27 November 2007

The price of failure

By the weekend, the dust had barely settled on England’s dismal failure and Steve McClaren’s dismissal. But already several of the top candidates to replace the erstwhile coach were going out of the way to distance themselves from the poisoned chalice. Such is the attraction – or lack thereof - of one of the most high profile and best-paid jobs in football.

It’s easy to see why so few are reluctant to take a step forward. Any England coach takes the job knowing they are taking on a team saddled with the highest of expectations, despite having only once reached the final of a major tournament, and that in the comfort of home 41 years ago. The fans are impatient for success, the big clubs are less than fully co-operative, and the media is vulture-like in the speed and ferocity with which it feeds off any perceived weakness or error of judgment. To say it’s a high pressure job is to put it mildly.

And when the price of failure is to be savaged by the press and then callously discarded on football’s scrapheap, then even the huge salary - and the payoff that comes with it when it is time to go – can seem like inadequate compensation. Of McClaren’s immediate predecessors – Sven-Goran Eriksson, Kevin Keegan, Glenn Hoddle, Terry Venables and Graham Taylor – none rejoined the management ranks at a major club. Eriksson was the most fortunate, taking over Manchester City after a year’s sabbatical. Keegan also joined City, but at a time when they were in English football’s second tier. Hoddle returned at Southampton, Venables popped up as Australia’s coach, and Taylor, like Keegan, had to drop a division to take over at Wolves. History suggests the England job does anything but pave the way to future riches.

And it’s not just the coach who has to count the cost of failure. England’s absence from Euro 2008 means the FA will lose £10m in revenue from ticket sales and sponsorship. Estimates suggest the economy is boosted by as much as £1bn when England participate in either of football’s big biennial tournaments. Umbro, the manufacturer of England’s kits, immediately cut production and announced a profits warning in anticipation of poor summer sales, as did Sports World, their largest retail customer. The bookmakers also groaned collectively at the loss of summer trade; one likened it to Christmas without turkey.

However, large though these numbers are, the true cost of last week’s failure may not fully materialise until long after Euro 2008 has been and gone.

The final impact was the loss of a top seeding at Sunday’s World Cup draw. Instead of remaining in the first pool of teams, they were placed in the second tier. And although they ultimately avoided any ‘group of death’ scenarios, they did find themselves drawn against Ukraine (semi-finalists at the last World Cup) and, irony of ironies, Croatia. They will also face the tricky and less-than-enticing prospect of long trips to Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile, Greece, the beneficiary of England’s slide out of the top group, face a less than daunting qualifying campaign against Israel, Switzerland, Latvia, Luxembourg and Moldova. Oh, what might have been …

With only the group winners earning automatic qualification, and just four places up for grabs between the runners-up, World Cup qualification is challenging for anyone. Without the protection of a top seeding position, it is now an even tougher ask for England.

If we thought that not qualifying for Euro 2008 was bad enough, to fail to make the 2010 World Cup is nigh on unthinkable. And yet it is a very distinct possibility.

Blame whatever combination of the FA, Steve McClaren and the players you like. But our absence from Euro 2008 next summer may have consequences which reach out to 2010 and beyond.

And that’s the legacy that the successors of McClaren and the so-called Golden Generation will have to overcome.

22 November 2007

Rest in pieces

In affectionate remembrance
of
ENGLISH FOOTBALL
which died at Wembley
on
21st November, 2007
Deeply lamented by a large stadium of booing spectators
R.I.P.
N.B. A waxwork effigy of Steve McClaren will be cremated and the ashes taken to Austria and Switzerland

R.I.P. Steve McClaren

Steve McClaren's sacking this morning brought to an end the shortest reign (18 months) of any England manager. While there have been mitigating circumstances surrounding a dismal Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, most notably an injury list as long as your arm, there is little doubt that McClaren has been consistently unable to change events through a combination of tactical acumen and strong man-management.

To watch him last night standing/sitting in stony silence on the touchline, contributing nothing in terms of direction or encouragement, during a first half where it was obvious to all and sundry what changes needed to be made – get men closer in support of the isolated Peter Crouch, press harder in midfield to disrupt Croatia’s neat passing – said it all about a coach who had simply run out of ideas.

Having gone against his conservative nature in making some bold choices for this crucial match, he reverted to type once England had clawed back their two-goal deficit and allowed the team to fatally sit back and invite Croatia onto them. The rest, as they say, is history. So too is McClaren, the so-called first choice of FA chief executive Brian Barwick.

He wasn’t solely to blame for the qualifying campaign, but given that the FA could sack neither the players nor themselves, he was always going to carry the can.

R.I.P. Scott Carson

Perhaps unfair for a goalkeeper making his first competitive start in this most pressurised of matches, but the 22-year old will inevitably shoulder the blame for the basic and catastrophic error which gifted Croatia the opening goal. While even the best goalkeepers can be forgiven the occasional calamity, this was not the first time Carson has committed a terrible mistake in a pressure situation, having made a near-identical error in a Champions League match for Liverpool. And although he made one superb reflex save later on, it did not disguise a performance which was generally shaky and lacking in confidence, notwithstanding the slippery conditions.

Carson’s international career may well be over before it has even begun; it is certainly on hiatus.

The question now is: if not Carson, if not the beleaguered Paul Robinson, then who? Chris Kirkland is injury-prone, David James an ageing, short-term solution, Ben Foster talented but inexperienced, and Robert Green not entirely convincing. There is no easy answer, as McClaren discovered to his cost last night.

R.I.P. David Beckham

Last night’s second-half appearance will almost certainly be the last of his international career: he seems destined to be stranded on 99 caps. Next season, he will be able to concentrate fully on enjoying his semi-retirement at LA Galaxy. It was an indication of the paucity of quality on display from the home side that his sole contribution of any significance – an exquisite, chipped cross for Crouch’s equalising goal – marked him out as one of England’s better performers on the night, and underlined the failure of both Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole to deliver telling crosses.

Beckham’s effort and heart were unquestionable last night, but the energy and consistent quality of his heyday are long gone. The worrying thing is that there is no obvious heir apparent.

R.I.P. the so-called ‘Golden Generation’

It seems this most unfitting of monikers will always be prefaced as such. A highly praised and even more highly paid collection of players – supposedly as good as any England has ever had – who have repeatedly failed to deliver anywhere near their potential, other than one glorious night in Germany six years ago. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard: world-beaters at club level, passably good (frequently less) for England. Rio Ferdinand: concentration really not a strong suit. Wayne Rooney: young, but still a long way from the finished article and not a patch on the sublime – and younger - Lionel Messi). Paul Robinson: yes, well. Even David Beckham, for all his ability on crosses and free-kicks, has never been close to being the complete player his publicists would like to portray.

It’s been a good team – occasionally even a great team – but not one which has ever been capable of producing the consistent excellence needed to dominate on the grand stage.

'Never quite good enough when it really mattered.' Write that on the tombstone of English football.

5 November 2007

Who says lightning doesn't strike twice?

It’s always a privilege to watch a game in which a new record is set. But to see one which features two record-breakers is a rare gem indeed.

On a day where the NFL and the headline writers were focussed on the irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object battle between the league’s last two unbeaten teams, the New England Patriots and reigning Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, it was the earlier game between the San Diego Chargers and Minnesota Vikings which will go down in the record books.

It was fitting that lightning should strike twice in a game featuring the Chargers, the team whose logo is a thunderbolt, and whose running back LaDainian Tomlinson set NFL single-season records for both rushing (28) and total (31) touchdowns only last season.

But it wasn’t Tomlinson who set the record books alight last night.

That privilege fell first to team-mate Antonio Cromartie, who fielded a missed field goal at the back of his own end zone as time expired in the first half. He then ran it back, untouched, for a 109-yard touchdown which was the longest play in NFL history. Furthermore, as it is not possible for a play to cover more than 109 yards, Cromartie’s record is one which may be equalled in the future, but never beaten.

If that wasn’t enough already, an apparently innocuous three-yard run on the penultimate play of the game by the Vikings’ rookie running back Adrian Peterson was enough to break one of the NFL’s most revered records, the single-game mark for rushing yards once held by the late, legendary Walter Payton. That final carry was enough to move Peterson’s total to 296 yards, beating Jamal Lewis’s previous record by a solitary yard.

As is the nature of these things, Peterson’s record may not stand for long: last night was the third time this particular mark had been broken since 2000. But given that he also currently leads the NFL in rushing yards, total yards from scrimmage and rushing touchdowns, there is every chance he will go on to set more records in the weeks and years to come. This is no one-week wonder: it will be worth remembering his name.

For the record, the result was almost incidental in the midst of all that excitement, but Minnesota won 35-17.

Nothing we didn't already know

In truth, we didn't learn much we didn't already know on Saturday afternoon.

Manchester United are a team who can attack with a speed, directness and threat which few teams anywhere in world football can match.

Hardly news.

Arsenal are a team who pass the ball with pace, precision and patience. And who this season have developed a resilience which has been lacking in previous years, as well as a happy knack of scoring goals late on in matches. William Gallas's late, late equaliser on Saturday was the tenth time in eleven Premier League games this season they have scored in the last ten minutes.

Nothing new there, then.

And, despite all the pre-match hype which suggested the outcome of the game could have a major influence on the title race - in a season which is less than one-third complete thus far - we are none the wiser after Saturday's 2-2 draw at the Emirates Stadium.

We did not get a decisive result. What we did get was an absorbing, dramatic and occasionally brilliant game of football - which has not always been the case in previous encounters between these two sides. Overall, the two sides did a pretty good job of neutralising each other, but at times the football was breathtaking. United counter-attacked incisively at speed, which was how they scored both their goals. Arsenal stuck to their philosophy of moving the ball the length and width of the field with almost surgical precision. The first equaliser early in the second half was a perfect example of Wenger-ball. Cesc Fabregas touched the ball three times in the move: he started in his own penalty area, sprinted forward to link up play with another pass in the centre circle, and finally popped up in the heart of the Man U box to stroke home a calm finish. In between, the tricky Alexander Hleb, deep inside his own half, wriggled free of the close attentions of a United player before expertly chipping the ball forward to Fabregas. And it was full back Bacary Sagna who made the critical overlapping run which put him in position to cut back the cross from which Fabregas scored his eleventh goal of an already prolific season. It was a quite wonderful piece of counter-attacking team play, box-to-box with precise runs and passes scything a way through the Premier League's most stingy defence.

In the end, although both sides had enough good chances to win, a draw was probably about right. Man U can look back on having won a hard-earned point from perhaps their most difficult fixture; Arsenal can take heart from the way they twice battled back from a goal down and played right through to the end. And overall the championship race remains finely balanced - and with Chelsea winning again and Liverpool grimly hanging in there, it is by no means a two-horse race - with all the key questions tantalisingly unanswered.

It wasn't the meaty main course - or the repeat of the infamous Battle of the Buffet - the media were determined to serve up. But it was a pretty tasty hors d'oeuvre to whet the appetite.

The battle for the Premier League title is just warming up, with the potentially critical return fixture at Old Trafford scheduled for April 12th. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the ride.

30 October 2007

The 'other' football

As games went, it was a bit of a stinker, the NFL’s equivalent of a dreary nil-nil draw. But that didn’t detract from the sense of occasion.

When the NFL announced last year that the New York Giants would be playing the Miami Dolphins at Wembley, it looked like a great match-up between two likely playoff contenders.

The best laid plans of mice and men, eh?

Having lost their opening two games, the Giants had turned things around by winning their next five, coming to Wembley with an enviable 5-2 record. Having lost their opening two games, the Dolphins had continued the trend by losing their next five as well, coming to Wembley with an unenviable 0-7 record.

And as time wound down on a 13-10 defeat – a scoreline which flattered Miami – you couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. Already the worst team in the NFL, they had sacrificed a home game to act as ambassadors for the league, were missing their starting quarterback, running back and defensive leader, and were greeted by teeming rain which made play difficult, to say the least. And to top it all off, during breaks in play, the big screens showed short vignettes celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Dolphins’ ‘perfect’ Super Bowl season, the only unbeaten, untied campaign in NFL history. As if sliding to 0-8 wasn’t bad enough, this was like being taunted from beyond the grave.

Still, at least they weren’t booed with the kind of ferocity which greeted Chelsea and England football – make that ‘soccer’ – captain John Terry, present as an honorary team captain for the pre-game coin toss. As an Arsenal fan, I had to laugh.

Having said all that, it was a great occasion. An enthusiastic – frequently expert, in some cases merely curious - capacity crowd turned up to watch the first competitive NFL game played outside of North America. Many of us turned up sporting our favourite team’s colours, whether it was the Giants or Dolphins, or the 49ers, Packers, Patriots or Colts, or the Monarchs, Claymores or Admirals of the now defunct NFL Europe, or indeed the kit of an active team in the BAFL (British American Football League).

And the spectacle and razzamatazz of an NFL game was not dampened by the wet weather. From the pre-game entertainment (The Feeling) to the Miami cheerleaders and the national anthems, there is a scale and an unapologetic glamour about American football which even football’s Premier League cannot match.

Admittedly, the game was what you would euphemistically term as ‘one for the purists’. The sodden conditions hampered both offenses and contributed to several unsightly errors, meaning there were few big, spectacular plays (actually, make that none). Having established an early lead, a stuttering Giants team withdrew into conservative play-calling; the Dolphins simply lacked the firepower to threaten convincingly. But that didn’t detract from the overall spectacle, even though overall the atmosphere in the stadium was less intense than it might have been.

Hopefully, the NFL will have seen enough to be convinced that Wembley should host more games like this in the future. Certainly there are enough die-hards, UK-based ex-pats and travelling fans to ensure that occasional annual or bi-annual matches would always be sell-outs.

Talk of Wembley hosting a Super Bowl is, however, premature. Host venues have already been decided through to 2011, and even if the NFL owners did agree to stage a Super Bowl outside of the US, the UK is by no means the guaranteed front-runner. Enthusiasm for the game in Germany is at least as strong - while Britain’s two teams, the London (later England) Monarchs and Scottish Claymores, had long since folded, Germany held five of the six NFL Europe franchises when the plug was pulled on that league earlier this year. And China remains the big prize from a commercial perspective, a market of potentially limitless riches which is already being penetrated by football.

Anyway, we move forward one small step at a time. I started going to the pre-season ‘American Bowl’ exhibition games in the 80s, and I was a semi-regular attendee at Monarchs’ games during their existence in the 90s. Back then, I would never have dreamt that one day we would see a ‘proper’ NFL game in the UK. I’m glad just to have been part of the experience last Sunday, and hopeful that this will not prove to be a one-off. It will never replace soccer as the global ‘football’, but a game as colourful, violent and delightfully complex as American football - where a quarterback named Lemon can throw passes to a receiver named Peelle - has to be deserving of a global audience.

28 October 2007

Money doesn't equal class

There's a world of difference between the Bank of England and a loan-shark.

Both are sources of money, but while one oozes history, reputation, credibility and class, the other lacks all four, no matter how expensive a suit he wears.

Which is a bit like the difference between clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal (the last of which has often been referred to as 'the Bank of England') and teams like Chelsea or Tottenham Hotspur.

United, Liverpool and Arsenal are part of English football's aristocracy: clubs with a history of success, a proud and loyal fan base and, on the whole, a reputation for doing things 'the right way' (although, like any royal family, they also have their fair share of dirty laundry).

Chelsea, despite their recent success and Roman Abramovich's billions, are widely regarded as Johnny-come-latelys, earning derogatory sobriquets such as 'Chavski'. But they at least have a cabinet full of trophies to point at; they may have bought their way in (and, lest we forget, they were tottering towards bankruptcy under Ken Bates before Abramovich rode in to save them), but they have nonetheless been successful and have barged their way into Europe's elite as a result - not unlike their owner's sudden elevation to Europe's financial top table.

But Tottenham, now there's another matter.

As a club, Spurs have enjoyed historical success. Two league titles and eight FA Cups (including the double in 1961), and three European trophies make them one of England's most successful sides. But they have not won a major honour since 1991, the FA Cup final victory over Nottingham Forest where the match took second billing to Paul Gascoigne's horror tackle on Gary Charles. Being trophyless for the past 16 seasons added to a record of 15 consecutive finishes outside the top six prior to 2006 somewhat undermines Tottenham fans' protestations that they remain 'a big club'.

And it is the circumstances surrounding the departure of Martin Jol, the manager who ended that run of non-top six finishes with a brace of fifth positions, which underline exactly why Spurs are widely perceived as a club lacking that critical, ever-so-intangible ingredient of 'class'.

Last night's official unveiling of former Sevilla coach Juande Ramos as Tottenham's new head coach was merely the final confirmation of what has, for the past two months, been football's worst-kept secret.

Political machinations within football clubs are hardly new, but events at White Hart Lane have taken them to a new level this season. Over the summer, there had already been several stories about unrest between Jol, chairman Daniel Levy and sporting director Damien Comolli: £40m had been spent on new players (reportedly, Comolli's choices rather than Jol's), and expectations of a top-four finish - and the Champions League spot which goes with it - were high.

It only took one game - an opening day defeat at Sunderland - for the whispers to start about Jol's position being under pressure. Soon after, we learned that Tottenham representatives had been to Spain to offer the job to Ramos; the story was flatly (and feebly) denied by the club, who vehemently stated that no such meeting had taken place and they had only been to Seville to see how the club was run. Yeah, right - and that's airborne bacon I see over there.

As Spurs' poor start to the season continued, Jol's position was continually undermined by a board who provided him with little support, none of it credible. To the outside world, Jol was clearly a dead man walking being let down by a board who had terminally undermined his standing with the players; Levy and the Tottenham board presumably felt they were doing everything right and that Jol was to blame for the team's poor form.

