Sport's apparent prejudice against a hearty laugh weighs heavily on those of us who can remember a time when the urgent business of winning and losing was lightened by an intrinsic comic quality.
It comes as a surprise today when anyone in sport passes a remark that is delightful in its originality and guaranteed to get a cackling response when repeated in bars or by speakers on the after-dinner circuit.
At sporting functions I have recently attended, the best, the funniest anecdotes were unquestionably about people who could not be placed in achievement and time by many in the audience. Because it seems from here that no aspect of sport has suffered so sorry a decline as humour, I remarked to one of the speakers that it must be increasingly difficult to freshen up his act. "Gets harder by the week," he said.
Sport is taken so seriously today that levity in players is universally frowned upon, prompting the notion that they are guilty as charged of irresponsible behaviour and not properly grateful for the good things that have happened to them.
Last week's international matches in both codes of rugby, especially England's encounter against Samoa at Twickenham in which Lewis Moody and his Leicester team-mate Alesana Tuilagi were sent off and later suspended for brawling, might have been affairs of the heart but by all accounts nobody advanced the cause of whimsical reflection.
By now we are almost inured to presumptions of a society operating on the basis that anyone who wants amusement from sport should seek alternative diversions. Looking back, most people of an older generation would, I think, agree that the decline in humour in games coincided with the advent of a money-driven age that has no time for frivolity in sport.
A personal favourite among boxing anecdotes involves the the famed American trainer Ray Arcel. One night Arcel was in the corner of a boy pacifist whose repugnance for violence was aggravated by the punches his adversary kept bouncing off his chin. Between rounds the boy expressed a devout wish to be elsewhere.
"Hang in there," Arcel said. "He's as tired as you are." Reluctantly, the young man returned to the conflict. With a most unneighbourly scowl his opponent advanced and the boy backed off warily, into his own corner.
"Ray," he said from behind a half-clenched glove, "throw in the towel will ya?" "Just keep punching," Arcel said. "You're all right."
The tiger fled backwards, buffeted and breathless. His knees were wobbly, but he managed to stay upright for a full circuit of the ring.
"Please Ray," he gasped, passing his corner, "throw in the towel now."
"Box him," Arcel called after him. "Stick him and move." The pursuit continued for another dizzying lap. "Ray," the hero begged, "please throw in the towel. I won't be around again."
Arsenal strode out for the 1950 FA Cup final without their Scottish international inside-forward Jimmy Logie, who had sneaked from the dressing-room to telephone for the result of a dog race at Hackney Wick. Arriving in time for the presentation, Logie, who would have a terrific match, called out to his compatriot Alex Forbes. "It got beat, Alex," he cried.
There are no stories like that now. Nobody with Bill Shankly's talent for amusing imagery. After signing the massive centre-half Ron Yeats: "With him in the defence I could afford to play Norman Wisdom in goal." In retirement: "A long time since I've been in London. I'm going to wait until it's completed."
When Sam Allardyce publicly rebuked his players after Bolton's loss at Fulham last Sunday - "some were not at their best physically and we were defensively inept for the first 20 minutes" - it was an echo of a time when many managers ruled by fear, among them Harry Storer of Derby County.
The morning after a match he had missed to undertake a scouting mission, Storer read that three of his players had incurred the wrath of the opposition manager, Sheffield United's Joe Mercer. Mercer was reluctant to name the culprits. "I don't want to get them into trouble," he said. Storer growled back: "It's the other eight I want to know about."
Those are the days, I am saying, that will not - dare not - come again.Reuse content