Whatever today has in store for England's rugby union, football and cricket teams, it is a fair bet that their supporters at the various arenas will at some stage serenade them with their favourite anthems, the cringe-inducing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", the yawn-inducing "Eng-er-land Eng-er-land Eng-er-land ..." and the plain moronic "Barmy Army". I think it is time that English sport adopted a single anthem, to be sung lustily at all big occasions, and my suggestion is that kindergarten classic "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes", although perhaps a top lyricist could be hired, Sir Tim Rice perhaps, to work in a mention for ankles.
It is scarcely believable, even in the profoundly accident-prone world of English sport, that Jonny Wilkinson's dodgy ankle, Freddie Flintoff's dicky ankle, and Steven Gerrard's damaged toe, have this week been jostling for attention in the sports pages. That is not only the three best players in our three main national teams, but the three talismen, so totemic that we don't even need to use their surnames. Jonny, Freddie and Stevie, all crocked. Those of us brought up to believe that God is a cravat-wearing Englishman, looking after his mortal flock when not tending his herbaceous border in Tunbridge Wells, have been asking ourselves some deep and unsettling questions these past few days.
The Wilkinson ankle is the most dispiriting injury of the three, because it means taking our collective eye off the ball as yet another global tournament gets under way, and focusing instead on a small part of a single player. Before the 2002 football World Cup, David Beckham's wretched metatarsal was the subject of nightly news bulletins and, in some households, daily prayers. In 2006 we succumbed to another bout of metatarsal-mania, this time with Wayne Rooney the stricken party. It is never a peripheral fellow, incidental to our chances of winning the big prize, who knackers his damn foot. I am beginning to think that God might be a lederhosen-wearing German, or a beret-wearing Frenchman. He probably does not even know where Tunbridge Wells is.
Jonny, of course, has been talking bullishly about his chances of making the South Africa game on Friday. To do so, he says, he will need to be running by the middle of the week. Well, I am no more a rugby coach than I am a physiotherapist, but I'd have thought he would need to be doing more than running to test his ankle. He will need to prop up a ton-weight or perhaps Andrew Sheridan on it, then have a Transit van driven at it at speed. If it survives those challenges, it will be ready for the Springboks, who probably won't sit in the dressing room before the match saying, "Poor Wilkinson has a slightly sore ankle, so go easy on him, boys."
The really galling thing about the Wilkinson ankle injury is that it was sustained in training. Ian St John once told me that, back in the 1960s, his Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, used to roar with laughter when he heard about opposition players pulling a muscle or tweaking a hamstring in training. "What the hell are they doing?" he said. Shankly would not even let his players play golf less than two days before a game.
With that in mind, I was interested to see, in these pages on Thursday, that my colleague Chris Hewett's report on the latest chapter in the practically biblical saga of Jonny's physical tribulations, was accompanied by a photograph of Lewis Moody and Josh Lewsey wrestling. Quite aside from the grist this added to the mill of those who insist that rugby union is principally an exercise in butch homo-eroticism, it was decidedly alarming to see Moody's head at a 90 degree angle to his torso. Which is not to say that I advocate a gentle jog followed by an intensive session of dominoes for these chaps as they prepare for the World Cup, but there must be some reason why the modern sportsman seems so vulnerable to injury. In the meantime, Brian Ashton would have been better off picking the Chuckle Brothers as his half-back partnership: far less chance of one them twisting an ankle, stubbing a toe, slipping on a banana skin or falling down a manhole.
Speaking of which, Charlie Chaplin once offered the following tip on how to make a successful silent comedy: focus your camera on a man walking down the street, then focus on a banana skin lying in front of him. Then show both the man and the banana skin in the same shot, let your audience think they know what's going to happen, then have the man step carefully over the banana skin – and disappear down a manhole. Chaplin's masterclass sounds to me like a perfect metaphor for the challenge facing Ashton's round-ball counterpart, Steve McClaren, these next few days. An Israeli banana skin awaits him, followed by a Russian manhole. If in either case he comes a cropper, then the most accident-prone man in English sport by the end of next week will be the one without a limp.
Who I Like This Week...
Luciano Pavarotti, the lifelong Juventus fan whose fat, handsome, bearded face is as evocative of the 1990 World Cup as Roger Milla's corner-flag wiggle and Gazza's tears. To those of us who previously thought that " Nessun Dorma" was a Japanese camper van, he, along with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, delivered some culture. Apparently, the Football Association chief executive, Brian Barwick, has insisted that the song is played at Wembley today. It will be great to hear it again, not least as antidote to the usual dreary songs. If only Barwick's managerial taste were as sound as his musical taste.
And Who I Don't
The security guard at Tottenham Hotspur's training ground who, according to the London Evening Standard, returned a replica shirt to a supporter at the gate, which had been handed over in the hope it would come back adorned with the autographs of the first team, signed "Mickey Mouse" and "Donald Duck", among other joke names. This story may or may not be true. What's so sad is that it seems all too plausible.Reuse content