Thursday night's UEFA Cup game at home to Getafe was the final straw. There has been some confusion over the exact order and wording of events that evening, but it appears that the board decided before the game to sack Jol (presumably because they had already received Ramos's acceptance) but opted - with a naivete which borders on the inconceivable - not to inform him until after the game.

Sure enough, as these things have a tendency of doing, the news leaked. Jol received a text message (from a boardroom sympathiser?) during the game informing him of the news, and by half-time both the media and the fans at White Hart Lane were buzzing with the news. Repeatedly throughout the second half, chants of 'Stand up for Martin Jol' rang out around the ground, occasionally punctuated with boos aimed at the directors' box.

By Friday morning, Jol had gone, with even the wording of the club's press statement, which made it quite clear that Jol had been sacked in a proactive and positive move by the board, oozing callousness and a casual disregard for their most successful manager in nearly 20 years. And less than 36 hours later, Ramos had been installed at Tottenham with a reported four-year, £20m contract in his back pocket.

The haste was unseemly, and it doesn't take a genius to work out the chain of events which has occurred.

As an Arsenal fan, I realise I can be accused of a large degree of bias, but to me this whole episode smacks of boardroom power games and a distinct lack of class. Sure, Spurs have flashed the cash over the past couple of years, buying up talent left, right and centre. And the deal they have offered Ramos puts him at the very highest level in world football in terms of managers' pay. I do not dispute that Spurs have spent money like the big club they claim to be. But there is a huge difference between a pretender talking a good game and actually being a genuinely big, successful club who are admired for doing things in a befitting manner.

It's not often you will hear an Arsenal fan saying this, but I genuinely feel sorry for Spurs fans; they deserve better (but not much better, mind you). Money simply does not buy you class, no matter what Daniel Levy may think or say. It doesn't even guarantee sustained success: it can even result in the exact opposite. Just ask Leeds United.

22 October 2007

Conspiracy or paranoia?

There has been much jingoistic rubbish spouted in the past 24 hours to rationalise how Lewis Hamilton was ‘robbed’ of the Formula 1 driver’s title yesterday at Interlagos in Brazil.

Depending on who you listen to, their level of paranoia, and their objectivity/knowledge (or lack thereof), Hamilton has been the victim of a conspiracy involving some combination of the FIA, Max Moseley and Bernie Ecclestone, including the possible collusion of Hamilton’s own team, McLaren.

Utter, utter codswallop.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that Formula 1 is a ‘business’ where decisions are as often determined by political agendas rather than any concept of sporting fairness. On occasions too numerous to mention, the rules and even the results of races have been, ahem, amended to encourage a close championship finish, generate additional column inches or punish a team or driver who has stepped out of line.

2007 has been no exception. The $100m fine – the heaviest in the history of all sports - levied against McLaren for their part in the ‘Spygate’ scandal was undoubtedly related to team principal Ron Dennis’s long history of rubbing the powers-that-be up the wrong way. And the fact that the team was stripped of all its points for being the recipient of confidential Ferrari design information, while its drivers - one of whom, Hamilton, was already being hailed as the Tiger Woods of motor racing - were allowed to retain theirs was farcical, an obvious victory for commercial interests over sporting justice. Apparently the drivers shouldn’t be blamed for being innocent beneficiaries of secret information which helped them go faster. In the same way that Marion Jones should not have been punished for being (as she claimed until recently) the innocent beneficiary of performance-enhancing drugs which helped her run faster. Oh no. Perish the thought.

Anyway, enough is enough. Let’s have a quick look at two of the more popular conspiracy theories.

1. At the Chinese GP, McLaren deliberately kept Hamilton out 2-3 laps too long as part of a secret agreement to scupper his title hopes.

Yes, it was a terrible decision, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. What we do know is that the weather was changing by the minute, so McLaren and/or Hamilton (despite the team taking the blame for it, no one really knows) held out as long as possible before deciding whether to switch to wet or dry tyres. Running an extra two or three laps, even losing 7-8 seconds per lap, was preferable to wasting perhaps 30 seconds potentially making the wrong tyre choice which would have then required an additional stop to correct the error. (I’m reminded of the European GP at Donnington in 1993, when in similar conditions Alain Prost spent the entire afternoon switching from slicks to wets at the first sign of rain, only for it to immediately stop, necessitating an immediate switch back to dry tyres. In the meantime, Ayrton Senna stayed out on slicks, tiptoed through the damp patches, and promptly won the race at a canter.) So McLaren made the wrong call in changeable conditions, something they have been known to have a weakness with historically. If they had wanted to throw the race, there are far more subtle and less embarrassing ways they could have done so.

2. Felipe Massa was clearly helping his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, so why did Alonso overtake Hamilton at the start, and then not help him later?

Of course Massa was supporting Raikkonen, as the Brazilian was already out of the championship running. Alonso, on the other hand, was in a position to claim the title, and therefore had his own interests to protect.

So Alonso overtook Hamilton: so what? It relegated Lewis to fourth place, which would have been enough to clinch the title anyway as long as Alonso didn’t win the race. Hamilton’s subsequent disastrous attempt to reclaim third spot was both reckless and unnecessary, and belied his inability to turn down his racer’s instinct at a time when a cool head was called for. No matter what, to suggest that Alonso, the reigning two-time world champion, should have sacrificed his chances from the start to aid his rookie team-mate is ludicrous beyond words.

As for later in the race, if either Raikkonen or Massa had retired in the closing laps, then Alonso would have been champion, so he had to push and hope right to the end. And even if Alonso had strategically retired on the final lap, the additional point this would have earned Hamilton was still insufficient. (He would have been level on points with Raikkonen, but the Finn would still have been ahead on count-back, having won more races.)

I’ve heard a number of other arguments, from the vaguely plausible to the downright nonsensical, but quite honestly I wouldn’t waste any more time than I already have debunking them.

I prefer instead to look back on a season which has given us a thrilling title battle, several exciting races, and more twists and turns than an Alpine pass. At the end of it all, three drivers – Raikkonen, Hamilton and Alonso – were separated by just one point, and it was the one who had been all but mathematically out of it with just two races left who ultimately triumphed.

Let’s be quite clear about this: Kimi Raikkonen’s championship win is neither fortunate nor undeserved. Yes, Hamilton suffered from a combination of bad luck and poor judgment in the final two races. But equally Kimi had suffered even more misfortune with mechanical failures in mid-season. He has driven beautifully, consistently fast and virtually error-free, throughout the season, and a lesser competitor would have given up the ghost facing a 17 point deficit with only two races to go. But Raikkonen did what Raikkonen does: ignore everyone else and focus on doing what he needed to do, win both races and hope for the best.

Which was exactly what he did. While all around him were falling off the track in China, Raikkonen charged through the field to win. And yesterday, under the most extreme pressure, he drove with the ease of a Sunday driver. It was his sixth win of the season, two more than either Hamilton or Alonso. And it is a title which only the most churlish would deny a driver who is widely regarded to be the fastest on the grid in terms of raw speed.

Congratulations, Kimi. Technically, he is still only champion subject to an appeal by McLaren against fuel irregularities being turned down (which it will be), but he has won fair and square, untainted by accusations of cheating. He is absolutely a worthy winner.

As for Lewis Hamilton, he has had a fine season, far exceeding everyone’s expectations and so nearly becoming the first rookie driver to win the world title. He will be back next year, better and wiser for the experience, and he is clearly a champion-in-waiting. But success is by no means guaranteed. In a sport where the machines are as important as the driver, it has to be remembered that McLaren will not necessarily be competitive next year (just as they weren’t last year), especially with the millstone of that $100m fine around their necks. A great team/driver combination one year can easily be an also-ran the following year, and this year’s bright young thing can quickly become yesterday’s man. Just ask Jenson Button.

Anyhow, it was a dramatic end to a thrilling season. Sure, the Machiavellian political manoeuvrings add spice to the mix, but they shouldn’t be taken too seriously and they shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the first three-way finish to a world championship since 1986.

Conspiracy? Don’t make me laugh.


Alonso sacrifice his own title aspirations to aid Hamilton? Why should he?

And as for the notion that Bernie somehow has a big red button in his trailer with which he can orchestrate the results he needs by destroying engines or exploding tyres? Oh come on …

… Everyone knows the button is blue.

Fractions and margins

Sadly, it wasn’t to be.

England gave 100% on Saturday night, but it wasn’t enough against a South Africa side which was ultimately too strong and too well organised. 15-6 was perhaps a little unkind to England, but there was little doubt that the Springboks had been the better side and were worthy world champions.

Like any good sporting competition, this match was won and lost by the finest of margins. Some tight refereeing decisions certainly went South Africa’s way; in particular, an obstruction against Bryan Habana that wasn’t given, and one by Mark Cueto a couple of minutes later that was. Cueto’s ‘try’ early in the second half was – correctly - chalked off by the television match official who spotted his foot brushing the touchline before he touched the ball down in the corner.

