There is nothing in sport quite like the unexpected emergence of an unaffected new star. It is the novelty that never wears off: the wide-eyed smile of the young athlete who can scarcely believe their wildest dreams are being realised, a captivated audience enjoying a first glimpse of talent and poise from beyond the tramlines of ordinariness. As of this weekend, this phenomenon can now be retitled the Emma Raducanu Effect.
Even in the midst of such an absurdly hectic sporting summer it would have required a heart of Roy Keane‑esque stone not to glory in an 18-year-old reminding us that high-level tennis, even under the searchlight of Wimbledon scrutiny, can be empowering and fun. As Andy Murray limps into the twilight of his extraordinary career, how blessed is British tennis that the barley water gods have now served up such a likable, well-adjusted successor?
It has been a similarly uplifting story in the Euros. Let’s face it, many of the millions screaming: “It’s coming home!” from their sofas would not have recognised Jadon Sancho or Jude Bellingham a month ago had they knocked on their front doors carrying footballs under both arms. Almost as disconcerting as England cruising smoothly into the late stages of a major tournament is the growing public realisation that those responsible also appear to be excellent role models. The more we see them the more we like them, which is not always so in the traditional nice‑guys‑finish-last world of elite sport.
Thinking about it, this freshly minted charm also explains why the British & Irish Lions continue to exert such a powerful hold over so many imaginations. The opening provincial tour match in Johannesburg on Saturday might have been a touch mundane in other circumstances – mediocre opposition, one-sided, no spectators – but the Lions are never remotely routine for one simple reason: they don’t know what is going to happen next, either.
Imagine, for comparison’s sake, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland coming together to compete as one in the European football championship. And, in some instances, being permitted only a few days’ preparation? How much chance of immediate success would they have? The only possible option is to do what the Lions have traditionally done: subvert their egos to the broader cause, hold tackle bags for others in the pouring rain if required and laugh along with mates who, days ago, were remote, unknown rivals.
In certain cases this can require a full-blown Stars in Their Eyes-style transformation of identity. “Tonight, Matthew, I am going to be a top-class Lion despite never having played with most of these blokes before.” No wonder those who enjoy a successful first night look so genuinely thrilled. Watching the flanker Hamish Watson shyly accept his man of the match award on his Lions debut and Josh Adams treat his four-try haul like a bag of groceries unexpectedly delivered by 14 other kindly van drivers was to sense the first tell-tale signs of an unselfish, warm-hearted band of brothers who may yet enjoy a successful Lions adventure.
Clearly, the similarities with Raducanu are not wholly exact. The mullet fancier Watson, known as “The Mish”, has already played 41 Tests for Scotland and is the Six Nations player of the year. Adams was the top try scorer at the 2019 Rugby World Cup and helped Wales to reach the semi-finals. Now, though, the goalposts have shifted, particularly for a wider English sporting public that has previously seen them as someone else’s heroes. Suddenly four equals one. It is like falling in love with the boy or girl next door whom you have abruptly realised is no ordinary neighbour.
This is the addictive secret not simply of the Lions but sporting romanticism full stop. Raducanu and Sancho and Bukayo Saka and Watson – admittedly a slightly long-in-the-tooth Lions novice at the age of 29 – are crashing open the stage door and marching through the dry ice with no obvious fear. The popular assumption is that only psycho killers or weirdos do that: how much more engaging to watch inspiring performers who, but for their fast-twitch muscle fibres and infinitely better ball-eye coordination, could almost be one of us.
For me it is that emotional connection, real or imaginary, that breeds a lasting affinity with sport. My late dad reared us on endless tales of evocative Somerset cricketers, but his favourite was always Harold Gimblett, from Bicknoller in the Quantock Hills. Gimblett’s first-class debut in 1935 remains the stuff of West Country legend: called up at the 11th hour, having previously been told by his home county that he wasn’t good enough, he missed the bus from Taunton, hitched a lift in a lorry and arrived late in Frome to face Essex. Coming in to bat at No 8, with his side struggling on 107 for six, the 20-year-old hit a century in just over an hour and Somerset went on to win by an innings. Fleet Street’s finest swiftly descended on the Gimblett family farm and an unlikely star was born.
Instant gratification, of course, rarely lasts indefinitely. It could be that Raducanu will lose her next match and that England’s name, perish the thought, is not already on the cup. Watson and Adams still have work to do to make the starting XV for the first Lions Test, while the media’s fickle eye may yet alight on the 20-year-old Louis Rees-Zammit, rugby’s latest meteor. Either way, let us rejoice for now and rip up that tired old maxim of Alan Hansen’s. With today’s increasingly mature, fearless generation of kids you can win anything.