James Lawton: English sporting disasters raise questions of great expectations and diminishing returns

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The Independent Online

Being beaten is not the worst thing. Often the way that it happens is more important. This means that we have just had a burst of unmitigated disaster. These are, let's say the least of it, not the most uplifting days in the sporting life of England, the home of such assorted characters as Ian Botham, Jonny Wilkinson and Sir Bobby Charlton.

The world-beating tendency appears to be in full flight. Consider this last roll call of failure: a formal romp to victory by India in the second Test, a profoundly humiliating cake-walk by the French in Paris, and then there was the little matter of the French-coached Arsenal, a bulwark of the nation's football tradition, beating Real Madrid without the assistance of a single native son. Arsenal also got the better of Liverpool, partly because one of England's best players, Steve Gerrard, served up a bizarre back-pass - to a Frenchman, of course.

Once again it was to Thierry Henry. The last time he did it was in the dying stages of a vital European Championship game. At least Gerrard doesn't bestow his favours on any old opponent.

But why is English sport locked into a such a slump in team performance? It is not as though the supply lines of talent have been broken.

England's outside-half, Charlie Hodgson, is widely respected as a gifted player more than capable of inflicting his subtle skills on the international field. But at the Stade de France on Sunday he was withdrawn at half-time, ostensibly for injury but perhaps also because he had become traumatised by the task of trying to inject a little competitive bite into his rabble of a team.

Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff, rightly, is a national hero who has shown in recent weeks a superb commitment to the cause of English cricket. But, despite his best efforts, his team have in the past few days folded in front of his eyes. In football there has been endless talk of a golden generation for quite a number of years now: Beckham, Owen, Gerrard were going to deliver the big prize; now there is the thunderous talent of Wayne Rooney and the strength of Frank Lampard. Hubris is in the air as we go to Germany, but it is 40 years since our one and only triumph in the great competition, and some are weary of pointing out how many times excessive optimism has come before the fall.

Some of this, certainly in both India and Paris, had something to do with failed technique - well, quite a lot of it when you think about it - but is there another factor at work? Have we become the nation so unfamiliar with consistent success at the highest level of world sport that we have some difficulty in handling it when it arrives, as it does at least for many millions of the public, out of a clear blue sky?

There is certainly a touch of compelling circumstantial evidence. What, for example, did some members of both the English teams so relentlessly thrashed this weekend have in common? It was that in the recent past they had been paraded through the streets of London on the way to being fêted at Downing Street.

In the case of the cricket team this, perhaps understandably, caused much amusement in Australia, where winning the Ashes tends to be seen as routine as scrawling out a message to the milkman.

The rugby boys no doubt deserved their share of acclaim for winning the World Cup in dramatic fashion. Unfortunately, any idea of impending greatness beyond one major triumph has been dwindling with almost every successive match.

There was, in some circles apparently, even discussion of a parade for the football team after they reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Japan four years ago before going down to a 10-man Brazil. When the idea was turned down, one newspaper called a 1966 hero, George Cohen, for his reaction. He said that in all honesty he didn't have one. In his time you didn't have a parade when you finished eighth. He might have added that he was probably the wrong man to ask. He, after all, waited 34 years, along with Alan Ball, Roger Hunt, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson for some recognition - on the lowest rung of the honours system - for his part in English sport's greatest moment.

Maybe it is that when it matters we have become a little soft; overwhelmed and staggered by success, we enter a prolonged and worrying relapse.

Maybe those who say this are wrong. But perhaps there should be a decent interval before anyone tells them so.

Johnstone had fine talent and a tumultuous life

The way football works today there is a chance that wee jinking Jimmy Johnstone, who died after a long illness yesterday, wouldn't have made it.

As brittle in his nature as he was brilliant in his talent, his great manager Jock Stein handled him with an astonishingly effective combination of discipline, and forbearance. Big Jock knew his wee man, and the result of that knowledge was that his club and his nation had the services of a winger of sublime trickery and touch.

Some assessments yesterday reached a little far. One said that he was the greatest winger of all time and likened him to Johan Cruyff. That was a little wide of the mark. Jinky was no clinical Dutchman, and if he had a spiritual companion it was probably the Brazilian Garrincha, a man of fine talent and a tumultuous life.

Johnstone's most ignominious moment came when he floated down the Clyde in a rowing boat without oars after a night of premature celebration with his Scottish team-mates before they embarked for the 1974 World Cup in Germany. The Coast Guard had to be called out and in the dawn of the hotel lobby one team-mate described Johnstone, who was shivering in a blanket while being interviewed by members of the local constabulary, as a defiant and very wet spaniel. His mood had not been improved by the lecture he had received from a fellow guest, a matronly figure who espoused the virtue of personal discipline. Johnstone's response was less than delicate.

Though receiving fierce criticism, not least from his wife, Johnstone emerged with a brilliant performance in a home international against England. His lack of discipline, however, inevitably worked against him - a fact indicated by his meagre total of 23 caps.

However, Johnstone bathed himself in the acclaim of his people. With Celtic he won nine league titles and was part of the team which won Britain's first European Cup, against Internazionale in Lisbon in 1967. His dribbling was so mazy one of his affectionate nicknames was "The Lord of the Wing". In fact he was more a guerrilla fighter, as unpredictable as he could be lacerating in his brilliance.

No one was surprised when he fought the ravages of motor neurone disease with great courage; he was a mischievous scamp for much of his playing life, but ultimately there was never any question about him being a man.

One burden that he never quite mastered, however, was the guile of his boss Big Jock.

Once he settled in one of his favourite Glaswegian bars, when he should have been at training, and was about to take his first drink of the day when the phone rang. The landlord told him: "That was the big man. He said he knows you're here." Yesterday they called time on Jimmy Johnstone on one last occasion. It took away one of Scotland's, and football's, most enduring and best loved characters.

The spirit of resistance is alive and well

Some England supporters, dismayed by the massacre of their team at the Stade de France, had the good sense to repair to Ernest Hemingway's old haunt, the Brasserie Lipp.

Their reward was easily the most compelling action of the day. It came when a rather striking blonde lady, annoyed by the boorish behaviour of a large and rather formidable looking man on the next table, rose to her feet and announced: "It is enough." She then picked up an ice bucket and deposited its contents over his head.

Applause was mingled, inevitably, with some English regret: if only someone in a white shirt had displayed some of that spirit a little earlier in the day.

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