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Still An Ordinary Spectator

19th July 2017

We marked the publication of Still An Ordinary Spectator: Five More Years of Watching Sport by hosting an “All Blacks vs British Lions Breakfast” earlier this month.

The author is pictured (in the middle of the back row) with some of his guests at the launch.

The Lions’ victory in the Second Test meant that it was a double celebration.

It has to be said that a glass of Buck’s Fizz at 10.30 in the morning is a very civilised way to start the day.

An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport (2012)

Still An Ordinary Spectator: Five More Years of Watching Sport (2017)

www.anordinaryspectator.com

www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk

Elite Sportsmen at the Top of Their Game

16th November 2016

It is appropriate – for three reasons, I think – that the last in this series of post-An Ordinary Spectator blogs should be on last Sunday’s England-Australia rugby league international in the Four Nations Tournament at the London Stadium.

First, the event. It was a rugby league match between Great Britain and Australia – at Headingley in November 1963 – that was the first international sporting contest I attended. As noted in An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport, it was a violent affair, which left a deep impression on the 9 year-old boy:

“The game was one of unremitting ferocity, notwithstanding the stern discipline imposed by the referee, Eric Clay from Leeds, who sent off two Australians and the British prop, Cliff Watson. I remember sitting in the stand and being awed – and, it has to be said, somewhat frightened – by the violence of grown men”.

Second, the venue. An early entry in this collection of blogs – “Olympic Games Football: What Do I Know?” (August 2012) – recognised Glasgow’s contribution to the 2012 Olympics by reporting on two of the matches in the football tournament played at HampdenPark. This blog completes an Olympic circle by ending the collection at the main venue of that successful Games.

[An
aside. It is under some sufferance
that I refer to the venue as the London Stadium. For me, it remains the Olympic Stadium,
which, let us not forget, was funded by taxpayers across the UK, not
just in the capital. However, it
does now seem to have been fully colonised by its football tenants – West Ham
United FC – as evident in the external signage, the Bobby Moore and Sir Trevor
Brooking Stands, the listing of club honours on the balcony and the use of
claret and blue colours throughout the stadium].

But, back to the rugby. This year’s Four Nations Tournament has been contested by New Zealand and Scotland, as well as Sunday’s combatants, the England/Australia match being the last in the round-robin stage. Following the earlier matches – which, crucially, included England’s one point defeat by New Zealand – the hosts had to avoid defeat (i.e. to win or draw) in order to qualify for next Sunday’s final in Liverpool.

England were still in the game at half-time, trailing by only 6-10, having earlier taken the lead through a well-worked try by Jermaine McGillvary on the right wing. However, Australia were too good after the break, when a lethal combination of power, skill and precision produced 18 points in one 12 minute spell. Three of their five second half tries could be attributed to the strength and technique of individual players close to the England line. England scored a couple of good tries of their own through Gareth Widdop and Ryan Hall, but succumbed to the continual pressure exerted by their superior opponents. The final score of 36-18 properly reflected the contest.

It had been over 20 years since I had seen the Australian rugby league team in the flesh: a test match with Great Britain at Elland Road in 1994. Throughout this period – as also for the 20 years before that – they have generally been the sport’s dominant international team, albeit with some occasional dents in their crown from New Zealand. In the second half on Sunday, the game having been effectively decided, I was able to sit back and admire the excellence of the team – its accuracy, cohesion and relentlessness – and the individual players within it.

And so to the third reason for this being an appropriate juncture at which to draw this collection of blogs to an end. At various times in the last five years – as during the half-century before that captured in An Ordinary Spectator – I have been reminded of the pleasure in watching elite sportsmen at the top of their game. Throughout this long period, I consider myself fortunate that, even when the side I had been supporting – whether Yorkshire CCC or the European Ryder Cup team or the England rugby union side – have been second best, I have been able to recognise the brilliance of their opponents: Alvin Kallicharran and Jack Nicklaus and Gareth Edwards et al.

In terms of the rugby league players of Australia, this acknowledgement of excellence stretches back to seeing the great Reg Gasnier in that turbulent match at Headingley in 1963. It extends through Bobby Fulton in 1973 and Mal Meninga in 1982 and Brad Fittler in 1994 with others in between. And, in the present generation – on Sunday – it has now been extended to Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis and Cameron Smith: each now probably in the latter stages of his international career, but amongst the best to have ever played the game.

