Brian Viner: A World Cup only really starts when the 'legends' start to play

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

Has anyone counted the number, or calculated the sheer range, of vested interests in England winning the World Cup?

Earlier this week, elsewhere in these pages, I wrote about the Lithuanian woman who works behind the till at a petrol station near where I live in rural Herefordshire and desperately wants England to go all the way. She doesn't know the difference between Wayne Rooney and Wayne Gretsky but she bought a Toshiba flat-screen television a few weeks ago, seduced by a promotion which offered a full refund in the event of Fabio Capello's men returning with the trophy, so she has £400 riding on their fortunes.

At the other end of the nous scale are all the ageing football men for whom a series of nice little corporate earners depend on England staying in the competition for as long as possible. To watch the Slovenia game my brother-in-law was invited to the Barbican cinema in London, hired for the occasion by a big American law firm. It was a little strange, he reports, to sit in plush cinema seats watching England, when the last time you were there was for a Jacques Tati season. Mind you, give Peter Crouch a pipe and a bicycle and he could be the great man's son.

Anyway, the point is that the law firm had also invited Lawrie McMenemy along, the former Southampton manager's brief being to clamber on to the stage before and after the match, and at half-time, and entertain the clients with his insights into how England were playing, spiced with some well-honed football tales. Gateshead's second-favourite footballing son was terrific, apparently, not least on the subject of his fellow townsman Gazza, but these things can sometimes misfire. I'll mention no names because I'd hate to be accused of a lèse-majesté on the eve of England v Germany, but once during a previous tournament I was at a corporate do at which the guest speaker was a 1966 World Cup-winner, and his recollections seemed to last as long as the match itself. I hadn't thought that I could ever get bored of hearing what Alf said to Bobby, or what Nobby said to Gordon, but I was wrong.

As for big Lawrie, my brother-in-law tells me that he likes to divide a football team into "bricklayers" and "violinists". In other words, I suppose, the broad-shouldered navvies who do the unglamorous work, laying the foundations for victory, and the sensitive aesthetes who apply the sweet musical flourishes. It's something of a mixed metaphor but I think we all know what he's getting at, and seemingly he wasn't sure, before the Slovenia match at any rate, whether Capello had made the distinction.

The big man also told a nice story about how he got Kevin Keegan to join Southampton. Keegan was playing for Hamburg at the time, and McMenemy didn't feel as if he could phone him up make him a direct job offer, because he thought the answer would be no. He needed a pretext, and oddly it came in the form of light bulbs. Some bulbs had blown at The Dell, and Germany was the only place to get replacements (don't forget that it was the early 1980s, and therefore perfectly plausible that fixtures and fittings in an English football stadium could only be sourced in Germany).

So McMenemy phoned Keegan to ask if he could bring some over with him next time he returned to England, and by the by, how are you getting on over there? Are you thinking you might come home for good? As you know we've got your mate Mick Channon here, let me know if you fancy joining us. Those were the days: no rapacious agents and lawyers, just a casual phone call, and somewhere in that story there must be a joke about how many Englishmen it takes to change a German light bulb.

Ah yes, jokes. In this space last week I quoted my friend Dr Florian Ruths, a psychiatrist from Heidelberg who lives in London and wishes the English wouldn't get so worked up about football. "The English have a brilliant sense of humour," he said, "but when it comes to football, where is it? In Germany we still see it as a game." It's a fair point, and I have no answer for him. Despite my urging, incidentally, the FA never did hire Florian to help the English players over their fear of penalties. It would have been nice to add a German to all those with a vested interest in England winning the World Cup.

Strawberries ripen early for the royal visit

You only have to stand outside Buckingham Palace to understand that foreigners treat our royal family much more reverentially than we do ourselves, and I had another reminder of this at Wimbledon on Thursday, where Bud Collins, the flamboyant doyen of American tennis writers, wore a pair of trousers spectacularly patterned with huge strawberries. Bud is celebrated at the All England Club for his colourful dress sense but he traditionally saves his "strawberry pants" for the day of the men's final. In honour of the Queen's visit, however, he gave them an early airing.

Three cheers for McDowell

How wonderful to see Graeme McDowell winning the US Open, and how ironic, given the weight of expectation, and weight of betting slips, that the first man since Fred Daly to bring major golfing glory to Northern Ireland would be young Rory McIlroy.