Brian Viner: Sporting polymath is a full-time post for which only obsessives need apply

It is hard to get the head round the idea that one man excelled in so many sports

Share

Were you to ask 100 sports enthusiasts to name a great sportsman called Woosnam, I should think that at least 99 of them would name the winner of the 1991 US Masters golf tournament and 2006 European Ryder Cup captain. I would have too, until I read a book by Mick Collins called All-Round Genius: The Unknown Story of Britain's Greatest Sportsman. It is about a man called Max Woosnam, who made the later achievements of his namesake Ian look prosaic.

Max Woosnam toured Brazil with the famous Corinthians football team in 1913 and later captained Manchester City and England. He won an Olympic gold medal for tennis, played golf off scratch, scored a century at Lord's, and made a 147 break on the snooker table. He was also one of the 300,000 men to enlist in the first month of the First World War, fought with distinction, and endured the horrors of Gallipoli. He was born in 1892 and died in 1965, not long after another decent all-rounder, the journalist, soldier, painter, writer, orator, politician and statesman Winston Churchill.

In a sporting context, Woosnam was perhaps Churchill's equivalent. Yet while most of us know plenty about other celebrated sportsmen born in the 19th century, from W G Grace to C B Fry, Woosnam's remarkable deeds remain largely unknown.

My Chambers Biographical Dictionary, for instance, doesn't mention him. It respectfully lists Charles Burgess Fry (1872-1956), and records him as having represented his country at football, cricket and athletics. It also says that Fry held the world long jump record jointly. Clearly, old C B was no slouch in the sporting arena. And I don't suppose Woosnam was ever offered the throne of Albania, as Fry apparently was. But where Fry was a mere triple blue at Oxford, at Cambridge Woosnam was a blue in six sports.

And as well as winning tennis gold at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, he also captained the British Davis Cup team in California, where Charlie Chaplin invited him round for tea. Sadly, according to Collins, the pair failed dismally to get on. Woosnam didn't give Chaplin much quarter on the tennis court, and when Chaplin then suggested a game of table tennis, Woosnam proceeded to beat him playing with a butter knife, which was his great party piece. The movie star and his considerable ego were not amused.

Still, Chaplin had the last laugh, indeed a posthumous laugh, because his place in history is secure whereas Woosnam's is not. The only concrete way in which posterity remembers one of Britain's finest all-round sportsmen is an alley called Max Woosnam Walk near Maine Road in Manchester. That, I suppose, is why Collins wrote his book.

He does not, however, attempt to present Woosnam as an unblemished hero. Like Douglas Jardine and Oswald Mosley, both of whom were at public school with him, Woosnam was far from perfect. He caused great anguish to the working-class Manchester City fans who idolised him when, as personnel manager of a Cheshire chemicals firm, he broke ranks and drove a company bus during the 1926 General Strike. The outrage was such that a policeman was dispatched to patrol the grounds of the family home in Altrincham.

Moreover, his sporting life was so all-consuming that it did not leave him with much time to be a father to his two children. His son Maxwell once told an interviewer: "He encouraged me to take up tennis but he never found time to coach me. The sad truth is that I never really knew him. I scarcely ever had a conversation with him. I do remember playing tennis with him in 1949, when he was 57. He beat me."

It is an engrossing story, but perhaps the reason it has never been told before is that Woosnam was a product of utterly different times. It is hard, these days, even to get the head round the idea that one man might excel in so many sporting disciplines.

Having said that, most of us were at school with one annoying person who was brilliant both at football and cricket, always won the 100 metres on sports day and swam for the county. He usually bagged the prettiest girl as well, and got to drive his mum's Ford Cortina while most of us were still taking the bus - not that I'm thinking of anyone in particular, the bastard.

Whatever, I suppose the true heirs of Max Woosnam are people like Alan Hansen, who represented Scotland in five sports at Under-18 level, and Gary Lineker, another who has scored a century at Lord's (albeit on the Nursery Ground) and compiled a century break at snooker, while also top-scoring in the 1986 World Cup and nailing a hat-trick for Barcelona against Real Madrid.

I suppose I should feel privileged to boast that Hansen and Lineker have hammered me on the golf course. But much more satisfying is that I have three children who think they're just blokes off the telly who spend most of their lives sitting down.

'All-Round Genius: The Unknown Story of Britain's Greatest Sportsman' by Mick Collins is published in hardback by Aurum £14.99

Who I Like This Week...

The England head coach, Steve McClaren, who began his new job in gratifyingly assertive fashion by overruling those at the Football Association who opposed the appointment of John Terry as captain. The FA blazers were reportedly worried that Terry's private life might be a liability. They apparently thought that Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard might be a safer option. These are the men, remember, who shoved indecently vast sums at a chap called Eriksson, who not only had a private life far tawdrier than Terry's, and a good deal less private, but didn't, in the end, even have the redeeming virtue of being much good at his job. Terry is just the man to captain England. McClaren, at least until he starts getting it wrong, has got it right.

And Who I Don't

The Everton winger Andy van der Meyde, fined by his club for going out in Liverpool on Sunday night, less than 48 hours before a pre-season friendly. Van der Meyde wound up in hospital with breathing difficulties, claiming that his drink had been spiked. But whether it had or whether it hadn't, it is depressing for Evertonians to see club rules being flouted by a man who has been a walking, or rather hobbling, disaster area since he joined the club, not least because the negative publicity will make it that much harder for him to be offloaded, as he manifestly should be, as soon as possible.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

 

General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk