Winners or losers- my annual sporting turn

Sport, Sport, masculine sport.
Equips a young man for society.
Yes, sport turns out a jolly good sort.
It’s an odd boy who doesn’t like sport.

The bonzo dog doo dah band

That the unadulterated joy of sport is lost on some fellows, depresses me deeply, and my heart sings the saddest of all sad songs for them. They will never feel the exults of a last-minute victory, the heartbreak of loss, or the melancholy of rain stopped play.

However, I am sports fan, an unashamed fanatic.

Often I will stay in a car and watch two drops of rain drizzle down the windowpane. Their occasionally graceful, mostly staccato route engrosses me. I intently watch the titanic struggle between the two giants- for the 30 seconds of the war, it is all that matters. I imagine that one is an old gnarled bead- injured but using every inch of his experience. The other bead is the reckless young pretender. The races are usually very difficult to call, mainly tight scrappy affairs. Usually the raindrop who ‘wants it’ more wins. But of course this is absolute folly, am inconsequential sport watched by one; a sport which is universally won by the left bead.

Folly it may be but it does have a rather germane point- stand a gentleman by a rivalry and he will inevitable watch. The male species would watch grass grow if there was a cup involved at the end. Look at baseball and the Winter Olympics for Christ’s sake!

In my days of youth I played and obsessed over every game available. And now like a gourmand, I feverishly glide through the seasons subtly changing my gaze as the weather warms up. I begin my meal with the autumn tests at Twikkers and gracefully end then, like a glass of dessert wine, with the last test at The Oval.

I fundamentally follow British or old colonial games and seasons. The love of watching comes from playing as a child; I was a keen participant of all the classic public school sports, and this gave me an understanding of the rules. Having that core insight gives the viewer the opportunity to sit back and drink in the drama. I was so obsessed with cricket as a youth that if I couldn’t find a foe, I would find a wall and a pen and paper. I staged test matches, occasionally intergenerational battles, by throwing a tennis ball onto the wall and batting as it flew back at me. I kept scorecards, I commentated like Henry Bloefeld, I set up fields with chairs. England always won.

The seasonal flow of the sporting calendar offerers the aficionado diversity (football’s lengthy season discounted). It gives us all the chance to embrace the varied social occasions that go with the contests.

We begin in August, not at Twickenham, but at in our own little bolt holes with a meal that lasts all year round. Football, or Arsenal for me, is my sporting wife- ever present and frustrating. I rarely watch a match outside of my own team, my one eyed viewed is ramped up by the over excited press and my own overzealous fans. Football is the national game and loved by most the population, however my only apprehension is that it is a negative game. The premium for a goal is too high, which brings a nervousness to the occasion and a cynicism to the fan. It is though, when played by Arsenal or Brazil in the 70’s, a beautiful and awe inspiring spectacle. Football is the current opiate of the masses to which the sporting world bends it’s knee. A billion pound industry that is so much more than game of jumpers for goal posts.

Rugby, and the autumn internationals, is the first major event of the calendar. The convoy of Range Rovers chug down from Surrey, tubes full of young chinless wonders flow west, and corporate boxes eat their pre match lunches. A buzz enclaves the usually quiet suburb of Twickenham, an area of London that stinks of rugger. There is one pub, who’s name escapes me, that has rugby tickets upon tickets pinned to its ceiling. The car park of the stadium fills up with afore mentioned Range Rovers and plays host to the most wonderful November picnics. Barber jackets and flat caps sup gleefully on sloe gin.

The autumn internationals are against our antipodean cousins, in all their brash coloured glories. Usually a brutal losing battle, there was a period of time in the early 2000’s when England was the dominant force in world rugby. Sir.Clive’s merry men led by Jonno and St.Jonny ate everything in front of them. They were English arrogance personified and Twickenham an absolute fortress- a joy to watch. Rugby, the metaphor of war, is often brutal and stirs the juices like no other sport can. Though competitive, the club game pales against the internationals and all eyes focus on the red rose. The autumn internationals are one off matches and essentially warm ups for the six nations tournament in early spring. The six nations pit all the home nations and the frogs together in what is always a great tournament; Everyone hates the English, we hate the French and love that everyone hates us. Splendid old rugby.

