Illingworth might benefit from observing that mutual loyalty was a cornerstone of Ramsey's relationship with his players

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The Independent Online
On the journey to South Africa yesterday Michael Atherton had plenty of time to reflect upon a break with tradition unthinkable certainly when England's cricketers were led into the field by autocratic amateurs.

In a week that sees the centenary of W G Grace's death, it can be imagined that the good doctor and any number of his successors would have been outraged by the very idea of conceding authority in selection to a team manager, not even one in possession of a dukedom.

As this became an important condition of Atherton's reappointment as captain and he has not always been on the same wavelength as Raymond Illingworth, it will be interesting to see how the arrangement works out should the manager find himself alongside Terry Venables in the tabloid shooting gallery.

That probability aside, doubtless there was a disturbance in the minds of many diehards when Illingworth assumed the autonomy granted reluctantly to Alf Ramsey by the Football Association in order to secure his services as manager of the England team.

Where his predecessor, Walter Winterbottom, a kindly academic, had accepted the difficulties imposed by a selection committee, often conceding to ludicrous regional bias, Ramsey demanded absolute independence; his policies, his team. "I suppose I'd better inform those people," he said typically one day in the West of Scotland, making off towards a group of powerless senior officials with belated word of the team he had picked.

Some within the FA found this intolerable and the grudges they bore against Ramsey were evident in his downfall. The feted hero of 1966 was fired six months after failing to qualify England for the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany.

In Illingworth's own dialect, that is something for him to think on about. Atherton will have some input in selection but the teams he leads in South Africa will be Illingworth's. No matter what mistakes Atherton makes on the field ultimate responsibility will rest with the manager.

The impression Illingworth creates is one of stubborn single mindedness, a man not given to prevarication. I don't know how close this is to truth, but from now on there will be no getting away from it. If results on tour again fall short of expectations, critics will know where to look for a scapegoat.

Throughout a closely-contested series against the West Indies last summer, it could be assumed that despite being of different generations and thus of conflicting attitudes, Illingworth and Atherton had at last established a sound, working relationship.

However, this week has seen Illingworth occupied by conversations with Geoffrey Boycott in the Sun newspaper that have touched upon differences with Atherton over matters of selection. A personal suspicion is that the England captain may have found this more than just slightly irritating.

We are speaking about different games, different policies and eras, but Illingworth might benefit from observing that absolute mutual loyalty was a cornerstone of Ramsey's famously successful relationship with his players; for example, early personal differences with England's captain, Bobby Moore, were never given a public airing.

It is not a habit of this column to swerve away from the central theme but an exception can be made in the case of Hugh McIlvanney, whose stature in sportswriting is recognised internationally.

Great performers of the turf, horses, jockeys and trainers have never been better described than they are in McIlvanney's brilliant collection of racing pieces (McIlvanney on Horseracing, Mainstream Publishing, pounds 14.99).

Of particular poignancy is an interview with Jonjo O'Neill who recorded one of the greatest victories ever seen at Cheltenham when he brought Dawn Run home in the 1986 Gold Cup. Just a few months later Dawn Run died following a fall in France and Jonjo was beginning a battle against cancer. "I can see every grasshopper in the grass," he recalled.

One of many experiences in McIlvanney's company concerns another disastrous day in the Cotswolds. In a desperate attempt to ease the pain we tried to strike a bet on Liverpool in the European Cup. "Game's already over," came the reply. Some experts!