Sport: WHAT IF?

As another sporting year reaches its finale, Greg Wood looks back over the last 12 months and recalls what might have happened
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What if

John McEnroe had mellowed with age?

The umpire blanched visibly at the stream of abuse being hurled towards his chair. "Are you BLIND? The ball was IN! What kind of a jerk ARE you? You are sick, sick, SICK!"

At the other end of the court, a bemused John McEnroe looked on. This was not the Bjorn Borg he remembered. That unfortunate business with the underpants company had clearly taken its toll on the once unflappable Swede.

Still, at least the latest outbreak of Borg-rage - the third in the first set of their exhibition game alone - gave him a chance to see his opponent as others had once seen him. Anger, petulance, arrogance - all those negative emotions which used to grip McEnroe so frequently, back in the days when his life was dominated by worthless, material desires, like winning Wimbledon.

How silly it all seemed now. As Borg advanced on the chair, a disturbing gleam in his eye and flecks of foam starting to form around the corners of his mouth, it was just like one of the visualisation exercises at the retreat.

To think that he had almost turned his best friend down when he suggested that a week or two with the hippest swami in New York might help him to chill a little. Yeah, right, he'd thought. Love and peace. Sounds like the pits of the earth.

And so it was for the first 10 days. The Purple Flower People plied him with compassion, understanding and extraordinary quantities of incense, but still the demon within him resisted. And then, quite unexpectedly - enlightenment. The bitterness and rage which had tormented him for so long fell away like a second skin, and the new John McEnroe was born: gentle, calm and generous to a fault. Not to mention a double fault.

It meant, of course, that he was utterly hopeless at tennis. The purple robes and the reluctance to send a pass down the line when his opponent had gone to such trouble to run to the net were bad enough, but the two minutes of silent contemplation whenever he changed ends meant that he was forfeiting every other game. From SuperBrat to SuperPrat, the headlines had read. But what matter, so long as his karma was in tune with the universe?

How Borg could do with a little of the same inner peace now. Sadly for the umpire, the Swede had recently discovered that one of the new graphite rackets could do far more damage to an errant line-judge than one of his old-fashioned wooden implements. By the time the security men finally dragged him, swearing and screaming, towards a waiting police car, the poor official was barely conscious. Just enough breath remained before oblivion claimed him, though, to grasp the microphone and croak: code violation, Mr Borg. Game, set and match to Mr McEnroe.

It's just like I'm always saying, McEnroe thought, as he plucked a flower from a fan and threaded it carefully into his hair. Nice guys can be winners too.

It was only the tiniest of splinters which lodged itself in the middle toe of Ian Wright's left foot as he padded towards the bathroom on the morning of 13 September, but it was enough.

As he limped back to the bedroom to phone Arsene Wenger and rule himself out of the game that afternoon, the Arsenal striker cursed his misfortune. He was still one goal short of Cliff Bastin's all-time club record, and though the lethal finishing which had long been his trademark had deserted him in recent weeks, he had really fancied himself to get a couple, perhaps even three, against Bolton later that day.

As he turned into the bedroom he winced, and not just because of the throbbing pain in his foot. There, neatly folded on a chair, was the T- shirt so thoughtfully provided by Nike, his sponsors, to celebrate the impending moment of triumph. "179 - Just Done It," the slogan read. As he dialled Wenger's number, Wright promised himself that while Bolton might have been spared, someone else would suffer.

But as autumn gave way to winter, it was Wright who did the suffering. Games against Chelsea, West Ham and Everton passed with the record still elusive as ever, and soon his famous self-confidence was visibly crumbling. Even Barnsley's porous back four kept him at bay, and on the rare occasions when he did get a sight of goal, Wright's feeble attempts to finish were making him a laughing stock. And when the visiting fans started chanting "You're even worse than Collymore" during the goalless draw with Villa at the end of October, the man with the power to make or break him knew that something had to give.

The phone rang as he was leaving for Highbury and the vital game against Manchester United. "I'm sorry, Ian," the marketing manager from Nike said. "But sales are going through the floor. Kids are writing to Santa saying they want any boots he's got so long as they're not Nike. It's nothing personal, but as of this moment, you're fired."

And as even a Sunday afternoon park player knows, if you don't have a pair of boots, you don't get a game. In desperation, Wright hawked himself around every sportswear manufacturer he could think of, but everywhere the answer was the same. His fitness waned, and when Wenger allowed him to join Doncaster Rovers - who play as if they're not wearing boots anyway - on a month's loan, his record-breaking dream seemed to have evaporated.

But no sooner had Wright begun to acquaint himself with his new northern team-mates, than Fate again stepped into his life. A series of bizarre training- ground accidents robbed Wenger of striker after striker, and as the Frenchman sat down to write out the team sheet for the match at Wimbledon on 22 December, his head slumped to the desk in despair as he found himself pencilling in Adams and Winterburn up front.

