Players used to keep themselves busy by swapping sports on a seasonal basis. Si Hawkins looks at why that's no longer the case

A few months ago, as the news broke that a house fire had cruelly curtailed the long innings of England batting stalwart Trevor Bailey, a lesser-known strand of his career cropped up in conversation. "Old 'Stonewall' Bailey," mused my grandad, fondly. "I used to watch him play for the Avenue."

Walthamstow Avenue, that is, now submerged somewhere deep within Dagenham & Redbridge but once a famous non-League outfit, where Bailey enjoyed an Amateur Cup win in the early 1950s. It's curious to think, though, that the great Ashes hero – one of the era's most lauded sportsmen – spent his off-seasons playing non-League football. After this series with India is complete, would Kevin Pietersen fancy a few months with Nuneaton Borough?

The idea of dual sportsmen seems almost laughably unrealistic now, but should that necessarily be so? True, the seasons overlap considerably, but then they hardly dovetailed seamlessly back in the 1950s and 60s. In Andrew Collomosse's excellent book about the glory days of Yorkshire cricket, Magnificent Seven, batsman Ken Taylor admits he might well have turned down the England tours he was tipped for because they would have stopped him playing for Huddersfield Town. Cricket interfered with his football anyway: he failed to nail down a regular place due to missing the start of each season. "My involvement with cricket explains why I played in every position for Town apart from left-wing and goalkeeper," he recalled.

The most high-profile dual sportsman, Denis Compton, enjoyed enormous success with Arsenal, Middlesex and both England sides, but football also hampered his cricket enormously. An early knee injury caused him to miss numerous vital Tests over the years, and yet he kept on making comebacks, as did Bailey and many of their versatile contemporaries.

With football's maximum wage in effect and no off-season salaries for cricketers, it's tempting to assume that these fatigue-defying, year-round sportsmen were driven on by the cash. But Collomosse – who has interviewed many such figures – suggests otherwise. "Most of the cricketer-footballers did it for love, rather than money," he says. "They looked forward to the change of seasons."

Then, as sport got serious from the 1970s, they all but disappeared. One notable exception was Phil Neale, who figures high on Lincoln City's longest-serving list despite turning out for Worcestershire too. Signed by Graham Taylor from Scunthorpe, he eventually retired from football and captained his county to the championship, after signing up another Scunthorpe old boy, Ian Botham. The dual role probably stopped Neale playing international cricket too. "I had a wife and kids to support," he admitted in 1994. "I was earning more playing Fourth Division football than for captaining a county side."

Steve Ogrizovic played minor counties cricket in the mid-1980s, and Andy Goram represented Scotland a few years later, but in the Premier League era it's all about between-game recovery. Would, say, Phil Neville – better than Andrew Flintoff as a Lancashire youth and who once snuck off to play for his old cricket team behind Fergie's back – actually be allowed to play a Twenty20 match over the summer? According to a Football League official I queried: "For an organised team – professional? That would be a no."

Nowadays you need to pick your sport early on, and it isn't generally a tough decision. England spinner Graeme Swann recently admitted he would have chosen football "if I had the talent", and Joe Hart is one of several Premier League pros who did just that. "If you put a football contract and a cricket one in front of a young player, there's no comparison," admitted Hart's old Worcestershire coach, Damian D'Oliveira.

Lower-division football is a little easier to turn down. The promising young batsman Chris Miles quit Walsall's academy for Gloucestershire, Flintoff preferred Lancashire CCC over Preston North End, while Simon Dyson – nephew of ex-Spurs winger Terry – swapped York City for golf.

If the new breed of footballers' apparent preference for PS3s rather than the putting green incenses you, incidentally, it's worth noting that most clubs now ban golf several days before matches, and modern players do still dabble in the summer or when injured. Jimmy Bullard honed his impressive handicap and his match-fishing skills while convalescing from knee surgery in 2008 and presumably honed them further during his recent unforeseen fortnight off.

For those still missing the era of multi-sportsmen like "Stonewall" Bailey, there is always Joe Gatting. The son of ex-Brighton defender Steve chose football over cricket at 16, managed 50-odd games for Brighton but eventually gave up and joined Sussex as a batsman. After a dodgy season he then also signed for Isthmian League side Whitehawk over the winter, however, which caused some strife on the county's forums. "He should have spent the last four months focussing entirely on cricket," fumed the inaptly named softandfluffy. "I wonder whether Joe has the ambition, determination or even desire to make it as a first-class cricketer?" He quit football again in January. Still, if Joe loves the game as much as Uncle Mike loved the lunches at Lord's, he'll be back.

From WSC 295 September 2011

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