31 December 2008

2008: 10 of the best

There really is no such thing as a bad sporting year, but I'm sure history will look back on 2008 as a particularly fine vintage for both British and international sport.

Certainly I've enjoyed it immensely, despite recent fatherhood restricting my ability to attend live sporting events this year (just the two: the Wembley NFL game and a stage finish of the Tour of Britain).

There have been too many highlights in 2008 for me to pick a single moment which stands out above all the others, so here is a personal top 10: some distinctly British, others truly global, but all moments of high sporting achievement and/or drama which are indelibly etched into my memory. In chronological order:

3 February: Super Bowl XLII - There is an old paradox which asks what would happen if an irresistible force were to meet an immovable object. We saw one possible answer here as the New York Giants (immovable object: tough, no-nonsense defense) defeated the New England Patriots (irresistible force: record-breaking offense), 17-14.

There has been a smattering of truly great Super Bowls in its 42-year history; this was perhaps the best of them all: great offensive plays, great defensive plays, outcome always in doubt, the winning score going to the underdog with just 35 seconds remaining.

And there was a great narrative behind the game too. The Giants' Eli Manning succesfully stepped out of the shadow of his brother Peyton, the previous year's Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Meanwhile, the Patriots failed in their quest to complete only the second 'perfect' (unbeaten, untied) season in NFL history, and the first since the league expanded to a 16-game regular season.

One destiny fulfilled; another forever incomplete. Link

21 May: UEFA Champions League final - Notable not only for being the first all-English European Cup final, but for 120 minutes of ratcheting tension capped by the ultimate drama of a penalty shootout in which first both Cristiano Ronaldo and England captain John Terry missed their spot kicks.

The Champions League final is so often one of the most over-hyped, underwhelming games of the season. Not this time.

9 June: Euro 2008 - Holland 3 Italy 0. If you ever had just one opportunity to convince a football-sceptic about the beauty that the modern game has to offer, look no further than this game. Two strong, contrasting sides: Dutch artistry versus Italian pragmatism. A controversial opening goal. (No truly memorable game is complete without a dubious incident). Two textbook examples of sweeping, counter-attacking goals. And a game in which the losing side gave as good as they got, but without the goals (and the luck) to go with it.

The only think wrong with this game was that it occurred in the group stages - it would have made a fitting final. Link

6 July: Wimbledon men's singles final

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas

As with Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer fell at the sixth time of asking, having won the previous five men's singles finals on Wimbledon's hallowed turf. But, my God, he didn't give up without a fight, and in doing so he reminded us all why he is regarded as such a great champion.

Borg's nemesis was John McEnroe; Federer's Rafael Nadal. And it required his greatest adversary, at the very peak of his powers, to strain every sinew (and Nadal is not exactly short of sinew), to wrest the title which he appeared to have won on several occasions during the match. Two sets down, with three break points against his own serve; a break down in the fourth set; 15-40 and 0-30 down in the middle of the final set - on each occasion Federer refused to go gentle into that good night (by the end of the match, it was virtually night) and dug deeper than he ever has before, sending a defiant hail of aces, volleys and seemingly impossible ground-strokes past his opponent.

It is not victory that defines the truly great champions; it is their response to defeat, or to its prospect. Federer may have lost the match and his title, but he went up significantly in my estimation during an afternoon and evening in which he raged futilely but gloriously against the dying of the light. Link

9, 12, 17 & 18 July: Tour de France - No British cyclist has ever achieved what the 23-year old Mark Cavendish acheived in 2008. World champion on the track (with Bradley Wiggins in the madison) in March. 17 road race wins, including two in the Giro d'Italia which announced his presence as a top sprinter in the grand tours. And then, over the course of ten incredible days in July, he became the top sprinter in world cycling, winning four sprint finishes with an ease which was at times embarrassing. Just as Usain Bolt was so dominant in the Olympic 100 metres final that he was able to start celebrating 20 metres from the line, so too Cavendish. It simply shouldn't be that easy; like Bolt, Cav made such premature jubilation look routine.

Lightning fast, tactically astute, and with the best years of his career still in front of him, we have not seen the last of this young man. Watch out for him in 2009 - if he's not travelling too fast to see, that is. Link

8 August: Olympic Games opening ceremony - China had already showed itself off to the world with its impressive Olympic stadia; the Bird's Nest and Water Cube being two of the most striking venues ever seen. But they also wanted to showcase the country's rich culture and history with an opening ceremony which they hoped would set a new standard.

No question, they achieved it.

From the glowing Fou drummers (2,008 of them, of course), to the giant LED scroll which gave us a potted (if somewhat santised) tour of China's history and contributions to global technology, to the fireworks display to end all fireworks displays (even if some of them were created with CGI), to Li Ning's wire-supported 'run' around the inside of the Bird's Nest's roof to light the Olympic flame - no one has even come close to matching the sheer scale and spectacle of Beijing's opening ceremony. Quite possibly, no one ever will.

This - as much as China's table-topping haul of 51 gold medals, or Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps - was the defining memory of the 2008 Summer Olympics. And, if anyone wasn't already aware of China's growing role as a commercial and cultural global power, this put the most populous nation on earth well and truly on the map. London has a tough act to follow in 2012.

10-17 August: Olympic Games, swimming - Eight days, eight gold medals - including a fingertip victory in the 100 metres butterfly won as much by sheer force of will as pure ability - seven world records. A career total of 14 Olympic golds. If he had declared himself an independent nation, he would have been tenth in the final medals table.

Usain Bolt may have ultimately stolen his thunder, but for sheer, sustained domination of a sport, Michael Phelps remains peerless.

16 & 20 August: Olympic Games, men's 100 & 200 metres finals - 9.69s for the 100 metres - while throttling back in celebration - was inconceivable enough. But then, four days later, Usain Bolt beat the one men's track and field record which I genuinely thought I would never see broken, Michael Johnson's 19.32s time for 200 metres. It secured the Jamaican's status as the star of the Olympics, despite the achievements of the aforementioned Phelps.

If anything, Bolt's 200 was even better than the 100. Sure, Bolt could have registered 9.65 or less in the 100 if he had maintained his sprint. But here's the thing: not only did Bolt complete the 200 in 19.30s, not only did he do it despite it carrying the weight of global expectation on his shoulders, but he did it running into a significant headwind of -0.9m/s. Even the forces of nature couldn't stop him: now that's truly phenomenal.

Oh, and of course he was part of the Jamaican team that took three-tenths of a second off the world record for the 4x100 relay. But, by Usain Bolt's standards, that was just a quiet day at the office.

6-17 September: Paralympic Games - Since the first Paralympic games in 1960, the event's scope, awareness and media coverage have all steadily grown. Beijing's Paralympics was no exception, with over 4,000 athletes competing for 473 gold medals.

UK TV audiences were able to watch daily coverage, courtesy of the BBC. And as successful as Team GB had been at the main Summer Olympics, the medal haul of the British Paralympians was even more remarkable. 42 golds among a total of 102 medals (more than the USA and second only to China), with 17 multiple gold-winning athletes, including four each for cyclist Darren Kenny and swimmer David Roberts, and double gold in the pool for 13-year old Eleanor Simmonds.

More than anything, the Paralympians demonstrated that they are every bit as capable and dedicated as their able-bodied counterparts, and as an audience we were able to focus on the athletes' abilities, rather than their disabilities. I'm already looking forward to attending the London 2012 Paralympics every bit as much as the Summer Olympics - great sporting competition is no different whether it is Chris Hoy or Darren Kenny, or David Roberts or Rebecca Adlington.

2 November: Brazilian GP - Many, many column inches had been written about how Lewis Hamilton threw away a seemingly certain world championship as a rookie in 2007. So when he lost the fifth position he required to clinch the 2008 title to Sebastian Vettel in the final laps of a horrifically tricky wet/dry race at Interlagos, you could sense the obituaries being written already.

What then happened in the closing moments was one part triumph, one part tragedy and 100% Hollywood. As Felipe Massa crossed the finish line and his family and Ferrari team started celebrating in the pit lane, Hamilton dived past Timo Glock - who had started the final lap fully 18 seconds ahead of him but, crucially, still on dry tyres on a damp track - in the last few metres.

F1 has previously had its fair share of end-of-season championship dramas - Nigel Mansell's exploding tyre (1986), Michael Schumacher's collision with Damon Hill (1994), to name but two - but never has the title changed hands so late in the race or in such a - literally - incredible fashion. For those with long-enough memories, this was the equivalent of Michael Thomas's injury time goal to snatch the league title from Liverpool on their own turf in 1989, but at 180mph. Written on paper, it is barely plausible. But that's sport for you. Link

So, that's a wrap for 2008.

2009? Bring it on.

29 December 2008

Exercises in futility

On different sides of the Atlantic, but within 24 hours of each other, two of sport’s more ignominious reigns have ended today.

Firstly, Paul Jewell resigned as manager of Derby County, drawing to a close a 13-month spell at the club in which he oversaw the Rams’ relegation from the Premier League with a record low total of points (11), having managed just one win all season (equalling a 108-year old league record) and conceded five or more goals in six of their 38 matches. They were also the first team ever to be relegated from the top division in March, perhaps the most telling indication of just how poor they were relative to their peers.

And it is not as if things have improved significantly this season. Despite Jewell’s promise of gaining immediate promotion back to the Premier League and a complete re-tooling of his squad, Derby currently lie 18th in the division, a perilous five points above the relegation zone, having won just seven of 26 games so far, and having in September narrowly escaped completing a full calendar year without a win: the streak ended at 364 days.

Notwithstanding the current vogue in football for firing managers at the first sign of trouble, there is little doubt that Jewell had to go sooner rather than later. In fact, it’s a credit to Derby that they have shown so much loyalty and patience to a manager with a decent history who has simply got it terribly wrong here.

At least Jewell walked before he was pushed. Detroit Lions’ head coach Rod Marinelli was fired, a move which brings new certainty to the word ‘inevitable’.

At the mid-point of the 2007 season, things had been looking rosy for then-second year coach Marinelli. The Lions were 6-2 and one of the NFL’s most enduringly unsuccessful and futile franchises – just one win in a playoff game since their last NFL championship-winning year of 1957 - was suddenly looking like a contender.

By season’s end, however, normal service had been resumed. A six game skid saw them finish 7-9, posting their seventh straight losing record.

And if the 1-7 record in the second half of 2007 wasn’t bad enough, the Lions went 0-8 through the first half of the 2008 regular season, and then completed a full and unique set when last night’s 21-31 defeat to Green Bay condemned them to the first 0-16 record in NFL history, and only the second winless season in the Super Bowl era (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14 in 1976, their first year of existence).

Even if they had won at Green Bay – and the Lions were still in with a sniff deep into the fourth quarter - Detroit would have joined a select band of just eight teams who have compiled 1-15 records in the 31 seasons since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule. (And they would still have held the dubious honour of being the only NFL team to start a season 0-15.)

Nonetheless - ifs, buts and maybes aside - the facts are damning. In three seasons, Marinelli had a 10-38 record as a head coach, including 1-23 in his final year and a half. In 2008, the Lions conceded 551 points (while scoring just 281), the second-worst total in NFL history. The squad is woefully short of decent players, let alone good ones - wide receiver Calvin Johnson (78 catches and 12 TDs, joint-highest in the NFL) and kicker Jason Hanson (21 of 22 field goals) are arguably the only two Lions who would be coveted by other teams.

With the regular season over, even if the Lions were to win their 2009 season opener, it means they will go at least 20½ months between wins.

Derby fans: eat your heart out.

In a league which actively promotes parity between its teams, 20½ months is as good as a lifetime. But there is hope. Only last season, the New England Patriots completed the regular season 16-0 (although they subsequently lost the Super Bowl), while their division rivals, the Miami Dolphins, limped to 1-15. In 2008, however, the Patriots have missed out on the playoffs altogether, while the Dolphins have brought about the most dramatic single-season turnaround in NFL history, improving to 11-5 and winning their division.

So there is hope for the Lions, if not for the hapless Marinelli, in 2009. I wouldn’t count on it, though.

15 December 2008

The real McHoy

Like many others, I was watching Sports Personality of the Year (or SPotY, as the BBC likes to abbreviate it to) on television last night.

It’s the sort of wonderfully quaint concept only the British could come up with, isn’t it? Not an award for outright achievement, but one for the nation’s favourite ‘sports personality’, whatever that means. If you asked a hundred people for their definition, you would probably get a hundred different answers, although I suspect many would say something along the lines of “the winner needs to be at or near the top of their sport, but we have to like them too”.

By that definition, several of the short-listed ten nominees were out of the running before they even started: Rebecca Romero, Olympic medallist in two different sports, is a hard-as-nails competitor who exudes little warmth; Christine Ohuruogu is tainted by her ban for missing three drugs tests and a correspondingly defensive PR image; Andy Murray is still seen by some as the stroppy teenager of a couple of years ago (and he didn’t turn up anyway, a guaranteed vote-loser); little is known about Ben Ainslie, brilliant yachtsman though he is, because he only surfaces in Olympic years and competes in probably the world’s least telegenic sport. Even Lewis Hamilton, recently crowned Formula 1 champion and the pre-show bookies’ favourite, is resented by some for his millionaire’s lifestyle and tax exile status.

Chris Hoy, however, ticked all the boxes - achievement, popularity and personality - living up to his nickname 'the real McHoy'. Already a gold medallist in Athens, he added three more in Beijing, putting him behind only Sir Steve Redgrave among British Olympians. He greets the world with a smile and a humbleness which endears him to the public, and he has not been afraid to speak his mind on issues close to him and his sport articulately and intelligently, which immediately sets him apart from the bland, repetitive, PR-friendly proclamations of so many of his fellow sports stars.

There was something satisfyingly right about Hoy winning. Here is a man undeniably at the top of his game, but also an all-around nice guy to boot, one who remains unspoilt by the trapping of fame. And, nothing against Lewis Hamilton, but it was gratifying to see the spotlight turned onto a sportsman who, despite being one of the ‘elite’ athletes supported by lottery money, earns considerably less in a year than Hamilton or, say, Michael Owen does in a week.

While there have been some decidedly weak years in the past where the SPotY winner was, frankly, the best of a poor bunch - Damon Hill in 1994, Greg Rusedski in 1997, Zara Phillips in 2006 to name but three – Hoy triumphed over not just the Formula 1 world champion, but a swathe of Olympic and Paralympic gold medallists (including cyclist Darren Kenny and swimmer David Roberts, who each won four Paralympic golds), an undefeated boxing world champion (Joe Calzaghe), and Mark Cavendish, who didn’t even make the final ten despite winning four stages in the Tour de France and being the dominant sprinter in stage races throughout the year.

Many of the other award winners on the night (judged by an expert panel rather than the public) were spot on as well. Ellie Simmonds, double Paralympic swimming gold medallist at the age of 13, won the Young Sports Personality award. Bobby Charlton received a Lifetime Achievement award. Usain Bolt, the megawatt-smiling Jamaican, won Overseas Sports Personality.

However, in a year of many great achievements, cycling deservedly dominated the proceedings, winning the accolades of Team of the Year, Coach of the Year (performance director Dave Brailsford), and, of course, the main SPotY award for Hoy.

It was a great advertisement for a relatively minor and yet easily accessible sport where Britain has always had good talent, but lacked the funding and professional organisation which turns good athletes who think they might win into great ones who know they will win.

All in all, it was a good night recapping a truly great sporting year in which Britain more than punched its weight.

However, I do have a few small gripes.

Nowadays, SPotY is a tightly-produced, polished and glitzy two hour affair, full of those little music-backed video montages which the BBC does so well.

But where has the fun gone? And where are the little insights the event used to give us into our sporting heroes?

I’m old enough to remember when BBC Sports Review (as it was then called) was just that: a comprehensive documentary review of the sporting year, as opposed to a sporting Oscars. As recently as the early 90s, the show still had an off-the-cuff, almost slightly amateurish feel about it, and it was no worse for that. There was always some silly stunt – Nigel Mansell competing on a driving arcade game, a celebrity penalty shootout – to provide light relief. (I’m sorry, but having James Toseland play the piano (last year) or Zac Purchase on his saxophone (this year) just doesn’t compare.) And, despite having a scheduled running time of at least 14 hours, it always – always – overran, largely because you felt everyone involved was just enjoying themselves too much, and nobody had the heart to stop the party. Sadly, no more.

And don’t get me started on those little 60 second soundbite interviews which serve no other purpose than to provide the full stop to a carefully prepared narrative which has already been related to the viewer via one of the aforementioned video montages. Do I feel I know anything more about Ohuruogu, Ainslie or Rebecca Adlington as a result of watching their interviews? No. I appreciate there isn’t the time for anything more than that these days, but what a shame that is, when we will not see many of these stars in such a high-profile arena again until London 2012.

Speaking of which, you could be forgiven at times during the programme for thinking that the 2008 sporting calendar consisted solely of the Olympics. Sure, there is a broader agenda here, starting the build-up to the 2012 Games, but it was, for me, another missed opportunity to promote British sport in its wider context. Take cycling. On top of their Olympic and Paralympic success, the British team dominated the track world championships in Manchester every bit as much as in Beijing, Mark Cavendish firmly established himself as the fastest man on two wheels at the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and other races, and, in September, Nicole Cooke completed a unique double of Olympic and world championship gold in the women’s road race. And yet each of these was barely mentioned in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dispatches. Again, a shame. Where was the rallying call for Joe Public to get on his bike, or to support the Tour of Britain or the many hundreds of club events that happen the length and breadth of the UK throughout the year?

One final footnote on Cooke. She now seems destined to be forever labelled as ‘the one who started the Beijing gold rush’, rather than being recognised as a serial winner whose CV includes not only Olympic and Commonwealth gold, but a world title and wins in the women’s equivalents of both the Tour de France (twice) and the Giro d’Italia. It’s not all about the Olympics, folks – even if Cooke had finished out of the medals at the Olympics, she would still be one of our most successful road cyclists ever.

However, these are pretty minor grumbles at the end of a great event at the end of a great year. And just think, I haven’t even touched on the epic Federer/Nadal Wimbledon final, or the all-English Champions League final, or the monsoon drama of the season-ending Brazilian GP, or the inhumanly brilliant Michael Phelps. (OK, Phelps isn’t British but, like Bolt, there are some transcending moments in sport where nationality really doesn’t matter.)

Here’s hoping 2009 is anywhere near as good.

(P.S. How long until the BBC go the whole hog and rebrand SPotY as the ‘Sportys’? You just know it’s going to happen one day …)

9 December 2008

Back to reality

There are few genuine surprises in modern sport, but Honda’s sudden and immediate withdrawal from Formula 1 late last week certainly counts as one.

It’s a blow to the several hundred people directly employed by the Honda F1 team, who face imminent unemployment unless a buyer can be found quickly, not to mention the thousands of others who work for specialist suppliers or other associated companies, whose livelihoods will be impacted by the decision.

From a business and moral perspective, the company’s decision is completely understandable. A record of one win in three years since the team became a wholly-owned Honda operation - and one with the largest budget in Formula 1, reportedly £330m - is difficult to justify at a time when the parent company, like all car manufacturers, is seeing global sales plummet, halting factory production and cutting back its workforce.

And Honda may just be the tip of the iceberg.

There will now be question marks hanging over Honda’s nearest rival, Toyota, another team with an annual budget in the £300m region, and whose F1 record – no wins in seven years – is even poorer than Honda’s. BMW is seeing plummeting sales in all its key markets, and should they pull out you would have to question Mercedes’ continued involvement in the sport too. Wealthy though he is, Dietrich Mateschitz will undoubtedly be questioning the value of running not one but two F1 teams, Red Bull and Toro Rosso. In fact, with the possible exception of Ferrari, one can easily picture a scenario where every F1 team could fold or at least dramatically scale back.

It's easy to look at F1 through jealous eyes and feel that what goes around comes around. After all, steered by the canny Bernie Ecclestone, the sport has become a commercial gold mine, generating money, glamour and playboy lifestyles in a way that even Premier League clubs and players envy. And there has always been an attitude that, as a sport with truly global marketing reach, F1 would be somehow recession-proof.

Uh uh.

Say what you like about FIA president Max Mosley – and many have indeed said what they liked about him during what has been an, ahem, difficult year for him personally – but his has been the one voice in step with the times. Almost single-handedly, he has campaigned for reduced costs in the sport – standard components, engines built to last for multiple races rather than 200 miles, restrictions on expensive testing – and tasked the teams with developing their own solution to this challenge, or face having one enforced upon them.

The teams, as is their wont, have ignored, obstructed and undermined Mosley’s words, or attempted to bend them to their own advantage. Instead, they have poured all their energy into boosting the sponsorship coffers, allowing them to invest millions into developing new, better components which will shave a tenth of a second off their cars’ lap times. (For instance, one team reportedly spends £800,000 a year on tailored, lightweight wheel nuts which make about as much difference to their cars' performance as a walk to the stationery cupboard makes to my waistline.)

Mosley wants to drive down the cost of competing in F1, to bring an end to what Simon Barnes describes in his Times column yesterday as “the end of fantasy car-building based on fantasy economics”. Currently, all the major manufacturer-backed teams spend upwards of £200m a year - by comparison, Chelsea FC's wage bill for 2006/7 was a trifling £133m - a level of spending which is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

For the sport as a whole, should the grid shrink from 20 cars to 18 (minus Honda) to, say, 14, it becomes unsustainable as a spectacle too. Even if the hardcore petrolheads continue to come through the gates – and given the cost of attending a grand prix even that is by no means certain – the TV audiences on which the sport is so dependent will leave in droves.

And if that happens F1 will wither and die, at least in its current form as the unrivalled pinnacle of technology and motor racing excellence.

Of course, it’s too early to tell how bad things will get, and any such conjecture is, at this point, only speculation – and alarmist speculation at that – but there can be no doubt that Honda has set the shockwaves rippling through a sport which, until now, had considered itself to operate in an alternate reality all its own. No more. Like any other sport – like any other business – Formula 1 is now waking up to the fact that it is just as vulnerable as anyone else. How the sport reacts to this potential crisis may well shape its future. First of all, however, it will need to ensure it has a future at all.

5 December 2008

Sweet FA

So, the Football Association has handed Manchester United's Patrice Evra a four game ban (and a £15,000 fine) for his part in a post-match scuffle - alleged racist remarks from a groundsman, resultant handbags at dawn - at Stamford Bridge.

This happened on 26th April 2008. If you're counting, that's nearly 32 weeks ago.

You have to wonder exactly what the FA has been doing all this time. For sure, the wheels of footballing justice have been spinning like a medicine ball in quicksand.

It's not as if this is the first time the FA has made the proverbial oil tanker look nimble and responsive. Its recent history is not exactly glorious, with the charge sheet including:
- The very late, very over-budget completion of Wembley Stadium (compare that to the on-time, on-budget completion of Arsenal's Emirates Stadium)
- Sven-Goran Eriksson's off-field antics, both bedroom and boardroom
- The Faria Alam affair, which brought down chief executive Mark Palios
- The bungled recruitment of Luiz Felipe Scolari, and the subsequent hollow claims that Steve McClaren was first choice all along
- The Tevez/Mascherano transfer affair, which remained uninvestigated for months (the FA's fault), only for the independent panel to deliver a verdict which virtually everyone who isn't a West Ham fan agreed was monumentally unfair (not the FA's fault, admittedly)

Even now, the repercussions of the FA's indecision over this last event are still being felt, with West Ham appealing against the £30m compensation they were recently ordered to pay Sheffield United, the team who were relegated as a result of West Ham not receiving a points deduction and Tevez being allowed to continue to play. (Of course, it just added insult to injury when Tevez then scored the goal against Man U which kept West Ham up on the final day of the season ... and then promptly moved to Old Trafford.)

So, what, exactly, has the FA done recently? Well, we have the 'Respect' campaign for referees, a PR stunt which fails to address the two key issues, namely:

1. Referees make too many big mistakes. (Yes, they're only human but many errors could be alleviated or at least corrected after the fact with technology already in use in other sports such as rugby and cricket.)

2. They are then not held accountable for their errors. (Refs are not automatically required to explain their decisions, or to reverse them when video evidence clearly demonstrates that an error has been made. Yes, I know that in some cases the FA's own rules prevent referees from correcting errors, but as a justification for not righting a wrong that really is pretty feeble, isn't it?)

The common perception is that English football is governed by an organisation which spends more time worrying about its image and explaining why it cannot make a decision than it does actually making decisions. The Patrice Evra case is, sadly, not an isolated example; it's just another addition to a burgeoning file containing citations of inaction and, in some cases, downright incompetence.

Now I'm sure that running the FA is a thankless job - there are millions of us out there who are all too ready to dissect every decision or non-decision it makes - but it has to be said that those in charge over the past few years have done very little of significance which we can actually thank them for (the appointment of Fabio Capello being one).

The fact is that smoke and mirrors just doesn't cut it when 99% of football fans would agree that you have delivered sweet FA.

4 December 2008

The better part of valour

As a player, Roy Keane was never one to shy away from a challenge.

As a manager, however, Keane today decided that discretion – or, at least, resignation - is the better part of valour – and left Sunderland.

The facts are these.

In August 2006, Keane took over a relegated side wallowing at the foot of the Championship and led them straight back to the Premier League.

He spent around £40m on an eclectic mix of players – some good, some poor, several over-priced – in keeping the club safe from relegation last season, albeit by just three points.

In total, he has spent in the region of £70m-£80m on 33 players in his 27 months in charge. But today, Sunderland has drifted into the bottom three, having lost six of their last seven games. Tellingly, Keane has selected more players this season than any other Premier League manager, and no one – not least, one suspects, the man himself – really knows who Sunderland’s best eleven are.

Regardless of the truth behind Keane’s departure – did he walk or was he nudged? – I have to wonder how much Keane is a victim of expectation.

After all, great players do not always make great managers. Cases in point: Bryan Robson, Paul Gascoigne, arguably also Kevin Keegan and Glenn Hoddle. And while it is too early to say that Keane cannot go on to become an excellent boss – after all, his managerial experience pre-Sunderland accounted to a grand total of zero games – it is clear that he has also made errors, not least his apparently scattergun approach to transfers and team selection.

For sure, the team itself must be held at least partly responsible. And yet these are unquestionably Keane’s players, selected, organised and motivated by Keane.

Equally, the financial landscape in football has changed dramatically even in Keane’s brief tenure. Splashing out £30m-plus a year on new players is no longer the domain of just the so-called ‘big four’ – Aston Villa, Tottenham and Manchester City also rank among Europe’s top spenders, and City managed to spend more than that on Robinho alone this summer. (It’s a measure of how much the playing field has been re-drawn that the rumours of what is almost certainly an apocryphal £129m bid by City for Iker Casillas have even seen the light of day.)