Suddenly, the telephone rang. "Boss, it's me, Ian. I'm fit, I'm ready for action and guess what - I've got some boots." It was the answer to Wenger's prayers.

Who will ever forget the brilliant four-goal performance by Wright at Selhurst Park which took him to the record, and then beyond? Or the strikers' tearful press conference afterwards? "I'd like to thank Arsene Wenger for believing in me," Wright stammered. "But most of all, I'd like to thank Freeman, Hardy and Willis."

"Six-iron", Colin Montgomerie snapped to his caddie without a second thought. A hundred and eighty yards to the flag, a gentle breeze at his back, and both the Americans plugged in fairway bunkers while his ball had flown straight down the middle. All square with one to play, a Ryder Cup point there for the taking - it was no time to dither and let the pressure creep up on you.

The club was already in his hands when there was a commotion on his left. Suddenly, the spectators were diving for cover as a golf buggy, driven erratically and at high speed, scattered them in all directions. "Wait, wait," the driver yelled, in a thick, southern European accent, and Montgomerie's heart sank.

A second later, Severiano Ballesteros was examining the situation for himself. "Six-iron?" he said finally, as the Scotsman's patience reached breaking point. "You don't want to use that. You want to use a five. You want to play it with some fade, or maybe a little draw. You want to make sure you reach the green, but don't go through it. And you don't want to go into the bunker on the left."

"Thank you, captain," Monty hissed, as the match referee prepared to fine him for slow play. "But I think a six will be sufficient."

Ballesteros's eyes flashed bright with Latin passion. "Who built this course, hombre?" he spat. "Me, that's who, and I'm telling you, I'm ordering you to use a five. If you don't, I swear your name will be in the envelope before the singles. I'm sure" - he smiled wickedly - "Tom and I can come to an arrangement." The ruddy Montgomerie complexion turned positively claret. "All right," he yelled. "A five-iron it is."

His hands were twitching with rage as he finally addressed his ball, but the contact was a sweet one. Up and up the ball soared, dead on line for the flag. And on and on it flew - straight into the grandstand behind the green.

For a moment, the spectators fell silent, all eyes on Ballesteros. "Well don't blame me," the Spaniard said at last. "It's not my fault if you hit it too hard. No wonder you've never won a major. Do you know how many majors I've won, Monty? Do you? Why don't I count them for you. Uno, dos, tres ..."

And so it was that four days later, in Madrid cathedral, the victorious American team joined the Europeans in mourning for Spain's most famous sporting son. Meanwhile, in a secure unit somewhere near Valderrama ...

For all the valiant effort that had gone before, the chance which presented itself to Filippo Inzaghi with two minutes of injury time already played in Rome was a very straightforward one, and the striker placed his header into the top corner without a second thought. Throughout both Italy and Scotland, joy was unconfined.

For Glenn Hoddle, though, there was only a play-off and, worse, the Monday papers to look forward to. "String Him Up!" screamed the Sun. "Agreed, But Shoot Him First" added The Times. And the draw was not kind - Russia, with the first leg away from home.

To this day, no one is precisely surely what happened during that first half in Moscow. At the insistence of Umbro, England took to the field in their new all-white strip, just as a blizzard appeared from the Urals. Unable to see each other, let alone the ball, Hoddle's men could only accept the evidence of the scoreboard as they trooped off 45 minutes later. It told them that they were 3-0 down.

More suitably attired in red for the second half, and with the snow at their backs, England were saved from any further embarrassment, but the damage had been done. "Don't Come Home, Glenn, Or We'll Beat You Up", was the friendly advice from the Financial Times.

It was clear that the second leg at Wembley was going to be a tough assignment when the Russians chose to line up in an unusual 10-0-0 formation. Despite flinging everything they had at the massed defence, England had nothing to show for their efforts with just 15 minutes left on the clock, and the few thousand supporters who had not already left were queueing for the exit. And then, a free-kick 25 yards from goal, and suddenly a buzz of excitement swept Wembley. "Glennda's stripping off!"

Scientists may insist that it is against all the laws of physics, but those who were behind the goal still swear that Hoddle's kick moved left, right, up, down, left and finally right again to beat the goalie's despairing dive. They gasped again two minutes later as Hoddle rose majestically between four hulking defenders to head home Beckham's corner, while his equaliser, deep into extra time, was more extraordinary still.

That he beat every player on the pitch before slotting home was one thing, but that he won the ball himself with a crunching tackle moments earlier was quite incredible.

After that, the winner was a mere formality, and the ticket to France was at last secure. "You Were Lucky," said the Sun next morning. "We'll Get You Next Time," warned the Mirror. After all, some things never change.