But to blame the defeat wholly on marginal officiating decisions is to miss the point. England had squeaked through the quarter and semi-finals against Australia and France by the finest of margins – Stirling Mortlock’s late penalty miss, Joe Worsley’s tap tackle on Vincent Clerc which prevented a certain try – so what goes around has to eventually come around.

For all England’s passion and heart, the truth was they never looked able to either mount sustained pressure or to provide the flash of inspiration to scythe through the South African defences. Only once – Mathew Tait’s thrilling line break which resulted in the try that never was – did they look capable of scoring a try.

And the reason for that was all too obvious from the opening minutes of the game, as the Springboks twice won the ball from England lineouts. They would steal seven in all (and disrupt several others), while winning all 13 of their own, starving England of the vital oxygen of territory and momentum from which they could have launched a serious threat. England ultimately had the lion’s share of both possession (55%) and territory (57%), and spent twice as long in South Africa’s 22 as they did defending their own. But they never managed to gain control in the critical areas where they could really hurt the Springboks.

Not that it was all doom and gloom, of course: on the contrary, there was much to be proud of. This was a vastly better side to the one which surrendered so meekly, 36-0, to the same opponents just five weeks before. The tournament’s most dangerous try-scorer, Bryan Habana, was a non-factor offensively, and as a team South Africa rarely threatened England’s try line. And there were England heroes all over the pitch, from the man-mountain that is Andrew Sheridan to Tait’s thrilling run to the unflinching crunching tackles regularly administered by Jonny Wilkinson.

England finished the tournament disappointed, but with their heads rightfully held high. They gave absolutely everything. With the rub of the green, they might even have won. But it just wasn’t to be.

Ultimately, Brian Ashton’s team couldn’t quite deliver the fairy-tale ending. But nonetheless it was quite a story.

19 October 2007

Perchance to dream

Exactly five weeks ago, England, the defending world champions, were whitewashed 36-0 by South Africa in a World Cup pool match which was every bit as one-sided as the scoreline suggests.

Tomorrow night, England will face the Springboks once again, only this time it will be in the final of the tournament, a prospect which would have been regarded as preposterousness of send-in-the-men-in-white-coats proportions five weeks ago.

Is this a bridge too far? Or do we dare dream the seemingly impossible: that somehow, this beaten-up England squad - a side which has lost more than half its games since winning the 2003 World Cup, a team so widely written off before the tournament they were considered 33/1 outsiders - could actually triumph over adversity and all expectation and actually retain the trophy?

This is no small matter. England teams have only ever won two World Cups in a major sport; the football team were unsuccessful in their defence of the Jules Rimet trophy in 1970, and so the rugby squad stand within 80 minutes of an unprecedented achievement.

Over the past month, a faint hope has grown into a very real possibility. After the earlier defeat by South Africa, it was by no means certain that England would even avoid the ignominy of failing to qualify from their group. But Samoa and Tonga were competently disposed of, and in a titanic quarter-final against an Australia side hell-bent on revenge for 2003 they somehow emerged triumphant against the odds. By the time last week’s semi against the hosts, France, rolled around, the obvious improvement in England’s confidence meant that it came as little surprise when they again overcame their underdog tag, running out 14-9 winners in another nail-biter of a game. There is no doubt that significant momentum has built up over the past few games.

The question is: is that enough?

By pretty much every objective measure, South Africa should win tomorrow night. They have the more talented players. Where England lack outright pace across the team, the Springboks have Bryan Habana, arguably the fastest and most dangerous winger in world rugby today. They have beaten England in their last four meetings, twice scoring more than 50 points.

And yet.

If there is one thing this World Cup has underlined, it is the capacity of sport to produce glorious surprises. From Argentina’s win over France in the opening match to Ireland’s shock exit to the quarter-final defeats of favourites New Zealand and Australia by France and England, the tournament has proved that the more talented side in any match is not necessarily the better one; an advantage on paper does not automatically transfer onto the scoreboard. Just look at New Zealand: the best side in the world over the past four years, odds-on favourite entering the tournament, but dumped out unceremoniously in the quarter-finals.

This England rugby side remind me so much of Greece’s football team at Euro 2004. In terms of talent, they were distinctly mediocre, but that didn’t stop them from winning the tournament through a combination of solid defence and outstanding team play and tactics.

And that is where we are with England. Here we have a side with good but not outstanding talent, certainly less than both their last two opponents and tomorrow’s. And like Greece, England’s defence and overall team solidity have been the rocks on which they have ground out workmanlike if unspectacular wins. This is a team which has rediscovered how to win, even against nominally superior opponents. And they have demonstrated it in the past two weeks, not once but twice.

Three times a charm, perhaps? We can but dream ...

11 October 2007

Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t

The storm in a teacup which has brewed up over Michael Owen is perplexing at least, downright hypocritical at worst.

In an era where English footballers are frequently criticised for undervaluing the honour and importance of playing for their country, it seems slightly perverse that Owen is being questioned for declaring himself fit to play in England’s two vital Euro 2008 qualifiers over the next week.

Newcastle manager Sam Allardyce had expressed his concern about Owen’s fitness to play for England, having had surgery on September 28th, restricting him to a brief substitute appearance on his return last Sunday (during which he scored).

Allardyce’s concern is at least understandable. Owen has, to say the least, a chequered history with serious injuries and ongoing niggles, which has restricted him to just 21 appearances for Newcastle in the two-and-a-bit years since he signed for the club.

But if some factions in the media are to be believed, Owen stands accused of rushing back to play for Newcastle solely to further his chances of playing for England and a selfish pursuit of Bobby Charlton’s England record of 49 goals. And there is a right royal bust-up developing between Allardyce, Owen and England boss Steve McClaren.

In other words, the finger is being pointed at Michael Owen because he is the antithesis of so many of his peers: he (allegedly) prioritises country over club.

Owen has defended himself strongly, telling BBC Radio 5 Live, "I'm fine now and there's no risk. If you listen to the surgeon, they will say there is absolutely no problem. The surgeon has said that it is a short rehab time when you get back playing. There is no problem with playing both games. I'll listen to the surgeon and nobody else because she knows what she is talking about. I don't see why I can't play - the surgeon tells me nothing can go wrong."

I can’t help but side with Owen. He clearly values playing for England, and is sensible enough to know that to do so he needs to demonstrate form and fitness for Newcastle – club and country go hand in hand. So whatever his personal motivations, Michael Owen simply wants to play football, whether it is for England or Newcastle. And for that alone, he should be praised rather than pilloried.

It’s difficult to say how much of the reported tension between Allardyce, Owen and England coach Steve McClaren is real and how much is media exaggeration, but to focus solely on what is happening now is to miss the point. Given the injuries he has suffered, lesser men than Michael Owen would have walked away from the game altogether, or returned less hungry and greatly diminished as a player. The fact he has returned at all - let alone score three times in England’s two most recent games against Israel and Russia - is testament to his strength of character and determination.

It’s sad that Owen feels he still needs to prove himself to his doubters. By returning from his most recent setback so quickly and so positively, you would think everyone would be rushing to praise him, but he had it spot on when he said, “I thought people would say 'how has he got back in eight days? That's fantastic'. But people have turned it into a negative, saying 'you've only done it for England'. You can't ever win."

He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. And that just isn’t right.

8 October 2007

Expect the unexpected

You've got to love sport. Just when you think you're on top of what's going to happen, something comes along to throw all your expectations out of the window.

The Rugby Union World Cup kicked off a month ago with a major upset, as hosts France were blind-sided by Argentina. However, despite notable wins and performances by several of the so-called lesser nations in the group phase - which saw Argentina and Fiji qualify for last weekend’s quarter-finals at the expense of Ireland and Wales – the tournament had not really come to life.

In part this was due to England’s frequently feeble attempts to emulate the World Cup-winning side of four years ago; a tournament in which the defending champions are classified among the also-rans is never a good thing. But there was also the feeling that the quarter-finals were likely to be little more than a tune-up for the triumvirate of southern hemisphere powers – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – who have dominated world rugby over the past few years.

The widely-held expectation on Saturday morning was that by evening the World Cup would be waving goodbye to both the current holders and its host nation.

So when England edged out Australia 12-10 in the opening quarter-final, it classified as a shock. Even more so because the win was thoroughly deserved, built on a solid foundation of a dominating scrum and destructive defensive play. By the end the Wallabies simply had no answer, and although Stirling Mortlock had the opportunity to snatch the win late on with a long-range penalty, the neutrals could hardly begrudge England their hard-won victory.

In Cardiff, where New Zealand were preparing to play France, the All Blacks’ fans were gloatingly chanting “four more years” at the Aussies. And as the All Blacks moved smoothly into a 13-0 lead on the back of some coruscating attacking play, there was little sign that France were capable of extending their presence in the tournament. But 13 unanswered points either side of half-time brought the French level, and a dashing try 12 minutes from the end put them in the lead for the first time in the match, 20-18. And despite some frenetic pressure in the closing minutes from New Zealand, that’s how the score remained
.

