News Blog

Unfinished Business At Petershill Park

22nd August 2020

When the coronavirus brought a premature end to the 2019-20 Scottish Premiership season in March, Celtic FC (with 8 games still to play) held a 13-point lead at the top of the table, albeit with their nearest challengers, Rangers, having a match in hand (and two further Old Firm games to play). As far as I am aware, most neutral observers agree that, under these circumstances, the decision of the SPFL Board to award the championship title to Celtic was the correct one, notwithstanding the mathematical possibility that the outcome of a fully completed season might have turned out differently.

This provided Celtic with their 9th consecutive championship success, equalling the feat of Jock Stein’s teams of the 1960s/1970s. For their part, Rangers won the title for 9 years in a row up to (and including) the 1996-97 campaign. It is a fairly safe prediction that, in the 2020-21 season, Celtic’s bid to take the unbroken run into an unprecedented double figures – and Rangers’ attempt to stop them – will dominate the Scottish football headlines.

Against this background, it is interesting to note that there is another Glasgow-based football side with an even longer run of domestic championship success: the Glasgow City women’s team has won the Scottish Women’s Premier League for the last 13 seasons (up to and including 2019).

Traditionally, the SWPL has run over the calendar year and the 2020 season had only just kicked off when the virus brought matters to a halt. The early indications were that Glasgow City might have some serious competition: the Celtic women’s team defeated them 2-1 in the opening league fixture in February. However, this campaign, which was initially put on hold after that first game, has now been declared null and void by Scottish Women’s Football. All being well, the 2020-21 season will run from October to May with a condensed League Cup competition in May and June 2021.

In the meantime, the Glasgow City side has had interests elsewhere: in Europe. Their championship success of 2018 took them into the UEFA Women’s Champions League for 2019-20. In this, they progressed to the last 8, defeating FK Chertanovo Moscow and Brøndby IF, the latter on penalties last October.

Glasgow City’s quarter-final tie against VfL Wolfsburg had originally been scheduled as a conventional two-legged affair in March. The cancellation of the first game at Petershill Park in Springburn was an early victim of the coronavirus in the sports spectating itinerary that I had planned for the spring and summer of this year. (The refund of my £14 ticket was made with impressive efficiency by the club manager, Laura Montgomery).

After a long delay, the Women’s Champions League has now resumed and the Glasgow City-VfL Wolfsburg quarter-final was played yesterday evening in the Anoeta Stadium in San Sebastian. (All the matches in this round, the semi-finals and the final are currently taking place in a mini-tournament in Bilbao and San Sebastian as one-off games behind closed doors). I took advantage of BBC Alba’s coverage to see how things turned out.

It is relevant to note, I think, that, apart from Glasgow City, all this year’s Women’s Champions League quarter-finalists have formal associations with their men’s counterparts – Arsenal, Barcelona, Paris St Germain, et al – with the advantages of technical support, use of facilities and access to sponsorship that these provide. Wolfsburg – similarly positioned – have a fine record in the competition, having won it twice and been runners-up on two other occasions in the last eight years. I was aware, therefore, that Glasgow City were facing a stern challenge in yesterday’s match. (The club’s only previous quarter-final appearance was a 0-7 aggregate loss to PSG in 2015).

The challenge turned out to be more than stern. Wolfsburg scored their first goal after 15 minutes and a second four minutes later. Two further scores just before half-time gave them a 4-0 interval lead. After the break, the goals kept coming at regular intervals to yield a final tally in favour of the German side of 9-1.

Glasgow City kept going until the end; their heads certainly did not drop. In the second half, Lauren Wade scored arguably the goal of the game with a spectacular shot from the corner of the penalty area, Leanne Crichton hit the cross-bar and Krystyna Freda sent a shot narrowly wide with the goalkeeper beaten. But, even allowing for the lack of match sharpness from this being Glasgow City’s first competitive outing for 6 months, there could be no doubting that – both collectively and individually – Wolfsburg were in a different league.

The Wolfsburg side had an enviable combination of athleticism and skill. They moved the ball out of defence with confidence, attacked strongly down both flanks, maintained a high quality in their deliveries into the penalty area – notably from Svenja Huth on the right-hand side – and, when possession was lost, were quick to swarm round the Glasgow City player in order to win it back.

The Danish striker Pernille Harder led the way, her four goals comprising two headers and shots from the edge of the penalty area with left and then right foot. She was denied a fifth (and best) goal – a shot on the turn from distance – by the cross-bar. I was also impressed by the commanding presence in the centre of midfield of Ingrid Syrstad Engen – the scorer of two first-half goals – and the neat footwork and distribution of Huth.

And so Glasgow City’s 2019-20 European campaign, which began in Moscow last September, has come to an end. Of course, the football tides do not cease and the club’s ebb and flow of transfer activity has seen four new signings – including the South African national captain, Janine van Wyk, who made her competitive debut yesterday – announced in the last couple of months. The new season – domestic and European – awaits. I hope that, at some point in its course, I can complete some unfinished business and take in a match at Petershill Park.

Citius, Altius, Fortius. Part 2: Munich 1972

9th August 2020

The previous blog – “Citius, Altius, Fortius: Part 1” (31st July)was published on the day that the programme of athletics events was due to have started at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo and referred to some of the athletics highlights that I recall from the 1968 Games in Mexico City. In this follow-up – on the day that the athletics schedule was due to have been completed in Japan – I move the story on to the Munich Games of 1972.

These were the two Olympiads that took place during my teenage years when – I would argue – memories of sporting achievements are particularly susceptible to being firmly lodged in the back of one’s mind. As before, my recollections are of the black-and-white images that I viewed on television at the time supplemented – if this is not cheating too much – by the library of footage that is now available on YouTube.

(In passing, it might be noted that the YouTube collection of Olympic action includes a limited amount of material that dates all the way back to the first modern Games in Athens in 1896. It will no doubt hurt most modern sensibilities that the unofficial events in the next Games in Paris in 1900 included shooting – that is, shooting live pigeons. The film of those events appears to have been lost, fortunately. For the record, Leon de Lunden of Belgium and Donald Mackintosh of Australia were the winners).

Nearly half a century on, the Olympic Games of 1972 are chiefly remembered for the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. I remember being told about the attack on the Olympic village when I turned up for a 1st XV rugby training session at school. I also recall the following week’s cover of The Economist magazine: the famous photograph of a masked terrorist looking out over the balcony of the athletes’ apartment with the journal’s prescient heading “He and his kind will be among us for the rest of our lives”.

I focus here on three athletics events.

* Women’s pentathlon

There were 14 track and field events contested by women in Munich. (The longest distance race was the 1,500 metres, newly introduced). Of the available gold medals, 6 were claimed by East Germany, 4 by West Germany and 3 by the Soviet Union. The other – in the pentathlon – was won by Mary Peters of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As with David Hemery in the men’s 400 metres hurdles event of 1968, this was GB & NI’s only gold medal in athletics and, not surprisingly, it was the focus of the BBC’s television coverage. My recollection is of the tension in the moments before the times for the last event (the 200 metres) were announced, as it was clear that whoever won the overall event had done so by the narrowest of margins. It turned out that Peters’s cumulative score of 4801 points (a new world record) was just 10 points higher – the equivalent of a tenth of a second in the final race – than that of the runner-up, Heide Rosendhal of West Germany (who had already won the women’s long jump and would later add another gold in the sprint relay).

