No such thing as over the hill: Cue an endless stream of nostalgic bilge about the great old days when England used to lose 5-0 to West Indies

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The Independent Online
YOU HAVE to feel sorry for young men in sport these days. There they are, with all the energy, the fitness, the good looks, the designer stubble, the massive, muscly thighs, the blonde girlfriends with unlikely tans, the teams of agents and managers deciding which brand of bleach they should endorse on nationwide television and no one likes them for it.

They make pots of money, and have hordes of luscious young lovelies queuing up to pleasure them in Italian nightclubs, but no one likes them for it. On the contrary, we sneer at them and their luxuriant body hair, and predict cheerfully that they will burn themselves out within a couple of years, if not sooner. Uppity young so-and-sos, never done a proper day's work in their lives, etc etc.

Creaky old sportsmen, by contrast, get a smoother ride. The clouds disappear, the sun burns brightly and choirs of angels sing as we reminisce fondly about the great 'characters' of the past. Ah, those were the days. And should one of these old codgers make something vaguely approaching a successful comeback, we go all soppy and nostalgic and even, in extremes, have a quiet blub to ourselves when no one's watching.

Last week, for instance, when David Gower made his return to Test cricket you could almost hear the crowd sigh with relief when he came out to bat. God knows why - the man out was Robin Smith, who averages over 50, and it was odds on that Gower would swipe at a wide one when he'd reached 15 and be caught at slip. And so he did - but the slip dropped it. Cue an endless stream of nostalgic bilge about the great old days when England used to lose 5-0 to West Indies. The fact that Gower was eventually caught behind, swiping at a wide one, didn't seem to matter.

Similarly John McEnroe, whose recent run at Wimbledon was greeted with rapt adoration by the crowd, and indeed virtually everyone else in the world. The final stages of that doubles final may have been terrifically exciting, but it was fascinating to watch the crowd side with the old favourites rather than their anonymous American opponents, Chip and Buzz, or whatever their names were.

When Chip (or was it Skip?) fizzled a return, the crowd roared. When Buzz (or was it Chuck?) missed an easy one, they virtually wet themselves. And yet, for all his brilliant play, McEnroe is still the same bad-tempered, miserable, ill-mannered git he always was. What has changed?

Well, nothing helps like a receding hairline, and the odd dash of grey in the temples works wonders. Since Gower and McEnroe started greying, everyone's loved them even more than before. Venerability and waning athletic powers may not do much for your performances on the field, but they don't harm your popularity, let alone your earning potential. Indeed, crumbly old sportsmen eventually become so universally loved that they can rake in huge sums of money simply for being universally loved.

Last year's list of sport's top earners included Arnold Palmer at eighth and Jack Nicklaus at tenth. Neither made much money out of actually playing golf, but they both made a bomb - 9 and 8 million respectively - out of being Palmer and Nicklaus.

Hence the popularity of Seniors Tours in virtually every sport you can name. Watching a Seniors Tour is just immensely reassuring. All your favourites are there except that they're now all old and past it. But they're still smiling as they slice into the woods at the 14th and escape with a seven. They're true professionals.

So how can the young compete? We're already seeing the pressure on the features of poor young Boris Becker, with his straggly beard and haunted expression. Graeme Hick looks as though he's about to face a firing squad every time be goes out to bat. But the oldies know better. 'It's the knees,' say the wiseacres as another oldie blows it. What a brilliant excuse. They just don't care. They know that whatever happens, everyone, will love them. No one expects them to succeed.

That receding hairline, that touch of grey: they just can't fail. Look at Gary Lineker. Even he's going grey now. And if Gary Lineker's doing it, its got to be a good career move.