Talking Sport … by Jim Tait

The rise of tennis player Andy Murray to number one in the world at the weekend has again prompted suggestions that he is the greatest ever sportsman from Great Britain.

While there is absolutely no doubt that Murray is now one of the most talented and successful performers the country has ever produced, to place him at the summit is to do a disservice to all the other supreme competitors who have either gone before him or are still at the top of the tree.

If you ignore team sports where it always difficult to rate one position as opposed to another – goal, points or run scorers more often than not grab the attention over others – Murray has to be our best tennis player ever.

But how on earth do you judge him against other individual pursuits, such as boxing, golf, swimming, motor racing, the many disciplines of athletics and a host of others? It is impossible.

With that mind a national newspaper this week appealed for readers to help judge the 100 best British sportsmen and women of all time. Over the past few days various writers have been putting forward their favourites.

With apologies to followers of sports which I know nothing about, or have no real interest in, here is my personal choice of 50. I will wait with interest to see how many of them make it into the top 100.

Athletics – Daley Thompson, Allan Wells, Mo Farah, Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, Jessica Ennis and Kelly Holmes.

Boxing – Ken Buchanan, Lennox Lewis and Dick McTaggart.

Cricket – WG Grace, Ian Botham, Joe Root, Ken Barrington and Charlotte Edwards.

Football – Bobby Charlton, George Best, Kenny Dalglish, Gareth Bale, Tom Finney, Denis Law and Bobby Moore.

Cycling – Chris Froome, Laura Trott, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny.

Golf – Harry Vardon and Nick Faldo.

Horse riding – Lester Piggott and Tony McCoy.

Motor sports – John Surtees, Geoff Duke and Jim Clark.

Rowing – Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent and Katherine Grainger.

Rugby – Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, Barry John, Martin Johnson and Gavin Hastings.

Sailing – Ben Ainslie.

Show jumping: Charlotte Dujardin and Nick Skelton.

Snooker – Stephen Hendry.

Swimming – Rebecca Adlington.

Tennis – Fred Perry, Virginia Wade and
Andy Murray.

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Tonight’s World Cup qualifying round tie between England and Scotland at Wembley has rekindled memories of previous matches between the Auld Enemy.

The first I attended was a pretty harsh introduction to such encounters. It was the centenary celebration, if you could call it that, at Hampden Park in February 1973 and ended up 5-0 to the visitors.

Scotland did not have a bad side. Far from it. Half of the team went on to play at the World Cup finals in Germany the following year and returned unbeaten.

But England, deploying three strikers in Allan “Sniffer” Clarke, Martin Chivers and Mick Channon, simply ran riot. When Peter Lorimer volleyed into his own net in the 10th minute, quickly followed by goals from Clarke and Channon, the game was all but over after quarter of an hour.

The Scots rallied somewhat and kept England out for about an hour, but another two late goals from Chivers and Clarke again completed the embarrassment.

Thankfully I missed three of the goals, due to a call of nature and viewing difficulties on the old Hampden terracing, but I did manage to catch Lorimer’s opener and the final nail in the coffin.

My next match was much more enjoyable, when Scotland’s 2-1 victory in 1977 led to the pitch invasion which has become legendary. Goals either side of half-time by Gordon McQueen and Kenny Dalglish put the Scots in a strong position and a late Channon strike was all the English had to offer.

Sadly that game was not so happy for another supporter from Shetland who went all the way down to London. A young bank clerk, who maybe should remain nameless, fell asleep in a pub before kick-off and his pals didn’t even have the decency to wake him up. Shame on them.

Nineteen years went by before the next time I stood at Wembley, when the Euro 1996 tie will be remembered for Paul Gascoigne’s solo goal, flicking the ball over Colin Hendry’s head and volleying home.

Before Gascoigne’s stunner the Scots had a great chance to tie the game at 1-1, after Alan Shearer had given England the lead. But Gary McAllister’s penalty was blocked by keeper David Seaman, which some Scottish fans never forgave their captain for.

It also emerged that celebrity psychic Uri Geller, apparently hovering above the stadium in a helicopter, had “willed” the ball to move slightly before McAllister struck it. Happily Geller said this week that he had been in touch with McAllister, promising to redress the balance.

That contest was also memorable in that it illustrated the massive change in the appearance of Scottish fans. Whereas back in the 70s supporters wore just a tartan scarf and maybe some form of hat, plus perhaps tartan trimmings on their varous other garments, replica shirts had not yet emerged and kilts were fairly rare.

But in 1996 the “tartan army” had begun to make more of a statement, and their dress code which includes a kilt, team shirt and workmen’s boots was now much in evidence.

Three years later, while based in England, I managed to get to both matches when the sides battled it out in the play-off ties for Euro 2000 qualification.

The first at Hampden saw England take a 2-0 lead and even though Don Hutchinson’s goal gave the Scots hope in the return match, Seaman again came to England’s rescue with a fine save from Christian Dailly.

Two more defeats followed in the most recent of games, 3-2 at Wembley in August 2013 and 3-1 at Celtic Park in November the following year. In the first of them England were somewhat lucky but they definitely deserved to prevail in 2014, when a poor Scotland display gave the fans little to shout about.

Tonight I will watch on television. The English are overwhelming favourites but if the Scottish players, with Scott Brown back in the side, all play out of their skins, some of the English have an off-night, and Geller keeps his promise, who knows?

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The decision by the English and Scottish football authorities to allow the players to wear “poppy armbands” at tonight’s match, despite advice from Fifa, is on balance probably the best decision.

Personally I would think a minute’s silence before the game in itself would have been a fitting enough tribute for Remembrance Day. But if the demand is great enough, sticking two fingers up at such an organisation seems like the best way forward.

I can understand Fifa’s directive that no political, religious or commercial messages be allowed on international shirts, and with that in mind disciplinary proceedings over the Republic of Ireland’s use of a logo to commemorate the Easter Rising centenary seems fair enough.

Poppies were not introduced as a political symbol – they are only perceived so when politicians, journalists and others attempt to score points from their existence.

The were originally introduced to remember soldiers who died in the First World War, and are made and sold today to raise money for those who have been injured and affected by more recent conflicts.

The famous wartime poem by Canadian John McCrae included the words: “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields.” That line resonated with a French woman so much that she started to sell poppies in America to raise money for places in her homeland which had been devastated.

The British Legion subsequently began to sell poppies in this country and they are now worn by millions of people every November.

But they do not glorify either the Second World War or what some would call the more dubious campaigns of more recent years.

It is the individual’s choice whether to wear a poppy. I have done for years. But on the other hand I have no problem with those who refuse to. That is up to them.


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