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-ChipotlĂ©, 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 ElysĂ©es, 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.