And, as Keane himself has pointed out, it’s difficult to recruit top talent to Sunderland, which is not the most attractive locale for the players’ wives and girlfriends. And, equally relevantly, it is a club where the prospect of playing in either the Champions League (why does that epithet not have an apostrophe somewhere?) or even the UEFA Cup (soon to be renamed, nonsensically, the Europa League) is, at best, remote.

However, all that is by the by. Ultimately, the buck stops with the manager. Those are the rules of the game; Keane knows it, and as one of the game’s fiercest competitors he probably wouldn’t have it any other way. However high the expectations of the club and its fans were, I can’t help but feel that, in his own eyes, Keane’s worst crime is that he has failed to live up to the highest expectations of all: his own.

Despite his mistakes, I have always warmed to Keane the manager in a way I never did to Keane the midfielder. As a player, of course I respected his intensity, his energy and his overwhelming desire to win, but there was also a nasty, dark side to him that was never far from the surface – just ask Alf-Inge Haland. As a manager, however, he has been calm, thoughtful, honest and humanly vulnerable: Doctor Jekyll to Mister Hyde.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’ll miss Roy Keane, and I genuinely hope he returns to top-level management soon, better and wiser for his Sunderland experience. Only then will we really know whether resignation is indeed the better part of valour.

24 November 2008

An honour or a burden?

What does it mean to be a captain?

Certainly, it varies.

In cricket, for instance, the captain is responsible for key on-field tactical decisions such as bowling changes and field placements. It’s similar in rugby union; the NFL too – team captains have the ability to profoundly alter a game with a tactical call here and a play change there. That’s much less the case in football, largely because of the faster, more organic flow of a game. Pause for thought and tactical adjustment is more difficult, and the role of captain is more one of leadership by example and exhortation than anything else.

Different people approach the captaincy challenge in different ways - David Beckham was a quiet captain who gave 100% and led by example; Michael Vaughan was considered, cerebral and inclusive; John Terry is an up-and-at-‘em type of leader – but the ultimate goal remains the same: to ensure that the whole of the team adds up to more than the sum of its individual parts, and performs to its maximum capability.

No matter what, a captain is always in some way a leader: someone to whom teammates look to for guidance, inspiration and a good example.

Which is where Arsenal’s William Gallas has failed spectacularly, on every count.

Nine months after a display of petulance against Birmingham City – kicking an advertising hoarding and sitting down in a sulk after the concession of a late penalty - behaviour which was shameful from any professional, let alone a captain, Gallas was eventually stripped of the club captaincy.

The final straw was a series of public revelations last week – it is of course entirely coincidental that he is promoting his autobiography – which insinuated the following:
- He thinks it's unfair that, as captain, he is being singled out as the sole cause of Arsenal’s current poor form, and that the media needlessly keep revisiting what happened at Birmingham
- That he had to break up a heated argument in the dressing room at half-time during the recent 4-4 draw with Tottenham.
- During Euro 2008, he had a verbal contretemps with a young French international colleague, to whom he refers as “S”, which suggested they were never likely to become friends – it is widely assumed that S is Arsenal teammate Samir Nasri.
- That there is a younger player at Arsenal who is poisoning the dressing room and who has disrespected him on the field – Gallas didn’t name him but said he was six years younger than him (Gallas is 31) – it is generally assumed he is referring to Robin van Persie, one of only three 25-year olds in the Arsenal squad.

There is an unwritten law in football - indeed, in most team sports – that internal team issues are kept within the dressing room. The current problems at Arsenal are hardly unusual – when things are going badly, a degree of conflict is likely, even desirable – and Gallas’s revelations of half-time arguments were largely met with a “Yeah, and…?” response. What is unusual is for any player, even a disaffected one, blowing the whistle on his teammates. When it does happen, it generally says more about the character of the teller of the tales than their subjects.

For the captain to be the tittle-tattle just makes it worse. How can any player with an issue consult a captain who makes such problems public? And while it’s fine for a captain to complain about his lot in life, to do so by shifting blame and scattering accusations left, right and centre – and then effectively naming and shaming the alleged culprits – to the detriment of team morale is not the act of a good leader. It’s the act of a spoilt brat.

Arsene Wenger’s response was swift and inevitable. Gallas was deposed as captain and dropped from the squad for Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Manchester City – a game which clearly demonstrated what can happen to a team lacking clear leadership – and his future at the club must now be considered uncertain.

Yes, Gallas’s outburst in the Birmingham game has been repeatedly used as a stick with which to beat him. Yes, there were mitigating circumstances insofar that this was the game in which Eduardo da Silva suffered a horrific broken leg and emotions had been running high throughout the game. But for a defender to walk away from the action when he might have been needed to clear the ball had the penalty been saved was both unprofessional and self-indulgent in the extreme. For the captain, doubly so. (As a manager at work, if someone in my team makes a mistake, I don’t yell at them and then go home in a strop. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that’s counter-productive.)

Many argued that Gallas should have been immediately stripped of the captaincy that day; others countered that at least he was showing he cared. For me, the only thing it showed was that, when push comes to shove, William Gallas cares only about William Gallas, period. And his remarks last week, even if taken out of context, only serve to reinforce that view. What Gallas said was so thoughtless and selfish that it was the antithesis of what captaincy and leadership should be about.

It is apparent that Gallas, with his attempts to shift the blame for the team’s problems onto others, regarded the role of captain as more of a burden than an honour.

It’s an attitude in stark contrast to, say, John Terry who was thrilled to captain England last week. After a mix-up with Scott Carson which led to Germany’s goal in the 2-1 win, he took personal responsibility for what was a 50:50 error and saw it as his role as captain to urge his team on to do something about it. Now that’s stepping up as a leader.

William Gallas is a very good footballer. However, in the same way that great players don’t automatically become great managers, they don’t necessarily make the best captains either.

After the events of the last few days, it’s clear Gallas doesn’t fit the captaincy mould. As critical as I've been of him both here and in the past, that’s not a crime, though. It’s time for both him and Arsenal to move on. Whether the best solution is reconciliation or divorce remains to be seen.

12 November 2008

Teenage kicks 2

Arsenal 3 Wigan 0

As has become habitual in the Carling Cup, it was men against boys at the Emirates last night. And, not for the first time, this morning everyone is eulogising Arsene Wenger's 'galactikids'.

OK, so it wasn't 6-0 this time, as it was against Sheffield United in the previous round, but it could easily have been if not for some top-class saves by Chris Kirkland. And even though the visitors had a clear penalty denied when still only 1-0 down, Wigan manager Steve Bruce was quick to admit his team had been thoroughly outplayed: the gulf in class was that obvious.

8 of the 11 Arsenal starters last night are teenagers, including a 16-year old, Jack Wilshere, who dazzled all night with his quick feet and earned the man of the match award. To put this into context, the precocious Theo Walcott, himself a callow 19-year old, would have been Arsenal's fourth-oldest outfield player last night.

And it's not the result that impresses the most: it's the style in which it was accomplished. This side played without fear or inhibition, and they did so playing the same brand of football the first team employs, neat one and two-touch passing and movement which, when it works, leaves frustrated opponents chasing shadows.

Last night it worked beautifully against a near-full strength Wigan side who seemed at times utterly bereft of ideas to stop their youthful opponents. The Emirates is not a stadium which sees many scrappy goals, and yesterday was no exception. Wilshere's slide-rule ball set up Jay Simpson (a comparative veteran at nearly 20) for the opener - Cesc Fabregas and Liam Brady would both have been proud of the pass. A lightning counter-attack covering the length of the field saw Carlos Vela unselfishly square for Simpson to tap in the second. And then Vela himself finished the job, timing his run perfectly to chase on to a through ball to execute, at full speed and holding off a defender's challenge, a delicate one-touch lob over the advancing Kirkland.

They were three goals any team would have been proud of. Major kudos should go not only to Wenger and the players, but also to Brady, who heads up the club's youth development programme, and to Steve Rowley, whose network of scouts is responsible for re-stocking a conveyor belt of young talent which seems to grow stronger with every passing year.

The club's approach to ticketing should also be applauded. To ensure a packed ground, tickets for last night's game were reduced to just £10 (£5 for kids and pensioners), bringing in new fans who might otherwise never attend a game. In a game which is increasingly driven by cash (and for a club with hundreds of millions of pounds of debt to pay off) that's no small gesture.

The Carling Cup may be considered a minor irritant by many clubs, but I'm particularly pleased at the way my club approaches it, in terms of both the playing and the adminstrative side of it. Even if we don't win the trophy, there is so much to be proud of already.

And watch out for players such as Wilshere, Vela, Simpson, Fran Merida and Gavin Hoyte, not to mention current senior squad members Alex Song, Johan Djourou and Aaron Ramsey. To the wider world, these are the stars of tomorrow. To Arsenal fans privileged enough to have watched this current Carling Cup run, they are already stars today.

3 November 2008

There can be only one

If this was a Hollywood script, it would have been thrown out on the grounds of implausibility. And yet last night, in suitably foreboding gloom – five minutes after the chequered flag, Interlagos was shrouded in blackness - the battle for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship hinged on an overtaking move on the penultimate corner of the final lap of the final grand prix of an absorbing 2008 season.