For the presentation of a series of sports blogs, that’s not a bad place to stop. If only temporarily.

A Stramash in Paisley

1st December 2014

On Saturday, I resumed the occasional tour of the football grounds of the west of Scotland that, having commenced towards the end of An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport, has been extended intermittently since the book’s publication. This time, I ventured to St Mirren Park in Paisley for the home side’s fourth round William Hill Scottish Cup tie against Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The day had begun at the annual Christmas tree festival at St Paul’s Church in Milngavie, where the musical accompaniment included a recital by Rachel Rutherford on the clarsach.

In my childhood, St Mirren was one of those names on my mother’s football pools coupon that I could not locate in the Philips’ Modern School Atlas. There were several of them across Scotland, of course – where exactly were Raith, St Johnstone, Hibernian, Third Lanark et al ? – and the subsequent discovery of their respective locations always gave me a feeling of achievement.

The St Mirren club was located in Love Street in Paisley for the 115 years from 1894. On selling the ground to Tesco in 2009, they moved to a new 8,000 seat stadium in FergusliePark. The ground is neat and compact and the spectators are close to the action. For Saturday’s cup-tie, it was barely one-quarter full, however, and, during those periods when the crowd was relatively quiet, the players’ voices echoed around the stadium. In the opening minutes, the stentorian – and quite colourful – instructions to his defence from the Inverness goalkeeper were clearly heard by those of us in Row J of the Main Stand.

The course of the game reflected the two sides’ respective positions in the Scottish Premier Football League. St Mirren are second bottom and separated from Ross County only on goal difference, having won only 2 of 14 league games so far; by contrast, Inverness are joint top of the league, behind Celtic again only on goal difference. However, although the visitors had the better of the early exchanges, it was St Mirren who took the lead just after the quarter-hour thanks to a crisp finish from Marc McAusland after Inverness had failed to deal with a corner kick.

In the second half, Inverness attacked for long periods, prompted from the midfield by the effective combination of the energetic James Vincent and the skilful Ryan Christie. I thought the latter was particularly impressive with his excellent close control and the vision for a penetrating pass with his cultured left foot. At 19 years of age, he is a player of rich promise: rather like Rachel Rutherford, perhaps, albeit in a different field. The visitors managed an equaliser with half an hour to go, but they were profligate with their other chances. The replay is in Inverness tomorrow.

My neighbour in the stand was a burly middle-aged man who was attending with his young son. After Inverness scored their goal – following another corner, when there were two headed challenges, two shots cleared off the line and another shot hitting the post before Josh Meekings fired the ball into the net – he spoke to me in an accent that originated somewhere in the Western Isles: “What a stramash! As Arthur Montford would have said: ‘What a stramash!’”. It was a comment that was absolutely fitting. It described the goal perfectly and, knowingly, it was a nice acknowledgement of the great Scottish broadcaster, who died last week at the age of 85.

I enjoyed my visit to St Mirren Park. The club remains rooted in its community and recognises the circumstances faced by many in the locality. The advertisements on the big screen included an awareness campaign for lung cancer fronted by Sir Alex Ferguson (though I don’t know if this campaign is also being rolled out across all clubs) and an appeal on behalf of one of local charities helping people “at this difficult time of the year”. The MC’s half-time pitch interview was with the four members of a local rock band – Lemonhaze – whose (quite impressive) new video was also played on the screen. “What’s next?” the MC asked, perhaps expecting a music-related response to follow up the earlier references to the band’s new single, the video and a couple of forthcoming gigs. The answer was probably more focused on the short-term that he had expected: “We’ll go for a pint after the game”.

After the match, I walked into the centre of Paisley. The evidence of post-industrial malaise is not hard to find, ranging from the derelict former home of the Paisley Provident Co-operative Society Limited, just down the road from the ground, through to the vacant areas of wasteland opposite the car-wash centre and the wholesale suppliers. But – I was reminded – this is also a town with a proud local history and architectural heritage; in the case of my walk, the latter started with St James’ Church in Underwood Road and extended through to PaisleyTown Hall, both buildings dating from the civic confidence of the 1880s.

The jewel in the crown is Paisley Abbey, of course. I entered through a side door and came across a rehearsal of that evening’s performance of Mozart and Mendelssohn by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera with the City of Glasgow Chorus. I stood for a few minutes as the notes soared high into the abbey’s upper reaches. Later, I reflected on my day’s music sampling – a clarsach rendition, a Lemonhaze video and Die Erste Walpurgisnacht: a pleasantly eclectic collection.

