A man for whom sport was a matter of personality

Peter Stead describes how Cliff Morgan took the fellowship of rugby into his subsequent career as a broadcaster

In 1998 I joined with two historian friends to produce a book of essays that would celebrate the appeal of Welsh rugby by emphasising the profusion of outstanding personalities. I had no doubt that I wanted my first essay in the volume we called Heart and Soul to be on Cliff Morgan. I had grown up in a soccer household and I wanted to explain the role that Cliff and his Cardiff colleagues had played in converting me, a young grammar school boy to the game of rugby.

Of course nostalgia is the defining mode of we Welsh geriatrics. Yes, our judgements are clouded with sentiment and our memories of the 1950s are richer and more vivid than anything that has happened in this century. But there are good reasons. Cliff Morgan, who has died aged 83, was at outside half when I first saw Wales play in 1958, although by that time he had firmly established his place in my pantheon. He had established Cardiff as the best club side in the world, outwitting the All Blacks. Moreover, he had starred in the Lions side that thrilled South Africa in 1955.

In the immediate media response to Cliff’s death I was a little disappointed that the only film clip used was that of his breathless commentary on the great Gareth Edwards try. It was not surprising to hear Gareth himself explain that at one stage in his career days he was often taken to be Cliff Morgan. What I wanted to see were the clips of Cliff scurrying across the veldt in 1955 and also those dramatic stills in which Cliff displayed what Alun Richards described as a “La Scala-like range of physical expressions”.

Nonetheless, the tributes have been outstanding and have placed deserved and appropriate emphasis on Cliff’s playing skills, on his professional prowess as a broadcaster both on air and in his office, and on the vivacity, warmth and charm of his personality. We now live in an age in which we expect retiring players to become media pundits almost irrespective of their personality or ability to communicate. With Cliff it was very different. Certainly, he was a one-off but there are lessons that we can learn from the way in which he took his sporting personality with him into his subsequent career.

Sport for Cliff was largely a matter of personality. It provided an arena for his own athletic and social skills whilst at the same time allowing him to fraternise with a rich cast of wonderful characters whose humour, slyness and opportunism he came to relish. As a grammar school boy he loved that mix of teachers, policemen and miners that peopled the Welsh game and he relished the company of Irish story-tellers, Scottish worriers and English toffs that made the international game so fascinating.

The match had to be won but then it was time for anecdotes and choral singing. It used to be said of one mediocre Welsh MP that every time he walked into a meeting that he thought might be tetchy he turned to the piano in the corner and started a singsong. But for Cliff the singing was not a diversion but rather an expression of the fellowship that was fundamental to sport. That lesson learnt as a player he took into his subsequent career as a broadcaster. It is people who constitute the story and people are defined by their stories and the places that made them.

We are living through a time when personality and fellowship are being squeezed out of sport. Tabloid headlines, prosaic pundits, clichéd interviews, television viewing figures and corporate sponsorship have made sport just a strand of business. Meanwhile agents, accountants and PR consultants call the tune, define (or rather undermine) the ethics and all the while cultivate their own anonymity.

The fall from grace has been most extreme in cricket. Has there ever been a more philistine bunch than the present English Test side? Why did Glamorgan opt for a corporate headquarters rather than building a team on the basis of an indigenous tradition of village cricket? In Cliff Morgan’s day both players and fans were delighted to welcome the stars of opposing teams and we looked forward to seeing their skills and hearing their stories. Now we boo and jeer all visiting players, especially if we have heard of them. At the same time we have little idea and even less interest in in the personal background of our own players.

We old men are nostalgic for very good reasons. In the old days sport was better and it was played by people we knew and took delight in. Above all sport was an opportunity for individual talent to flourish in a community context and hence was a manifestation of fellowship. One day soon some business bubbles may burst and perhaps then sport can be reclaimed.

Meanwhile we should treasure the memory of Cliff Morgan. In the last few days I have looked at the images and given thanks for what a great game rugby once was and even more for what Wales was capable.  Make no mistake: the Wales that produced Cliff Morgan was a very real, vital place that set standards of play, debate and analysis that were admired around the world.

Peter Stead is a cultural historian and with Huw Richards and Gareth Williams, editor of Heart and Soul – the character of Welsh rugby (1998)

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