The Illy season for speaking too soon

Click to follow
The Independent Online
As a Lancastrian, there is no finer sight for me than the spectacle of Yorkshiremen taking lumps off one another. Pamela Anderson sprinting across the Californian sand can't hold a candle to a bit of Tyke violence. This week's outbreak of blood-letting arrived via Geoffrey Boycott's views on whether Raymond Illingworth, as chairman of the English Test selectors, should have been allowed to express his opinions in his soon-to-be-published autobiography.

In particular, Boycott took objection to what he sees as Illingworth's continuing belittlement of the fast bowler Devon Malcolm while still holding the office through which selection policy is decided. Boycott wondered what England players might feel about being chosen by a man who was apparently ready to rush into print about their shortcomings, even serialising the book in a newspaper.

The fact that English cricket players and umpires are required to submit their scribbling to Lord's before publication, while Illingworth is not, was also a point of grievance with Boycott calling for disciplinary action to be taken against his former Test and county colleague. There would have been hollow laughter ringing around both slopes of the Pennines at this, for there is something of the pot calling the kettle dermatologically enhanced about Boycott's utterances. For enlightenment, I turned to that Baedeker of Yorkshire's internal strife, We Don't Play It For Fun by Don Mosey, published in 1988. In this, Boycott's autobiography of a year earlier is summarised thus: "Page followed page of claims that everyone had made mistakes except Geoffrey himself. Few, if any, of his associates over 25 years in the first-class game escaped censure for having at some stage conspired to deprive him of his rightful place in history."

Then there is the anecdotal evidence of Boycott's willingness to express an opinion about anyone who ever waved a bat or polished a ball. One infamous story tells how he was invited to offer a tribute for the testimonial booklet of a fellow Yorkshire opener. Boycott is alleged to have responded: "Aye, alright - the **** couldn't bat!"

Yet to suggest that Boycott is being hypocritical over Illingworth is not the issue that bothers me. He has a right to his views and his point about Illingworth's responsibilities as chairman is a pertinent one - that opinions expressed from a position of authority need to be tempered and regulated not just for reasons of morale but also of tact.

Few of us who follow sport can still cling to the illusion of youth that professional team-mates are bound together in a state of permanent harmony, or that their coaches and bosses have an unshakeable liking for the vulnerable souls under their command. But when I first witnessed a lurid expression of disenchantment by one team-mate about another, I was genuinely shocked, dismayed that an area of life that was cherished as an ideal should also be subject to the petty bitchiness and poisoned back-stabbing of every other place of work.

Since these opinions are public knowledge now, there is less squeamishness about revealing the incident. Interviewing the Liverpool defender Tommy Smith in 1978, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he turned out to be both generous with his time and liberal with his wit. Only when the name of his colleague Emlyn Hughes came up did the ambiance darken and Smith's phrase still lingers: "If he was on fire I wouldn't piss him out."

Of course, we have no right to expect that highly-priced sports people, whose egos are frequently at the centre of their competitive drive, should not have opinions about those around them. Linford Christie feeds off his disdain for American rival sprinters, while we could probably spend hours speculating on what Eric Cantona remembers of his former manager at Leeds, Howard Wilkinson, or about what price Alex Ferguson now puts on his pounds 7m signing Andy Cole.

We will, of course, find out when assorted biographies, diaries and memoirs are published by the protagonists. Perhaps we won't have to wait too long. For the issue at the heart of the Illingworth-Malcolm debate is the high stakes now placed on marketable opinions, whether via book or newspaper column, and the more topical and controversial they are, the more valuable these opinions become.

The success, in an altogether more poisonous sphere of life, of Alan Clark's diaries appears to have increased the public's appetite for finding out what famous people think of one another. But even Clark waited until he had left office before letting rip. Illingworth was entitled to his views on Malcolm, but not to express them just yet. Meanwhile, the chequebook chase will now be on for those England cricketers prepared to ignore Lord's restrictions and let Raymond know exactly what they think of his contribution to England's recent failures.

IT IS now less than two weeks to the start of Euro 96, an event marketed as football coming home, with 15 other nations arriving to celebrate England's place in the game, and organisers hoping for a festival of free-scoring football and the happy mingling of fans from all over the Continent. So what does our jolly Prime Minister do on the eve of this occasion? In company with the most rabid of our tabloids, he picks a fight with the rest of Europe, rubbishes their opinions and sensitivities and threatens disruption of the democratic process in the European Parliament.

You don't need to be Oliver Stone to imagine that all across Britain, those operators who trashed Dublin's Lansdowne Road Stadium last year will now be frothing over in righteous indignation of what they will see as "European gits who won't eat our beef" and will therefore set out to demonstrate to Continental visitors the physical prowess generated by a diet of scrapie- infected meat.

Though there is, as yet, no established link between BSE and the human form of mad cow disease, CJD, by the end of Euro 96 we may well have established a firm connection between the inflammatory posturing of fading politicians and the practitioners of xenophobic violence at football tournaments.

LAST Saturday night, by all accounts, the veteran jockey Willie Carson rode a stinker on the favourite Kamari in the last race. Ahead by a street, Carson then chose to hold up his horse and eased it down so disastrously that he was caught on the line. The Jockey Club suspended Carson for seven days, but many of the punters who had backed Carson's horse had a suspension of Mussolini proportions in mind.

One aggrieved party, who stood to win pounds 4,000 had Carson ridden his mount properly, threatened to take legal advice about the possibility of recovering his lost winnings in court. He hasn't got a chance, of course, given our tacit acceptance of all the bizarre risks when making a bet.

But after a few moments of indulgent fantasy, how many of us leapt to the waste-bin in search of those betting slips bearing the names of Greg Norman to win the Masters, Colin Montgomerie to win the B & H, Newcastle United to win the Premiership or indeed Ray Illingworth to lead England to victory in the Test series in South Africa?