When the temperature begins to drop the big beast of National Hunt racing rears it’s long face. Horse racing, split between National Hunt in the winter and flats in the summer. Flat racing is more of a business and the horses are mainly three year old thoroughbreds. Annually I wonder down to Royal Ascot, a splendid excuse to dress like one is getting married, and thoroughly enjoy it. However, it lacks the characters and the returning horses. The races are spellbindingly fast and the horses perfect as their muscles ripple in the English sun. It is designed to be perfection, yet it unfortunately lacks a little bit of heart. Bloody good day out though!

Heart is something that National Hunt racing has spades of. Jump racing is a sport of sheer beauty, guts, and kinship. Horses often run and still win grade 1 races at the age of 13. A day at the races brings together many different characters hoping to beat the bookies. Part of the fun of racing is the people- all dressed up to the nines in ridiculous colours; trousers in every bold hue, hats brazenly worn, superb tweet jackets, and patterned ties. There is an ambience and sense of enjoyment, laughter fills the whiskey scented air. The returning horses offer us a chance to anthropomorphise them and delight in their success. I dare anyone who watched Kauto Star’s two monumental victories in 2011, to keep their eyes dry and their sentiments in check.

It is not just Cheltenham in March or Kempton at Christmas but every Saturday leading up to those big days. Prince or pauper we are all chasing that elusive win on the outsider. There is a openness about the racing fraternity- Champion trainer Nicky Henderson will watch the race in the stands with his binoculars under his trilby, just like the rest of us.

All roads do lead to the Cheltenham festival, which I never miss. It is a festival with no airs or graces; corporate city boys are low in attendance, although there is still a lot of big bucks flying around. It is a four day festival that contains every big race in each discipline. It is a week for racing people and horse lovers that showcases and crowns the best horses that jump racing has to offer. Perfection in four day.

After Cheltenham, the season culminates with the ‘the people’s race’- the Grand National. This is a handicapped cavalry charge over majestically large fences; Beachers brook, Valentines, Foinavon etc.. The race is a not necessarily a classic, it is an event that bring the whole nation together. We all plot our way through the form and weights and overlook Mon Mome at 100-1!

Sadly the jump racing season cannot go on forever. The ground quickens up and, what Neville Cardus referred to as the summer game, arrives. Cricket. That ever so English of all English games. A spellbinding spectacle that can keep the viewer for a full five days of peaks and troughs. Cricket, more so than other sports, is one that it really needs to have an understanding of the rules. For all the negative cat calls of it being a soporific spectacle for old chaps, there are a lot of people for who cricket is an obsession. I am lucky enough to adore the game.

There comes that gorgeous day in every summer when all decent gentleman find themselves at Lord’s. Sun beats down on young and old, noses sizzle, and endless drinks are sunk. It is a paradise in the middle of London. Six hours of direct play undulate in front of your eyes- savage fast bowling can make run scoring redundant, yet if the sun beats down on a docile wicket…sumptuous cover drives reign supreme. I am a man for all the seasons, but the one that I love most, is the one of which cricket is the host.

There are many singular events such as Wimbledon, Henley Regatta, the boat race, Tour de France, big boxing matches…. These all have their place in the pantheon of sport, however they lack a seasonal pattern to them. There are World cups and Olympics that offer the non fan a view into competitionts- fine adverts that do feel a bit like when you are stuck behind amateur drinkers on New Years Eve. Sky Sports has enabled me to watch every match home and now away. With multiple channels, the armchair viewer sport is now a twenty four hour obsession. Apart from loo breaks, one needn’t the sofa from Friday to Sunday.

I do wish all the world delighted in the daily following of results and opinions. I wish everyone had my yearning to see these epoch defining encounters. We should all the embrace the wonderful social occasions that sport brings, whether in the bars or in the stadiums.

I love the days out, the unique outfits, the camaraderie, the nepotism, the ups and downs, the build up, the media, and most of all I just love sport.

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