THIS SPORTING LIFE
My first footballing memory is of watching the 1971 FA Cup Final on television (in black and white), particularly Steve Heighway’s goal for Liverpool, and Arsenal’s winning goal in a 2-1 victory scored by Charlie George (‘who can hit ‘em’ as commentator Brian Moore announced just before George unleashed his unstoppable winner). However, it was the Leeds v Arsenal final the following year that really got me enthusiastic about football, Allen Clarke scoring the winning goal with a diving header from a Mick Jones cross, and I promptly proclaimed myself a Leeds fan in true follow-the-best-team style. I was mortified the following year when Sunderland beat Leeds 1-0 in the Cup Final and promptly switched my allegiance to my local team, Crystal Palace, which both Steve and Nick also supported. In retrospect, one should always support one’s local team and having been born just a mile from Selhurst Park, I should really have committed to them earlier. But hey, I was only eight when I finally did the right thing.
I think it’s true to say that most fans are initially attracted by the big clubs that they see on the telly. It’s only when someone bothers to take them to a few games for the local team that one’s true colours shine through as the attachment is created. The joke these days is that there are more Manchester United supporters than actually live anywhere near Manchester. I suspect that many of those fans were not regularly taken to see their local team at a young age. I fear a little for my own two boys. Jamie, my eldest was born in Redhill which is fortunately only a third of the way between Selhurst Park and Withdean Stadium (Brighton and Hove Albion’s current home). But what of Matthew, who was born in Watford – should I encourage him to follow the mighty Eagles (Palace) or to be true to his place of birth and follow the Hornets (Watford)?
In those days, for a youngster, the FA Cup Final was much higher profile and left a greater impression than the League Championship as a) the result was more immediate i.e. not based on results over a long season and b) apart from ‘The Big Match’ on Sunday, we did not stay up late enough on Saturday nights to see any other televised football.
I was six years old when Dad took me to my first football match. Crystal Palace were in the First Division as the top division was then known. Having checked the records, I believe it must have been on 27th February 1971. Palace were not much of a team in those days (this is still occasionally true) and struggled for the four seasons that they remained in the top flight. On this first of many, many matches that I witnessed, they lost 0-2 to Burnley, goals being scored by straggly-haired baldy Ralph Coates and Martin Dobson.
During those earliest years, we would reach the ground either by taking the train from Norbury to Thornton Heath or Selhurst, or the 50 bus from Norbury Crescent to Thornton Heath. The walk to the ground saw the magnitude of the support for the team as thousands of people, many in claret and blue scarves or hats, thronged in the same direction up Whitehorse Lane or Holmesdale Road. Once through the turnstiles, we would stand on the Whitehorse Lane terrace, as close as possible behind the goal, while Dad would stand some way away up the terracing and off to one side. Arriving perhaps thirty minutes before kick off, the pre-match build up involved watching the monkey nut sellers (that is, sellers selling monkey nuts, not nut sellers who happened to be monkeys) peddling their wares (I always wished we could buy some), looking at the pictures in the slim, black and white programme that Dad had bought for us, and comparing the advertised team on the back of the programme with that read out before the game over the public address system which would intersperse its announcements with chart hits. The build up would reach a crescendo when the teams ran out of the tunnel, which in those days was halfway along the Main Stand level with the halfway line, to the sound of “Glad All Over” by The Dave Clark Five (written by Mike Smith and Dave Clark). Standing at the front of the terrace behind the goal, all of the youngsters would bang on the advertising hoardings in time with the chorus, “I’m feeling (THUMP THUMP) Glad All Over”. It brings a bit of a lump to the old throat remembering that. Then the players would knock the practice balls around warming up prior to the start of the game. Goalkeeper Johnny Jackson was revered by all of us, in our eyes a great hero who gave his all, and to whom we would sing to the tune of the Trumpet Voluntary, “Johnny, Johnny Jackson, la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laaaaa” etc.
Note that Dad these days regards himself as having been a Palace supporter, and was unaware until recently that his own father had been a Queens Park Rangers supporter, having been born in the Queens Park area of London. However, Dad reports that his father took him to only one game, to see Arsenal play Sheffield Wednesday in 1935, when Dad was perhaps six or seven years old. As Arsenal won the League Championship and Sheffield Wednesday, the FA Cup, I wonder if this was the Charity Shield game, or a home game at Highbury. Arsenal were quite a formidable team in those days having won four of the five previous League Championships, the last three being won in consecutive seasons.
