My lifetime obsession in twelve hours, concluded.
Woah, there – you’re not just getting in now, are you? Be sure you’ve read parts one, two and three before moving on, because unless you’re George Lucas you’ve no business starting with part four. When ready, please find part four in the following thousands of meticulously-ordered words.
There are a couple of reasonable candidates here, but both share a fatal flaw: superior counterparts at other positions.
First, the Welsh rugby number 10. Considering the position and the jersey itself, it’s more iconic than number 9. Different nations take pride in certain brands of play, and of players. Here in Wales, we’re proud of our outside-halves – our number 10s (arguably, that pride is based on an outdated notion of the position held over from the 1970s to the detriment of the national game in the modern era, but what are you gonna do?). Truly, some incredible players have held the position – Barry John, Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies, Neil Jenkins … and dare I say … Dan Biggar (probably too soon, but what a guy, huh?).
Barry John, in particular, has a somewhat mythical status for the manner in which he soared to great heights in his early career only to retire suddenly aged 27, apparently seeking an escape from life in Welsh rugby’s infamous “goldfish bowl”. If he’d played on longer, there might be a lively debate on whether he or his half-back parter Gareth Edwards were the greatest ever player for Wales and maybe any nation. But he didn’t, so there’s not – it was Edwards.
If Edwards weren’t from my village (or I from his, would be a fairer way to phrase it), this might be a fair fight. If I had a better candidate at number 9, I might bump Edwards to enable the famous Welsh number 10 to appear here. But as things stand, it just doesn’t fit.
Another option is Ron Santo – a former Chicago Cub whose retired number flag flies permanently over Wrigley Field. Familiar? That’s the problem, again. Everything Ron Santo is to me, Ernie Banks also is, but more so.
Both are beloved legends on the north side of Chicago. Both ended their playing days decades before I called myself a Cubs fan. Both are sadly no longer with us. The difference, callously, is that Santo died before I was a Cubs fan, while Banks did not.
As outlined previously, I don’t feel entirely comfortable claiming any ownership in Ernie Banks’s place in Cubs history, but he did play some part in the growth of my fandom. Santo was gone before I ever knew his name. I have a tenuous but valid case for Banks on the clock, but not Santo. He belongs to Cubs history, not mine – I was just a little late.
In a late, as-I-write realisation, the best candidate I have here is Los Angeles Dodgers number 22, ace left-handed pitcher Clayton Kershaw. Now, I have no strong feelings for the Dodgers except on their beautiful uniforms, which are just perfect (how do they get them so white?). But Kershaw – yeah, I have feelings.
I was first introduced to Clayton Kershaw when he pitched in the Dodgers’ season-opening series against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Australia in 2014. Months earlier, my decent into a dangerous baseball habit had begun during the 2013 World Series. I saw only the last game of the series, on a whim, but it was enough – I was hooked. I spent the off-season reading up, watching old clips, learning everything I could about baseball. When the 2014 season came around, I was ready.
That opening game in Australia wasn’t of particular note, except for being held in Australia. The Dodgers won it 3-1, with Kershaw pitching 6 2/3 innings for 1 run with 7 strikeouts. A solid line for a starting pitcher, but as I’d quickly learn, it was modest for Kershaw. Already pretty well-decorated before I’d ever heard of him, he went on to have another incredible season, highlighted by a no-hitter that was so nearly perfect and culminating in winning the National League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards.
I won’t list all his accolades and jaw-dropping stats, because there really are too many. If you know baseball, you already know how good Kershaw is. You already know that we’re watching an all-time great, at his peak, right before our eyes. If you’re not a baseball person, I hope I can demonstrate how good Kershaw is in an accessible way, by showing you my favourite Clayton Kershaw thing – the curveball:
Would you just look – at – that.
If you still feel like you lack the context to know if that pitch is both hard to hit and just too darn pretty, then firstly: trust me, it is, and it is. Secondly, I lament your inability to understand true beauty. Thirdly, I urge you to take a look here at this clip from spring training in 2008. The voice you hear is that of renowned Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, who has been commentating on the team since 1950 when they were still the Brooklyn Dodgers. That was apparently the first time he saw the pitch. Nobody has seen everything there is to see in baseball, but Scully comes closer than most. And all he could do upon seeing that pitch for the first time was laugh. Vin Scully, always so smooth and so cool, just laughed and said “What a curveball!”, probably just like everyone else (followed by “Holy mackerel!”, probably like nobody else). His reaction, and those of the hitters, should tell you all you need to know – that curve, dazzling and rainbow-shaped, is sensational.
