It is as pointless to compare pay levels across various sports as it is to compare them across the years. Basically, a sport invests what it can afford in those who generate its income; which makes it no different from any other walk of life.

Besides, the only legitimate complaint should come from the people who have to pay the money and it's the club owners who persist in driving the salaries higher and higher. Perhaps, they are working on the theory that the larger the wages they pay the players, the less we will notice the amounts they are paying themselves.

CHESS is a sport. I've never had any doubt about that and if an exchange in the House of Commons last week is anything to go by, it will soon be recognised as such. Charlotte Atkins, Labour MP for Staffordshire Moorlands, tackled the Prime Minister on the subject during Question Time and pointed out the number of world titles won by young chess players from the UK recently.

But, unlike more than 100 other nations, we don't rate it a sport and thus the game that exercises the brain if not the muscles is starved of funds, lacks training facilities and receives little encouragement in schools.

Tony Blair said it was a persuasive argument and promised to make enquiries.

The trouble is that it will take a change in the law to add chess to our sporting family but it would be possible to include it in a Bill planned for the autumn. Perhaps we could do a straight swop with motor racing which could be then be included under the Noisy Engineering section.