The 1954 Vintage: Part 2

19th November 2020

Earlier this week, I qualified for the New State Pension. The age for men of my generation had drifted slightly – it is now 66 – but I have got there in the end. Henceforth, the UK taxpayer will generously contribute to my (taxable) income by just under £171 per week.

I have mentioned previously (“In The Stars?”, 14th October 2019) that Wilfred Rhodes is the oldest cricketer ever to play for England (aged 52 in 1930). The corresponding achievement in rugby union is that of Fred Gilbert (aged 39 in 1923) and in football Stanley Matthews (42 in 1957). In rugby league, Gus Risman led Workington Town to success in the Challenge Cup final of 1952 at the age of 41.

The ages of the oldest winners of Men’s and Ladies’ Singles titles at Wimbledon are 41 and 37 (Arthur Gore and Charlotte Cooper Sterry in 1909 and 1908, respectively, though Serena Williams will beat the latter record if she wins an eighth title). The oldest cyclist to take part in the Tour de France is from the same era: Henri Paret was 50 when he competed in 1904. In the Open Championship, the oldest winner is – appropriately enough – Old Tom Morris, who was the advanced age of 46 when he took the title in 1867. Like countless others, I was willing the 59 year-old Tom Watson to shatter this record at Turnberry in 2009; he was the runner-up.

I have left all these ages behind.

So far, so predictable. We have a good idea of the age-groups in which high-level sporting prowess is at its peak and after which it diminishes. However, all is not yet lost as far as my potential sporting success is concerned. If I brush up my shooting skills and win a medal at the Olympic Games in either Tokyo next year or Paris in 2024, I would still be younger that the 72 year-old Oscar Swahn, a Swede who won a silver medal in the “sports shooting” event at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp.

Of course, Swahn was a mere whipper-snapper in comparison with the 73 year-old John Copley, who also won a silver (in London in 1948) in the “mixed painting, engraving and etchings” category of the Art Competition. (Helpfully, the website from which I gleaned this information noted that this was “no longer recognised as a sport”). Art competitions were in the official programme for all Summer Olympics between 1912 and 1948 and, in the last year, medals were awarded in architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. In 1949, the International Olympic Committee decided that, in future, it would hold a non-competitive arts exhibition instead.

More realistically, for my generation, there remain open the age-group sporting events in which we can compete. Most of these might be modest in scope and standard, perhaps, but they still provide the opportunities to derive personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement. A couple of years ago, in one of our regular e-mail conversations, my good friend Andrew Carter – who is older than me by three days – reported that he had won a bottle of wine for being the first man over 60 to finish the Evesham 10k race: “Hardly the Olympics, but I feel like I’ve become a professional!”. We are – both, hopefully – still a very long way from that distant point at which Dylan Thomas memorably instructed us to “not go gentle into that good night”.

So what of the 1954 vintage? Which of my and Andrew’s contemporaries scaled the domestic sporting heights?

The England cricketers with the most test caps are Allan Lamb (79) and Chris Tavaré (31) – both of whom were selected for my 1954 Test XI, as reported last month (“The 1954 Vintage: Part 1”, 1st October 2020) – although only three other Englishmen make the list (with 5 caps in total). Lamb and Tavaré made 16 test match centuries between them (of which the latter contributed two), but the group as a whole took just two test wickets (one falling, rather improbably, to Lamb and the other to Arnie Sidebottom).

On the soccer field, the roll-call includes two prominent England internationals with nearly 100 caps between them: Trevor Francis, who was the first footballer transferred for £1 million when he moved from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest in 1979 – a fact that really betrays the passage of time when we learned earlier this summer that Lionel Messi’s contract with Barcelona reputedly included a buy-out clause of over 700 million euros – and Phil Thompson, the multi-trophy winning defender with Liverpool. There is also Sam Allardyce: an England manager, rather than player, albeit for only one match.

