Brian Viner: Poet of the pitch always wanted to be on the field

The Last Word: 'I can think of nothing more uplifting than standing out there with your anthem being played, and you with your job to do'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tuberculosis is by all accounts nothing to be grateful for, yet over the years I have met three men whose TB rather fortuitously nudged them towards careers in which they not only flourished, but in which they performed as well as, if not better than, anyone else alive. Two of these men were Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who befriended each other as teenagers in a TB sanatorium in 1949, and together went on to create Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son.

Recuperating at around the same time at a sanatorium in East Lothian was a lad then known as Billy McLaren, who had been a flank forward for Hawick and the South of Scotland, and was on the verge of an international call-up, when he developed a near-fatal form of the disease. He never played rugby again, and I remember asking him whether he would swap his illustrious broadcasting career for a single Scottish cap. There was a long, long pause, at the end of which he sighed and said, "Aye, aye I would. I can think of nothing more uplifting than standing out there with your anthem being played, and you with your job to do."

Happily for us, if not for him, he was given a different job to do, and of course did it with peerless authority, zest and style. Also, his sheer longevity in the commentary box gave him a sense of perspective that these days, across all sports, too often goes missing. He knew that for Scotland, international rugby would always be a case of feast or famine, and more usually the latter, but he loved to recall the match he covered in 1955, when Scotland, at the end of a gruesome run of 17 consecutive defeats, beat the highly fancied Welsh 14-8.

McLaren never considered himself the doyen of rugby commentators; for him that was always Jock Wemyss, a son of Galashiels who'd had an eye shot out during the First World War. And at the end of that Scottish victory over Wales, he handed the microphone to Wemyss, "who said, 'We've come out of the long dark tunnel into the sunshine,' and there was a tear running down from the one good eye."

McLaren was never as partisan as that, indeed he was always scrupulously unbiased, in which respect he begs comparison with another broadcasting great, the Voice of Racing to his Voice of Rugby, for Peter O'Sullevan sometimes called home his own horses, notably Attivo, winner of the 1974 Triumph Hurdle, with not a scrap of partiality up to and including the moment he said "owned by Mr Peter O'Sullevan". Similarly, in the 1976 Calcutta Cup match, McLaren described with flawless objectivity the spectacular try for Scotland by Alan Lawson, his own son-in-law.

That took some doing, because no one was ever more passionate about Scottish rugby. Yet what he loved even more was the game itself, and the camaraderie it engendered. "You know," he added, after telling me about old Jock Wemyss getting emotional, "I would love to have been there when Scotland played France in 1920. Jock was playing for Scotland, and amazingly they found out that one of the French players, Lubin-Lebrère, had also had an eye shot out in the war. So the two captains agreed that they should mark each other in the line-out, and they had to feel for each other on the blind side."

Jock Wemyss died in his eighties in 1974 and this week, 36 years later almost to the day, 86-year-old McLaren followed him into the celestial commentary box. He takes with him a mastery of phrase-making and imagery that at the microphone was perhaps only surpassed by John Arlott, the Voice of Cricket. In 1999 I invited McLaren to pick his all-time Lions team, and he started with the matchless Irish centre Mike Gibson, "the most complete footballer I have ever seen, just a skinny fellow, but he tackled like the crack of doom, and he could sniff a scoring chance like a forest animal".

As I wrote at the time, there are novelists who sit poised over their keyboards for days on end, chain-smoking and smacking their foreheads, and still they can't produce images like that.

Mancini looks good for my wife's top five

The Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini is fond of compiling lists. He rates Carlos Tevez as one of the 10 best footballers in the world, and Shay Given as one of the world's top five goalkeepers. So as a tribute to him, and following lengthy consultation with my wife, who very much likes what she sees of Mancini on Match of the Day, here is my all-time list of the five most fanciable managers in British football: in no particular order, they are Roberto Mancini, Jose Mourinho, Gianluca Vialli, Roberto di Matteo and Claudio Ranieri.

Now, you might have noticed something that these men all have in common. It is that each of them has a name ending with a vowel. This is often considered a euphemism for being foreign, but of course that is not so. I could easily compile a list of five British managers whose names end in vowels, although, with the greatest respect, I don't think anyone ever swooned over Sammy Lee, Gordon Lee, Sam Allardyce, Steve Bruce and Bob Stokoe.