Mary Peters’s background was from the NI component of GB & NI. Although she was born in Lancashire, she had moved with her family to Northern Ireland at the age of 11. She ended up representing NI at every Commonwealth Games between 1958 (when she was 19) and 1974.

The Northern Ireland of 1972 was a sorry place. The official records show that it was the worst year for casualties in “The Troubles” with 479 deaths (including 130 British soldiers) and 4,876 injuries. It would probably have been no surprise to Peters – a Protestant competing (and winning) for GB & NI – that she would receive the death threats that were duly made to the BBC. I cannot imagine the distress that these calls would have caused, particularly as, to add to this combustible mix – the very next day after her success – the Palestinian terrorists invaded the Israeli compound and confirmed that there were no boundaries of Olympic decency and respect for human life that could not be crossed.

Mary Peters insisted that she would return to Belfast, where she was greeted by her fans at the airport and paraded through the streets. She has remained a resident of Northern Ireland ever since. For reasons that go far beyond the limitations of mere athletic excellence, I think her Olympic gold is amongst the greatest achievements in British sport.

* Men’s 10,000 metres final

Finland produced some very impressive long-distance runners in the early 1970s, thereby extending its reputation for success in these events that had been firmly established in the inter-war period. In 1971, I recall watching the final of the European Championships 10,000 metres race on television, when the domestic interest focused on the British runner, David Bedford. Bedford was leading with about 300 metres to go, but then seemed to tread water as two sprint finishers – the Finn Juha Väätäinen(the eventual winner in front of his home Helsinki crowd) and Jürgen Haase of East Germany – swept past him. It was an astonishing piece of athletics drama: these men might have just run over 6 miles (at a fair lick), but they then accelerated through the gears as if they were top-of-the-range sports cars.

Väätäinen’s compatriot, Lasse Virén, won the gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres finals in Munich (and went on the repeat the feat four years later at the Montreal Games). The main recollection I have from 1972 is of Virén taking a heavy fall about half-way through the 10,000 metres race and being stranded on the track 30 metres or so behind his leading rivals.

This is perhaps slightly unfair but, at this point, one is tempted to fast-forward to the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, when the American favourite, Mary Decker, tripped and fell during the women’s 3,000 metres. (She had clipped the heels of the South African-born Zola Budd, who was representing Great Britain). Whereas Decker remained prone of the ground bemoaning her misfortune, Virén sprung to his feet, dusted himself off and chased after the leading pack, to which he attached himself again within about 150 metres. He took the lead on the penultimate lap and, after holding off the challenge of Emiel Puttemans – the Belgian runner who came second – won the race comfortably by about ten metres.

Wikipedia’s entry for Lasse Virén includes a fascinating reference to “bend (curve) mathematics”. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it is clever nonetheless. Virén ran almost all the bends near the inner edge of the first lane, thereby sparing himself tens of metres compared with his main rivals. (Think about how much the “stagger” is between individual lanes in a 400 metre race). It has been estimated that, in the 10,000 metres race in Munich, this gave him an advantage of about 50 metres over Puttemans, the latter having run many of the bends wide on the outer edge of the first lane or sometimes in the second lane.

* Men’s marathon

The Olympic marathon runners have attracted popular attention since the event appeared in Athens in 1896. There is dramatic footage on YouTube of the Italian, Dorando Pietri, in a state of some distress from exhaustion and dehydration, coming home first in London in 1908, only to be later disqualified as he had been helped over the line by officials; the great Czech runner Emil Zátopek combined his 1952 win in Helsinki with wins in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres finals; the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila famously won in Rome in 1960 running in bare feet (although he did wear running shoes when he took the gold medal again in Tokyo four year later)…

In Munich, the marathon was won by America’s Frank Shorter (who had actually been born in Germany). He must have had a shock in the closing stages when, certain that he had the lead, he entered the stadium to a chorus of boos and saw that there was another runner in front of him; it turned out that the crowd was simply venting its displeasure at the uninvited intervention of a student hoaxer, who had entered the race near its conclusion.

The significance of the 1972 event is that Shorter’s success is widely acknowledged to have kick-started (pardon the pun) the jogging boom in the United States. By 1976, when Shorter took the silver medal at the Montreal Games, the New York Marathon had over 1,500 finishers, compared with 259 in 1974 and 55 in 1970.

Other cities took up the baton for hosting marathons, including London in 1981, which I remember watching from a vantage point in Poplar High Street at about the 16-mile mark. In the glossy official programme for that event, it was noted that a further 25 marathons were scheduled across the UK over the remainder of that year – from Aberdeen to the Isle of Wight – and over 200 in the US.

The running business is now a global multi-billion dollar industry. Accordingly, it is reasonable to argue that Frank Shorter turned out to be one of the most significant of modern Olympians in terms of his impact on general societal trends. (On the other hand, within the boundaries of his own individual sport, that accolade would undoubtedly belong elsewhere: to Dick Fosbury, whose introduction of the high jump “Flop” at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City I mentioned last time).

One final thought about the Munich Games of 1972. It is of interest to note that the terrorist massacre of the Israelis halted the Games for a couple of days, but did not lead to their cancellation. I wonder what would happen if – heaven forbid – a similar outrage were to happen again? Would the Games be postponed – or cancelled – in the global wave of horror of the circumstances and empathy for the victims? Or would the powerful alliance of infrastructural, media and sporting interests result in only a temporary halt to the proceedings – as happened then – especially if it were married to the type of defiant “the terrorists won’t win” determination that saw many New Yorkers turn up for work in Manhattan on the day after 9/11. I can’t be sure of the answer – and I certainly hope that I never find out – but I think I know what it would be.

Citius, Altius, Fortius.  Part 1: Mexico City 1968

31st July 2020

Today should have been the first day of the athletics events at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. We must now be patient in waiting for that particular extravaganza, of course: the current plans – coronavirus permitting – have put things on hold for 12 months.

In An Ordinary Spectator, I described my visits to the Olympic Stadiums in Munich (in 1975), Moscow (1980) and Barcelona (2005). (I should have added Melbourne – in 1987 – to that list). I followed this up in Still An Ordinary Spectator by noting trips to the stadiums in Berlin (in 2014) and London (2016). None of these visits were for the Games themselves: Munich, Barcelona and Berlin were to watch football matches and London for a rugby league international. In the case of Moscow, I simply walked in off the street – this was a month after the city had completed hosting the Games – and sat alone (and untroubled) in a seat in one of the open stands. I enjoyed the same casual access to the Melbourne Cricket Ground seven years later.

I have only ever been to two Olympic events, both of them soccer matches in 2012 when Hampden Park in Glasgow hosted some of the group matches of the football tournaments and my sports spectating itinerary took in Belarus versus Egypt (men) and France versus Sweden (women). Both were enjoyable occasions, as I recall.

In a recent blog – “The Rest of the World”, 17th June 2020 – I mentioned how thrilled I had been, as a 15 year-old, to watch some of the world’s best cricketers take part in the 1970 “test” match series between England and the Rest of the World, either on television or (for one of the matches) in the flesh at Headingley. It is perhaps not surprising that it is from the impressionable teenage years that there remain many of the strongest memories of sports spectating. In this essay and the one that follows, therefore, I shall reflect on the two Summer Olympic Games that took place during this period of my life: Mexico City in 1968 and Munich in 1972. (A third blog will recall my visit to Moscow in 1980).

It is perhaps relevant to note that it is from these times that the modern politicisation of the Olympic Games really took hold. This was not a new phenomenon, of course – the Berlin Games of 1936 were testimony to that – but it is probably the case that the Tokyo Games of 1964 were the last to enjoy the post-war innocence that had been a characteristic of the Olympiads from 1948 onwards.

