Brian Viner: New year is perfect time to look back and remember the titans

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

This column's traditional new year challenge is to attempt the neat metaphysical trick of looking forward to that at which, over the next 12 months, we will be looking back. Former world heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman turns 60 today, and if he can blow out all his candles in one go will probably consider himself fit enough to return to the ring.

There was never any doubting the fitness of Pakistani cricketer Hanif Mohammad, whose epic 10-hour, 35-minute innings of 499 for Karachi against Bahawalpur 50 years ago tomorrow was a first-class record until Brian Lara pipped it by two in 1994. Hanif, incidentally, was run out understandably trying to nick a single off the last ball of the day.

On 22 January it will be half a century since world champion racing driver Mike Hawthorn died at the wheel, prosaically on the Guildford by-pass.

Another speed merchant who died prematurely, Graham Hill, would have turned 80 on 15 February. One who almost died prematurely, Niki Lauda, hits 60 a week later. On 2 March, so does JPR Williams, who a fortnight after gaining senior citizenhood can reflect on the 30th anniversary of his valedictory game for Wales, the 27-3 mauling of England at Cardiff Arms Park, which secured an unprecedented fourth consecutive Triple Crown.

In April comes the most poignant anniversary of 2009: on Wednesday 15th it will be 20 years since 96 Liverpool fans died at Hillsborough. There is a happier 20th anniversary on 27 April, the day Peter Scudamore rode Gay Moore to victory at Towcester to become the first National Hunt jockey to ride 200 winners in a season (a mark since passed by AP McCoy no fewer than six times). On the flat, it will be 150 years on 12 May since George Fordham, behind Fred Archer the second-greatest jockey of the Victorian age, rode Mayonaise to victory by 20 lengths in the 1,000 Guineas, still the greatest margin of victory in a Classic.

Speaking of enduring achievements, the last Englishman to win Wimbledon, Fred Perry, was born on 18 May, 1909. Eight days later, a Scottish baby destined to become just as illustrious followed him into the world: Alexander Matthew Busby. The European Cup final takes place the very day after Sir Matt's centenary; a successful defence of their title wouldn't half be a fitting way for Manchester United to celebrate.

So far this column has been dominated by men, so let's redress the balance slightly: Rachael Heyhoe-Flint will be 70 on 11 June (the same day as Jackie Stewart) and Steffi Graf turns 40 three days later. A week after she was born, another woman who won the Wimbledon singles title in three consecutive years, "Little Mo" Maureen Connolly, died of stomach cancer aged just 34. June 1969 was a big month for tennis: at Wimbledon four days after Connolly's sad death, Pancho Gonzales beat Charlie Pasarell 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. In terms of games it will likely remain the longest men's singles match of all time: the tiebreaker was very sensibly introduced the following year.

On 6 July, Dame Mary Peters joins the septuagenarian ranks, and Dennis Lillee will be 60 on 18 July. A man whose body possibly still bears the marks of a few Lillee bouncers became (and remains) England's youngest Test cricketer on 23 July, 1949. When he took the field against New Zealand, Brian Close was just 18 years and 149 days old. I'm told the great man is not in the best of health these days, but let's hope that he's fit to enjoy an Ashes summer. On the first day of August, incidentally, it will be 20 years since Allan Border's team won the fourth Test at Old Trafford to clinch the series, and become the first Australian team to regain the Ashes in England since 1934. On the last day of August, it will be 40 years since Rocky Marciano perished in a plane crash, a day short of his 46th birthday.

Another great American sporting hero, Tom Watson, turns 60 on 4 September. Six days later an even greater one, Arnold Palmer, cards 80. He'll doubtless spend his birthday trying to break his age at his beloved Bay Hill, which is what he does most other days.

A similarly spirited old boy, Stirling Moss, is 80 on 17 September. A day later, Peter Shilton, always good at catching, will be entitled to catch a bus ... for free. Three days after he was born in 1949, the Republic of Ireland inflicted on England's footballers their first defeat on home soil, winning 2-0 at Goodison Park.

Sticking with football, 15 November will mark the 40th anniversary of the first game to be broadcast in colour on Match of the Day. It was Liverpool v West Ham; Liverpool won 2-0. More momentously for Koppites, 19 December brings up the 50th anniversary of an auspicious match, Bill Shankly's first as manager. The result, however, was not remotely a sign of things to come: Cardiff City hammered Liverpool 4-0, at Anfield.

Finally, 23 December sees the centenary of one of the great world welterweight champions, Barney Ross, who took up professional boxing as a means of supporting his family after his father, a rabbi, was shot dead during a robbery in Chicago.

Ross later became a war hero, and was the first American Jew to be honoured with a ticker-tape parade. But best of all, he exemplified the wisdom of changing your name. He was born Beryl Rasofsky. Happy New Year.