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Question of sport gives Wallace pass grade on Mastermind

From The Times online

HATS off to Shaun Wallace, a Chelsea supporter from Wembley. He’s only gone and won Mastermind. Specialist subject? “The FA Cup Final since 1970”. He amassed a clinically efficient 12 points last night, on his way to brainbox glory. In the semi-final, his specialist topic was “England in the European Championship”. He stormed through. In the qualifying round, he did “The European Cup Since 1970”, and creamed it. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a victory for football.

Quite apart from anything else, it’s the first time that Steve Staunton has been the answer to a question on Mastermind, which in itself conveniently solves a problem that has baffled football fans down the ages — namely, if Steve Staunton is the answer, what was the question? Now we know. The question was: In the European Championship qualifier between England and Ireland in 1991, off whom did Lee Dixon’s goal take a deflection?

Did you get it? Wallace did, which is one reason why many of us suspected the plucky barrister might have what it took to go all the way in last night’s big face-off. And we were right, although it came down to passes in the end.

By the close of the general knowledge round, Wallace was level pegging with Don Young, a retiree from Lancashire, who had specialised in “the life and reign of Elizabeth I”.

That was Young’s problem, right there. There’s no arguing with the fact that Elizabeth enjoyed a colourful and distinguished career, and she definitely qualified for Europe a couple of times, but doubtless to her lasting disappointment, she didn’t once win the FA Cup.

Young and Wallace had 24 points apiece, by John Humphrys’s final reckoning. Sadly for Young, he had passed on two questions, where Wallace had passed on none. But that’s very much been the story of Wallace’s season: until last night, he hadn’t incorrectly answered a single question on his specialist subject, and as for passing . . . well, it simply wasn’t something Wallace was prepared to do. Which is odd, when you consider his subject and that he coaches football in his spare time.

It’s the season’s first silverware. Or glassware, at any rate. How many football fans dream of one day going up to collect the famous Mastermind bowl from Michael Grade? How many achieve it? That’s the full magnitude of what Wallace pulled out of the bag last night.

One slightly disappointing thing about that Mastermind dish: no lid. Thus the victor’s opportunities for converting the trophy into a comedy hat are drastically narrowed. In fact, it’s altogether too fragile an affair for the kind of rough-and-tumble that a sporting victory inevitably inspires. It’s something for the producers to have a think about, in the event that sport’s stranglehold on the title is maintained.

Of course, you will hear some say that the gloss has long gone from the old Mastermind pot, that it no longer has the lustre and romance that it had in the days when Fred Housego was in his pomp and when the final was on BBC and ITV simultaneously, after a full day of build-up programming. The argument goes that there are just so many quiz shows on the television these days that Mastermind has lost its distinctiveness and, with that, its hold on the public imagination.

Others bundle Mastermind into a general argument about cultural decline. Housego’s topics in 1980 were “Henry II”, “the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster” and “the Tower of London”, and rueful critics may well observe that it’s a long, downwards slope from there to Steve Staunton.

Last night, Wallace was up against a specialist on Homer’s Iliad. Doubtless we’re going to hear grumbling from academics with regard to the difficulty and value of cultivating an intimacy with the great texts of ancient Greece, as opposed to what’s involved in remembering the time on the clock when Charlie George stuck that one away in 1971. And they’ve got a point: the so-called “showcase occasion” on the footballing calendar is rarely a classic in the sense that Homer would have understood the word.

But that’s not the same as saying that steeping oneself in the history of England’s premier knockout competition doesn’t call for application and intellectual rigour in the same measure as mugging up on any other historical subject — and possibly more.

Manchester United v Liverpool in 1996, for example, seemed to go on longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, and was altogether harder to understand. Similarly, historians will puzzle for ever over the exact meaning of Manchester United v Millwall in 2004. And whatever language Aston Villa v Chelsea in 2000 was in, it wasn’t one that is spoken anywhere today.

Here, at least, we’ll tolerate no detraction from Wallace’s achievement. Let’s not forget that he was behind going into the final general knowledge round. And what an outcome it would be if his triumph were to echo through the game and remove some of the stigma attached to the acquisition of learning. In football, anyone who has emerged from school with a 25 metres swimming certificate is known in the dressing-room as “The Prof” and gets stick for their erudition on a daily basis. How gratifying if Wallace’s victory could play a part in altering that climate. What’s the opposite of dumbing down?