Brian Viner: Beckham the hero and the villain of a packed year

This year's spoof of The Matrix almost left me with a permanent twitch

In a late bid to win the unoriginal idea of the year award, here are this column's heroes and zeroes, the tops and the flops, of 2003.

So, hats off to Clive Woodward, Pippa Funnell, Jonny Wilkinson, Henrietta Knight, Ben Curtis, Martin Johnson, Graeme Smith, Bill Sweetenham, Lance Armstrong, Paula Radcliffe, David Moyes and David Beckham. Thumbs down for Geo Cronje, Rio Ferdinand, Gérard Houllier, the rugby referee Andre Watson, the Australian media, the Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, the West Ham United chairman, Terry Brown, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show, and David Beckham.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that the name of David Beckham crops up twice, among the tops and the flops. I salute the England football captain for the way he has confounded the regiment of cynics who thought he would be overwhelmed at Real Madrid, who predicted that in the long shadow cast by the gigantic talents of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldo, his own more modest skills would wither.

In fact, the reverse has happened. Not only has Beckham dazzled even in such exalted company, he has in no time at all become almost as popular as even the darling of the Bernabeu, Raul. And he has achieved this through humility and hard work, which is one in the eye for those who think he is principally a fancy dan obsessed with fame, all sarong and no trousers.

On the other hand, Beckham behaved poorly by supporting the threat of an England players' strike over the Football Association's censure of their team-mate Rio Ferdinand for missing a drugs test. In the absence of the slightest show of moral fortitude from Sven Goran Eriksson, Beckham should have been the man to persuade the players that any talk of a strike was preposterous, that it was one thing to confront the FA privately, quite another to propose a withdrawal of services shortly before a vital qualifying match.

And for his part, Ferdinand should have dissuaded his colleagues from getting heavy-handed on his behalf. If he had been big enough to acknowledge publicly that with the extraordinary material rewards of playing football for Manchester United and England comes a degree of personal responsibility, then he might have emerged with some credit from the fiasco. Alas, he didn't.

As for my other heroes and zeroes, most of them need no explanation, especially the heroes. But one or two of the zeroes do. The poor old Sports Minister, for instance, shouldn't really take the rap for his failure to attend the rugby union World Cup final, yet his three-line whip recall to take part in a House of Commons vote somehow exemplified his ineffectiveness

Then there's Andre Watson, who took charge of that World Cup final and appeared to be doing his damnedest to hand it to Australia. I have never understood the finer points of front-row play, not even when I was myself a front-row player of negligible ability. But I know people who do. And they all said that Watson was bang out of order for repeatedly penalising the England pack.

Still, it only enhances the heroic stature of Johnson and co that they were forced to deal not just with the Wallabies but also a muddled ref and an absurdly hostile Aussie media. And though it did not impress Clive Woodward, I rather liked the decision to get the inveterate Pom-basher David Campese to dish out the prize at the Sports Personality of the Year bash.

In almost all other respects, though, the 50th Sports Personality of the Year show was an embarrassment. I know it's an institution, but then so is Wormwood Scrubs. I don't know a single person who loves sport and enjoys that show. The two are incompatible. Because for several years now it has been less a celebration of sport than of whizzy editing techniques and wacky ideas redolent of a sixth-form revue. This year's spoof of The Matrix featuring Hazel Irvine and a manifestly bemused Mark Williams and Ken Doherty, almost left me with a permanent twitch.

I can feel a twitch coming on, too, as I read of the Liverpool FC board's willingness to give more transfer funds to its disastrously profligate manager, Gérard Houllier. Regular readers will know that I have criticised Houllier once or twice before, maybe even three times. But I have left him alone recently because everyone else has been at it, and ploughing a crowded furrow is no fun for a columnist.

For years, though, I felt like the little boy who recognised the emperor's new clothes: Houllier is a decent man and a good bureaucrat, but inept in the transfer market and strategically befuddled, hence the club's current position - behind Fulham and Charlton, for God's sake, in pursuit of the Champions' League place they missed last season.

Yet if Liverpool were to mount their most audacious raid yet across Stanley Park, David Moyes would deliver the Premiership title to Anfield within two seasons. Of that I am certain even if, as an Evertonian, I wouldn't be around to see it, having eaten a strychnine buttie. Happy New Year.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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