A King For A Day (Un Giorno Di Regno, if you must know) is an opera by Guiseppe Verdi. I am no opera buff but in many an idle moment I have fantasised about the concept. Let’s face it, who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to be in possession of absolute power, if only for a day? What would it be like to be Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, secure in the belief that if you say something should be done, it will be done, immediately and without cavil? What would be on your hit list, knowing that your authority is short-lived, twenty-four hours, to be exact?
In my dreams, I have only three targets. No, nothing to do with Brexit. Nor do I see my mission as saving the rainforests, eradicating world starvation, preserving the badgers or mending the potholes on our roads, nor even having seven vestal virgins waiting on me hand and foot for the day. My three edicts, to be carried out at once, are all in the realm of sport, (which may not surprise you) specifically the three games in which I am particularly interested, all of which would benefit inestimably from my benevolent autocracy.
First, football. For some reason, Tottenham Hotspur wandered into my mind. Maybe it was the possibility that they might be competing this season for the league title, a prospect that has been dashed countless times before but never mind, hope springs eternal. When I was growing up, Spurs were lords and masters of all they surveyed. I can still recite from memory the famous Double winning side of 1960-61: Brown, Baker, Henry, Blanchflower, Norman, Mackay, Jones, White, Smith, Allen, Dyson. What, no Greaves? Jimmy Greaves came to Spurs the following season, transferred from AC Milan for £99,999. When asked where the missing pound had gone, Bill Nicholson, the manager, replied that he did not want to have one of his players forever tagged as the first £100,000 footballer. The following season, Spurs won the European Cup Winners Cup, the first British team to win a European trophy. Greaves scored twice in an emphatic 5-1 victory over Atletico Madrid in the final. Ah, the European Cup Winners Cup. People of my age go all misty eyes at the memory of that much-loved competition. It no longer exists in its former guise. It has been subsumed into the bloated UEFA Champions League (no longer the European Cup, sadly, though the original trophy – the cup with the big ears- is still presented to the winners). The big clubs are no longer interested in what they regard as a second-rate competition, relegated with a new name, the Europa Cup, to the Thursday evening graveyard slot.
Its demise mirrors the decline of the oldest Cup competition of them all, the FA Cup. This is a cause of huge regret to those of my generation. In an age when there was very little live football screened on television, the FA Cup Final, with all its drama along the way to Wembley, was the highlight, the climax, the eagerly-anticipated showpiece of the season. Winning the FA Cup meant something, almost on a par with winning the league. Not least, it earned entry into the European Cup Winners Cup the following season. When Spurs won it in 1962, the scenes of joy and jubilation were every bit as memorable as when Celtic and Manchester United won the cup with big ears in successive years (1967 and 1968). These days, the FA Cup seems to have become something of a nuisance, an irritating sideshow, for the major clubs, intent as they are on finishing the league in the top four, thus qualifying for the lucrative Champions League. My solution to give the kiss of life to the grand old lady of football is to grant one of the coveted four places in the Champions League to the winner of the FA Cup. The bigger clubs would immediately sit up and take notice. The smaller clubs would greedily eye up the opportunity to qualify for a European competition. At once, the FA Cup would regain some of its faded lustre. No team would want to field its 2nd XI; all rounds would be eagerly followed and fiercely contested. “Mr Clarke, you are chairman of the FA. See to it my instruction is carried out. Your head will be on the block if it is not.”
