This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
True fans know that live sport is not to be enjoyed, but endured. If the object of our sporting affection is losing, it is miserable. If they are winning, we fear they will throw it all away. Only after the drama can those at home emerge from behind the sofa, and supporters at the stadium or ground stop biting their nails. Only then can the glory be celebrated or the failure lamented. The errors, the injustices, the what-might-have-beens can be debated, sometimes for weeks, months and even years. We still argue about the Bodyline Ashes series of the early 1930s, and England’s third goal against West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final.
There is a tendency among sports fans to mourn that things ain’t what they used to be
Perhaps this is why, with sport, we are so nostalgic. If it is the hope that kills you, it is memories that sustain us. Just as Frank Skinner and David Baddiel remembered “that tackle by Moore, and when Lineker scored”, supporters rely on myths and legends to get through the years of disappointment, and use past greats to judge the players of today.
Has there been a cricket team as great as Clive Lloyd’s West Indians? Who remembers Jonah Lomu crashing through England’s defences in the 1995 rugby world cup? Did the Berlin Games in 1936 make Jesse Owens the greatest Olympian? The arguments go on and on.
As much as performances, we are nostalgic for personalities: rugged, flawed, and often gloriously unprofessional. Before a match in the seventies, the England manager Sir Alf Ramsey told Rodney Marsh that if he did not work harder, “I’ll pull you off at half-time.” Marsh answered, “Crikey, Alf, at Man City all we get is an orange and a cup of tea.” It was a great line, but he never played for England again.
However much we enjoy our modern-day heroes, there is a tendency among sports fans to mourn that things ain’t what they used to be. The personalities have gone. Sportsmanship has been replaced by gamesmanship and cheating. The money men put revenues before the spirit of sport. Technology is replacing umpires and referees and slowing everything down. And professionalisation is making everything too clinical and clean. Spontaneity is giving way to predictability.
But is it really so? If we accept that we always romanticise the athletes and players of our childhoods, and look back at our earliest memories through rose-tinted glasses, are we really living through an era of bland and boring sport?
The answer is — not remotely. If we are honest, for all the legends of days gone by, there was also much about sport that was inferior and unjust compared to the modern day. Footage of Jimmy Greaves making his debut for West Ham in 1970 shows him playing on a pitch so muddy it resembled No Man’s Land in Flanders.
Players headed heavy balls — causing many to later suffer dementia — and matches were often decided by sheer luck. With no substitutes allowed before 1965, and only one allowed until 1987, injuries often determined results.
In cricket, old-timers like to claim they needed to be better batsmen because they played on uncovered pitches. But was it really better to let overnight rain change a pitch so dramatically that one side inevitably defeated the other? Was it really better when bowlers could not bat, and few players at all could field? Should we really believe that WG Grace could hit a yorker for six? If only Waqar Younis or Lasith Malinga could be transported in time to let him try.
Grace proves there was no golden age of sportsmanship. He refused to return to the pavilion once after being given out. The spectators, he declared to the man with the raised finger, “came to see me bat, not you umpire”.
While nobody should pretend modern players have higher standards of integrity, technology has brought about a new honesty. Bowlers appeal for wickets, and batsmen stand their ground, but if they really believe the umpire is wrong, they can review the decision.
Through improved stadiums and modern broadcasting, we can watch more of what we love
Of course there are many problems with modern sport. The attempt to form a European Super League was a cynical bid to form a football cartel at the expense of local supporters dismissed as “legacy fans”. “The Hundred” — cricket’s attempt to win back lost supporters after hiding the sport on pay TV for years — is an abomination. In every field, the riches bestowed on elite performers contrasts with more limited funds for grassroots sports.
But modern sport is getting better and better. Athletes and players are stronger and technically excellent. Their careers are lasting longer. Tactics and strategies are more creative, and better understood. Tracks, pools and pitches no longer hinder performance. Through improved stadiums and modern broadcasting, we can watch more of what we love.
Of course, some things never change. If you are one of the nostalgics, you will always have something on the rest of us: the knowledge never to bet on England in a penalty shoot-out.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe