Thursday, 4 October 2012

Amazing Team Spirit Ryders High

If you didn't watch the golf last Sunday night, then please, please find a replay or highlights package of some description. In the sporting world, there's nothing quite like the drama produced by a stirring comeback against the odds. So, at the weekend, the culmination of a fascinating few days of gold (excuse the "typo") resulted in an entire continent uniting behind a team of twelve men showing a scarcely believable level of nerve, passion and spirit and claiming a stunning victory in the enemy's back yard.

Golf is one of the most individual sports there is, lacking even the competitive companionship produced by one-on-one clashes such as in tennis, snooker or boxing. There's no team element, no supporting your buddy and no reliance on someone else when you're struggling - it's just you, your caddy, your clubs and hours upon hours of concentration. 

The future's bright...
So you could be forgiven for imagining that the Ryder Cup would lack a real sense of spirit and togetherness, but instead it seems to inspire the very definition of a team sport, at least for 3 days every other year. A squad of footballers play and train together constantly, almost all year round. And yet there rarely, if ever, seems to be a unity that comes even close to the weekend scenes at Medinah. (Of course the best bit of a win is not the team spirit or indeed the victory itself, but the delightful bitterness of the losing team, icing on any sporting cake.)

This summer's major sporting event saw a sense of team shared by a whole nation. Of course this was greatly aided by Team GB's success but there's no doubt there was something different about how the entire country was behind every athlete representing these Isles. Even the usually lukewarm popularity of Andy Murray* was at boiling point when he was representing us all, rather than just himself. So is it a nationalistic fervour ingrained within us all that means we care that much more, or is it just because we're glory-hunters on an international scale?

But for a few months and different parental travel plans, I might have been Born in the USA (yes I love the Boss), but struggle to imagine how my banner could ever have been star-spangled. I feel thoroughly British, and evidently European enough to have been utterly supporting a German when it came to that final putt. Whatever, the reason, I'm certain that when its your country (or continent) involved, somehow it matters more.

* There is a strong chance that Andy Murray will win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, if he does, it must surely eclipse all previous ironic sporting awards.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The End of an English Era?

As Strauss makes his way out the door, we can look back at recent times. Being an English cricket fan over the last 7 or 8 years has yielded infinitely more joy and success than the 7 or 8 years before. We've seen Ashes wins galore, whitewashing India, a 9 test series undefeated run and perhaps best of all, climbing to the top of the test rankings. 

We've witnessed the emergence of world class players like Cook, Broad and Finn alongside those consistently near the top of the rankings (e.g. Anderson and Pietersen), all combining with a host of late bloomers, coming to the fore as they reach and pass 30 - Trott, Bell, Prior, Swann and Tremlett.

Ably, if never inspirationally, led and managed by the determined and intelligent pairing of Strauss and Flower, England became the best, most consistent and most dominant test team in the world. In the wake of another Pietersen shambles, and after a bizarre series in the West Indies including being dismissed for 51, Andrew & Andy rebuilt an England team and instilled a clinical professionalism and exceptional drive to win. We began to believe in our national team. We convinced that we were the greatest, and could beat anyone or get a result no matter how bad things looked. And for a while we were and we could. 

Coming off the back of demolishing the Aussies down under for the first time in 300 years (fortunately Glenn McGrath's predictive abilities aren't quite as accurate as his bowling), England were on the verge of reaching the top rung of the ranking ladder.
England needed to beat the World No. 1 team by at least two matches in order to displace them at the top. The might of India's batting in the shape of Sehwag, Gambhir, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Dhoni came to prevent that from happening. But even when India had us on the ropes, we came out swinging (if you excuse the pun), exemplified by Broad & Bresnan in the second test. In the end, the Wall could only watch as the rest of the house came tumbling down around him, and England claimed a series whitewash and the top spot.

But as has been pointed out, it's not exactly been a dreamy year at the top. The fighting spirit and performance when up against it has been lacking in 2012. Too often we have succumbed when faced with a challenge and lacked the gusto, heart or concentration to scrap our way back in. We folded and collapsed like damp paper against Pakistan, Sri Lanka and now again against South Africa. 

Our batting lacked focus and determination, only showing spirit when attacking with abandon, providing a glossy veneer to otherwise worrying displays. Our success over the last few years kept us believing right up until the moment that Prior's edge found Smith's hands, but the truth is that South Africa were by far the better team all series. Our bowling lacked invention and discipline, with the highest runs per wicket in a series since the 06/07 Ashes whitewash. It would seem a suitable time for Strauss to call it a day.

Shaun Pollock doesn't believe that SA can maintain their status and dominate - they have a few players into their 30s and some tough series coming up, but with the likes of ABDV, Steyn, Morkel, Duminy all still with plenty of years to come, they aren't exactly going to be going anywhere soon. Perhaps they will grow complacent or arrogant, as has been suggested happened with England, only time will tell.

