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05-18-2007, 05:23 PM
From The Times
May 18, 2007
Centre Court, match point: the jewel in Britain’s sporting crown
The Chief Sports Writer picks out his top venues in the country but do you agree with his choices? Let us know your favourite arenas below
I was sorry they pulled down the old place. I even liked the dog track. I didn’t really mind being so far from the action. The old Wembley Stadium always had something for me. It’s unlikely the new one will when I get there for the FA Cup Final tomorrow. Even if it does, it won’t be the same something. Oh, it will be the same sport in the same not-very-attractive suburb, but it won’t be the old Wembley any more than you can rewrite Hamlet and call it Shakespeare.
It may be better. That possibility must be borne in mind. But even if it has stupendous sight-lines and wonderful transport and a tremendous vibe, it won’t be the same as it was before. It won’t be special; or if it is special, it won’t be special in the same way. It won’t have the same meaning.
Sport is full of special places. I am writing these words at one of them: Lord’s cricket ground. I am up in the media centre, a place designed on the principle that no journalist ever carries a bag or needs to move a muscle. I have had innumerable skirmishes with stewards here. I hate the snobbery, I loathe the place’s knee-bending reverence for itself. I despised all that ghastly no-women-in-the-Long-Room stuff. I have positively fought against the famous and deeply self-conscious allure of Lord’s.
And lost. Because the place has something special. The place has meaning, and not just in its objective history. It also has a subjective meaning for me: I have seen great sport, played on a great stage, made greater by the players’ desperate desire to succeed in this, of all places.
In particular, it has a sense of unity. It is remarkable in such a large space. I remember – far more than any shouting and cheering – the thrill of anticipation before the first ball of the 2005 Ashes and that glorious, heady feeling when Stephen Harmison’s second ball struck Justin Langer on the elbow. Every single person on the entire ground had the same revelation at the selfsame instance: we could bloody well win this, you know. Let us hope that the proposed developments do not destroy the soul of the place.
A place – any place – can have a meaning that is impersonal, historical, cultural. It can also have a personal meaning, unique to each individual. Westminster Abbey has an historical meaning, but not much of a personal one, though it presumably does for the Queen. Westminster Cathedral does have a personal meaning: I have several times attended sung high mass with my parents.
I always feel a remembered thrill of fear and adventure when I walk down Fleet Street, the legacy of my early struggles in journalism. Many others in my profession will feel the same thing. And as a result of other early struggles, I feel an almost unbearable pang of love and loss when I find myself in the vicinity of Cadogan Square: a meaning that’s there for me alone. (Well, not quite alone, that was the problem.)
Nick Hornby has written vividly of his reverence for the old Highbury stadium, how the very streets that surrounded it seemed touched by magic. Everyone with a truly passionate devotion to a football club feels something of the same thing, especially if it was part of childhood. In this country, football clubs almost invariably have emotional links to a stadium, which makes ground-sharing – common in Italy – anathema. English football supporters fear that sharing a ground would dilute the magic, destroy the meaning, rot the soul of the place.
But I never got Hornby-like about Highbury, for all that I have seen some good sport there, because I have no emotional link with the place. I felt quite different about old Wembley. There was something special about the walk along Olympic Way, the sight of the Twin Towers, because it was something to do with ’66 and something to do with the time when the only football you ever saw on telly was the Cup Final. The idea of Wembley’s specialness was there from the start.
I have acquired a positive loathing for some sporting venues.
The “magnificent” Millennium Stadium is one of them: a soulless bloody place, hard to get to and harder still to leave, with vertiginous views and a PA system cranked up beyond the threshold of pain. I have seen good sport there; I hope I never do so again.
I have seen great sport at Old Trafford football ground without feeling any soul. If I have any liking for the place, it’s because the train back to town is reliable and I know a great curry house. For others, the place is the Theatre of Dreams. But when I went to Anfield for the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea (in 2005, far more than this year), I felt the soul of the place all right; and it wasn’t to be measured in decibels.
Some places acquire a meaning for people and others, for no very obvious reason, don’t. That is why, as I present my top ten of British sporting venues, you may well find your own favourites missing. No golf, for a start. I have been to St Andrews – I skived off to go birding. Other people think it’s the only true corner of paradise to be found on Earth. It’s all in the way these things take you.
Edgbaston makes it because my grandfather took me there, edging out the far more beautiful cricket ground at Arundel. Twickenham is there despite the rugger-buggers, because I have seen such good sport there, unfolding stories of the pursuit and capture of greatness. Badminton is a wonderful place for a wonderful sport. Hickstead is a great arena, one of Britain’s best-kept sporting secrets.
Newmarket – both courses – has a beauty that comes not just from the sport, but also from the town itself. Newmarket seems to me as magical and as bizarre as Venice, with horses instead of gondolas and gallops instead of canals. The Crucible comes in because of its passionate neuroses, its soul-revealing claustrophobia.
But my top of the pops is Centre Court, Wimbledon. I hope that the latest changes – a sliding roof, for God’s sake – have not affected its soul. The place has a disturbing sense of inferiority – you don’t feel quite comfortable wearing a hat in there. There is a thrilling intimacy. No player has ever dominated it.
Above all, Centre Court has the gift of silence. The pin-drop hush on match point is one of the finest sounds in sport. It’s an arena where the best can find the greatness within themselves; and where the greatest of all can go beyond even that and find themselves playing in a way that even they never thought possible.
I have seen Tim Henman take a set off Pete Sampras while playing the best tennis of his life: and then fail. And I have seen Sampras rise to such an extraordinary level of play that he went beyond mere perfection. He would not have been able to do that anywhere else.
Fields of dreams
Simon Barnes’s top ten venues
1 Centre Court, Wimbledon
3 Old Wembley
4 Newmarket racecourse
7 The Crucible, Sheffield
06-13-2007, 08:19 PM