Like father like son... well almost

Simon O'Hagan meets a family of many feats with their feet on the ground
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The Independent Online
John and Sheila Sherwood like to play down their illustrious athletic past. Their home, in the Hillsborough district of North Sheffield, reveals nothing of what they achieved in track and field in the 1960s other than two framed MBE certificates that hang on the living-room wall. The Sherwoods are big on ornaments and Lowry prints, but if you want to see their medals - Olympic, European and Commonwealth - Sheila has to get them down from the top of a bedroom wardrobe, where they are kept in an old suitcase.

Their son David was 9 or 10, Sheila thinks, before he even discovered that he had once famous parents - John the bronze medallist behind David Hemery in the 400m hurdles at the Mexico Olympics of 1968, Sheila the silver medallist in the long jump at the same Games. They didn't talk about it. So a desire, or a pressure, to emulate them was never an issue as the boy grew up and turned into one of Britain's most exciting young tennis prospects.

Last week 16-year-old David won the doubles at the Junior Australia Open with his 17-year-old partner from Suffolk, James Trotman. He's ranked four in the world in doubles, 22 in singles, and is part of a generation of British juniors whose impact internationally provides the hope that where Tim Henman has led others will follow.

While John and Sheila tried to follow the final through the middle of the night via Ceefax - they are both now PE teachers and, "not having won the lottery", it was impossible for them to get out to Melbourne - David was having the biggest win of his life. He's 6ft 3in, has a huge serve, and produced aces to win both sets in their victory over a South African pairing.

David is one of those people who could have excelled at almost any sport. But that he did not end up an athlete was no surprise. "He wanted to do some running when he was still at primary school , but we told him to wait," Sheila said. "If you get involved from a very early age then you find a lot of athletes get fed up or burn out by the time they are 13 or 14. We thought that if he waited for senior school, it was early enough to get interested."

As it was, David won the Sheffield Schools Under-12s 100m and 200m titles, but by then he had learnt for himself that athletics was a much lonelier sport than his two great loves, tennis and football. He was a member of Sheffield Wednesday's junior teams, playing on the left wing, and the club were so keen on him that they kept him on their books until long after it was obvious that it was tennis that he was going to concentrate on. He was also a basketball player tipped by a coach to play for England.

Football might well have been David's future had he not broken his collar- bone at the age of 12. It was a complicated fracture, but while it kept him off the pitch it was non-tennis shoulder that was affected, and it allowed him to carry on swinging a racket.

"He was relatively a better footballer than a tennis player," John remembered. "And at that age we didn't want him to close the door on any sport. But because he was training so much more the standard of his tennis shot up, and that's when he decided to have a serious go at it." Sheila still thinks David's gone for the hardest option. "It would have been easier for him to succeed at football," she said a little regretfully.

His parents knew hardly anything about tennis - "we thought it was a bit of a rich man's sport," Sheila said - even though they had been more than just athletes themselves. John played rugby union, football and cricket; Sheila was a netball and hockey player. They were in unfamiliar territory when they went along to the Abbeydale Park club to watch David play before deciding that they might as well take up the game themselves. No sooner did that happen than the Lawn Tennis Association whipped David off to join the elite group of juniors who live and train at Bisham Abbey, and John and Sheila were left to play on their own.

The Sherwood ethos is practical and down-to-earth, they haven't made a fuss about themselves, and they aren't going to start doing so with David. "They're just me mum and dad," he said. "We've both coached athletics," John said. "We've seen how other parents try to live their lives through their kids, and it doesn't work." John and Sheila feel, however, that their daughter Nicola might have had a different experience. The Sherwoods were still active in athletics when she was small. "She did get dragged along to things, and I think it may have put her off," John said.

Nicola's talents are more academic. She has got a degree from York University - the first in the family to graduate, John points out - and you sense that this achievement is as much a source of pride for the Sherwoods as anything she might have done in sport, or that David might do either. Certainly the prospect of David one day becoming a star seems to cut little ice. "He'll come home and get the same dinner whatever," Sheila said. "We're very simple, very boring." But rather special.

Chip off the old block: Famous offspring who chose a different sporting path

Danny Wilson and Ryan Giggs

The golden boy of Nineties football has a rugby league player for a father, and young Ryan shone at both sports at school. Giggs was born Ryan Wilson, the son of Danny Wilson, who set out as a rugby union player for his native Cardiff. A dashing fly-half, he turned professional with Swinton in the late Seventies and won four caps for Wales. Although father had more of the build for rugby league than his slender son, there is a physical resemblance, and Danny's virtuoso way with a ball has clearly been passed on. But the two have not been able to share Ryan's success. The Wilsons' marriage broke up when Ryan was 14, and he distanced himself from his father by taking his mother's maiden name and concentrating on football. Contact remains sporadic.

Mike Weston and Phil Weston

Rugby and cricket always seem natural bedfellows, but this father and son combination are unusual in having mastered both the games between them. In the Sixties Mike Weston won 29 caps for the England rugby union team as a fly-half who was much admired for his athleticism and passing skills. Not content with that, he also played Minor Counties cricket, which is the sport his son has taken up in earnest. Now 23, Phil Weston played rugby until he was 16, but his sporting career has been made as a batsman for Worcestershire. "My father had stopped playing rugby by the time I came along," he said. "If anything I was influenced by his cricket. But I was never put under any pressure." Younger brother Robin was in the England schools rugby team and now plays cricket for Durham.

Ian Botham and Liam Botham

Acts come no harder to follow than the England cricket legend, and Liam, in spite of the talent he inherited from his father, realised that to try to would be to make life impossible for himself. The game was ready to acclaim Botham Mk II last summer when, on his debut for Hampshire, the 19-year-old took five wickets with a Bothamesque mixture of opportunism and good fortune. But the boy was a rugby player too, and recently announced he was concentrating on that as a professional with West Hartlepool. Father and son agree on the decision. Ian thinks cricket was "always going to be a struggle for him because he was following me". Liam told Radio 5: "I admire what my dad's done, but you have to forget that when you go out on the field. I am Liam and he is Ian."

Sir Stanley Matthews and Stanley Matthews

When England's most celebrated footballer named his son after himself it was clear the boy was going to have difficulty forging his own identity. Father admitted that from the moment three-year-old Stanley was kicking a ball in the garden he had dreams of him following in his footsteps. Young Stanley did make it as a sportsman - in tennis, winning junior Wimbledon three times in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Sir Stanley unwittingly set him on the tennis path by installing a court at their Blackpool home to help keep fit. In the end he was more than reconciled to his son's pursuit. "I'm glad he deserted my game," he said. "He's been spared all the comparisons." But dad still saw a role for himself. "He became the centre of attention wherever he went. I gave him all the guidance I could."

Robbie Brightwell and Ian Brightwell

Few sporting families can match this one for their range of achievement. Robbie Brightwell, a 400m runner, won a silver medal in the relay at the 1964 Olympics; his fiancee Ann Packer won the 800m gold and 400m silver. Of their three sons, Ian, now 28, has made the biggest impact, as a footballer for Manchester City. His younger brother, David, is now at Bradford City. "They both became entrenched in football from an early age," Ann said. "Athletics they did more as a way of keeping fit for football." It was the Brightwells' first son, Gary, who suffered most when it came to being reminded who his parents were. He was runner-up in the national junior 400m, but, Ann thinks, "in an effort not to push him we may have stood back too far".

Simon O'Hagan