Local loyalty expands boundaries of support

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The Independent Online
FORMER. THAT'S the word that does it from a local newspaper point of view. That's the link to the wider world. "Former Leigh-on-Sea superstar John Lloyd..." Over the years, that phrase - like an internet password - gained one Essex newspaper access to the glamourous world of the international tennis circuit, not to mention the territory of the gossip column thanks to Lloyd's marriage and subsequent divorce from the American Chris Evert.

Evert's Wimbledon wins set up the divine possibility of a domestic double, a possibility which eventually disappeared when it became clear that Lloyd, despite being a decent player, and despite having lovely legs and nice blond hair, was never going to win Wimbledon. But what the hell. The paper had hitched its wagon to a superstar and it was a great ride.

In truth, any kind of upwardly mobile performance in the world of sport will do from a local lad or lass. My local paper this week - enterprisingly enough - has a story about "former Saffron Walden Town star Stuart Wardley" netting twice for Queen's Park Rangers.

Now, Loftus Road is quite a way from Saffron Walden. But the point is that, thanks to young Mr Wardley, the paper now has a legitimate entree to the Nationwide First Division, and a guaranteed human interest story which so far consists of a promising young striker making his mark at local level before being signed by the QPR manager, Gerry Francis, in the summer for pounds 15,000.

You could call it a tenuous interest. And yet, isn't the geographical connection as valid as the one which QPR supporters will now be presuming to have with their new forward? Wardley might make it big this season and join Tottenham or West Ham next year.

At which point, QPR supporters would be likely to try and dismiss him from their lives like so many jilted lovers. If he did join another London club, it is probable that at least one disgruntled Loftus Road fan would call him a Judas. And so the ritual would go on, but Wardley will always be a local lad made good.

Glenn Hoddle's scoring feats in the Harlow and District Recreational League are still remembered in these parts. His parents still live in Harlow. His younger brother, Carl, played briefly down the road at Bishop's Stortford.

Despite Hoddle's lapses of judgement - the book, the other-worldly speculation - his progress as a player and manager has been warmly followed in the area where he was raised.

In the same way, the exploits of a current Tottenham player, the centre- back Luke Young, are marked by a new generation of Essex football followers, some of whom went to the same Harlow school as he did.

Allegiance is a curious thing. Perhaps it's just me, but I find it quite impossible to view any kind of sporting contest - be it the FA Cup final, or a tennis match glimpsed while channel-hopping on the television - without wanting one or other opponent to win or lose.

The old line about not being able to resist a bet on two flies climbing up a wall is partly applicable - although I can resist putting money on a contest, I can't remain neutral. I even found myself starting to will on a rain-drop running down a window when my six-year-old son pointed out that one was racing another. I have no doubt that this is sad behaviour, but I suspect I am far from alone.

But if sport is meaningless without allegiance, where is the loyalty supposed to spring from? It may be nothing more than that you like the cut of someone's jib, or you object to the trim on their kit. In the international arena, naturally, chauvinism is the major player. But we are a fickle, untrustworthy lot when it comes to pledging our support.

By way of evidence, take Greg Rusedski. Good tennis player. Nice man. British as maple syrup.

If Tim Henman can't win Wimbledon - and, at the risk of appearing heretical, it is beginning to look that way - then most followers of the game in this country would happily take a victory by the naturalised Canadian as the next best thing. But that, for all Rusedski's flag-waving and committed Davis Cup participation, is what it would be seen as.

At the recent World Athletics Championships in Seville, the home nation revelled in the victory of a naturalised Cuban woman in the long jump, while Denmark celebrated another gold earned by the fleet feet of a naturalised Kenyan.

Eventually, such switching across the borders could turn national teams - be they football, rugby or athletics - into replicas of Premiership teams, simply pools of assembled talent.

Local talents, local paper interest. Perhaps it's the only thing that makes sense.