The Twittersphere was full of tribute to Sir Tom Finney, football’s noble flyer gone from us at 91. One of the most apposite deliberations came from a random visitor to my timeline and was not directed at him, but it might have been. “The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity, and his ability to affect those around him positively.” So said Rastafarian totem Bob Marley, another blessed by a preternatural flair for connecting with his fellow men.
Romance places them in Elysian fields, Marley on the touchline setting to music the balletic dance of Finney as the slender Englishman glides over the verdant pasture in pristine kit. Let’s leave them to it and take with us for comfort a little of their essence, which endures the further away from football that we travel.
To watch the Winter Olympics in Sochi is to remind us what sport is all about in its purest form, untainted by avarice, bitterness and envy. You cannot imagine the participants engaging in the kind of pre-event exchanges favoured by Jose Mourinho and the rest of the warped football cabal.
The upholding of common courtesies does not detract from the spectacle. There was no throttling back once those gates opened, no “after you Claudette” when the horn sounded. It was dog-eat-dog grand style all the way to the line. And in victory or defeat the reaction was the same, an all-inclusive huddle that embraced the core values of those taking part; do your best, give all you have, and accept the outcome, good or bad.
Of course, we laugh along with Jose and the whole football pantomime, particular the Friday rituals, where managers and coaches present themselves for pre-match scrutiny. Arsène Wenger kicks us off in London Colney, almost certainly in good faith, providing an honest answer to a fair question. His responses are then put before Mourinho in south-west London a couple of hours later in abstract form, as a statement free of the context in which it was given. Offence is taken, insult filed and thus the football agenda is set for the weekend. It all adds to the gaiety of life, feeding the pre-match frenzy that we all know and love.
And then along comes the Winter Olympics to jolt us from the nonsense of the pampered football elite and return us to the sporting values of Finney’s day, when the participant walked to the match, with his boots under his arm in a paper bag, alongside those who would watch him from the terraces.
In the main the Olympics maintains the umbilical connection between athlete and fan. Yes, a sample of the summer sportsmen and women are enriched but not in a way that separates or corrodes. The majority hail from conventional backgrounds, are nourished by the same environment that we enjoy in our unimpaired normality, and return to it unscathed.
Jenny Jones, the 33-year-old from Bristol who won Britain’s first ever medal on snow, and the skeleton gold medallist Lizzy Yarnold emerged from anonymity into the arc lights of fame with a sense of proportion that protects against the weird distortions that are visited on the modern footballer, courtesy of fame and fortune.
You wonder how many modern-day greats will meet the finale that marked Finney’s passing at Deepdale, a sea of scarves, flowers, notes, and heartfelt tributes not dissimilar to the scenes at Kensington Palace following Diana Spencer’s premature death. An angel of the North properly remembered.
These simple expressions of love and affection, it seems to me, are the ultimate measure of a man’s life. They tell us what Finney meant to those among whom he moved, how positively he affected the lives he touched, as Marley would have it. Professional football has lost the power to evince that kind of reaction now. The people who play it are by degrees disconnected from the common man the higher up the food chain they pass.
I have hardly any sense of Finney the player, which is a pity. There is too little footage of him in his prime. But as a man I sensed a world-beater, unashamed by his ordinariness when he took the boots off.
Like him, our Winter Olympians came from nowhere to share the grandest stage, the thrill of competition enough to sustain them. The biggest smile of the games so far belonged to 31-year-old American Noelle Pikus-Pace, who described her second place in the skeleton to our Lizzy as the perfect ending to her career, “good as gold,” she said.
Nine years ago a bob sled smashed her leg, taking her out of the 2006 Games in Turin. She finished out of the medals in fourth behind Amy Williams in Vancouver. After a miscarriage two years ago her husband persuaded her to give it one last go. Silver was her reward. No one in Sochi classified her as an expert in failure.