Next, rugby. It is a game I have never played nor ever wanted to. Far too rough. I always believed that you had to enjoy a jolly good arm wrestle, a fierce grapple for the ball and more than likely a no holds barred pile-on, basically a wholesale brawl where the ball becomes of secondary importance. Of course, the game played at the highest level, though brutal, can have its passages of skill, speed and athleticism. The Six Nations Championship is a compelling spectacle and how much I enjoy the banter between rival supporters with none of the hooliganism and hateful behaviour that sometimes mar football matches. However, one aspect of the game that has become increasingly irritating in my view is the use of substitutes. I read somewhere that the ball is in play in a game of rugby on average for 35 minutes of the stipulated 80. The second half of last week’s England v France international at Twickenham lasted one hour. I’m not surprised, seeing how unconscionably long it takes to set a scrum and deliver a line-out. To say nothing of referees faffing about with the DRS (or is it TMO or VAR?) while streams of water carriers (all miked up to the coach, by the way) pour onto the pitch to pass on messages – I beg your pardon – to provide essential rehydration for players about to expire. The game could be speeded up, that is for sure. But my quarrel is not so much with the constant interruption but with the obligatory ‘emptying of the bench’ on the 60-minute mark.
Why? Why so many substitutions? Why have any substitutions at all, with the exception, obviously, for injury? Once the procession of substitutes starts, the game loses shape and the spectators’ engagement with the individual battles taking place all over the field is lost. I’m told that certain players in certain positions practise and train with only 60 minutes action on the field in mind. They empty the tank and are then replaced. Why? If he is not fit enough or is having a nightmare, why should he be replaced? Tired players fall off the pace, gaps appear and the game becomes more open and fluid. Furthermore, if you have ‘done a number’ on your opponent, you would feel justifiably aggrieved if he were replaced by younger, fresher legs. Where’s the reward in that? I accept that injuries do occur and replacements required but only when they are genuine (perhaps a qualified doctor should make that assessment, so long as he is neutral and disinterested). But eight subs? Ridiculous. “Come on, Mr Beaumont – you are chairman of World Rugby. Sort it out. And you only have until tomorrow to do it. Or else….”
Lastly, cricket, a game I have played and always wanted to. My beef any time I go to watch these days is with the appalling over rates. There are numerous reasons for the dilatory pace of play, none of which is excusable. The game’s administrators have said that they too recognise the problem and have put in place several measures to speed things up. Well, perhaps they have but whatever they are, they don’t seem to be working. I see that the West Indies captain, Jason Holder, has been censured and banned from the current Test match in St Lucia for the execrable over rate of his team in the previous match. It is true that the West Indians, with a four-pronged pace attack, had been dawdling (a tactic, incidentally, first used to devastating effect by Clive Lloyd all those years ago when West Indian fast bowlers ruled the world) but I fail to see why poor old Holder should get it in the neck while he is doing his level best to re-boot his country’s previous reputation in the game when others seem to get off scot free. The point of the legislators’ sword is pointed at the wrong target, I would maintain. Responsibility for the conduct of play has always lain at the door of the umpires’ room. Instruct them – and support them with sanctions that bite – to get a move on. When I was playing in the 1970s, we had to bowl 19 overs an hour over the season and if we didn’t we were fined. Salaries were meagre back then; nobody wanted to lose what little money he was paid, so there was no messing about. It could be done, and it was. Today, players earn so much that the threat of fines is empty. Banning your captain is pointless and counter-productive. The umpires call “Play” and if somebody is not ready, send him to the sin bin for half-an-hour (all right, with a warning in the first instance). I once did that when umpiring a House match at school. I called “Play”, the batsman was putting his gloves on for the umpteenth time, I instructed the bowler to bowl, he hit the unguarded stumps (a minor miracle in itself) and the startled batsman only knew he had been castled because he heard the death rattle occur behind his back. I insisted he was out, strictly unorthodox application of the Laws, I grant you, but there was no changing of gloves thereafter. As a master-in-charge, you are king for a lot longer than a day. So, come on Mr Manohar…..ah, but here I detect a problem. India who run world cricket are not that bothered about slow over rates. In fact they’re not that bothered about Test cricket at all, preferring to milk the cash cow that is T20 and the Indian Premier League. Would he listen to my diktat? Who does this fellow think he is, he would say…..WG Grace? Lord Hawke? Sir Plum Warner? Gubby Allen? King Andrew Murtagh? Never heard of him. I shall not reply to that ridiculous email of his. These English! Don’t they know the days of Empire have long since gone?