Given the demographics, it is no surprise that the 1980 British Lions rugby union tourists to South Africa included 5 players born in 1954. Of these, three were fly-halves – and all of them excellent players – David Richards of Wales and the Irishmen, Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward. In An Ordinary Spectator, I remarked on seeing Richards – then of Neath Grammar School – as the outstanding player in the Llanelli Schools Sevens tournament of 1972. In the league code, there have also been half a dozen Great Britain internationals, the most prominent of whom is probably the (Peebles-born) full-back George Fairbairn, who played 16 times for England as well as winning 17 GB caps between 1975 and 1982.

The overseas sporting Hall of Fame has some impressive members: Chris Evert, Bernard Hinault, Michael Holding (another 1954 Test XI selection), Marvin Hagler, Walter Payton et al. I must also include the distinguished Brazilian football captain (and qualified doctor) Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira – who was better known as Socrates – if only to reproduce an absolutely classical (pun intended) piece of John Motson commentary from Brazil’s match with Italy at the 1982 World Cup: “And that was a goal by Socrates that sums up the philosophy of Brazilian football”.

At this point, I shall go slightly off piste as far as sporting connections are concerned by noting that the 1954 cohort has also been prominent in other fields, notably feature film direction (James Cameron, Ron Howard, Joel Coen, Ang Lee, Jane Campion) and – especially – politics. The vintage can lay claim to Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe and Condoleezza Rice as well as, er, Alex Salmond and Jean-Claude Juncker. I should note that this list includes presidents Recip Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, HugoChávezof Venezuela and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, so perhaps I should move the discussion on elsewhere. How about contributors to popular culture: John Travolta, Matt Groening (the creator of The Simpsons) – and Adam Ant.

In An Ordinary Spectator, I remarked on my first realisation, when watching an open-age sports event, that the players on the field in front of me were of roughly my age. Referring to my first term at university in 1974, I noted that:

“The average age of the Cambridge rugby side… was, not surprisingly, two or three years older than me. The majority were, like me, undergraduates, though obviously further advanced in their courses. But [it] was only those two or three years. These players were not far away from being a team of my contemporaries doing battle with mature club sides… If I had been of the required standard – which, of course, I was nowhere near – it would have been me out there on the pitch as well”.

I also noted in the book that, by that time – although I did not realise it until much later – I had already attended the first international sports event that featured a participant who was younger than I was. This was the England versus Luxembourg Ladies Volleyball match at the Leeds University sports hall in Match 1973, when the home side included the 18 year-old Joan Quigley from the Kirkby club, who was already the veteran of 20 previous internationals.

In an idle moment, as I stared out of the window contemplating (yet again) the implications of the coronavirus – from tomorrow evening, given the new restrictions in Tier 4 Local Authority areas imposed by the Scottish Government, I will be breaking the law (repeat: breaking the law) if I travel outside East Dunbartonshire – I had considered conducting an enquiry of anorakian proportions. Which sporting contest had I attended – I wondered – that incorporated the highest level of 1954 representation? A moment’s thought suggested that it would certainly have been the London Marathons – with their cast lists of thousands – that I went to see in the early 1980s, followed by the Wimbledon tennis and Open Championships fields of the same era.

Not very interesting. What about team sports? I suppose that an answer might have been found by trawling through my collection of match programmes – and focusing on those for the bigger events for rugby, soccer and cricket, in which the players’ details were given – in order for me to pinpoint the fixture that included the highest number of my exact contemporaries. But life is too short, really. A glance at the programme for the Varsity Match of 1976 reveals that five of the participants had been born in 1954 (and that I was not one of them). That answer will suffice, I think.

And so the New State Pension age is reached and I arrive at another checkpoint on life’s journey. It feels as if I were passing over the line across the road that marks the location of one of those intermediate sprints that feature part of the way along a mountainous Stage in the Tour de France. I trust that that is an appropriate analogy: a staging post at some considerable distance from the finishing line.

Let us hope that, in the years to come, we will be cheering the 80 year-old first-time novelist who wins the Booker Prize or the 90 year-old chemist being recognised by the Nobel Prize Committee. We of the 1954 vintage will look to follow them – albeit some distance behind – in heeding another of Dylan Thomas’s commands: we will indeed “burn and rage at close of day/rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

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