James Lawton: Frost Report into sporting legends obscures true stuff of greatness

Click to follow

Sir David Frost has been such a brilliant broadcaster down the years it would be intriguing to hear his league table of the legendary performers of his trade. But no, he prefers to latch on to sport. These days it seems everyone does.

Sir David Frost has been such a brilliant broadcaster down the years it would be intriguing to hear his league table of the legendary performers of his trade. But no, he prefers to latch on to sport. These days it seems everyone does.

Equally, Des Lynam would be fascinating on how such as Dickie Davies and Frank Bough and Gary Lineker would come out in his rating of all-time sports presenters. Ahead, presumably, of Eamonn Andrews, who once ill-advisedly asked Woody Allen how his honeymoon had gone only to be told that the new Mrs Allen had spent most of the time playing with her connect-the-dots pornographic puzzle. Introducing Sports Report had never been like that.

The late Sir Robin Day would no doubt figure highly in any of the greats of the business in which Frost is an expert. His sign-off line while reporting the Suez crisis still crackles down the years. "From the sewers of Port Said," he said sardonically, "I hand you back to the studio of ITN."

When reviewing his own trade, Lynam might just find room for the response of the columnist Red Smith when he was asked by the "legendary" Howard Cosell how many great sports broadcasters there were in the world. "One less than you think, Howard" sighed Old Red.

Now the hugely hyped reflections of Frost and Lynam are being employed on the easy-money subject of the world's outstanding sportsmen and women. This is the ever-fertile ground for a good bar-room brawl, but why do we have to have such a publicity blitz around the fact that Sky television has appointed the veteran broadcasters to hand down the tablets of stone on which the British public will vote? It is because picking sports legends has become a burgeoning industry, one that is far too often conducted at some considerable insult to magnificent performers.

Who in the end are really qualified to rate legends and understand quite what it was that made them so great? Only their peers, which means that the appropriate front men for this latest television extravaganza would not be Frost and Lynam but a few bona fide maestros.

Of course, they would have to be guided by some accomplished jockey of the auto-cue, but who better than men like Sir Bobby Charlton, Gareth Edwards, Stirling Moss, Gary Sobers, Rod Laver and Sugar Ray Leonard to properly define unique achievement?

At the weekend one of Sky's associate newspapers produced its own nominations and among the more curious was the rating of George Best in second in the football category, six places ahead of Charlton, who also won the World Cup on top of the European Cup triumph he shared with Best, and, most staggeringly, seven places in front of Alfredo di Stefano.

This was a decision that no doubt met with Best's limited approval - he would have preferred to have been elevated just a little higher - but then George, after his brief years as arguably the most mesmerising player anyone had ever seen, has spent an interminable time in the sunset room of self-indulgence and self-congratulation.

Graham Taylor, the former England manager, who as a player performed for Grimsby Town and Lincoln City, is one of the football consultants enlisted by the Frost-Lynam enterprise - Sir Bobby Robson and Phil Thompson are the others - and explained the shocking exclusion of Best from the programme's official top 10 by the fact that he did not pass the test of "longevity".

Here we have the in-built potential for injustice when we have sports achievement as a popularity contest besieged by a whole raft of different values. Thus, in one newspaper's rugby union list, Martin Johnson finishes at the top, looking down on Edwards, Barry John and Phillipe Sella. In the rugby league table Tom van Vollenhoven, the power-running South African wing, is rated seven places above Brian Bevan, a balding, bandy-legged Australian who scored the most entrancing tries ever seen on any kind of rugby field.

Some supreme sporting legends are of course self-evident, utterly beyond dispute. No one could argue with Muhammad Ali as the greatest man that boxing ever produced, but even this becomes arbitrary for those who still remember the artistry of Sugar Ray Robinson and the fighting soul of Joe Louis.

Who could look at the achievements of Sir Don Bradman and question his right to the No 1 spot? Only someone who saw Sobers at the peak of his powers, or Viv Richards on the march, or Shane Warne turning the ball a mile?

No one could have achieved, at his age, any more than Tiger Woods, yet on one weekend list he was no better than fourth among the golfers.

The truth is some men and women have reached points of achievement beyond which comparison inevitably becomes invidious.

Pele, rightly, dominated the first edition of the show on Sunday night, but beneath the pinnacle of his brilliance and natural humility, how do you decide between Di Stefano, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Charlton, Ferenc Puskas, Duncan Edwards, Sir Tom Finney and Sir Stanley Matthews? Does Denis Law get a significant mention, or Jimmy Greaves? What about Johnny Haynes? Dave Mackay? Michel Platini?

Is Michael Schumacher, the breaker of all records, no better than seventh in the all-time ranking of motor racing, as one expert concluded at the weekend?

There is a stage when such musings cease to be engaging and harmless fun - and become actively offensive. When is this precisely? When they are dressed up in bogus originality and become just another edition of the David Frost Show.

Dallaglio stronger for the bad breaks

It is always sad when a great sportsman is cut down in his prime. Even more poignant is the sight of one wrecked just when he is reaching out for what might be his supreme achievement.

Lawrence Dallaglio has already once fallen off a pinnacle achieved by brilliant effort. When he was caught in a honey-trap set by a Sunday tabloid, he lost the captaincy of England to which he promised to bring both superb talent and fine tactical acumen.

From being a leader he became part of Martin Johnson's chorus line; a superb element in it, no doubt, but still a man who made a vital mis-step on the road to sporting immortality.

Now his career-threatening injury, in the first match of the British and Irish Lions tour, comes just when he was promising to enjoy his finest days as a rugby player.

In all the class and wit of the Lions' best talent, Dallaglio was increasingly seen as the man most likely to fight the All Blacks with the hardest instinct to win.

In his latest despair it is impossible to imagine what could possibly soothe the blow. Not for the moment, anyway.

However, some time in the future he may reflect that he has always shown a superb willingness to grow strong at broken places.