Hero's fate: Glare today, gone tomorrow

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The Independent Online
Gone are the days when the only fate a dashing young hero need fear was the swing of a sabre or the thud of a bullet. All it takes now is a touch of churlishness or a whiff of greed and the resulting explosion of indignation is sufficient to dispatch the wretch to the sporting equivalent of kingdom come.

We must acknowledge the part played by the media in the orchestration of this lethal outrage, because never before has the spotlight shone so fiercely, or the inquisition been conducted with such a chorus of venom as in the past year or so. The more recent examples concern Glenn Hoddle, Paolo di Canio and John Hartson, each of whom have felt the full blast of public wrath long before the wheels of official disciplinary action lumbered into view. Even in the Middle Ages you appeared in court before being put into the stocks.

But nothing, either now or in the past, compares with the storm that engulfed Will Carling last week. He may have had it coming, but it was the speed with which it came that was frightening. And I doubt if his humiliation is over even now.

Carling's fall from grace, or whoever he's seeing at the moment, occurred so rapidly he must have thought he was nightmaring. A few weeks ago he had the rosiest garden imaginable. The best available players from around the world were due to gather to honour him in a testimonial match at Wembley Stadium on 4 December that would have filled his heart with pride and his pocket with pounds 500,000. A newspaper was about to serialise his autobiography for pounds 200,000 and he was shortly to embark on a 19-date tour of the country with An Evening With Will Carling, in which he would have been assisted by Cliff Morgan, Ian Robertson and Jim Neilly.

He had a quietly blossoming television career, more business prospects than you could count and an apparently enviable domestic life. Father of a one-year-old son with his lovely partner Ali Cockayne, who was getting measured for a bridal outfit. With a guest-list fit for society to drool over, Carling could have sold the exclusive happy wedding pictures to a glossy magazine for a fortune.

Now, instead of Hello, it's goodbye. The news that he had walked out on his lady and their son for a liaison with the estranged wife of a former team-mate caused a wave of rage that was compounded by the callous and selfish explanation he offered. It was the signal for an eruption of scorn and hatred that took the breath away. Headline writers competed to fling insults in his direction... "Captain Cad", "Tainted Hero", "Carling Slips into Moral Bankruptcy". Previously, I was tinkering with "Will o' the Wad" which was pathetically polite in comparison although not quite as naff as "Carling's Black Label".

Plans for his testimonial, although firmly laid by his agent Mike Burton, began to crumble. Players were appearing for money not love, but were suddenly uneasy about supporting someone being so comprehensively discredited. Richmond RFC withdrew their four players from the match and then Fiji, the intended opposition, announced their reluctance via their coach, the former All Black Andy Hayden. (Wasn't Hayden the player who flung himself out of a line-out to con the referee into thinking he'd been pushed and awarding a penalty that cost Wales the match and me a large amount in bets? And he's not coming on moral grounds?)

Then Cliff Morgan said that he would no longer be comfortable doing the tour of the halls. As it happens, the number of people booking up to see it was low. It was felt they'd sell more tickets for An Evening Without Will Carling.

In the newspapers, long-buried resentments rose from their graves like ghouls on Halloween. Dick Best, the former England coach, accused him of betrayal and of conspiring to get him sacked by Harlequins. Tom McNab, once the Eng- land fitness coach, claimed that the kudos that came to Carling as captain of England in the glory years of 1988-92 belonged to several others. We will never know if that is true. What we can be sure of is that Carling led England with confidence and clear vision while making an outstanding contribution on the field.

His exploits qualify him to be regarded as one of his country's genuine sporting heroes. It is dependent on one's point of view whether the fact that he was so adept at looking after himself financially during his playing days is to his credit or not. He certainly seems to have gathered a generous number of foes along the way, but what shooting star doesn't leave a trail of debris in his wake in sport or any other walk of life?

Among the disgruntled are several members of the Press who have remained silent until now about various mistreatments to which they were subjected by him. Last week, of course, they dusted them off and brought them out as evidence to his character.

I have not had many dealings with him but I have found him affable and helpful. A rugby- writing colleague of mine who has come into far more regular contact had the same impression. And no one can deny that his brave attack on the "old farts" did a power of good. And he had less to gain than many of his less fortunate colleagues.

His other activities are less defensible. When it came to the list of relationships entered into by Diana, Princess of Wales, it was Carling who singlehandedly kept sport's end up. But his relationships generally have revealed a less than acceptable regard for others.

Utterly self-centred, manipulative, insincere; he is likely to be all of these but you couldn't throw a bread roll around your local Tesco without hitting someone who bears those traits.

One service he may have done to sport is to call into question the reason for having testimonial matches for anyone but the most deserving cases. There are enough assaults on supporters' pockets without the well-heeled rattling the begging bowl. But that's another negative legacy.

He has done no harm to his sport, unless you consider rugby players have a duty to uphold a code of behaviour applicable to no one else, and was a model professional even before the term became legal in his sport.

We are witnessing the destruction of a man of whom we may disapprove but in terms of service to his sport can hardly be faulted. I am not happy with that or with the way it has come about. There's only one person, however, who can rescue him from this dilemma and I trust that no one is taking a longer and more serious look at Will Carling this weekend than he is himself.

Repentance cannot be too strongly recommended.

Amid all the furore over John Hartson last week an appalling revelation of racism went unnoticed. Hartson happens to be thin on top and had agreed to promote a London hair-loss clinic in return for a year's free treatment and a couple of quid besides. This harmless transaction would have normally gone unnoticed until he eventually emerged looking like Graham Gooch, but the player's sudden lunge into the limelight caused the newshounds to flock to the clinic where he was having his follicles examined.

Hartson ruefully contemplated the derision his hairlessness would draw from team-mates and supporters at West Ham. "I already get enough stick being Welsh," he said.

So it has come to that, has it. Being Welsh now incites a similar level of sporting mockery to being bald. This is extremely bad news for all those who are both.