The catalyst was a rain shower with five laps remaining, which caused many to pit for intermediate tyres. But the key players in the drama were effectively bit-part extras: first Robert Kubica and then Timo Glock.

With two laps left, Lewis Hamilton was clinging on to the fifth place he needed to guarantee the title, but he had Sebastian Vettel climbing all over him. Enter the BMW of Kubica, faster at that point than both Hamilton and Vettel, but a lap down. The Pole unlapped himself, but in allowing him past Hamilton appeared to run wide on the ‘marbles’ off the racing line, allowing Vettel to slip by too.

All of a sudden a safe fifth was a desperate sixth, and with Felipe Massa leading comfortably, it appeared the British driver’s title hopes were gone. Clearly at his car’s limits, Hamilton tried to haul Vettel back in, to no avail. It was only after Massa had crossed the line – cut to shots of a jubilant Ferrari garage, who believed their man had just secured the title – that it became apparent that Glock, who had leapfrogged Vettel and Hamilton by staying out on dry-weather tyres and started the final lap 18 seconds ahead of the pair, was struggling to keep his car on the rapidly dampening track. To the disbelief of the millions watching around the world, Vettel swept past the crawling Toyota as they approached the final corner, followed in rapid order by Hamilton, regaining the all-important fifth place that put him back ahead of Massa.

At 23, Hamilton becomes the youngest F1 champion ever, five months younger than former team-mate Fernando Alonso when he won the first of his two titles. It’s a wonderful feat, doubly so given the pressure he was under having capitulated in a similar position last year.

It was, however, desperately hard luck on Massa, who had driven superbly through the second half of the season, eating away at Hamilton’s advantage and ultimately winning one more race (six) than the Briton.

Both drivers can lay a strong claim to being the better driver over the course of the season. Each drove impressive, dominant races, but also made major mistakes: Massa most notably an error-strewn drive in the wet at Silverstone; Hamilton a no claims bonus-losing shunt in the pit-lane in Canada. At some races, Ferrari had the dominant car; at others, McLaren. Massa will point to three races (Australia, Hungary, Singapore) where mechanical or team failures cost him dearly; Hamilton’s car was bulletproof but dubious stewards’ decisions in Belgium and Japan robbed him of valuable points.

However, the standings do not lie. Hamilton, 98 points; Massa, 97: the same margin by which Hamilton lost the title last year.

There can be only one winner, and in 2008 that is Lewis Hamilton. He scored more points than any other driver, and is therefore a worthy world champion.

However, without taking anything away from Hamilton’s achievement, by his actions both on and off the track Massa has also proven that he merits consideration as a future champion. In previous seasons, I have dismissed him as fast but erratic, lacking the necessary steel to sustain a season-long tilt. But over the second half of 2008, his focus, consistency and outright speed have been hugely impressive, despite a mechanical failure in Japan and a pit-crew error in Singapore which cost him certain wins and would have demoralised a lesser driver.

In the most difficult of circumstances last night, Massa conducted himself impeccably, thanking both his team and the home crowd for their support, and completing the podium ceremony and post-race press conference with dignity.

(Incidentally, how stupid is Formula 1 that the new world champion, by virtue of finishing outside the top three in the race, does not get to appear on either the podium or in the press conference?)

In those brief minutes the disappointment was, understandably, written all over Felipe Massa’s face, but in his darkest moment he also looked every inch a team leader and future champion.

There can be only one winner of the ultimate prize each season. And yet yesterday I’m sure I saw two champions.

One final note. In the cold light of day, it’s easy to dismiss Hamilton’s championship win as lucky. Yes, he made mistakes throughout the season. Yes, it ultimately required someone else’s misfortune to hand him the championship. And yes, he’s no Michael Schumacher (at least not yet).

However, it’s easy to forget that the Schumacher who won the first of his seven titles in 1994 was no Michael Schumacher either, hitting a wall mid-race in the Adelaide title-decider and only securing the title thanks to the most dubious of manoeuvres on Damon Hill. Domination of a sport only happens over a long period of time, and Lewis Hamilton is just at the beginning of that particular journey. It will be fascinating to see whether he takes the next step in 2009, and how strongly Felipe Massa (and others) will respond. Roll on next season.

27 October 2008

When the Saints came marching in

What a difference a year makes.

This time last year, having just returned from the first NFL regular season game to be played in the UK, I wrote: As games went, it was a bit of a stinker, the NFL’s equivalent of a dreary nil-nil draw.

Yesterday’s game between the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers, however, couldn’t have been more different. As games went, it was a roaring success, the NFL’s equivalent of a 4-3 goal-fest.

It wasn’t just the scoreline – 37-32 to the Saints, incidentally – that was in stark contrast to last year. It helped that we didn’t have last year’s torrential downpour, which hampered both teams and destroyed the Wembley turf – although the pitch still looked greasy and heavy underfoot, it was no worse than you might expect to see in, say, Green Bay at this time of year. And the NFL also made a wise choice in selecting two teams with explosive offenses, not something which could be said about either the New York Giants or Miami Dolphins last year.

It was also clear that other important lessons had been learned from last year’s experience. Instead of flying in a couple of days before the game, both teams arrived early in the week, allowing greater scope for both acclimatisation and PR opportunities. (Although what the four Saints’ cheerleaders who appeared on Saturday’s Soccer AM made of one of the quirkier sports shows around is anyone’s guess.) And whereas the crowd last year was largely a mix of interested neutrals, this year there was much more effort to create the feel of a Saints’ home game, with a pre-game tailgate party serving Cajun food and free Saints flags distributed to all seats. As a result, the noise level generated in key third down and goalline situations was considerable; not at Louisiana Superdome levels, but sufficient to discomfit the San Diego offense enough to be a contributing factor to a number of San Diego’s fourteen penalties.

What else? It was nice to have an honorary team captain (Rebecca Adlington, wearing her two gold medals) for the coin toss who was applauded rather than booed (John Terry last year), even if the role involves little else than strolling onto the field in a Saints shirt, waving to the crowd and then sauntering off again. And we clearly had a better class of anthem-singer this year too – Ne-Yo and Joss Stone, rather than Paul Potts, winner of Britain’s Got Talent. (Whatever happened to him? And does anyone care?)

And, of course, the game itself was a considerable improvement on last year, as it was always likely to be between two evenly-matched sides with extremely strong offenses (New Orleans lead the league in total offense, San Diego are second in points scored) and iffy defenses (both rank in the bottom ten in total defense). By halftime, the Saints had as many points (23) as the Giants and Dolphins amassed between them in the whole game last year. Both teams topped 400 yards in offense, both quarterbacks – Drew Brees for the Saints, Philip Rivers for the Chargers – threw for three touchdowns and exceeded 300 yards passing, and we had our fair share of spectacular plays.

For the purist, it was a bit too much like basketball at times, with both teams marching up and down the field and seemingly scoring at will – combining for five touchdowns in the second quarter alone – and offering little in the way of defensive spectacle (no sacks, one turnover, only a handful of big hits) but that’s just nit-picking. The NFL would have been hoping for a close, action-packed game to win over the neutrals, and they certainly achieved that.

Did we see – as we did with the Giants last year – a potential Super Bowl champion yesterday? I doubt it. At this, the mid-point of the season, neither team flies home above .500 – the Saints are 4-4, the Chargers 3-5 – but more than that, while both will always score freely, neither appears to have enough defensive steel. As the old NFL truism goes: offense wins games, defense wins championships.

Mind you, I doubt anyone leaving Wembley last year would have bet on the Giants (6-2 at the time) achieving anything more than perhaps an early playoff exit, so poor was their performance that day, especially on offense. (They did, however, have the defense which managed to shut down the all-conquering New England offense in the Super Bowl. Like I said: defense wins championships.) So we shall see, but I’m not hurrying out to Ladbrokes to back either the Saints or the Chargers any time soon.

One final note. Since that initial Giants/Dolphins game last year, we have seen Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore vilified for his proposed ‘39th game’ international expansion. The NFL (and also the NBA) has managed to make this a reality with a plan which requires one team (New Orleans this year, Miami last) to give up one-eighth of its home fixtures and, despite the cost – estimated at £5m - and logistical complexity of staging the game, will generate significant revenues for all 32 teams, not just the two involved. This year’s game was broadcast live by both Sky Sports and the BBC; in the case of the latter, this is the first time it has provided full coverage of a non-Super Bowl NFL game. And both Sky’s TV ratings and participation in the sport in the UK are up significantly since last year, demonstrating the positive effect that even a one-off international game can have.

Where the Premier League has been castigated for its single-minded focus on revenue generation and has (for the moment) failed in expanding the football experience to a global audience, the NFL, with its ‘one-for-all, all-for one’ collective commercial mentality – equal sharing of commercial revenues, a salary cap, and an annual ‘draft’ which gives the worst teams first choice of the best young players - is gradually creating a successful bridgehead in key international markets.

Yes, I know big sports are big businesses these days, and no amount of dewy-eyed, rose-tinted wistfulness is going to change that. But here’s a controversial thought: maybe money – or at least the pursuit of it – isn’t everything, or even the most important thing, in sport. Maybe sport is the most important thing in sport. Get that right first and the money will surely follow.

