Sport and legendary characters go hand in hand. One of the greatest of them in my book was Bill Shankly, manager of Liverpool FC from 1959 to 1974. My favourite quotation of his was:
‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’
I see nothing at all wrong with viewing the world at large through the prism of elite sport. In a 21st Century in which the ways and means of humanity seem to be spiralling out of control, it’s terribly important for people to take something seriously – and in this context, why should it not be sport? After all, despite Carl von Clausewitz once famously referring to war being ‘politics continued by other means’, perhaps George Orwell got closer to the truth when he described sport as war minus the shooting.
Which brings me to the crisis currently enveloping British politics in the wake of the EU Referendum result and its impact around the world.
As chaos reigns on the word’s financial markets; the EU and Westminster political elites wrestle with to problem of how to conduct the Brexit process when the UK Government – and its loyal Opposition – seem to have gone into a state of limbo; supporters of different factions have taken to the streets; it appears that ‘racist’ incidents are proliferating around the country … and the media is gorging itself on the fact that generally nobody seems quite where to go from here, let us take a step back, a deep breath, and reflect upon British sporting fortunes as they seem to epitomise what is happening:
Since the hard-nosed, abrasive Australian Eddie Jones took over as England head coach, our national team has gone from strength to strength. You cannot argue with a ten-match long winning run involving a Grand Slam, albeit in a Six Nations tournament of admittedly disappointing quality, followed by a 3-0 whitewash Down Under in a Test match series against Australia.
Some scribes stick resolutely to a party line that the previous England regime of Stuart Lancaster did much to put the right structures in place and restore pride in the shirt, with his only failing being in the results department.
That’s complete tosh in my judgement. I don’t doubt that Bomber is a ‘good bloke’ with his heart in the right place but, frankly, in this day and age ‘good intentions’ count for little. His teams never managed a Grand Slam in four seasons and the idea that, if he had remained in post, England would have won the recent series in Australia is preposterous.
Eddie Jones is no genius but he’s a no-nonsense strategist and leader with no qualms at all about taking tough decisions and – in sport – so many of the important one centre around selection. All sporting coaches make substitutions in order to give those on the bench ‘game time’ and/or make them feel involved in the squad momentum, but Jones is astute enough to recognise when things aren’t working and do something about it. His use of the shepherd’s hook on Luther Burrell in the first Test against Australia and debutant flanker Teimana Harrison in the third, after only half an hour in both cases, was borderline brutally harsh on the players involved but in hindsight definitely contributed to the victories.
Part of Jones’ success stems from his persona. He speaks from the shoulder, without fear or favour. Most players respond to this – take for example first choice scrum half Ben Young, who, for his first one-to-one meet with the new head coach, was stunned to be thrown a bag of sweets as he walked in and told he was too fat – but, in Jones’ regime, those that cannot do so might as well leave camp straight away because they’re never going to get picked.
In summary, therefore, the fortunes of the England rugby team since the Rugby World Cup debacle can be viewed as an example of a British team making confident and purposeful progress on the world stage:
See here – Robert Kitson, writing in The Guardian – ENGLAND RUGBY ON THE RISE
Yesterday, as rumour turmoil and strife piled up at all points around College Green beside the Houses of Parliament at Westminster – covered in 24/7 glee by the world’s media – the 2016 Wimbledon tennis tournament began. Inevitably, perhaps, the British weather got involved with rain showers passing overhead and uncertainty as to how much of the order of play on Day One would actually be completed.
Amidst the political chaos, a positive bell-weather sign was the extraordinary feat of tubby 25-year old journeyman Brit Marcus Willis, ranked 772 in the world, who somehow – in his first-ever Grand Slam tournament – managed to blow the World ranked number 54 Ricardas Berankis off an outside court by the margin of 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 and now, in his next match, will face Roger Federer.
By chance I happened to watch the last four games of this contest live on the BBC. Suddenly the world of international finance, politics and revolution was reduced to its proper level of importance. Here, post-Brexit, was a signal that Britain had retrieved its moniker ‘Great’ again. The crowd was going potty, on the verge of tears of joy, friends and fans chanting, bouncing up and down, delirious with triumph and excitement at Willis’s victory. He appeared unassuming, down to earth, humble and … er … typically British when being interviewed at the side of the court afterwards.
See here – Paul Newman, writing in The Independent – MARCUS WILLIS
See here – Barney Ronay, writing in The Guardian – ENGLAND’S AGONY
It seems to me that England’s recent sporting fortunes just about echo the state of British politics at the moment …