Sport: Why devolution does not suit British sport

A FEW days ago even people who don't give tennis a second thought unless the fuzz ball is flying around at Wimbledon were held enthralled by the stirring effort put in by Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski when representing Great Britain against the United States in the Davis Cup.

Of course, any sporting tussle in opposition to our former transatlantic colonies can have the effect of one nation, one flag but the fervour generated by a packed house at the Birmingham Indoor Arena last week-end had special significance.

If unlikely to have weakened the resolve of those who see no future in the United Kingdom it made a case for supposing that sport in this country won't happily embrace the devolutionary process.

In a directive recently issued to its staff the BBC advised discretion with the term "British" for fear of offending the Scots, Welsh or Irish. And yet some of our most enduring sports memories have resulted from the setting aside of cultural differences in a common cause.

If one outcome of the upsurge in nationalism is that a new sports picture replaces the old it doesn't necessarily amount to progress.

A Welsh victory over England at Wembley on Sunday would thrill me no end but it would be a great shame if developments in world rugby since the advent of professionalism put paid to the Lions.

The Ryder Cup will be defended against the United States this year by a team representing Europe, but its traditions are embedded in the history of British golf.

A team drawn from the four home nations will be sent to next year's Olympic Games and this summer's World Athletic Championships.

One of the few things upon which I find myself in agreement with the sports minister, Tony Banks, is that we should have one not four national football teams.

When, some years ago, I was invited by Uefa, the governing body of European football, to set down views on this in its official magazine, a call came from the late Ted Croker who was then secretary of the Football Association. It became abundantly clear from our conversation that the FA would argue against publication of the article unless it conformed to their hidebound position.

One of my arguments was that having, with Scotland's support, cast off and more or less bankrupted the Irish and Welsh by abandoning the Home International Championship the FA had made it unlikely that some outstanding British players of the time would be seen in major international tournaments. In fact, George Best, who is perhaps the outstanding post-war British player, never appeared in the World Cup finals.

If you want to know why Great Britain no longer send a football team to the Olympics look no further than the determination of the authorities to block any loophole that could be expanded to strip away the perks of autonomy.

The differences between us are not easily understood abroad. For instance, Americans are a damn sight clearer about what it means to be Scots or Irish than to be Welsh despite the fact that the first and only president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was of Welsh descent. Thus, Richard Burton was thought of as an English actor, as is Anthony Hopkins.

When Colin Jones of Wales was in the United States preparing to meet Milton McCrory for the World Boxing Council welterweight championship the New York Times described him as an English boxer. Never one to let an insult slide Jones sought out the offending author and gave him what for. "Call me British if you like," Jones growled, "but I'm Welsh not bloody English. I'm as Welsh as Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey." "Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey?" came the reply. "You mean they're not English."

A fault of the English is to think themselves British when it suits them. Following England's failure to reach the 1974 World Cup finals a number of English football writers who had been assigned to cover Scotland showed up at Hampden Park for a friendly against West Germany. "Didn't take you long to jump on the bandwagon. Suppose we're all British now," was the kindest thing said to them.

Last week we were. Not for the first time in sport and, if I've got it right, not for the last.