I went into the 2014 season feeling a certain affinity for the Chicago Cubs, and that quickly developed into full-blown fandom. Naturally, many of my favourite players to watch are Cubs. Even so, Clayton Kershaw became the first baseball player I loved to watch, and entirely on his own merits. No rooting interest, no bias – Kershaw is just the best there is, and it’s fun to watch the best.
There’s a problem with his inclusion on the clock, that being that he is still active. At only 28, I hope he’ll pitch for many years yet. However, given that he’s such a strong candidate, and with the expectation that it will be some while before the clock becomes a real thing, I’ve decided that Clayton Kershaw is, provisionally, the man for the number 10 (PM) spot.
Growing up a sports fan where and when I did, the number 11 to me is the mark of an icon. So stacked is this position, that it merits a unique arrangement – we’ll get there, but first: the contenders.
Ryan Giggs – it had to be. If you’ve any familiarity with the Manchester United teams I’ve mentioned previously, you might have seen this coming. While arguably never really in the “best player in the world right now” conversation, he outlasted many who were by being merely very, very, very good for over twenty years. He reinvented himself multiple times, from quicksilver winger to guileful forward to midfield general, and rode that high-performing longevity to a ridiculous 34 club trophies – including 13 (thirteen!) Premier League titles and two UEFA Champions League wins.
I’d admire the player who did that no matter where he came from or who he played for. But critical to my affection for Ryan Giggs is that he did all that, whilst being Welsh. Yeah, it’s shallow, and I’m basically over that kind of thinking now as an adult, but it mattered when I was a kid to see a Welshman performing like that. Every boy in my class at school was a Manchester United fan, and every one wanted to be Ryan Giggs.
The Manchester United of my youth was not remotely a one-man-team, even in my partisan eyes. But if not for Ryan Giggs, I would probably never have been a Manchester United fan. And if I had never been a Manchester United fan … well, just go back and read number 8 again, and spare a thought for some parallel universe version of me who didn’t get to live that Champions League final in 1999, and so many other moments like it. Spare a though for that kid who doesn’t even know what he missed because he had no Ryan Giggs.
Ryan Giggs was one of the first icons of my childhood, and the most enduring – there’s no way he doesn’t make the clock. Everyone else is negotiable, but Giggs and Schumacher are the indisputables. Except, there is another – another number 11, another Welshman, another dazzling winger …
Relatively small in stature, absolutely giant in impact, Shane Williams was an international rugby union star for Wales and the Ospreys. If you’re a fan of any other team, he probably broke your heart.
The following is littered with YouTube links, and really, if you don’t watch every single one then you’re only hurting yourself.
Shane (I call him Shane) began his professional career with Neath RFC and ended it with a three year stint in Japan’s second tier with Mitsubishi Dynaboars, but he did his best work and wrote himself into Welsh rugby folklore in a nine year span with Wales and the Ospreys, from 2003 to 2012. He first played for Wales in 2000, but didn’t establish himself until the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia. After making the squad as the third scrum-half, he was given a chance on the wing in a shaken-up starting XV in the final group fixture against New Zealand – he grasped the opportunity, spectacularly, and with that ignited his career. Following that tournament, he joined up with the newly-formed Ospreys regional team for the first time. He went on to be the catalyst, the cutting-edge, for both region and country for the better part of a decade. By the time he departed for his Japanese post-script, he was the record try scorer for both the Ospreys (57 in 141 games) and Wales (58 in 87 tests), and fourth overall in international rugby (60 tries in 91 tests, including his two tries in four tests for the British & Irish Lions)
Once again, that is a fine career, no matter who had it. But Shane is not just anyone. Shane is not just Welsh, he’s not even just Ospreylian. Shane is a local boy – properly local. Shane is from the next village. Shane used to drink in the pub my football team met outside before away games. Shane went to my school (11 years ahead of me, sure), and I’ve even seen the rare shaky camcorder video of a school play in which he accidentally, spectacularly, backflips clear off the stage, and virtually bounces right back up (was he ever not spectacular?). Yeah, it’s more petty tribalism, and I’m OK with it – Shane is a folk hero, and round here, he’s our folk hero.