In a few short hours, the Australia v New Zealand match-up that most had been taking for granted has been blown out of the water, and it will be France who take on England – hosts versus defending champions – in next Saturday’s semi-final.

Yesterday’s games were no less dramatic. Fiji registered two rapid-fire tries early in the second half to tie South Africa at 20-20. And although the Springboks eventually overcame their tiring opponents to run out 37-20 winners, the final scoreline flattered them. In the last quarter-final, Argentina opened up a 19-6 advantage over Scotland, but had to withstand a sustained assault in the final quarter of the game before finally emerging 19-13 winners.

Four quarter-finals had produced four dramatic and entertaining matches, with the result of every match in doubt until the closing minutes (indeed, until the final whistle in three out of four cases). For many casual fans (among whose number I include myself), the Rugby World Cup has been something of a take-it-or-leave-it affair as it gently ambled its way through the past month, as the fireworks of the Twenty20 World Cup and the ongoing soap opera of Premier League and international football have dominated the attention.

Not any more. The Rugby World Cup is very much front and centre now. The tournament may only have four games remaining, but better late than never. And the fact that no sane person would have predicted the final four – South Africa, France, Argentina and England - which have emerged (an unexpected line-up reminiscent of the 2002 Football World Cup, which saw South Korea and Turkey in its semi-finals) is just the icing on the cake.


And, who knows, this time next week we may just be salivating at the prospect of something which no England team in any major sport has ever achieved: the successful defence of a world championship. Now that's worth getting excited about ...

Keeping up with the Joneses

There was a time when Marion Jones had the world at her (very fast) feet. She was the dominant force in women’s sprinting, a gold medal winner at the 1997, 1999 and 2001 World Athletics Championships, and winner of three golds (and five medals overall) at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She had even survived the revelation of her then-husband CJ Hunter’s ban for a positive nandrolone test shortly before Sydney with her reputation intact.

But by the time she was implicated in the Balco scandal in 2004, that reputation was already in tatters. By then, people were regarding her marriage with her former husband in a more cynical light. Having Trevor Graham as her coach made things worse. And her relationship with fellow sprinter Tim Montgomery (with whom she had a child), also the subject of a doping ban, further served to erode the presumption of innocence which she steadfastly continued to claim.

So Jones’s revelation on Friday that she had indeed lied in her testimony to a federal court during the Balco enquiry came as no surprise. Tell us something we didn’t already know, Marion.

Even then, her public ‘admission’ was nothing if not economical with the truth. She has conceded that she had given false testimony, but continues to state that Graham fed her tetrahydrogestrinone – more commonly known as THG or ‘the clear’ - without her knowledge. This despite consistent testimony from many others that she was a fully aware and active participant, and her own admission of there being a clear improvement in performance as a result of what she maintains she always believed was ‘flaxseed oil’.

She also announced her retirement from athletics, a disingenuous statement if ever there was one, given the inevitable reaction which would have followed from both US Athletics and the IAAF.

Forget the PR spin. The weight of evidence against Jones goes way beyond circumstantial: she is as complicit as she is guilty. And her attempt to claim her departure from the sport on her own terms was both self-serving and utterly transparent.

Nobody believes you, Marion. And, worse still, I suspect nobody particularly cares either. Good riddance.

As a footnote – and further evidence of the sickly state which athletics finds itself in – if the IOC strips Jones of her Olympic golds, one of the beneficiaries will be Ekaterini Thanou, the Greek sprinter best remembered in 2004 for attempting to excuse her third missed pre-Olympics drugs test by claiming she had been involved in a motorcycle accident. Not exactly a shining example of the Olympian ideal.

There was a time when Marion Jones had the world at her feet. Today, a weary world wouldn’t waste the effort of treading on her.

3 October 2007

Oil and water

It’s a sad reflection on the modern game that football owners, chairmen, chief executives and managing directors now attract as many column inches as the clubs and players they represent.

Gone are the days when the only time business impinged on what is still (lest we forget) a sport was in the area of transfer fees and player contracts. But in the last few years, the back pages have feasted on:
- Tales of financial mismanagement, most notably Leeds United)
- Foreign takeovers: the Glazers at Man U, Abramovich at Chelsea, Ivanov at Hearts, not to mention Liverpool, Portsmouth and several others
- Image rights (obviously, Brand Beckham springs readily to mind)
- Turnover and profit, with one often being confused with the other. Even the BBC mistakenly reported Arsenal’s recent £200m-plus turnover as ‘income’ (which is actually profit) – a bit like a doctor looking at an x-ray of your hand and telling a patient he has a broken metatarsal

And then, of course, there is the ongoing saga of Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov and his attempt to buy Arsenal.

Let’s start with the facts. Usmanov has raised his stake in the club to 23%. The board effectively controls around 51% of the shares, and has made a ‘lock-down’ agreement which effectively prevents any of them selling up before April 2008.

Usmanov has talked about establishing a ‘blocking stake’ of 25%. This would allow him to block any special resolutions or changes to the club’s articles of association – in effect, to stop the board changing the club’s constitution – but in reality he would be unable to exert any influence over the day-to-day running of Arsenal. So 25% is not that significant a milestone in terms of his ability to launch a hostile takeover.

The next key stepping stone is 30%. At this point, City rules state he would be obliged to launch a takeover bid. But even that should be a formality in the current situation, as the board control a majority of the shares and so would be able to resist (if they chose to do so).

The magic number for Usmanov is 50% (technically, 50% plus one share). At this point, he would own a majority share in the club, be able to appoint a representative to the board, and effectively control the club.

Whether this would be a good thing or not is a matter for debate. Roman Abramovich’s money has helped bring star players and trophies to Chelsea, but has left many fans disillusioned, particularly after the events of the past two weeks. The Glazers’ takeover of Man U has not brought about the end of the world in the short-term, although doubts remain over the club’s heavy debt burden. Nikloai Ivanov at Hearts? An owner who wants to pick the team, a revolving door of new managers, captain sold for daring to speak his mind, and a team which is neither better nor more successful than before.

And yet … Alexandre Gaydamark has clearly had a positive effect on Portsmouth. Taksin Shinawat’s financial and political record may be dodgy, but his cash has certainly fuelled Man City’s revival this season. And while Randy Lerner’s money has not totally transformed Aston Villa yet, they are clearly heading in the right direction.

Anyhow.

It seems clear that, despite Usmanov’s posturing and charm offensive over the past couple of days, nothing much is going to happen until next April – at least. As a first step, he will almost certainly have to reach some kind of agreement with the American Stan Kroenke (remember him?), who owns 12% of the club. And then he will have to persuade one or more of the major shareholders on the board to cash in – by no means an easy feat.

I guess that probably still leaves things as clear as mud, but the fact is it’s not an easy thing to get your head around as a fan – largely because the murky world of business and financial markets never is easy.

Now I work in the business world (and so have a fair understanding of what is going on) and I love sport, but to the idealist in me they are and should always be two separate things, like oil and water. The fact that these two worlds now collide so regularly – and that football is now as much of a business as it is a sport – breaks my heart.

25 September 2007

Feet on the ground

Things are looking rosy at the Emirates Stadium, and it’s not just the red colour of Arsenal’s shirts. Despite the loss of record goal-scorer Thierry Henry over the summer and the resultant portents of doom it attracted, the Gunners sit proudly atop the Premier League, two points clear of an out-of-sorts Man U (who have played a game more), four ahead of Liverpool and five ahead of the political mess which is the billionaire’s plaything formerly known as Chelsea.

Surely – as some confident Gooners have already done on radio phone-in shows – we should stand ready to proclaim the return of the Premier League trophy to Arsenal? Plus the Champions League. And, while we’re at it, the FA and Carling Cups as well.

Me? I say (without a trace of originality) there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

It’s easy to be seduced by the league table, and by the pundits’ plaudits which go with it. The team IS undoubtedly playing beautiful football at the moment, scoring five goals for fun against Derby at the weekend. And there was the comprehensive 3-0 win over two-time UEFA Cup champions Sevilla last week. Not to mention the morale-boosting win at Spurs in the North London Derby the weekend before that. And a midfield general in Cesc Fabregas (amazingly, still only 20) who couldn’t score for toffee for much of last season, but is now scoring for fun.

So it’s all good, surely?

Hmm.

Here’s an example of why you shouldn’t necessarily take stats or facts at face value. Man U were Premier League champions last season, but they lost home and away to Arsenal. And West Ham did the double over both Arsenal and Man U. So doesn’t that make West Ham the best team in England?

Like I said, it’s easy to be seduced.

So let’s be glass half empty for a minute and look at some other statistics.

To date, Arsenal have played only two games against teams in the top half of the table (a sketchy 1-1 draw at Blackburn and a late 1-0 win over Man City). And three of those six wins have come against teams in the bottom four: Fulham, Derby and – it still amuses me to say it – Tottenham. Looking at the fixture list objectively, 19 points out of a possible 21 – while still impressive – is only slightly better than par.