One thing is for sure, whenever Jacque Kallis retires, the game will have lost one of the absolute greats. Few would question that Garfield Sobers was the best all-rounder cricket has ever seen, but it's hard to argue that the big man from Cape Town comes in second. He is the 4th highest test match run scorer in history and right up there with his bowling as well. A truly class act.

Friday, 17 August 2012

A different Andy Murray?

With the US Open less than a fortnight away, the question has to be whether claiming Olympic Gold is going to prove to be a turning point in the career of Andy Murray. No number of articles, blog posts or interviews could possibly enhance how aware we all are of his 'nearly man' status.

To date, twenty-seven grand slams have produced four major finals, which in turn have yielded just one set won. No-one can question his ability, speed around the court, outstanding returning and seemingly relentless defensive abilities. He has vastly improved his second serve and ability to attack rather than just waiting for opponents' mistakes, but most of all, he is mentally stronger. Only time and results will be a true measure but claiming his first genuinely significant title will surely have taught Murray like nothing else that he really is good enough to beat the best.

Only once before (2010 Toronto Masters) had he beaten two of the top 3 in consecutive matches. On six occasions he beat one before losing to the next (normally in the final). But at the Olympics, he beat both Djokovic and Federer. Of course neither were on the top of their game, Novak seeming out of sorts and almost demotivated and Roger simply shattered, but that effect was greatly exacerbated by Murray's sheer aggression and dominance all over the court.

There was something different about him, determined and proud, the crowd fully unified behind him, exuding confidence. He was by quite some distance the best player at the tournament, by a long way, and it never seemed even remotely possible that he could lose. Perhaps being part of something bigger, participating as a member of Team GB, perhaps something else, but irrespective of the reason, this was a different Andy Murray.

Heading to Flushing Meadows, he must be right up there with Djokovic and Federer as a one of, if not the clear favourite. Nadal's withdrawal doesn't change the fact that Murray will have to beat them both (upsets aside), but we now know he can and very possibly, the Scot knows it now as well. 

What I really do hope for is a high quality final. There are few better sights in tennis than a Grand Slam final, where both players are completely at the top of their games. So often it seems as though one player doesn't quite compete as we know they can, and it ends up as less of a contest than it has the potential for. The Wimbledon final was a perfect example of a high-class clash between the two best players in the tournament.
The variety and accuracy with which Federer distributed the ball around the court was utterly remarkable, and frankly without compare. Murray played as well as he could, finding a great balance with his solid defence providing an excellent foundation from which to attack. Maybe in a few weeks time we will be able to say that both played to their maximum but that Murray came out on top at last.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A Post-Apocolympic Sporting World

If you're being honest with yourself, as a British Sporting fan, did you really think we would have quite such a successful Olympics

Surely something is amiss when we experience this level of genuine success with no 'buts' and particularly when all the logistical side of things ran so smoothly as well. A lesson in how to defy multiple British self-perceptions in one spectacular fortnight. After years of being faithful (and perhaps ever so slightly masochistic) spectators of great anticipation preceding deflating and disappointing sporting performances something was very different this time. It is unlikely that many of us will have in our lifetime either another London Olympics or a time of such unified national fervour and support. Similarly it's pretty unlikely that any time soon Team GB or its composite nations will see a repeat of such unbridled sporting success.

There was such a build up that frankly most of the country was pretty sick of the whole thing before it even started and yet as a nation we were won over by relentless success. Barely a day seemed to go past when we didn't win a medal in a sport that we barely knew existed, alongside overwhelming dominance in the likes Cycling and Rowing. Suddenly the whole nation, sporting-sceptics included, found itself being swept along about Canoeing, fired up about Trap Shooting and struck by Taekwondo. 

So now we find ourselves back in the regular swing of things. The football season has begun again in earnest, with the League Cup, Charity Shield and random irrelevant international friendlies. It's hard to see how anyone can stop City from dominating the Premiership this season. A slow start might put them under pressure and make the race interesting, but the strengthening done by the chasing pack doesn't seem like enough to make the difference. Chelsea and Arsenal have spent a lot and brought in some excellent players but have lost their respective talismen with Drogba departing and Van Persie making his intentions clear. It seems as though Utd have sealed the RVP deal so they could seriously threaten, as they almost always do, but the likes of Liverpool and Spurs, if anything, seem weaker than last year. That said, the new manager effect is an unpredictable enigma at the best of times. At least we don't have much time to wait to find out.

Meanwhile, the rest of the sporting world continues as though it is any old August. London 2012 and the great success of Team GB has no bearing now on the England - South Africa cricket series, the US Open tennis, the AVIVA Premiership rugby and Formula 1 returning to action from its mid-season break. Plenty to keep us interested then.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Why Aren't We That Disappointed?