Just a thought.

14 October 2008

Que Cera, Cera

In both this July and the last, I have written a piece praising the increasingly vigilant and effective stance the Tour de France is taking on detecting the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, despite the short-term collateral damage the sport ends up inflicting upon itself. The general assumption has been that, on balance, it does the sport of cycling good to ruthlessly pursue the cheats, as this will only serve to discourage others in the future.

For once, it appears that this year the French authorities have finally got the jump on those who would seek to gain an unfair advantage. But at what cost?

By working with the pharmaceutical company Roche, a test was developed for Cera, the company’s third-generation form of the banned blood-booster EPO, just in time for this year’s Tour. All of a sudden, a drug which had previously been undetectable by conventional testing was anything but, and instead of being several steps behind, the testers were suddenly one step ahead.

One by one, offenders were caught. Manuel Beltran and Moises Duenas were relatively minor names, but the big one was Riccardo Ricco, winner of two stages on the Tour and runner-up in May's Giro d'Italia. (And, innocent before proven guilty and all that, but feel free to draw your own conclusions about Duenas's team-mates, Felix Cardenas and Paolo Borghini, who abandoned after crashing into each other the day after Duenas’s disqualification.)

Worse was to follow. Leonardo Piepoli, stage-winner and team-mate of Ricco, was kicked off the Saunier Duval team for a serious breach of the team’s ethical code. It didn’t require a genius to work out exactly what that was, an assumption which has been validated in the last week with the results of a revised, upgraded test on Piepoli’s Tour samples confirming the presence of Cera.

And it hasn’t stopped there. Re-testing of the samples of Stefan Schumacher (winner of both time trial stages) and Bernhard Kohl (King of the Mountains, third overall and Schumacher’s room-mate) has also led to positives in each case.

In case you’re counting, that’s six confirmed positives, including the winners of five stages, and the holder of one of the major jerseys.


And who can say whether this will be the end of it? Even if there are no further revelations, the cumulative damage wreaked on the reputation of the Tour is enormous. Is anything we see in the month of July (or in the other grand tours of Italy in May and Spain in September) even remotely credible now?

As I’ve said before and will say again, it is not fait to assume that cycling is the sport with the worst problem, simply because it is the one in which the problem has been most exposed. Other sports which have been targeted with rigorous testing – athletics, in particular – regularly identify and punish drugs cheats. It is not at all far-fetched to assume that if testing procedures and budgets were as advanced in other sports where the ability to compete and train more intensively for longer periods is a distinct benefit – football, tennis, swimming, baseball, basketball, the list goes on and on – then we might be viewing these sports as being at least as troubled as cycling.

However, for the moment the downside of the French authorities’ vigilance is clearly starting to outweigh the benefits. All these positive tests should be increasing the credibility of cycling as a sport - it is unarguably the right thing to do if we want to see a ‘clean’ sport – but it certainly doesn’t feel that way at the moment.

The cycling ship is sinking before our very eyes. But surely this – no matter how painful the repercussions in the medium-term - is better than living in a state of blissful ignorance? I want my sporting heroes to be just that: genuine heroes. I just hope that cycling does not pay the ultimate price for being at the forefront of the movement to catch the charlatans.

13 October 2008

Sympathy for the devil

Last week, I found myself in the unlikely position of writing a piece defending Jade Goody. This week, I find myself in the equally implausible position of writing a piece defending that least beloved of former Arsenal players, Ashley Cole.

Saturday’s World Cup qualifier at Wembley against the minnows of Kazakhstan – ranked 131st in the world, behind such footballing powers as Singapore, Burundi, Luxembourg and Malawi – was a surprisingly tense affair, with England taking 52 minutes to break the deadlock, but with just a quarter of the game to go and a 2-0 scoreline in their favour, England appeared to have things well in hand. And then Cole, facing his own goal, chipped a casual back pass in the vague direction of David James, which Zhambyl Kukeyev seized on and slotted coolly into the net.

Okay, England would go on to win 5-1 against the rapidly tiring Kazakhs, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Cole had committed a terrible and potentially calamitous error.

But that’s all it was: a mistake. We all make them in life, don’t we? None of us is perfect; we are, by definition, only human.

Did Cole’s misjudgement justify the booing he subsequently received every time he touched the ball from a small but clearly audible section of the crowd? Certainly, this was the key topic of debate on the 606 radio phone-in on Saturday night. Alan Green branded the booing fans as ”morons” and the majority of callers broadly supported this viewpoint. And yet a significant minority claimed the booing was at least partially justified, with arguments ranging from the fact that fans who have paid large sums to attend the game have the right to express the displeasure however they see fit, to the belief that Cole is fair game to be targeted for his past misdeeds and generally unlikeable personality.


Let me make things quite clear. I consider Ashley Cole, as a person, to be an utterly reprehensible character. This is a man who, among other things:
- Claims to have nearly crashed his car in disbelief at being offered a contract worth ‘only’ £55,000 a week by Arsenal. (It’s a hard old life, eh?)
- Was revealed to have had a one-night stand after a match late last year
- Sparked controversy for ignoring and then turning his back on referee Mike Riley while being booked for a dangerous tackle in a game against Tottenham

As a footballer, however, he has been one of England’s most consistent players for a number of years, as well as being one of the best left backs in world football. You can count the number of times in his career he has made serious mistakes like Saturday’s on the fingers of one hand – not bad for a player with close to 300 appearances for club and country.

For sure, one of the key drivers behind Saturday’s booing is that negative perception of Ashley Cole as a person. Would Rio Ferdinand or David James have been booed so readily for such a catastrophic error? Of course not. Conversely, I suspect that even if Cole were to score a hat-trick and make a series of goal-saving tackles in Minsk on Wednesday, he will never receive the kind of frenzied adulation which seems to accompany David Beckham’s every touch. (And this, remember, is a man who earns considerably more than Cole and has himself been outed for a sexual indiscretion.)

To an extent, that’s just tough luck on Cole’s part: life isn’t always equitable, and that’s the way it is. Crowds will always have their preferred scapegoats: there is a long tradition of them at Arsenal, stretching back from Emmanuel Eboue and Philippe Senderos to Igors Stepanovs, David Hillier and many others who were perceived as being “not fit to wear the shirt”.

But here’s the difference - and maybe it’s just an inevitable consequence of the difference between the week-in, week-out loyalty of the club fan and the few-times-a-year lot of following a national side – while a club’s nominated donkey du jour may regularly elicit groans of frustration, the fans will still support them to the bitter end. That patently isn’t the case in the relationship between players and fans of England.

And this is the thing. Do fans have a right to boo? Of course they do: freedom of expression and all that. But is it the right thing to do? In the midst of a frustrating team performance, is singling out one individual on whom to vent your spleen going to help matters? Will it encourage or inhibit? (And one of the most frequent explanations of the marked difference between individuals’ club versus country performances is the fear of failure that comes with pulling on an England shirt.)

There is enough pressure on the England team as it is after the ignominious end to the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. (Reality check, people: it was not the end of the world, it was hardly the first time England has ever failed to qualify for a major finals (most recently, the 1994 World Cup), and it’s not a disease which solely afflicts England among European football’s ‘major’ powers (Italy, Spain and Holland have each slipped up once since 1990).)

So in what way is booing a team, and in particular singling out particular individuals, going to help? I thought we all went along to matches as supporters, hoping to cheer our teams on to success. Or am I just being naïve?

In the words of an old Harry Enfield character, “Is that what you want? Cos that’s what will happen?”

Ashley Cole: I still reserve the right to think of you as an exemplar of all that is wrong about the modern footballer. But when you pull on an England shirt, I’m right behind you. Just cut out the suicidal back passes, okay?

1 October 2008

Gallow(gate) humour

So, Mike Ashley has reportedly lowered the asking price for Newcastle United from £450m to somewhere more in the vicinity of £300m. This, a mere 15 months after he bought the club for £133m and paid off a further £110m in debts, would still net him a profit of £50m or more.

Doesn’t your heart just bleed?

Now one could argue that Ashley is entitled to seek a return on his investment. However, as the small print in financial services ads is so fond of pointing out, investments can go down as well as up if their performance is poor or if they are badly managed.

On both counts, Ashley and his advisers have failed miserably.

Poor performance? Newcastle have for 40-odd years been a ‘nearly’ club, always promising much but never quite delivering the success their many passionate fans believe is due to them. In the space of barely a year, the quality of their football has nose-dived, they have flirted with relegation (and are already threatening to do so again), they have been caught up in the circus that is Joey Barton, and they have lost two managers, Sam Allardyce and Kevin Keegan. Now to lose one could be seen as an accident; to lose two very much seems like, as the Gallowgate faithful have repeatedly pointed out, “you don’t know what you’re doing”.

As for bad management, well. Having a London-based executive director (football), Dennis Wise, who has zero rapport with the Newcastle-based manager, with unclear lines of accountability and decision-making: not good. Writing an open letter to the fans which amounted to 1,500 words of “woe is me” and served to further destabilise and devalue the club he is trying to sell: plain stupid. Need I continue?

