Football: How about a rise, Sir Alex...please?

Stan Hey considers the effects of a tap on sport's shoulder
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THE NEWS that Fergie was coming to Buckingham Palace probably sent courtiers into a spin - "that woman, back again?" Even when they realised that it was Fergie the football manager, not Fergie the freeloader, on the honours list, the notion of a Labour-supporting, quasi-republican from Govan being invited into Buck House for a gong will, rather like Alex Ferguson's team, take some beating.

But whatever the Establishment's reservations, we are in the age of The People's Heroes, and Tony Blair has a pretty shrewd idea of how to tap into the sporting strand of our popular culture in order to keep the government looking hip.

Manchester United's historic treble, not to mention a cabinet-full of previous honours during the 1990s, certainly made the case for Ferguson's elevation to a knighthood pretty irresistible.

The team's performances in Europe - not to mention Ferguson's performance in a European Election political broadcast for Labour last week - transcended the narrow factionalism of domestic rivalry, where a majority of football fans want to see United beaten. Success in the European Champions' League allowed United effectively to become England's representatives abroad. The fact that the England team itself can't win abroad only added to Ferguson's lustre.

By emulating Matt Busby's achievement in 1968, Ferguson immediately put himself on track to match Busby's own knighthood, although Liverpool supporters might like to ask why Bob Paisley's three European Cup victories never brought him the ultimate honour he so richly deserved. Ironically, two of these came under the Labour government of Jim Callaghan, who presumably preferred to keep his distance from the people's game.

Today, however, half the Cabinet are season-ticket holders, while the Prime Minister's press secretary, Alistair Campbell, flies the flag for Burnley - well, somebody has to. If Kevin Keegan, who has already shared a game of head tennis with Tony, manages England successfully, then KK can surely expect a K next time round.

In the meantime, the only worries for Ferguson's date at the Palace will be firstly the issue of who bows to whom, and secondly the small matter of his team beating the Queen's lads in Nou Camp. Beyond that, pre-season training will require even more deference from the squad - "yes, Sir Boss" - and once August is upon us, Sir Alex will no doubt be keen to press his nobility on to referees.

In all seriousness, Ferguson's award is fully merited, not just as an acknowledgement of his substantial achievements, but also the modesty with which he has reacted to them. For in among all the public pressures, he has always found time for many quiet kindnesses that tell you this is a man who never forgot where he came from.

The awards of MBE to Tony Adams and Robbie Earle reflect two different facets of the game. Adams has been through hell and back to re-establish himself in football after his misguided rallying career, and his recovery of health, dignity and form has had an epic quality about it.

It is true that his more serious profile has denied many stand-ups reams of material, but a Tony Adams finally fulfilling all that early potential has been a greater reward to the nation. In contrast, Earle has been a cheerful journeyman throughout a career that has now culminated in appearances for Jamaica at the World Cup, and an eloquent column in a Sunday newspaper.

Earle may well have his eyes on Garth Crooks, the former Stoke and Spurs footballer-turned-sports-presenter and now political pundit, who receives an OBE, ostensibly for football, but almost certainly for making sense of Prime Minister's Question Time too.

The CBE for Scotland's boss Craig Brown may be ironically timed after events of the last week, but he has served the cause of Scottish football both as assistant to Andy Roxburgh and as manager in his own right, a continuity that the English FA could never emulate.

Further gestures to the now semi-autonomous regions come with an MBE for the Scottish international fly-half Gregor Townsend, who scored a try in every one of his country's Five Nations games this season, lifting them to what had seemed an unlikely championship. Townsend's award also has a subliminal pro-European message because he plies his club trade with Brive in France.

And despite the success of Plaid Cymru in the recent elections, the Prime Minister has also given an MBE to the 400m champion, Iwan Thomas. Englishman David Moorcroft, the former 5,000m world record holder gets an OBE that recognises not so much his career as his bold achievement in rescuing British athletics from bankruptcy.

Most touching of all, however, is the MBE for Helen Rollason of the BBC, whose battle against cancer puts all sport in true perspective.