All this week Kureen will be counting down the 50 greatest British sports stars of all-time.
The 50 explained
There are some notable absentees from the list who just missed the cut. The likes of World Cup winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks, Ashes hero Andrew Flintoff, sailing superstar Ellen MacArthur, and former French Open tennis champion Sue Barker among them.
The top 50 is based upon the quality of the performer, not their star status. Hence the lack of a David Beckham or perennial underdogs Tim Henman, Frank Bruno and Sir Henry Cooper, who when push comes to shove were very good, but not great.
50: Sally Gunnell
Sally Gunnell remains the only woman to have won the European, World, Commonwealth and Olympic 400 metre hurdles titles. She is additionally the only British woman to have won those four titles in any individual event.
Her gold run in the major championships began in 1992 when she took the Olympic title in Barcelona, followed by a world record obliterating run at the World Championships the following year.
49. John Charles
Rated by many as the greatest ever all-round footballer to come from the British isles, Charles became a Leeds United icon in the 1950’s, before departing Elland Road to join Juventus in 1957 for a British record transfer fee of £65,000.
The Welshman flourished in Turin, leading the Serie A scoring charts with 28 goals in his inaugural season, as his new side won the league title. He placed third in the Ballon d’Or (Golden Ball) in 1959, and was voted Juve’s best ever foreign player during the club’s centenary celebrations in 1997, having netted 108 times in just 155 league matches, despite playing a third of those as a defender.
48: Lewis Hamilton
Few British sporting icons have polarised opinion like two-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton; be it his on-off relationship with Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, a snarky arrogance or a perceived lack of patriotism, Hamilton is not held in the esteem usually associated with elite drivers from these shores.
After a staggering rise through karting, Formula Renault, Formula Three and GP2, Hamilton was snapped up by McLaren to partner double World Champion Fernando Alonso. The two couldn’t stand each other, but it was the Brit who outlasted his erstwhile colleague, collecting the world title in 2008, before a move to Mercedes brought another six years later.
47: Steve Ovett
Building his reputation as an athlete who could achieve remarkable times in disparate distances during the 1970’s, it was during the 1980 Moscow Olympics that Ovett’s rivalry with fellow Brit Sebastian Coe reached its peak.
Both men contested the 800m and 1500m distances, with Ovett surprising 800m favourite Coe by taking the title, and then experiencing a reversal of roles, with his three-year unbeaten streak over 1500m ending – Ovett settling for bronze as Coe kicked late to triumph.
46: Paula Radcliffe
The current women’s marathon world record holder would sit(or squat) far higher in the list if it wasn’t for her penchant to freeze on the biggest stage.
An incredible, dedicated long distance runner, Radcliffe has won enough gold to make even King Midas envious. Five Olympic finals failed to yield a medal, happily she fared better in the World Championships; securing marathon victory in 2005, and 10,000m silver in 1999.
45: Rory McIlroy
The Northern Irish golfer appears to have the world at his feet at just 26 years of age. Indeed, in five years time he will probably make the top 10 of this list, such is the upside of a player who has been swinging a club since the age of three.
With four majors already in the bag, and inevitable comparisons to a young, pre-scandal Tiger Woods, golf’s current world number one won both the PGA and Open Championships in 2014, and has already snaffled three titles on the tour this year. There’s no ceiling to his potential, as long as he doesn’t become distracted by extra curricular enterprises.
44: Charlotte Edwards
England’s current women’s cricket captain is one of the greatest players the sport has ever seen.
The only woman to score more than 2000 runs in T20 matches, Edwards made her international bow at just 16 years of age, remaining at the top of her craft for the next two decades. In 2014 she was part of the group of England players to be awarded central contracts by the ECB, another major milestone for the women’s game.
43: Nigel Mansell
Mansell often cut a grey, monotone mannequin among the glitz and glamour of motor racing, but it was from inside the cockpit that he came to life.
Having seen world titles snatched away on the final day of more than one season, 1992 finally brought the moustachioed Brummie the F1 championship he craved, with a little help from the unparalleled early 90’s Williams team. Within six months he’d become the first man to simultaneously hold that title and the CART Indy world series when he triumphed in his début season in America.
42: Sir Roger Bannister
With the 1952 Helsinki Olympics failing to provide the tonic of a 1500m medal that Bannister had long expected, the athlete became obsessed with another goal; becoming the first person to break the 4 minute mile.
The feat was achieved in Oxford in 1954, with the stadium announcer drowned out by a fanatical support in the stands after uttering the number three (the final time was actually 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.) Bannister managed this with only sporadic training while he studied to become a junior doctor.
41: Bunny Austin
Henry Wilfred “Bunny” Austin played during an era of high quality tennis players, thus missing out on Grand Slam glory despite reaching five major finals in all, .
He and Fred Perry ensured that Britain had a tight grip on the Davis Cup from 1933-36, with the tandem beating all-comers for four years before both wound down their careers. Austin is widely considered the greatest male player not to win a Grand Slam.
Bunny Austin only at number 41??? Come back tomorrow to find out who kept the legend of SW19 out of the top 40, as we focus on positions 40th down to 31st.