He wouldn’t be a folk hero, though, if he hadn’t delivered on the field so many times. Both in manner and magnitude, Shane’s contributions have been remarkable.
At 5′ 7″ and 12st 8lbs, he’s a fairly normal-sized human, but a very small professional rugby player. He made up for it – many times over – with incredible balance, agility, acceleration, and serious rugby smarts. He used these talents to go around bigger men, turning them around and sitting them down without a thought of a hand-off or shoulder charge. Giggs was said to leave defenders with “twisted blood“, and surely Shane would have too. When forced into contact, he punched above his weight and never backed down, never shirked responsibility.
Crucially, his influence on games was not merely aesthetic – it was frequently decisive. At the highest level, on the greatest occasions, Shane Williams was a game-changer, and a match-winner. His breakout performances in the 2003 World Cup, while not enough to take Wales to victory, came on a global stage. He was a key performer in Six Nations Grand Slams in 2005 and 2008, scoring six tries in the latter as he virtually carried the Wales attack. He performed well at two more Rugby World Cup tournaments. When finally given the chance to start for the Lions in South Africa in 2009, he duly delivered two tries in the tourists’ only win of the series.
For the Ospreys he was no different, scoring vital and wonderful tries in knockouts, finals and deciders, and in 2011-12, his final season in Wales, he seemed to write the script to his farewell tour. He scored in the final move, with his final touch in his last test match against Australia. He did the same with the Ospreys in his final regular season home game at Liberty Stadium, and he kicked the conversion too. Weeks later, in his very last game for the Ospreys, he scored two more tries in the Pro12 Grand Final away to Leinster. The first sparked a fightback after a difficult first half, while the second set up Dan Biggar’s do-or-die conversion to go ahead with seconds on the clock. Biggar delivered, and the Ospreys held on to win the league for a fourth time (and beating Leinster away in the final for the second time in three seasons – more on that under number 12). It was, perhaps, the Ospreys’ greatest game, and their greatest moment – 24 years old at the time, I jumped and leaped and punched the air like a little kid. It was thanks, in very large part, to Shane.
If you didn’t click any of those links, I’ll put a big video right here, you don’t even need to go to another page. Be good to yourself and take a look.
So that’s 11 – what a number. And I didn’t even mention Gareth Bale, who inspired Wales to their first major football tournament since the 1958 World Cup, and then duly starred in their other-worldly semi-final run at Euro 2016. His case improves by the game, but he has a way to go yet.
Ryan Giggs and Shane Williams. I can’t leave either one out. Fortunately, the only irresolvable clash has happened at a two-digit number, so here’s the plan: a split plaque, with one digit in the style of Ryan Giggs’s Manchester United shirt, and one in that of Shane Williams’s Wales shirt … or maybe Ospreys. Will the gut-wrenching decisions never end?
After stumbling clumsily clockwise, some time ago now, we’ve finally come all the way around: number 12. Positioned at the top of the clock, it feels like it should be special. But it’s not – it’s arbitrary. Clocks would work the same if we all turned them on their sides. So number 12 isn’t special – I’m treating it like any other.
I’m going to briefly mention Chicago Cubs catcher and outfielder Kyle Schwarber, because I’ll take any excuse to relive his 2015 postseason heroics. But even though said heroics made him the Cubs’ all-time postseason home run leader, half of one season is not enough to make the clock. And although I have strong and hard-to-explain feelings about Schwarber, that’s true of many current Cubs – Schwarber just happens to have a clock-compatible number. He’s worth keeping in mind, however, as he could lay claim to the position in the course of his career (also true of Kris Bryant , Javier Baez , and screw it, even Anthony Rizzo [44 – I’ll make it work]). I’ll keep watch on Schwarber and the rest, but for the time being I already have a pretty good clock, and a pretty good candidate to round it out.
Andrew Bishop, Ospreys centre. Look him up on YouTube and you won’t find much – a handful of highlights, more from games that he played in that really of him. A journeyman type, you might say. An invaluable club player who lacked a truly stand-out attribute to be an impactful international player. Capable all around, but nowhere elite. Unspectacular but rock, rock solid.
I bloody loved Andrew Bishop.
