The sweet appeal of nostalgia

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EXCEPT among students of sporting history, I find that in talking with young people it is better not to pull up heroes from the past because generally they haven't the slightest idea who you are talking about.

If not a recent or indeed an original conclusion, it cropped up again last week with the realisation that a majority hearing about Billy Wright's death had no clear impression of him as a player. As you get older this happens all the time, and I find it personally disturbing. For example, not long ago, with encouragement in mind, it was put to a budding full-back that occasionally he evoked memories of Ray Wilson who turned out for England in the 1966 World Cup final and had few peers. Bafflement spread across the young player's face. 'Ray who?' he asked, innocently.

Romario, of Brazil, could hardly be in ignorance of the great stars who vividly represented his country in 1970 but, as he pointed out just before this year's World Cup final, they are merely names to him. 'I feel no great responsibility for living up to their achievements,' he said, 'because I was only five years old when they were great figures in football. They were of their time; I am of mine.'

It does not seem 40 and more years ago since I went around tapping the memories of those who had seen great sporting masters at work. I was eager for verbal descriptions of Joe Louis, Don Bradman, the great golfer Bobby Jones, and any number of illustrious footballers. Reading about them wasn't nearly enough.

This week a television company called to invite participation in a programme marking the 20th anniversary of a momentous heavyweight championship bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in Zaire, one of the most dramatic events in sporting history.

At this point I shall quote A J Liebling who wrote about boxing for the New Yorker so infectiously that he captured the attention of readers who would have passed out at the thought of sitting ringside. 'One thing about the Sweet Science upon which all initiates are in agreement is that it used to be better,' Liebling wrote. 'The exact period at which it is better, however, varies in direct ratio with the age of the fellow telling about it; if he was a fighter, it always turns out to be the time when he was fighting, and if a fight writer, the years before he began to get bored with what he was doing. Fight writers, since they last longer than boxers, are the most persistent howlers after antiquity.'

That applies to all sports. In retirement, old players look back firm in the conviction that things were better in their time. To a lesser extent, the sports reporter also becomes a helpless victim of nostalgia. I well remember being berated by my elders for daring to suggest that an England team from the immediate post-war years, one that included such notables as Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Raich Carter, Wilf Mannion and Wright, could not possibly compare with the combination Alf Ramsey took to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

The Welsh heavyweight, Tommy Farr, a boyhood hero who unsuccessfully went the full 15 rounds with Louis for the championship, once lectured me kindly on the respective merits of Louis and Ali. 'No comparison,' he said, coming down heavily in favour of Louis. Though respecting Farr greatly, I was no more inclined to go along with his opinion than young people today are inclined to go along with mine.

Mind you, there are consolations. 'Remember Billy Hardy?' I was asked the other day. 'Played for Cardiff City in the Thirties.' 'Sorry,' I replied, 'long before my time.'