29 October 2009

Defining moments 3: Redmond’s three-legged race

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much ...

Not all defining moments in sport are about winning; occasionally a glance into the mirror of defeat tells us more about the human spirit than the glory of victory, and provides us with images which are indelibly etched into the memories of those watching.

Sceptical? Well, try this.

Olympic Games, Barcelona, August 1992 – men’s 400 metres semi-final

It is one of the most heart-rending of sporting images, and yet also one of the most heart-warming. Two men hobble over the finish line together, arms around each other like participants in a three-legged race. The other competitors have long since finished, but they are nonetheless given a champion’s reception by the crowd in Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium. One is a finely honed athlete dressed in the red, white and blue of Great Britain, the other a more generously proportioned man dressed in shorts, t-shirt and baseball cap.

This is one of those ineffable moments that television captures brilliantly, but still photographs somehow capture better. Photos of this strange duo crossing the line show the athlete being all but dragged across the line, freely shedding tears of pain and despair.

The pair are joined, not just physically but by ties of blood: Derek Redmond and his father Jim.

Redmond had entered the Olympics in good form, knowing this was his best opportunity to win an individual Olympic medal. The early signs had been good as he ran the fastest time of all in the first round, then won his quarter-final comfortably. Everything was going exactly according to plan, with no hint of trouble.

And so to the semi-final.

As usual, the athletes settle into their blocks for the start, followed by a moment of pin-drop silence and finally the bang of the starter’s gun. Redmond starts well, settling quickly into his stride and asserting his authority. All is going well. Then, about 150 metres into the race, sudden disaster. One moment he’s running smoothly; the next thing he knows his right hamstring has torn and he is tumbling on to the track.

In that instant, he knows it is all over. And so do we.

Redmond lies on the track, watching as the other athletes speed into the distance, still chasing their Olympic dreams. His are shattered.

But although the race is lost, he will not be beaten. He struggles to his feet while his father Jim makes his way on to the track. Together, they slowly make their way towards the finish. Officials attempting to stop them are waved away by a father who insists his son is allowed to finish with dignity.

The standing ovation the Redmonds receive from the 65,000 crowd as they cross the line conveys sympathy, empathy and respect in equal measure. In competitive terms, the victory is a Pyrrhic one; in human terms it is truly Olympian. 

Officially, Derek Redmond was disqualified from his 400 metres semi-final and did not finish. We know better. He may not have won a medal, but he captured the hearts of millions.

Redmond later featured in one of the International Olympic Committee's 'Celebrate Humanity' videos entitled ‘Courage’, and last year he featured in a TV ad for Visa which stated that "he, and his father, finished dead last. But he, and his father, finished."

Derek Redmond's defining moment was, for him, not a happy one. But his reaction to the sudden ending of his Olympic dream - and that of the crowd in Barcelona that day - spoke volumes about the indomitability of the human spirit, and the role which sport can play in revealing that to us.

It's scant consolation and no substitute for an Olympic medal, but Derek Redmond will always be remembered simply because, although he had already lost the race, he refused to be defeated. That should count as a victory in anyone's books.

26 October 2009

Wembley is not the pot of gold at the end of the NFL’s rainbow

Even on a day when the unbeaten New Orleans Saints overcame a 24-3 second quarter deficit in Miami and the San Francisco 49ers fell just three points short of reeling in Houston’s 21-0 halftime advantage, the odds of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers recovering from the 21-point head-start they gave the New England Patriots at Wembley Stadium yesterday never looked good.

This was the third year in a row that Wembley has hosted an NFL regular season game, but the novelty does not seem to have worn off, at least not among the die-hard American football community, nearly 85,000 of whom descended on north-west London yesterday. For while this was always likely to be a competitive fixture in name only – the Patriots are among the Super Bowl favourites, while the Bucs came to London winless after six games – it was enough that the NFL was just here.

The expectation of a one-sided contest was underlined when Brandon Merriweather intercepted Tampa quarterback Josh Johnson’s second pass of the day and returned it down the sideline for the opening score, and further reinforced when Merriweather picked off Johnson again on the Bucs’ next possession.

In truth, quarterback Tom Brady - who is to the NFL what David Beckham is to football - and the high-octane Patriots’ offense coughed and spluttered through much of the first half. Brady uncharacteristically threw two early interceptions - as many as in the previous six games in total - but when the Pats clicked it was to ruthless effect. First Brady hit Wes Welker across the middle with a short pass which the diminutive wide receiver took in for a 14-yard score, and then Sam Aiken slipped a tackle en route to a 54-yard touchdown to give the Patriots a 21-0 advantage.