The stats bear out the kind of player he was. He did earn international honours, winning 16 Wales caps between 2008 and 2012 (fittingly, perhaps his best performance came in a game in which Wales were battered like cheap cod by Australia). However, he played a massive 209 times for the Ospreys – second overall, first among backs, and one of only two to reach 200 games. He was extremely durable, playing in at least 17 games in every season from 2005-06 to 20012-13 (a span in which the Ospreys won three league titles and one Anglo-Welsh Cup), before back injuries finally derailed his career and led to his early retirement last year. Yet despite all those appearances, he scored a total of 10 tries – slim return for a centre. That was Andrew Bishop – dependable and durable, facilitating those around him but just lacking an x-factor. Except, there was one thing …
I find it incredible that anyone thought to edit and upload that one pretty-good-not-amazing tackle to YouTube, but I’m thankful they did, because that clip of Andrew Bishop is the Andrew Bishop of rugby highlight clips.
See, the thing about Andrew Bishop is that he could defend. He’d tackle a horse if asked, I’m sure, and he’d take it down too. I’m saying Andrew Bishop would tackle a galloping horse to the ground, and I don’t know if I’m joking. I think he might do it. He wasn’t a mere big-hitter though – like I said, he wasn’t especially big or powerful. No, he was a technician, and a tactician. Everything he seemed to lack with the ball, he made up for in his work win it back. He read the play so well that he seemed always to be in the right place, and never to miss a tackle. He was relentless and consistent, and in the biggest games the most dangerous opponents were broken on the rock of Andrew Bishop.
One of the biggest games, and the one I best and most fondly remember Bishop for, was the winner-take-all final pool-stage match of the 2009-10 Heineken Cup against Leicester at the Liberty Stadium.
You can watch calculator watch-resolution highlights of the Ospreys’ nerve-shredding win here, but you won’t see much of Andrew Bishop. He’s there, wearing 13 (he played both centre positions, providing useful versatility both on-field and on-clock), but never the focus. That’s because he made a grand total of 3 running metres and zero clean breaks – he didn’t do highlight stuff. In a backline where every other player was a high-end attacking threat, that wasn’t his job. He was there to hold it all together, and to stifle the opposition. He did that by making 13 tackles, missing none, and doing so much more that went unquantified. No-one else on either team even attempted 13 tackles. In my delirious recollections, I’d swear it was more – Andrew Bishop that day was Gandalf the Black in rugby kit.
He didn’t get Man of the Match, because of course he didn’t – he’s Andrew Bishop. The honour went to Marty Holah, who … well, he was awesome too, Marty Holah was great. But ask those who were there who it should have been, and they’d have told you: “Bish”.
Four months later, he’d do much the same in the Magners League Grand Final victory against Leinster in Dublin (the first one, not the Shane Williams one, but he was great in that too). He shut down, completely, the great Brian O’Driscoll, and even made a break and assisted a try. He should have won Man of the Match, but he didn’t. He helped the Ospreys win though, and that’s what matters. Even when the squad was at its most star-studded, when it was full of Lions and All Blacks, he was always quietly my favourite – the understated rock, the glue that held it all together. He’s Andrew Bishop.
[To the best of my knowledge unlike anyone else previously mentioned*, he does have an off-field black mark against him – he was convicted of assault in September 2012. Indications are that it was an isolated lapse from a man of usually good character, but that’s still quite a lapse. I’m mature enough not to just pretend this didn’t happen, but no so much that I know how to deal with it seriously – instead, it’s stuck down here in brackets.
A man whose rugby career I both objectively respect and also regard with great affection had a weak moment and did a bad thing, and that makes me uncomfortable in my respect and affectionate regard. To his credit, he wore it and paid his penalty. Plenty have done far worse only to be punished far less, and forgiven too easily in my opinion. On balance, I think I’m ok with rooting for Andrew Bishop, but I couldn’t pass by without working through that.]
[* – Eric Cantona was also charged with and admitted assault, but it was pretty on-field. Call it a grey area.]
If you actually read all of that and the preceding three parts then thank you, sincerely, for indulging me. You’ve earned some kind of closure, so here is the clock, as it stands – who goes where and how they’ll look:
- 1 – Currently unoccupied [killer start].
- 2 – Ernie Banks’s Chicago Cubs number 14. A blue name and number on a background of white with blue pinstripes.
- 3 – Michael Schumacher’s number 3, as seen on his 1998-2000 Ferraris – a black number, outlined in white, on a red background.