Now we shouldn’t dismiss these results; after all, as the adage goes, you can only beat the opponent who is put in front of you. And it’s also true Arsenal dropped far too many points against teams at the wrong end of the table last season, losing at City and relegated Sheffield United and both home and away to West Ham, for instance. So there is already a marked improvement over last season in that respect.

But equally, it’s not like we’ve played and beaten the other members of the so-called ‘Big Four’ (Man U, Liverpool, Chelsea) either.

Oddly enough, that doesn’t worry me. Transitional and inexperienced though the team was last season, if you had drawn a mini league of last season’s top four, Arsenal would have been top with 11 points out of 18, including wins over Man U (twice) and Liverpool, and a brace of draws with Chelsea. Our ability to go toe-to-toe with the other big hitters is already proven; all we need to do now is repeat it.

So while my glass isn’t entirely full, it’s not half empty either. I can see potential rapidly becoming reality throughout this young Arsenal side, and while unanswered questions remain it is all too clear this is a better side than last season – and far better than virtually everyone anticipated.

I’m excited by what I’ve seen so far this season. I’m ready to believe. I’m just not ready to start rubbing everyone’s noses in it just yet. And that’s part of the beauty of football: we are where we are right now, but it is a long season and literally anything could happen between now and the end of it. A couple of long-term injuries, a loss of form and confidence, split factions in the dressing room and/or the boardroom, the departure of a hugely respected and successful manager, and things could change in the blink of an eye. Just ask Chelsea.

So we hope. We even dare to believe. But we also know how cruel a mistress this thing called sport can be. Which is why, for the next few weeks at least, my feet are staying firmly on the ground.

One final word on Chelsea. It’s tempting (and all too easy) to gloat at their current situation and write off their season. But they remain a team full of outstanding individual talents (that’s a deliberate and careful choice of words, there). They have already played two of their toughest away fixtures (Man U and Liverpool). And they remain only five points off the top – far bigger gaps have been recovered far later in the season. They are certainly a wounded beast right now, but write them off at your peril. Football’s funny like that.

13 September 2007

Cinderella man

The film 'Cinderella Man' is a biopic of James J Braddock, the heavyweight boxer who was reduced from a serious contender to a makeweight journeyman on the breadline during the Great Depression, only to rise again as a 10/1 underdog and take the heavyweight championship of the world away from Max Baer.

If ever anyone wanted to produce a footballing version of Cinderella Man, they could do worse than to focus on the career of Emile Heskey, the heavyweight striker with the heavyweight nickname ('Bruno', after Frank Bruno), who was once Michael Owen's preferred strike partner for both Liverpool and England, was subsequently cast out into the domestic and international wilderness (sold to Birmingham and then to Wigan, and uncapped by his country since Euro 2004), only to make something of a fairytale comeback for England's Euro 2008 qualifying matches against Israel and Russia (both 3-0 victories).

Heskey has deservedly received warm plaudits over the past week, but it is easy to forget that for a long time he has been something of a laughing stock in the English game. He was the striker who couldn't score: an international record of only 5 goals in 45 games, and a ratio of less than a goal every four games at club level. In many eyes, he was the scapegoat for England's 2-1 defeat to France at Euro 2004, coming on as a late sub and conceding the free kick which resulted in France's equaliser. And since then he has dropped further and further down the England pecking order with the emergence of Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch, not to mention falling behind Jermain Defoe, Andy Johnson and Theo Walcott at various times over the past three years. His transfer to unfashionable Wigan Athletic, a team who had never previously produced an England international player, at the start of last season looked to be the last nail in the coffin, a final resting place for a good player who had never become great.

So his recall for this month's qualifying games was certainly unexpected. With Rooney injured, Crouch suspended and Defoe unable to get a start for Tottenham, Heskey suddenly found himself thrust straight back into the starting line-up alongside Owen, the restoration of the classic little-and-large (or, if you prefer, goalscorer and non-scoring assistant) pairing which had been good enough to power England to that memorable 5-1 win in Germany almost exactly six years previously. Many pundits questioned Steve McClaren's 'brave' decision; many fans (myself included) expressed their concerns in more colourful terms.

Heskey ignored the brickbats, and quietly went out and did what Emile Heskey does.

Against Israel on Saturday he squandered a very presentable early chance (same old Heskey!) but otherwise produced exactly what you want from a big striker: an imposing aerial presence, an ability to link up play and bring others into the game, and generally making life difficult for opponents and easier for team-mates. It was a good individual performance which was rightly praised. But last night, against much tougher opponents in Guus Hiddink's Russia, he was even better. Utterly dominant in the air, you could see the panic in the Russian defence every time a ball was launched towards his head, and his deft nod down to set up Owen's second goal was just reward for a great night's effort. It was largely unfussy, unglamorous spade-work, but it was important and highly effective work nonetheless.

Why is it that we have been so quick to accept Emile Heskey back into our hearts? After all, it's not as if he returned with a huge fanfare and a shower of goals. Possibly, it's because of the kind of player - the kind of man - he is. He isn't a diver (although early in his career he did have a tendency to tumble to the ground at the slightest touch, not unlike the real Bruno), he doesn't commit dangerous tackles, he is generally acknowledged as being a good team-mate and a nice guy, and - unlike many of his contemporaries - he doesn't have a reputation for being a primadonna. Like Braddock before him, he is a man of the people and - for this week at least - it means he is very much the people's champion.

Heskey's story is not as epic as Braddock's - neither the highs nor the lows of his career are as extreme - but it's noteworthy nonetheless. He hasn't suddenly been transformed into a world-beater over the past week, but it's hard not to feel pleased for one of football's nice guys. Qualification for Euro 2008 now beckons, and if he can maintain his form and his place in the England side, maybe - just maybe - football's Cinderella Man shall go to the ball.

11 September 2007

Biff, bash, bosh

The inaugural Twenty20 World Cup started only last night, but already we've seen two explosive and memorable games which underline the thrill-a-minute excitement which is the format's raison d'etre.

The hosts, South Africa, got proceedings under way at the Wanderers against the West Indies. And what a match it was. Batting first, the Windies laid down the benchmark for others to follow, scoring 205 runs in their 20 overs. Opener Chris Gayle led the way, peppering sixes (ten in all) to all corners of the ground en route to a destructive 117 from just 57 balls. Quite possibly, we have already witnessed THE batting performance of the tournament.

If the West Indies had shown their best side with the bat, they then showed their worst side in the field. In defending their impressive total, they contributed 28 runs in extras - a record in Twenty20 - to South Africa's total, and added three dropped catches for good measure. Herschelle Gibbs was twice reprieved by butter-fingered fielders and needed no further invitation to build an innings which was almost the equal of Gayle's, accelerating to an unbeaten 90 off 55 balls and striking the winning blow himself as South Africa cruised home with 14 balls to spare.

As a match, it was a shining example of what the Twenty20 format has to offer: 413 runs in less than three hours, 36 fours, 18 sixes. Many purists disown Twenty20 as an abhorrent creation for an attention-deficient world; as far removed from Test cricket as 5-a-side is from 'proper' football. But that is to totally miss the point. Twenty20 is not supposed to be Test cricket on speed; in terms of tactics and technique it cannot even be regarded as an abbreviated version of its 50-over cousin (which, lest we forget, was similarly derided when it was first introduced to the international arena in 1971). It is simply a different form of the game which taps into the needs and expectations of a global TV audience which demands bite-sized chunks of intense action and has immense viewing choice when it comes to sport.

And to underline the point that Twenty20 need not be all about the biff-bash-bosh of batting pyrotechnics, tonight's prime-time match-up between the minnows of Zimbabwe and the all-conquering might of one-day world champions Australia produced a game every bit as exciting and compelling as what we saw last night.

Against all expectations, a rusty Australia laboured to an underwhelming 138-9 in damp conditions as Zimbabwe produced an impressive containing performance in the field. In response, Zimbabwe got off to a flyer, stalled horribly mid-innings as wickets and heavy rain fell to the point where, had the teams been unable to continue following a brief interruption for rain, Australia would have been declared the winners under the ever-mysterious Duckworth-Lewis method. As things transpired, however, they were able to resume, and a match which had been ebbing away from Zimbabwe before the stoppage gradually flowed back to them thanks to Brendan Taylor's well-paced 60. Even so, they found themselves still requiring 12 off the final over, and then four off the last two balls, but Taylor flicked the penultimate ball off his pads down to the fine leg boundary and one of the most dramatic and unexpected victories ever seen in limited overs cricket ensured that this World Cup will remain firmly imprinted on my memory.

I hadn't paid much attention to Twenty20 before this World Cup, and only really tuned in last night out of curiosity. The fact that I then switched on again tonight and will do so for the rest of the tournament is testament to the game's TV-friendly potential. It's easy to dismiss Twenty20 as cricket for the Playstation generation, but that is no bad thing if the spectacle and excitement succeeds in drawing a new generation of kids to the sport. It's certainly good enough for this bluff old traditionalist.

