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Sport: The art of remembering what matters most

WHEN YOU put the milk bottles out at night, and the keen air sharpens your senses, and you glance up to a scythe of moon and a dusting of stars, it is only natural to think: how tiny we are in the vastness of the universe. How strange this life is.

And yet, when you step back and shut the door behind you, what other thoughts crowd in? If he comes for the milk bill tomorrow, we're talking about a post-dated cheque. What would have happened if Cole hadn't followed up? Lightbulbs and cat litter. Lightbulbs, cat litter, and find chequebook. Surely the referee would have given Yorke a penalty?

Being humbled by the cosmos is like staring into the sun - not something you can spend too much time on. Instead, the mind veers away to other concerns. Which is where the real problems begin.

If I could concentrate my mental resources on useful projects, such as remembering where I put the car keys, remembering not to leave the newspapers by the front door because the cat pisses on them, and, oh yes, remembering where I left my chequebook - if I could master even these small accomplishments, my life would be easier.

Even better if I could store useful information in my head. How many stopcocks are there in the house, and where are they? Which fuses correspond to which lights? What is my current tax coding? Where, exactly, is the garden fork? Did we lend it to anybody, and if so on what basis?

That advertisement with the challenging questions in thick black type which crops up on the front of newspapers - do you forget names, people, faces? - actually, I don't recall the details - well, it rings a bell. That accompanying picture of a baffled young man who looks like someone stumped for an answer on a 1950s American quiz show. I identify with him.

A psychologist writes: This problem occurs because the subject does not wish to take on adult responsibilities and engage with adult patterns of behaviour.

The subject responds: Not true. I don't take any pleasure in being inefficient. It simply wastes my time and prevents me doing other things which are more enjoyable. And even those things are adversely affected.

I have often thought it would be nice to remember poetry - even accepting the obvious risks of becoming one of those people who remembers poetry. To be able to call upon an apt quote when the occasion requires would be... well... I would like, when the occasion requires, to be able to call upon an apt quote.

I once spent several hours trying to commit to memory a poem by Louis MacNiece, The Sunlight on the Garden, because, basically, I liked it. A colleague of mine with a particularly well-stocked mind spent several... pints, actually... trying to coach me in my task.

And, for a while, it worked. I had consciously enriched my mental store. I had added something of real value. But the words slipped away like... well... they slipped away.

Yet some things do lodge in the space between my ears. They fall into two broad categories.

The first is pop tunes and lyrics. Especially - and perversely - those I have heard my children singing over breakfast, or late at night when they should be asleep. These songs are usually associated with a mental picture of a group of strutting youths with body piercing - or an unnaturally mature 15-year-old thrusting her pelvis at the television cameras.

The second, thank God, is sport. I may not be able to remember poetry, but I can recall certain sporting moments with the utmost clarity, and I can recall the emotion of them.

Frank Lampard Snr, who hardly ever scored, jigging around a corner flag after scoring for West Ham in the 1980 FA Cup semi-final against Everton.

Peter Elliott actually winning the title his talent merited at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, accelerating away from the Kenyans with a broadening grin. Arthur Ashe concentrating his willpower at the side of Wimbledon's Centre Court before finishing off the new brat on the block, Jimmy Connors.

Life is full of mysteries. But these are the kind I find myself dwelling on. Why didn't every England footballer at the last World Cup practice penalties as a matter of course? Why did West Ham sign Iain Dowie? Even more puzzlingly, why did they buy him back after they'd sold him? (I've read Harry Redknapp's reasons, and I'm still not convinced.) Why does David Ginola wear a vest? What does Dennis Wise do for an encore?

And all this week, there has been another one nagging away at me. What would have happened if Cole hadn't followed up? Would the referee have given Dwight Yorke a penalty?