BY TIM MIDDLETON
ROY Keane, the former Manchester United captain who won the English Premier League seven times and the FA Cup four times, famously missed out on their remarkable Champions League final victory in 1999 as he was booked after 34 minutes of the semi-final second leg tie against Juventus in Turin, which meant he was suspended from the next match.
His manager, the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, later described Keane’s performance (during which he also scored a vital goal) for the remaining hour of that match as, “The most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. I felt such an honour to be associated with such a player.” He was truly the hero!
How did Keane himself see his performance and his manager’s subsequent eloquent tribute?
Interestingly, he is quoted as saying that, “Stuff like that almost insults me. What am I supposed to do? Give up? Not cover every blade of grass? Not do my best for my teammates? Not do my best for my club?
I actually get offended when people throw quotes like that at me, as if I’m supposed to be honoured by it.
It’s like praising the postman for delivering your letters. He’s supposed to, isn’t he? That’s his job.”
He is right: that is his job. That is what he is meant (and paid considerably) to do.
Lay that aside another incident involving Keane, when, four years after Alf-Inge Haaland of Leeds United accused Keane of faking an injury to prevent himself being booked in 1997, Keane deliberately inflicted a frighteningly career-ending injury on Haaland when he was playing for Keane’s rivals, Manchester City. Selflessness? Honourable? Heroic?
The same questions may be made of another soccer player, Luiz Suarez of Uruguay, who denied Ghana a place in the 2010 World Cup semi-final by deliberately using his hands on the goal-line to prevent a certain goal in the last moments of extra-time when the scores were level.
Not surprisingly he was sent off but surprisingly Ghana missed the resultant penalty and then lost the match on penalties.
So Suarez became the hero by saving his team through his selfless action which also robbed him the chance of playing in the next match.
However, can he be called a hero when he deliberately did what was wrong?
Sports writers and fans are often very quick to hand out the label ‘hero’.
The headline of a national newspaper reporting on the Third Test between England and Australia in 2019 led with: “In Praise of Jack Leach, England’s everyday superhero hiding in plain sight”.
Another newspaper defined him as a “national treasure” and a “cult hero”.
The grounds on which such an epithet was made were that he had been involved in “one of the most astonishing final wicket partnerships in history” which enabled England to win the match despite trailing for so long.
So what was his heroic contribution? He scored one run from seventeen balls in a partnership of seventy-six match-winning runs.
His team-mate in that partnership was Ben Stokes who scored 135 runs; traditionally he would have been seen as the real hero but many were quick to point out that without Leach’s score of one not out, his partner would not have been able to score the necessary runs.
The point of all of this is perhaps to question what determines real heroism in sport.
We are often too quick to grant such heroic status on sportsmen and women, including children, and we are usually inclined to do so for the wrong reasons.
As Keane noted, they are simply doing what is expected of them so how can that be deemed heroism?
However, more importantly, is heroism really a word that should be bandied around in sport?
Heroism is found in actions but not necessarily ability; it is found in selflessness but with honour.
It is found in bravery but not in gain. Sport is not a matter of life and death; we need to keep sport in perspective.
Scoring goals, tries or runs does not constitute heroism so we need, especially at schools, to stop making it so.
The letters of the word ‘Hero’ are found in the word ‘others’.
That is what we should be honouring; when people help others, who put others first (which is the opposite of competition).
The real heroes in sport then will be those who turn up for every practice, train hard and long, absorb all that is taught, participate with enthusiasm and commitment, support and encourage team-mates, even if they do not make the team.
Will they be keen to do that? Heroes do.
- Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email: firstname.lastname@example.org