Not too long ago, we were surrounded by difficult decisions. Whether to go to the gym, the pub, or neither… or all three. Whether to purchase “Born to be riled: The Collected Writings of Jeremy Clarkson”, or save that money for a rainy day. Menus were often not so much an amble through the garden of earthly delights, as a squat-jog through a turbulent sea of indecision, envy, and worry. Everyday life was filled with decision, and its ugly cousin: compromise. Or at least we thought it was; compromise now feels like a slightly different word. One which no longer relates to sharing a starter, or foregoing pudding.
What, then, if we were faced with the most difficult pre-pandemic decision of all? No, not “To be or not to be”. Hamlet must join Polonius behind the arras for the duration of this article. What if, WG Grace emerged from behind his gates (and his beard), and offered you the opportunity to be any type of sportsperson? In your peripheral vision, a police box slowly fades out of sight with a strange noise, which will remain largely undescribed here.
Two things should be clarified. This is a strange choice to be faced with, and situation itself is stranger still.
- Why WG Grace?
i. An aura of mystery is essential here. To me, WG Grace has always epitomised mystery. Bearded, oddly shaped (for a first-class sportsman), and from that strange turn-of-the 20th century era which doesn’t really seem to be covered in the history curriculum.
ii: The genie in the lamp is unusable, given that this is ostensibly a sports article, and I had yet to mention any kind of sport.
- What does this question mean?
i. This is harder to clarify and is perhaps best illustrated through examples. What WG Grace is not offering is the opportunity to live as Michael Schumacher, Wayne Rooney, or charioteering sensation Gaius Appuleius Diocles.
ii. It is an opportunity to live as, say, a golfing legend of the 1980s. You would be an addition to the historical (or present) figures we already know. Of course, your decision would be informed by the existent models of your type of sportsman. In fact, to tie yourself to a specific decade might be a mistake. Better to plump for ambiguity in an answer such as “an indoor bowls player of yesteryear.”
(This would be an excellent response if, like me, you have enjoyed following the career of Mervyn “Swervy Mervy” King. Of all the Mervyn Kings, he is my favourite by some way. Who else can boast a Commonwealth Games Silver Medal, whilst also thriving and surviving in the dog-eat-rat world of professional pest control?).
What kind of a blogger-cum-journalist would I be if I did not offer my own thoughts on this matter. It is, after all, one of the many decisions which has plagued me over the years, alongside my crippling difficulty with menus.
To my mind, sports positions named with only a number are a good place to start. “Strange,” I hear you say, “given that you seem to have no great love for the numeral world.” Well, reader, you clearly know me well, but justification draws nearer by the word. This article is meandering on a predetermined course; the sense of improvisation is merely an illusion.
These positions bely their nomenclature in being, in general, those with the least prescriptive role on the pitch. Admittedly my sample-field is small. At present, despite aggressive brain-wracking, I can summon to mind only two examples: rugby’s “No. 8”, and football’s “No. 10”. However, like similarly named Chanel perfumes, these positions are steeped in a rich history of beauty, creativity, and dare I say it, art. Of course the symptoms of coronavirus (loss of smell and loss of sport, amongst others) mean that these two pleasures are missed all the more sorely.
Let’s talk about that stupid word I have just used: nomenclature. Position-naming often seems to be determined by one of two things: location, or job-description.
Examples to illustrate:
- Wing (location)
- Sweeper (job description)
As I continue to wrack my brain, the beautiful exception of netball emerges. If my thinking is correct, netball, as one might expect from a sport with upwards of one noun in its name, seems to gorge itself on an unending supply of cake. That cake is both had, and eaten. In the positions “goal-attack” and “goal-defence” we see location and job description married, in an act of nominal-greed rivalled only by José Mourinho in his decision to rebrand as “The Special One”. Bravo, Netball.
Please don’t nit-pick. “Goalkeeper” obviously sits in the “job description” camp. As for the “False Nine” it is certainly a beautiful title, and if truth be told, it muddies the water somewhat. As Brendan Venter said, “I’ll have to think about it, think about it very hard.”
Herein lies the beauty of the No. 10 and the No. 8. Trying to write a job-description for either one of these positions would send Linkedin reeling. Where on the field do they belong? Truly hard to know. Kieran Read could often be found loitering with intent in the wide channels, and ask yourself this: was Zinzan Brooke’s famous 1995 drop goal really in his remit? More to follow on No. 10s.
Much of this extravagance comes from Mervyn Davies, the great Welsh No. 8 of the 1970s. I like to think that pre-Davies No. 8s were called something else entirely, and hopefully something boring. The French term for a No. 8 is “un troisième ligne centre” meaning “centre third line”. That seems suitably dull for No. 8 life pre-Davies. A brief character profile is probably necessary to justify these ideas. Davies had a particular fondness for shearling jackets and has been described as chain-smoking his way through matches. More relevantly, he is credited with changing this position from a largely defensive posting to one in which ball-handling and creativity is at a premium. In the same way that a scrum half may be described as being only a “half back”, The No. 8 post-Davies can be seen as a “half forward”.
