Spectator sport

What makes players popular?

14 April 2017

11:00 PM

14 April 2017

11:00 PM

What a treat to be Sergio Garcia. Not only have you just won your first major and trousered a small fortune, you are also loved by all and sundry without exception; not least by your absolute corker of a fiancée, the sensational Angela Akins, who looks like she should be from Malaga, but is actually Texan. Sergio and Justin Rose, his play-off rival at the Augusta Masters, are two of the most popular sportsmen around. The scenes of rapture as the 18th-green crowd leapt to their feet as one when Sergio holed his final birdie will stay with me forever. But winning and being popular don’t always go together.

Don Revie’s Leeds were pretty successful, but almost universally loathed. Alex Ferguson’s Man United played some of the best football we will ever see and cleaned up every trophy going, but loved? Ferguson was admired
and not much more. Jose Mourinho is a proven winner all over Europe, but popular? Come off it. Aussie cricket teams are never liked, no matter how great their players. Yet the magnificent West Indies teams of the 1980s were adored, even when they were slaughtering everything in their path. Chris Cowdrey tells the story of captaining England in the last Test against the Windies in 1988 at Headingley with the series lost. He walked out for the toss, immaculate in his whites and England blazer, down the pavilion and out to the square in almost total silence. As he stood waiting, he became aware of an excited murmur round the ground, followed by wild applause as the capacity crowd stood to hail a man sauntering out in plimsolls and tracksuit bottoms. It was Viv Richards. And that’s what being popular is all about.


Brian Clough’s brilliant Nottingham Forest teams were admired as well as loved, as was their irascible manager. The players were pretty likeable too. As for modern football, David Beckham was the last really popular player. In tennis, Roger and Rafa are more loved than Andy and Novak. We admire and fetishise the ceaseless power and skill of the All Blacks, but I am not sure we love them. We certainly loved Jonny Wilkinson, but we merely admire Owen Farrell.

It’s a tricky one, and that is why the epic between Rose and Garcia was so uplifting, not least for the great sportsmanship they showed to each other.

Sergio’s fiancée used to be a presenter on the Golf Channel, which has had a busy few days. An eagle-eyed viewer spotted that Lexi Thompson had replaced her ball a few inches away from her marker at the ANA Inspiration tournament in California. He phoned up and Lexi got a four-stroke penalty which cost her the title. There was a general chorus of sympathy for Lexi and a consensus that TV viewers can cry foul in the privacy of their own front rooms but beyond that they should shut up. But golf is played over a vast area and is therefore vulnerable to undetected mistakes and cheating, so marshals need all the help they can get. I saw the Thompson incident and her ball was some way from the marker. The four-stroke penalty was too severe, but it didn’t look too good.

Early days for the cricket season, but why on earth are Alastair Cook and Joe Root sitting out the opening games of the County Championship? Cook is injured apparently. Hmmm. Surely these guys want to get a bit of mileage into those chunky cable-knits of theirs. Moeen Ali was a studio expert for the Indian Premier League and Jonny Bairstow popped up at the Masters. We have eight players at the IPL, seven first-class —Woakes, Stokes, Buttler, Morgan, Roy, Billings and Jordan. I love the IPL but this getting silly. Shouldn’t some of them be turning out for their counties at home? It’s not as if our last Test series went that well.

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