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Updated: Jun 14, 2021

My eye was caught the other evening by a programme on television, The United Way. It was a potted history of Manchester United since the War: the Busby Babes, the Munich air crash, rebirth and redemption by winning the European Cup in 1968, the years in the doldrums, the appointment of Alex Ferguson, winning the league at last after 21 years of hurt, dismantling that team and building a new one with an exceptional crop of youth team players (“You can’t win anything with kids.”), the signing of Eric Cantona, Ferguson’s second great team. It was all there, in bite-sized segments but what set it apart was the fact that it was written, produced and narrated by King Eric himself.

The Frenchman, now grizzled and bearded, approached the footlights of an empty theatre and declaimed to his hidden audience (us) as if he were one of those great Shakespearean actors delivering his soliloquy as King Lear. He had that presence, that gravitas, that magnetism that all great performers have. All right, it was mannered, hammed up, full of cod philosophy and affected emotion but you could not be anything other than impressed by the old thesp. He still cut the mustard.

It should not be forgotten of couse what a magnificent footballer he was. He had everything, strength, speed, stamina, touch, control, vision. But he was surrounded in that Manchester United team by plenty of fine players, some of them world-class. So what stood him apart, what made others follow him, what qualities encouraged his team-mates to gather round and take their lead from him? He had an aura about him, your eyes were drawn to him, he demanded attention. With his collar up, his chest out-thrust, his shoulders back and his strut imperious, he was undoubtedly the cock of the walk. His team-mates loved it, his manager favoured him, the fans worshipped him and you can bet your bottom dollar he irritated the hell out of his opponents.

This magnetism is difficult to pin down but we instinctively know it when we see it. I have mentioned the theatre and characters who inhabit the stage. Sometimes, you are aware that your eyes are drawn to one actor all the time, even when he or she is silent and doing nothing. Helen Mirren, Ian McKellan, Mark Rylance, Antony Sher, Maggie Smith – they all have it, star quality. It has nothing to do with good looks (though that can help), it has not exclusively to do with talent either (though without that, they are a sham) but it has all to do with an unshakeable confidence in what they are doing and an inner belief that nobody, simply nobody, can do it better.

Great performers illuminate the stage, the pitch, the court, the arena, even the room, by their sheer presence. Freddie Mercury was not the greatest singer, nor even the handsomest of men, but he could have a packed arena eating out of his hands. I was told by a friend who had attended one of his gigs that Tommy Cooper appeared on stage, walked down the steps to the apron and his audience howled with laughter. He had said nothing, done nothing, his face was expressionless and his demeanour unexceptional. So he walked back up and came down again and his audience howled the louder. John Kennedy would electrify any room he entered, as did Bill Clinton. Their charisma bewitched and bewildered in equal measure. The one occasion that I have witnessed this hypnotic allure in the flesh was many years agao and I cannot for the life of me remember the event or the venue. The crowded room suddenly went silent. Mary Rand, the Olympic athlete, stepped through the door. She was on crutches, as I recall, obviously recovering from some injury or other, but every pair of eyes, male and female, swivelled round to gawp in unashamed awe. She had not leaped out of the long jump pit, she had not slaughtered her opponents in the pentathlon (though she had, a few years before), she had merely hobbled into the room on sticks and everybody immediately knew they were in the presence of greatness.

Did I ever encounter this strange but irresistible force of nature on the cricket pitch during my years as a professional? Well, yes, as it happens. I was fortunate enough – or luckless, if he was on the other side – to play with and against some of the greatest players of that era. But one stood out from all the others, a bit like Eric Cantona in his pomp. Viv Richards would amble nonchantly to the wicket, broad of shoulder but shorter than he appeared on television (where he would seem to fill the screen), jaws working furiously on his gum, smacking down that irritating bit of rubber that always seems to work its way over the top of the bat handle. He would take guard and casually look around at the field, much like a lion checking on his pride. You knew, you just knew, that if he was in the mood, he would score a hundred. His self-confidence, his ego, his vanity, if you like, was utterly impregnable. He would shape the game to his own image and the rest of us poor mortals were powerless to do anything about it. He once played out a maiden to me. Each delivery was met with an exaggerated forward defence, the ball not moving a foot from his bat. Each time he looked up at me with a slow, delicious smile. Rather like that lion toying with his prey, it was almost as if he was saying, look, I can smite you into the graveyard of that church over there behind the pavilion….. but I choose not to. Far, far better players than me have fallen prey to that indefinable aura of invincibility. “Why did you do that?” I asked him later over a beer, “Block me for six balls?” He roared with laughter. “Because that was the best over bowled to me this season.” He was lying, of course. Maybe I was not worth the kill. He would wait for more attractive meat.

The question I have to ask myself in consequence is this: does the aura fade, the light dim, the talent seep away? The answer I suppose is yes, inevitably it does. It must. After all, time and tide wait for no man. There is a poem, Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson (why he was not known as Lord Alfred Tennyson is beyond me), one that I have read – and taught – many times. Facing old age, the mythical hero, Ulysses, describes his restless discontent after returning home from his travels. He cannot succumb to inertia and put his feet up for the rest of his days. He must go on one last heroic voyage of discovery. The motivation is the journey, not the destination, “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”. Fearless, noble, valiant? Without doubt. But rather sad, I have always thought, pathetic even (in the true sense of ‘inviting pathos, pity’), rather self-indulgent, one might say. What about his wife, Penepole and his son, Telemachus? Don’t they deserve a bit of quality time with the old man?

What do great men and great women do when the goal has been achieved, the ambition realised, the passion sated? Can they who were once great retire gracefully or must they forever relive past glories, like some pub bore, not realising how ridiculous they have become? True greatness, I have come to the conclusion, is inextricably linked to modesty. ‘Yes, I was a pretty good player/performer/artist/actor/star in my time. But that was then. This is now and there is a new kid on the block. But thank you for remembering me. So few do these days.’

That surely is the measure of greatness, knowing when to let go.

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