- 4 – My Cwmamman United AFC under-11s number 4, from the game in which I scored my only competitive goal. A blocky, white 4 on a navy blue background.
- 5 – Currently unoccupied.
- 6 – An Ospreys Rugby number 6, representing Ryan Jones, Filo Tiatia and Jerry Collins, in the style of the 2009-10 season home kit (a championship year, and the only one in which they were all part of the team). A gold number 6 on a black background with a gold border.
- 7 – Currently unoccupied.
- 8 – Ole Gunner Solskjær’s Manchester United number 20, in the style of the European kit worn in the 1999 Champions League final. Name and number in white, on a red background.
- 9 – A Welsh number 9 rugby jersey, representing Gareth Edwards. A white number 9 on red background.
- 10 – Clayton Kershaw’s Los Angeles Dodgers number 22. Name and number in blue, on the whitest of all possible backgrounds.
- 11 – Shared by two number 11s: Manchester United and Wales footballer Ryan Giggs, and Wales and Ospreys rugby player Shane Williams. On the left: half of Williams’s Ospreys number 11 in the style of the 20011-12 home kit from his final season, a white number on a black background with a blue border. On the right: half of Giggs’s Manchester United number 11 in standard Premier League style, white on a red background.
- 12 – Andrew Bishop’s Ospreys number 12, in the style of the 2009-10 away kit (to distinguish it from the number 6 spot, and as worn in that season’s Magners League Grand Final victory). A black number, on a white background with a gold border.
There it is. Done. Kind of. I mean, clearly, it’s not finished. But it’s the best I have for now. So, done.
It doesn’t cover everything I might like it to. There’s no cricket and no cycling, which are as important to me as any other sports covered but don’t produce the kind of iconic numbers that fit. But within the arbitrary restrictions of a silly exercise I’ve covered almost everything, in depth or in passing, from the first Grand Prix I ever saw in 1995 to the Chicago Cubs 2015 postseason run. I feel like that’s doing pretty well. If you want to fill in some blanks, look up the 2005 Ashes series, Mark Cavendish, and the 2012 London Olympic Games, and imagine what I might have written about them had they fit.
The open spots at numbers 1, 5 and 7 are less due to a lack of suitable candidates and more to a wish for diversity. I could fill those places now, but it would mean adding another Osprey, another Manchester United player, another Michael Schumacher, when I have enough already.
I’ll keep thinking on how to fill the blanks. Adding to the jersey and car numbers already considered, I could include numbers representing notable performances, achievements, dates or years (like Schumacher’s seven world titles, or the ’05 Ashes). And I can also reshuffle what I have. I’m already considering moving Andrew Bishop from the 12 position to 1, as arguably he did his best work wearing number 13. But that leaves 12 open. Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs could come in there, but not for years yet – he has to build on his great rookie year with a great career, and do it with the Cubs. And if Schwarber (or any other current Cub) comes in, then Ernie Banks’s place at number 2 comes into question. But I have nothing else at number 2. Without new candidates emerging, I’m just rearranging the deck chairs (to make a wildly inappropriate comparison).
In the early stages of this, I worried that those new candidates might be hard to find. I was aware that many of the candidates came, unsurprisingly, from my childhood. I felt a hint of sadness as I considered that, here in my twenties, there would be no more heroes – you don’t make idols out of silly little sports players as a cynical adult. I wondered if I might already have all the worthy candidates I ever would, and that no one new could live up to the giants of my youth. But as I worked through, I realised there was a different brand of candidate emerging in my mind – figures that I respected and admired in a wholly different way from my childhood heroes.
That’s why I think that the most important person on the clock might be the very last one that I thought of: Clayton Kershaw. He will never be like Schumacher or Giggs to me, nor do anything that makes me feel like Solskjær did. I don’t root for his team, or long to see him lifting any trophies and share in his triumph. I’m just really, really glad that he is around and playing baseball right now, pitching like one of the best there has ever been, and that I get to watch him do it.
He came to mind late only as I looked back and thought, number 10 is a bit thin. But as soon as he did, I realised he was a perfect fit. Now this guy who I’d never heard of, who was nobody to me three years ago, is one of surest locks on the clock. So I appreciate Kershaw not only for being really good at baseball, but for assuring me that even though the way I see sport has changed, I will always be able to find novel and joyous things within its sphere.
Like a Clayton Kershaw curveball.