Monstrous visions and the root of all evil

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The Independent Online
CHANNEL 4 set a date for the death of sport last week, estimating that it will all be over by April 13, 2019. So if you were thinking of booking ahead for the Horse of the Year Show, forget it.

The shock announcement came during Gary Lineker is Dead, a bit of sci- fi drama with the dark message that sport is on the way out and that, here in 1995, the omens are in place. On 13 April 2019 (the day, we are told, of the death of President Gary Lineker - a ridiculous proposition: as everyone knows, the first president of a united Britain will be Alan Hansen), a small boy dips into a computer archive full of faces from the 1990s to try and discover what was meant by words like "football" and "penalty shoot-out".

He learns how tennis died when the ball became invisible to the naked eye; how rugby went under when Martin Offiah sued someone for tackling him and depriving him of his bonus; how football ate itself in an orgy of drugs and greed. And at one scary moment, he points and clicks and Eric Hall pops up.

Hall is the crop-haired king of footballers' agents - Agent Orange, as it were. The programme seemed to be intimating that one day he would be famous for finishing off football. Right now though, he is famous for having entered into our language the colloquial term "monster". Thought to have an exclusively adjectival force (as in "I'm monster happy", meaning "I'm extremely pleased"; and as in "I'm monster shocked" meaning "I'm extremely dismayed"), "monster" turns out to serve also as a punctuation mark and an all-purpose expletive. "It's all about monster winning," Hall declared here, through a chirpy grin and an evil laugh. "Win, win, win, win, win," he said. "Monster win", he added.

Hall's helpful contributions were intercut with those of Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, with whom Hall and his ilk are about as popular as an outbreak of scabies on a crowded submarine. Taylor raised the distasteful matter of bungs, or what he calls "Magic Roundabout money". One racked one's brains at this moment, trying to recall what famous connection there was between money and the Magic Roundabout. Aside from some vague and probably entirely false recollections of an episode in which Dylan tried to buy Mr McEnry's trike off him, I have no recollection of the folding stuff figuring in the programme at all. It was possible to wonder which posed the greater threat to sport's future: bungs, or the inability of sports executives to talk a language anyone understands.

Terry Neill, speaking more clearly, ascribed sport's imminent downfall to the worship of Mammon and seemed to want to wind back the clock to that wonderful, innocent age in which footballers earned five shillings and sixpence weekly, spent all their disposable income on dubbin and - as Bobby Charlton used to - travelled to home games on the bus. There are many problems with this kind of wishfulness, not least of all that, if standards among footballers have declined, then standards among bus services have done so still more sharply. On the whole, it's probably better that players are paid enough to afford their own transport and thus stand some chance of reaching the ground before 4.45.

Neill's vision was that money brought out the worst kind of competitiveness, one having more to do with manic gladiatorial combat than sport. This is surely only part of the truth. Attend a Premiership game involving any mid-table side, especially at this point in the season, and there you will see, luridly demonstrated, the power of money to demotivate and render complacent. Give a centre-forward £4,000 a week and you do not necessarily create a snarling and ruthless, success-hungry beast. You just as likely end up with an over-groomed showman with a desirable car, an expensive wardrobe and an indifference towards pursuing the long ball in the direction of the opposition's corner flag. The inducement has yet to be invented which is powerful enough to eliminate the "can't be fagged" factor. And that alone should ensure sport's survival for a good few years beyond 2019.

Network First (ITV, Wednesday) asked the direct question: "What makes Linford Christie run?" and spent much of last year following him around in search of answers. I'm not sure we ever really found out, but revelations in a busy 45 minutes included the fact that Christie's coach, Ron Roddan, grants his services free of charge; that Linford, though always a non- smoker and non-drinker, went through a wild and dissolute phase in which he did a lot of karaoke ("Ron", said an observer, "helped pull his head into the right position at that point"); and that the famous tabloid inquiry into the contents of "Linford's lunchbox" caused the runner intense irritation, mostly because it emboldened strangers to shout at him: "Oi, Linford: How's yer lunchbox?" One could see how this would, as it were, chafe after a while.

Still, the thrust here was that some of the rewards of sporting excellence are beyond the merely pecuniary. Christie has been granted the freedom of the Borough of Hammersmith. And you don't get much less pecuniary than that.