And so, after two weeks of increasingly disappointing performances somehow produced an increasing level of logic-defying but futile hope, the inevitable finally came on Sunday evening

England were very much as England were expected to be; relatively solid and disciplined, fairly uncreative and generally hard-working. They also profited from good fortune on a number of occasions - the Swedish goalie choosing to fall over rather than save Walcott's shot, the byline referee proving himself utterly redundant in failing to achieve the specific role for which he exists against Ukraine, and Italy apparently having watched an 'Art of Finishing' video by the offspring of Emile Heskey and Andy Carroll. 

Despite the temporary and somewhat diluted joy of winning the group, the whole tournament had a decidedly resigned feel to it for an English fan. Admittedly, there will be some of you reading this who should hang their heads in shame because, despite my best warnings, you allowed yourselves to believe. One such regular reader (an assumption grounded on absolutely zero evidence), Sir Bobby Charlton, appears to have allowed the inhalation of some Olympic fumes to cloud his rational judgement.

But I trust the majority of you did not succumb so easily to such a moment of weakness, instead holding fast to a steely and negative resolve, thoroughly founded in both reality and experience. I do not pretend to be any kind of national sentiment thermometer but the pervading attitude seems to be more of melancholy acceptance rather than outrage or bitter disappointment. Of course there might be a number of reasons for us generally taking something of an 'oh well' attitude:

1) Losing to Italy saved ourselves the embarrassment of what would surely have been Bloemfontain Part 2. Personally I couldn't see Gomez, Klose et al. replicating the same profligacy as Balotelli and Cassano. 31 shots and 0 goals isn't exactly a devastating return.
2) We are truly taken in by the frankly absurd positivity coming out from both media and management, after all, we didn't even want to win, we were just there for the learning opportunities and as character building for the young players (by the way, Welbeck is the only player under 25 who started the match, and 4 players were over 30, but let's not mention that).
3) We just didn't expect that much. We recognised that the reality was that we were outplayed in 3 of the 4 games, and pretty unconvincing in the other one, so although we were miraculously unbeaten, we didn't deserve to go any further, and can just be satisfied that we had a go. But even that doesn't really hold up to scrutiny...

Heading home -
probably a good idea
As I looked at before, England were never going to win with glorious passing or attractive attacking moves, we just don't have the technical ability. What was so disappointing to watch then on Sunday was that we seemed so slow and tired as well. Where was the pace, power and stamina that the English Premiership is renowned for? Instead, the slow and not exactly attractive Italian build-up wore us down and by the end we were too weary to even chase after them having given the ball away (one thing we proved experts at).

Yes it was penalties, and yes, things could have been so different. Of course I would much rather be supporting England than Italy on Thursday night but the truth is we were pretty dismal all tournament and I think we can all agree that it's not the end of the world that it ended when it did.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Wimbledon 2012: Those Four Again?

Here we find ourselves again, twelve Novak & Nadal dominated months later. As the annual fortnight of tennis-mania sweeps the country and particularly the south-west corner of its capital, not much has changed.

Will we be seeing this again soon?
Naturally, there have been sporting shocks: England's ODI team is performing as well as its Test team, England's football team are (at the time of writing at least) still residing in Eastern Europe and the southern hemisphere teams are only narrowly beating the best of Europe's rugby giants (the shock being that it's not more convincing of course).

But in the strawberries and Pimms world of SW19, there's very little different from where we were 12 months ago, with the same old four leading the way. Assuming there are no injuries by the time the first serve is struck, Novak starts top seed and favourite, with Nadal a close second, Federer slightly further back, Murray a bit off the pace in 4, and then a significant jump to the third row of the grid with Tsonga and Berdych (sorry Ferrer, you just ain't cut out for the lawns), and any other contender realistically just aiming for the Quarters.

Djokovic has well and truly demonstrated that the sensational run which kicked off 2011 was no freak occurrence. Although he's not maintained quite the same utterly indestructible form this year, he has proven again and again that he is the best there is at the moment. Make no mistake, Rafa is the unquestionable King of Clay but all round consistency and dominance state that the Serb deserves the Number 1 ranking he claimed in reaching the Wimbledon final last year.

And yet, because he's been defending so many ranking points, there is the remarkably a three way showdown for the number 1 spot. Refer to the ATP article for more detailed permutations, but unless Novak gets to the final he's in serious danger of relinquishing the ranking he's fought so hard to gain.

Federer's consistency in the 1000 series tournaments since August, alongside victory in the World Tour Finals means that matching Nadal's performance will see him overtake his Spanish rival, and winning the title could see him return to the top of the tree for the first time since June 2010. As well as being an incredible achievement in itself, it would also ensure that he breaks Sampras' record for number of weeks as the (officially ranked) best player in the world. Sadly perhaps, the tame way he subsided to Djokovic in Paris, as well as his surprising defeat to Haas in Halle last week, means that victory at his beloved Wimbledon just seems beyond him. Let's not forget he's not won here with Nadal present since 2007 (also the last time he defeated Rafa in a Slam).

