Sunday, 3 June 2007

The boys done good, honest

Of course the night before the big match I didn't sleep that much.

The boy has yet another ear infection so he was wailing at various moments. Not even the dulcet toned deliverers of international gore on BBC World Service could get me back to sleep. Or was that the night before?

I was proud of myself. I didn't transmit my anxiety to the eldest who had to be taken to school on Saturday morning. She obviously felt it was just another match. As I had my coffee at the cafe near her school, I broke into my pain au raisin and wondered how we would all cope with this must win situation.

Un peu de recul - as locals say after sporting fixtures here. Yes, let's just step back. Isn't any match a must win situation? Unless you're in some kind of Italian football match fixing syndicate, then the whole idea of competition is to win.
I've never knowingly risen from my bed of a Saturday morning with a view to straining the muscle in my left thigh and losing.

So I had the coffee and set off. What happened next will leave me mystified for a few weeks to come. Essentially the team with the worst defensive record in the league turned up with only seven players for a 9.30am kick off. An eighth was scheduled to arrive some time later that morning.

The referee was reluctant to get changed and was talking about forfeit. That would mean a 3-0 victory and the title. We gave them three of our substitutes so we could have a Saturday morning kickabout.

However by doing so the captain had somehow turned it into a 'live' game. But the majority of us on both sides thought we were out for a 90 minute trot. The loaned players performed with rare verve. Indeed the one who went in goal displayed an athleticism which put the actual official number one to shame.

At half time it was nil nil. In the second half one of the opposition decided to unleash some coaching clinic skills. Beautiful to watch and quite effective. They went 1-0 up. We equalised. I made it 2-1 and promptly left feeling my contribution as self-styled talisman was complete. They equalised, went 3-2 up and I was brought back on when one of our boys had to go home for family reasons.

We eventually won 4-3. The referee blowing for time after a second half lasting 57 minutes. "It's the last game of the season," he smiled. "And there was lots of time wasting....."

At least the generous gesture had been rewarded.

We were the champions. A part of me would have been happy to take in the 3-0 forfeit, the champagne and the metro back home before 11am. But that's not the path of a true competitor. The victory is sweeter having fought for it.

Would it have been as good if it had been achieved coldly and cynically?

Maria Sharapova seemed contented after battling her way into the last eight at Roland Garros on Sunday evening. The Russian saved two match points against Patty Schnyder and won it on her first match point. As Schnyder conceded in the press conference afterwards: Sharapova is a big champion and she is a little champion.

This is the guts of sport and as we watched from the commentary booth, the studio producer and I saw that Schnyder became fearful with victory beckoning and Sharapova simply grew in the face of defeat.

But it seems the quest for victory spoils. Sharapova was booed off the court. A large section of the crowd was unimpressed that she hit a serve despite Schnyder holding her hand up to say she wasn't ready to receive it. The Russian said in her press conference that she only saw the hand up after she had finished her service action. As the umpire didn't see Schnyder, he had no option but to award the point even though she protested.

Sharapova made no attempt to play a let. Technically she was within the rules but morally she was out of order. She came up with an explanation about not being Mother Teresa. I think we all knew that Maria.

Sharapova advanced some stuff earlier in the tournament about having gained perspective following the death of a coach's mother and her own injury problems.

Santa Maria. If this is what she's like after going to her first funeral, let's hope that nothing serious happens to any more of her entourage during her sponsorship laden career.

One of our team had a heart attack and died while playing in one of our matches last season.

I was there. It was at the ground of Saturday's opponents. Philippe turned up every now and again and played with wit and a sparkle in his eye. We all got some perspective that day.

If it had been 0-0 in injury time on Saturday and if the ball had gone in off my hand without the referee seeing, would I have owned up?

Of course. I'm keen to win and play to win. But from somewhere I've learned that it's not cricket to gain without embracing the spirit of sport. It also strikes me that while hunting for glory, you have to be able to dine out on the meaty tales of the mazy runs and gritty defending.

Those things can be for ever enhanced. And they often are by the time I get back to London to tell the colleagues over a drink on Sunday. There's going to be a vote on whether we take up the place in the higher division.

I'll vote yes. I might regret the decision after another 6-0 drubbing next season. But at least we got there. And it was honestly done.