Aidan Smith: We don’t need sport to be speeded up

The 1979 Scottish Cup final between Hibs and Rangers was replayed twice  those days are now long gone.  Photograph: Allan Milligan

The 1979 Scottish Cup final between Hibs and Rangers was replayed twice  those days are now long gone. Photograph: Allan Milligan

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Unable to comprehend that the football season was in fact over, my monomaniac of a son demanded that I scour the telly schedules for a match, any match – “Come on, Dad, there must be a game somewhere.”

Eventually I found highlights of an old Leeds United classic, a ripsnorter from when they seemed to spark controversy every time they played. It was their casual 7-0 humiliation of Southampton in 1972 when at the instigation of Billy Bremner they took the mickey, kept the ball and used the backheel as a form of Chinese water torture channelled through West Riding.

“Watch this, it’s great,” I said. “The wee gurning captain is Scottish, as is the No 7 with the thatch of hair who claps his hands above his head when he scores – and so’s the patter-merchant out on the left wing.”

Bremner, Peter Lorimer, Eddie Gray – this was Mighty Leeds’ tartan triumvirate in full cry, arrogant as hell and not caring about the backlash one little bit. But after about the third goal the laddie got bored. “This is too slow,” he said, slouching off in search of his iPod touch.

Football has got faster, for sure. Players could no longer get away with a pair of thunder-thighs like the ones Jim Steele tried to heave around the pitch like sacks of coal – black rock dug from the ground and used as fossil fuel, ask your father – in vain pursuit of the white-shirted tormentors as Saints’ new signing from Dundee. But it’s also packaged to seem even faster: speeded-up action, driving musical accompaniment, goals strung together giving the impression they always arrive that way. All of this is aimed at the attention-deficit generation for fear they’re only one click away from losing interest altogether.

See, it’s not just youth that is wasted on the young. Sport is, too.

Tennis is just the latest to be jazzed up for people who, by the way, will never get jazz. Shot clocks are to be introduced and lets removed. Sets will be first-to-four with tie-breaks at 3-3 – all to make the action zip along more for the younger set.

The attempts to speed up tennis aren’t coming to Wimbledon, at least not yet. They’ll be trialled in November at the inaugural New Generation ATP Finals for tour players aged 21 and under. But the experiment has the backing of the No 1 man. Says Andy Murray: “It’s important to try new formats.” Presumably, though, there’s a willingness to have the changes made standard. Otherwise what’s the point of trying them?

Now, it’s difficult to avoid sounding like an old codger when this kind of wackiness is in the wind. I mean, I was young once and, around the time Leeds were annihilating Southampton, I thrilled to the five-a-side tournament organised annually by Leith Round Table. Presumably that competition, involving the top teams, was an attempt to chase the youth vote. I thrilled to it even more when Hibs beat Hearts 11-1, Alex Cropley smashing a goal direct from the referee’s drop-ball commencement of the indoor derby. But I didn’t instantly yearn for football to be that fast all of the time.

Similarly I didn’t want cricket to be any shorter than when I watched test matches in the dog days of summer, the curtains shutting out the daylight in the vain hope of glimpsing the ball on a black and white set with snowy Kincardineshire reception. I never saw any of Garry Sobers’ six sixes. I mean, I was watching, agog and amazed, but couldn’t spot the hurtling meteor. That didn’t matter, it was tremendously exciting and special. One thing I didn’t feel I needed, even as a fidgety nine-year-old, was a speeded-up version of cricket to increase the chances of someone else banging another half-dozen over the boundary the following week.

I’m also a veteran of Pancho Gonzalez vs Charlie Pasarell, the epic tennis match the summer after Sobers in 1969 which began with a first set at Wimbledon eventually settled by 24-22. It featured another set decided 16-14 and by the end would have me stroking my pimply chin, convinced all the time I’d been watching that I must have sprouted a fine goatee beard to match that of my father.

The introduction of tie-breaks ensured such a gargantuan affair never happened again but I honestly don’t remember being bored by it. I mean, it was so tense there were moments when I simply couldn’t bear to stay in the room watching, but then tennis gets me like that. It’s nothing to do with boredom.

In my memory of ’69, Gonzalez and Pasarell fought each other to a standstill then flipped a coin over who had the coolest name, Pancho winning, but it might not have happened that way. Yes, the match swallowed up time but sport occasionally did that. We had to let it play out. For a while, anyway.

This year has already seen the emergence of GolfSixes which, as the name suggests, is played over just six holes. The sport has been wrestling with its apparent problems – rounds take too long, the kids are underwhelmed – for some time and apparently the inaugural event went well, though the idea of players being mic-ed up so they can be interviewed by Vernon Kay (pictured) sounds appalling. But then I remember Henry Longhurst’s commentaries, the somnambulant slowness of them, and wondering if the old chap was still with us.

I’m a veteran, too, of the 1979 Scottish Cup final, or as I prefer to call it, the War and Peace final. Having witnessed all three attempts to settle the contest, I was absolutely ready for a fourth or however many would have been required. I miss that there are no replays anymore.

Regarding time, time can play tricks. Maybe there was some tedium in those glorious sporting summers. I can’t for instance believe I was so patient waiting for a girlfriend to write me letters on purple notepaper. But I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for GolfSixes or TennisFours as the latest wheeze will probably be called, given the young don’t seem to have the patience for normal word-spacing. Surely the reason we like cricket and golf is that we can get lost in them because they take us far away from our hectic lives. Kids should slow down and learn to appreciate this.

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