THERE were some notable British sporting successes in 2009. Andrew Strauss captained England’s cricket team to an Ashes victory over Australia, Jenson Button won the Formula One World title, Jess Ennis won heptathlon gold at the World Championships and Tom Daley became Britain’s first World champion in diving.

Yet when it came to crowning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award at the end of the year, the prize went to veteran Manchester United winger Ryan Giggs. Why? Because he’d played a lot of matches and once the BBC decided it would be nice to recognise the Welshman’s lifetime achievements, Manchester United supporters voted in their droves.

Perhaps that’s a little unfair. Giggs had a memorable 2009, making a record-breaking 800th appearance for Manchester United, winning an 11th Premier League title and helping his side reach the Champions League final, where they lost to Barcelona, despite being 36. But even the staunchest Manchester United fan would find it hard to argue that on sporting merit alone, he was the stand-out British performer in 2009.

Given the performances of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, he wasn’t even the best player in the Manchester United team, yet from the moment his name was included on the BBC’s shortlist, there was an acceptance that his candidature was a reflection of more than simply his footballing performances in the previous 12 months.

All of which brings us to another United player, Marcus Rashford, and the BBC’s baffling reluctance to include the free school meals campaigner on the shortlist for this year’s Sports Personality of the Year award.

Apparently, the BBC think that if Rashford wins, it will diminish the sporting significance of their flagship honour. Lewis Hamilton is about to win the Formula One World Championship for a record-equalling seventh time – how would he feel if he was pipped to the Sports Personality crown by Rashford? To which the answer, of course, is presumably the same as Button felt when he was beaten by Giggs.

The BBC might still have lofty ideals about their Sports Personality award, but the reality is that the end-of-year shindig lost its sporting credentials years ago. It is an entertainment show now – a Sunday-night rival for X-factor – and it is ridiculous to pretend otherwise. The judging criteria for the award has never been formally codified, but it has always been about more than simply sporting achievement. It reflects a certain level of public recognition, fame even, and has always acknowledged the importance a sportsperson’s standing outside the traditional confines of their sport.

Rashford’s impact this year has been massive. He single-handedly elevated the issue of feeding impoverished children outside of term time to the top of the political agenda, forcing an initial U-turn from Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the summer and inspiring an army of volunteers during the autumn half-term, when the Government’s refusal to U-turn again resulted in a flurry of donations from businesses and individuals.

While other sportspeople might talk the talk when it comes to making a difference in the wider world, Rashford walked the walk, using his personal experience of childhood poverty to inspire him to help others. Rashford has spoken eloquently about having to use food vouchers as a child, removing the stigma that can sometimes to be attached to families relying on state support to put food on the table, and teamed up with representatives from the food industry to create a ‘Child Food Poverty Task Force’.

He was there on the frontline, helping package and deliver food parcels for hungry children, and has promised to continue campaigning ahead of the Christmas holidays, when the issue of free school meals will once again be a hot political topic.

For many years, footballers have been tarred with the brush of being completely out of touch with ‘the real world’. They have become detached from the communities they grew up in, so the narrative goes, multi-millionaires closeted away from reality. Rashford has demolished that lazy stereotype, so it seems utterly ridiculous that the BBC appears to be so reluctant to celebrate his selfless stance in the name of supposed sporting purity.

If Rashford is blocked from being on the Sport Personality of the Year shortlist – there has been talk of the BBC offering some sort of ‘Special Achievement Award’ as a sop to the England striker – it inevitably begs the question of what we want our sporting heroes to be.

Do we want them to be like Hamilton, a great motor-racing driver undoubtedly, and a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, but also a tax exile living in Monaco who avoids paying UK taxes on a Mercedes contract reportedly worth close to £40m-a-year?

Or would we rather they were like Rashford, a genuinely inspiring personality who has passionately championed a cause that might otherwise have been ignored?


THERE are a host of strange anomalies in the new lockdown rules that cameinto force yesterday, but perhaps the most unfathomable is that children are allowed to take part in organised sport in school, but prevented from doing so at a local club or coaching group.

If it is safe for a boy or girl to mix with hundreds of other youngsters in school, why it is unsafe for them to do so, outdoors, in a carefully controlled and regulated sporting environment?

Our children are going through a tough enough time as it is – why prevent them from playing with their friends when even the Government’s chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, admits he is “not aware” of any cases of children contracting Covid-19 from playing football outdoors.