A typical Palace team of those early 1970s games is indelibly printed on my brain, though whether or not these eleven players actually played together in the same game or not, I do not know. It runs (in true old fashioned 2-3-5 formation):
Payne, McCormick, Blyth
Taylor, Kember, Queen, Birchenall, Tambling.
I still followed Leeds United from a distance; their run of 29 unbeaten games at the start of one season (1974/5?) was particularly impressive. I think it was Stoke City who finally ended the run with a 3-2 victory. I can remember a similar team formation from the early 1970s for Leeds, which ran:
Bremner, Charlton, Hunter
Lorimer, Clarke, Jones, Giles, Gray
For each of us, Mum had knitted a Palace football scarf and bobble hat and scarf which we would wear with pride along with our mid-1970s Palace kits. Dad would take us to three or four games a season for the next few years, though eventually we would be allowed to go on our own, probably from the age of about ten, when we would usually stand at the Holmesdale Road end, which was considered a bit rougher as that’s where the singing contingent would stand. Being considerably older, Steve would also be allowed to go to the occasional evening game, which I envied as it seemed to have an additional closeknit feeling that only real fans were party to. Steve would also attend away games, sometimes as far away as Bristol, without telling Dad or Mum, who would quite possibly have disapproved, certain grounds such as Millwall, Chelsea and Brighton being considered fairly dangerous due to the amount of hooliganism prevalent in the late 1970s.
Memorably for me, one journey home in the dark after a Saturday afternoon game saw Dad buy chips for us from the fish and chip shop next to Wallis supermarket on Norbury High Street, something he had never done before as buying chips from a chippy was an expensive affair. Chips had always been a no-no as far as Mum was concerned, probably for the best in terms of our health, but to make chips at home was something of a fire risk with all of that hot fat. While we would occasionally have chips at school, usually crinkle-cut, dried out affairs, I can honestly tell you that these big, square-cut chip shop chips were out-of-this-world, beautifully greasy, fluffily soft and vinegary. Sadly, such good chips are hard to come by and though I would frequent the shop a few times more under my own steam, it was a real shame when the shop disappeared.
Heroes came and went, though some team members lasted longer than others becoming fixtures in the team. As Malcolm Allison took over from Bert Head as manager, Johnny Jackson was replaced by the hapless Paul Hammond, who eventually gave way to Tony Burns and then John Burridge, a showman and a great goalkeeper who turned out to be another big team hero. Peter Taylor, a brilliant winger and goalscorer became a firm favourite and went on to play for and later manage (although only as caretaker – true up until 2008) the England team, before eventually returning to Palace as their manager for the beginning of the 2006/7 season. Paul Hinshelwood, Kenny Sansom, Peter Nicholas, Jim Cannon and Billy Gilbert were near permanent residents in defence in the later 1970s, with Taylor on his transfer to Tottenham Hotspur, being replaced in our affections by Vince Hilaire, Dave Swindlehurst and Rachid Harkouk. Having dropped from the First Division to the Third Division in successive seasons, Palace found their way back into the Second Division in 1977. This period is notable in that I got to see the once great George Best playing for Fulham and breaking Ian Evans’ leg in 1978. The crack was heard all round the ground and Best was vilified by the Palace faithful for what some considered to be a pre-meditated tackle. Evans, a quality defender and Welsh international, never played first team football again. Another two seasons passed before Palace returned to the bigtime, winning the Second Division Championship in 1979 under Terry Venables’ (another sometime England Manager) stewardship. I was present at the last match of that season, a 2-0 victory over Burnley, with late goals from Dave Swindlehurst and Ian Walsh securing the title, watched by a record crowd of 51,802. After the final whistle, the crowd ran onto the pitch to celebrate and cheer the players as they appeared with their manager in the directors’ box to receive the due acclaim.
More was to follow back in the top flight as Palace got off to a flying start and reached their pinnacle at the time, hitting top spot in the First Division with a resounding 4-1 victory over Ipswich Town at home, with goals from Swindlehurst, Gerry Francis (penalty) and Hilaire. But it couldn’t last and Palace slumped somewhat over the rest of the season into mid-table obscurity. Worse was to follow when the “Team Of The Eighties” as Palace had been labelled, was relegated at the end of the following season.