The Bucs rallied briefly before halftime, with Johnson finding Antonio Bryant with 18 and 33-yard passes, the latter for a touchdown, but it was never likely to be more than a death rattle.

And so it was. The Patriots cranked it up a gear in the second half (without ever appearing to be running flat out), embarking on a pair of soul-destroying six-minute drives covering 73 and 89 yards at the start of the third and fourth quarters, culminating in, respectively, a 35-yard touchdown catch by Ben Watson and Laurence Maroney’s one-yard run. At 35-7, the game was up, and it was left to both teams’ backups to run out the clock on the remaining nine minutes.

After his nervy start, Brady settled into a deceptively easy rhythm, finishing with 308 yards passing and three TDs. (It says much for people’s elevated expectations that this felt like a relatively subdued performance.) Of his two primary receiving threats, Randy Moss had an unspectacular game by his standards (5 catches for 69 yards), while it was Welker who did most of the damage, repeatedly running free underneath the Bucs’ coverage to finish with 10 receptions. Too often the Bucs defense seemed uncertain whether to stick or twist: on the one hand, too often unwilling to press the short passing game for fear of giving up the deep ball, then unable to cope in man-to-man coverage when they did try to apply pressure. By contrast, the Pats patiently absorbed everything Tampa had to offer offensively, occasionally conceding ground and then finding big plays when they needed them to stop the young Bucs in their tracks.

But then that was no more than was expected from a match which pitted a confident team packed full of experience and star names against a winless side of relatively callow youngsters. The final 35-7 margin was neither unrepresentative nor unexpected, and is indicative of the difference between a team whose year will end quietly in Tampa, Florida when the regular season ends on January 3rd and one who has a very realistic chance of going all the way to the Super Bowl 300 miles south in Miami, Florida on February 7th.

Shades of Wembley 2007?

In the first ever NFL regular season game at Wembley two years ago, the New York Giants defeated the Miami Dolphins 13-10 in a truly awful game. The Dolphins flew home winless and would finish the season 1-15; the Giants went on to win Super Bowl XLII, their third overall.

So, will history repeat itself in 2009? Are the Bucs destined for an NFL-worst record this year? And can the Pats go one better than the Giants and notch up a fourth Super Bowl win?

The Patriots are ranked in the league’s top six in both offense and defense, a sure sign of a potent, well-balanced team. After a sluggish start, they are beginning to look like the real deal again, having outscored their last two (admittedly winless) opponents 94-7. With Brady returning to somewhere near his best form they are an awesome threat through the air, their ground offense is decent enough and the defense remains tough and steeped in experience. Super Bowl winners? Maybe. Serious playoff contenders? Definitely.

The Bucs, on the other hand, remain one of only three winless teams, and are ranked in the league’s bottom six in both offense and defense. With a young quarterback and a relatively inexperienced supporting cast, they will continue to struggle for consistency, but there is enough potential in a running game which boasts a decent twin threat in Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward to build around. However, their schedule from here on is not the easiest, including home and away matchups against the undefeated Saints. They will probably not follow the 2008 Detroit Lions in going 0-16, but in all likelihood they will struggle to win more than a couple of games. At best, they are most optimistically described as a work in progress; at worst, they may just be the poorest team in the NFL in 2009.

Where next for the NFL in the UK?

After the success of the last three years, it is hoped that the UK will be granted two games next season, with the aim of hosting as many as four per season from 2012. The former seems highly possible (though by no means a given); the latter a worthy aspiration but probably no more than a pipe dream, as the NFL will undoubtedly look first to extend its reach into other lucrative TV markets where the sport will be welcomed with open arms. Germany is an obvious target, with Japan and ultimately China also likely to feature highly on the league’s hit-list.

Certainly any talk that London might one day be granted its own NFL franchise or the rights to host a Super Bowl is both premature and wide of the mark. For now, the NFL is certainly a successful and loyally-supported minority sport in the UK – and, for those of us who grew up watching the sport on a strict diet of one-hour weekly highlights programmes and scouring the box scores in the international version of USA Today during the pre-internet 80s, the level of coverage we get today is miraculous by comparison – but the UK represents no more than a stepping stone in the NFL’s wider global plans.