It wouldn't be a pre-Wimbledon blog by a Brit without a mention of Murray. Much like the England team in the lead up to Euro 2012, he goes in with less expectation than many years before, with disappointing performances at Roland Garros, Queens and even the exhibition matches at Boodles. It's been a lean year thus far, and he has slipped closer to number 5 than number 3, and the fear must already be developing that he will be remembered as a perennial number 4, sadly not too dissimilar to Tim "semi-final" Henman.

But, he maintains the record of always having matched or bettered his performance at Wimbledon each year and knows he can beat any of the top 3 on any given day. The question remains whether the 1st of July will be that Any Given Sunday.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Reasons to be Fearful

As English football fans, we (this weekend I suppose that's some form of Royal 'We') seem to be stuck in some form of sadistic biennial cycle, which we can observe and discuss but ultimately do absolutely nothing about. Every other autumn, we forget the summer that's just passed, and start again with fresh belief. New players, often a new manager, new qualification campaign, new hope that this time things will be different. Generally speaking we qualify convincingly (Steve McLaren aside) and often pick up narrow victories in thoroughly irrelevant friendly matches.

Consequently, we normally have reason to be relatively optimistic about our chances heading into major tournaments. Despite history not being in our favour, we do have one of the strongest domestic leagues and genuinely world-class players (and theoretically managers).

It's all very promising until we actually play, at which point a mixture of ill-discipline, goalkeeping blunders, refereeing errors, penalties and just poor performance combine to ensure the return of that sickening anticlimactic dismay and disappointment with which we're all so familiar. And thus the cycle is completed again, with cries of "the same old story", "there we go again" and "I knew it" echoing out in pubs and lounges across the country.

And yet, 2 years later, against our better judgement and logical reasoning, we believe again that this could be our year, and maybe football will come home after all. Then the tournament goes down we all knew it would and the players have an extra week or two of summer holidays. The same old story.

Well this year, leading up to Euro 2012, it's different. Maybe I'm faithless but I can't see any reasons to be cheerful. More like a few reasons to be fearful.

The main one is our squad. When announced it made most of the country grimace and want to close the web page or turn off your phone. It was like when you're watching a match and it becomes increasingly obvious the team you're supporting is going to lose, all you want to do is leave the stadium or turn the TV off and forget about it.

The originally named squad was bad enough, complete with the inexplicable omission of Micah Richards and Aaron Lennon, alongside the equally inexplicable inclusion of Stuart "I bring absolutely nothing to the team" Downing and Andy "I played a bit better in May so that's good enough to start for England." CarrollBut now that the physio's room is like a scene from Saving Private Ryan, we're calling on pretty much anyone who can even count the Lions on our shirts. In all honesty I'm nearly ready to check I've got my passport handy in case the barrel-scraping gets out of hand.

Welbeck demonstrates to Carroll
the general idea behind being a striker
Make no mistake, wins over Norway and Belgium are not sufficient to convince us that maybe there is a shred of hope after all. All this talk of being the new Greece '04 and taking the title with tactical defensive displays is absurd. Yes, we did contain the opposition well and keep two clean sheets, but we weren't exactly playing Spain or Germany were we? If we can do the same against France next Monday, maybe then we can discuss it. I am glad that endless cycle of hope and despair is broken, even if it is by having zero hope and zero expectation. So much so that even that well-known nation of "soccer" analysts, the USA, has picked up on our dismal chances this summer.

I'm a fan of Hodgson, I think he's an astute guy and should ensure we don't embarrass ourselves, but I doubt he's ever going to have the nation on its feet in elation. That said, I don't subscribe to the view that we only want to win if we win well. Look at Spain's results from the World Cup:
Spain 0-1 Switzerland (Groups)
Spain 2-0 Honduras (Groups)
Spain 2-1 Chile (Groups)
Spain 1-0 Portugal (Last 16)
Spain 1-0 Paraguay (QF)
Spain 1-0 Germany (SF)
Spain 1-0 Holland (Final - AET)

If we come away with a semi-final appearance, and only a few goals scored, it'll be our most successful performance since '96 and no-one should complain at that (we will though)

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Roll on Roland Garros

I simply cannot see the appeal of tennis. It is dull and predictable at the best of times but these Grand Slams of late, where you have four incredibly consistent, talented and physically awesome men battling it out each time, it's just beyond beyond tedious.

Last year the 16 Slam semi-final places were filled by our famous quartet a total of 14 times, only Ferrer and Tsonga breaking through once each (at the expense of Nadal at Aus and Fed at Wim respectively). Needless to say, the trend has continued this year already.

As for who wins the things, it's even more boring. 27 of the last 28 Slams have been won by just 3 men. Del Potro the only man to interfere with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic's dominance. Despite 9 Semi-final appearances, even Murray hasn't been able to mix it up a bit by getting to hold a trophy. He's been handed a very tough draw at Roland Garros this year so I wouldn't expect to see him do much to break that streak.