Working in Sainsburys on Saturdays and discovering women, and then in my early twenties, rediscovering cricket meant that I went to few matches from around 1982, until I was into my thirties.
In the ten years of football while I had been following them closely, Palace had their occasional high spots. Thrashing Manchester United 5-0 in 1972 (televised by The Big Match) was a moment for all Palace fans to savour. And reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup in 1976 while they were still in the Third Division, before being beaten by eventual winners Southampton, was something to remember too. They did eventually make it to the FA Cup Final in 1990, when they had their best-ever attacking partnership of Ian Wright and Mark Bright. Though they drew 3-3 with Manchester United, having lead 3-2 with just seven minutes remaining, they were to lose the replay 1-0. They also miraculously finished 3rd in the league in the 1990/1 season, which may not be repeated for some time. They failed to qualify for the UEFA Cup only because of the European ban on English clubs following the Heysel disaster at the 1985 European Cup final (Juventus beat Liverpool 1-0 in a subdued atmosphere after thirty-nine people had died when a wall collapsed).
During our earliest years, Steve, Nick and I used to walk to the local recreation ground to play football, usually kitted out in our mid-1970s-style Palace football shirts (white with a claret and blue diagonal stripe), shorts and socks of which we were very proud. We used to play either at the Northborough Road rec, where there was a lot of dogs’ muck, or at the park at the top of Pollards Hill. Northborough Road rec did have the extra attraction of a children’s playground, so Liz and Gill would often come along too. It was here, when I was about 10 years old, that two men purporting to be Crystal Palace scouts suggested I might like to try out for their youth team. Whether or not they actually were scouts or speculative paedophiles, I never found out as Mum and Dad said ‘No’. I spent the evening disgruntledly reading a Rupert The Bear annual. Who knows what might have been? It might have been the road to riches or I might have been buggered senseless.
Other times, we would play at Pollards Hill park, which had a large shelter looking out onto a flat area of grass. The shelter was just the right size for a goal, though the floor was concrete so not conducive to diving to stop the ball from going into the goal. However the parkie would regularly come and tell us off for using the shelter in this way. On one occasion, aged perhaps eight or nine years old, I was sitting in the glassless window of the shelter when Nick kicked the ball from some distance hard into my face toppling me over backwards, cracking my head on the concrete floor and knocking me out. Back at home (I don’t remember how long I was out for or actually getting home), I lay dazed on the front room sofa with a thumping headache and spots before my eyes.
That park was a haven for all of us to play in for some years, though naturally Gill and I being of a similar age, would continue to frequent it after the others had grown up. From an early age, I remember trying to climb up on top of the stone triangulation point, which was tricky for a five year old, but a good place to sit once one was big enough to haul oneself up. We would all at some time or other have sneaked into the fenced off area where the park keeper’s hut stood, and examined the ever-smoking brazier full of old leaves. We would roll down the hill from the triangulation point towards the shelter, checking carefully for dog muck beforehand. When we were old enough to ride bikes, we would thunder speedway-style down the hillside from the top of the park past the smelly toilet block, where with enough speed, the bike would leap into the air as if at the end of a ski jump before skidding to a halt in front of an oft-climbed tree.
As we got older, we would venture further afield. The large playing field behind our house had proper goals set up during the football season and was much better to play on. However, it wasn’t simply a case of climbing over the back fence – Mum wouldn’t let us – we had to walk all the way around to the proper entrance, a good 10-15 minutes walk each way.
The large, flat playing field that our house looked out over was also the best place for us to play cricket in summer. With an old W.R.Hammond bat, a tennis ball and an old set of stumps, we would trudge round to the playing fields and play. Later on, Steve got hold of a cricket ball which made things much more realistic, though as we didn’t play on the actual cricket square, the bounce could be pretty unpredictable!
One event that sticks in my mind (I’m sure it has stuck in Nick’s as well) is when I followed a ball from Steve down the leg side while Nick was wicketkeeping. I swung the heavy bat horizontally round and smashed it into Nick’s forehead. It was bleeding quite badly and so, terminating our game early and with blood pouring down Nick’s face, we trudged the circuitous route home again. Still, I suppose it got him back for kicking that football in my face a few years earlier. Maybe he still has the scar to prove it?
