Sport has come a long way in Britain

Published : Jul 20, 2013 00:00 IST

England were unbeaten at home until that day — in 1954 when Hungary destroyed the footballers we thought of as gods — and I am still not sure the game in this country has ever recovered from that 6-3 mauling at Wembley even though England won the World Cup in 1966. By Ted Corbett.

I guess that, like every other English fan I am addicted to the Ashes. I began to follow cricket aged 13 in 1948, one of the great Ashes years, when there was little else of consequence in the cricket world. We had no ODIs, no T20, no Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe or Bangladesh; India, South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies, were considered vulnerable particularly in England. The four-year cycle of England v Australia was for the championship of the universe.

That is no longer true. South Africa lead the world, Australia have slipped and India may in the course of the next few years prove to be stronger than all three. (I often wonder if one day Pakistan will prove to be top dogs but every time they look ready to show the rest of us the way home some extreme circumstance arises which spoils their chances and they pretty well sink back down to the bottom rung once more.)

These changes in status are not surprising. The rest of the sporting world has changed too. About the time of that 1948 Australian Invincibles tour of England our football people were so contemptuous of the rest that they did not take part in the World Cup and were beaten by American when they eventually consented to play.

Then came that momentous Wednesday afternoon in 1954 when Hungary destroyed the footballers we thought of as gods and forced the Football Association to rethink their place in the game and begin to try harder. England were unbeaten at home until that day and I am still not sure the game in this country has ever recovered from that 6-3 mauling at Wembley even though we won the World Cup in 1966.

I watched it on a black and white television in the local Conservative Club — ‘excuse me, sir,’ I asked in my best just out of school voice — ‘we wondered if we could watch the big match.’

“Of course you can,” he said and reached into his pocket. “Give these two lads a bottle of lemonade and a packet of crisps. They cannot have what we’re having,” he added taking a huge swig from his glass of beer.

Within five minutes he added: “You should not be watching this match lads — it must have an X certificate” but we stayed until the end and saw the most marvellous exhibition Puskas the tiny rotund inside left who turned England inside out.

Four years later there was another massive change. Eight Manchester United players were killed in an air crash on their way home from a European Cup match; so were seven reporters. It was not just the game was lost its stars; so did the national newspapers. I am told that the next day editors wandered round their offices asking for volunteers to cover that Saturday’s matches.

Those lads — from the features department, the sports desk and the news room — went along and found they were puzzled by some of the incidents. So they did what they had been taught to do in their ordinary jobs. They asked the nearest expert — usually the manager of the home club — and quoted his answers. Most modern sporting journalism is based on that premise: that is, that the quotes are more important than any account of the run of play.

Television coverage encouraged that belief. There was no point in giving details of who passed to whom if the reader has been able to see it in his own living room earlier and so today the classic way to report a football match is only 50 per cent about the match but dwells on a single incident or a series of background stories. Every major sport depends on such reporting in every game and that trend will increase.

Sport generally in Britain was at a low level. I went to see a promising Olympian and was told by the man on the gates of the school where he trained: “Straight on and turn left at the dustbin.” It was so typical of our sport. I wanted Turn Left at the Dustbin to be the title of my autobiography.

In those bad old days the conditions for spectators were often appalling but, after several major incidents in which fans were killed, grounds have been reconstructed and facilities improved. It is not always for the benefit of the ordinary fan. Money from sponsors means that more wealthy businessmen want to see how their money is being spent.

It’s not just football, although that sport has led the way. Cricket press boxes in England are unrecognisable from the cramped little spaces of 40 years ago; now every club finds they have to provide wi-fi facilities for the dozens of writers and photographers who want to give their organisation publicity which, in turn, brings in more spectators, more TV money, more sponsorship and a whole range of additional revenue-raising events from dinners to pop concerts. Cities, towns and counties now realise the benefits that arise from a successful sports club in the area and clubs find it worth their while for the biggest games to put TV screens around the area.

Every house has at least one television set which means it is unlikely that two pals ever have to go into the local Conservative club and ask, as diffidently as Oliver Twist requesting more porridge, if they can watch the big match on a black and white TV.

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