The 1968 Summer Olympics were prefaced – a few weeks earlier – by the Mexican military authorities’ massacre of students and other protesters against the Games in Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Cultura; Wikipedia refers to the death toll as “an indeterminant number, in the hundreds”. Fifty-plus years on, the most powerful image of the Games themselves is probably that of the Black Power salutes at a medal ceremony by the American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. (As far as I am aware, it has gone largely unremarked that it was the salute given by Smith and Carlos – the single raised fist in a tight-fitting black glove – that was exactly replicated by the West Indies cricket team prior to this month’s test matches against England at Southampton and Old Trafford. See “Soul Limbo”, 10th July 2020).

I shall focus here on my recollections of a few of the sporting achievements from the athletics arena in 1968. At least, I think they are my recollections from seeing the events at the time – on television, of course , and in black and white – rather than in any subsequent repeat showings. For the purposes of this blog, however, I must confess to having supplemented the memory bank by also checking out the wealth of material now available on YouTube.

* Men’s 400 metres hurdles final

Great Britain’s only gold medal on the athletics track in Mexico City was won by David Hemery. The YouTube excerpt captures my memory of his brilliant performance – a stunning combination of grace, power and technique – which yielded a new world record. Unfortunately, it also includes the crass television commentary by David Coleman as Hemery sprinted down the final straight: “It’s Hemery, Great Britain. It’s Hemery. Great Britain [with
a gasp in the voice]… David Hemery wins for Great Britain. In second place is Hennige [Gerhard Hennige of West Germany]. And who cares who’s third? It doesn’t matter”.

Well, we cared actually, David, because it did matter. In third place – and therefore a bronze medal winner in the Olympic Games – was the Yorkshireman, John Sherwood, running for Great Britain.

* Women’s 400 metres final

Lillian Board was the Golden Girl of British athletics in the late 1960s: talented, attractive and successful. She was the favourite to win the single-lap race in Mexico City, even though she was unfavourably placed on the inside lane in the final.

Jarvis Scott of the USA went into a commanding lead down the back straight – “She’s really going for the gold”, proclaimed Coleman helpfully – but, as the runners came off the final bend, it was Board who had edged to the front and had looked to have paced her race to perfection. It was in the last 30 metres or so that she faded and was beaten into second place. “And Lillian Board is struggling. Lillian Board is struggling. And she’s lost it, shouted Coleman into his microphone as she crossed the line. The winner was a French athlete – Colette Besson – whose name has stuck in the back of my mind ever since.

My recollection is that there was a general sense of anti-climax in the media reporting of Lillian Board’s race – almost one of failure – as if following Coleman’s lead. I thought at the time how unjust this was. Like John Sherwood, she was an Olympic medallist: how could that simply be dismissed?

Lillian Board was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in September 1970. She died three months later at the age of 22.

* Men’s long jump final

The men’s long jump in Mexico City was a keenly anticipated event. The field included the gold medal winner at the previous Games in Tokyo (Lynn Davies of Great Britain) and the joint world record holders (Ralph Boston of the USA and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan of the Soviet Union, who had set the mark at 27 ft 4¾ins).

The event was effectively over after another American, Bob Beamon, had taken his first jump. Beamon simply bypassed the 28 feet range in setting the new world’s best, which was eventually recorded at 29 ft 2½ ins. It took the officials some time to confirm the distance, as they had to do this manually with a tape measure, the optical device that had been installed for the event apparently having not been designed to measure a jump of such length.

The footage of Beamon’s leap remains astonishing viewing: the driving rhythm of his arms and shoulders on the runway, the stretching of the neck to keep his head upright and his eyes looking forward, the acceleration of his sprint to reach its maximum speed as his foot hit the departure board, the synchronised sweep of the arms in mid-air, the two kangaroo jumps forward after his initial landing, the final bounce upwards into a standing position prior to exiting the sand pit…

The Olympic record for the men’s long jump still dates from 1968 (though the world record was eclipsed in 1991 by another American, Mike Powell). At the time – and subsequently – much was made of the favourable effect that Mexico City’s high altitude might have on explosive events such as the short sprints and the long jump. I ignore all that. Instead, I prefer to picture Bob Beamon sprinting from left to right across the television screen and jumping into history.

* Men’s high jump final.

I was fairly hopeless at the high jump at school. In our PE classes – a couple of times a year, if the weather were conducive – we might venture across the rugby field to the high jump pit, where we would attempt our versions of the “straddle” technique. This involved a diagonal approach to the barrier – an iron bar – before taking off from the inside leg, thrusting up with the arms to rotate the torso and clear the bar horizontally, and landing on the side of the body. At least, I think this was how it was supposed to be done. For me, it was an engagement invariably marked by painfully clattering into the bar and landing in a solid bed of damp sand.

Dick Fosbury of the USA introduced the world to the “Fosbury Flop” at the Mexico Games. He had been developing the technique for some time, but this was its theatrical premier in front of a global audience.

Fosbury also had a diagonal approach but at the end of it, instead of facing the bar and propelling himself upwards with his arms and legs, he turned the other way and arched his back as he pushed off from the ground and, like a worm climbing over a pencil, contorted his body so that all its parts cleared the hurdle, the last of which – with a final kick – were his legs. Has there ever been a more radical – indeed, revolutionary – change in an athletics technique?

And yet? Check out the YouTube footage of the action from the 1896 Olympic games in Athens. There are a few seconds of film of the high jump which, at that time, did not permit any run-up to the bar at all, but rather simply comprised a leap upwards from a standing position. One of the competitors is clearly seen to half-turn his body and clear the hurdle backwards.

Wikipedia reports that, by the time of the next Olympiad in Munich in 1972, 28 of the 40 competitors in the high jump were employing Dick Fosbury’s new technique, although the winner at those Games – the Estonian Jüri Tarmak, representing the Soviet Union – was an old-fashioned straddler. He was the last of his kind to win Olympic gold.

It did occur to me, when seeing Dick Fosbury attempt the high jump in 1968, that a necessary condition for the Flop was to have the sort of soft-landing area that was the standard at major athletics events by that time. Or, to put at another way, the technique could not have been attempted at the school’s high jump pit. One’s first attempt would have been the last, complete with broken neck or fractured skull.

In “Citius, Altius, Fortius: Part 2” – to follow – my recollections of the athletics events in the Munich Games of 1972.

Soul Limbo

10th July 2020

It is no surprise that it has been the elite sports events that have been the first back on to our television screens as the coronavirus lockdown conditions are eased. The satellite broadcasters require new and live “content” to fill their airtime – there are limits to the reliance on old footage for even the most dedicated sports enthusiast – whilst the sports authorities urgently need to fulfil their part of the various bargains that generate millions (or, in the case of soccer, billions) of pounds for their coffers. In addition, there is a range of other interests to satisfy, including advertisers and bookmakers not to mention those who actually play or watch sport.

In Britain, the resumption of live broadcasting effectively began at the end of May with the National Rugby League in Australia and this was quickly followed by the top-level football leagues in Europe, beginning with the Bundesliga and the Premier League. The two codes of domestic rugby are scheduled to resume next month with matches in the Super League (rugby league) and Premiership Rugby and PRO14 (rugby union). All these are behind closed doors as far as live spectators are concerned, of course; we look on with both admiration and envy at the apparent success in dealing with the virus in New Zealand, where the re-introduction of the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition has been accompanied by large crowds in the stadiums.