You know summer's coming to an end when ...

... The TV schedules are filled wall-to-wall with major sporting events. Everywhere you look, a major tournament is under way (or about to start).

In cricket, there is the excitement of the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup and its relentless biff-bash-bosh, thrill-a-minute format. England will go into the tournament on a high, having recorded their first major one-day series win since Lions versus Christians (possibly even longer ago than that). The talismanic Andrew Flintoff returned, just about fit - as good as we can expect these days - to take three vital wickets as England roared home on Saturday to edge the series against India 4-3. And, having invented the format, you would have to hope that we would be quite good at it. Certainly we should have a better chance to put in a good showing than in the recent 'proper' World Cup - not that that's particularly difficult ...

In rugby union, the World Cup got off to an attention-grabbing start as the hosts France wilted under a testing examination from Argentina's rugged, physical defence, crashing to a 17-12 defeat. It was a shock, and yet not a shock; it was the Pumas' fifth win in their last six encounters with Les Bleus, although the first time they had won a match of such importance. And the rest of the opening weekend hinted at a clear North/South divide, with England, Ireland and Wales labouring against the USA, Namibia and Canada respectively, while the southern hemisphere triumvirate of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa ran up cricket scores in their respective openers.

The F1 season continues to speed towards what promises to be a thrilling climax, with Fernando Alonso leading Lewis Hamilton home in Italy, despite the British rookie executing spectacular overtaking moves on both Ferrari drivers. It was McLaren's first ever one-two finish at Monza, made doubly sweet in the light of the continuing 'Spygate' scandal which threatens to engulf the sport in political acrimony. With four races remaining, Alonso has cut Hamilton's lead to just three points. Expect more fireworks at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend, assuming the World Motor Sport Council does not decide to take drastic action against McLaren this Thursday.

Across the pond, it was the start of the new NFL season, which is particularly tantalising with the first ever regular season game in the UK coming to the new Wembley next month. Kickoff weekend didn't disappoint, wth six games being decided by seven points or less. In New York, New England's Ellis Hobbs fielded a kickoff eight yards deep in his own endzone and ran it back, untouched, 108 yards for a touchdown - an NFL record. In Dallas, the Cowboys beat the New York Giants by a crazy 45-35 score. (In football terms, think of the 5-4 North London derby game from a few years back.) And in San Francisco, my beloved 49ers squeezed out a 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with just 26 seconds remaining, having nearly fumbled the ball away at the goalline the previous play. My heart is still recovering from that one.

The World Athletics Championships have been and gone already, but that didn't stop Asafa Powell stealing headlines on Sunday with a searing run to shatter the 100 metres world record. In setting a new mark of 9.74 seconds, he shaved three hundredths of a second off the previous best time he had jointly held with the now-banned Justin Gatlin. A blink of an eye to some, but equivalent to a gap of nearly one-third of a metre compared to the previous record - as good as a mile in an event which frequently requires freeze-frame images to determine the winner. The only shame was that he had not produced this run on the grand stage of the World Championships only weeks previously.

And then there's the small matter of Euro 2008 qualifying, with the home nations experiencing mixed fortunes: Wales battered by Germany, Northern Ireland losing disappointingly in Latvia, the Republic of Ireland only earning a draw in Slovakia, Scotland easing past Lithuania, and an injury-ravaged England neatly side-stepping the banana skin that was Israel at Wembley (and looking surprisingly decent in doing so). Next up is Russsia - by far the harder of the two games - tomorrow.

Last but by no means least, the women's football World Cup kicked off in China yesterday with the defending champions Germany administering an old-fashioned shellacking - 11-0 - to Argentina. Hope Powell's England squad, a modest 12th in the world rankings and with the misfortune to be drawn in Germany's group, face an uphill battle to qualify for the knockout stages, but if they can beat Japan today in what is to all intents and purposes a winner-takes-all eliminator, who knows? If you've never watched the women's game before, you should give it a try. You might be surprised at the level of skill and strength on show - and pleased at the lack of professional cynicism which we have come to accept as part and parcel of the men's game.

All that in the space of a five day span, Friday to Tuesday. Not bad!

So, while it's a shame summer is coming to an end, if you like your sports it's really not so bad. Roll on winter!

8 August 2007

A record best forgotten?

Hot on the heels - or should that be pedals? - of the doping scandals which engulfed last month's Tour de France, which saw both the pre-race favourite, Alexandre Vinokourov, and the then yellow jersey, Michael Rasmussen, leave in disgrace mid-race, comes another, largely unwelcome, high profile drugs-related story.

Last night, in a Major League Baseball game against the Washington Nationals, San Francisco Giants' slugger Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run. In so doing, he broke Hank Aaron's all-time record of 755 which had stood for 33 years. It is the most revered statistic in baseball; perhaps the single most notable stat in all American sports. It would be like someone beating Dixie Dean's 60 goals in an English top-flight season, or surpassing Pele's career goalscoring record - if anything, it's even bigger than that.

It had to happen eventually. Despite the constant torrents of boos from opposition fans all over the US and the clamour from some fans and media calling for him to retire before breaking the record, the only thing likely to ever stop Bonds from achieving his goal was serious injury to his 43-year old body. And that simply didn't happen.

He has beaten the record with agonising slowness, a combination of being regularly rested by his team and his own poor form contributing to progress which has been more of a crawl than a sprint finish. It is almost as if he has been taunting all the naysayers by dragging it out over the longest possible time.

Why is Big Bad Barry so despised?

Well, there is the clear association between his trainer, Greg Anderson, and the Balco scandal in 2003, which revealed the widespread use of illegal performance-enhancing substances such as THG across athletes in all American sports. Bonds himself has always testified that he has never knowingly - what a loaded word that is! - taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs, but the fact remains that Anderson himself was jailed for his part in the Balco operation. Read into that what you will.

And, over the course of his professional career, there is the visible evidence that Bonds has grown in several key dimensions - chest size, neck size and so on - which, in fairness, can be reasonably attributed to hours invested in the weights room and the natural process of ageing. But perhaps more telling are claims that his shoes are three sizes larger than in the early days of his career, not something which is commonly seen through natural growth or gym work. Draw your own conclusions.

I must say, I've seen Bonds play, both live and on TV. He has always been brutishly strong which, coupled with naturally exceptional hand-eye co-ordination and fast hands mean that he would always have been an outstanding talent. But for his home run productivity to accelerate sharply beyond the age of 35, when the effects of ageing clearly start to outweigh any benefits of experience, is - to say the least - highly questionable.

Like any accused person, Barry Bonds is innocent until proven guilty. But although nothing may ever be proven against him, his reputation among the majority of fans is irreparably tarnished, and his entry into baseball's record books will always be accompanied by an unwritten asterisk.

Having said all this, despite the growing hysteria this story has created in the US over the past few months, it is also important to keep things in perspective. This is not a tragedy in the way that Heysel or the Munich air crash were.

And yet, for true fans who want to believe in the pure, unaided talent of our sporting heroes, it IS a tragedy.

One final footnote. In spite of Bonds' efforts, San Francisco lost the game 8-6. That is a matter of recorded fact. Symbolically, many fans will feel that baseball as a whole was the loser last night, and will wish that the most memorable record in baseball is now one best forgotten.

7 August 2007

1% that makes it all worthwhile

It's that time of the year again.

The new football season is just round the corner, and up and down the country fans are daring to wonder how great a season their team could have if they get off to a fast, confidence-building start, and if their new signings can make a big difference, and if the squad can stay injury-free, and if they can just get the rub of the green ...

In other words, hope springs eternal - before reality bites, that is.

Expectation levels vary widely from one club to another, of course. If you're a fan of Man U or Chelsea, then nothing less than a triumphal march to the Premiership title (and Champions League glory) will do. If you follow Derby County, then the avoidance of relegation and a couple of glorious giant-killing wins will more than suffice.

For my team, Arsenal, the situation is a little less clear-cut, and no doubt if you asked a hundred Gooners what they are expecting from this season, you will get a hundred different answers. For some, a top 4 finish with a young side in transition will be a good result, particularly if Arsene Wenger can be persuaded to stay. For others, a Cup and a good Champions League run will be evidence of solid progress. But the more impatient fans - and there are many - will expect nothing less than a first league title in four years, despite the substantially bigger spending of the other top clubs. There may be little empirical evidence to back these up, but it does not stop people hoping and expecting.

At times like this, before the true heat of battle has started the season-long process of bubble-bursting, it is easy to spot great portents in a resounding pre-season win, or an eye-catching performance from a new player. It's easy to believe that things must surely be better this season, that the final piece of the puzzle has been found, that this has to be our year ...

It's the same for most fans of most clubs; the delicious taste of glory, out of reach yet tantalisingly close.

