Brian Viner: Flutey takes his rejection on chin but it was end of the world for Gazza

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

Riki Flutey got the phone call he'd been dreading earlier this week, the one from Martin Johnson that informed the New Zealand-born centre, who played in the same Kiwi schoolboys team as Aaron Mauger and Richie McCaw, that he would not be travelling to the land of his birth for the forthcoming World Cup, at least not as an England player.

According to Johnson, Flutey took the bad news well, "which did not make it easier for me". All international team managers will know what big Johnno means. Easier to deal with are the hysterics, those omitted players who protest, weep or throw a chair through the nearest window. That allows the manager to take both the moral and strategic high ground; after all, who wants a highly strung tourist? Show the fellow some calm stoicism in the face of devastating rejection, by contrast, and he would need a heart of stone not to feel like a bit of a heel. I don't suppose anything short of tear gas makes Warren Gatland cry, but the Wales coach surely felt a slight pricking of the tear ducts when he broke it to the mighty Welsh flanker Martyn Williams that he wouldn't be boarding the plane. Williams, too, reportedly took it on the chin.

Rugby players are better than footballers at registering this kind of disappointment, partly because as a very general rule they tend to have more grown-up responses to most adverse situations, such as the incurring of pain on the field of play. Would you back the centre-forward, whose habitual response to being tripped up is to simulate the kind of agony that a torture victim might recognise, to react with mature level-headedness to the news that a World Cup is about to unfold without him?

Conversely, would you expect the inside-centre, who regularly and without complaint sustains tackles that would move a brick bus shelter a few yards to the left, to trash his hotel room? Of course, neither we nor Martin Johnson know what Riki Flutey did when he put the phone down the other day. Maybe he bawled like a baby, or booted the cat over the garden fence. But in his brief conversation with Johnson he took the news like a man, and that's what matters, except perhaps to the cat.

It would be glib of me, however, to overlook the impact and import of such news to a proud professional. Rejection is part and parcel of professional sport, of course, but by definition the men in contention for a World Cup place have suffered less of it than most. Their abundant ball-playing talent has opened every door, first for club and then for country, not to mention the door of the six-bedroom detached house. Rarely, if ever, have they been told that they are not good enough. It must come as a terrible shock.

It certainly did, notoriously, to Paul Gascoigne, who in 1998 stormed into Glenn Hoddle's hotel room at the Spanish resort La Manga, having rightly inferred that he was to be one of six players cut from Hoddle's World Cup squad. He put a boot through the wardrobe door, overturned a table, smashed a vase and screamed: "You know what it means to me, you fucking bastard!" He was about to start smashing the windows too, when Paul Ince and David Seaman burst in and restrained him. "The thing is Gazza, your head isn't right," said Hoddle, in one of the sporting understatements of all time.

Gascoigne subsequently refused to watch England matches in the 1998 World Cup, just as a more temperate man, Sebastian Coe, had holidayed on an island with no televisions during the 1988 Olympics. Coe hadn't made the squad, and was thus denied the chance to defend the 1500m title he had won both in 1980 and 1984. He discovered this, incidentally, from a Radio 2 sports bulletin on the car radio. An American friend with him assumed he'd slipped on a spoof cassette. At least bad news tends to be broken more honourably these days.

I suppose the most dignified way to respond to such disappointments is to stay calm while others raise hell on your behalf, as the great All-Black Wayne Shelford did while everyone else in New Zealand, up to and including the sheep, bleated about the decision not to take him to the 1991 World Cup. Similarly, I don't suppose Jimmy Greaves was moaning on Wednesday lunchtime about being left out of England's 1966 World Cup final XI, but I know Denis Law was passionately lamenting Alf Ramsey's decision 45 summers ago, because I was with him. "I still can't believe it," he said, over and over. That Geoff Hurst played instead of Greaves and scored a hat-trick cuts no ice with Law, and at the time it was no consolation to Greaves, either. As for how Riki Flutey will feel should England's rugby union players win the World Cup, probably not even he knows.

Painful to see control freak Wenger losing his grip

In February 2004, I went to Arsenal's training ground to interview Dennis Bergkamp, coincidentally on the day that Jose Antonio Reyes was being unveiled before the media. As I made my way down the stairs following my interview, I passed Reyes, Arsène Wenger and the club's vice-chairman, David Dein, on their way to the press conference. Wenger was telling the other two who would walk into the room first, and where they would sit.

That is the extent to which he has always controlled every aspect of life at London Colney, even down to such minutiae, so I can only imagine the pain it must cause him to have lost Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri against his wishes, and to have stood impotently in the path of an accelerating steamroller of media criticism, supporters' disgruntlement and squandered points. It even pains me to see a control freak losing control. And Old Trafford, where Arsenal play tomorrow, at least buoyed by Wednesday's victory over Udinese, is usually no place to start clawing it back.