I shall focus here on the BBC’s television coverage of the test match series between England and the West Indies, which began on Wednesday in Southampton. This constitutes a daily hour-long highlights package, as the full day’s play remains pay-for-view. It is the BBC’s first such coverage for over 20 years, so there is an intriguing comparison to be made with the (generally excellent) highlights programmes that have been provided during that period by Channel 4 and Channel 5. In terms of the cricket itself, there is a further point of interest in terms of the perceived effect (as seen through the filter of television) on this highest form of the game – the test match – of the absence of spectators in the ground. After two days, what are the initial conclusions?

For those of us with long(ish) memories, the BBC’s presentation got off to a good start as Booker T and the MGs’ classic Soul Limbo was retained as the opening theme tune: we were temporarily transported back to the days of Richie Benaud and Jim Laker. I also thought that Isa Guha was a personable and engaging presenter, though she has a high standard to maintain in filling Mark Nicholas’s shoes.

The historical references were noted, but not overplayed. We learned that Ben Stokes was the 81st person to captain the England cricket team, whilst Michael Vaughan reported that England’s top 4 batting line-up was its least experienced since 1989. (Separately, on the online White Rose Forum of Yorkshire CCC members and supporters, it was of greater relevance that, with Joe Root’s absence, the county was not providing a member of the England team for the first time since 2012. There was some consolation, however, in that the two umpires were Richard Illingworth and Richard Kettleborough – natives of Bradford and Sheffield, respectively – from the ICC’s elite international panel).

The BBC’s coverage was less insightful in terms of the pre- and post-match interviews with the players taking part, which contained the rollcall of bland clichés to which we have now become accustomed; likewise the short recorded interviews that were inserted into the action, but didn’t really add anything.

But I must inevitably come back to Benaud, whose general approach to broadcasting has been usually summarised as: “Don’t speak unless you can add to the picture.” Regrettably, it is a dictum almost universally forgotten by modern-day television commentators across all sports, so it was no surprise that its absence also applied here. Sometimes – if only for two or three consecutive deliveries – the pictures really can speak for themselves.

This being England in July, the inevitable happened and – after the months of anticipation for the resumption of cricket in the country – rain truncated the first day’s play to 17 overs. After England lost a wicket in the second over, Rory Burns and Joe Denly did well to negotiate some threatening bowling from the West Indies seam attack and take the score to 35 before the elements finally closed in at tea-time. I sensed that this was, indeed, “proper” test match cricket: a hard-fought contest between bat and ball.

There was more of the same on the second day. Although 7 of England’s top 8 batsmen reached double figures, none made 50 and the team limped to a total of just over 200. After the hostile Shannon Gabriel had taken the first three wickets, the West Indies’ impressive captain Jason Holder took centre stage, his analysis of 6 for 42 being a career best. At 57 for 1 at the close of the second day, the West Indies were perhaps the better placed, but – weather permitting – a close encounter is in prospect for the remainder of the game.

The sense of watching a competitive test match is aided, I think, in that, for the most part, the camera’s view is predominantly focused on that area of the pitch running from the final part of the bowler’s run-up through to the wicket-keeper; that there are no spectators in the stands does not register until the ball is hit off the square. (An aside: I quite like the fact that, when the ball is hit to the boundary, the fielder has to go and collect it himself – and any club cricketer would probably have to do – rather than wait for a member of the ground-staff to throw it back).

At the same time, the unprecedented circumstances in which the match is taking place dominated the highlights coverage: when Isa Guha interviewed Michael Vaughan and Carlos Brathwaite before play started on the first day, they seemed to be standing ten feet apart, let alone six; the ground-staff running on and off the field with the covers were properly attired in their face masks; there was a silence held before the game in memory of the victims of the virus (and also, in tribute to the great West Indies batsman, Everton Weekes, who died last week at the age of 95); and – the dominant news item – the players and coaching staff of both teams were shown “taking the knee” before the match began, with the West Indians also wearing single black gloves in upraised fists.

These are complex and rapidly changing times. And, as usual, the observers of sport also see the wider society around them – a recurrent theme in these occasional blogs.

Amongst all this, test match cricket has resumed. We can pick up a newspaper this morning and read the match report. But we still know that, in the conduct of our lives in general, the “old normal” has gone – and that the “new normal” (whatever that is) lies a long way across the sea. Navigating our way through the present turbulent waters to the security of that distant shore is not easy. We – all of us – need help in finding a safe passage.

The Rest of the World

17th June 2020

It was 50 years ago today – 17th June 1970 – that the first day’s play took place in the unprecedented five-match “test” series between England and the Rest of the World (ROW). The series had been arranged at short notice following the cancellation of the planned tour of England by South Africa – then the leading test match side.

Unusually for the time, this first day was a Wednesday, rather than a Thursday. The following day was designated a “rest day” as it was when a General Election was being held. (The Conservatives, led by Edward Heath, brought an end to the 6-year period in office of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government).

The ROW team for the first match at Lord’s included 4 South Africans: Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow, Graeme Pollock and Mike Procter. This formidable quartet was assisted by 4 West Indians (including the captain, Gary Sobers) and one player each from Australia, Pakistan and India. Sobers and Barlow scored centuries in a ROW innings win.

I have two strong memories of the series. The first is attending each day of the fourth match at Headingley and watching from my customary seat – at square leg, roughly two-thirds of the way back – on the Western Terrace. The star performer was Barlow, though this time it was with the ball, as he took 12 wickets in the match, including 4 in 5 deliveries (with a hat-trick) in England’s first innings. Sobers made another century as the ROW won a tight game by two wickets to take a winning 3-1 lead in the series, which was duly converted to 4-1 in the final match at the Oval.

After all this time, I can recall the young Chris Old running up the hill from the Football Stand and bowling out Clive Lloyd in the ROW’s first innings. Lloyd remained in his defensive position at the crease for a while, as if he had only played and missed, at which point Old pointed to the off bail on the ground and (politely I’m sure) informed the batsman that he had been dismissed. How is it that these fleeting images remain in one’s mind after half a century?

My other recollection is of recording each delivery of the Oval match in one of my Compactum scoring books, courtesy of the intermittent BBC television coverage and/or the exhaustive ball-by-ball commentary of Test Match Special on Radio 3. This game was characterised by the high-quality batting of Pollock and his colleague Rohan Kanhai in the ROW side and Geoff Boycott in England’s second innings, all of whom registered three figures. At the other extreme, Brian Luckhurst of Kent – Boycott’s opening partner – registered a “pair”, his stumps twice routed by in-swinging yorkers from the ferociously quick Procter.

Hindsight suggests that the 1970 ROW side was one of the most powerful cricket teams ever assembled: to be ranked, perhaps, alongside Warwick Armstrong’s Australian tourists of 1921, Don Bradman’s “Invincibles” of 1948 or the formidable West Indian sides of the 1980s captained by Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards. The margin of their series win was no surprise. However, the competition did England no harm. Ray Illingworth (by then of Leicestershire) retained the captaincy for the subsequent tour of Australia and it was the core of England’s team in the ROW series – Basil d’Oliveira, Alan Knott, John Snow et al – that won the Ashes 2-0. (Illingworth remains one of three successful Yorkshire-born captains to Australia, the others being Len Hutton and James Cook).

