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The Best British Sportsperson You’ve Never Heard Of

In December 2016, The Telegraph conducted an exhaustive search for the “Greatest ever British Sportsperson”. The “greatest” claim is bound to raise hackles and start arguments – that is the point – but the impossible task was given to a panel. It included icons of British sport such as Ryan Giggs, Michael Vaughan, Baroness Grey-Thompson and Denise Lewis, who listed 100 challengers but voted for Andy Murray as their winner. To them, “greatest” denoted “achievements, talent and sheer perseverance”. Using that definition, it is probably reasonable to argue that Andy Murray was the embodiment of greatness in sport back in 2016, particularly given the quality of his Swiss, Spanish and Serbian competition.

In light of the Scot’s injury misfortunes curtailing his development, and to offer a different view, the “greatest” should also mean the “best”: the most capable, most rounded and most gifted sportsperson, therefore rendering Murray’s election as myopic and an oversight landed upon by the biased modern eye. For the record, I am aware that modern sport is not just physically gruelling but mentally demanding too and it would be short-sighted of me not to acknowledge the supreme talent and devotion of our modern day heroes. The standard, too, is incomparable to the period which concerns my choice, but alas hindsight is a wonderful thing. One cannot overlook the dexterity and all-roundedness of the decathlete Daley Thompson, the bloody-mindedness and endurance of Sir Steve Redgrave, or the tenacity and pure flair of Sir Ian Botham or indeed Mr 2019, Ben Stokes.

The 13-man panel did at least refer to the person in question whom I believe – yes, perhaps in my own bigoted eye – to be the “best” British sportsman ever. But in a horrible misjudgement, Maxwell Woosnam was voted 88th in The Telegraph’s poll and he was totally robbed. Here’s why.

Max was a physical phenomenon and always looked sharp

He was an unprecedented and unrivalled sporting polymath. Six-foot-tall with rugged good looks, golden-haired and built like a light-heavyweight boxer, Woosnam was the archetypal sporting hero. He was strong, agile, fearless, energetic and blessed with perfect hand-eye coordination. Max attended Winchester College, where he captained both the golf and cricket teams as well as representing the school at football and squash. In 1911, his final year when he was Head Boy, Woosnam was acknowledged in Wisden as the school’s player of the year, after he hit 144 and 33 not out for a Public Schools XI in a cricket match against the M.C.C. at Lords.

Enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, he quickly established himself to be a genuinely outstanding sporting all-rounder. Earning no fewer than six blues, he represented the University at golf (he played off scratch…), cricket, football, squash, lawn tennis and real tennis. If you’re not already impressed, you will be. On a football tour to Brazil with the then famous amateur side The Corinthian Casuals, the Great War broke out, stalling his somewhat preordained and undoubted rise to sporting “greatness”. Aged 22, Max enlisted with the Montgomeryshire Yeomanry and is understood to have later joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers, serving on the Western Front and in the Gallipoli campaign.

Woosnam (centre, with ball) with his Man City team mates

After the war, Max was able to resume his sporting career; not for payment mind you, he found the concept of professional sport particularly ‘vulgar’. The man just gets more extraordinary with every word. After moving to Manchester, he signed for Manchester City on amateur terms in 1919 and as an amateur amongst professionals, Max stood out. Nicknamed ‘the Gentleman’, on occasion he carried a handkerchief around the pitch to befit his image. Well-groomed, immaculately dressed and respected by all, Woosnam was a huge success with the City fans and players. So much so that at the behest of his fellow players, he went on to captain the side – a rare honour for an amateur in a professional side. The gifted man was a powerful defender who, in 1922, became one of the few amateurs to gain an England cap in a full international when he was chosen as captain against Wales. He was also asked whether he would captain the British soccer team at the 1920 Olympic Games at Antwerp, but he refused the honour, as he was already committed to the tennis team.

In the 1920 Games, Woosnam won a gold medal as partner to O. G. N. Turnbull in the men’s tennis doubles and a silver medal in the mixed doubles. In 1921, the same year in which he led City to the runners-up spot in the First Division, together with R. Lycett he won the doubles at Wimbledon. In that same year he also captained the British Davis Cup team in America. Naturally, on the tour, he beat Charlie Chaplin at table tennis armed only with a butter knife in the silent actor’s own Hollywood estate for good measure.

The Englishman Chaplin was given a harsh lesson

Tragically, his sporting career was dealt a fatal blow in the 1922-23 football season as Woosnam suffered a broken leg. After coming back from the injury he had been robbed of his athleticism and although he remained committed to sport – reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon in the mixed doubles one more time – ultimately his need for perfection forced upon him the decision to retire in 1925 at the age of 33. The glory days were over.

Even after he had retired from top-class competition, Woosnam’s priorities remained unchanged. His son, Max Jnr., ruefully remarked: “Sport took him away from his home life with great frequency as golf, snooker (for which he achieved a maximum 147 break), squash and social games of tennis occupied every out-of-office moment”. Woosnam said very little about what he achieved. He did once reveal “If I was any good at anything, it was football” – modest as ever, I think there was more to you than that, Max.

His life and achievements are now largely forgotten, as he never sought to gain acclaim for his prodigious talents and deeds. He never had a desire to draw attention to himself or recognition in the newspaper columns of the time. Indeed, the only surviving tribute to this great man of sport is an alley near Maine Road in Manchester called Max Woosnam Walk.

But what a sportsman Woosnam was. And what a contrast he provides to the pampered jocks of contemporary sport. Woosnam played for the love of competition, not the lure of cash. He had no agent, no sponsors, no advertising deal and even smoked Capstan Full Strength cigarettes all his adult life – which contributed to his death in 1965 of respiratory failures aged 72. Imagining what he could have achieved had he committed as a professional is quite frightening. He was an example of what sport once was and, perhaps, of what it should still be. As the title proposes, Woosnam might not be dubbed as the “greatest” in its strictest definition, but he may well have been the “best”. I challenge anyone to find a sportsperson as holistic and as complete as Maxwell Woosnam; sport shall never see his like again.

A postcard of Woosnam signed by the great man himself

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