Greatest Sportsman Ever

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WAS HE THE GREATEST SPORTSMAN OF ALL TIME?; Max Woosnam won Olympic gold, a Wimbledon title, captained the England football team, scored a century at Lord's - and never asked for a penny. What a lesson for today's pampered stars

Britain once produced genuine sporting heroes, men whose sporting achievements went unpaid, who competed for the joy of the game and the glory of victory.

And of all these heroes, the most remarkable, yet least-known, was the extraordinary Maxwell Woosnam, whose tale is told in a new biography, All Round Genius: The Unknown Story Of Britain's Greatest Sportsman.

In his prime, Woosnam - who smoked Capstan Full Strength cigarettes all his adult life - won Olympic gold and silver medals, plus a Wimbledon title. He was captain of England's amateur and professional football teams and scored a century at Lord's. From his childhood, he played golf off a scratch handicap, and he once scored a perfect 147 break at snooker.

He was also a successful businessman and a war hero - a man who knew, as modern athletes do not, the difference between sporting conflict and the real thing.

However, there was nothing dour or gloomy about Woosnam. He relished any challenge, whether crunching into a tackle on the football field or playing Charlie Chaplin at table tennis, using only a butter knife.

Six foot tall, handsome, golden-haired and built like a light-heavyweight boxer, Woosnam was the archetypal sporting hero. He was strong, agile, fearless, energetic and blessed with perfect hand-eye coordination.

As his daughter Penny Kavanagh later recalled: 'My father was truly larger than life, terribly good fun to be around, very sharp and always up for a challenge. If you couldn't keep up, you got left behind because there was always too much going on in life to start dawdling around.' In the words of one American reporter: 'To hear Woosnam's laugh was to hear the sound of silver bells. When Max Woosnam came into the pavilion on a dark day, it was like drawing up a blind and admitting the sun.' Born in Liverpool on September 6, 1892, Woosnam (no relation to the golfer, Ian Woosnam) was bred to be a physical phenomenon. His father, Charles, was a Church of England vicar, but he believed in the Victorian ideal of muscular Christianity.

AS A young man, while working on Tyneside as the chaplain to the Seaman's Mission, Charles Woosnam had fallen in love with his future wife, Mary. Unfortunately, she lived on the far side of the River Tyne.
Since there was no bridge in those days, when he went courting, the young Rev. Woosnam had to swim across the river to his loved one - an amazing and dangerous feat.

Mary, a keen tennis player, was impressed and they soon married. Her brother, Hylton Philipson, kept wicket for the England cricket team, touring India and Australia. He also represented Oxford University at football, tennis and racquets. Young Maxwell grew up hearing his uncle's tales of sporting success, but he was soon to eclipse them.

While still a pupil at Winchester public school, Max played cricket against the MCC at Lord's, scoring 144 not out in his first innings and 33 not out in his second. As a student at Cambridge University, he went one better than his uncle, gaining five blues in football, cricket, tennis, real tennis and golf.

He amused himself during the Easter vacation of 1914 by making three First Division appearances for Chelsea as an amateur. He played at the heart of Chelsea's defence and he helped his side keep clean sheets in all of the games.

For the next four years, Woosnam's sporting activities were curtailed by the World War I.

Volunteering himself at the start of the conflict, he saw action in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of 1915 and served in the Middle East, before being posted to the Western Front just before the close of hostilities.

Returning to England after the war, Woosnam took a job at Crossley Brothers, a Manchesterbased engineering firm, to support his wife and two daughters.

But that did not diminish his passion for sport.

In summer 1919, a Daily Mail sports correspondent exulted: 'Woosnam is the Admirable Crichton of sport. The epitome of physical energy. An English hope.' Later that year, Woosnam joined Manchester City, still playing as an amateur. He was so good that he was invited to captain Great Britain's team at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. Sadly, he was forced to decline as he had already been selected for the British Olympic tennis squad.

