Thanks for the memory

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The Independent Online
NOTHING so inspires the enthusiasm of sports fans, so stirs their imagination, as an opportunity to debate aesthetic and technical merit, especially when it sets the present against the past.

Today the scene is a garden party at Buckingham Palace to celebrate British sporting achievement during the 40 years of the Queen's reign.

Mindful that royal affairs of little consequence are not accorded more than perfunctory attention in this newspaper, and that the heroes and heroines were, doubtless, mightily pleased to be invited, I shall quickly move on.

A discussion that took place the other night between some grizzled veterans and bright-eyed representatives of the present generation predictably touched on something that happens to the eyesight as you get older: how your view of sport changes so that very little today appears to be as good as it once was.

Thus, in the mind, Sir Leonard Hutton towers above Graham Gooch, Bobby Charlton above Paul Gascoigne, Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart above Nigel Mansell.

It is impossible, of course, to draw up a register based solely on attainment. Moss failed to win a Formula One driver's championship; Sir Roger Bannister, immortalised as the first sub-four-minute miler, did not gain an Olympic medal. Henry Cooper, who floored the young Cassius Clay during a non-title fight in 1963, was cut to ribbons when he challenged him for the world heavyweight championship three years later. Yet all three still figure prominently in the lore of British sport, their status surviving the relentless passage of time.

It was that which threw our little group back on memories of the last four decades, seeking to nominate those who beyond all reasonable doubt became most clearly identified with British sport.

There are plenty of cricketers to consider: Hutton, Denis Compton, Fred Trueman, Colin Cowdrey, Peter May, Ted Dexter, Geoff Boycott and Gooch. But, for all his boisterous non-conformity, ought not the choice to be Ian Botham?

Forty years of British football embrace Sir Stanley Matthews who, at 38, gained his first FA Cup winner's medal in Coronation year, Tom Finney, Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, George Best, Bobby Moore, John Charles, Kenny Dalglish, and such notable managers as Sir Matt Busby, Sir Alf Ramsey, Jock Stein and Bill Shankly.

Ramsey once said of Charlton: 'Everywhere you go they want him. In all the years I have been connected with England teams as a player and manager I cannot recall anyone getting as much respect and applause. Finney, Wright, Lawton, Matthews. Bobby has surpassed them all in this respect.' No British player has made a greater impact upon world football and only Busby is more closely associated with Manchester United.

I was mentioning these comparisons to a friend the other day. He was not greatly moved. 'Television has altered our perception of people in sport, brought them into sharper focus. Simply hearing them speak intrudes upon assessment,' he said.

Appearing before the cameras never did Seb Coe any harm, his confident manner complementing a talent that enriched a history of British excellence in middle-distance running. Steve Ovett may have been his equal as an athlete, but it was Coe who most conspicuously carried the flag.

Confidently, I submit that no Briton during the last 40 years has gained greater respect in world rugby than Gareth Edwards.

Of the boxers, Ken Buchanan, John Conteh, Barry McGuigan and Howard Winstone, all legitimate world champions, stand out. Yet Cooper, a noble loser who rarely ventured abroad, and never to the United States, probably rises above them.

For golf read Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam and in tennis Virginia Wade, the last British winner of a singles title at Wimbledon.

And what of a man whose on-going career began before the Queen succeeded to the throne? There is considerable irony in the fact that the highest achiever, and among those closest to Her Majesty's sporting inclinations, is the man who had his OBE withdrawn and served a year at her pleasure. I refer, of course, to Lester Piggott.