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Off their game. By Michael Henderson

Blog | Apr 25, 2024


Organised loafing’ – that’s what William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to 1944, called cricket.

But surely that’s the essence of all games. Young men and women run around for the pleasure of those who can’t or won’t. For the professionals, it’s work; for the rest of us, it’s fun.

It should also be diverting to read about, so long as writers maintain a sense of proportion.

Hugh McIlvanney called sport ‘a glorious distraction’. And Hughie knew whereof he wrote – until the second bottle arrived.

Sports scribblers were usually straight-no-chaser types, particularly the football hounds, with their ‘teak-tough’ tacklers and ‘scheming’ inside forwards. The goalie was a ‘custodian’, full-backs ‘flinty’, and an attempt at goal (‘the onion bag’) flew ‘like a rocket’.

In his wonderful book The Football Man (1968), Arthur Hopcraft recognised that, far from scorning clichés, readers lapped them up. They loved it when managers ‘rapped out warnings’ or ‘roared defiantly’. They still do.

Amid the muck and nettles there was some excellent writing. The young McIlvanney dazzled. Michael Parkinson was magnificently funny. Patrick Collins looked like a headmaster, and carried a stiletto. Simon Barnes quoted James Joyce every other week, with a wink towards readers happy to be in on the act.

Others served as rectors, on hand to reassure. There has never been a football writer like Brian Glanville, nor a cricket correspondent like John Woodcock. There was never an all-rounder like Ian Wooldridge – and there never will be, because TV has changed the way we see sport.

The gifted ones still prosper. Stephen Jones, Sunday Times rugby correspondent, remains the best on-the-whistle reporter in the business. Martin Samuel, back in the Times fold after a peripatetic career, can do – indeed, has done – everything.

These are the bottle-aged performers, who grew up in a world of clattering typewriters and deaf copy-takers. That is not in itself a mark of distinction.

There were also a few shockers, who made things up and watched their reputations rise like bubbles. Desmond Hackett of the Express, one of Fleet Street’s not-so-good ol’ boys, built a career on falsehood, and claimed the expenses to prove it.

A man like Wooldridge, who died in 2007, might not recognise the modern landscape. Now there is a different kind of chronicler, who ascends the pulpit with a holy book he has written himself.

Footballers no longer ‘pass’ the ball; they ‘recycle’ it. They ‘break lines’, effect ‘transitions’ and opt for a ‘high press’. It’s not a language that would have impressed Matt Busby or Brian Clough, whose teams conquered Europe. And it isn’t hard to work out what Cloughie would have made of a ‘skill set’.

Unlike the telly pundits, whose stock-in-trade is jargon, writers should know which words work best. In Glanville’s case, that meant describing Alan Hansen, the Liverpool defender, as ‘an elegant giver of second chances’. Could any TV wallah define so wittily a player’s gifts and faults?

Glanville was a master of concision, unlike some modern showboats. The Times, where Samuel, Matt Dickinson and Michael Atherton write so clearly, also houses Matthew Syed, a former table-tennis starlet, whose eagerness to pronounce on events is matched by a reluctance to attend them. Syed the omniscient sounds like a primary-school teacher guiding pupils through their times tables. Only, in his reckoning, four fours make 17.

There were always witty writers at the Guardian, going back 100 years to Neville Cardus, where sports writing began. Frank Keating, Matthew Engel and David Lacey lit up their pages, and now there are those who smile at Jonathan Liew.

For all Liew’s self-conscious tilting at windmills, it’s possible to recognise his talent, even if it’s a talent best glimpsed from afar, like snake-charming.

Then there’s Barney Ronay, the Guardian’s chief sports writer. Ronay’s thing, as Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner confirms frequently, is an adolescent urge to be noticed.

Roger Federer’s backhand, Ronay said, is ‘a European cultural treasure, like a Bach cantata or a complete acorn-fed Iberian ham’. Simon Barnes, brilliant and self-mocking, might get away with that. For one thing, he knows his Bach from his Handel. Ronay, who displays neither love nor knowledge, is merely saying, ‘Look at me.’

An old-school wit died last year. Mike Carey liked to keep his powder dry, but when he took up his musket, he rarely missed. One dismal evening at Birmingham City, noting the singing of the club song, Keep Right On to the End of the Road, he told Guardian-readers ‘in view of the primitive football on display, it was more a case of keeping the woad on till the end of the rite’. That’s the way to do it.

Carey’s wit is lost on ‘Pinky’ Ronay and ‘Perky’ Syed. One reads Schopenhauer, even when nobody is looking; the other longs to play second house on Blackpool’s north pier. They would do better to put away the mirror, and read those who came before.

If in doubt, they can always begin with a line that never fails: ‘The Blues kicked off with a rush…’

Michael Henderson is author of That Will Be England Gone: The Last Summer of Cricket