Labour pains in the battle of hustings

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The Independent Online
Shamefully neglected during an election campaign that seems to have dragged on longer than the Premiership season, sport finally elbowed its way into the reckoning on Thursday when the party playing slightly to the left of the centre midfield launched a sudden thrust entitled Labour's Sporting Nation. Unfortunately, this exciting development was ignored by most of the media but not by our ever- vigilant sister, the Independent, who reported the initiative under the headline "Labour Wants Sports Gold".

This was not, as it suggests, an attempt by Tony Blair to melt down Linford Christie's medals and get another 1,000 off the dole but a timely reminder that there is more to life than the subjects our politicians have been using to pole-vault over all boredom thresholds. Sport is one area capable of providing a blessed release from the travails of the time, even for the many of our citizens to whom "single currency" means being down to your last quid.

Therefore, sport's late arrival into the argument was more than welcome when Labour's heritage spokesman Dr Jack Cunningham announced their plans. He was accompanied by an impressive assemblage of sports stars including rugby league's Shaun Edwards, the former England hooker Brian Moore and shot-putter Judy Oakes. There was not a lot of heckling.

We cannot, however, let this muscular manifesto pass by without a little hustings-style barracking. For a start, taunting your relegation-threatened opponents with causing the general inability of British sport to bathe us in a cascade of glory is a touch unfair; unless that really was John Major missing two of Manchester United's chances on Wednesday.

Castigating the Tories for presiding over so little investment in sport is one thing - I've been happy to put a regular boot into them on that account over the past 18 years - but to follow by firing wild promises of spectacular improvements is foolhardy, even in the week before the election when no one regards a pledge as worth the wind it is written on.

Within a decade, promised Cunningham, Britain will be in the top 10 in the Olympic Games. Furthermore, he said, Labour would put us back in the world sport superleague. Optimism must never be sneered at but our membership of any world elite has never been more than fleeting in our lifetime and, unless you count events such as the Boat Race or the Eton wall game, we are not in good shape to win anything of note in the life of the next parliament.

Unlike politics, sport does not lend itself to the sort of statistical fiddling they are accustomed to in that place. You can dress up the unemployment figures, slap some lipstick on the NHS budget and powder your education achievements but you can't fart about with sports results.

Labour were probably too busy to notice that in the middle of last week there were three blockades between Britain and continental Europe. And of the three, our heroes of Manchester United and Liverpool might have met with more success if they'd tried to get a ferry into Boulogne than the requisite number of goals into the nets of Borussia Dortmund and Paris St Germain.

Even the staunchest left-winger couldn't blame the government for the failure of our leading teams to reach the final of any European competition this season. Neither is a change of ends in the House of Commons going to make any difference to the fact that at present the standard of the Premiership does not equip our teams with the technique to match their top rivals across the Channel.

Despite the obvious attacking weaknesses displayed by United and, to a much lesser extent, Liverpool, the principal fault lies in the frailty of our defenders. The quality of the defences Premiership teams face week- by-week does not prepare them for the more efficient and tighter marking opposition they find in foreign goalmouths whether the shirt they are wearing belongs to a British international team or their own club.

United's real undoing on Wednesday night was Dortmund's early goal, which put such a panic of pressure on their attackers, while Liverpool's fate was sealed by the three goals surrendered in the first leg. Obviously, our club defences need strengthening - but once that happens, the Premiership will lose many of its goalmouth thrills.

It is just a small indication that our failures on the international stage are rooted in more profound shortcomings than can be spotted by a cursory glance. Indeed, what is necessary is a rendering of Labour's own battle-cry of "education, education, education".

The first lesson to be learned is that as far as our leading games players are concerned there are too many exams and not enough homework. We don't want any government interference in the administration of our sports, but it is well for them to know that the building of sports academies and wholesale chucking about of lottery money is futile if we continue to subject players to exhausting domestic itineraries.

As for the much discussed and little progressed national academy, there is a far more pressing need for the youth of Britain to be offered more opportunities to play sport and receive expert guidance while they are doing so.

Plans for this are already laid down by sports governing bodies and all they are waiting for is the release of the pounds 2.7bn of lottery funds already earmarked for sport but blocked by bureaucracy. Far better for Labour to promise to free that than to announce, as they did last week, plans to annex some of the lottery proceeds for their own projects.

We don't require government hands in the lottery till, thank you very much. We have more urgent need for an enlightened administration to realise that the priority is to broaden the base of the nation's sporting infrastructure and increase the availability to all levels of our society and that this can be done merely by cutting through the red tape. Sport doesn't need a fancy-worded manifesto, just a helping hand where and when it matters.

DENIS COMPTON's death last week was rightfully recognised as the passing of a true sporting hero, and among the tributes was one from the Prime Minister, who wrote movingly in the Daily Telegraph under the headline "Thank you, Denis - Hero of Cricket".

Strangely, the introduction to the article read: "John Major pays tribute to Sir Denis Compton..."

What a gaffe from the Conservatives' house newspaper. Compo was never knighted. Despite Major's gushing tribute, he never saw fit to arrange for the great man to have the honour of the tap on the shoulder from the Queen's sword.

During his term of office, Major has been pleased to shower knighthoods on men of all shapes and sizes, some of whom have done nothing but sit in the House of Commons and keep their mouths shut for 15 years and others who have done so much ducking and diving you wouldn't invite them into your coal-house.

But not a sausage for the man he now eulogises with words like "genius", "artist", "Olympian". Obviously, a hero fit to be called everything except "Sir".