I'm no different. I've been carefully following all the football news and transfer rumours since last season ended, elated by every new signing - da Silva, Sagna, Fabianski - and strong rumour, depressed by those exiting the club - Henry, Ljungberg, Aliadiere - and those long-desired fish who escaped elsewhere. I've read all the pre-season match-reports, looking for those early indications of greatness from some of our younger players. I've watched the two televised preseason tournaments we've played in with rapt interest, looking to add the evidence of my own eyes to what I have read in print. I've seen right back Bacary Sagna's pace and attacking power, which has allowed Emmanuel Eboue to convert into a swashbuckling winger. I watched Eduardo da Silva - 34 goals in 32 games last season, how can he not turn out to be brilliant (even if it was just the Croatian league)? - emphatically underline his potential with a brief cameo against Ajax. Two preseason trophies out of two must count as a momentum-builder, good for the confidence ... surely nothing can stop us now?

I can even see the positives in the big name players we have lost over the summer. Thierry Henry, our all-time leading goalscorer, is a huge loss, no question about it: how do you replace one of the world's top strikers, even if he is arguably not quite the explosive threat he was. And yet, he is also nearly 30 and increasingly troubled by injury, so was now a good time to cash in? Arguably, yes. Jose Antonio Reyes? A great talent whose heart had never truly left Spain - for every great performance he produced in an Arsenal shirt, there were four or five where he was practically invisible. Sending him home was the best thing for all parties - right for Reyes, and right in terms of preserving a positive atmosphere in the dressing room. Freddie Ljungberg? A once-great goalscoring midfielder who bore comparison with Paul Scholes, but for the past two years a fading force who spent more time injured than not, so no great loss.

When the warped mind of a maniacal fan is able to turn negatives on their head, it's no surprise how easy it is to be seduced by the positives, no matter how small and insignificant.

The question really is: how much do I dare to hope? Hope is like a drug; it lifts you up and can become addictive, but it can also dump you rudely back to earth once it wears off. The thing is, even the most optimistic of football fans knows, in their heart of hearts, that in 99% of cases hope promises far more than reality will ever deliver. But it is that rare diamond, that 1% of the time when a team produces something extraordinary beyond even our wildest dreams, that makes the rest of it oh so worthwhile.

And that's why hope will always spring eternal, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the previous season's despair. Odds are that hope will ultimately prove unfounded, but it's one that I - and millions of others - are only too happy to embrace, because sooner or later we just know that magical 1% will happen to us too. (This season, preferably.)

Roll on the weekend. And come on you Gunners!

26 July 2007

Is cycling winning or losing the war on drugs?

It really does get worse before it gets better.

As if Tuesday’s sucker punch about Alexandre Vinokourov’s positive doping test wasn’t bad enough, yesterday the Tour de France walked straight into a one-two combination which threatens to reduce the race itself to little more than a distracting sideshow.

First Cristian Moreni was thrown out of the race after a positive result for testosterone. As a result, his entire Cofidis team was withdrawn in line with a voluntary pre-Tour agreement signed with a number of other teams.

And then, late yesterday evening, came the devastating news that race leader Michael Rasmussen, who only hours before had won stage 16, had been sacked with immediate effect by his team, Rabobank. The reason given was that he had lied to team bosses about his whereabouts in June.

So now a stuttering Tour has lost a total of four riders – including the winners of four of the last nine stages – and two entire teams to drug-related events. To paraphrase a well-known expression, to ban one rider can be seen as an unfortunate accident, to ban two looks like carelessness, but four …

While Moreni’s appears to be an open-and-shut case (pending confirmation from the B-sample test, of course), with Rasmussen it was more a case of innocent until highly suspicious.

It’s important to stress that Rasmussen did not have to be withdrawn. Applying the letter of the law, he has neither tested positive nor registered the three strikes necessary to incur a ban. However, once it was revealed that the rider had lied to his own team about his location, the team really had little choice. At the very least, Rasumssen’s actions were unbelievably na├»ve and stupid in this modern age; at worst, well, draw your own conclusions. It certainly lends considerable weight of circumstantial evidence, doesn’t it?

Rabobank should be praised for acting quickly and decisively. It is no small decision to voluntarily withdraw and sack the yellow jersey wearer, when it would have been all too easy to delay and sandbag all the way to Paris.

There is now a danger that this swathe of high profile scandals could easily turn into a McCarthy-style witch hunt, with the slightest allegation being immediately assumed to be proof of guilt. And it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of riders are undoubtedly racing ‘clean’. But something clearly needs to be done, because public perception is at an all-time low. Before his withdrawal, Rasmussen was roundly booed on yesterday’s podium, something which I can never remember happening to Lance Armstrong in his seven dominant years, despite all the (unproven) allegations against him and the general murmurs among both public and press.

In a sense, cycling has become a victim of its own vigilance, trapped in a vicious cycle where more testing catches more cheats, which blackens the sport’s reputation and leads to even more testing, and so on. No other sport tests its participants more frequently or rigorously, and to be fair to both the UCI and the ASO the organisation which runs the Tour), despite all the petty politics that goes on they have been pretty consistent in their punishment of offenders, regardless of their status.

It’s difficult to say whether the events of the last two weeks indicate that cycling is winning the war on drugs (because the authorities are now catching so many cheats) or losing it (because there are clearly still plenty of people willing to cheat). You can interpret it any way you like, but the one sure thing is that the war IS being fought unflinchingly and with great energy by the UCI, and that’s all anyone can really ask of a governing body.

And let us not use this as an excuse to use cycling as the scapegoat for the sporting world’s wider malaise. From Ben Johnson to Barry Bonds, the list of the guilty, the highly suspicious and the never-been-caughts permeates every corner of competitive sport. It’s just that some sports police the issue far more stringently than others.

For example, it was only last week that golfing legend Gary Player wagged the finger of suspicion at his own sport. Asked if he would be surprised by any positive findings, he said, "No, not surprise me because I know - I know for a fact - that there are golfers, whether it's HGH, creatine or steroids. And the greatest thing that the R&A, the USGA and the PGA can do is have tests at random. It's absolutely essential that we do that. We're dreaming if we think it's not going to come into golf.”

Cycling should be praised – not pilloried – for its hard-line attitude to drugs testing and punishment. It is the responsibility of the riders, not the authorities, to ensure they are operating within the rules. After all, no matter how attentive and strict a parent is, if a child wants to be naughty, they will always find a way.

The war has only just begun. Who knows when – or indeed if – it will ever end? But maybe it’s about time more sports stopped turning a blind eye to the problem that exists on their doorsteps.

24 July 2007

Crisis of faith

Oh, for God's sake!

As if Patrik Sinkewitz's early exit from the Tour de France after the news that he had tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone before the race wasn't bad enough.

And then we've had to sift through the allegations and rumours about race leader Michael Rasmussen, which may turn out to be nothing but are nonetheless causing untold damage to the reputation of both rider and sport.

So, anyway, what did I say yesterday about hoping there were no dark whispers about Alexandre Vinokourov?

What happened today?

News emerged this afternoon that Vino tested positive for blood doping after winning Saturday's individual time trial, which casts both that victory and yesterday's combative breakaway win in, shall we say, a far less heroic light. His team, Astana, has immediately withdrawn from the race which, I think, says everything about his guilt.

Yesterday I praised Vinokourov's determination, bravery and never-give-up attitude, and referred to him as " a big winner" for the way he had bounced back from his crash-related injuries to claim two stage wins. Today he is nothing but a big loser.

And I am nothing but a disillusioned optimist - or maybe that should be fool?

It's hard to know what to believe any more. Or indeed if there is really anything left to believe in. Blow after blow has rained down on the sport of cycling. The amphetamine-related death of Britain's Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux in 1967. The 'Festina affair' of 1998. The allegations which constantly dogged Lance Armstrong's dominance. Last year's Operation Puerto which saw race favourites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso (and several others) excluded on the eve of the Tour. Floyd Landis's positive epi-testosterone test. 1996 winner Bjarne Riis recently admitting that he had doped. The catalogue of mysterious heart-related deaths (a possible side effect of EPO use) which have claimed the lives of at least 20 professional cyclists in recent years.

The list goes on and on.

And every name which is added to that list makes it just that bit more difficult to trust the evidence of my own eyes when watching a sport I dearly love. Cycling is perhaps THE most physically demanding sport there is: it requires immense levels of fitness, asks its participants complete tens of thousands of kilometres of racing ever year in all manner of terrains and conditions, and is an occupation in which broken collarbones are frequent and death is by no means unknown. It is a sport contested by supermen - or, at least, that is what one hopes for.

I have never for one minute thought that the spectre of doping had ever left cycling completely - I'm an optimist, but I'm not THAT stupid. However, I had hoped that we were starting to see the pendulum swing back in favour of the authorities and the majority who choose to compete 'clean'. The events of the past 12 months or so have categorically demonstrated this is not the case.

Like I said, I don't know what to believe in any more. It's enough to test anyone's faith.

Next you'll be telling me the tooth fairy doesn't exist ...

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