Why the fans deserve a round of applause

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THOSE doomed by their insatiable sporting curiosity to keep a constant vigil in the search for the real heroes of this acutely active midsummer will have already removed the name of Michael Atherton from the list of contenders. This premature ejection is caused not by the way the England cricket captain led his team to the discredit of a scrambling draw against New Zealand at Lord's or to his own unheroic batting - it is because of his failings as a spectator.

Whatever the cricketing implications of his decision to spend the last 30 minutes of the match in the dressing-room shower to spare himself the sight of England's nerve-racked tail-enders sweating it out at the crease, it was the abrogation of his duties as a witness to the climax of a sporting occasion that is most concerning.

It is a good job the rest of us have more regard for the onlooker's responsibility and don't dash for the shower every time England are struggling. Not only would chairmen of water companies have to pay themselves even more in order to cope with the demand, the event itself would be deprived of the essential element of every memorable happening in major sport; a rapt audience.

The ability to become rapt is not given to all; nor is it much fun at times. It can be a strain - and one that has to be paid for - but when the going gets tough the tough keep their eyes on it. Top sportspeople might not understand what that involves. They frequently disparage fans and question how many know what it takes to make a star. I venture that the answer is considerably more than the percentage of stars who know what it takes to make a fan.

The first requirement is a respect for those he is watching and enough patience to withstand, within reason, the bad patches. The average attention span of a professional sportsperson when watching someone else in action tends to be dismissively short. In cricket, for instance, the occasional glimpse on television of the players' balcony rarely reveals a study of intrigued concentration. Lolling around, chatting, giggling . . . and that's only the few who stray from the dark confines of the dressing-room where the television set is often tuned to another event. It is probably only when they graduate to the press box that the necessity of paying attention creeps up on them.

We can be assured that Atherton's absence from a climax that had countless others at the edge of their seats was not because of a nonchalant disregard for the plight of his team or his colleagues. He just could not stand the suspense, could not bear to watch something over which he had no control. Even if you find that understandable, however, it is surely a captain's duty to observe the performances of his men when under extreme pressure.

Atherton's is not a rare failing. Players of many games find it difficult to watch action in which they are not involved. This attitude may be part of the selfish, single-

minded approach that professionals are urged to cultivate, but it is no compliment to the attraction that is supposed to bind the watchers to the watched. In my experience, most ex-professional footballers who do not stay in the game end up staying away from it


Denis Law has joined the ITV pundits squad on their mysterious posting to Dallas, Texas, for the World Cup. Yet when England played West Germany in the 1966 final, Law preferred to play golf that afternoon. I suppose there are traditional feelings that would explain a Scotsman's desire to avoid the old rivals' big day, but for a footballer of his stature to miss the World Cup final was remarkable. Only we of the spectating fraternity would seem to think so.

There are few more sought after big-event tickets than Wimbledon's, perhaps not chiefly for sporting reasons but valid none the less. Do the players share the world's fascination for the occasion? For winning it, yes, but for watching it, no. If Steffi Graf had looked on the positive side after her early exit on Tuesday, she might have seen herself presented with a rare chance of seeing the tournament in company with the clap-happy ooh-ers and aah-ers from whose adoration for the game and the scene has come her fame and fortune.

It would not be uncomfortable. Best seats, the odd glass, nice lunches, relaxed mixing with the high and mighty - like being a guest in the corporate hospitality area, only she would not have to oblige with a big order. Alas, Steffi could not get away from the place quick enough and was on a private jet out of Stansted within hours.

It is nave to expect anything else, given the pressures, the threats and the self-importance involved, but it would be gratifying just once to see a superstar take an interest in the game for its own sake. If people can sleep on a pavement all night for a faint chance of seeing centre-court action, the objects of such devotion could pause to take a look themselves now and then.

Spectators at big golf tournaments are also safe from being trampled upon by players anxious to stay with the excitement and study the fortunes of their fellow competitors. As soon as the cut is missed, they have gone without a backward look. Even the fourth- day contenders at the US Open last weekend would have thought you crazy if you had asked if they were staying to watch the play-off.

On this occasion they were very good judges. It is difficult to understand why the US Golf Association persist in an 18-hole play- off on the following day. They certainly do not do it for the fans' sake and perhaps after the uninspiring and unsatisfactory play that resulted they will not do it again.

The amount of time that sports enthusiasts are expected to devote has reached an unprecedented level over these few weeks. The beneficiaries of this attention ought to pray that we do not stop regarding it as our duty.

THE World Cup is off to an excellent start and, watching from a darkened room, you would not even know it is held in America. But the oddities of the kick-off times tend to make viewing a late, lonely task and it is easy to end up talking to yourself.

Unfortunately, swearing does seem to carry a long distance at night and I've been asked to moderate my language. This is a little inhibiting because my money is on Germany and although I'm aware they are notoriously slow in warming up, I've been a little anxious during the first two matches. I'm particularly unimpressed with the big blond midfielder Effenberg, who has been renamed in our house as Effenuseless.

A BILL which would allow professional rugby league players to revert to playing union if they wished was introduced to the House of Commons last week and supported by MPs of all parties who think that 1995, rugby league's centenary year, would be a good time to grant this basic human right to the game's practitioners.

Although the enlightened sports minister, Iain Sproat, backs the aims of the Bill, he does not believe it a matter for legislation. Why not? So many of our sporting bodies are acting like private fiefdoms these days they've got to be exposed to some democratic opposition.