Leading Article: England's chaplain unfairly run out

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The Independent Online
PERHAPS Ray Illingworth is worried that England cricketers are turning into a God squad. Did the new chairman of selectors spot a danger sign when David Gower took to the heavens in a light aircraft during an Australian tour? Have too many players been seen praying to St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes? Is he privately worried that tambourines might be brought out during tea?

Speculation is inevitable, since it is difficult to accept the reason given for dismissing the Rev Andrew Wingfield-Digby as team chaplain. Mr Illingworth says the vicar is out because macho England players do not need shoulders to cry on. In other words, he thinks chatting with the chaplain is for wimps.

Yet successful managers in many sports have shown that a spiritual advisor can be of great benefit. These days many professional football clubs have a 'Rev of the Rovers'. Indeed, in the Seventies Illingworth's fellow Yorkshireman Don Revie was the first manager to hire a chaplain. Leeds United went from strength to strength. No one could say that hard men such as Norman Hunter and Jack Charlton suddenly turned into Jessies.

The lesson is the same in the US, where many teams have prayer meetings before a match. That does not preclude players from then rushing to kick hell out of their opponents. The European golf tour has its own parson, thanks to the initiative of Bernhard Langer. Stars such as Kriss Akabusi, the 400 metres hurdler, and Jonathan Edwards, the triple jumper, both seek out the vicar seconded to the British track and field tour.

In Britain, sporting chaplains are less evangelical than their American counterparts. They realise that religious enthusiasm and sport do not mix well, as the century-old battle between Rangers and Celtic demonstrates. They do not see themselves as modern-day witchdoctors hired to channel divine powers into their teams. If that were the case, Mr Wingfield-Digby would certainly have problems justifying his England career.

A chaplain serves as a counsellor. He or she can offer a sympathetic ear when injuries occur or personal problems prevent an athlete giving a good performance. Away from their families, England players may not be interested in hearing the Good News, but they may miss being able to tell Mr Wingfield-Digby the bad news.