For the 15 year-old perched on his seat on the Western Terrace or listening to John Arlott and EW Swanton on the radio in the small dining room of his parents’ home, the 1970 England-ROW series was an unbridled joy. The best players in the world – who received far less media exposure than their counterparts today – were performing right in front of him. Moreover, these were hard-fought matches – contested, as far as I could see, as keenly as if it had been the originally planned England-South Africa series – not friendly knockabouts.

In preparing this short piece, I checked the scoring details in my 1971 edition of the Playfair Cricket Annual (price: 20p). The publication referred to the games as test matches. But the quotation marks I used in the opening paragraph were not accidental. The International Cricket Conference (ICC) later ruled that the series had not warranted the highest status, but had been merely “first class”. Accordingly, the runs, wickets and catches (and one stumping, by Farokh Engineer) of the players have not counted towards their test career records.

For one player in particular, this turned out to be especially bad news. Alan Jones – a prolific batsman for Glamorgan – opened the batting for England on that first day at Lord’s. He made 5 and 0 in the match – another double victim of Mike Procter – and did not play for England again. Not only were his runs in that game expunged from the test match records, but so was his entire test match playing career.

(Note for future pub quiz reference: Alan Jones holds the record for scoring the most runs in first-class cricket – over 36,000 – without winning a test cap. His Glamorgan colleague, Don Shepherd, holds the corresponding bowling record with his 2,200-plus wickets).

Postscript

The perils of blog posting.  On the very morning that this particular blog was posted, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) announced that Alan Jones would be awarded an England cap to mark his appearance in the first match of the 1970 series against the Rest of the World.

Losing the Changing Room

24th May 2020

The English language has many examples of phrases taken from the sporting arena and used in a more general context. In the game of cricket “showing a straight bat” is a good technique to be employed when playing “on a sticky wicket”; in common usage, it refers to dealing with tricky matters in a manner that is determined and correct. If someone “bowls us a googly” (a leg-spinner’s delivery that turns in from the off side), we need to be on our guard against something that is unexpected.

Likewise, on the green baize table, we are “snookered” when we do not have a direct shot with the cue ball to any of the reds or colours we are allowed to hit without hitting one of the other balls and incurring a penalty; in everyday life, it means being faced with a range of choices, none of which are welcomed. “Par for the course” and “the ball’s in their court” – exported from golf and tennis, respectively – have similarly generalised interpretations. And so on.

Sometimes, the direction of causality goes the other way: a term that apparently has everyday usage (though it might not make much sense when taken literally) is applied in the sporting environment. Hence, in soccer, when teams “park the bus”, it means that they form a heavily manned defensive shield in front of their goal at the expense of undertaking any attacking play.

In the same sport, one often hears of managers or coaches “losing the changing room”. Of course, this does not mean that they have physically mislaid the changing area! Rather, it refers to the occasions when the players – usually a cabal of the most senior – have lost confidence in some aspect of the manager’s leadership (perhaps his tactics or his motivational skills or his team selection) with this subsequently being reflected in the displays and results on the pitch.

Which brings us to the Prime Minister, Mr Boris Johnson.

For the last two days, the lead story across the media has related to Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, Mr Dominic Cummings, who, with his family – his wife and 4 year-old son – drove 260 miles from London to Durham in the early period of lockdown at the end of March. Mr Cummings’s wife is reported to have been showing symptoms of having the coronavirus at the time of the journey.

Mr Johnson has recently received some criticism for the alleged vagueness in his presentation of the guidance on the 1st Stage of the relaxation of lockdown. However, in his first tv address to the nation on 24th March and in his letter to all UK households, his statement was unequivocal: “We are giving one simple instruction – you must [his emphasis] stay at home”. The accompanying guidance leaflet from the UK Government stated that: “Anyone who has… symptoms must stay at home until the symptoms have ended, and in all cases for at least seven days. Everyone else in the household must stay at home for at least 14 days after the first person’s symptoms appear, even if they themselves do not have symptoms”.

Mr Cummings’ defence has been that he was looking to provide childcare for his son and that he had he done nothing unlawful. Of course, one can understand his desire to do the best for his family and, I suspect, very few people are in a position to know whether Mr Cummings had any access to childcare arrangements nearer to his London home. But we all wish to do the best for our families and I do wonder what the implications would have been if 27½ million other households across the UK had decided in March that making a 260 mile journey was the most appropriate way of doing this.

This is a fast-moving story and, at the time of posting (8.30pm on Sunday evening), Mr Cummings had not resigned from his post. However, we can let those events take their course. My interest is more in the implications for Mr Johnson.

To date, the Prime Minister has stood by his chief adviser and not dismissed him. Whatever happens to Mr Cummings in the next few days or weeks, the Prime Minister’s clear preferences in this matter have been revealed. The key question now – as I see it – is this: what will be the impact on Mr Johnson’s standing in the country?

To date, the UK public has kept to the guidance on the coronavirus lockdown remarkably well. I suspect that a key factor here was the news reporting of the Prime Minister’s own serious exposure to the virus. However, it is clear that patience with respect to the economic impact of the lockdown is now running thin, with more questions being asked about the apparent (though over-simplified) trade-off between the damage to the economy and the increased mortality rate. As we have noted, the shift from full lockdown to the minor relaxation of Stage 1 has not been straightforward to deliver or understand; this will probably also be the case in the further sets of transitional arrangements that we are promised in order to move into Stages 2, 3 and 4.

It is highly unfortunate, therefore – to say the least – that, for many people, the lesson from this weekend will have been very straightforward: there has been one rule for the inner circle of No. 10 Downing Street and one rule for this rest. Against this background, it will be inevitable that the Prime Minister’s desired route through the next Stages (which is already expected to be difficult) will now be even trickier to deliver than otherwise might have been the case.

I wonder, when future historians look back on this episode, they might consider the past couple of days as the time when, in attempting to deal with the coronavirus, the Prime Minister lost the country.

The time when the manager lost the changing room.

The Coronavirus Provides a Reminder

2nd May 2020

For those of us who take an interest in watching sport, it is always worthwhile to recognise that there are others for whom the whole concept is ridiculous – or, indeed, abhorrent. The standard comments of disdain are familiar: “grown men hitting a ball into a hole with a stick…”, “overpaid prima donnas kicking a pig’s bladder…”, and so on.

I was conscious of all this when, in the final chapter of An Ordinary Spectator, I attempted to summarise the reasons why I had been continually drawn to watching live sport, in the flesh, over a period of half a century.

My conclusions were perhaps not that surprising: admiration at seeing elite performers at the top of their game; recognition of personal qualities such as leadership and courage; the scope for drama, in which the arena is the stage for the performing players; the sense of tradition and continuity attached to much sporting activity; the signals that sport sends as a barometer for society as a whole; and, not least, the role of sport in contributing to my self-identity and my sense of place in the world.

At this time, when the coronavirus is taking such a heavy toll on human life (as of yesterday, almost a quarter of a million deaths reported across the world, including more than 28,000 in the UK), it might seem irrelevant – if not insensitive – to concern oneself with matters sporting. But the effects of the virus are not only in terms of premature mortality rates; they are also be found in virtually every aspect of our lives that, until only two short months ago, we had been taking for granted. Like most people, I suspect, I have found it extremely difficult to make sense of it all: to think clearly about what it means for us now and what it will mean in the future.

It is in this context – and to persuade myself that I remain capable of some sort of detached and rational analysis – that I have been reflecting on the huge disruption that the coronavirus has brought to the holding of all sports events, large and small. In effect, I have been encouraged to revisit the question of what it is that watching sport brings to our everyday lives. In doing so, I now recognise that the answer is to be found in themes that are far wider than the mainly sport-related ones that I had previously identified.

