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The stretch for home

The date was Saturday, May 2 and the city was Louisville, Ky. And I would have to be crazy, would I not, after handing out such powerful clues as those, to offer a (theoretical) case of French champagne to the person who guessed what made it the most festive, most radiant day of the whole sporting year for me. It was Kentucky Derby Day 1981, of course—Johnny Campo's day and red roses all the way at Churchill Downs for Pleasant Colony.

Sorry, though. Nice try, but no champagne. My great sporting moment in Louisville happened just about six hours before the band started playing My Old Kentucky Home. My thoughts were 3,500 miles or so to the east. And I can still feel the thrill of the sporting experience I had that morning on, of all places, the roof of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Louisville.

I would almost risk betting another case of champagne on the fact that I was the only person in Louisville on May 2 who was aware that Derby Day coincided with the last day of the regular English soccer season, and a whole truckload of bubbly on another: that no one in Louisville except me knew it was possible that morning for a welsh club playing in the English league to achieve a unique glory.

And so, at about 11 a.m. on Derby Day, I comprised an audience of one up there on the roof of the Hyatt, just me and my radio, as the old song goes. The radio was one of those new miniature shortwave sets which, with some desperation, I was trying to tune to the BBC's World Service, which around that hour was to put out its sports roundup, the time being, of course, late afternoon in England.

I fiddled my way past Radio Moscow and an Australian voice saying, "And now, hello and welcome to our listeners in Papua, New Guinea," and I finally got the BBC. I knew that if my batteries didn't run out and conditions in the ionosphere held steady, I would finally get the score I wanted.

wanted? If it had been possible, I would have stopped time right there, with Swansea City forever on the verge of making history. If Swansea lost—well, it would be an exaggeration to say that being on the roof of the Hyatt Hotel was mighty convenient, but the pain would be hard to bear.

Swansea City, you see, is my hometown club, a team that in the days when I watched it regularly was one of the most inept in the fourth division of the league. Seven years ago, indeed, it was the worst of all the 92 teams in the English League. Every time it produced a good player he was sold, except in the case of Giorgio Chinaglia—as a teen-ager living in Wales, Chinaglia was let go, without a fee, for lack of aggression and thrust, as the club put it at the time.

And then, a little more than four years ago, things began to change. A new coach, John Toshack, was recruited from Liverpool. He brought with him a handful of veteran players deemed to be overage by his old club, and Swansea began to climb.

Not slowly, either. In his first season Toshack had Swansea out of the fourth and into the third division. A year later Swansea was promoted to the second division, and suddenly on Sunday mornings I found myself rushing out early to get The New York Times, which publishes British soccer results. Pretty soon I was finding I couldn't wait for Sunday, which is why I bought the radio.

And the position now, this May 2,1981, was that if Swansea, playing on the road against Preston up in the north of England in its last game of the season, won, then it would be promoted to the first division—the fastest journey from fourth to first that any club had ever made.

On the roof of the Hyatt I reckoned I had 15 minutes to wait for the results. The shortwave signal was fading ominously, but I could still hear the voice of the commentator well enough—oddly, he happened to be a first cousin of mine, name of Peter Jones, and, like myself, from Swansea.

Which turned out to be the reason why I was put out of my agony sooner than I would have dared expect. The color man cut in suddenly. "Some good news for you, Peter," he said. "Preston 1, Swansea 3."

So there it was. And later that day, if I could have got near him, I'd have given Johnny Campo a cigar. Pleasant Colony, too.