Personally, I doubt we will ever see the Super Bowl played at a stadium outside the US, but if it ever did, my money would not be on Wembley hosting it. I strongly suspect that, at the end of the rainbow, the pot of gold can be found in the heart of Beijing. Impressive though Wembley is, I can think of no more spectacular place to host the NFL’s showpiece event than the Bird’s Nest stadium.

Now that really would be a Super Bowl.

20 October 2009

A floor paved with gold, but not with lucre

In all the fuss over Jenson Button, it's easy to forget that he was not the only British sportsperson to become a world champion on Sunday.

Beth Tweddle rounded off a good showing by the British team at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships - Daniel Keatings also won silver in the men’s all-around competition – shaking off her disappointment after falling from the uneven bars (her strongest discipline) by winning gold in the floor competition.

In yesterday’s papers, Button attracted a huge number of column inches, certainly many times more than those devoted to Tweddle and the other gymnasts. Not surprising, given that he competes in such a glamorous global sport, and has the playboy lifestyle, the Monaco apartment and the Japanese lingerie model girlfriend to go with it.

Tweddle, on the other hand, will never be a lingerie model with her prominent, brace-laden teeth. She does not possess the cover-girl looks of cyclist Victoria Pendleton, the bubbly personality of swimmer Rebecca Adlington, or the heartwarming comeback story of heptathlete Jessica Ennis. It shouldn’t matter; of course, in reality it does, enormously.

Which is a real shame, because Tweddle deserves better. Whereas Button, despite taking a massive pay cut at the fledgling Brawn team this year, can still boast a multi-million pound contract, Tweddle earns around £25,000 a year in lottery funding, up to £10,000 from a sponsorship deal with equipment manufacturer Gymnova, and whatever else she can glean from assorted promotional and motivational appearances. In total, she earns less than many of us do – from a professional career with a highly restricted shelf life – and, at most, 1% of what Button does.

I say this not to knock the size of Jenson Button’s salary, but we are talking about Britain’s greatest ever gymnast here, a two-time world champion – that’s one more than Button – and a double gold medal winner at the European Championships earlier this year, who probably earns less than the average white-collar middle manager. And, as was the case with both Tweddle after her previous world title and Adlington post-Beijing, being a gold medallist outside of the mainstream does not automatically translate to serious earning potential.

It’s a clear and sad sign of where Tweddle’s achievement ranks in the public consciousness that, while Prime Minister Gordon Brown clearly had Button on speed dial, such was his haste to recognise the F1 champion-elect and bask in his reflected glory, it has taken 48 hours and the prompting of a national newspaper to elicit a similar letter of congratulations for the world champion gymnast.

And it’s not just about money. Since Button joined the Formula 1 ranks at the young (for F1) age of 20, he has been able to focus single-mindedly on his profession and benefitted from the support network which surrounds an F1 driver. Tweddle, on the other hand, has had to do it the hard way, making her way in a relatively minority sport with less than world-leading facilities and winning a world championship gold – on the uneven bars in 2006 - while still in full-time education (she graduated from Liverpool John Moores University in 2007 with a sports science degree). At 24, she is five years younger than Button, but practically at a pensionable age as a young woman in a sport historically dominated by teenage girls. She will hopefully compete at the London 2012 Olympics, but the odds will be stacked heavily against her.

At least Tweddle’s performance at the weekend will make her an outside contender – but no more than that – for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPotY) award in December. In fact, she has previous here, having finished third in the public vote (the first gymnast to achieve such dizzy heights) in 2006, beaten only by Zara Phillips and runner-up Darren Clarke in what was admittedly a less than stellar year for UK sport.

I will be surprised if she repeats a top three placing this year. Button is now being quoted at odds of 1/2 to win SPotY, with Ennis at 2/1 and all other contenders at 16/1 or longer. (Tweddle is joint sixth favourite at 33/1.) Button will probably prove the bookies right, but for me, in terms of achievement, Tweddle should be on a par with Ennis, both ahead of Button. However, as I have said before, none of them deserve the award as much as the man who, for me, has been the most dominant British sportsperson of 2009 by some considerable distance.

That would be Mark Cavendish. But in reality the Manx Missile has even less chance of winning SPotY than Tweddle.

19 October 2009

Button’s champion drive wins the drivers’ championship

For the fifth year in succession, the Formula 1 drivers’ title was settled at Brazil’s Interlagos circuit. And for the second year in a row, a fifth place finish was enough to secure the F1 drivers' title for a British driver at the expense of a Brazilian.

For Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa in 2008, read Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello in 2009. Hamilton denied Massa last year with a dramatic pass on Timo Glock two corners from the chequered flag, whereas Button’s path to glory was more progressive as he picked off one opponent after another. Nonetheless, this was – for perhaps the first time since Turkey in early June - the drive of a champion by the 29-year old Button.

Perhaps it was not the lights-to-flag victory which Button would have preferred – a poor tyre choice in the lottery of Saturday’s monsoon-affected qualifying session put paid to that – but his drive through the field from 14th was, if anything, more impressive, containing four brave and exemplary passing moves.

In recent months, many - myself included - have criticised Button’s increasingly conservative approach to defending what had been, by early June, a commanding 26-point advantage. Some have noted that he has been consistently outqualified by Brawn teammate Barrichello over the second half of the season, or that in the nine races since Turkey he has only once managed higher than fifth place.

But the fact is that he will finish the 2009 season with more points than any other driver, and that is the only yardstick that matters. That he collected the vast majority of his points in the first half of the season (61 in the first seven races, as opposed to 28 in the last nine) is no more than a statistical footnote. Overall, both the consistency of his driving and the quality of his overtaking – I can think of at least ten significant passes this season – have been excellent. All the leading drivers have made errors during the season; Button has made probably the fewest.

Let’s be clear about this: Jenson Button is a deserving world champion. Neither the most outstanding nor the most dominant, but deserving nonetheless.

For sure, there have been plenty of occasions in F1's history where the title has been won under dubious or arguably less deserving circumstances.

In 1976, James Hunt benefitted from Niki Lauda’s horrific, near-fatal crash and fire at the Nurburgring. Six years later, Keke Rosberg topped the drivers’ standings despite winning only one race (five others won two each). Last year Hamilton won fewer races (five) than runner-up Massa (six). And then there are the championships which have been won by virtue of one driver colliding with their nearest rival: Alain Prost in 1989, Ayrton Senna in 1990 and Michael Schumacher in 1994.

Were any of these winners undeserving champions? Of course not. Hunt was a brave, swashbuckling racer; Rosberg, like Button, quick and consistent; Hamilton is widely regarded as having outstanding natural speed and car control. And whatever one may think of the tactics employed by Prost (uncharacteristically), Senna and Schumacher (both entirely in character), those three drivers alone accounted for 183 grand prix victories and 14 drivers’ championships.

If Button had had a ropey start to the year but found a rich vein of form towards the end of the season, we would be praising him to the rafters. The fact that his season has been a mirror image of this makes no difference; in the early part of the season, when he held a decisive advantage, he maximised his opportunity beautifully with a series of smooth, error-free wins.

To level the accusation that Button was only as good as his car is to miss the point of Formula 1, where a driver’s machinery has always been a crucial part of the total package. Juan Manuel Fangio regularly had the benefit of the fastest car in the field for his five championships, not to mention the ability to commandeer a teammate’s car (as allowed by the rules at that time) when the need arose. Nigel Mansell was always among the very fastest of his era, but his 1992 title owed as much to a technologically superior Williams which was at times two seconds a lap faster than anyone else. Similarly, Damon Hill in 1996 and Jacques Villeneuve (both in a Williams) the following year.

All, however, are world champions, plain and simple. Some were better than others, but there is no asterisk against any of their title wins, and any philosophical debate about how much they deserved their titles is little more than the stuff of Friday night pub arguments.

Button himself summed it up nicely after the race. "None of it matters, because I'm sat here as world champion and that is something you can never take away. I've had an up and down season, but I've come out on top and I'm world champion. I don't need to say anything."

Red Bull's Mark Webber – it is easily forgotten that he actually won yesterday’s race, only the second of his F1 career – agreed that Button deserves his world championship. "JB is consistent. He was also blisteringly quick at the start of the year. A lot of other drivers, including us [Webber and teammate Sebastian Vettel] and Rubens [Barrichello] had a shopping list of excuses as to why we were not getting the results, but at the end of the day we were not - JB was.”

And even Barrichello, the 37 year old veteran of 17 F1 seasons, who had just seen his best - and probably last - hope of a world title disappear at his home event, was magnanimous in defeat. "Jenson won it and deserved it but he won it in the first six or seven races. I fought really hard. I'm pleased for Jenson as a friend and as a great champion."