As before, I must also acknowledge that any consideration of this issue is bound to be heavily influenced by one’s particular circumstances – age, upbringing, location, and so on. However, I shall attempt to complement the personal perspective with a more general assessment of what it is that watching sport provides for us as a whole. What, indeed, is it that the coronavirus has reminded us that we are missing?

The subject matter is hugely wide-ranging, of course, and, over time, I am sure that the area will generate a rich seam of research for sociologists and psychologists and that many learned academic papers and books will result. For the present, at this stage of sport’s shutdown – it is now 7 weeks since the postponement of all professional football in the UK – let me offer some initial views by identifying half a dozen key points.

The obvious place at which to start is to recognise that watching sport takes up some of our time: it occupies some of the precious minutes (or hours) between waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. When this use of time is suddenly (and completely) taken away, we struggle (at least at first) to find a replacement. (In the current circumstances, this point also clearly applies to other leisure activities – going to the theatre, watching a concert, going to the pub et al – and the effect is magnified a thousand-fold when all these activities are removed at the same time).

The media picked up on this very quickly. Perhaps unreasonably quickly. One of the football correspondents of The Scotsman – under the heading “We’re kicking our heels without football” – stated that “it feels like we have woken up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland”. And this was on March 16th, the first Monday after the country’s soccer programme (including the previous day’s Rangers-Celtic match) had been postponed.

Of course, watching sport is more than simply a time-filler. There are occasions when we persuade ourselves – perhaps erroneously – that it is a worthwhile activity in its own right. We consider that it has a merit of its own so that, when we take our place in the stand or on the terrace, we are with the virtuous. It is part of our response when we seek to address Rudyard Kipling’s query whether we “can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”.

In the present circumstances, given the lack of sports-spectating options, the logical follow-up has been to consider how else we might spend our time. It was no accident that the impressively quirky White Rose Forum – an online discussion group for followers of Yorkshire cricket – quickly developed a thread listing the activities that its members were intending to pursue in the absence of watching any matches: cooking with exotic sauces, learning the guitar, completing the novel (writing, not reading), improving basic German language skills… (The last two were mine incidentally). An interesting question for a later date will be the extent to which, in turn, the eventual resumption of sports watching will replace these activities as we revert back to “normal”: largely, but not wholly, I expect.

A related point is that watching sport helps to provide a structure to our lives. Much of sports spectating has a rhythm or a cycle to it: the fortnightly home soccer match, the first day of the County Championship season, the Boxing Day rugby match, and so on. Allied to the events that we turn up to watch at first hand are those that we might not see in the flesh (or even on television), but which we register as having a place at a certain time in the calendar: the Boat Race, the London Marathon, the Grand National…

I suspect that the planning of our schedules – daily/weekly/monthly/annual – around these regular events is done largely subconsciously. They constitute an unseen sketchpad on which we can place our own specific entries. In my case, earlier this year, I had some enjoyment in planning the contents of a spectating timetable that lasted from the spring into the autumn: a women’s football match in Glasgow, some cricket at Old Trafford, a Euro2020 match at Hampden Park, an Ashes rugby league test in Leeds. These events were staging-posts for the year, around which I could fit in the important (non-sporting) occasions with family and friends: the holiday in Spain, the West End theatre trip, the annual visit to the parents’ grave. Without these irregular markers, the future stretches ahead, shapeless and empty.

A further feature of sport spectating – again obvious – is that it provides us with social contact. For many, this takes the form of membership of an identifiable group – for example, as a football club’s supporter in a replica shirt or as part of the “Barmy Army” of England cricket fans bewildering the locals in Bridgetown or Colombo.

However, even when we are watching an event by ourselves, we are also part of a communal audience – perhaps in a crowd of 60,000, perhaps with the other man and his dog – simultaneously observing the activity in front of us (though not necessarily seeing the same thing). This provides the opportunity for the type of interaction – in a conversation or a debate or a stadium’s roar – which we (occasionally at least) seek as social animals.

In both An Ordinary Spectator and Still An Ordinary Spectator and in the subsequent blogs, I have regularly reported on the fleeting connections that I have made with strangers during the course of my sports spectating: the elderly man at a Yorkshire-Nottinghamshire cricket match at Headingley who told me that his father had been killed in the Second World War; the season-ticket holder at Tyneside worried about the Hearts team’s defensive frailties; the young lady named Stephanie in San Antonio, Texas, who came to my rescue after I had been to a high school American Football match and missed the last bus into town… How else but through watching sport would we have entered each other’s lives at those particular places at those particular times and, for a brief period at least, mutually enriched them?

And if not with strangers, then with family and friends. In An Ordinary Spectator, I refer to some of the friends – from adolescence and college and work – with whom I have shared the spectating experience over these many years. Post-working life, there have been additional and welcome members of the cast list. Perhaps most poignantly, the feedback to that book confirmed the hugely significant role that watching sport had provided in the bonding of family members – fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, older siblings and younger upstarts – on the terrace or in the stand. My story is no different: the book begins with me (as a 6 year-old boy) sitting on my father’s shoulders at a rugby match in south Leeds and his presence is a regular feature in the narrative right through to the final page.

The contact is with places as well as people. In Still An Ordinary Spectator, I noted HG Bissinger’s brilliant line in Friday Night Lights, when he describes the outcome of a visit to a high school football game in Marshall, Texas, by a delegation of Russians who had been visiting a nearby US Air Force base: “[T]hey don’t understand a lick of [American] football, but… their understanding of America by the end of the game will be absolute whether they realise it or not”.

I like to think that I do understand more than a lick about football but, even so, there can be no doubt that my understanding of America (and Texas in particular) was enhanced after my evenings watching the high school football at the Alamo Stadium and the college football in the Alamodome (which are different venues) in San Antonio. Just as my understanding of local communities was enhanced after watching the FC Union Berlin (association) football team at the wonderfully named Stadion an der Alten Forsterei (Stadium Near the Old Forester’s House)in east Berlin or the Westport St Patrick’s Gaelic Football team in County Mayo. Prior to the lockdown, as I have continued my occasional tour of the soccer grounds of Scotland, I would have been remiss not to have spent some time walking the streets of the relevant towns and getting a sense of place. How else would I have seen the buildings and sites that capture the history of Alloa or Annan or Dumfries?

Finally, I refer back to a conclusion in An Ordinary Spectator: that I (we?) watch sport because it provides drama.

“Sport is drama and conflict. Sport is the battle for honour and honours. And an important part of the enjoyment in watching sport is to see the resolution of that battle and its effects on the winners and losers”.

I noted that the duration of the drama can take many forms: the long build-up to the event, perhaps weeks or months; the length of the contest itself, whether over 80 minutes or 4 days, or – as illustrated by the dozen “nano-dramas” that I identified in that volume – a mere split-second of action.

I now think that there is another dimension to this. The drama of sport is not only performed in front of us. It takes place within us. It generates a set of questions about ourselves that we may or may not choose to answer. How would we have responded in that given situation? Would we have taken that steepling catch? Would we have scored that penalty kick? Could we have made that try-saving tackle? From the safety of beyond the touchline or the boundary rope, we can ask ourselves these questions and – after we have invariably answered positively – we can take pleasure in the success that we have vicariously achieved.