Later still, in the evening, BBC Scotland’s Sportscene showed the two goals from the St Mirren/Inverness match. The pundit Pat Nevin said that Arthur Montford would have described the Inverness equaliser as a stramash.

The “nano-drama” I would most like to have witnessed

6th December 2012

In An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport, I list a “First XI” of Sporting Nano-dramas that I have witnessed over the last half-century. I refer to these as “the drama of the moment – of the micro-second – in which a defining characteristic of the sporting contest is revealed… It is in these moments that sport really makes the heart pound and causes the sharp intake of breath to be made”. The book’s examples cover incidents from rugby league, rugby union, cricket, football and golf and they involve, amongst others, Geoff Boycott, Martin Offiah and Payne Stewart.

An obvious question to ask, given the contents of the list, is: “Which sporting nano-drama would I most like to have seen, live and in the flesh, either during my period of sports spectating or in earlier times?”

There is a long list of possible candidates, of course: Jesse Owens crossing the line to win gold at the Berlin Olympics of 1936, Don Bradman’s duck in his final test match innings at The Oval in 1948, Roger Bannister breasting the tape for the first sub-four minute mile in 1954, Geoff Hurst’s controversial goal in the World Cup final of 1966, Johnny Wilkinson’s winning drop goal in the Rugby World Cup final of 2003… An impossible task to select only one, perhaps.

And yet I have a clear favourite. I would go back to Saturday 26th July 1947: the first day of the Fourth Test Match between England and South Africa at Headingley.

This was the first post-war test match to be played at Yorkshire’s headquarters, the previous game having been against Australia in 1938 when Bradman had made a mere 103 to follow his Headingley triple centuries of 1930 and 1934. The series stood at 2-0 to England with two matches to play. Norman Yardley, a Yorkshireman, captained the England team.

South Africa batted first and were bowled out for 175 allowing the England openers – Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook – to begin the home side’s innings with an hour to play on the first evening. The scene is beautifully described in John Marshall’s Headingley, published in 1970:

“Hutton and Washbrook walked, apparently quite unconcerned, to the wicket. The crowd gave them all the encouragement of which a fervent Yorkshire crowd is capable, and that is plenty. After applauding the pair all the way to the wicket, there was a very special burst, taken up all round the ground, as Hutton took guard”.

The nano-drama I would most like to have witnessed is that moment when Len Hutton takes guard and the applause rings out from all corners of Headingley. 65 years on, I find it both immensely moving and hugely symbolic.

At one level, it was about Len Hutton and Yorkshire cricket. Although he had made his record test match score of 364 as long ago as 1938, the Second World War had of course severely interrupted Hutton’s career and the 1947 South Africa game was his first test match at Headingley. The Yorkshire crowd had come to cheer on their own son, much as they would do in a slightly different way – and as described in An Ordinary Spectator – when Geoff Boycott made his 100th first class century on the same ground against Australia in 1977.

But there was more to it, I think. It was also about a sporting occasion reflecting the society around it. By July 1947, the war in Europe had been over for over two years, but, for the British, there was now a stark realisation about the long economic struggle ahead. It was a time of austerity and rationing. The heavy rain that interrupted that year’s Headingley test match was an apt reflection of the greyness of the times.

However, it was also a period of hope. Hitler’s Germany had been defeated. Families had been re-united. A baby boom was underway. People could look forward to peaceful times. The policies being enacted by the post-war Labour Government – including the nationalisation of key industries and the creation of a National Health Service – would lead, it was believed, to the New Jerusalem.

Marshall’s “special burst” of applause, as Hutton was taking guard, reflected all these aspects of the Headingley crowd’s psyche: the pride in the local hero, the gratitude that they had survived the long ordeal of war, the desire that things revert to what they had once been, the hope for the future…

This particular nano-drama dates from some 14 years before the beginning of the narrative of An Ordinary Spectator. It was also 7 years before I was born, so I have some excuse for not being present. However, the writings of another readily create a poignant mental image of the occasion and its central character.

Postscript

Len Hutton was dismissed for exactly 100 on the following Monday. (Sunday was a rest day). John Marshall states that, when Hutton reached his century, “[t]he noise of [an earlier] thunderstorm was a gentle rumble compared with Yorkshire’s tribute to the Pudsey lad”. England won by 10 wickets on the third day.