A while ago there was an advert for Nescafé Gold Blend where a man stands in an amphitheatre in front of everyone he has ever met in his whole life. Eighty thousand people all split into categories: family, ex-girlfriends, co-workers etc. They all begin on their feet and are told to sit down if he hasn’t spoken to them for years, or they can’t remember his name, until we are left with those truly special to him. That inner circle get to share a Nescafé. With all due respect to the popular instant coffee – after all that effort you’d hope for a cafetiere at the very least.

“Dudes can literally just sit around and name old sports players and just have the best time.” That was a tweet sent by someone called EM Hudson from somewhere in the US on 15 July 2021. It has been retweeted 49,000 times and has almost 300,000 thousand likes.

I’m often tagged in it as someone who’s filled quite a lot of air time doing just that. But I think about it a lot – not the players who define your love, but the ones with just a passing role in your experience – the supporting actors, the extras, the ones who’d have to sit down right at the start of your own personal Nescafé advert.

They might just be a football sticker or a grainy picture on PGA Tour Golf on the Amiga telling you how to approach the 17th at Sawgrass. They were on your TV or live in front of you for just one game, one run, one jump. You might have never seen them play but somehow they sit there in your brain.

Those individuals dedicated their lives to it, they might mean everything to someone else, they might be top table elite – but to you because of their era or their sport or pure chance, they are sometimes literally just a name.

It is tempting to prove this point by proceeding to write a list of people that elicit some tiny shot of nostalgia – truth be told I did try to submit exactly that until it was pointed out to me that a random selection of sports stars doesn’t quite meet the quality threshold the Guardian aspires to: “While you’re here, you’ve just scrolled through a list of 90s tennis players, now give us a monthly direct debit.”

But in a tiny act of rebellion … Steve Backley, Mick Hill, Hughie Teape, Yvonne Murray. It’s so liberating. The list you write today might be completely different to the one you write tomorrow. Michel Vonk, John Stockton, Imran Sherwani.

The joy of someone’s name taking you back to a simpler time. Tab Ramos, Olga Korbut, Tim Witherspoon … I never saw the man box, I couldn’t pick him out of a crowd of one – but I can so vividly remember the advert for his fight with Frank Bruno back in 1986. The name Witherspoon just flashing on my parents’ ancient TV – Witherspoon Witherspoon Witherspoon – sitting on its little legs, fading to a dot when you switched it off.

Kriss Akabusi is embraced by Derek Redmond after crossing the line to win relay gold in Tokyo. Photograph: Inpho Photography/Getty Images

Mats Wilander, Craig Hooper, Conchita Martínez, Brian Whittle. Brian Whittle – until today, and for so many years, I was convinced he was part of that 1991 4x400m relay in Tokyo. But he wasn’t. Roger Black, Derek Redmond, John Regis, Kriss Akabusi. What a run by Akabusi. Beating the world champion Antonio Pettigrew. What commentary from David Coleman. But where was Whittle? A lost three decades imagining him standing proud with a Union Jack draped around his lanky frame.

Katarina Witt, Barry Horowitz, Judy Simpson, Vasyl Rats – yet more misremembering. Rats – one of the heroes of the World’s Greatest Goals VHS tapes (“The perplexing Barnes”) for his wonderstrike in that glorious game against Belgium in 1986. But it wasn’t. It was against France. Igor Belanov scored the ping against the Belgians. “What a goal!” cries Gerry Harrison. I wonder how many of my early sporting memories are totally invented or at least contain huge factual errors.

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Jahangir Khan, Gareth Chilcott, Bill Werbeniuk. Tony Allcock. Sitting in my grandparents’ house, dying of boredom, trying to steal as many Cheddars as possible from the packet without getting noticed, sneaking back into the living room to watch anything on the TV, and it’s a western or it’s bowls. The referee holding up two red little tokens, an applauding crowd, seconds turning into minutes turning into hours.

Conchita Martínez in action at the French Open in 2000. Photograph: Laurent Rebours/AP

Jonty Rhodes, Fuzzy Zoeller, Adrian Moorhouse. Bernie Kosar. In the early 90s, I watched American Football every Sunday night at a mate’s house down the road. It was on too late, so we videoed it and watched it a week late. There was literally no way of finding out the scores – feels ludicrous today to even write that down. Every week I had a hot chocolate that burned my mouth while I watched Gary Imlach and Mick Luckhurst talk through the games. It just about healed by the following Sunday – I’m not sure I tasted anything from 1991-1993. Some family friends had once given me a Cleveland Browns hat, and so that was my team. Kosar was our quarterback – in my mind he threw sidearm and could only chuck it about 20 yards.

Ato Boldon, Dennis Mitchell, Carl Lewis – always just standing there near Linford Christie. Alberto Tomba – the only name I can recall from David Vine, cowbells and Ski Sunday. Eddie Hemmings, John Emburey, Phil Edmonds – portly spinners who looked like very old men just wandering slowly about a cricket pitch before I was even close to understanding what spin bowling was. The Searle brothers – “the Abbagnales are tiring” – Petr Korda, Tessa Sanderson, Javier Sotomayor.

And all those Panini stickers. John Chiedozie, Bob Bolder, Glenn Pennyfather, Ian Culverhouse. None of the above represent sporting heroes to me, but without them there’s no one for my heroes to play, no context even for them to exist. And for that, they are all welcome round mine for a very awkward Nescafé any time they like.


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