Brian Viner: The timeless appeal of a champion rolling back the years

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

Dylan Thomas called it raging "against the dying of the light". It might less poetically be described as a poke in the eye of Old Father Time.

Either way, those last hurrahs against the ageing process are never more poignant than in sport, with its accent on the vitality and flexibility of youth, and even snooker, in which athleticism is not an obvious requirement, is enough of a young man's game these days for 52-year-old Steve Davis to be cast as an old codger, as likely to need a length of ash to help him walk as to pot a long red.

His close friend Barry Hearn, restored as the grand panjandrum of the baize, has been looking for a way to restore snooker's popularity, yet not even Hearn could have plotted a scenario in which Davis, 25 years after we all stayed up after midnight rooting (successfully) for him as the younger man and ruthless winning machine to lose against chubby Dennis Taylor in his upside-down glasses, would capture the nation's imagination by turning The Crucible tables on defending world champion John Higgins. That he could not sustain the fairy tale scarcely matters. One bellow against the dying of the light was enough to put snooker back on the front pages.

The same thing happened in last year's Open Championship at Turnberry, when 59-year-old Tom Watson propelled golf into the main headlines even though he couldn't quite round it off with the happy, indeed miraculous ending we all craved. As with Davis in Sheffield, Watson's heroics provided a mirror-image of a famous contest in the same arena years earlier, except that back in 1977 he as the whippersnapper had won the Open, beating the great Jack Nicklaus in a private battle that actually made a mockery of the word "open", considering that the third-placed player, Hubert Green, hardly even had a spear-carrying role in the so-called "Duel in the Sun". At the end he trailed Nicklaus by 10 shots, and Watson by 11.

Of course, there were some ungenerous souls last summer who suggested that a sport in which the greatest prize was so nearly carried into the sunset by an old geezer with an artificial hip barely deserved to be called a sport.

This week, they doubtless said much the same thing about snooker. But they are wrong. Whatever the game, it is a glorious thing when the mightiest players of bygone eras roll back the years; it makes us all feel better about ourselves.

They're all 'happy days' when the Voice of Racing is shooting from the lip

A horse called Exulto won the 4.15 at Southwell on Wednesday. Not all that much to get exultant about, you might think; he was the 6-4 favourite and ridden by the formidable Richard Johnson. But it is worth mentioning that Exulto on Wednesday provided 92-year-old Sir Peter O'Sullevan with the 61st win of his career as an owner; a career, moreover, that took fully 15 years to yield its first winner. Until March 1954, when Pretty Fair did the business at Windsor, not one of 16 horses in his colours had managed first, second or even third.

Anyway, Exulto's win put some spring in the great man's step on Thursday, when I tried to keep pace with him between his Chelsea flat and his favourite little French restaurant. There were four of us; O'Sullevan, myself, the journalist and broadcaster Brough Scott, and the racing writer Sean Magee, and the excellent fare at Le Suquet provided some much-needed ballast after the two bottles of champagne quaffed at the flat with O'Sullevan's favoured toast, "happy days".

In truth, some of his days lately could have been happier. It is still only a few months since the death of his beloved wife, Lady Pat, since when he hasn't always been in tip-top health. But on Thursday he was in marvellous form, the keen wit never sharper than when Brough was regaling us with tales of his time at Oxford University as a member of the now rather reviled Bullingdon Club. This is a story that demands just a little knowledge of journalistic jargon, but bear with me. While recalling student life at Oxford in the early 1960s, Brough in his enthusiasm got his facts arse about face, as they say in Chelsea. "There were nine females to every one male," he recalled, and from the BBC's erstwhile "Voice of Racing", for decades also the Daily Express's racing correspondent, came the immediate, mock-stern interruption, "subs please check".

Which should come out on top: a fool or a fraud?

Sometimes it is the lesser transgressions on the football field that leave the sourest taste. I recall an old warhorse of the 1960s, famous as one of the hardest defenders of his generation, telling me proudly how he used to intimidate young opponents by implying that they were going to end the day in hospital. Yet, in practically the next breath, he expressed his disgust at having once been spat at by an opposing player. Similarly, Inter's Thiago Motta has emerged almost with credit for stupidly palming off Barcelona's Sergi Busquets during Wednesday's Champions League semi-final, because of the sly way in which Busquets feigned injury to get him sent off. Better to intimidate than spit; better to be stupid than sly.