If his peers and rivals are gracious enough to acknowledge Button as a deserving champion, then that’s good enough for me.

Make no mistake - Button may not have won the race yesterday, but it was unquestionably a drive worthy of a champion.

12 October 2009

Defining moments 2: No ordinary Joe

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much ...

The image is as clear in my mind today as it was 20 years ago. On a field of giants stands a comparatively slight figure in red and gold, his arms held aloft in simple celebration, as if he was just an ordinary Joe celebrating a touchdown in a pick-up game of football in the park.

But this was no ordinary game; no ordinary touchdown. And it was certainly no ordinary Joe.

Super Bowl XXIII - Joe Robbie Stadium, Miami, January 1989

The NFL’s annual showpiece between the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals kicks off in the sunny warmth of a late Miami afternoon. Like many other Super Bowls before and since, it takes a while to get going. A lethargic first half finishes 3-3, punctuated by two lengthy delays while Cincinnati’s Tim Krumrie and San Francisco’s Steve Wallace are stretchered off with broken legs. It’s not until the closing moments of the third quarter that the game suddenly explodes into life, the Bengals’ Stanford Jennings returning a kickoff for the game’s first touchdown to put Cincinnati ahead 13-6. The 49ers are stung into action, quickly restoring parity as 49ers’ quarterback Joe Montana tosses a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice.

But then the tempo drops again. A feint; a parry. Rice catches a long pass, but Mike Cofer misses the subsequent field goal attempt. Cincinnati then embark on a laborious drive that seems to encapsulate the mood of the entire match: slow, tentative, slightly fearful. It’s like watching a boxer who refuses to open up and go for the knockout blow. After five and a half minutes of cautious jabbing, Jim Breech’s field goal makes it 16-13.

The game is now finishing under floodlights, and the spotlight is very much on Joe Montana. It’s the point of no return – down by three, just over three minutes remaining - and the task is clear: orchestrate a touchdown to win, or at least a field goal to force overtime. As if this isn’t a big enough ask, the Niners must start from under the shadow of their own goalposts: on their own eight-yard line, with 92 yards to go.

No problem.

The San Francisco offense huddles in the endzone waiting to start their drive, with the eyes of a 75,000 crowd and a global television audience upon them. The pressure is almost unbearable. They know a critical moment will come at some point; they’re not sure they can handle it.

This is a time when you look to a team’s leader to deliver passionate and motivational words, something in a Churchillian vein perhaps. Not Joe Montana. He takes in the surroundings and points out a familiar face in the stands – “Hey, check it out, that’s John Candy” – to break the tension. He’s not nicknamed ‘Joe Cool’ for nothing. Then it’s down to business, the full extent of his final pep talk being, “Let’s go, be tough.”

The 49ers go to work. With the calmness of a surgeon, Montana starts to dissect the Bengals’ defense with precise cuts into its underbelly. A mix of runs and short passes moves the 49ers to the Cincinnati 35 with nearly a minute and a half left. It all seems so calm, so inevitable. Montana is the man at the eye of the hurricane, making the near impossible appear simply routine. But behind the fa├žade, the stress and pressure are troubling even Montana. He’s hyperventilating as he shouts out the play to his teammates over the noise of the crowd, and as he drops back he feels wobbly, his vision blurring, so he deliberately throws his pass away high over the sideline. No harm done, but it’s a wasted play, and a penalty immediately afterwards leaves the 49ers in a nasty situation: second-and-20, the equivalent of being stuck in a green-side bunker.

This, then, is the singular moment everyone’s been waiting for. Do or die. Roll those dice, Joe.

Montana dismisses the crisis casually. With the team around him functioning smoothly – and, more importantly, believing – he waves his magic wand, conjures up a long range completion to Rice and, hey presto, secures another first down.

Now victory is within touching distance. Another pass moves the 49ers to the Cincinnati 10, and with 39 ticks remaining on the clock they call a timeout. One final pause, as much a chance for the crowd to catch their breath as it is for the players.

Montana makes the call, and the eleven offensive players break the huddle and line up opposite their defensive counterparts: lineman against lineman; cornerback on wide receiver; man to man. A moment’s stillness, and then the ball is snapped, initiating the customary violent ballet.

Tick. A series of crunching thuds as linemen’s shoulder pads and helmets crash against each other, the perpetual battle in the trenches between irresistible force and immovable object.