Don’t get me wrong, Mike Ashley is clearly an astute and very successful businessman. However, as the owner of a football club, he might as well turn up wearing a big pointed cap with a ‘D’ on the front. He failed to conduct due diligence on an acquisition – and as a result was unaware of the club’s £100m-plus debt. He has consistently attempted (and failed) to portray himself as a man of the people, to the extent that many of his executive decisions seem to have been made to placate the fans, rather than because they make sound footballing or business sense. And then, having pointed the finger at everyone but himself, his opening negotiating position was to ask potential buyers to double his money at a time when he has clearly devalued the club, rather than adding value to it.

Mike Ashley is not automatically entitled to a profit. However, such is the cachet (and the potential commercial benefits) of owning a Premier League club, he will undoubtedly make a tidy one, despite the fact that all he has achieved in the past 15 months is to take one large, underachieving football club and turn them into a national laughing stock.

In the same way that investment bankers shouldn’t be making fat-cat bonuses at a time of global financial crisis, that is just plain wrong.

29 September 2008

Somewhere over the rainbow

It’s easy to remember the achievements of the British Olympian and Paralympian cycling teams as a whole in Beijing. Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Rebecca Romero, Darren Kenny, Simon Richardson, Mark Bristow, Aileen McGlynn and Sarah Storey were perhaps the most notable successes in Beijing during a Games which brought Britain 14 Olympic and 20 Paralympic cycling medals. In all, across the various cycling disciplines (track, road, mountain and BMX), Team GB claimed gold in a staggering 25 (8 Olympic, 17 Paralympic) of the 62 events in Beijing: a success rate in excess of 40%.

However, in the euphoria surrounding the Beijing gold rush, it’s easy to forget the one who started it all off: Nicole Cooke.

At any other Olympics, Cooke’s gold medal – incidentally, the 200th gold won by Britain at the Olympics - would have received the kind of spotlight which was subsequently focussed predominantly on Chris Hoy and double gold-winning swimmer Rebecca Adlington. However, Nicole Cooke wasn’t a triple gold medallist like Hoy, or indeed a quadruple champion like Kenny. She didn’t have a great ‘angle’ like Romero, a medallist in two different sports (rowing and cycling), or the media profile of Wiggins or Mark Cavendish (four times a stage winner in July’s Tour de France).

Cooke’s misfortune was that she was just the first among many, a sparkling golden story which was soon drowned out by the glitter of so many others.

And yet there is a strong argument that she is the most consistently successful British cyclist of recent times. Over the past six years, her CV reads as impressively as that of any other British sportsperson, never mind just cyclists: in addition to this summer’s Olympic gold she can boast Commonwealth gold in 2002, wins in the women’s Giro d’Italia (2004) and Tour de France (2006 and 2007) and, prior to last weekend, three podium finishes in the women’s road race at the UCI Road World Championships.

I say prior to last weekend, because on Saturday the 25 year old Cooke added World Championship gold to her Olympic medal. As in the Olympic race, she produced an astute tactical performance, getting herself into the critical breakaway group of five riders and then conserving her efforts before nailing a telling sprint in the final 200 metres. While Marianne Vos, a former road race World Champion and also a Beijing gold medallist, wasted crucial energy attempting a late but futile solo break, Cooke was able to overhaul her in the final sprint for the line, just as she had done to Emma Johansson and Tatiana Guderzo in Beijing.

So, after three near misses in the past five years, Nicole Cooke has finally earned the right to wear the world champion’s rainbow jersey for the next twelve months. She is Britain’s first senior road world champion since Chris Boardman won the men’s time trial in 1994, and our first women’s champion in 26 years. And she is also the first female cyclist of any nationality to win the road race at both the Olympics and the World Championships in the same year.

While Nicole Cooke will probably never be the first, second or even third cyclist most Brits think of, she deserves notice for achieving what no other has ever done: finding the rainbow at the end of the pot of gold. Well done, Nicole!

25 September 2008

Feet on the ground 2

A year ago today, I wrote a cautionary blog about my club Arsenal’s position at the top of English football’s Premier League.

In that piece, I pointed out that we were top ahead of Chelsea, Liverpool and an out-of-sorts Manchester United, despite the summer departure of Thierry Henry to Barcelona. Derby had just been spanked 5-0. And rumours were flying around about Martin Jol, manager of Spurs, who were at that point languishing in the bottom four.

A lot has happened in the intervening twelve months. In Arsenal’s world, Eduardo da Silva suffered a horrendous broken leg, we lost to Spurs in the Carling Cup (the first time we had been beaten by our nearest and dearest rivals since the Middle Ages), and a promising season rapidly petered out. In the broader football universe, Euro 2008 came and went, as did Kevin Keegan at Newcastle; Manchester City were sold (and Liverpool and Newcastle would be given half a chance). And then there are events in the world outside football - yes, there really is a world outside football! – British dominance in the so-called ‘sitting-down events’ of cycling, rowing and sailing at the Beijing Olympics; the popularisation of the terms ‘credit crunch’, ‘lipstick pitbull’ and ‘large hadron collider’; the deliciously implausible reality of Boris Johnson replacing Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London.

And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Today, Arsenal are top of English football’s Premier League. Top ahead of Chelsea, Liverpool and an out-of-sorts Manchester United, despite the summer departure of Alexander Hleb to Barcelona. Sheffield United have just been spanked 6-0 (in the Carling Cup). And rumours are flying around about Juande Ramos, manager of Spurs, who are – and what a wonderfully juvenile rush it gives me to say this – languishing at the very foot of the Premier League.

Now, as then, my optimism is guarded rather than unrestrained. Many of the same caveats that existed last year remain in this one: a young squad long on talent but short on experience; uncertainty over key positions (goalkeeper, centre back, Cesc Fabregas’s partner in the middle of the field); free-spending rivals who have proven strength in depth, and a growing queue of well-financed pretenders (Manchester City, Aston Villa) impatiently chasing an oh-so-elusive top-four spot. And one great result by the galactikids in the early stages of the Carling Cup does not a great season make. (Indeed, one great result in the final of the Carling Cup does not a Champions League team make … ahem, Spurs.)

At some point, the perennial question of whether Arsene Wenger should play more of his senior players in the Carling Cup – in the all-important pursuit of silverware - will rear its ugly ahead. Let’s not go there for now.

And no doubt some naysayer will point out that, for all the verve shown by a side with an average age of 19 on Tuesday night, the likelihood is that only one or two of them will ever make it as Arsenal regulars – as if that’s a bad thing; it seems pretty good for one of Europe’s top sides to me. The last time a young Arsenal side recorded such an emphatic victory in the Carling Cup – a 5-1 hammering in 2003 of a Wolves side featuring an ageing Paul Ince – the XI included two current first team starters (Gael Clichy and Fabregas, who became Arsenal’s youngest ever goalscorer that night) and three other youngsters who are plying their trade elsewhere in the Premier League (David Bentley at Spurs, Jeremie Aliadiere and Justin Hoyte at Middlesbrough). That’s not so shabby.

Anyhow, for the moment I’m just basking in the knowledge that, despite yet another summer where we have lost key players and the doom-and-gloom merchants have been predicting our imminent demise, we have started the season well, possess yet another group of talented teenagers, and are playing the kind of aesthetically-pleasing football which could easily lead to trophies, even if all the wise, old pundits – who, of course, are never wrong(!) – are predicting that we will run out of steam over the winter (again).

Well, we’ll just see about that. We’ve been down this road before, but it doesn’t mean we will do so again. I’m not going to claim we’re going to win the quadruple, but I can see that, with the rub of the green, success both domestically and Europe are genuine possibilities. In these heady days of the back end of summer (what summer?!?), that’ll do for me.

And, if nothing else, I can take consolation in the fact that at least we’re not Spurs … the one great constant in my footballing life …

24 September 2008

Teenage kicks

Arsenal 6 Sheffield United 0

You know, it’s not the scoreline that’s the most eye-catching statistic from last night’s emphatic Carling Cup win at the Emirates Stadium - it’s the average age of the Arsenal line-up: 19, the youngest first team in the club’s history.

It was Alan Hansen who famously declared, “You’ll never win anything with kids” back in 1995, just as Manchester United embarked on a double-winning season. I’m sure Kevin Blackwell and his Sheffield United side - which included Gary Speed who, at 39, is twice the age of most of the Arsenal team – would beg to differ.

Obviously, it’s been the equivalent of a batsmen receiving a gentle full toss for the tabloid headline writers, with “Creche, bang, wallop” being my personal favourite. And the scoreline was no more than an accurate reflection of the match itself, with Arsenal’s new generation of ‘galactikids’ notching up three goals in each half, including two for Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner (at 20, one of the side’s elder statesmen) and a hat-trick for the Mexican international Carlos Vela (19) in his first Arsenal start. To add insult to injury, the other goal was scored by the baby of the team, Jack Wilshere, who will not be 17 – and therefore not eligible for a full driving licence! - until New Year’s Day.

At times like this, it’s easier to understand why Arsene Wenger is so reluctant to go into the transfer market to bring in experienced players at the expense of stifling opportunities for his younger players – a policy which has been repeatedly challenged by sportswriters, pundits and fans alike over the past couple of years.

