MIDSUMMER murders in the world of sport produce no fatalities, but there are times when it is tempting to consider them only marginally less criminal than the real thing.
These are offences committed by those whose hysterical reaction to sustained excellence and high achievement in certain areas induces a form of irrationality that borders on psychosis.
Last year was a bonanza for those with a tendency to lose touch with reality. The prolific medal-winning by home athletes at the London Olympics brought a rush of misguided observers and commentators desperate to apprise readers, listeners and viewers of the ways in which football, Scotland’s supposedly expiring national sport, could be revived by taking lessons from such pursuits as athletics, cycling and – seriously! – rowing.
None of these “visionaries” appeared to take any account of the differences between the ball game and the others, not even the most fundamental of all: that one is a team game – complete with 11 utterly unique exponents of singular styles and abilities – and the others essentially individual events with easily defined and measurable indicators of progress and performance.
For most of the preachers, the essays were no more than a tarted-up, slightly sniffy dismissal of the most popular sport on Earth, complete with the implication that, set beside Olympian standards, football is really quite unworthy.
Nobody should confuse the foregoing with a disparagement of athletics, cycling and rowing, each a relentlessly demanding business whose most celebrated competitors warrant all the admiration they have garnered in these past few years of astonishing accomplishment.
But those who championed the London Games and predicted a legacy for the millennium would surely have to modify their views at least in part on learning the results of a recent survey among teachers. They reported only an eight per cent increase in sporting activity in primary schools and 11 per cent in secondaries. And this less than a year after the headiness of 2012.
In 2013, the latest example of seasonal disorder sprang from Andy Murray’s Wimbledon men‘s singles championship. The Dunblane man’s triumph over Novak Djokovic was unquestionably a supreme achievement, but it gave rise in one quarter to the preposterous proposal that tennis – tennis! – could threaten football’s status as Scotland’s preferred sport.
The purveyor of this bizarre notion partly based the theory on the evidence of his own five-year-old, who, soon after Murray’s victory, was wielding his newly-acquired racquet every day during a family holiday.
The prospect of Scotland transforming itself virtually overnight into a nation of lithe, dedicated pro tennis players hardly squares with the image of the country as the deep-fry capital of the world. But the unlikelihood of mass conversion to the bat-and-ball game has less to do with dietary custom than it does with the built-in obstacles of the minority sport itself.
Any aspiring male tennis champion could have his pretensions to greatness abruptly snuffed out with one flourish of a tape measure. If he has not reached a height of at least 6ft 2in by the age of 16, with a predicted minimum fully mature height of 6ft 4in, he can forget it.
Murray is 6ft 3in and, even as he was enjoying the greatest moment of his life, he offered the view that he himself could soon be nicknamed “Shorty” as the game becomes more and more the preserve of giants.
His observation was inspired by the realisation of the difficulties he encountered in overcoming the sky-scraping, 6ft 8in Jerzy Janowicz of Poland in the Wimbledon semi-final. The days of former multiple champions such as Rod Laver and Chuck McKinley (both 5ft 8in) are long gone.
Part of the reason for football’s global popularity is that it is the most democratic of sports, accessible to all shapes and sizes, from the diminutive Jimmy Johnstone, George Best and Lionel Messi through the middle orders of Diego Maradona, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Pele to the towering Cristiano Ronaldo and Marco van Basten.
With basketball and gridiron football both the playgrounds of physical freaks, it is not surprising that baseball – with its pastoral roots and non-discriminatory corporal requirements – should have become America’s most revered indigenous sport.
Andy Murray – like Chris Hoy, Katherine Grainger, Mo Farah and all their fellow Olympic heroes – is a marvel, but his great talent, like that of those others, is so specific to him as to be non-transferable.
Strachan builds case for hands-off management
Fears that this veteran columnist’s ageing eyes may have reached the stage of playing tricks seemed to be vindicated with the recent
arrival of an email from the Scottish FA press office. It contained an invitation to Sunday paper journalists to attend an assembly at Hampden, the purpose of which was to interrogate the national team manager, Gordon Strachan, by way of previewing the forthcoming international against England at Wembley.
Except that, astonishingly, it seemed that Strachan would not be present. His disembodied voice would fill the room, but he would be relaxing on at home in and communicating with the hack pack through the medium of a conference call.
The immediate reaction of a reporter of my vintage was a predictable snort of indignation and a protest about this monstrous act of contempt for fellows of the noble fourth estate.
The outrage turned out to be both premature and misplaced. Inquiries elicited the rather damning verdict that the press representatives preferred not to have the manager present. “It’s more productive,” I was told. “Gordon is more relaxed, more straightforward with expansive answers, leaving out all those smart-arse remarks that just waste time and annoy everybody when he’s there in the flesh.”
Perhaps if Gordon extended the system to include pre-match team talks and tactical deployment,
Scotland would enjoy a swift ascent of the world rankings.