Tick. A blur of speeding motion around the fringes, as defensive flashes of white track the choreographed movements of red and gold: the languid, flowing grace of Jerry Rice, the slashing, high-stepping strides of Roger Craig, the bullish power of Tom Rathman.

Tick. The conductor, Montana, at the centre of it all. Ball in hand, dropping back, surveying everything being played out in front of him. His eye is drawn to wide receiver John Taylor (who has not caught a single pass all day) as he slips unguarded into a soft spot in Cincinnati’s coverage. It’s a small window of opportunity, open for only an instant, but Montana spies it immediately and delivers the perfect pass.

Tick. Taylor makes the catch, and the official at the goalline raises both arms above his head to signal the score. Montana does the same, a simple, routine celebration in circumstances which are neither. The crowd in the stadium is somewhat more demonstrative, however, erupting in a cacophony of pure noise.

Tick. The clock stops at 34 seconds. San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16.

In what little time remains, the Bengals are unable to mount a response, and the 49ers win Super Bowl XXIII after one of the most exciting finishes ever seen in a championship game.

A miracle? No, it’s just another day at the office for an extraordinary Joe.

The legend of Joe Montana

Super Bowl XXIII was the crowning glory of the Joe Montana legend, but it was hardly the first time he had overcome apparently insurmountable odds.

A late bloomer at both high school (Ringgold High, Pennsylvania) and college (Notre Dame), he gained a reputation for unlikely come-from-behind victories, the most dramatic in his final game as a collegian, the 1979 Cotton Bowl against the University of Houston. It was so cold that Montana – who grew up accustomed to freezing Pennsylvania winters – suffered from hypothermia and had to sit out most of the third quarter while he was fed soup in an effort to raise his temperature. However, he was red hot when he returned, overcoming a 34-12 deficit in the final 7:37 of the game and throwing the winning touchdown as time expired.

And it was no different when Montana graduated to the NFL. In 1980, his second pro season, Montana inspired San Francisco to the biggest regular season comeback in NFL history at the time, overcoming a 35-7 deficit to defeat the New Orleans Saints.

The following year, Montana led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl with a dramatic comeback against the Dallas Cowboys, marching his team from their own 11-yard line late in the game and culminating in a scrambling run and throw to receiver Dwight Clark, who leapt and stretched with every inch of his six-foot-four frame to haul in what 49ers’ fans refer to simply as ‘The Catch’.

Montana didn’t just specialise in on-the-field comebacks either. In 1986, he underwent major surgery after suffering a ruptured disc in his back. The doctors recommended retirement; Montana was back playing – and winning - within eight weeks. And after injuries had forced him to miss nearly two whole years, he returned in the final game of the 1992 season, winning in his final appearance as a 49er and looking like a quarterback who had been out of the game for barely 23 minutes, let alone 23 months.

And even in that triumphant Super Bowl XXIII-winning season, Montana had had to overcome his doubters. In pre-season, experts were declaring him past the peak and suggesting it might be time to hand over to his highly-rated backup, Steve Young. Injuries and inconsistent performances fuelled a quarterback controversy that was not resolved until Montana led a four-game winning streak to clinch the division title. No one ever questioned whether Montana should give way to his Young pretender again.

Joe Montana never understood the concept of “giving up”. That’s the thing about legends: as much as they love the sweet scent of victory, they despise the bitter taste of defeat even more.

How good was Montana as a player? Well, no less an authority than John Madden – former player, Super Bowl-winning coach and long-time television commentator – has said, “I say with no disclaimers, ‘This guy [Montana] is the greatest quarterback who ever played.’”

Joe Montana could never claim to have the strongest arm, or the quickest feet, or the most durable body; indeed, there are many quarterbacks in the history of the NFL who were quantitatively better athletes than Joe Montana. However, when it came to the vital, intangible qualities that turn a good athlete into a great player – vision, leadership, poise, heart and the ability to galvanise a team and make the impossible happen – these he possessed in abundance. In street clothes, Joe Montana looked no better than any other player in the NFL; once the helmet and pads were on, he was without equal.

And while it is true that there are lies, damned lies and statistics, just consider these two facts. Joe Montana played in four Super Bowls, and won all four. In those four games, in the most pressurised atmosphere in the sport, he threw 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions. Two simple statistics: 4-0 and 11-0. One great man. When the heat was on, the player everyone could rely on was Joe Cool.

Randy Cross, a long-time teammate, encapsulated the essence of Montana perfectly when he said, "If every game was a Super Bowl, Joe Montana would be undefeated."

