Football: Little yips that make the character more likeable

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The Independent Online
I'VE ALWAYS appreciated Martin O'Neill. I admire the tenacious skill he used to display for Nottingham Forest and Northern Ireland. I admire the way he is now fighting what he perceives to be the good fight in the boardroom battle at Leicester City, where he has fashioned a true team from such limited resources.

But what really made me warm to Martin O'Neill was an odd incident a few years ago when I interviewed him for an article about the team he then managed, Wycombe Wanderers. As he arrived in the club bar, my opening remark was not a controversial one - I asked what he would like to drink. The request appeared to throw O'Neill into a state of some confusion. As the barman waited expectantly, I repeated the question. Still a bit of a problem. "Erm..." O'Neill ventured. "I'll have a... half of lager, please... no, make that a pint. Pint of lager... thanks. Actually I'll just have a half, I think. No - shall I? - yes, make it a pint, make it a pint, thanks. My indecision is final..." Had I any idea of the mental torment my simple inquiry was about to inflict on the poor man, I would have kept my mouth firmly shut.

Maybe it would have been different if I had offered to buy him a packet of crisps. Although that might have begged even more perplexing questions. Salt and vinegar? Cheese and onion? Plain? No, in hindsight, crisps might not have been the answer.

Anyway, the point is this: not being one of life's decisive characters myself - I suppose - I have always warmed to those who betray that little human failing themselves. Being less than certain at all times makes people more interesting.

Take the case of Eric Bristow. In the mid-1980s, the Crafty Cockney was top man in the world of darts. As this intimidatingly bulky man took to the oche and prepared to throw, lifting his little finger away from the arrow with the incongruous grace of a vicar sipping tea, you could sense his opponents shrivelling.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Like three mortal blows, the darts would lodge into the heart of the board. And as he strolled forward to collect them, beer- fuelled cheers in his ears, Bristow would betray the complacent satisfaction of a pike that had just had a satisfying snack. God, he was hateful.

Then he got the yips - a mysterious mental block which rendered him unable to release a dart. Torment. Humiliation. Impotence. But did the Crafty Cockney bottle out? He did not. He suffered, he practised, and at length he overcame. His chronic indecision became a thing of the past, although his character was permanently altered by the experience of it. In being revealed as fallible, he became more fascinating.

The same process occurred with Bernhard Langer when he got the golfing version of Bristow's affliction and became unable to strike a putt, to the point where he was only able to attempt the task with something resembling a crutch. Which, in a sense, it was.

And who, even as they exulted in Dennis Taylor's last-black victory in the 1987 world snooker final, did not warm to Steve Davis - the grinding winner, Mr Charisma Bypass - for the moment of indecision which had prevented him pocketing that ball, and the title, on the previous shot? Covering athletics brings one into contact with a depressing sequence of fanatical characters with heads full of goals, targets, discipline and impregnable self-obsession. Sorry, self-belief. They are all, to employ the f-word, focused.

And as yet another American sprinter kneels on the track with head bowed, giving thanks to the God of Victory, my reaction is: "Boring". Where's the human weakness, for God's sake?

What athletics needs is a few more characters like Paul Davies-Hale, a British middle-distance runner whose talents were perhaps too numerous for his own good. After indicating his potential by reaching the 3,000m steeplechase semi-finals at the 1984 Olympics, this former plumber spread his attention to flat racing, then road racing, and finally the marathon, where he won the 1989 Chicago race on his debut.

At last, it seemed, Davies-Hale had found his true niche. But as he sat staring at the very large trophy in his front room, Davies-Hale didn't seem to realise it. He would probably do another marathon, he said. But then he hadn't given up on the steeplechasing. And he still felt he had another really good 5,000 metres in him. And, in fact, he hadn't altogether given up the plumbing either. Still had his bag in the cupboard below the stairs, as it happened.

Sensible? No. Infuriating? Perhaps. Refreshing? In a strange sort of way, yes. Refreshing to the parts other beers cannot reach.

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