My lifetime obsession in twelve hours.

My parents have this clock:


As you may be able to tell, it’s a minimalist hands-only style clock placed at the centre of an array of non-matching numerals, just because. My favourite is the hexadecimal A at 10 o’clock.

In an unrelated matter, there exists in sport the practise of retiring the numbers worn by certain significant players, in which those players are honoured by having their number removed from circulation on the team and placed on display at that team’s home stadium. Baseball’s New York Yankees are particularly prolific, having retired 20 numbers for 22 players.

Yankess retired numbers

Just a few of the retired number plaques on show in Yankee Stadium

This is not about retired numbers or clocks, but about the idea I had upon seeing that clock, and those plaques. I thought that one day, when I had the time, inclination and wall-space to do it, I could make my own piecemeal clock – one with each of the twelve positions occupied by a representation of a sporting number of particular significance to me. A fittingly horological representation of the far-too-much time I’ve invested in sport. OK, so it is a little bit about clocks.

So what would my twelve numbers be? Some days ago now, I thought it would be a fun idea to work through and spend a couple of hours writing up. Almost ten thousand words later, I feel like it got away from me a little as I got lost down memory lane and all its side streets. But I made it back out, and I brought some sweet, sappy and downright slushy recollections with me, and I ended up with a solid blueprint for the clock. Read all about them, and it, below.

Number 1.

The number 1, in my mind, means one of two things: goalkeepers, or formula 1 world champions. Both tie in to two of my earliest sporting obsessions: 1990s Manchester United, with the colossal Peter Schmeichel in goal, and the then two-time formula 1 world champion Michael Schumacher.

One of the best keepers of his day, a natural on-field leader and occasional fun goal-scorer, Schmeichel was indeed colossal. He was a key figure on the first team I ever loved, but he’s far from the only one I’ll mention on this list. I don’t want any one entity to be over-represented, so while Schmeichel is a strong candidate, I can’t commit to him too early.

Michael Schumacher has a place on the clock, I’m certain. But it’s not necessarily here, and if it is, there’s still the matter of which number 1. He bore the number 1 on his car in the years following each of his seven world championship wins – 1995, 1996, and from 2001 to 2005. Impressive as the early 2000s dominance was, I’m eliminating the later four years from 2002 to 2005. If a Schumacher number 1 is to make the clock, it will be for 1995, the year I first saw him race to victory in the German GP to ignite the obsession, in which he raced for Benetton Renault; 1996, his first year racing for Ferrari, the team with which he would go on to truly carve out his legacy; or 2001, in which he carried the number 1 earned by winning his first championship with Ferrari in 2000. The last two would look the same, but I’d know the difference.

Through those years, from 1995 to 2000, that was my Michael Schumacher. I was hooked in by the glory as a seven-year-old in 1995, watching him win his home Grand Prix and several more (including one of my very favourites, the 1995 European GP a the Nürburgring) on the way to the title. But as he struggled with a poor car in his first year with Ferrari, and then missed out on the title in various excruciating ways for the next three years, that is when I demonstrated (or perhaps even forged) what I consider a rare and admirable loyalty for a child of such an age. Every other Sunday, I lived and died with Schumacher as he duelled with Hill, Villeneuve and Häkkinen. I went all in and never wavered, even at the worst of times (and there were some pretty bad times).

The problem is that the number 1 serves more to bookend that era of Schumacher’s career, rather than define it. Schumacher definitely makes the clock. He is perhaps the cornerstone of my life-long obsession with sport. He’ll be up there. But the best fit might be further around the dial.

Number 2.

If number 1 is for goal keepers and f1 world champions, number 2 is for right-backs and f1 world champions’ teammates. Much as I enjoyed their successes alongside (behind) Michael Schumacher, I’ll pass on the F1 teammates. I happen to like right-backs though. Left-backs, too. I like a good attacking fullback, overlapping the winger and getting crosses into the box. I played a lot of fullback myself, on both sides. Never was much good, but I tried hard (as hard as I could with a coach who preferred a flat-back-four). But for the most part, it’s not a sexy position. Exhibit A: Manchester United’s Gary Neville. Now, I like Gary Neville, but he’s Gary Neville, you know?

Gary Neville is probably why I like my fullbacks the way I do, so often was he bombing on past David Beckham on the right wing during their United glory days. He was industrious, tenacious, aggressive and probably more skilful than he was given credit for. He played the position I played and shaped how I played it, and yet … he’s Gary Neville.

This might be the place to introduce a way to widen the pool: the 24 hour clock. That makes two numbers eligible at each spot, and in this case brings number 14 into play. A couple of years ago, that wouldn’t be much help here, but there’s been a seismic shift in my sporting landscape since then. Let’s talk baseball.

Ernie Banks played for the Chicago Cubs from 1953 to 1971, and is one of the most important figures in the team’s storied history. He was a 14-time All-Star, two-time National League MVP and a first ballot Hall of Famer. He was the first black man to play for the Cubs, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His number 14 was retired by the Cubs and now flies permanently over the friendly confines of Wrigley Field (a phrase he popularised, by the way). They don’t call him Mr Cub for nothing.

Banks's number 14 at Wrigley Field

Banks was honoured throughout the 2015 season at Wrigley Field.

If Manchester United and Michael Schumacher were my earliest sporting loves, the Chicago Cubs are the newest. I have this sneaking suspicion that they might be “the one”. But it’s a new thing – I’ve been following the Cubs since late 2013, just a little over a year before Banks sadly passed away. I learned a lot about Banks, and the Cubs, in the wake of his death. He seems like he was a complex but wonderful man, and his place in Cubs lore is undeniable.

However, I don’t know if I can put Banks on the clock, because he’s not one of my Cubs. I don’t mean to reject Banks, rather I just feel uneasy claiming a stake in his legacy. It’s not a matter of worth – if he’s good enough to have his own flag at Wrigley Field, he’s good enough for my silly clock. It’s a matter of appropriateness, and respect.

I feel like I have to find a place for the Cubs on the clock, though. I was late to the show, but I’m here now and I’m never leaving – I’m a Cubs fan, and there’s nothing that I more joyfully waste my time on. But none of my Cubs – Rizzo, Arrieta, Bryant, Baez, Schwarber … Castro (just something in my eye, I’m fine) – none of them is ready for the clock. Not yet. But the Cubs should be up there, somehow. It could be Mr Cub himself, and his number 14.

Number 3.

There is one outstanding candidate here. The problem: it’s Schumacher again. He carried the number 3 on his car in four seasons, firstly from 1998 to 2000 and later in 2010. The latter was the first season of his ultimately underwhelming three-year comeback with Mercedes, but the years 1998 to 2000 were arguably his finest and most thrilling with Ferrari. Before the suffocating dominance of the early 2000s, Schumacher spent three years wheel-to-wheel with Mika Häkkinen – the Flying Finn, and his greatest rival.

These were the glory years of Formula 1 in my eyes, as each drove the other to the apex of their careers. The climb is more important than the summit, and this was Schumacher’s greatest ascent. While he carried the coveted number 1 as a reigning champion, it was in car number 3 he produced his finest work and achieved his ultimate goal. For a long time, I had a photograph of that moment on my wall, cut from a newspaper and laminated – the moment he took the chequered flag at Suzuka to clinch the 2000 world championship for Ferrari. That’s how I will best remember Michael Schumacher – not as champion, but challenger.

That will do for now. We still have a long way to go – but you’ve seen clocks before, you don’t need me to tell you that. Come back soon for part two.