Cricket and football. Two culturally significant British past times that sit side by side. But like summer and winter, in many ways the two sports couldn’t be more different. However, while it may be hard to believe in this modern age of athlete insurance, multi-million pound contracts and a preoccupation with burnout, in days gone by it wasn’t uncommon for talented professional footballers to cross codes during the off season from their main gig, and visa versa cricketers.
A century ago, C.B Fry, the pre-eminent Edwardian sporting hero, headed up an esteemed list of 12 men who represented England at both sports. Later the likes of William ‘Fatty’ Foulke and Denis Compton – the original Brylcream boy – carried the torch for their bi-sporting brethren, and even England’s 1966 World Cup hero, Geoff Hurst, spent his summers running in to bowl at Essex CCC’s Chelmsford County Ground.
In more recent times, Gary Lineker represented the MCC, Steve Ogrizovic bowled Viv Richards out in a match against a touring West Indies side and Ian Botham sporadically led the line for Scunthorpe United until a fight on a team night out got him arrested and meant he almost missed out on a winter cricket tour for England. But it was after Andy Goram, a Scottish international wicket-keeper batsman, was banned from playing cricket by Rangers FC due to fear of injury, that this exclusive species dissolved into near extinction.
With the new millennium has come a cotton-wool culture sparked by football’s big budgets. Which is why Phil Neville chose £3,000 a week at Manchester United over £3,000 a year at Lancashire CCC. One man who would’ve loved to have carried the baton for this rare breed is an ex-opening partner of Neville’s, a certain Mr Andrew Flintoff. But while the Preston-born all-rounder superseded Neville’s status as the most talented young cricketer in Manchester, and later emulated Beefy’s talismanic batting performances for England, he is under no illusions as to his own lack of footballing prowess: “I’d love to have played footy to a good level but I was never good enough,” he admits.
This hasn’t diluted big Fred fervent passion for the beautiful game. In fact I could hardly shut him up when I raised the subject of football during a recent interview…
I’ve heard a rumour you were a decent footballer growing up…
Football was a major part of growing up in Preston. There’d be huge games at the park– jumpers for goalposts – after school every day. My first love was always cricket, but I played football, at first it was only for acceptance because I didn’t want to get beaten up for being a ‘cricket kid!’ But as I got more involved I took football pretty seriously.
People were asking me if I was going to give him a discount because he was joining City… no way was I! On the wages City are paying, if he wants it he can pay the asking price!
What sort of a player were you?
I had no idea which position to say I played in when I first joined a club at the age of 10. I was quite big so they whacked me at centre half and I just seemed to stay there from then on. Us defenders always got blamed if we got beat, so I had to play well at the back. I enjoyed that responsibility. By the age of 12, I was playing for the school’s fifth year football team, three years above my own year group. It was more physical and a much higher standard than I’d been used to, but that’s where I learned to play football properly. I got spotted playing for the school and called up to Preston North End Boys. I played a couple of games for them but to be honest it was just a winter hobby for me – I always wanted to pursue cricket.
Were you good enough to make the footballing grade?
No chance. I enjoyed the football but I was never good enough to make it as a pro. I was just tall and fast. I could boot it a long way. John Beck was the Preston manager at the time. They played a kick ‘n’ rush style on the old plastic pitch at Deepdale and I did kind of fit in there because the tactic was just to kick it as far as you could and let the forwards chase it!
You won’t be following in Ian Botham’s footballing footsteps then…
(Laughs…) He wasn’t any good though was he?
His record says 28 Football League games, one goal…
That tells its own story… I know that back in the day there were quite a few cricketers who were good at football. Ryan Sidebottom’s old man, Arnie, played in defence for Man United and cricket for Yorkshire and England, but those days are gone. The physical demands on you are so great these that you need the rest. And besides, there are winter tours for cricketers and summer tours for footballers nowadays so I don’t think it would ever work. Although if there was ever a chance I would love to play in one of them celebrity charity matches at Wembley. That would be unbelievable. But I won’t be turning out for Yeovil on a cold Tuesday night in November. Not with my knee problems!
What are your earliest football memories?
The first footy kit I got was a Man U tracksuit. The Smiths across the road had six boys and I used to get their hand-me-downs, which was often Man U merchandise. I actually played my first ever game of cricket in that trackie because I had no whites. It was an under-13s match, yet I was barely six and only played because they were short. United weren’t a very good omen for my cricket career, though, I got bowled first ball…
5-a-side football has been a contentious issue within the England cricket camp in recent times. What’s your view?