Then we get onto the matches themselves. So repetitive and long. Who wants to watch the two best players in the world hitting astonishingly powerful and accurate shots time and time again for 6 hours? And at the Australian Open this came after two semi finals of such intense action and length that all we asked for was a simple straight setter in the final. I just can't bring myself to watch it again.

So now that we approach the French Open, is there any chance of someone else getting involved? As always, the likes of Berdych, Ferrer, Tsonga and Del Potro will threaten but there is surely no chance of any significant disruption to the power four.

And of course, the surface, is not exactly conducive to quick and straightforward matches. Our only hope must be that Nadal is so much better than anyone else we don't have to endure more than the odd tight set as he continues on his relentless quest for clay-court and Roland Garros immortality.

But who wants to see records tumbling? I have no desire to be actively following tennis during what may go down as one of the most exciting, competitive and high quality periods in tennis history. So let's quickly get this next chapter over and done with, I'm not at all looking forward to it...

Sunday, 29 April 2012

English football: Substance over Style?

I know we have no chance in the Euros, and I fully stand by what I said about not getting our hopes up. So don't go rushing to comment about my naivety or idiocy just yet. But perhaps Chelsea's inspiring victory over Barca gives us a slender glimmer of hope, at least that we might not embarrass ourselves. In no way am I suggesting that we play the 7-2-1 formation that Chelsea adopted on Tuesday night, but we have seen that the greatest technical ability will not always win. Just ask Mr Idealistic Pep Guardiola

We are far from the best team competing this summer but we're also far from the worst. According to FIFA rankings, we are the 5th best team there, with the others in our group being ranked 16, 17 and 49 in the World. Realistically, you'd maybe say we're 7th best, with teams like France/Italy who had bad World Cups better than us but currently ranked lower.
If we are to have any chance of at least performing respectably, we need to recognise the reality of what we can and can't do. For too long we have enviously dreamed of the technical ability of other nations, lamenting its absence in the players we have at our disposal. Of course we have produced players of intricate skill and creativity like Joe Cole, or vision and passing ability like Paul Scholes, but these are rare - we are never going to have a midfield of Iniesta, Xavi, Mata and Silva. 

The reality is that the bread and butter of our team is built not on skill, technique and close control but on pace, power and passion. We have no chance if we try to emulate Spain because we need to recognise the fact that, as disappointing as it might be, we do not have the technical ability to match it. This doesn't necessarily mean we play ugly or just long-ball, but nor does it mean we attempt tiki-taka because it will not end well. The core of our team, players like Gerrard, Rooney, Lampard, Terry, Cashley, are not going to win us a match, let alone a tournament if we try slow build-up, possession football, waiting for a moment of genius to unlock a defence.

Five or six years ago, Spain came to this realisation, but in reverse. They were physically outmuscled again and again in major tournaments, and consistently failed to perform to their potential. They realised that their strength lay in their pass and move build-up play, not speed or strength. 
The following quote sums up Spain's change of strategy after their latest tournament failure, the '06 World Cup. 

After being eliminated from the competition, Luis Aragon├ęs came to the decision that the team was not physical or tough enough to be able to out-muscle opponents, they therefore opted to start concentrating on monopolising the ball and thus started to employ the tiki-taka - a style characterised by short passing and movement, working the ball through various channels, and maintaining possession.

Spain haven't done too badly since then really. Looking at the examples of Arsenal and Man U might give further weight to the idea. Wenger has created a team of small, skilful players such as Rosicky, Arshavin, Nasri, Walcott. Lots of creativity and nice looking football, but very few trophies. United on the other hand play with a lot of speed and power, still attacking and aggressive but based more on swift counter-attack rather than endless possession, and have dominated English football for 20 years.
Regardless of whether it is Roy Hodgson, Stuart Pearce or Harry Redknapp who leads us in Poland/Ukraine and beyond, we need to play to our strengths and play an English style of football, not a poor attempt at Spanish football.

PS Ben, if you happen to read this blog, I'm sorry, I know this will offend your footballing philosophies.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Is It Possible To Overdose On Sport?

Let's be honest, it has been an absolutely crazy fortnight of sport. Where to begin? No matter which sport takes your fancy, there has been drama, intrigue, upsets, epic performances and records set in them all. 

Let's start with a rarely mentioned sport in this blog: Horse Racing. The Grand National is not an event I've ever taken much notice of before but my recent gambling addiction and the culturally dominant feeling of "you have to bet on the National" prompted me to call the bank manager and pick a couple of random horses to be honoured with 5p bets.

Despite both of my sure-things falling by the 5th fence, there was enough going on to hold my interest. Before the start a major jockey pulled out injured, the favourite threw off his rider then comically ran loose, a couple of false starts and then only 15 of 40 horses actually finishing the course, the best ever finish for a female jockey and the closest photo finish ever. Of course there is the tragedy of two horses being put down and others being injured and retired - a debate I'll leave to writers more experienced and informed than myself

Back-to-back Formula 1 Grand Prix weekends have yielded some surprising results. Normally a Vettel pole and start-to-finish victory wouldn't raise an eyebrow but this season it comes as quite a shock. But the highlight has to be the Chinese Grand Prix of last weekend, where Nico Rosberg claimed both his first pole and first victory of his career.

