Is Sport Really More Important Than Life or Death?

Matthew Engel on his craft

Sports-writing is the hardest form of journalism. It can also be the highest. It produces the best writers who can make a pen or typewriter sing against deadline. The Richard Williams (Guardian), Jim Whites (Telegraph) and Matthew Engels of the world are a sheer joy to read. Lucid, clear prose bringing the reader ringside to great sporting events.

Matthew Engel is top of that tree. Possibly the greatest cricket writer since Neville Cardus, he trod the boards on the Guardian – on sport and much more  – for a quarter of a century. Today, he is a Financial Times columnist and for this year The News International Visiting Professor of Media at Oxford University. The first of his four lectures at St Anne’s College on Tuesday 25th January ‘Mister can we have our ball back?’ was a brilliant tour d’ horizon of modern sport, modern media and modern life.

Engel has been a sporting anorak since choosing a sporting encyclopaedia as his prize for ‘general proficiency’ at his Wallingford prep school as a tiny boy. He turned that obsession into a profession via the Northampton Chronicle and Echo which he joined on leaving university in 1972. Journalism appealed to him as ‘a career for a young man with a butterfly mind and an aversion to over bearing hierarchies’. Fair enough. Writes John Mair…

Soon he was the cricket correspondent for the Echo paid for what he would have done anyway. From Northampton seven years later to the Guardian and ‘a ringside seat at fascinating events’. On the back pages, he covered more than 70 different sports including underwater hockey and the European tiddlywinks championship as well as four Olympic Games, three soccer World Cups and about 150 Test matches. On the front pages, he reported the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War, the September 11 attacks and the last seven British general elections. His craft has shaped the public understanding of many an event, sporting or otherwise. Engel is a true star in the British journalism firmament.

His views on modern sport are worth listening to. Professor Engel contrasted England winning the 1966 Football World Cup when Jack Charlton celebrated by going out on the razzle that night with a journalist mate (unheard of today) with the 1996 European Championship ‘the start of the madness ‘as he put it. That was one of the few occasions when his idea was spiked at the Guardian for being beyond the pale in their view.

Even back in 1966, though, purity did not reign. Nine of the winning England team accepted £1000 (in cash) for wearing Adidas boots in that final. The denouement of that can be seen in the salaries of today’s Premier League players.Wayne Rooney’s weekly pay packet of £180,000 (after his ‘wanting to leave’ Manchester United episode last year) even taking account of inflation is 200 times that of fellow striker Nat Lofthouse half a century ago who died last week. The ‘madness’ manifested itself this week in the unthinking sexism towards female lineswoman Sian Massey of Sky Sports’ commentators Richard Keys and Andy Gray who was in Engel’s view ‘voicing what the vast majority of football fans think about female lineswoman’. Gray has been sacked for his remarks.

Cricket is kinder and gentler. Maybe. For 12 years Engel edited Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the so-called Bible of cricket and he remains as the consultant editor. Purity did not exactly reign here either as ‘massive corruption’ is rife. He blamed this on one simple fact. The lack of legal bookmaking in India, Pakistan and the Gulf. That made under the table betting inevitable and with that the corruption that followed.

Today, thanks to the media, Professor Engel said sport is ‘central to all our lives individually and collectively’. Too central. Corinthianism a thing of the past. The ‘madness’ has taken over .Mister not only has the ball but he has no intention of giving it back!

John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcast journalism at Coventry University.

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