Spectator sport

Roger Alton’s highlights from a magical year in sport

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

We don’t half take a lot for granted. We may look up to the Aussies, kowtow to the Americans and look on in awe at the Chinese, but we’re not doing too badly ourselves. To judge from the papers, we’re a nation of fatties who when not pigging out on Pringles on the sofa are waddling down the high street looking for drugs. But it turns out we’re pretty good at sport: cricket World Cup winners, rugby World Cup finalists, women’s football World Cup semi-finalists. It was English teams who contested the Champions League final, after two mesmerising semis when Liverpool thumped Barcelona and Spurs defeated Ajax in the last seconds of added time.

At home, Liverpool continue to dazzle under a charismatic manager who has made the Kop his own. Meanwhile the England football team are poised for next year’s European Championships — a youthful, diverse outfit who play with great charm and skill and are managed by a man who is an excellent ambassador for the game and the country. That’s a lot of quality teamwork all round.

So let me take you back a couple of hundred years or so. Do you ever wake up at night wondering what Dr Thomas Arnold would make of it all? Probably not, but if you do find yourself wide-eyed at 3 a.m. any time soon, it’s an exercise that could lull you back to sleep. Arnold was the headmaster of Rugby School from 1828-41 when team games at schools were actively encouraged. He was first and foremost an educationist but tolerated games as a diversion from the unruly behaviour, inspired by the French Revolution, that had become endemic in public schools. At least that hasn’t changed.

The many Rugby masters nurtured by Arnold went on to take over schools that sowed the seeds of team games all over the country. Marlborough had started in 1843 with a couple of hundred boys but no playing fields. The boys got out of hand and roamed the countryside, poaching and provoking local farmers. The school then followed Rugby and introduced organised games. And it was the public school-educated sons of industrialists who introduced rugby to the mining villages of south Wales, considering it a better pastime than drinking or fighting (though all three still co-exist pretty well at most rugby clubs).

How would the high-minded Dr Arnold have reacted to the astounding explosion of team sports in the modern age, never more vividly showcased than this year with the pink-haired Megan Rapinoe’s boundless extroversion at the women’s World Cup final, or Faf de Klerk’s kaleidoscopic underpants shown off with such relish after the rugby final, or England’s victory romp around Lord’s after beating luckless New Zealand in the cricket?

Let’s assume he would have raised his top hat in respect. What a year. Even Andy Murray making a miraculous recovery to help Britain to the semi-finals of the Davis Cup. If you don’t think that’s enough, I can remember when the high point of Britain’s tennis year was avoiding relegation to Group II of the Europe-Africa zone.

But a year of great achievement, especially when it came to playing the Aussies (OK, we didn’t win the Ashes), has two crowning moments. Jack Leach’s specs were the unsung hero of that baking Headingley Sunday when Ben Stokes flayed the Australian bowling to all points of Leeds. At the other end, Leach made one run and nearly lost the whole thing stuck down the pitch in the middle of nowhere. But always on hand were the glasses to clean and the Aussies to discombobulate.

And we should never forget south London’s very own Kyle ‘The Sink’ Sinckler raising his arms aloft with a vast ‘what about that?’ smile after scoring against the Australians in the rugby World Cup. He had even slowed down to invite the tackle. Because, after all, a prop can’t score a try without someone trying to hit him. That just ain’t right. Magic moments.

Saddest news of 2019, though — whether you’re a Chelsea fan or not — has been the lifting of the club’s transfer ban. All this season Frank Lampard has been locked into his own youth revolution and cheering the nation (up to a point) with plucky homegrown derring-do. Presumably now the club will go back to spilling absurd amounts of money by handing one last payday to clapped-out Italian and Spanish superstars.

Still, at least then we can all go back to hating Chelsea.

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