Ken Jones: Style and flair are worthless without end product

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The Independent Online

People know better than to involve me in sporting trivia. I've never been on a sports quiz team. If the television remote gets me on to A Question of Sport, I switch to another channel. If anyone says: "Here's one for you," it had better be a drink, or I'm out of there.

People know better than to involve me in sporting trivia. I've never been on a sports quiz team. If the television remote gets me on to A Question of Sport, I switch to another channel. If anyone says: "Here's one for you," it had better be a drink, or I'm out of there.

It's not that my memory is bad, just that I've never bothered to fill it with facts and figures. I don't see the point. I was there when Muhammad Ali demolished George Foreman in Zaire but for the life of me I couldn't tell you which round. I know England won the World Cup in 1966 but don't ask me the exact date. Anyway, that's what record books are for.

A few days ago I answered the telephone and heard someone say: "Can you tell me..."

"Listen," I said. "If it's one of those dumb-arsed questions forget it."

"No, no," the caller said. "I want to talk about style. Who in your opinion is the most stylish sports performer ever."

"Depends on what you mean," I said. "Style without substance is nothing at all."

I can think of footballers by the dozen who had a maximum for artistic impression and zero for effectiveness; boxers who stylishly dropped out of the ratings while fooling some of the people all of the time; cricketers who stylishly batted themselves into alternative employment; golfers who stylishly made work for ball-spotters.

At his best, Thierry Henry is the most stylish performer in the Premiership, probably in the world. He is not perfect, because perfection is unattainable. But when the Frenchman slips into overdrive, your heart leaps. You think of Carl Lewis in full flight, the graceful flourish of Sir Garfield Sobers's cover drives; Ali in his pomp; Franz Beckenbauer stepping out of defence with the ball; Barry John effortlessly evading tackles.

We have to remember that style is not an essential ingredient for greatness. Roy Keane is no stylist. Neither was Diego Maradona. Though there was grace in Pele's movement, he was was more dramatic than stylish.

At a time when broadcast and print organisations provide followers of sport with more information than they can possibly hope to absorb, a practical definition of style is not easily made. Sometimes, of course, style is merely camouflage.

There also has to be an understanding that style is natural, formed in the womb and, if not accompanied by desire, probably worthless. Style must not be confused with class. Ruud Van Nistlerooy, Michael Owen and Alan Shearer are in the highest class of attacking players but nobody thinks they are stylish.

Jack Nicklaus won 18 Major golf championships but nobody, least of all Nicklaus himself, thought his swing to be a thing of beauty. The most graceful golf swings today belong to Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. Some people wish they had been born to sing like Pavarotti, act like Brando, paint like Picasso. The more I think about it, the more I wish I'd been born with Ernie's swing. There again, I probably would not have known what to with it.

When you think about style in sport, you do not automatically think Tiger Woods or the present World No 1 Vijay Singh. Class, certainly. As Bobby Jones once said of Nicklaus, so Nicklaus would say of Woods: "He plays a game with which I'm not familiar." A pretty sure thing is that Woods and Singh do not give a second thought to style. They think method. The perfection nobody has or ever will find.

Getting deeper into this, I tried it out on some friends who could be relied upon for objective thoughts. It was the general conclusion that style may not be obvious until potential is fulfilled. Without that fulfilment, style may go unnoticed.

In general terms, it is difficult to think of a footballer who played with more style than Danny Blanchflower. "There was style in everything Danny did on the field," Dave Mackay said last week at Bill Nicholson's funeral. "He could look stylish standing still. But I'll tell you this, it wasn't style for style's sake. He made it work."

You can say much the same about Henry and Ryan Giggs. I don't know how many appearances they've made, the number of goals they've scored or how many honours they've won. But they've got me pulling for them.

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