I had been introduced to cricket at a young age, largely through watching the televised 40-over Sunday League afternoon games broadcast on BBC2 throughout the summer. There would usually be a Test series to follow too, though being a much longer game, could not be enjoyed/endured in its entirety and was usually watched only in blocks of an hour or two. In those days also, not having the facility to record programmes usually meant that the cricket watcher would be at the whim of anyone who wanted to watch their regular programme on another channel. Equally archaically, the televised pictures in those days were filmed only from one end of the ground so when the bowler was bowling from the far end of the ground, it was often impossible for the viewer to detect the LBWs, though one could enjoy a front-on view of the bowling action.
Dad had introduced all of us boys to a game taught to him by one of his National Service friends – Card Cricket. Using a regular pack of playing cards, a pen and a pad, we were able to make up our own teams and play our own test matches. Six cards dealt alternately to the left and right would make up each delivery, the three on the left indicating the batsman’s effort and the three on the right the bowler’s effort. Basically if the batsman’s effort was greater than the bowler’s, then runs were scored, but if the bowler’s hand exceeded the batsman’s then either no runs were scored or there was a chance of a wicket. A simple table would indicate on the turn of a further card how many chances that particular batsman could be given or whether he was out immediately. It was a game best played by two players, enabling the bowler to decide when to change his bowling e.g. if the batsmen appeared to be scoring too freely, a shuffle of the cards to indicate a bowling change could often turn the game around. However, it could be enjoyed on one’s own as well.
To accompany our games, we would create our own elaborate scoreboards, complete with moving numbers, out of cardboard cereal boxes. Trying to get the same level of detail as on a real cricket scoreboard was the challenge and one amongst many pastimes that kept us occupied during the long summer holidays.
We thrilled to the sight of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson thundering in for Australia against England, and the courage of David Steele hooking the ball away to the fine leg boundary. Michael ‘Whispering Death’ Holding and the other great West Indian fast bowlers of the 1970s would flatten the England openers with their ‘chin music’ or bouncers as they were known then – there was no limit at the time to the number of bouncers that could be bowled in an over, and very few batsmen wore helmets in those days. England’s bowlers in comparison would be smote around the park by Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd. Steve, Nick and I would try to mimic the bowling actions of Thomson, Max Walker, left-armer Derek Underwood, the loping run-up of Tony Grieg, and portly Jack Simmons.
At cubs, we would occasionally play cricket at the bottom of Streatham Common. At the time, I wasn’t a bad bowler being usually fairly accurate with my deliveries which took a fair few wickets. And at St Joseph’s Primary school, we would play cricket in the playground using a tennis ball. A drainpipe against one of the walls would serve as the wicket. Mark Walton, who was one of the smaller boys in my class, usually scored the most runs. Somehow I managed to impress Mr Mann enough to break into the primary school’s cricket team. We would play most of our games on the Hermitage Road recreation ground, though I do remember one game at Norbury Manor’s playing field on Kensington Avenue. I wasn’t a particularly good batsman and though in my first game survived long enough to help win the game taking one spinning catch (while dropping another identical chance) and scoring 9 not out, I never scored more than 6 in the other seven or eight games I played for the school team, including one particularly embarrassing moment when Sebastian Van Parys and I ended up at the same crease, while the wicket keeper whipped off the bails at the other end, running me out. Mr Mann asked me nicely whether I thought I should be dropped – I could only admire players like Joe Carroll, who opened the bowling with another lad called Adrian, conceding that I was not of the same standard, and consequently stood down.
During the summer holidays, Dad would take some of us (certainly Steve, Nick and myself but possibly Gill too) to see a day’s cricket at Lords. My memories of days out such as these usually involved a packed lunch consisting of foil-wrapped sandwiches (always egg and salad cream for me) which Mum made for each of us, an apple and a can of Tizer. Apart from amusing ourselves by exploring the stand and the part of the cricket ground that we sat in, I recall that on entry to the ground, each of us would get a scorecard which we would each fill in as the day’s play progressed. My personal highlight of these Lords days out was seeing one of my favourite players, Geoff Boycott, one of England’s regular openers during my formative years, score a double century (one of only two in his career) for Yorkshire against Middlesex.
Geoff Boycott was considered opinionated, self-centred and selfish though it cannot be argued that he was not a top-class defensive batsman. In his later career as commentator and newspaper columnist, his analysis was always spot on at identifying where England and individual players needed to improve. Though he got the backs up of many, many people, I always admired him immensely.
