Sport: Stampeded by galloping expectations

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The Independent Online
The Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, is talking about quitting his post and disappearing back into the crowd. He felt that way even before Wembley spectators chanted "Judas" at him during England's World Cup qualifier against Moldova on Wednesday, an experience hardly likely to improve his comfort in a job that has often seen him drenched in derision since his appointment four months ago.

The cause of the fans' anger was his view, contained in an interview he gave six weeks or so ago but not published until last week, that England wouldn't win the World Cup and that other international teams were much more proficient and skilful. This is by no means an unreasonable opinion and if every person who held it was to be classified as a Judas the earth would not contain enough pieces of silver to go round. But it was not wise, and definitely not politically sensible, for a man in his position to spread such doubts however honestly held.

Banks told the Daily Mail that frustrations of this kind sometimes caused him to think: "I don't need this." This understandable sentiment allies him with anyone who has ever popped his head above the sporting parapet. Captains, coaches, managers, administrators, all those in responsible positions who have fallen short of glory have sooner or later to consider the question of how necessary the attendant crap is to the enjoyment of life.

As one who has piled the odd shovelful of scorn on some of Banks's pronouncements, I may not be an appropriate source for advice but I feel he should rapidly acquire something that hitherto has been totally alien to his nature and that is a cool head. Due to circumstances not entirely within his control, these past four months have propelled him into a far higher profile than he or his superiors could have envisaged.

A short period of inaudibility might be helpful while the Minister absorbs the lessons of his headlong rush into action. He could emerge from it all the stronger and eventually provide valuable assistance in solving the problems confronting many facets of our sporting scene.

Certainly, he ought not to allow the Wembley crowd to stampede him towards the exit. They might have felt that they had some justification in giving him the bird but Banks was unfortunate that the interview he gave to Esquire magazine in July should have surfaced at precisely the worse moments and the fact remains that if it wasn't his place to point out the obvious it was up to somebody to say it before England's followers develop any more symptoms of that dreaded sporting disease, the galloping expectations.

The only way their heroes are going to reach a higher level of accomplishment in world football is through a manager who can overcome English deficiencies in skill and technique by judicious deployment of what strengths he can find. Many good managers have attempted this extremely difficult task and in the process have suffered much ignominy from the likes of those who were baying at Banks last week, and some of the press can be included in their number.

No one can deny that their victory over Moldova contained much that was encouraging. The past 30 years have contained too many woeful Wednesdays at Wembley for any resounding victory to be sneezed at, no matter who the opposition. Paul Gascoigne's performance in particular was enough to hearten their sternest critics and said much for the time he has spent out of the limelight. Playing in Scotland is not as incessantly demanding as the English Premiership and the experience is obviously proving beneficial. Perhaps Glenn Hoddle should arrange for his entire squad to be transferred there.

It should be taken into consideration that there was another force at work that night, one that concentrated their minds on making a tangible contribution towards raising national morale and there is no doubt that the overflow of unquenched emotion from the previous week added a sombre dimension to their urgency to succeed.

For the sake of Hoddle and his players we should now attempt to return to reality. The events of Wednesday might well have made England's qualification for the World Cup finals more likely, but they still need to draw the final match against Italy in Rome on 11 October. England have not been presented with as difficult a task since Euro 96.

There's another element that is potentially just as great a threat to England's presence in France next year. They will be taking 7,000 supporters with tickets and probably another thousand or two without. It is a long time since the English had that strong a presence abroad and the dangers are worrying, especially if they have it in their heads that their team is in conquering shape.

It also happens that fans from Chelsea, Newcastle, Manchester United, Arsenal and Aston Villa are following their teams to European destinations over the next few weeks and the prospects of violence cannot be ignored. In a far less publicised move, Banks has written to all clubs and supporters' organisations offering the Government's help to smooth out any problems in advance and to stress the need for good behaviour.

Any display of the ugly behaviour of past English expeditions could jeopardise England's welcome in the World Cup finals in France and the attempt to bring the 2006 World Cup to these shores.

That's what a sports minister is for, anticipating problems and attempting to avoid them. It would be the greatest irony if the same fans who called him Judas last week were to be among those who betray their country by their behaviour in Rome.

YOU have to admire the sauce of the Football Association in putting pressure on BSkyB television to relinquish their exclusive rights to the Italy-England game in Rome on 11 October. Even the Government are being asked to join in the clamour for this crucial game to be seen live on ITV instead of just a recording later in the evening. Sky, whose business is unashamedly aimed at selling their service, are quite rightly reluctant to share their scoop.

If anyone should be consumed with guilt that night it should be the FA and not Sky whose millions are busily bulging the wallets of football players and administrators alike. The FA earn almost pounds 100m from selling England's home games plus FA Cup-ties to the satellite people. Why the sudden attack of conscience?

Perhaps they should care more for the fans who take the trouble to go to matches. Figures revealed last week show that the cost of real spectating has soared 222 per cent over the past decade so why should the armchair fan expect to watch it for nothing?

If anyone is set on seeing the Italy game they can buy a dish, visit a pub or find a friend. While those unable to make these arrangements await the recording, they should ponder on who has abandoned them.

WELSH cricket fans seething over the omission of Glamorgan's opener Steve James from the England party to tour West Indies next winter are wondering why the Government are lagging so far behind the England cricket selectors. They devolved us years ago.

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