Never bite the hand that feeds you has always struck me as sound advice, but pardon me if I now take a small chomp. The coverage of Cristiano Ronaldo's £80m transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid occupied six pages of this newspaper yesterday, and was similarly if not even more prominent in the rest of the national press.
As a football nut I was as interested as anyone in the transfer story of the summer, but six pages, devoted to one man moving football clubs, surely verges on the histrionic. My sports-desk colleagues will recognise a small, prima donna-ish fit of pique, because 150 words of my interview with Britain's leading female tennis player, Anne Keothavong, were among the column inches sacrificed to accommodate Ronny-mania, but that aside, it increasingly seems to me that journalists have a duty to dampen the frenzy surrounding football in general, and the top Premier League clubs in particular. Instead, even if not especially in the few short months when there is no domestic football being played, we continue to fertilise it.
Meanwhile, for the sporting stories that deserve more of our attention, not less, I recommend the obituaries pages. If I might make amends by kissing the hand that feeds me, Ivan Ponting's obituaries of widely-forgotten footballers are among the gems of this newspaper, although it was thanks to The Daily Telegraph's obits page on Thursday that I became acquainted with the lives of two men who were born within three months of each other while the First World War raged, and recently died within weeks of each other, both aged 92.
One was Haydn Tanner, who was still at Gowerton Grammar School when he played scrum-half for Swansea against the visiting All-Blacks in 1935. Swansea won 11-3, and Tanner was outstanding, as was his cousin and class-mate Willie Davies, at fly-half. The New Zealand captain, Jack Manchester, reputedly told a colleague to relay the disappointing news back home. "Tell them we have been beaten," he said, "but don't tell them it was by a pair of schoolboys."
Later that year, the 18-year-old Tanner made his debut for Wales, also against the All-Blacks, and helped to orchestrate a remarkable 13-12 victory. He ended up with 25 caps, 12 of them as captain. He also played for the Lions in South Africa, and his compatriot and fellow Lion Bleddyn Williams considered his service even better than that, a couple of decades later, of Gareth Edwards. "He could reverse pass almost half the width of the field," Williams said. "Among all the scrum-halves I've seen and played with, he would reign supreme."
Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Becke, united in death with his close contemporary Tanner, although I don't suppose they ever met in life, was not a comparable sportsman. Instead, his claim to posthumous distinction is that in 1963, as military attache in Jakarta, wearing a monocle and instructing his second-in-command to march up and down playing the bagpipes, he faced down rioters trying to sack the British embassy. The mob eventually set fire to the building, and smashed Becke's monocle, but he was unyielding. And here's the minor sporting detail I love: Becke's stoicism rubbed off on the ambassador, Andrew Gilchrist, who stayed similarly imperturbable and remarked at the height of the riot that it was a great shame the Indonesians didn't play cricket, as in shying stones through the embassy windows they had shown impressive power and accuracy.
Now there's a tale that evokes the stuff upper-lip at its best. We'll overlook whatever imperial arrogance it was that got the bally Indonesians so worked up in the first place, and celebrate the bulldog spirit and associated old-fashioned virtues, such as the ability to remain calm in the face of adversity, and never to let the opposition know that you're hurt. Not, if I might just refer back to the story that has sent the media ballistic these last couple of days, a quality ever demonstrated, for all his myriad abilities, by Ronaldo.
How I helped England win the Ashes...
A chap doesn't like to overstate his part in England winning the 2005 Ashes, but I would like to point out that the then-Australian coach, John Buchanan, gave me an interview just before the fourth Test at Trent Bridge which slightly rattled the Aussie camp, provoking a couple of flustered phone calls from their press liaison man. Buchanan told me that half his players were in great mental shape after the fighting draw at Old Trafford, which of course implied that half of them weren't.
He also offered an insight into one of his coaching innovations, a vocabulary exercise. Trying to encourage his players to do things they weren't used to, he taught them the meaning of words such as "gallimaufry", "maelstrom" and "nefarious" and challenged them to work those words into a sentence or lyric. Buchanan has now been taken on by the England and Wales Cricket Board in an "informal consultancy role". The ECB assure us that he will have little or nothing to do with the senior team, but if Andrew Strauss complains in his last pre-Ashes press conference of being fractionally discombobulated, we'll know they're lying.Reuse content