10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 71


Run, rabbit, run

Simon Barnes

THERE was a custom at the coll. — the educational establishment in Stalky & Co. — in which a boy showing funk was 'decreed a rabbit'. That is what happened to the egregious Beetle in the story 'The Satisfaction of a Gentleman', after he had shown something less than berserker courage in a pitched battle fought with saloon pistols. It meant that anyone could legitimately take a pot shot at him. He ended up being plugged by Stalky himself, who had originally been fighting on the same side. So you can see that being decreed a rabbit is a serious business.

Now this is precisely what happens in Sport. A public figure is normally given at least tentative support when he starts out. He is treated with something approaching generosity. Sometimes he gets an absolute- ly hysterical welcome. With some, however, there comes a time when the relationship between the individual and his public begins to go wrong. And after that comes the dreadful time when the big name is decreed a rabbit.

If you are a player, you can always redeem yourself by scoring a few goals, a few centuries. But if you are a manager, once you have been decreed a rabbit there is very little you can do except run. You may be able to keep ahead of your pur- suers, but you can only do so by running.

The England cricket captaincy is a job in which the finest are always, in the end, decreed a rabbit. Perhaps the only worse job for inspiring the boys with the saloon pistols to start blazing away is that of Eng- land football manager or coach.

Glenn Hoddle had been doing rather nicely, very nicely indeed, considering that he had just completed a losing World Cup campaign not only without being decreed a rabbit but without losing an iota of public respect. A smart person would have quit while he was ahead, like Terry Venables. The horrors of being decreed a rabbit are still writ large on the face of Bobby Rob- son, an excellent footballing man. And as for poor Graham Taylor, he was the rabbit of all rabbits and is still running after all these years. Hoddle, however, chose to throw away his truly remarkable position. The first mis- take was his ghastly book, mentioned before in this space, called How I Won the World Cup, something like that, anyway: perhaps its smug, self-congratulatory tone did even more to alienate Hoddle than his telling of tales out of school.

A very poor match followed, not exactly by coincidence, in which England lost to Sweden, blowing a winning position. With the book, Hoddle was decreed a rabbit; with the defeat, the saloon pistols of private opin- ion and public print roared out their salute.

The pistols are currently being reloaded. In the next few days, England play two matches, against Bulgaria and Luxem- bourg, as they seek to qualify for the Euro- pean championship. Anything less than two wins will force the rabbit-shooters to pull the triggers. And two wins will not mean that the pistols will be hidden away in the tuck boxes.

No, once you have been decreed a rabbit, the pistols never really do disappear. It's a cruel business, but nobody shoots to kill, you know, just to cause pain and dismay. It's not murder: just sport, that's all.

'Wasn't it a beauty?' Stalky said. 'Did it sting much? Never mind!'