Woosnam and his partner, Noel Turnbull, won the gold medal in the men's doubles, beating a Japanese pair called Kumagae and Kashio. 'Woosnam's low volleys and service returns were the deciding factor,' reported the magazine Lawn Tennis And Badminton.

Having won gold in the morning, Woosnam went out in the afternoon to play another final, partnering Kitty McKane in the mixed doubles. Fatigued by his earlier efforts, Woosnam took only a silver medal this time.

In the following year, Woosnam played a full season for Manchester City, during which he was appointed captain. He also captained England's amateur football team, leading the full England side in a 1-0 win against Wales.

When the football season ended, Woosnam picked up his tennis racket again, popping down to Wimbledon, where he won the mixed doubles title. Then he sailed to America, where he captained Great Britain in the Davis Cup.

The cup was played in one continuous tournament.

Unfortunately, the British were knocked out by Australia in the second round. It was now early August and as their ship home was not due to depart for another month, Woosnam played a series of golf matches against prominent Americans, winning every one.

THEN came an unexpected offer. Charlie Chaplin, the world's greatest silent movie star of the time, invited the British Davis Cup team to stay at his Hollywood estate.

Chaplin was a keen tennis player. He was also an Englishman, born and raised in South-East London. He and Woosnam should have got on splendidly. After all, Woosnam's charm was almost as great as his sporting prowess. His encounter with Chaplin, however, was not a happy one. Even a vast mansion was not big enough for these two alpha males.

The trouble began when Chaplin invited Woosnam to play tennis.

A more diplomatic soul would have realised that Chaplin, being both the host and a superstar, needed to be flattered and indulged. But Woosnam was too fierce a competitor to gift his opponent any points, and he handed Chaplin a thrashing.

Later they played table-tennis.

As Chaplin prepared to serve, Woosnam swapped his bat for a nearby butter knife. He used it to play the entire game and, once again, walloped his opponent.

It was, perhaps, intended as a joke.

But it made an unmistakable point, one that was reinforced when Woosnam picked up Chaplin, just as he was giving a little pre-dinner speech to his guests, and threw him into his own swimming pool.

In September, Woosnam returned to Manchester to work at Crossley Brothers and take the pitch for City.

Then, on 28 April 1922 he broke his leg playing for Manchester City in the last home match of the season, against Newcastle. It took almost a year before the injury healed and it robbed Woosnam of much of his athleticism. He made one appearance for Manchester City in 1923, leading his side to a 2-1 win over Sheffield United in front of more than 60,000 spectators. But after the game, Woosnam went to see the club's manager Ernest Magnall, telling him that the game would be his last.

WOOSNAM could no longer play to the standard he expected of himself and so, after 96 games and four goals for Manchester City, he retired from football.

He continued to play tennis for another year, appearing at Wimbledon and representing Britain in the Davis Cup. But the glory days were over.

Max Woosnam went on to work for ICI, the giant chemicals firm, eventually joining its board of directors before dying, aged 72, in July 1965.

He was not by any means a perfect man. Having been separated from his own parents when he was sent away to boarding school when he was seven, he was not the greatest parent himself.

Even after he had retired from top-class competition, Woosnam's priorities remained unchanged. His son, Max Jnr., ruefully remarked: 'Sport took him away from his home life with great frequency as golf, snooker, squash and social games of tennis occupied every out-of-office moment.

'He encouraged me to take up tennis but he never found time to coach me. The sad truth is I never really knew him. I scarcely had a conversation with him.

I remember playing tennis with him in 1949 when he was 57. He beat me.' His daughter, Penny, put it succinctly: 'He was never really Max the father as much as he was Max the sportsman.' But what a sportsman Woosman was. And what a contrast he provides to the pampered pygmies of contemporary sport.

Max Woosnam played for the love of competition, not the lure of cash.

He had no agent, no sponsors, no advertising deal. He was an example of what sport once was and, perhaps, of what it should still be.

All Round Genius: The Unknown Story Of Britain's Greatest Sportsman by Mick
Collins is published by Aurum Press, £14.99.

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