I was twenty four years old before I got another chance to play cricket, but you can read all about that in the next volume!!
I was never a big horse racing fan, however we would often watch a few televised races on Saturday afternoons between other sporting events on Grandstand or World Of Sport. Each of us would choose from the list of runners which horse we thought most likely to win – very much a pinsticker’s approach based on which name appealed the most, crossed with a little bit of form. The big racing event of the year was of course The Grand National which was run at Aintree (you couldn’t really count The Epsom Derby as in those days, it was run on a Wednesday afternoon when most normal humans were at school or at work – how stupid was that? Eventually, the organisers bowed to the moneymen and moved the race to a Saturday). To us, the National was as big an occasion as The FA Cup Final or The Boat Race, all of these typically appearing within a month of each other in the sporting calendar. We would sit around most of the afternoon cogitating on which horse would win the race, ruminating on the perils of some of those famous fences - Becher’s Brook, Canal Turn, Valentine’s Brook and The Chair - watching the almost ceremonial walk around the paddock, and then with the excitement mounting, the horses would eventually form a line before setting off into the country on the epic four-and-a-half mile course, thundering across the Melling Road towards the first fence.
Certain horses shine a light in our memories of those 1970s races. 1973 perhaps shines the brightest for me. Early leader Grey Sombrero, a grey horse and Nick’s tip for that year’s race, was put down having broken a leg falling in second place at The Chair, to the almost-pantomime gasp of the crowd. The huge Australian chaser Crisp, ridden by Richard Pitman, opened up a huge lead and immediately won itself an army of acolytes in our household. But the shadows darkened ominously over our joy as between the fifteenth fence (The Chair) and the nineteenth, Red Rum ridden by Brian Fletcher (winner five years previously on Red Alligator) moved from 12th into 2nd place, followed by Spanish Steps. From Becher’s Brook on the second circuit onwards, Red Rum chased hard and was in clear second place. At the final fence though, Crisp was still fifteen lengths ahead of Red Rum but somehow, Crisp completely faded and Red Rum snatched victory at the line with L’Escargot finishing third. We were so disappointed, our hero horse having been beaten so narrowly having led bravely for so long. Of course, we couldn’t have known at the time that Red Rum would win the race the following year in 1974 (beating L’Escargot into second place at long odds of 11-1), finish second in 1975 this time with odds of 7-2 (behind L’Escargot) and 1976 (behind Rag Trade). He would finally win for an unprecedented third time in 1977 at which point he became everybody’s hero horse. In 1977 with for the first time, the aesthetically more pleasing side-on (rather than head-on) camera shot of the Canal Turn, Boom Docker was leading by fifteen lengths at the halfway stage but clearly thought that the race was over as he pulled up at the seventeenth, Andy Pandy fell at Becher’s Brook on the second circuit and the rest, as they say, was history. Red Rum romped home to an explosion of joy heard around the universe, beating off a challenge from the fancied Churchtown Boy. To come first three times and second twice in five Grand Nationals and never to have fallen in more than seventy National Hunt races is quite an achievement and we felt privileged to witness a feat that was unlikely to be matched in a hurry.
The 1967 winner, Foinavon is also remembered with some fondness as due to a pile-up at the twenty-third fence, this 100/1 outsider languishing towards the back of the field somehow managed to weave through the mayhem, avoid the trouble and come home some lengths ahead of the other horses who had eventually managed to get over the 23rd fence (now known as ‘Foinavon’). Flamin’ ‘eck! Imagine being his rider John Buckingham, trailing along at the back of the field and suddenly a miracle happens, you’re catapulted to the front of the field and go on to win the National by a considerable margin – how euphoric and blessed he must have felt.
I continued to watch avidly for a number of years even winning at the bookies in 1988 when Rhyme ‘n’ Reason came in first. However, since leaving home in that year, due to the reluctance of my various partners on kindness-to-animals grounds (many horses have died over the years at the Grand National meeting due to the difficulty of some of the fences), I have not been able to see the race every year since, though it is always a treat when I do, and some of that marvellous excitement of the seventies is brought back to me for fifteen minutes.
