Requiems for heavyweights: sporting history’s seven super-dupers who died in 2006 were, at 79, football’s Ferenc Puskas, cricket’s Fred Trueman (75) and Sir Clyde Walcott (80), US boxer Willie Pep (84) and his compatriot, double Olympian Bob Mathias (75), rugby’s sprinter Ken Jones (84), and Dr Kevin O’Flanagan (86), who played international tennis and golf for Ireland and also, uniquely, both rugby and soccer (for Arsenal, no less), as well as holding the national record at the 100 yards and long jump.
An old year bites the dust-to-dust and as ever, with it, so does the roll-call of those whose final Christmas was last year’s. Only the spectral fields of Elysium now; no smell of the liniment nor roar of the crowd up there: I logged, by apt fluke, 11 famous footballers who died in 2006, and a jolly good XI they make: in goal Ted Ditchburn (84); full backs Giacinto Facchetti (64), thrice an Italy World Cupper, and Roger Griffiths (61), only local boy in Hereford United’s fabled FA Cup run of 1972; at centre-half, stalwart Brian Labone (61), alongside scholarly midfielders John Lyall (66) and Ron Greenwood (84); and wow! some forward line: the incomparable Jimmies, Johnstone (61) and Leadbetter (78), slinging them over from either wing for Charlie Wayman (83), Peter Osgood (59) and the onliest Puskas to take it in laughing turns to score.
Probably because their game’s obituarists are more diligent, you can field two cricket XIs of those who died in 2006; well balanced teams, too: lamented Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie (72) could captain Dennis Brookes (90), Gordon Barker (74), Eddie Barlow (64), Wasim Raja (54), Sir Clyde (w.k.), Geoff Rabone (85), Johnny Sullivan (61), Eric Bedser (87), Alec Coxon (90), with true-great Trueman chuntering, affronted, at having to bring up the rear; and Walter Hadlee (91) would lead out Budhi Kunderan (66), Polly Umrigar (80), Hanumant Singh (67), Graham Roope (60), Jake Seamer (92), Michael Barton (91), George Dawkes (86, w.k.), Bob Berry (80), Geoff Griffin (67), and Neil Williams (43). At rugby, even from both codes I cannot quite make up a full team of 2006-ers for the Celestial All-Stars Cup, but there is a nippy essence to build on, with O’Flanagan and Jones being joined in the back by the Rev. Gerald Hollis (86), and the two hard-running Leaguers, JJ McKeown (80) and St John ‘Singe’ Ellis (41), with an undoubted beefy defiance in the pack with prop Barrie Nelmes (58), locks Keith Rowlands (70) and Maurice Colclough (52), and an all-purpose back row of Des O’Brien (86), Ken Goodall (59) and ‘Chic’ Henderson (76).
Epic Olympic walker with the Chaplinesque gait, Don Thompson reached the finish-line at 73; horseracing lost David Nicholson (67); golf Byron Nelson (94), Patty Berg (88) and Ronnie White (84); boxing’s once quicksilver Floyd Patterson was 71, tragic Trevor Berbick 51; snooker’s John Spencer (71) sank his last red and so, wretchedly young, did Paul Hunter (27). At my own game, cherished Australian buddies, Richard Yallop (58) and Bruce Wilson (64) wrote ‘End’ on their copy far too soon; so did fine friends with whom I toured all over, sharing mosquito-nets and doubtful local hooch: cricket’s John Thicknesse (74) and Dick Streeton (75), and rugby’s David Frost (77). Peppery, primeval Fleet Streeter Alex Bannister (92) screwed on the top of his fountain-pen with finality and so, at 85, did dear ‘Prab’ — ‘India’s Cardus’, lovely, lyrical, kindly K.N. Prabhu. Not a good year at all.