Jurgen Klopp, the manager of Liverpool FC – whom I have quoted with admiration relatively recently (“The Coronavirus: Economics, Questions and Priorities”, 14th March 2020) – has stated that the halting of sports events is “a reminder that sport is the most important of the least important things”. It is an impressive line, I think: one which assists in cutting the ground from under the “hitting a ball with a stick” and “pig’s bladder” advocates.

And so, following Mr Klopp’s lead – and addressing the question with which I began – of what do I think that the coronavirus has provided a reminder? In summary: that watching sports enables us to use up some of the time at our disposal; that it contributes to providing a structure to our lives; that it facilitates individual and communal contacts; that it encourages respect for local places and cultures; that it satisfies the need for drama; that it allows us to role-play, if only in our own minds.

It strikes me that, as we sit in our respective domains of self-isolation – perhaps worrying about our future physical and mental wellbeing – that is a fairly formidable catalogue: “the most important of the least important”, indeed.

A final, final thought. We will select from that catalogue again. At some stage in the future, we will watch the white-coated figures walk out to the middle of the ground and place the bails on top of the stumps. The batsman will take his guard and the bowler will mark out his run-up. And the umpire will shout: “Play”…

The Football Stand

12th April 2020

Today is Easter Sunday: a day of joy and hope and expectation.

It should also have been the start of the 2020 County Championship cricket season: the scheduled Division One fixtures were Lancashire vs Kent, Somerset vs Warwickshire and Yorkshire vs Gloucestershire. The coronavirus put paid to that some time ago, of course.

However, to mark the occasion – and to register a reminder that better times will, one day, return – I offer some reflections on a change in the landscape at the Headingley (correction, Emerald Headingley) cricket ground.

The old Football Stand has gone. Inaugurated at a match in May 1933, when the great Bill Bowes took 12 wickets in Yorkshire’s innings victory over Kent, it has now been demolished and replaced by a modern steeply-banked structure. Last August, I made my annual pilgrimage from Scotland to Headingley – for a T20 match against the Durham Jets – in order to take in the fresh new perspective from behind the bowler’s arm.

Strictly speaking, it was not the Football Stand in the first place. It was the Rugby Stand, as it is the oval-balled games – both league and union – that are played on the pitch on the other side. But the Football Stand was the name by which it was generally known.

It was on the rugby side that I first took my seat in Headingley’s dual-facing facility. The Yorkshire Cup final of 1962: Hunslet 12 Hull Kingston Rovers 2. Over the years, I saw Reg Gasnier and Ellery Hanley and Kevin Sinfield et al. On my most recent trip to Leeds – only just over a couple of months ago, but in what now seems to have been a different era – I watched games in both codes: “Arresting Decline” (5th February 2020) and “The Return of Sonny Bill” (7th February 2020). But let us focus here on the north-facing side of the stand.

On my first visit to watch the cricket at Headingley – for the Roses match of 1966 – the Football Stand was out of bounds for the likes of me. I was not a Member of Yorkshire CCC and, therefore – with my Dad – I watched the play from the vast array of the Western Terrace. We chose our wooden bench with care, obviously favouring one that had been recently restored with new timber, rather than an alternative that was damp and rotten and populated by those sinister-looking little red spiders. I looked across with a pang of envy when the Members let out a collective groan as Geoff Pullar nudged tentatively forward and narrowly missed another of Freddie Trueman’s outswingers. Yorkshire won by 10 wickets on the second day.

Eventually, we graduated to take our rightful places in the stand. From the mid-1980s, after my father had retired, we would attend the second and third days of the test match, the first of which was always viewed from the lower stalls and the latter from high up in the balcony. The single exception was the West Indies test in 2000, when, in a change of routine, we booked the first two days. That was perfectly judged, of course: England duly won on the second day – Andrew Caddick completing the rout by taking four wickets in an over – and the young Michael Vaughan was man-of-the-match.

Other clear memories remain: Merv Hughes – hitherto known more for his moustache than his batting – sharing an improbable century stand with Steve Waugh in 1989; Graham Gooch’s batting masterclass against the West Indies in 1991; Hansie Cronje bowled first ball by Phil deFreitas in 1994; Ricky Ponting’s first test century in 1997; Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly flailing England to all parts in 2002 (the last test I attended with my father before he was claimed by mesothelioma)…

In truth, however, I shall not miss the Football Stand. The seats were cramped and the level of comfort was poor, to say the least. In the balcony, the threats from either wasps or pigeons were persistent. (One year, one of the latter took particular exception to an unfortunate man situated a couple of rows in front of us and to our left, who twice received direct bombing hits). In its later years, viewed from the other end of the ground – where the “coconut shy” and the poplar trees had once been – the stand looked tired and past its best.

The replacement is named, inevitably, in line with the ground’s sponsors: the Emerald Group. The Football Stand is dead. Long live the Emerald Stand at Emerald Headingley.

For those not entirely familiar with the brand, the Emerald Group’s website states that it is “a specialist global search and selection company focused on supplying high calibre services across the financial services industry”. Boldly emblazoned on the front of the Emerald Stand are the motifs that underpin the company’s approach to business: “Bringing research to life”, “Championing fresh thinking”, “Equipping decision makers” and “Making an impact”. That tells us a lot, I think.

Mind you, I still haven’t viewed any cricket from the Emerald Stand. As I reported in “For Valour” (19th August 2019), Yorkshire’s match with Durham was rained off without a ball bowled.

 

The Coronavirus: Economics, Questions and Priorities

14th March 2020

The reports on the spread of the coronavirus – and the various measures being taken to contain it – are dominating the news agendas across the world.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a disproportionate amount of the media coverage has related to the impact on spectator sports. Of course, it is the case that the scale of the disruption to major events – which yesterday alone included announcements on the postponements of the Masters’ golf tournament and the first four races in the Grand Prix season, the abandonment of England’s cricket tour of Sri Lanka and a temporary halt to the Premier League and other soccer schedules in England and Scotland – is unprecedented in the post-Second World War period. Whilst most societal activity takes place outside the sporting arena, the presentation of the virus’s impact on sport does assist – if we needed assisting – in emphasising the overall magnitude of the challenges currently faced by all governments and civic societies.

When watching the news coverage, I was reminded of some research with which I was involved – in my former role as an economic consultant – over 30 years ago. In 1985, my colleague Richard Lewney and I were commissioned by the Sports Council to estimate “The Economic Impact and Importance of Sport in the UK”. Our independent report [1] was generally well received in both academic and policy-making circles and led to further investigations of the economic impact of sport in two local areas (Bracknell and the Wirral, as it happens) as well as in Northern Ireland and Wales. We also collaborated with the Sports Council in being the lead partner in a Council of Europe-funded programme of research across several countries. (There is a curious satisfaction in seeing the publication of a journal article in Finnish).

Our analytical framework was based on the system of National Income Accounting, which enabled us to examine not only the first-round effects of sport-related spending (for example, by consumers on admission charges, clothing and footwear, equipment, and so on), but also the backward linkages and “multiplier” effects of this expenditure throughout the economy. Our findings included that, at that time, over 370,000 jobs were sport-related in the UK and the value-added exceeded that created in a number of traditionally important sectors of industry, including motor vehicles/parts and drink/tobacco.

Three decades on, I would expect that the economic impact of sport in the UK is now proportionately greater than the estimate that Richard and I made in the 1980s. This reflects a range of social and economic factors. The former includes significant changes in lifestyle patterns, such as the increased popularity of running and cycling, the growth in spending on sport-related casual clothing and the huge expansion of sport’s media coverage in the satellite age.

