Wednesday, 16 July 2014

THE NATURALS



Fifteen or so years back I was walking down the street when a black Mercedes pulled up at the kerb next to me. The driver's door swung open and the then Newcastle centre-forward Mick Quinn emerged. The mustachioed scouser cast a furtive glance to left and right to check for traffic wardens, and then dashed up the pavement and into the betting shop. A man standing nearby raised his eyebrows. "I've been to every home game at St James' since we bought him and that's the furthest I've ever seen him run," he said.

The comment was not made with any malice, or sense of grievance. The man was grinning when he said it and finished with what can only be described as a chortle. Mick Quinn was held in high regard. Whenever I saw him I thought of Bob Paisley's observation about Ray Kennedy: "He's not quick, but he's nippy." Paisley had a habit of making pronouncements so gnomic they came with their own fishing rod and cap, yet you always knew what he meant, just about. Quinn wasn't fast, but he could cover two yards before you could say "tubby". Most of the time, though, he barely raised himself above a saunter, calling to mind a plumber who'd been sent to buy supplies during his lunch break. People admired him almost as much for this affable slowness as for his goals. They liked the fact that he didn't cavort around like a bullock let out into spring pastures. They liked his comfortable outline that called to mind my old biology teacher's description of the frog, which was "streamlined in a barge-like manner". They appreciated the way he moved like a bloke who'd just put his sandwich down.

In the film Chariots of Fire the Harold Abrahams character berates a British athletics official for objecting to his use of a professional coach. "You want us to win, but you want us to win without effort. You want us to win like gods," he says. Football fans are different from 1920s athletics officials in this latter respect. We don't want the players to win like gods, but every so often we enjoy watching one win like a bloke from down the pub.

This, along with his assured performances, surely accounts for the mounting popularity on Wearside of Andy Reid. The former Spurs midfielder has the dishevelled roly-poly looks of someone who might knock on your door one afternoon and announce that he has some leftover tarmac from a job down the road and do you want your driveway doing? Whenever I have seen him I have gone away with the impression that he had a cigarette in the corner of his mouth with half-an-inch of ash wilting from the tip. When it comes to sprinting well, frankly, the Irishman makes Mick Quinn look like Bryan Habana.

Though Reid may give the impression of being so slow that birds might nest in his hair, like Oliver Hardy, he has small and nimble feet and that eerie ability when centre stage to momentarily make it appear that the rest of the world has stood still while he remains in motion.

According to Roy Keane, Reid "likes a drink and a sing-song". This will undoubtedly add to his appeal. A friend of mine recently claimed that Middlesbrough's decision to buy Mido could only have been based on chairman Steve Gibson's nostalgia for the days of Alan "Fatty" Foggon and Gary Hamilton, a Scots midfielder who was purpose-built to carry the Boro's 1980s sponsor's logo, Heritage Hampers, across his chest.

The luckless Egyptian is someone who gives a whole new meaning to the term wide man, though he is clearly planning to lose weight, because if that arse is a permanent structure he would have had to apply for planning permission for it by now. And besides, Mido is far too clean living and dedicated to ever be compared to the man justly celebrated in the Middlesbrough version of the Deck of Cards (Teessiders feel free to join in): "And when I see the nine I think of the number of pints Alan Foggon used to drink before a match. And when I see the 10 ... I think of the number of pints Alan Foggon used to drink before a match."

The point about Quinn, Reid, Foggon and all the other players who look like they just stepped out of the saloon bar and on to the pitch is that they fulfil a subconscious need in all of us. They lend credence to the concept of The Natural. The belief in a sporting gift so wondrous that it requires no coaching, dedication or hard work to perfect is a great comfort to most of us, because the time has passed when we can spend 12 hours a day practising our ball skills or running up sand dunes.

Our only remaining hope of gaining glory is that one day we will absent-mindedly pick up a club, bat or racket and discover that - My God! - this is what I was born to do. And 12 months down the line Gary Lineker will be looking at us in amazement and saying: "So, when you hit that golf ball 600 yards down the fairway you had no idea how incredible it was?" And we can take another big bite out of our pie, nod and say: "No, and to be honest, Gary, I didn't even know I was using a sand wedge."

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