Terence Blacker: British sport has a knack of producing unlikely heroes

Crouch looked so fragile it seemed as if the slightest puff of wind would blow him off his matchstick legs and leave him in a crumpled heap
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The Independent Online

How very strange it must feel to be a British sporting superstar. One moment you are remarkable only in that you are above average at running, jumping, kicking a ball or hitting it, the next you have become the focus of a small, desperate nation's ambitions, fantasies and embarrassments. No wonder so many of them behave oddly, storming off golf courses in a huff, sobbing on a pitch in front of thousands of people, drinking too much, "dogging" in car-parks, "roasting" (whatever that may mean) in hotel bedrooms and dictating their memoirs to Hunter Davies.

For the past couple of weeks, the sporting media circus has turned its attention to a footballer who has been described as "Peter the Great", "Perfect Peter", "phenomenal", "England's talisman" and so on. His international record of scoring goals has placed him beside Stanley Matthews, John Barnes and Teddy Sheringham. Yet no sporting success has done quite so much to reveal the idiocy of commentators and the fickleness of supporters than the rise and rise of a man called Peter Crouch.

I happened to see Crouch's debut as a first-team player not that many years ago. Coming on as a substitute towards the end of a match in England's second division, he provoked unbridled hilarity in the crowd. Absurdly tall, he made his way in a gangly, uncoordinated manner on to the pitch. His legs and arms looked bulimic, his callow teenage features were goofy, and he looked so fragile it seemed as if the slightest puff of wind would blow him off his matchstick legs and leave him in a crumpled heap, like a puppet whose strings have been cut. "Ah, bless," said a woman, sitting behind me.

The opposing fans jeered. We, the home crowd, were embarrassed that our team was so desperate that they had brought on someone whose only apparent advantage was that he was six inches taller than anyone else on the pitch. Bullying is part of sport, on and off the pitch and, because bullies go for the weak or vulnerable, it is never the thuggish player who is persecuted by the crowd, however incompetent he may be. As in the playground, the person who does not conform to what is expected is the one who will be taunted by the majority.

Football, a basic game in many ways, can provide useful little metaphors for the world at large. In his famous book of fan's notes Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby portrayed the sad career of an Arsenal defender called Gus Caesar as an exemplar of the futility of human ambition. Caesar was a fast, athletic black player who had been in the England Under-21 team and who looked the part of a top professional footballer.

Unfortunately, those looks deceived. Gus Caesar was never quite good enough. His mistakes became legendary and, in the cruel showbiz of football, he was soon something of a comic turn. He played for smaller and smaller teams, slid down the league and ended his career in Hong Kong.

Crouch is a happier metaphor; Caesar in reverse. The jeers and laughter of that first game have been countlessly repeated, even as his career has blossomed, but at every stage the mockery of fans has quickly given way to a recognition that, as with Caesar, looks are deceptive. The pundits, often slower off the mark than ordinary supporters, have continued to sneer until recently when, almost overnight, they have been obliged to change clichés midstream.

British sport has a knack of throwing up unlikely heroes. Kelly Holmes, with her sweet, open smile, has always seemed more like someone delighted to have won the egg-and-spoon race at a local fête than a double Olympic gold medalist. Mike Gatting looked like a minicab driver. Tim Henman carried on to the court the earnest, hopeless ambition of an area sales manager, and has been replaced by Andy Murray whose zitty volatility is that of a teenager whose computer game has been confiscated until he has done his homework.

Sometimes, it seems, sport can provide a reassuring, old-fashioned message. It is not how you look, or whether your face fits, that matters, but how you perform.