It may not figure in the corporate philosophy, but maybe there is a slowly dawning realisation that sport is nothing without dignity

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The Independent Online
For me the fun of games is the opportunity to observe the splendour and the absurdity of people as they truly are, revealed in their actions and utterances. "Their sort of football will kill the game," Bill Shankly raged after Ajax trounced Liverpool 5-1 in the European Cup.

In this, the 50th anniversary of Charlton Athletic's 1-0 victory over Burnley in the 1947 FA Cup final, older supporters remember the goalscorer, Chris Duffy, setting off like a rabbit on speed, uncatchable until he leaped into the arms of Jack Shreeve.

So what happened to the humour and spontaneity of sport? Instead we have in-depth analysis, choreographed celebrations, spin-doctored press conferences. No wonder the best tales told by speakers at corporate lunches and testimonial dinners are from another sporting time. "Our success comes from the great harmonium in the dressing-room," is one often told about an old football manager.

Style has taken a beating too. "Gather it lost," Len Hutton said after evading effortlessly the vicious bumper Keith Miller sent down when the result of a horse race was signalled to him from the pavilion at Lords. "Too right it did," Miller smiled.

These meditations spring partly from watching television pictures beamed back this week from New Zealand. Given the parlous state of English cricket I thought it only a mild surprise and in no way disturbing when Mike Atherton's team failed to take advantage of a winning position. Aspects of general behaviour were, however, a different matter.

Even today, especially in cricket, there is still room I think for the sacredness of tradition. For example it is traditional for the opposition to acknowledge individual batting achievements. That some of the England players responded churlishly when Stephen Fleming scored a maiden Test century for New Zealand is a black mark against them and something the authorities should make haste in addressing.

The modern assertion, drum- med up by jingoistic outpourings across the airwaves and in mass circulation newspapers, is that anything, short of breaking the rules, is acceptable in pursuit of victory.

It may not figure in the corporate philosophy, but maybe there is a slowly dawning realisation that sport is nothing without dignity. For example, anyone who had the good fortune to watch Test cricket 30 and more years ago surely finds Dominic Cork's ludicrous football style celebrations offensive.

Maybe things are worse than they used to be, and maybe not. But we are thinking here about all the changes that have come to pass in sport and how they affect public perception.

A friend who has been following football for five decades hesitates these days to offer opinions for fear that they will be put down as geriatric wanderings. "Sometimes I'm tempted to make comparisons with the past but I know I would be shouted down. And to my mind you are right, there isn't much dignity left in sport. I don't think anybody in any game behaved better than Danny Blanchflower. He's not the best footballer I've ever seen but in every way he was an example. Can you imagine Blanchflower pulling his shirt over his head or sprawling around on the floor when Tottenham scored. Apart from anything else, the managers of those days wouldn't have stood for it."

When introducing his team to the Duke of Edinburgh before the 1961 FA Cup final Blanchflower was asked why Tottenham's tracksuits, unlike Leicester City, didn't bear the player's names. "We know each other," he smiled. It was beneath Blanchflower's dignity to turn angrily on a young Manchester United player who sent him crashing on to the running track at Old Trafford. "I didn't see a programme, so tell me your name," he said.

It is a relief these days to come across someone in sport who isn't entirely wrapped up in his or her importance. On these pages last Monday I reported a short conversation with Paul McGrath of Derby County who was entitled to feel mightily pleased with himself after proving to Aston Villa that, even at 37, he had more left than they imagined. All McGrath said was that he owed more to Villa than they owed him.

I applaud the fact that sport can now be a hugely profitable career, and that the expert is considered like any other star entertainer, and paid accordingly. The trouble now is that fun seldom figures in the equation.