Brian Viner: A sentimental journey ruined by boorish Brits

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The Independent Online

Shortly after 4.30 last Sunday morning, I roused my two sons, 12-year-old Joe and Jacob, aged nine, from deep slumber. They had both declared a keen interest in seeing live coverage of the much-hyped contest for the world welterweight boxing championship between Britain's Ricky Hatton and America's Floyd Mayweather.

This desire, I confess, did not burgeon without some fatherly encouragement. My own late father used to wake me up for the great fights of the early 1970s, such as the Thrilla in Manila between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and I wanted my boys to have a similar experience, which they might remember with affection when they are the age I am now. You can't underestimate the excitement for a child of being woken up in the dead of night. In the heady cricketing summer of 2005, I took Joe to the last day of the third Ashes Test at Old Trafford, and knowing we were going to have to queue for ages to get into the ground, we set off for Manchester from our home in Herefordshire at 3.45am.

Back on the M6 fully 16 hours later, after a thrilling day's cricket, I asked Joe what had been his favourite bits of the day: was it the Australian captain Ricky Ponting scoring 156, perhaps, or the England wicketkeeper, Geraint Jones, catching Shane Warne? He thought deeply. No, he finally concluded, it was getting up at half-past three in the morning, and the Mexican Wave.

In a way it doesn't matter what fixes these things in the memory. I have similarly affectionate recollections of being woken up by my dad in July 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon, even though the footage was so grainy that it might, frankly, have been the Mr Armstrong who ran the corner shop, in his back garden.

I have always ridiculed the fatuous conspiracy theory that the Apollo 11 moon landing was faked by the CIA on the basis that if it really had unfolded in a Burbank television studio it would have been much more watchable. Still, I was sitting there in the middle of the night, in my wincyette pyjamas, with my dad. I wouldn't have missed that for the world. Or the moon.

Anyway, on Sunday morning my boys and I stumbled downstairs and settled together on the living-room sofa, bleary-eyed, under Jacob's duvet. We watched the two boxers enter the arena at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, with all the accompanying razzmatazz, and listened to Tom Jones singing "God Save The Queen". Then an American singer began to belt out "The Star-Spangled Banner", against a cacophony of jeers.

"Who is doing all that booing, daddy?" Jacob asked. I explained, with a heavy heart, that it was Ricky Hatton's fans, booing the American national anthem. "But we're his fans and we're not booing," Jacob said. "That," I said, "is because we do not have pea-sized brains." It was, and remains, a wholly inadequate explanation. "And the Americans didn't boo our national anthem," he added. The unfairness of it troubled him through the fight.

It troubles me still. I have met Hatton several times, and I admire him enormously. Before the anthems, I wanted him to win more than I have ever wanted a boxer to win a fight, but after them a part of me hoped that those fans would leave the arena disappointed. It has since been claimed, in defence of Hatton's huge, enthusiastic support, that it was a small, drunken minority who showed such disrespect. But what we heard was the booing of thousands, not dozens.

It has also been said that the Mancunian support comprises mainly football rather than boxing fans, and in particular fans of his beloved Manchester City. This is indubitably the case, and partly explains the problem. Booing the opposition's national anthem has become de rigueur at football internationals in this country, and was last heard before the final Euro 2008 qualifier, against Croatia at Wembley, that our boys so pitifully lost.

It was later said that the Croatians played well that night because they relaxed on hearing the English opera singer Tony Henry get the words of their anthem slightly wrong, one mistaken consonant changing the meaning of a line from "You know, my dear, how we love your mountains" to "My dear, my penis is a mountain". But it could equally be that they were fired up after all that raucous booing.

Either way, it was the values of the Beautiful Game that were on display in the MGM Grand, not the values of the Noble Art. But really, what difference does that make? They were Brits, boozed-up and boorish, and they shamed us all. Worse, from where I was sitting, under my son's duvet, they sullied a sentimental journey both into the past, and into the future.