Joe Montana’s career left NFL fans with many great memories; Super Bowl XXIII is the one most will think of as his defining moment.

9 October 2009

A beacon of truth in a sea of lies

As an Arsenal fan, I have more reason than most to despise Wayne Rooney.

In October 2002, while still only 16, he scored his first league goal for Everton, a last minute match-winner against Arsenal, the defending league champions, ending a 30-match unbeaten run.

In October 2004, now playing for Manchester United, he won a controversial penalty against Arsenal, the defending league champions, ending a record 49-match unbeaten run.

And, in the white shirt of the national side, Rooney was most culpable for England's exit from the 2006 World Cup quarter-final at the hands of Portugal, getting himself sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho's, er, nether regions.

Then, of course, there is his more-than-passing resemblance to the animated film character Shrek, and his youthful 'indiscretions' with an elderly prostitute, which have made him an easy target for opposing fans up and down the country.

And yet, through it all, in an era which has seen footballers fully embrace their wealth and celebrity status, and increasingly lose touch with reality, Rooney remains remarkably down to earth.

On the field, we have seen this young man continue to fulfil the outstanding talent which was obvious in his teens. He has won league titles and a Champions League trophy - much of it playing second fiddle to the now departed Cristiano Ronaldo - and become the fulcrum around which Fabio Capello's England side revolves, combining tireless team player with an impressive goal-scoring rate.

Off the field, he married his secondary school girlfriend Coleen McLoughlin (with whom he is expecting their first child this month) last summer, largely eschewing the ostentation of David and Victoria Beckham and their matching thrones, the chav excesses of Ashley and Cheryl Cole, and the exclusive OK! magazine spreads which are seemingly de rigueur for celebrity weddings these days.

Equally impressive is his honesty.

Modern footballers are comprehensively trained in dealing with the media and generally successful in avoiding the kind of soundbites which can be cannily spun by an eager tabloid press to fan the flames of controversy and generate news-stand sales. Which is all well and good, but it generally means that we, the reading public, are served a daily menu of mealy-mouthed platitudes, half-truths and bland cliches which, at best, tell us absolutely nothing and, at worst, are little more than brazen lies. (For instance, how many times have we seen a player profess his love for a club and its fans, while at the same time negotiating a lucrative transfer elsewhere - and then claiming it's not about the money?)

Sometimes Rooney's rare honesty creates a storm in the proverbial teacup. There was the time last spring when, in an interview on Man U's website, he commented, “We’re in pole position in the title race and we know if we can beat Liverpool then that’ll more or less end their chances of winning the league. I’m very excited about the game because I grew up as an Everton fan hating Liverpool — and that hasn’t changed.”

Rooney was roundly criticised in some quarters for his supposedly inflammatory comments. And yet was there anything truly provocative or surprising in his statement? Here was a young man, a boyhood Everton fan and teenage Everton player, who subsequently moved to Manchester United, a club with whom Liverpool have a long-standing and intense rivalry. He was hardly going to profess his love and respect for the Anfield side, no more than you would expect a Scotland fan to wish England well at a World Cup.

And, this morning, it's interesting to note the British media running 'Rooney says World Cup would be better without Ronaldo' headlines ahead of England's qualifying group match in the Ukraine tomorrow.

Read Rooney's comments and you will see that there is no spite, jealousy or desire for revenge here. He readily recognises Ronaldo as the best player in the world. But when asked how he feels about the prospect of Ronaldo's Portugal and Lionel Messi's Argentina failing to qualify for next summer's tournament in South Africa, Rooney avoided the obvious suggestion that the World Cup should not be deprived of the presence of the world's best players, and instead focussed on the fact that the absence of two of football's top countries can only enhance England's chances of winning: "It's great that Argentina are struggling. It would be nice to see Portugal not there because in the last two tournaments they've knocked us out."

Quite right too.

As an Arsenal fan, I have more reason than most to despise Wayne Rooney. And if I'm being honest, there is a big part of me that does despise him for being a constant thorn in the side of the team I support. But there are also times - when he runs his heart out in an England shirt, and when he chooses to speak his mind - when there is much to admire beneath the surface in the conduct of a player who, at first glance, lacks the gleaming smile and touch of stardust of, say, Beckham or Michael Owen.

The comparison of Wayne Rooney to Shrek is an obvious one. But, in this sense,it is also a favourable comparison.