Show me a list of football’s greatest No. 10s, and I will show you a list of football’s most cerebral players. Johan Cruyff’s brain would likely be considered the body-part to have had the most profound impact on the sport (excluding feet, obviously) in all the time elapsed since someone first kicked a pig in the bladder. Alongside him stand di Stefano and Platini, both of whom are famed not for their physical attributes, but for their footballing sagacity. Increasingly, speed of foot seems more important than speed of brain, and yet No. 10s continue to rage against the dying of the light. It is irritating not to be able to call on the example of Andrea Pirlo at this point, but of course he was mostly deployed as a deep-lying playmaker, and to begin to discuss Italian positions at this point would be wholly irresponsible. This article is, if you are able to remember at this advanced point, meant to address far broader topics than just the names of positions.
When I was growing up, Ronaldinho was the flavour of many consecutive months. Sadly, his recent (I began writing this article 2 months ago…) and farcical (though no longer recent, it is at least still farcical) move to a Paraguayan prison flies in the face of my brain-based argument. However, Platini has surely shown far greater deficiencies in abiding by the law, and like those preceding him in the No. 10 jersey, Ronaldinho undeniably offered a new style of play. He spurned the functional in favour of the flamboyant, and this is where his glamour lies. It is that glamour which leads me to feel a very strong sense that I might ask WG to turn me into a turn-of-the-millennium No. 10.
I like to imagine that, were aliens to watch the highlights reels of Luis Suarez and Ronaldinho, it would be far easier to decipher the rules of football from the latter. If attempting to reconstruct the rules of football from a video of Ronaldinho, it would be a forgivable mistake to assume that goals are also rewarded for style, and humiliation of opponents, or perhaps that there is some phase in football in which defender and attacker engage in a manner of dance off, in which the back of the net is forgotten entirely.
Suarez is all snarling functionality, made rabid by the thought of achieving a very simple end. Putting the ball in the back of the net. This end justifies any means – even those requiring an attendant orthodontist. Immanuel Kanté (and many mauled centre-backs) wept. In contrast, you get the feeling Ronaldinho might turn his nose up at the chance to score a goal which might be deemed unsightly. Unless, of course, it is David Seaman between the sticks.
It’s probably important to mention Messi here, although I think it would be more accurate to identify Neymar as Ronaldinho’s heir apparent. Messi is the iPhone to Neymar’s Nokia Lumia. While the Nokia Lumia had a wonderful camera, it was also plagued by inconsistency of battery life and processing speed. This (un)clearly mirrors the limitations Neymar has a footballer. Alongside this, Luis Suarez is a Blackberry. A landslide victory for substance over style, and clinical in the extreme when dealing with emails. In Messi, you get both crisp photos, and a clutterless inbox, yet herein is a flaw in this hyperextended metaphor. In footballing terms, the functional inbox must be ransomed with the partial death of the camera. Messi offers a different thrill from Ronaldinho, and it is the latter who is more likely to have a photography exhibition. Functionality and frivolity cannot coexist.
It would be remiss of me, as a serious sports blogger, not to acknowledge Messi’s physical gifts. I was fascinated by a friend’s description of watching Messi play at the Nou Camp a couple of years ago. He remarked that, for the first minutes of the game, Messi simply walked around the pitch looking at the opposition. He made no real attempt to take on defenders, make key passes, or score goals. He simply watched, prodded, and watched again .
He is clearly aided by a highly tuned body. His ankles seem at times to be made of elastic, but his extraordinary overall ability is more about a marriage of gifts. At the altar we see the intelligence signified by those opening minutes, making its marriage vows to a gait which gives the (false) impression of generations of La Masia selective breeding. Quite who the priest is, we will never know.
There is a charming irony to the fact that these positions receive such a clinical name, when their best exponents showed such nebulous talent. I thought for a time that it might be fun to try to rename these positions, but things which are very hard are rarely fun. That should serve as a warning to any readers tempted to take Morpheus’s blue pill in order to forget they were ever faced with this difficult choice. Perhaps, though, I would ask WG Grace to be a “Welsh/Kiwi No. 8 of yesteryear”. The thought of Buck Shelford’s scrotum gaping on a field in Nantes makes this rather less appealing.
Mere moments ago, we were having a discussion about Lionel Messi’s ankles, causing Victorian men up and down the country to wince. As stated, Messi is physically gifted, yet not perhaps the most physically gifted out of everyone. If he was, he would of course be competing in the most noble pursuit. Athletics. In his excellent article Technology in Sport: Innovation or Mechanical Doping? Henry Parnell addressed the fact that sporting records are often broken due to advances in technology. Swimming is a notable example of this, where the LZR swimsuit led to a spate of records being broken before eventually being banned.
While many would look to Usain Bolt as an example of total dominance in sprinting, Florence Griffith Joyner is in many respects equally astonishing. The 100m and 200m records she set in Seoul (1988) still stand today, despite all manner of technological advances in athletics in the 32 years since those records were set. The fact that she married an Olympic triple jump champion suggests a truly terrifying gene-pool.
