For years, sport in the summer months was an annual (or bi-annual) exercise in national humiliation for either England or the UK as a whole. How many Ashes defeats? How many Wimbledon whimpers? And how many deflating exits from either the World Cup or the European Championships? Most of us were raised in the shadows of legends and were taught that once upon a time we used to be the best at sports we invented, before the colonies and other countries we exported those sports to at the end of the Imperial era gradually overtook us and turned the teacher/pupil relationship upside down. A decline on the playing fields we’d laid out in the first place appeared to mirror a decline in our overall global standing, as though one was inexorably related to the other, and the past was somewhere we’d always been world champions. For endless decades, the last Brit to have won the men’s singles crown in SW19 had been before the Second World War; the name Fred Perry was once an ubiquitous yardstick TV viewers grew tired of being referenced year-after-year, yet it seemed he’d always be mentioned to remind us of our collective ineptitude at a game we become obsessed with for a solitary fortnight whenever June bleeds into July.
The England cricket team had the tables turned on it by the Aussies quite early, losing its first Test match to the uppity Antipodeans as far back as 1882; this prompted the infamous mock obituary that proclaimed ‘the death of English cricket’ following the defeat at the Oval, and gave birth to the Ashes series. The England football team managed to sustain the illusion a little longer, until overconfidence was punctured by two severe lessons in the early 1950s – a 1-0 loss to the amateurs of the USA at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, and the 6-3 thrashing by Hungary at Wembley in 1953 (which was England’s first defeat on home soil by Continental opposition since 1066). The latter result coming in the wake of the morale-boosting conquest of Everest served as a telling reminder that our spell on top of the world wasn’t destined to last long.
Of course, the England football team recovered and eventually did the business in 1966; but thereafter it was a slow slide back into international ignominy – the 3-2 loss to the West Germans in the 1970 World Cup after being 2-0 up; being outclassed by an even better German side 3-1 at Wembley in the 1972 European Championships; and then the ultimate humiliation, failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup with a 1-1 draw against Poland in 1973, a result that cost Sir Alf his job. To make matters worse, that World Cup was to be held in West Germany, and even worse (from an English perspective) the Scots had qualified. Yet, the whole country having to drape itself in tartan then became the new narrative of national failure. Despite having an abundance of talent at its disposal in terms of players who had lifted every club trophy north and south of the border (as well as in Europe), the Scotland teams we had little choice but to support in 1974 and 1978 heaped further humiliation on the nation, failing to get past the group stage on both occasions and producing some memorably embarrassing score-lines in the process.
My childhood exposure to summer sport on a national level was one characterised by bewilderment and questions. I wondered why England never qualified for the World Cup, why only British women occasionally won Wimbledon (though even that ended with Virginia Wade in 1977), and why the Aussies always won the Ashes. It was probably a good life lesson, actually, to realise that you can’t always get what you want – even if it would’ve been nice to have got it every once in a while. Any tiny sign that we might have sired a world-beater was grabbed with gusto. Although the tally of Great British gold medals at the first few Olympic Games I saw was pretty pitiful (never exceeding more than 5 from Munich in 1972 and plunging to a nadir of just the one at Atlanta in 1996), it probably helped propel the elite athletes who did get their hands on gold to levels of fame they’d otherwise have evaded – even if it also contributed towards the risible comedy cult of Eddie ‘The Eagle’, who was celebrated for being crap and accelerated the tedious ‘Plucky Brit’ narrative.
In sports not associated with the summer months we seemed to do better. We were always good at Formula One, for example, with the likes of Jackie Stewart and James Hunt crowned world champions during my formative years; and in boxing we appeared to have several champs in different weights, even if the one everybody wanted – the heavyweight – remained impervious to our efforts, despite the likes of Joe Bugner, Richard Dunn and Frank Bruno all having a shot. We were no better come the time of year when strawberries & cream were the delicacy of choice. After Roger Taylor reached three Wimbledon semis between 1967 and 1973, there then followed an interminably lengthy period in which futile hopes rested with the likes of John Lloyd or Jeremy Bates, both of whom the viewer knew would wilt when confronted by a genuine world-beater – and they always did. And then Tim Henman appeared out of nowhere.
Despite looking and sounding like a member of the Shadow Cabinet from the years when the Tories were cast out into Opposition, and despite attracting the kind of unhinged granny fan-base that camps outside London hospitals for days when a royal birth is imminent, on court Henman exceeded every expectation bar one. Four Wimbledon semis between 1998 and 2002 was undoubtedly impressive considering what had preceded him, yet he just couldn’t cross that line into the final. What Britain needed at Wimbledon was the kind of figure that had given English cricket a kick up the arse in the 80s, Ian Botham. The immortal Ashes turnaround of 1981 made ‘Beefy’ an old-fashioned ‘Boys Own’ national hero, with Botham not only socking it to the Aussies but the stuffy old MCC fossils as well; his off-the-field antics also played their part in his legend, and it was a long time before English cricket again came close to the heights it had scaled with its best all-rounder leading the charge. It was hard to imagine an Englishman bringing that to the refined arena of Wimbledon, so perhaps it took a Scot to do it.
A contrast with gentleman Henman’s Home Counties niceness, Andy Murray’s rages at himself when a shot went astray was a joy to behold as a Brit. Here was a player with fire in his belly and a will to win none of us had ever seen before. His progress up the world rankings was rapid, reaching his first Grand Slam final in 2008 (the US Open) and the first of three consecutive Wimbledon semis the following year. In 2012, he went one better and became the first post-war male Brit to reach the singles final, though couldn’t make it past the immovable object of Roger Federer; however, that same year he did achieve a unique double of the US Open and Olympic gold. A year later, the British hoodoo was smashed when Murray won Wimbledon, beating the mighty Novak Djokovic in straight sets; a second Wimbledon win followed in 2016, with Murray’s glorious battles becoming intrinsic to the Great British Summer for a good few years in the 2010s.
The 2012 Olympics in London was a pretty qualified success for this country on many levels, not least the amount of medals won (including 29 gold) that placed us third on the final board; investment in British athletics from the Olympic low of 1996 onwards had paid off. The England cricket team’s memorably dramatic 2019 World Cup win (reminiscent of that edge-of-the-seat Ashes triumph in 2005), when placed alongside the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and Murray’s achievements, could put forward the argument that the 2010s were British summer sport’s golden age. The one area in which we continued to struggle on the global stage was football. Anyone who witnessed the atrocious capitulation to the minnows of Iceland at the 2016 Euros cannot fail to be impressed at the transformation overseen by Gareth Southgate’s management since then. A World Cup semi in 2018 and now one step closer to completing something my generation (the first with no memory of 1966) has had to live without longer than any other. And all we have to do is beat Italy…
© The Editor