Brian Viner: Auld enmities be damned - Monty shows real class knows no boundaries

Thank God for those for whom sporting talent transcends all partisanship
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The Independent Online

A fortnight ago, on Calcutta Cup day, I pondered the dispiriting phenomenon of anti-Englishness in these islands, at least in a sporting context.

Tomorrow, England's rugby union team take on the French in the Stade de France, and there is little doubt that a majority of Scots will be rooting for the home team, just as the men of Harlech will be supporting the men of garlic. Strangely, it is the Irish - of all the people of the British Isles, those with most reason to distrust the English - who are the most generously disposed towards us. Or at any rate the least ill-disposed, which is almost the same thing.

Those Scots who require justification for supporting France tomorrow beyond plain hatred of the English will cheerfully invoke the Auld Alliance. This refers to the centuries-old fraternity between France and Scotland, as personified by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender. Proud Scots like to quote the line by Bonnie Prince Charlie which supposedly kicked off the 1745 Jacobite uprising.

"I am come home," he said defiantly after landing on Scottish soil, in response to one Alexander MacDonald of Boisdale, who advised him to return home forthwith to Paris. What they don't dwell on is that it was a perfectly reasonable suggestion on MacDonald's part; in most respects, and for all that exile in France was forced on his family by the bastard English, Bonnie Prince Charlie was about as Scottish as Bonnie Charles Aznavour.

However, the main point I want to make about the Auld Alliance is that it exists only in the hearts and minds of the Scots. A most distinguished Scotsman, Bill McLaren, once told me wryly that he had never met a French person who'd even heard of it, let alone was stirred by it. Which confirmed what I already suspected, that the Auld Alliance is cited purely so that Scottish people can work up some emotional fervour in supporting France against England.

Having said that, my assertion two weeks ago that the Scots should not hate the English because the English don't hate the Scots was challenged by a reader from that most Sassenach of towns, Weston-super-Mare, who listed the many times he has rejoiced on the occasion of Scottish sporting humiliations. Far more heartening was an e-mail from Graham Donachie, a card-carrying member of the Scottish National Party, who kindly considered me "absolutely on-the-button with your comments re the anti-English disease which prevails up here".

It is a sad fact, he continued, that "if England were playing a Martian select at any sport, there are very few up here who would cheer on your countrymen. The excuse that, 'All we hear about is 1966' doesn't really wash, as I have never heard Gerrard, Lampard, Lineker et al trumpet this. In all honesty we are more likely to hear it from sections of the media, John "Motty" Motson being the biggest culprit. We actually run sweepstakes on how long it will take him to mention 1966 every time he commentates on an England international. I won it once, 32 seconds after kick-off!"

Mr Donachie went on to tell me a "wee story" concerning a pre-season friendly between Southampton and his beloved Dundee United at Tannadice Park some decades ago.

"I was watching from behind the goal, late in the second half, when Kevin Keegan stood on the goal-line as a Southampton corner was about to be taken. An elderly United supporter, standing with his grandson, shouted out 'Come on, Kevin, let's see a goal!' His grandson, open-mouthed and wide-eyed, said 'Granddad! He doesn't play for United!' To which his grandfather said, 'Disnae matter, son, he's a braw player'. Lump. Throat. Many of us within earshot nodded in agreement as the Permed One got a header on target."

It occurred to me while reading this that whether or not that elderly Dundee United supporter is still with us, there are still those, thank God, for whom admiration of sporting talent transcends all feelings of partisanship.

In a way, this is precisely the opposite condition to that suffered by those whose partisanship is so strong that they want their perceived enemy to lose more than they want their own team to win, and I encountered a pleasing expression of it this week when a Chelsea fan I know - who was a season-ticket holder at Stamford Bridge when Roman Abramovich was knee-high to a samovar - told me what a joy it was, even in Champions' League defeat, to watch the dazzling twists and turns of the majestic Ronaldinho.

A related condition is the pride felt by Indian cricket-lovers in the achievements of England's Sikh spin-bowler Monty Panesar, despite or perhaps partly because of the identity of his first Test victim, Sachin Tendulkar.

When Kevin Pietersen played for England in his native South Africa last winter, he was the object of almost hysterical hatred from sections of the crowd. Panesar, by contrast, has been lionised by the Nagpur and Mohali public. It makes the heart sing to see sport fostering such generosity of spirit, just as it makes the heart sink when sport, in the dubious name of club and country, unleashes only bitterness and bile.

Who I like this week...

Andrew Flintoff, whose wife Rachael gave birth to a boy on Wednesday night, but who stayed at his post in Mohali like the dutiful captain he currently is, and showed no signs while batting yesterday that his thoughts might be elsewhere. It has become pretty much accepted that the correct priority these days for the Test cricketer with a heavily pregnant partner is to be with her rather than the team, a modern convention that bewilders some old-timers but has received a ringing endorsement from more recent ex-players, not least my colleague Angus Fraser. There's no room to debate the matter here, but caps off to Flintoff for bucking the trend. He's a strong enough character to know that it does not reflect negatively on his devotion as a husband and father.

And who I don't

The fellow Evertonian who anonymously circulated a spoof (but very convincing) Uefa press release following Liverpool's ejection from the Champions' League, saying that "while it is true that, technically, Benfica won by virtue of scoring more goals than Liverpool", Uefa, in keeping with the spirit of the competition, was exploring ways "for the Merseyside club to continue the defence of the trophy they won in such dramatic circumstances in Istanbul last year". It would be hypocritical of me, given my attack on blind partisanship (left), to condone this mischief, so let me say that I did not laugh one bit. Not one bit longer than half an hour, that is.