Football: No longer a minister of the hamstrung

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The Independent Online
IF CHELSEA should happen to win the FA Cup final on Saturday, I suggest that their captain Dennis Wise hurries immediately to the steps leading up to the Royal Box otherwise he might find that Tony Banks has got there before him and collected the trophy on Chelsea's behalf. The new Minister for Sport has created such a furore he'd probably get away with it, too.

He already seems capable of dominating the pre-match build-up but whether this is due to the audacity of his arrival on the scene or to a dwindling in the Cup's captivating powers it is hard to discern. I give the Cup the benefit of the doubt.

This year's offering will probably come down to the simple question of whether Chelsea's foreigners are better than Middlesbrough's foreigners but the miracle of the modern FA Cup final is that it still retains the mesmeric power it has held over us for a century and more. This is an impressive achievement, considering the heavy bombardment it has endured from competing forces in recent times.

Once the undisputed cymbal-crashing climax to the season, it now shares an elongated finale with a confusing whirl in which a mass of teams rise or fall in a series of heavily choreographed melodramas. It has also been forced to share Wembley, its exclusive stage for more than 60 of the past 74 years, with a rush of internationals and play-offs.

This has diluted the impact of what has been one of the great attractions of the sporting year. Not so long ago it was our only opportunity to watch a live match on television. Now, the novelty has worn off to such an extent that the titled heads of both Uefa and Fifa were last week to be heard complaining of so many televised matches - that even they were sick of the sight of the game.

Nevertheless, Saturday's lure will be strong and if the contest between the entertainers in the rival teams needed extra relish it came via the least expected appointment announced by the Prime Minister last week. Minister for Sport is not meant to be the most important post but a casual bystander would have found that hard to believe after Banks became its shock recipient.

Not even the highest-ranked Cabinet ministers have made such a high-profile entry into the nation's consciousness. He has appeared at length in every known newspaper and if there's a sports programme on television or radio upon which he has not appeared the oversight will soon be righted. Men have heard his voice coming out of their electric shavers.

None of this is intended as a criticism. He is a genuine sports fan and one would be wrong to question an exuberance that could be matched only by putting Billy Bunter in charge of the tuck shop. The fact that he is a devout Chelsea supporter has not detracted from his mediability at this time and if you doubt his claims in that direction you have only to glance at the opposite page where his player-by-player assessment of the team destroys any suspicion that he is another Stamford Bridge bandwagon jumper.

Banks has been a Chelsea follower for 40 years and has suffered for it. What Chelsea fan hasn't? But the price he has been prepared to pay has been slightly more demanding because his constituency, Newham North West, is in West Ham territory. When he recently visited Upton Park to present an award to the Hammers' rising young star Rio Ferdinand, Banks was roundly booed.

Exactly what size mountain we should expect him to move for sport's benefit, can be discussed at a later date. This may be a more opportune time to acknowledge those who have held this often puzzling job in less fortuitous circumstances. I refer not to Denis Howell, the original and still the leader in the clubhouse, but to the Tory nominees to the role over the past 18 years. For all the chance they had, they should have been allowed a ceremonial induction that included a scarf around their foreheads and a glass of sake.

We mocked them grievously at the time but they were merely the fall guys, the living embodiment of the empty gesture towards sport. Most of them served under the Department of the Environment where they had many other duties. They were able to spare only 20 per cent of their time to sport.

They had to carry the can for the worst years of hooliganism, Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough and were backed by a measly pounds 40m per year of government allocation for sport.

Now the Minister has the untold riches of the lottery proceeds and, under the Heritage Department, the opportunity to serve sport full-time. The boy Banks has it all to play for but I'm sure he won't mind if I temper my welcome with a thought for the poor stiffs who preceded him.

NEUTRALS watching the final throes of the Premiership's dance of death today will no doubt be on the side of Middlesbrough who were docked three points from an already meagre total for failing to fulfil a fixture against Blackburn in December. No one likes to see a team doomed by decree.

But a sense of perspective needs to be kept after the fateful fixture was eventually played last Thursday. Middlesbrough turned up five months late and drew 0-0. On BBC TV's Match of the Day programme, Desmond Lynam commented that the result meant that Boro had, in effect, lost five points; the three they were fined and the two they didn't get at Ewood Park that night.

Far be it from me to question an icon, but I don't believe this to be the case. The reason that they didn't want to play on the original date was that their squad was so ravaged by injury and illness that they would have been forced to patch up their side with apprentices, tea-ladies and the like. Defeat would have been inevitable.

Their net loss, therefore, is two points; the three that were deducted minus the one they gained on Thursday that they wouldn't have gained in December. Even with those two points they would still be in trouble and involved in today's do-or-die although with an easier task. At least the innocent Blackburn haven't suffered by the experience. The point they gained on Thursday was enough to save them. The other result of this wretched affair, of course, is that the likelihood of any of our top sides ever failing to turn up is now exceedingly remote.

GOLF took its customary battering last week when a Welsh club expelled one of its members, a doctor, for insisting on wearing an ear-ring while he played. For a game that is so often praised for its high standards of sportsmanship, etiquette and self-discipline, golf takes a great deal of criticism for the rules, many of them admittedly quaint, by which it governs itself.

The doctor would have probably met the same fate if he had played in jeans or trainers. Typical, say the critics, of crusty old golf clubs living in the past. It so happens that the club concerned is a small, nine-hole concern that is barely a year old. So their dress code is at least fresh and they are fully entitled, as a private club, to impose it.

I didn't even know my own club's attitude to ear-rings so I phoned on Friday to ask the secretary if I'd be thrown out if I turned up to play today wearing one. "I doubt it," he said, "but we'd be very worried about you."