This weekend's tennis saw Rafa Nadal seal a record 20th ATP Masters 1000 Series, winning in Monte Carlo for an 8th consecutive year, also a record, and in doing so he broke a 7 match losing streak against Djokovic. And then our Fed Cup team epitomise the British sporting paradigm I was talking about in my last post. A new regime under Judy Murray, a strong team with good depth and very encouraging displays led us to the brink of rejoining the World Group for the first time since '93. And then defeat against what is in reality quite a weak Swedish team, and there's that familiar story we all know and love. What did I tell you about getting your hopes up? 

This weekend has also seen the beginning of the Snooker World Championships. Stephen Hendry, the most successful player in the modern era (i.e. when you can't win a world title by winning one match in the pub), came through qualifying and then reeled off his record equalling 3rd Crucible 147 break on the 1st day of the tournament. We've also seen the emergence of the youngest ever player at the finals, 17 year old Luca Brecel.

And what a fortnight of football: A Premiership title wrapped up at 82 minutes at Old Trafford was suddenly torn open for the potential of a late City steal. What odds on Tevez getting the winner next Monday evening? We've also had a few fairly dull and uncontroversial semi-finals. Of course I'm referring to Hearts v Celtic. That huge game aside, there was also a Wembley-based Merseyside derby which proved that Liverpool can win football matches and that Andy Carroll is capable of scoring, an uneventful clash between Spurs and Chelsea which had even John Terry being honest, and then Barcelona proving ineffective when coming forward at the Bridge, before losing at home for the first time in about 5000 matches and surrendering La Liga to Real in last night's El Clasico.
I shouldn't like to ignore the elephant in the room so I'll make mention of the fact that yes Sheffield Wednesday's automatic promotion push is still on after a 95th minute winner on Saturday, but how many times do I have to tell you? Don't get your hopes up.

Oh and as if that wasn't enough, it was the London Marathon today, with a few million people exhausting themselves on our capital's streets in the name of charity or Olympics qualification (for the most part).

If you think this sporting gluttony is about to wind down then may I draw your attention to a few particular days ahead of us this spring and summer:

5/5 - World Snooker Champs + FA Cup Final
13/5 - Premiership final weekend + Spanish Grand Prix
19/5 - Champions League Final + Heineken Cup Final + Championship Playoff Final + England v West Indies 1st Test Match
26/5 - Norway v England (football) + AVIVA Premiership Final + Monaco Grand Prix + England v West Indies 2nd Test Match
9/6 - Roland Garros + Euro 2012 + SA v England Rugby + England v West Indies 3rd Test Match + Canadian Grand Prix (I think this is my favourite date)
16/6 - US Open Golf + Euro 2012 + SA v England Rugby + England v West Indies ODI
1/7 - Wimbledon + Euro 2012 + England v Australia ODI
7/7 - Wimbledon + British Grand Prix + England v Australia ODI

Well, you get the picture, there are also a few test matches against South Africa, a bunch more Grand Prix, a couple of golf and tennis majors, and I'm sure there's something else I'm missing to do with London and 2012 but I can't quite place my finger on it.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Hope Deferred Makes the Sporting Fan Sick

I can safely assume that (with the notable, and appreciated, exception of particularly close family/friends) the vast majority of those that take the time to read what I put on here have some level of interest in sport. And it is also a reasonable assumption that someone with even a passing interest in sport also has a degree of preference for/against particular teams/players. I know someone who isn't exactly gunning for a place on A Question of Sport, but vaguely follows tennis and rugby and has an irrational hatred for Novak Djokovic and the Welsh national team respectively.

Having any form of favouritism or preference for a team or player leads to both euphoria (however infrequently in some cases), and much more inevitably, disappointment. But sporting disappointment and frustration comes in many forms. 

There is a form of disappointment that will be alien to the fans of the perpetually victorious (Barcelona, Djokovic, the All Blacks, etc.) Undeniably they experience defeat, failure and even humiliation on occasion but not that constant, 
resigned disappointment that comes from knowing you are going to lose, and that indeed becoming reality. Losing in the semi-finals or coming only 3rd isn't quite the same as week after week turning up for an ultimately "pointless" Saturday afternoon.
This lad hasn't got used to English
national teams just yet. He will...
But neither that sporadic disappointment of occasional defeats amongst a sea of victories, nor the relentless disappointment of weekly defeats and poor performance compare to the disappointment of your side performing well and getting your hopes up, before falling just short, or collapsing spectacularly. Of course there is that natural up and down of all sporting teams but surely nothing is more frustrating for a fan than inconsistency.
A thrilling run of victories, followed by a home defeat to the team bottom of the league. A decent patch of form then a cup defeat to a lower league team. Reaching the final rounds of a few tournaments then crashing out to a qualifier in the first round.
As British people we of course wisely expect the worst, a realism/pessimism spawned from years of watching our national team fail to meet their potential. How much more frustrating then, when we allow ourselves to believe, to have some hope, to permit just that sneaking faith in the chances of victory and glory, only for the inevitable to happen again. However much we might kick ourselves for allowing hope to conquer realism, we know that it will do the same again next time.

