Is any new sporting arena fit for purpose without a statue to adorn it? Critics of the apparently workaday new Wembley Stadium reckon the most striking thing about it is the towering bronze at its entrance by sculptor Philip Jackson of the straightbacked, relaxed good fellow, lamented Bobby Moore. Statues of sporting figures are suddenly all the rage. Forty years or so ago, when Bob was still captaining the England football team, I’d cover the rugby at Paris’s decrepit, fondly remembered Colombes (where they’d staged 1924’s Chariots of Fire Olympic Games) and, waiting for my ticket check, would always offer a sentimental nod towards the chunky four-square stone sculpture of France’s fabled flying ace and fly-half, Yves du Manoir, who’d died at just 24 when the biplane he was piloting at a Red Arrows-type exhibition gimmick over Colombes crashed before the kick-off of the French XV’s match against Scotland in 1928. Again, I remember being charmed when the England cricket team on the subcontinent in 1982 played a match at Indore, the stadium entrance being dominated by an imposing stone statue of dashing All-India batsman C.K. Nayudu letting rip a wristy hook shot. Back home, all we had was the curliewurlie ironwork of the Grace Gates at Lord’s and the Hobbs Gate at the Oval. Not the same at all.
Now British sport keeps sculptors in caviar. This month at Wimbledon I’ll exchange a mutual wink for good ol’ times remembered with David Wynne’s exquisite bronze of Fred Perry essaying a merry midcourt volley; it was unveiled all of 50 years after Fred’s first singles victory there. Denis Compton was still alive as well when Lord’s named a new grandstand after him, but the statue they put under it depicted not cricket’s postwar demigod playing his ‘signature’ sweep shot, but a coiled and lusty cover-driver; and, later, sculptor Gerald Laing admitted he’d worked from 1930s photographs of Walter Hammond, whose trademark had been the ferocious offside creamer.
At football, I’ve lost count of the stadium statues: there’s aldermanic Matt Busby at Old Trafford, and at Anfield a be-scarved Bill Shankly in walk on, walk on messiah pose; Molineux’s bronze has darling Billy Wright purposefully leading his Wolves out of the tunnel; and ‘Hey! Ref!’ outside Leeds United’s Elland Road has fiery carrot-top Billy Bremner typically appealing for a penalty. At Deepdale, the statue to ‘the Preston plumber’ Tom Finney is plonked, aptly, in a fountain (copied from a Fleet Street ‘watersplash’ snap of 1956); at Ipswich, solemn Sir Alf in a suit and, as well, sculptor Sean Hedges-Quinn’s touching realism with his endearing worrypot Bobby Robson, and at Sunderland he has Bob Stokoe in his ‘immortal’ Wembley pork-pie titfer. This summer they’re even unveiling a statue in County Armagh of William McCrum, ‘inventor’ of the penalty kick in 1890. Mind you, not everyone’s a winner: this spring when Ian Brennan cast Southampton FC eminence Ted Bates for matey caricature, angry fans had it removed for ‘a rethink’.
Ghastly new provincial shopping ‘malls’ demand memorials, too: Warwick pulled rank to claim as ‘theirs’ Leamington’s fine boxer Randolph Turpin; master-batsman Graham Gooch inscrutably surveys the downtown litter in Chelmsford; ditto Gareth Edwards in Cardiff’s city centre; and shoppers at Hanley in the Potteries scurry by with their plastic bags, seeming oblivious to Colin Melbourne’s striking depiction of the onliest Sir Stan, wizard of dribble, straddling the touchline for posterity on the plinth above them.