Much of that excitement was due to Peter O’Sullevan who would provide the television commentary for the run-in, his voice progressively rising in pitch until just when it seemed like it could not rise any further, he would find a further gear and the excitement level would redouble. It is now possible to purchase a DVD containing twelve complete Grand Nationals including the Foinavon win and four of Red Rum’s five races. To have witnessed some of these moments via the wonders of television - well, I feel privileged. What memories!
I should say a few words about greyhound racing, which in the mid-1980s was lit up by the astonishing feats of Scurlogue Champ (pronounced ‘Scurlow’) and Ballyregan Bob. Greyhound racing careers rarely last very long, but it seemed that for a couple of years, rarely a week would go by without news of either one of them winning a race.
Though for no particular reason, I favoured Champ (the Wonder Dog), Bob (the World Champion) was the more successful dog, breaking the world record with a run of thirty two consecutive victories before retiring. Indeed, though he lost his first four races, he won forty one of his next forty three attempts. Unbelievable!
This short passage should not pass though without a comment that so many greyhounds are cast aside once they have outlived their racing capabilities, being left homeless or worse, which is something that I wholeheartedly do not approve of. Great efforts are made by dog rescue centres to provide homes for these former racers, and to lobby for greater awareness of the behaviour of greyhound owners who cast aside their failed racing dogs.
It was partly for the fond memories that I had of these two champions that I was happy when ten years later first wife Gill suggested that we acquire a rescue whippet named Ludo. We were able to give this lovely natured dog a good home for more than twelve years before he died aged fourteen in April 2008.
For two weeks at the end of June/beginning of July, lawn tennis at the Wimbledon championships would take our fancy. In those early years of ours, the progress of players through the early rounds was largely ignored, though we might catch the occasional transmission after the afternoon’s children’s programmes had finished. My first awareness of watching a Wimbledon final was that of 1972 when American Stan Smith beat the Rumanian Ilie Nastase who at the time was the bad boy of tennis. The following year, some kind of protest prevented many of the top tennis players from taking part, the final being contested between Alex Metreveli of Russia and Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia. Kodes had beaten Englishman Roger Taylor in a five-set semi-final, but won the Championship in an easier three-setter. This was the last occasion for more than twenty years that a Brit had made it to the semis. The distinguishing thing about Kodes was that before every serve, he would bounce the ball a couple of times, lift the ball up to his racket as if just about to serve, then would bounce the ball a few times more, this process being repeated once or twice on each serve.
In 1974, romance took a hold as Jimmy Connors (against Ken Rosewall, who appeared in four finals but never won) and the lovely Chris Evert (who had been runner up in 1973, but this time had beaten Olga Morozova) respectively won the men’s and women’s events. They were engaged to be married to each other for a while, attending a post-finals interview hand-in-hand. Connors appeared to me to be something of a dashing hero with a similar haircut to my own at the time. Chris Evert had the misfortune over the next decade to have her career overshadowed by a better player. At the time though, together they seemed invincible.
For the 1975’s men’s final, between Connors and Arthur Ashe, a black American who would later die of AIDS (described by popstar Prince as ‘a big disease with a little name’), my allegiance was firmly with the heroic Connors. However, bar a third set recovery by Connors, Ashe pretty much murdered the champion in the same manner that Connors had murdered Rosewall the previous year, the scores of the 1975 first, second and fourth set being identical to the three sets of ’74 i.e. 6-1, 6-1, 6-4. To me, my hero’s loss was reminiscent of Crisp’s failure to win the 1973 Grand National, the difference being that Ashe’s Wimbledon success was confined to one year, while Red Rum (who had beaten Crisp) went on to become possibly the greatest steeplechaser of all time. The women’s event in 1975 produced a last hurrah for Billie Jean King (nee Moffitt), at the time considered one of the all-time greats of women’s tennis. She had appeared in nine finals over the thirteen between 1963 and 1975, winning six of them, this last one against Australian Evonne Goolagong. Mum had made it clear that she did not like Billie Jean King as in 1971, King had had an abortion as she was too busy with her career and could not devote time to children.