So when England are 233-4, chasing a record 340 against Sri Lanka, don't give hope an inch.
When we're 12-6 up in the second half against a 14-man Wales team, don't give hope an inch.
If Sunday evening comes and an Englishman is leading at Augusta by 5 shots, don't start celebrating until that Green Jacket is wrapped around him like a blanket
And on the 11th June this year, when we beat France and only have to get past Sweden and Ukraine in order to progress, don't let yourself believe. 

There's nothing that will make you sick to the stomach like abandoning your inherently British pessimism and starting to hope against all hope, only for the result to be even worse than you'd ever imagined to start with.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Wen's Arsene Gunner Be Gone?

The big question for Arsenal is how long do you stick with Arsene Wenger

This week's 3-0 win over Milan merely papers over the cracks in what is yet another trophy-less campaign for the Gunners. A season of thoroughly inconsistent results has included an 8-2 defeat at Man U but massive 5-3, 7-1 and 5-2 wins over Chelsea, Blackburn and Spurs respectively. A thumping defeat in the San Siro may have been followed by a convincing second-leg victory, but the fact is that Arsenal have fallen short of the Quarter Finals, and are out of every competition by early March, with a lot of work left to do to qualify for Champions League football for next year. 

There is little doubt that Wenger and Arsenal's policies and philosophy are admirable in terms of investing in youth and playing attacking, attractive football. But what good is investing in youth if you then sell the young players when they have matured and have the experience and steel required (e.g. Fabregas, Clichy, Nasri)?

And if you look at the youth investment policy, how well does it stand up to close scrutiny? Exceptionally gifted players like Fran Merida, Denilson, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Mark Randall have all been sold/released despite showing great promise. Some of the best young talent that Arsenal are known for (Walcott, Ramsey, Chamberlain) have been bought for big fees (£9m, £5m, £12m) from smaller clubs, rather than genuinely brought through the youth set-up (notable exceptions are Wilshere, Gibbs and Frimpong). 

In some quarters they are admired for not spending big, and in others they are admonished for not putting the financial backing to the ambition of the fans. No-one is suggested they have spent in the manner of City, Chelsea, Liverpool or United, but the last time they didn't spend at least £10m on a player during a season was in 06/07 when Eduardo was the top signing for £7.5m. And don't think that all of those signings have been the youngsters with unbridled talent and potential: Arshavin £15m aged 27, Koscielny £10m aged 24, Mertesacker £10m aged 26, Arteta £10m aged 29, and as of today, Podolski £11m aged 26.

'98 FA Cup Final scorers - sold for
a combined profit of £40,500,000
They do collect big on a few players (most notably Overmars, Anelka, Fabregas, Nasri and Adebayor), but being a property developer is not really what most north Londoners want for their club. What difference then between Arsenal making a profit off such names and Southampton doing the same with the Ox and Walcott? 

In the last 20 years Arsenal have spent a net £21.6m (£17 of which was before Wenger), compared to Newcastle £99m, Spurs £175m, Man U £177m, Liverpool £226m, Man City £487m, Chelsea £516m*. No question then that financially Arsene has worked wonders to be competitive for so long, but which Gunner wouldn't gladly have traded another £100m or so for another couple of cups? It may have made the move to the Emirates financially viable but another Premiership title or two would have made Highbury perfectly inhabitable for a while longer.
*thanks to for all the transfer spend stats. 

So would a win against Birmingham in last year's League Cup Final have made such a difference? Had Wilshere's left-footed hit dipped two inches lower and not struck the crossbar, all of the talk of the Gunners not having won anything for years would be redundant. Would any consideration of the great Arsenal Wenger being sacked consequently be dismissed as absurd? Similarly, is the discussion entertained purely because they failed to convert more than 1 of their 20 shots on goal?

In a time when managerial positions seem so fragile (just ask AVB, Gary Megson or Lee Clark), the likes of Ferguson, Moyes and Wenger are quite simply inspirational. Harry Redknapp is now 10th on the list of longest serving current managers in England, and he's been with Spurs for less than 4 seasons. Put it like this, Di Matteo is already climbing out of the relegation places, currently sitting 3rd bottom after a total of 4 days in charge. He'll be pressing for the playoffs soon. 

