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Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Golden Sporting Summer of 1977

This essay of mine on the wonderful sporting summer of 1977 appears in today's Observer.

It was the year of the Silver Jubilee and punk rock. Of James Callaghan and Luke Skywalker. Of the last ever episode of Dad's Army and pocket calculators. Sport in 1977 reflected this fascinating mix of the old and the new in our culture. John McEnroe, the first 'punk' tennis player, made his Wimbledon debut and Ian Botham arrived with a swagger on to the Test scene, while golden oldies Geoffrey Boycott, Lester Piggott, Virginia Wade (above) and Red Rum all enjoyed an annus mirabilis.

Sport mirrored the political realities of the time. Thirty years ago, there was an exhilarating sense of everything being up for grabs. The postwar consensus was unravelling and Britain was soon to be convulsed by the Thatcherite counter-revolution. With its top-rate income tax of 83 per cent, its nationalised industries, powerful unions and foreign-exchange controls, the Britain of 1977 may have been the worst of all possible places for economic liberals, but for me, an 11-year-old sports-mad schoolboy growing up in Oxford, it was the time of my life.

The carnival began in April with Red Rum's unprecedented third Grand National victory. What is amazing about Rummy, looking back, is that in only one of the five years in which he competed in the National (1975) did he start favourite. Each year there was a new contender who, it was said, would topple the nation's favourite racehorse. In 1977, it was Andy Pandy, an up-and-coming chaser named after the children's television character.
Red Rum's only victory before the National that season had been in a three-runner race in September. Perhaps the experts were right and his powers were declining. My Uncle Stan, a loyal red, in racing as well as politics, was having none of it, and for the fifth year running stuck his £10 on Rummy's nose. My dad backed The Pilgarlic (each-way). The race was a classic, and Red Rum won again, with The Pilgarlic fourth.

The football season, meanwhile, was heading to its climax. The previous year, QPR, my dad's team, had come within 15 minutes of winning the title, but this time they were off the pace, even if their swashbuckling exploits in the Uefa Cup, which included a 5-2 win over Slovan Bratislava at Loftus Road, added richly to the season. The team of the year, however, were Liverpool. For the second year running, they won the title by just one point (this time from Manchester City) and narrowly missed out on the Double when losing 2-1 to Manchester United in the FA Cup final. On 25 May, four days after losing at Wembley, they faced Borussia Monchengladbach in the European Cup final in Rome. Liverpool took the lead in the 27th minute through Terry McDermott. Borussia equalised through Allan Simonsen seven minutes after the break and, for a spell, they were the better side. But they still had to get past Ray Clemence, whose save at the feet of Uli Stielike proved the turning point. Shortly afterwards defender Tommy Smith headed in Steve Heighway's corner and, when Phil Neal converted a penalty after Kevin Keegan had been hauled down, Liverpool's first European Cup had been won. Rome 1977 was not merely one of the classic European nights of the 1970s; it was the classic European night of the 1970s.

Seven days later, the sporting road-show moved to Epsom. Surely it was asking too much for Lester Piggott, the 'housewives' favourite', who had first won the Derby in 1954, to win it again in Jubilee Year? Back then, the Derby was still on a Wednesday, which for race-lovers meant skiving off work or in my case asking to be allowed home early from school. Lester, like Red Rum and Liverpool, didn't let us down: his skill and determination got The Minstrel home by a neck.

The next day, at Epsom, it was the Oaks. The Queen's filly Dunfermline was allowed to go off at odds of 6-1, presumably because people didn't believe another fairytale could happen so soon. But under a confident Willie Carson, the Queen's horse came home first; Dunfermline also won the St Leger later that summer, at Doncaster.

Celebrations for the Silver Jubilee were now in full swing. Could the event be marked with a British success at the centenary Wimbledon? Virginia Wade, twice the champion at other grand-slam events, had played 15 times before at the All England Club without much success. But in 1977, seemingly carried along on the mood of national optimism, the woman with the South African accent and notoriously brittle temperament was an entirely different proposition. Composed and confident, her semi-final victory against reigning champion Chris Evert was arguably the best she had ever played. But hopes of an all-English final (imagine the prospect of that today) were dashed when Sue Barker was beaten by Betty Stove in the other semi-final.

