Everything you wanted to know about your icons but were too sensible to ask

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Watching the Sports Personality of the Year show on the BBC, it occurred to me that, during six years of conducting a weekly sports interview for this newspaper, I had spent time questioning most of the luminaries present.

Watching the Sports Personality of the Year show on the BBC, it occurred to me that, during six years of conducting a weekly sports interview for this newspaper, I had spent time questioning most of the luminaries present.

Along the way, usually more by accident than design, I have sometimes had little brushes with sporting history. For example, I conducted the last major interview with Kelly Holmes before the Olympics, and found a woman in despair over her form and her likely inability to improve on the bronze medal she won in Sydney. "If medals were dished out for lack of self-confidence and bleak introspection," I wrote, "then she would have been well-placed for gold during this interview."

So full of gloom was Holmes, that she made Eeyore sound like Kriss Akabusi. She admitted to me that she was scared stiff of what might unfold in Athens a couple of weeks later. "Because how I've done in my athletics career will decide how I feel about my life, and that career is coming to an end without me having achieved everything I could have achieved," she said miserably.

"It's scary to think that I might not ever do it." I wish I could have told her then that she would win two gold medals, provide one of sport's immortal images with that radiant beam of realisation that she had won the 800 metres final, and be voted Sports Personality of the Year by a landslide.

There are other things I would say in my interviews if I could turn the clock back, and also things I would not say. For example, I would not ask Ian Botham whether he thought his son Liam, then an aspiring professional cricketer on Hampshire's books, had anything like the same raw talent as he had had at the same age. If looks could kill, I would now be pushing up daisies. And, Botham being Botham, his glare was accompanied by some unequivocal language. What chance did the lad have when idiots like me kept comparing him to his old man? That was the essence of what he said, minus seven or eight profanities.

I thought of that exchange when he stepped up to receive his lifetime achievement award last Sunday and Gary Lineker cheerfully asked him whether he thought Andrew Flintoff might be "the next Botham". Had it been me asking that question, with no TV cameras trained on us, there is no doubt that I would again have felt the gale force of Botham's disdain. It is a question he thinks idiotically trite, but because it was Lineker, and because it was live telly, he had to rein in his irritation.

Still, it started me thinking about daft or plain unfortunate sporting questions. One I have mentioned before in this column was reportedly put to Brian Clough shortly after Nottingham Forest had beaten Malmo to win the 1979 European Cup final. At the post-match press conference, Clough typically insisted that the first question should be asked not by a Fleet Street man but by the reporter from the Nottingham Evening Post, who for years had been faithfully chronicling Forest's ups and downs. The guy cleared his throat, 100 pencils hovered in readiness over 100 notepads, and he said: "Any injuries, Brian?"

It was his routine opening question - week in, week out - and seemingly he forgot that it wasn't appropriate that particular week. Which I guess is the definition of the daft question: they're epically inappropriate. About 20 years ago, at a press conference after the first round of the US Masters, a veteran golf writer with a British provincial newspaper said to Tom Watson: "Just remind me, Tom, what's your highest finish here?" To which came the response: "Erm, first, last year."

In all sports, there are some people who will bat away a silly question with a merry laugh, and others who will hang you out to dry - by your ankles only if you're lucky. Alex Ferguson definitely belongs to the latter group, as does Colin Montgomerie. I treasure the account of Monty entering the press tent at Carnoustie in the Scottish Open one year following a score in the high 70s, which wasn't too bad given the apocalyptic conditions. A gale was blowing off the North Sea that threatened to uproot the entire tented village, and Monty's hair looked as though he had just spent four hours on a Van de Graaff generator rather than a golf course. The first question came from a Canadian writer: "Monty," he said earnestly, "was the wind a factor?"

"Was the wind a factor?" repeated Monty, his voice rising almost maniacally. "Was the wind a factor? Was the wind a ........ factor?" His questioner shrank before him, while everyone else reflected that there, but for the grace of God, went they.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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