Throughout my time with the England Test squad we played 5-a-side football to warm up and had some belters over the years, particularly out in Pakistan in 2002. It’s only a contentious issue now because a couple of lads have been injured having a kickabout the day before a big Test match. So it’s all been knocked on the head for now, which is a shame because it was great for team morale. There aren’t any great footballers within the England cricket setup, contrary to what Steve Harmison might tell you. But on that note I’d like to see some of the England footballers try to play cricket!
I was put up in digs just round the corner from Maine Road. So I went to watch City a few times and I really liked the club and the people and I became an honorary blue Manc.
Well you know more than most that Phil Neville can play a bit…
That’s true. Phil Neville is more than handy at the crease. He was in my Lancashire CCC youth team. A decent left hand batsman who broke the record for the youngest ever century maker in a second XI county match. I think that record still stands, actually. Phil was our team’s superstar when we were growing up. To give you an idea of his level, he captained England under-15s at cricket, while I didn’t even get in the squad. I have no doubt he would’ve gone on to play cricket for a living had he not chosen football instead. But part of me was glad he left for Man United because it allowed me to step into the spotlight. And, bearing in mind the success he’s had in his football career – and the money he’s earned – I’m sure he’s happy with his decision as well.
Who’s your team?
Growing up, a lot of my Saturday afternoons were spent down at Deepdale watching Preston North End in the old third division. I used to stand in the Town End with my mates. They were getting crowds of 12,000 and there was a great atmosphere. We’d even go to the odd away game on the supporters’ bus. The Lilywhites had a striker called Tony Ellis who banged ‘em in. He was quality. So in terms of footballing allegiance, I would say I’m a Preston fan, but I haven’t seen them play for years now. These days I’m more of a City supporter. I moved to Manchester when I was 16 to sign a contract with Lancashire CCC. I was put up in digs just round the corner from Maine Road. So I went to watch City a few times and I really liked the club and the people and I became an honorary blue Manc.
Do you go to watch many games live?
I still try to get to Eastlands as much as I can. I know Ricky Hatton, he’s a City nut and we often chat about football. But I tend to go to the game with my old mates more often than not. We’ll go in The Mancunian pub early doors, have a bit of food and sit on the seats out front before walking up to the ground. It’s a good day out.
I got spotted playing for the school and called up to Preston North End Boys. I played a couple of games for them but to be honest it was just a winter hobby for me – I always wanted to pursue cricket.
What are you expecting from City this term?
A top four finish would represent success this season. I can appreciate that when a chairman spends so much money, there is a certain pressure that comes with it. I just hope the new owners stick with the traditions of the club. I want City to keep its identity, because it is the club of the people of Manchester. It’d be sad if they ever lost that vibe.
Have you got any footballing mates?
I don’t tend to hang around in celebrity circles so I don’t have many footballer friends. But I know Paul Dickov well. He scored one of City’s most crucial goals ever (in the 2002 Division Two play-off final) so I’ve sorted him out with Test match tickets now and then. He likes his cricket does Paul.
Didn’t Samuel Eto’o look round your house when he was in talks with City last summer?
That’s a funny story… I was selling my house at the same time as City were approaching new players last summer, and one of the guys rumoured to be interested in buying my place was Samuel Eto’o. He didn’t end up signing, so he pulled out, but at the time people were asking me if I was going to give him a discount because he was joining City… no way was I! On the wages City are paying, if he wants it he can pay the asking price!
England’s cricketers won the Twenty20 World Cup this year, but the footballers flopped in South Africa. What did you make of it all?
Having been in similar situations I can appreciate the immense pressure that the England football team were under at The World Cup. They didn’t perform, but that’s not to say they weren’t trying. I can speak from experience when I say sometimes it just doesn’t happen for you at the top level, sometimes the pressure gets to you or you have an off day. But that doesn’t make you any less proud to wear the three lions on your chest. I think historically England’s sportsmen have always been good underdogs – we beat Australia in the 2005 Ashes against the odds. But then people expected something from us in 2006-07 and we got beat 5-0. When it comes to the football team, they’re never underdogs, they are always expected to win. The nation builds them up as the best, so it becomes tough to live up to expectation.”
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