Far be it from my wish to indulge in the cliché of focussing unduly on the clothing of female athletes, but I think it is worth mentioning Joyner’s sartorial envelope-pushing in this discussion. In a time where many athletes avoided jewellery or long hair while competing, for fear of losing valuable milliseconds, FGJ was not hampered by these worries, having plenty of milliseconds to spare. She was noted for her asymmetric “one-legger” sprinting catsuits, often decorated with lightning bolts (not so original now, Usain), and even sported six-inch nails painted a patriotic red, white, and blue, for the Seoul games.
Flo-Jo, as she was known, achieved a level of dominance rarely seen in any sporting field, and based on her performances alone, I would have to consider discussing the possibility of being a track athlete in the 80s with WG. Though I doubt I would prove her equal on the track, the catwalk would undoubtedly be an explosive battleground. To hold those two sprinting records for over 30 years is a remarkable record, and it is odd that Florence Griffith Joyner is not more of a household name.
Some people like Formula 1 car racing, and I’ve no doubt that a number of them would like to style themselves on James Hunt, the hard-drinking hero-cum-villain philanderer on whom the film Rush is based. Though a removed admirer of Hunt’s lifestyle, the sport itself would be an issue for me. Sadly, my driving career was cut tragically short when my erstwhile mother traded our Renault Scenic for a box of chocolates. It pays (in emotional currency, not gold (or chocolate, Mum)) to remember that tragedy is never too far away where cars are concerned. Oftentimes I think of that Scenic, rumbling along the A303. It is precisely this attitude towards driving which suggests to me that Hunt and I would not have got on as well as I might like to imagine.
It has been said (by no one except me), that rock-climbing is the new darts. The hot new thing in the world of finger-strength sports. I have to say, I was greatly taken with the lives of Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell whilst watching Free Solo and The Dawn Wall. Unfortunately, I found that the vicarious vertigo I suffered suggested that I am better suited to operating on the horizontal. Having watched these two films, I would strongly urge Alfred Hitchcock to consider renaming his film “Vertigo”, as his failure to achieve that sensation in comparison to Honnold and Caldwell does his reputation as a director no favours.
Another sport I admire from a distance, but am not very good at, is tennis. Unlike climbing, I do not watch tennis from behind the sofa, but that is mainly because I don’t really watch it. Oddly, it is something I feel very glad to have on the periphery of my life. From my vantage point, which is quite far removed, it seems a very noble sport. In a sort of parochial way, I like that the Umpire sits in a very tall chair, and that the score is tallied in such a strange way.
The game seems to be laid out in a way which demands politeness; a net between opponents guarantees that if fighting should break out, only the upper body can be used, ridding spectators of the possibility of watching something so undignified, ungainly, and unsightly as a kick. Meanwhile the Umpire sits, far from the madding crowd, dispensing justice. If, perhaps, King Solomon had been afforded the time and space of an Umpire’s chair, he might have managed to cut that baby in half after all!
So, what era of tennis could we pursue with WG Grace? The Williams sisters immediately come to mind. I have a particular soft spot for sibling pairs in sports, and there can be none who have achieved so much in a game as the Williams. Though I only really read about tennis, and my finger is far removed from the pulse, they seem to have shown extraordinary grit and determination to achieve such success. Fred Perry’s early-mid 20th century work is tempting, with crisp towels and crisper polo shirts. I think probably the late-60s of Virginia Wade and Billie Jean King would be pretty good. It would provide the opportunity to do battle with two of the greatest names in professional sport – Evonne Goolagong and Betty Stöve. These days tennis players are called things like “Tim” and “Anna”. Wade would certainly be a useful person to guide me through the complex scoring given that she had a degree in maths and physics.
Where does that leave us then? Well, at the 600 word limit I suppose! Only joking. If you’ve made it this far you have actually already suffered through over 2500 words of meandering-losely-sport-related-self-indulgent-drivel. Congratulations, and thank you for coming on this journey with me and WG Grace. Emails enquiring as to whether they “find you well in these strange/unprecedented times” will surely now take on a whole new meaning! You’ve been on an aimless journey with a mysterious former international cricket player – how unprecedented is that?
Obviously I can’t end this article without giving my chosen type of sportsman. In order to make it easier for myself, I have decided I’d like to be tall. Really tall. How easy it would be then, to elect to be a role player in the 90s Chicago Bulls team. I, like everyone else, have watched The Last Dance, mostly whilst in the bath. At some point you have to face up to the fact that a Kangol bucket hat works for Scottie Pippen in a way that it will never work for you. Likewise, a massively long cigar looks cool in Michael Jordan’s 11.5 inch Rachmaninoff-hands, but in my own it would look only massively long.
So, taking into consideration these sad truths, my choice to WG Grace would be to be a turn-of-the-millennium Australian quick with a handlebar moustache. Is it patriotic? No. Is my selection based on sporting intelligence? Probably not. Have I discussed and explained my choice in adequate detail over the course of this article? Absolutely not. But would it provide some escape from being a painfully polite, mealy-mouthed Englishman? Quite possibly.
If you, like me, enjoy wiling away the hours with pointless speculation, then I encourage you to consider your answer to WG’s offer. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below… or commit them to the back of a fag packet in a makeshift pub garden… or simply allow them to brew in your mind’s eye. The choice really is yours.