Brian Viner: Real shame of England's exit is that we've seen it all before

The Last Word

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tim from Bromley unwittingly got it right on the Daily Mail message board, snapping in response to a report about the England rugby team's low-key return to Heathrow Airport on Tuesday afternoon that he was "embarrassed to say that I support this team of retrobates".

I'm pretty sure that "reprobates" was the word Tim intended, but like all the best malapropisms, "retrobates" worked perfectly, for there was something decidedly, dispiritingly retro about England's World Cup. Abject feebleness on the field, wretched irresponsibility off it, followed by the early return home and the traditional grim-faced walk across the airport tarmac ... for the rugby players of 2011 read the footballers in 2006 or 2010, or the one-day cricketers in 2007, and that's just off the top of my head, which incidentally has received rather less attention these last few weeks than the top of Mike Tindall's head.

At Auckland airport, before the long flight home, Manu Tuilagi planted a smacker on the vice-captain's glistening bonce that can only have been a cheeky reference to the notorious "mystery blonde" kiss bestowed on Tindall in the Queenstown bar, as captured by CCTV. In a way, Tuilagi's smacker evoked the "dentist's chair" celebration that followed Paul Gascoigne's admittedly brilliant goal against Scotland during Euro '96. The footballers, you will recall, were mimicking their own pre-tournament revelry at a Hong Kong nightclub, where several of them took turns to sit in a dentist's chair having spirits poured down their throats. But it is one thing to make light of controversial high jinks in a spirit of euphoric triumphalism, as Gazza and his team-mates did, quite another to do so in a place that so symbolises sporting failure, the airport departure hall.

Still, Tuilagi is not a man for wearing his tail between his legs. If he were, he would never have made it to shore, and a £3,000 fine, when he swam in Auckland harbour a day or two earlier. My illustrious colleague Simon Carr was referring to the Liam Fox affair when he wrote last week that an apology always brings out the sentimental side of the House of Commons, awakening "an ancestral memory of something that used to be called shame and is now known as embarrassment". But he might have been writing about Tindall's boozy night and convenient lapse of memory, or Tuilagi's plunge off the ferry, or the unseemly chambermaid business, or the ball-switching against Romania. Various protagonists admitted embarrassment and even regret. Shame, however, seems to be beyond the modern English sportsman, even when, manifestly, he has behaved shamefully.

There's not much point in any of us getting pious about this. Sport is a distillation of society, after all; we probably get the sportsmen we deserve. And already during this World Cup I have cited the words of the 19th-century historian Lord Macaulay, who could not imagine a spectacle "so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality". But almost as ridiculous is the British public, or at any rate the English public, in one of its occasional fits of gung-ho sporting optimism. We should remember that, next time we see an England team standing on the steps of an aircraft, smart as you like in suits or blazers, and grinning in anticipation of conquering a foreign field or two. We should remind ourselves that they will, more than likely, return to the same airport looking a little less proud of themselves, bringing home only a hotel corkscrew as a trophy, or possibly a chambermaid's walkie-talkie.

Note to Kirsty: beware the spikes of the great Johnson

Michael Johnson, four times an Olympic gold medallist, is Kirsty Young's guest on Desert Island Discs tomorrow, and I hope the great man is more conciliatory with her than he was with me when I interviewed him just before the 2004 Olympic Games. At the time, drug use in athletics was an even hotter topic than it is now, as Marion Jones loudly fought what turned out to be entirely justified allegations that she had cheated. So I asked Johnson, rather bravely, whether anyone had ever ventured to him that he might illicitly enhance his performances in the 200m and 400m.

"No," he said, in his most resonant basso profundo, "it was never suggested to me. And I have retired. I'm not going to put myself on trial. If there's a line of questioning starting here, let's go another way."

We did, but I still managed to rile him further by asking whether his four-year-old son could shift across a playground. I already knew to my cost, having once enraged Ian Botham, which without a getaway car is never wise, that sportsmen do not always appreciate questions about the talent of their offspring. But I risked it anyway.

"He's four," replied Johnson, sternly. "I've been asked that since he was six months old. I hope he doesn't become a runner. And why should he? He has his mother's genes too, and her running's not very good. But if he does, can you imagine what the expectation will be like at 15, when it's like this at four?" Kirsty, don't go there.

My enemy's enemy is my team

Manchester United visit Anfield today, and we're asked to believe that there is a venerable rivalry between the two clubs, and indeed between the cities of Manchester and Liverpool. But context is everything. I spent last weekend in the fabulous city of Siena, where they have been at loggerheads with the Florentines since the 12th century, before Liverpool even existed. The Sienese have a Serie A club of their own, but I was told that most football fans there support Juventus, on the basis that Fiorentina supporters hate Juve, and it delights them to make a friend of their enemy's enemy.