Of course the longevity of a manager is a positive thing for a club and for a chairman to show faith and consistency is fantastic and universally lauded, but is there a time to draw the line and recognise that no more progress can be made by the incumbent? How long can a policy of "building for the future" be sustained? Man U seem to do that and win the league while they're waiting. And what does it say for a club's ambitions when all the talk after being knocked out is of a "brave spirit" and "positive signs"? It sounds like the English national teams...

What it comes down to is the simple question; are Arsenal moving forward and becoming more competitive under Wenger or not? 

*I appreciate I've presented a pretty one-sided perspective on this but I am not actually convinced Wenger should go, just putting some things out there. Intrigued to see if any Arsenal fans want to have a say? Or Spurs/Utd/Chelsea etc. fans for that matter?!

Monday, 5 March 2012

A Welsh Grand Slam?

From the seal and porpoise-infested currents of the Pembrokeshire coast, to the peaks of Snowdonia, to the royally inhabited island of Anglesey, to the sprawling metropoleis of Rhosllannerchrugog, Llanfair Caereinion and Ystradffin, south through the Brecon Beacons into the urban centres of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, a few weeks ago a gentle breeze began, swirling to a quiet whisper, growing louder each weekend, and now at a level audible across the land of the dragon, building to a crescendo and a mighty Welsh roar at the Millenium Stadium on March 17th...

Y Gamp Lawn" "Y Gamp Lawn" "Y Gamp Lawn" "Y Gamp Lawn"

A straightforward win against the Italians this weekend will leave Warburton, North & Co. all lined up for the Grand Slam (I know my educated readership didn't need a translation of 'Y Gamp Lawn' but who knows who else might stumble on the blog and feel a little lost).

They've come through tough matches in London and Dublin, despite being second best for significant parts of both matches. Neither Ireland nor England took advantage of a Welsh sin-bin, and some poor decisions didn't help either host close out winning positions, but the World Cup semi-finalists showed a determination and skill to fight back and get impressive results in both matches. And winning ugly is part of being champions. Just ask that well known battling midfielder Samir Nasri, who knows about as much about winning ugly as Tim Henman.

After a strong showing in the World Cup, lots of talk discussed Welsh prospects for the Six Nations and if Graham Price is right, this team is on the verge of a great achievement, earned by a mixture of powerful attacking rugby, grit, determination and some lack in clinical finishing of their opponents. 

But let us not forget that Wales were lauded after a World Cup in which they actually lost 3 times (South Africa, France & Australia), and could easily have been heading home after a weak display against Samoa. It was Les Bleus that ended the dream in New Zealand and Les Bleus who could do it again on St Patrick's Day. In all likelihood the French will have beaten England in Paris and so will be vying for the Six Nations crown themselves. And after all, how many times have Wales beaten France in the Six Nations at the Millenium Stadium?

Once. 2008. After home wins over Scotland and Italy, and away wins at Ireland and England (sounding familiar?), they sealed the Grand Slam over the French. They'll need much of the same in a couple of weeks...

Monday, 13 February 2012

An English national team to be proud of please?

What is it about English national sport teams? Is there something inherent that makes us want to self-destruct, and demolish what last shred of hope of success we might otherwise have? Have the powers that be decided that if there is any chance, however slim, of us actually performing well at a major tournament, something must be done to disrupt it?

Twelve months ago England's rugby team were storming to the Six Nations with home wins over France, Scotland and Italy, as well as an impressive victory in Wales. The likes of Youngs, Foden and Ashton were setting the tournament alight with pace and power, while Flood & Wilkinson missed less kicks in total (3) than in the first match of the World Cup (5) against ArgentinaIt was with realistic optimism that we headed to New Zealand - expecting at least to threaten the latter stages. Instead, an embarrassment both on and off the field which ultimately led to the demise of an all-time England legend, Wilkinson, alongside the likes of Tindall, Moody and Easter. An ignominious end for those who have previously performed so admirably for us in the past.

And now we are celebrating gritty and unconvincing wins over Scotland and Italy as positive signs of rebuilding and a new era. However true it may be, it seems something of a shame to be having to talk this way about our national team, and so soon after we claimed the Six Nations title with relative ease.

And what of the mighty Three Lions? I don't think anyone is under the illusion that our national football team have the slightest chance against the likes of Spain and Germany in the European Championships this summer, whoever's in charge at the time. One shambles after another regarding the captaincy, with John Terry now twice stripped of the position, only exceeded in its absurdity by the state of our managerial situation. An Italian who clearly didn't want to be there and didn't exactly seem devastated to be leaving, not least after his position was so thoroughly undermined by the FA removing his captain without so much as a "what do you think Fabio?"

Where does it leave us going forward? There is such a clamour for an English manager, and Harry Redknapp in particular, that's it's hard to see how they FA could resist, even with the likes of Hiddink in the running. What we need is a sense of togetherness, a team unity and passion that's been absent from the national team disrupted by pathetic squabbles, ill-discipline and perpetual minor issues. Whoever can do that for us, I can say for us all, we'll be behind them. For me, I want Stuart Pearce but let's just see...