On a Thursday morning towards the end of last year, after I had interviewed Sir Bobby Charlton in one of the corporate boxes at Old Trafford, the great man offered to walk me across the hallowed turf.
It felt a bit like being shown around a cathedral by its devoted archbishop. Goodness knows how many times Charlton has trodden the Old Trafford pitch, but there was awe in his eyes and reverence in his voice as he looked up at the stands and told me about the famous European nights back in the Busby era, when, particularly if the match appeared to be deadlocked, the swaying red multitude on the Stretford End terraces seemed almost to suck the ball into the net, like a gigantic game of blow football in reverse. Messrs Charlton, Best and Law doubtless had something to do with the decisive breakthrough, too, but not the way he remembers it. For him, it was more about the collective will of the United faithful.
Yet in another of the world's great sporting arenas, Centre Court at Wimbledon, the collective will is usually vanquished. How many times did a crowd try to bring all its mental and emotional might to bear on a Henman volley, willing it to win the point, only for it to hit the net with a dismal slap? But maybe the collective will is nothing without genuine belief. Which of us ever truly believed that Tim Henman was going to win Wimbledon? Not me, and probably not even him. With Andy Murray this time, it's different. He believes, we believe, and the combination could be potent. I fully expect to see his overhit lobs landing plumb on the baseline, willed there by 15,000 hearts and minds inside Centre Court, and 15 million more beyond. Either that or the bugger will lose in the first round.
Whatever, it's a fair bet that the British sense of fair play will recede at the same rate as Murray's progress through the championships, so desperate are we to see a Brit win the thing. It was not always so. I recently spent much of a baking Sunday afternoon standing at first slip alongside Britain's former Davis Cup captain John Feaver, who at 57 made an impressively agile wicket-keeper, and in the not-infrequent longueurs while our outfielders searched for the ball in bushes the other side of the boundary, he told me lots of good stories about his tennis-playing career, including a gem about his debut at Wimbledon, aged 18, in 1970.
Feaver told me that in the first round he played an Australian called Cliff Letcher, also 18, whom eventually he beat 11-9 in the deciding set. Naturally, he was overjoyed, but as he was leaving the court an elderly Englishwoman belted him with her umbrella. "How dare you," she snapped. "That poor boy has come all the way from Melbourne, Australia, and now he's got to go all the way home again. You've only come from Wimborne in Dorset." A reminder, perhaps, to those who wonder what ever happened to our much-vaunted sense of decency and fair play, that they weren't always compatible with winning. So let's not feel inhibited these next couple of weeks (God willing) about sucking the volleys of Murray's opponents into the net, rather in the style of the old Stretford End.
Bodyliners were nothing compared to broken jaws, claimed Larwood
If you've had the misfortune to miss the first three parts of the brilliant BBC2 series Empire of Cricket, at least try to catch the final programme tomorrow evening, about the evolution of the game in India. Last week's programme focused on Australia, and up popped Jeff Thomson, looking and sounding like someone who's spent the last couple of decades rolling his own under the shade of a coolabah tree, and chortling at the intimidation and physical damage wrought on the Poms by himself and Dennis Lillee.
Meanwhile, a splendid forthcoming biography by Duncan Hamilton of one of England's own most devastating pace bowlers, Harold Larwood (pictured), explains that Larwood was bewildered right to the end of his long life by the enduring fuss surrounding the 1932-33 Bodyline tour. At the Centenary Test in 1977, during which Bob Willis broke Rick McCosker's jaw and a Lillee bouncer hit Larwood's fellow Nottinghamshire man Derek Randall on his unhelmeted head, the old boy turned to his erstwhile team-mate Bill Bowes and mused that any one of these fellows had bowled more short-pitched deliveries in one match than he ever did in an entire season.
How Wigan swapped pies for tapas
In the long summer holidays following my A-levels, I went camping with three schoolfriends in the south of France. We got there by coach from Wigan, and for nigh-on 30 years it has tickled me that there was ever a coach service from Wigan to Nice, from the home of the meat-and-potato pie to the home of the salade niçoise. But not any more. Not now Wigan Athletic have a dashing new manager in Roberto Martinez (left) who cites Pep Guardiola and FC Barcelona as his inspirations. Wigan's a proper tapas town now, and if its most famous son George Formby were still alive, I fancy he'd be trading in his ukulele for a Spanish guitar.Reuse content