The following year, 1976, saw Bjorn Borg take his first Wimbledon title, remarkably without dropping a set over his seven matches, and beating Nastase (another fine player who never won Wimbledon) in the final. Borg seemed supremely cool, calm and focussed, a trait which led him to be tagged as boring as he dominated the grass court for the next five years. Chris Evert won her second title, Goolagong again the beaten finalist. Borg repeated his success in 1977 and 1978, both times vanquishing Jimmy Connors, in five and three sets respectively. Meanwhile, Virginia Wade became the last Brit to become a Wimbledon singles champion in 1977 (Fred Perry in 1936 still holds that accolade in the men’s competition, though Henry ‘Bunny’ Austin (1938) is the last Brit to appear in the men’s final) finally winning the Championship in her sixteenth Wimbledon at the age of thirty one. Having beaten firstly Chris Evert in the semi-final and then in front of the Queen in her silver jubilee year, savaging the Dutch Betty Stove in the final, her success was well deserved in what was the 100th championship.
Chris Evert reached the final for the fourth time in 1978, but this time found herself pitted against and losing to Martina Navratilova, a Czech who had defected to the USA at the age of eighteen. Although she had appeared in two grand slam finals three years earlier, I don’t think anyone really expected her to dominate women’s tennis in the way she did over the next ten years. She would appear in eleven Wimbledon singles finals over the next thirteen years (1978-90), winning a record-breaking nine of them, five of which were against Chris Evert Lloyd (she had married British tennis player John Lloyd in 1979). Chris Evert’s achievements are also worth noting as she appeared in ten finals between 1973 and 1985, however she would win just three times in total. Who knows what might have been if Navratilova hadn’t appeared on the scene?
Navratilova beat Lloyd again in 1979, and Borg took his fourth title, this time against Roscoe Tanner in five sets. Tanner, another hero, who I hoped would end Borg’s run, was recognised at the time as the fastest server in the world. At one stage, he had led Borg by two sets to one, but could not sustain his tilt at the title. I can recall that that afternoon, before the final had progressed very far (I could rarely justify spending a sunny afternoon indoors watching the first few sets), walking up the high street to Pramtoys and buying a model Airfix kit and accompanying accoutrements e.g. glue, paints etc, before returning home for the denouement.
Evonne Cawley (nee Goolagong) finally followed up her 1971 victory winning her second title in 1980 reversing her 1976 defeat against Evert Lloyd, while that year’s men’s final crackled with expectation. The young pretender in the male event was John McEnroe, a lefthanded, headbanded American (though born in Germany) youth with long curly brown hair and a volatile temper. Following heated exchanges with officials during his semi-final victory over Jimmy Connors, McEnroe was booed by the crowd at the start of the final against Borg. However, the match turned into arguably the greatest Wimbledon final ever, the fourth set tie-breaker taking twenty minutes to complete, with McEnroe almost in tears, saving five match points before winning it 18-16. However, McEnroe could not break Borg in the fifth set, and the Swede won his fifth consecutive title, a record matched only by Roger Federer between 2003 and 2007.
In 1981, with Evert Lloyd finally winning her third title, beating Hana Mandlikova 6-2, 6-2, the men’s final saw McEnroe finally end Borg’s astonishing forty-one match run of victories at Wimbledon in another five-setter. At the point of victory, McEnroe instinctively knelt on the turf before immediately rising to his feet, not wishing to appear to have copied Borg’s victory celebration of the previous year.
Though he would go on to win the championship twice more in 1983 and 1984, perhaps McEnroe’s greatest contributions to history are his angry outbursts. Here is a transcript of his most famous outburst:
McEnroe: The ball… chalk came up off of the ball… (walks towards umpire’s chair)
Umpire: It was a bit of chalk spread Mr McEnroe, that was a good call.
McEnroe: Excuse me?
Umpire: It was a good call…
McEnroe: You can’t be serious man; you CANNOT BE SERIOUS! That ball was on the line! Chalk flew up! (Waves his arms to demonstrate) It was clearly in! How can you POSSIBLY call that out?!? (Audience starts to clap – possibly in appreciation of this bit of entertainment) How can you even miss?
He would also label the umpire as the “pits of the world” for which one of his points was deducted, and then as an “incompetent fool”.
McEnroe appeared in five consecutive finals, losing in five sets to Connors in 1982, before thrashing Chris Lewis in 1983 and vanquishing Connors in 1984. As one sun sets, so another rises though and eighteen-year-old German Boris Becker stormed the 1985 finals to become the youngest-ever winner at the age of seventeen. But hey! This is beyond my twentieth birthday and so deserves to appear in the second volume of my memoirs.