By way of compensation, the men's semi-final between Bjorn Borg and Vitas Gerulaitis was one of the championship's greatest matches. Borg, the defending champion, led two sets to one, but the flamboyant Gerulaitis, from New York, took the fourth and then, with darkness falling, had match point in the fifth. He should have won but hit long and out what should have been a simple backhand down the line after a fatal hesitation. Gerulaitis, who died in 1994, aged 40, from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty heater as he slept at a friend's house on Long Island, never came close at Wimbledon again.

Our teacher, Miss Woodward, in a bout of patriotic fervour, cancelled lessons on the afternoon of the women's final (it was then played on Friday) and switched on the big black-and-white television set so we could cheer on Ginny. It all looked bleak as Stove took the first set, but Ginny powered back to win the last two sets to keep her date with Her Majesty. Our classroom erupted - and so did the nation.
On the Saturday, Borg took on Jimmy Connors in what may have been the best men's final of the decade. As in Borg's semi-final against Gerulaitis, the match ebbed and flowed, with Connors, as aggressive and determined as ever, coming back to take the game into a fifth set. At one stage, in that final set, he was 4-0 down but fought back. But Borg eventually prevailed 6-4 in the thrilling decider, to take the second of his five consecutive titles.

Next up in the summer sportsfest was The Open at Turnberry. Through the first three days, the two outstanding golfers of the decade, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, had posted the identical round scores of 68, 70 and 65. The stage was set for an unforgettable final day, for what became known as 'The Duel in the Sun', as the two American heavyweights went head to head. Nicklaus (supported by my dad) raced to a three-shot lead after just four holes. But Watson (supported by me) clawed back to level by the 8th, only for Nicklaus to go clear again. Watson once more upped his game, a 60-foot putt pulling him level on the 15th. Watson took the lead for the first time on the 17th and when Nicklaus found a gorse bush from the 18th tee it looked all over. But the Golden Bear holed a 40-foot putt to put the pressure on Watson, who had to hole a three-footer for the title. Watson held his nerve to win.

Incredibly, the best of that sporting summer was was yet to come. The aperitif for the Ashes series had been the one-off Centenary Test in Melbourne in March, which Australia, despite Derek Randall's brilliant 174 in the second innings, had won by 45 runs. But at the end of May, the cricketing world was in turmoil as 30 of the world's leading players, including most of Australia's touring squad, signed up for Kerry Packer's World Series circus. Tony Greig, the England captain and early Packer recruit, was sacked and replaced by Mike Brearley. However, those who thought that a greedy Australian television mogul had ruined the summer were proved wrong.
There were several notable performances for England: the batting of the late Bob Woolmer, who scored centuries in the opening two Tests; the bowling of a rejuvenated Bob Willis; the wicketkeeping (and batting) of Alan Knott; and the precocity of Ian Botham, who took five wickets on his first day in Test cricket (which included the players meeting the Queen as well). But the man of the series was undoubtedly a stubborn, self-centred, but superbly disciplined 36-year-old Yorkshireman.

Geoffrey Boycott celebrated the end of three years of self-imposed exile from Test cricket by batting on each of the five days of the classic third Test at Trent Bridge. On the opening day of the next match, at Leeds, his home ground, he became the first player to score his 100th first-class century in a Test match - his drive off Greg Chappell, with Graham Roope skipping in the air at the non-striker's end to avoid the ball, became the abiding memory of the series. England went on to beat Australia by an innings and 85 runs, the first time since 1886 that they had won three Tests in a home series against Australia. The end of a glorious summer of sport.

How very different it all is today. In domestic football, the power of money means that the chance of a provincial club such as Nottingham Forest winning the league title in their first season after promotion, as Brian Clough's side did in 1977-78, has gone. Tennis, for all the grace of Roger Federer, is an increasingly dull game (oh, for a modern version of Gerulaitis or the Amritraj brothers!), with new technology playing its part in diminishing surprise and unpredictability.

Cricket, too, seems to have sold out to global capitalism, in so many ways, with a whole generation of children unable, as I could 30 years ago, to watch ball-by-ball, advert-free coverage of the summer Test series on terrestrial television. Only racing retains its magic and the ability to surprise, though it still hasn't produced another Red Rum or Lester Piggott.

It is often said - mostly by Thatcherites - that Britain in the 1970s was a depressing and grey place in urgent need of 'reform'. But now that we have had the reforms, we can see the exciting and colourful world we have lost far more clearly.

1 comment:

Barry said...

The events you mention made more of an impact in 1977 because they were all on terrestial tv and there were only three channels.
More really is less when you think of the way things have developed since then.