More generally, even allowing for a couple of recessionary periods, 30 years of more or less uninterrupted economic growth has meant that, on average, people have more disposable income on which to spend on service-based activities. Moreover, it is the case that – for much sport-related spectating activity, in particular – the real price of attendance has increased: that is, the cost has risen faster than the general rise in the price level. (I noted an illustration of this in An Ordinary Spectator, when I reported that, between 1994 and 2012, the nominal price of a balcony ticket in the Football Stand for the Headingley test match rose from £27 to £65 i.e. by 141%. As the increase in the All Items Consumer Price Index – the CPI – over the same period was 48%, the real price increase was 63%).

And so we know that sport’s role in overall economic activity is significant. What, then, about the impact of the coronavirus on sport’s finances?

This can be considered in the same way as examining the effect of the virus on other areas of economic activity, including those such as travel and tourism which are being severely affected. The reduction – in some cases, collapse – of demand for sports spectating and/or participation will obviously adversely affect the income of sport-related businesses (whether Premier League football club or local gym) and they, in turn, will reduce their own spending to the suppliers of the goods and services that they would normally purchase. Such are the multiplier effects down through the supply chain. The employees of those businesses are also likely to cut their expenditures, either because their personal incomes have fallen or, even if not, due to the enhanced “precautionary” motive for saving for an uncertain future.

From this, a number of key questions emerge. For how long will the halt to sports events continue? Will sports businesses (and their suppliers) be able to survive through this period of low or non-existent cash-flow? And what will the post-virus sporting landscape look like? The last of these questions relates to the issue of whether the lost sports events have been postponed (as, for example, in the case of the London Marathon from April to October) – in which case the finances of sport will make a quicker recovery – or cancelled altogether.

It is the prospect of outright cancellation that is focusing (some) minds on the political jockeying-for-position that this will generate. Yesterday, when interviewed, the Celtic FC manager Neil Lennon wasted no time in stating that, under these circumstances, his club – with their 13-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership – should be awarded the championship.

Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp, the manager of Liverpool FC (which is leading the Premier League by 19 points) released his message to the club’s supporters on social media. It did not refer to the league table at all and ended with the following appeal:

“It would be entirely wrong to speak about anything other than advising people to follow expert advice and look after themselves and each other.

The message from the team to our supporters is only about your well-being. Put your health first. Don’t take any risk. Think about the vulnerable in our society and act where possible with compassion for them.

Please look after yourselves and look out for each other”.

It is clear that, in the current circumstances, the social fabric is being tested, the death rate is higher than it otherwise would have been and the future is uncertain. To his great credit, Mr Klopp recognises that some of the interests of those engaged in the sporting environment need to be placed in their proper perspective.

Some things are more important than others.

[1]  Published in November 1986 (ISBN 0-906577-74-8).

The Return of Sonny Bill

7th February 2020

The upward trajectory of the Toronto Wolfpack rugby league club – which has hitherto involved three seasons in the lower leagues – has now taken it into the Betfred Super League, the premier division of the game in Britain. I sense that views on this within the sport are divided: some welcome the broadening of rugby league’s horizons and the other opportunities that might be presented in North America; others would prefer to consolidate within the traditional heartlands of the north of England and – I suspect, at the extreme – would be quite content for Wigan to play St Helens or Warrington every other week. I am firmly in the former camp.

The Toronto climate being what it is, the club is obliged to play the first few matches of the new season away from their base at the Lamport Stadium. Their first match in Toronto will not be until the visit of Hull FC in the middle of April. The opening fixture – last Sunday – was against the Castleford Tigers at Headingley as part of a double-header that also saw the Leeds Rhinos take on Hull (afterwards, not at the same time!).

As if the entry of a Canada-based team into a British sporting competition were not newsworthy enough, the Toronto Wolfpack club has raised the promotional stakes several further notches through the high-profile signing of the former All Blacks rugby union player, Sonny Bill Williams.

SBW started – in rugby league – in 2004 at the age of 18 with the Canterbury Bulldogs in Australia’s National Rugby League. Four years later, he moved on France to play rugby union for Toulon. Since 2010, he has played for various union sides, mainly in New Zealand though also in Japan, interspersed with two seasons back in the NRL with the Sydney Roosters. His international appearances for New Zealand have been at both league (World Cup runner-up) and union (twice a World Cup winner). In addition, he has fought in (and won) 7 bouts of professional boxing (including for the New Zealand heavyweight title).

At the age of 34, it is reasonable to assume that SBW is approaching the end of his distinguished career: 16 years in professional rugby will have taken its toll and he has been far from injury-free during that time. Nonetheless, his acquisition by Toronto is a major coup – albeit an expensive one – which is generally recognised to have given a major shot in the arm not only to the Super League entrants, but to the sport as a whole. It is certainly one of the reasons I turned up at Headingley on Sunday.

Toronto took the field to polite applause from the near-capacity crowd. In their match-day squad, they fielded 5 players who had featured in the corresponding group for the League 1 encounter against Newcastle Thunder that I had seen at the Lamport Stadium in August 2017 and it was one of these – the winger, Liam Kay – who registered their first Super League points with an early try following a neat kick through by Hakim Miloudi. Miloudi – along with his fellow centre three-quarter Ricky Leutele – had a strong game and was rewarded with a long-range interception try late in the match. Another of the survivors from the Newcastle game – the Australian Blake Wallace – played soundly at full-back.

However, Toronto were generally second-best to Castleford, whose strong-running forwards provided the creative platform for the half-backs Jake Trueman and Danny Richardson to exploit. Castleford were also sharper around the play-the-ball, where the experienced Paul McShane ensured a strong momentum to the play. Toronto relied heavily on the distributional skills of the former St Helens veteran Jon Wilkin, but he was closely targeted by the Castleford defenders and several of his passes were rushed and misdirected. It was one of these, during another promising Toronto attack following Kay’s try, that was picked off by the Castleford winger, Greg Eden, for an 80 metre run to the try-line.

Sonny Bill Williams made his keenly anticipated entrance from the replacements bench after 25 minutes. His first contribution to the match was to drop a pass. Thereafter, he had a generally quiet game, attempting without success to create something from his characteristic overloads in the tackle. He moved into midfield to play a more central role after Wilkin had been substituted but, by then, Castleford were coasting on their 22-4 half-time lead and the result of the match was not in doubt. The final score of 28-10 was a fair reflection of the play. One senses that more will be required from both SBW and Wilkin if Toronto are to hold their own at this level.

In the second game, the Leeds Rhinos were overwhelmed by Hull FC by 30 points to 4. The visitors have invested heavily in some big, powerful forwards and, on the evidence of this first game, it looks to have been money well spent. Leeds found it difficult to contain the powerful surges of Manu Ma’u and Andre Savelio, in particular; the home side’s creative efforts, by contrast, tended to be far too lateral. Hull also have some firepower in their three-quarters, as shown by the winger Ratu Naulago who, after collecting a high kick on his own 22 line, displayed a potent combination of dexterity, power and speed in making the break for the opening score by Carlos Tuimavave. I suspect that, in due course, that try will come to be seen as one of the best of the season on this ground.

In the second half, Ash Handley’s neatly taken try on Leeds’s left-wing was little more than consolation, as his side was trailing by 24 points at the time. The latter stages were played in a heavy downpour, which seemed to serve as an appropriate metaphor for Leeds’s disappointing start to the league season. By contrast, the Hull players – prompted by Marc Sneyd’s accurate kicking game – revelled in the conditions and offered much promise for their new Super League campaign.