To the critics, I say this: you can’t have it both ways.

For sure, Wenger could pursue a ‘jam today’ policy and bring in experienced (and costly) players to bolster the quest for silverware this season. But equally, he has been frequently criticised for fielding predominantly ‘foreign’ teams which means that promising young British players - David Bentley (Tottenham), Matthew Upson (West Ham), Justin Hoyte (Middlesbrough) and former England under-19 captain Fabrice Muamba (Bolton) to name but four - have had to seek opportunities elsewhere.

So what’s it to be? Believe in creating chances for the best young players to shine, or strengthen the squad with experience and force the youngsters to go elsewhere? Like I say, it’s all too easy for people to criticise either way.

And while it’s certainly true that the list of young British (and, lest we forget, non-British) players who have left Arsenal grows ever longer, you have to ask how many are genuinely good enough to have merited a place in the first team squad had they stayed. Bentley (now 24) would be unlikely to feature ahead of either Samir Nasri or Theo Walcott, respectively three and five years his junior. I would happily take Johan Djourou (21, and a full international at 19) over Upson. Hoyte wasn’t even the best member of his family on Arsenal’s books (his brother, Gavin, started last night). And Muamba, still 20, is already a fine player, but would have struggled to fit into a midfield packed with young talent such as Cesc Fabregas (21), Denilson (20), Abou Diaby (22), Aaron Ramsey (17) and Fran Merida (18).

Now, the above four ex-Gunners are quality Premier League players who would arguably all have found a place somewhere in Arsenal’s squad. But add to that a list of other youngsters who have gone on to become decent professionals but no more than that – anyone remember Rohan Ricketts, Jerome Thomas, John Halls or Ryan Garry? - and it’s hard to question Wenger’s player policy. It’s not that he lets the British ones go; he simply releases the ones who aren’t good enough. (And besides, none of them met quite the same fate as the Ghanaian-Dutch striker Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, who was dispatched to Spartak Moscow and has only just resurfaced in the UK on loan at Birmingham City …)

As for the future, one look at last night’s team sheet provides plenty of evidence that the next Ashley Cole or Theo Walcott – a young British star in a United Nations of talent – will surely arrive sooner rather than later. In addition to the aforementioned Wilshere, Hoyte and Ramsey, English youngsters Kieran Gibbs and Mark Randall (both of whom turn 19 this week) also started the game. It’s likely that most, if not all, of these five will enjoy a Premier League career.

The future is bright, the future is Arsenal. (Even if some of these future stars end up plying their trade elsewhere.) But then most Gunners already knew that. After last night’s attention-grabbing result, now everyone else does as well.

11 September 2008

Tarnishing the legend?

There’s a big difference between placing second in a long distance mountain bike race and winning the Tour de France four years after retiring from professional competition. Even if, as a seven-time winner, you are the most successful rider in the history of the event.

But that’s exactly what Lance Armstrong has confirmed he will attempt.

I just don’t get it.

Sure, I understand how the fire in this most competitive of men could be stoked by watching older athletes perform brilliantly at the Beijing athletes, or encouraged by the slower performances seen on a Tour which is now policed more stringently (and successfully) than ever by the drug testers.

And, if successful, it would not be the first successful comeback by one of sport’s all-time greats. Michael Jordan won three NBA titles after un-retiring himself, although he was only 32 when he returned. Martina Navratilova returned to play mixed doubles at the age of 46 and won three further Grand Slam titles. And, closer to home, Juan Curuchet won gold in the men’s Madison event in Beijing at the age of 43.

But no one, with the possible exception of George Foreman (who, let’s remember, was hardly at his most svelte), has ever returned to successfully compete in an individual sport as physically punishing as cycling.

Armstrong will be two months short of his 38th birthday when the Tour de France kicks off next July. Only once has a rider over the age of 35 won the Tour: Firmin Lambot, who was 36 when he won the 1922 race.

Armstrong will not race the Tour just to make up the numbers; he will return in pursuit of extending his record to eight victories. Even if we assume – and it’s a huge if, even for an athlete with a physiology as outstanding as Armstrong’s – that he can achieve peak physical conditioning, he will need to find a team who are both strong enough to support his objectives and yet willing to put all their eggs in the Armstrong basket. Astana, led by Lance’s former US Postal and Discovery Channel directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel, would be the obvious choice, and yet they already possess two of the sport’s top riders, Levi Leipheimer and the 2007 maillot jaune Alberto Contador. Besides, they are not necessarily guaranteed a berth in the 2009 Tour, having been refused entry last year. CSC are arguably the strongest team overall, having supported the now departed Carlos Sastre to victory in this year’s Tour, but they already have two strong contenders in Frank and Andy Schleck and are unlikely to disrupt a well-balanced and harmonious team even for an ageing superstar. There is no space for a second team leader beside Alejandro Valverde at Caisse d'Epargne. Columbia includes Armstrong’s old lieutenant, George Hincapie, but they will go to next year’s Tour looking to support the world’s best sprinter, Mark Cavendish, and Armstrong has always demanded a team with a single-minded focus and objective: propelling him to victory. If I had to put an each-way bet on anyone, it would be Garmin-Chipotlé, a squad of not inconsiderable strength run by former US Postal teammate Jonathan Vaughters and British cyclist David Millar, a friend of Armstrong’s. Sure, they have a contender of their own in Christian Vande Velde, but he represents an outside chance at best for Tour victory in 2009, despite Vaughters' claims in the media yesterday that he can be better than Armstrong.

Anyhow, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The 2009 Tour is still a long way away, and there remain many obstacles in the way of even the great Lance Armstrong. If he were to return and triumph on the Champs Elysées, well, you just couldn’t write the script, could you? But to do anything less would tarnish the legend of one of the greatest names in all of sport, not just cycling. Armstrong clearly feels that, at this point, the odds in his favour are good. I just hope we’re not heading for a footnote in the career of an all-time great that we would rather forget. I'd rather just remember Lance for what he was: the greatest cyclist of his generation. But I guess that's what makes a great champion - they don't just settle for what they have already achieved. Whatever happens, it will be one hell of a story.

Wrong about rights

In my opinion, Setanta have got it wrong.

I understand that their strategy – similar to Sky in the early 90s, when they snapped up English Premier League football – is to secure exclusive rights to “must see” sporting events, including Premier League and international football. I understand that they are looking to create revenue streams by driving sports fans to subscribe to their channels. I understand that there is a monetary value which can be attributed to the privilege of being able to watch live and exclusive coverage.

I understand all these things.

However, the difference between now and 16 years ago is that I already pay Sky a huge - some would say obscene - amount of money every year for the privilege of watching sport, films and general entertainment: a sum not dissimilar from the GDP of some smaller African nations, I believe. So you might understand why my tolerance for waving bye-bye to a further £156 a year to watch a handful of Arsenal games, half a dozen England internationals and “enjoy” access to Liverpool and Celtic’s dedicated TV channels - is that paint I see drying over there? – is relatively low.

But it’s not that which has me apoplectic with rage (well, seriously irked, anyway).

If Setanta want to shell out the equivalent of one Dave Kitson (or thereabouts) for the live rights to England’s World Cup qualifier in Croatia last night, that’s their lookout, even if I think their strategy is dubious. What I object to is their reported refusal to accept less than £1m for the right to broadcast highlights after the event.

£1m? For highlights which probably wouldn’t have aired until at least 10.30pm? In whose warped world were the BBC or Sky going to cough up that kind of cash for a game which promised to be yet another in a long line of disappointments for the remnants of the so-called Golden Generation?

And so those of us unwilling to shell out £156 a year for the privilege of howling in derision at the men in white were left only with the option of finding a pub or tuning in to the radio. Me? In the end I followed the game intermittently on teletext, where I derived a perverse pleasure in observing Switzerland’s shock 2-1 home defeat to Luxembourg. (See, there really are no more easy games in international football!)

Which means I missed what seems to have been the best England performance in over 7 years - you know the game I’m thinking of – like last night, a game in which a young England striker of small stature stunned the hosts with a brilliant hat-trick. At least, I am led to believe it was a brilliant hat-trick by Theo Walcott based on media reports I have read or heard since the game, as of course I still have not seen any footage from the game. (No doubt I will be able to find some online, but that sounds too much like hard work ...)

Thanks for that, Setanta. In many ways, the fact that my failure to subscribe to Setanta means I missed a great game should underline the correctness of their strategy – “next time, don’t miss out!” - but in my case at least it has had the opposite effect. Would I have felt better disposed to Setanta if they had negotiated a fair deal with Messrs Lineker, Hansen et al to bring us delayed highlights? Yes. Would I have willingly coughed up £10 on a pay-per-view basis to watch the game? Probably. But am I more likely to subscribe to Setanta today than I was this time last week? Quite the opposite.

And that’s the problem with Setanta’s attempts at daylight robbery. Sure, some people are going to be persuaded to sign on the dotted line. But when you play hardball like this many others, myself included, are just going to be annoyed and become ever more resolute not to succumb.

Instead, I’m going to spend my £156 on something I can derive greater pleasure from. Like three Theo Walcott shirts.