NEIL DRYSDALE: Did you hear the one about the Irishwoman and rugby-mad Spike Milligan?

NOW that Spike Milligan has finally departed to that great madhouse in the sky - and no, he isn’t working as a steward with British Airways - we should perhaps honour the hitherto little-remarked influence which the late Goon had on the world of sport.

An inveterate pessimist prone to dramatic mood swings , one shouldn’t be too surprised to discover that Milligan cherished a lifelong interest in cricket and all its foibles. Like so many others, he was a grim witness amid the wreckage of England’s ‘Blackwashes’ against the West Indies in the 1980s, and subsequently spoke to David Gower about the trauma. "Spike called it the Perkins Principle: the purest form of sporting courage, because it demands nothing back, and certainly not victory," recalled the former England captain. "His philosophy was summed up in one of his brief poems: The boy stood on the burning deck,

Whence all but he had fled,

Twit. I’ve never forgotten that."

Milligan, mind you, was gleefully addicted to hopeless causes, which maybe explains his affection for Irish rugby, of which he once said: "Do you know what I like most about their test team? The fact that they are the only side who come off at the end of any game and ask: ‘Who won?’"

Back in the mists of time, when Milligan appeared on the right wing for D Battery, 56th Heavy Regiment, he grew to appreciate that whereas his English and Welsh army colleagues tended to view the game with an excessive seriousness, the Irish were a different proposition.

"There was this hilarious game somewhere in Munster, where two-thirds of the way through the second half, one of the XVs called on the referee to stop the match because they had to rush to catch the last train home. So the team that was left high and dry insisted on finishing the game, and ended up with 120 points," said Milligan.

"On another occasion, I was very anxious to see the All Blacks play Ireland at Lansdowne Road, but couldn’t get a ticket. I went over to Dublin in any case, because I knew there would be lots of touts outside the ground. So I walked around, saying very quietly: ‘Anybody got a ticket? Anybody got a ticket?’

"Eventually, this woman came over to me and said: ‘I’ve got a ticket’. I replied: ‘How much?’ and she said: ‘Two hundred pounds.’ To which I spluttered: ‘What, two bloody hundred pounds! But, for that amount of money, I could get the most beautiful woman in Dublin.’

"Whereupon, she retorted: ‘Ah yes, but she certainly wouldn’t give you 40-45 minutes each way with a wonderful brass band playing in the middle’."

Introduced to the sport by the Catholic brothers at St Paul’s College in Rangoon, Milligan scored his last try at the age of 80 for Rye RFC, and brought a wonderfully-quixotic approach to rugby union’s "eternal struggle between big buggers and little buggers".

My favourite story concerns Milligan’s famous creation, Eccles, and his crew’s labours to escape from a ship on the Amazon. "When the rest of us reached dry land, Eccles was already there, so we asked: ‘How did you get ashore?’

"Ho hum, I came across on that log.

"Log...but’s that an alligator.

"Oops. I wondered why I kept getting shorter."

FOOTBALL’S tribal instincts can be overstated, judging by the after-match activities at the Premiership meeting between West Ham and Middlesbrough. After the ritual 90 minutes of Paul Ince-baiting by 34,000 Hammers fans - with screams of "Judas, Judas" ringing out - a few Boro players were standing outside the Upton Park dressing-rooms when a concerned visiting official approached and inquired: "Where’s Incey?"

According to our source, there was silence and a few embarrassed glances. Until, that is, Ince’s team-mate, Gareth Southgate, said: "It’s cool. He’s gone over to the West Ham supporters’ club for half a lager."

IT beggars belief, but the Mancunian flat cap is set to become the ‘crowning glory’ of the Commonwealth Games, at least if a breathless press release from Asda is to be trusted.

Apparently, the "top titfer" and matching uniforms will be unveiled on Tuesday by Suranne Jones (Karen McDonald in Coronation Street) to help the biggest volunteer force in peacetime Britain look like, well, complete wallies.

Strangely, as the Games gravy train looms at Freeloader Station, it seems that every volunteer’s jacket will carry a label signed by Prince Edward (HRH Earl of Wessex) who just happens to be president of the Commonwealth Games Federation. And what experience does he have for that arduous role? Erm...

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