28 February 2010

Tackling the blame game

It didn't take long after Aaron Ramsey's sickening injury - literally sickening, for two players reportedly threw up on the pitch - for the blood to boil and the finger-pointing to start.

Arsene Wenger is normally the most calm and phlegmatic of managers, but was understandably emotional after the match - as he was two years ago when he initially claimed that Martin Taylor should be banned for life for his leg-breaking tackle on Eduardo. Predictably, large areas of the media have chosen to play up his post-match complaint about the length of Ryan Shawcross's inevitable ban - for which he has already been roundly lambasted by fans and several pundits alike -  but if you delve into his comments you will see that Wenger is attributing very little in the way of blame.

"I would like to say that it was a committed game. I didn't see many bad tackles in the game. But this one was horrendous and I am very sad. He is the third player we have lost to tackles that are not acceptable - Abou Diaby, Eduardo and now Ramsey today. That is not football for me and I refuse to live with that.

"I cannot do anything about it. The players are professional. They have to respect the rules and each other. The players who don't do it have to be punished. A three-match ban is just ridiculous.

"But I would prefer to give my support to Ramsey rather than to play the judge. For a boy of 19 with his talent to be kicked out of the game like that is beyond words. I cannot even enjoy the win tonight because it is so sad to see that."

Obviously, though, it's much sexier if the Sunday newspapers spin it as 'Wenger blasts Shawcross, Tony Pulis and Stoke, calls everyone in Staffordshire the scum of the earth', that sort of thing. After all, everything's justifiable in the noble quest of selling a few more copies, isn't it?

Wenger should probably have held his tongue on the matter of Shawcross's ban, but surely his reaction to a potentially career-ending tackle on a 19-year old player is understandable? Can you imagine the volcanic response we would have seen if it had been not Wenger but Sir Alex Ferguson? Or Sam Allardyce? Or Jose Mourinho, who decided to have a pop at the Ambulance Service after Petr Cech's head injury at Reading?

Stoke subsequently issued a statement on behalf of Shawcross, saying:

"There was absolutely no malice in the challenge. I would never, ever go out to hurt a fellow professional. I am deeply upset that Aaron has suffered such a bad injury and my thoughts are with him. I would like to send him my best wishes too for a speedy recovery."

And I am inclined to take that carefully worded statement, which ticks every box a PR officer would script ask for, at face value. Shawcross was clearly distressed and in tears long before referee Peter Walton brandished his red card. And the tackle, while certainly reckless and misjudged, appeared to lack any kind of pre-meditation and was certainly much more of a 50:50 challenge than, say, Taylor's on Eduardo, or Roy Keane's on Alf-Inge Haaland.

It's unfortunate that players sometimes make poor judgements in the helter-skelter environment of a football match. But it happens. I didn't blame Shawcross in the immediate aftermath of last night's game. After sleeping on it and watching the replay on YouTube five times, I still don't.

While we're at it, let's not lay all the blame at the door of the media either. For sure, repeated comments about how Arsenal 'don't like it up 'em' aren't exactly helpful, but neither are they falsehoods. Less-talented teams have to up their commitment levels when faced with technically superior teams like Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. It's just that such tactics have historically proved to be more effective against Arsenal than their other title rivals. It's hard to blame teams for following a formula which has proven successful - there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, as long as there is no malice aforethought. It is up to Arsenal to demonstrate that they can win in the face of physical intimidation. Last night they did just that, albeit in terrible circumstances.

Finally, I would like to tip my hat to Stoke's Glenn Whelan who, unlike most of the other players who immediately surrounded the referee, instead stopped to attend to the stricken Ramsey and then stayed by his side while the paramedics attended to him.

Whelan has never been a teammate of Ramsey's for either club or country (Whelan is an Irish international, Ramsey Welsh). It was merely the act of a decent man with presence of mind while all around him were losing their heads.

In situations like this, it is easy to blame anyone and everyone - Shawcross, Wenger, the media, the FA, global warming - for such a terrible and career-threatening injury. I find the whole thing tiresome and ultimately futile. It is much harder to give anyone due credit, particularly when that person doesn't make a big song-and-dance about it publicly. So let me do it: Glenn Whelan, thank you.

27 February 2010

Ramsey's tough break is like deja vu all over again

Stoke City 1 Arsenal 3

23 February 2008. It is the day before the Carling Cup final. Arsenal, playing away at Birmingham, lose Eduardo da Silva, whose leg is broken in a horrific tackle by Martin Taylor, for which the defender is - correctly - sent off.

27 February 2010. It is the day before the Carling Cup final. Arsenal, playing away at Stoke, lose Aaron Ramsey, whose leg is broken in a horrific tackle by Ryan Shawcross, for which the defender is - correctly - sent off.

Arsenal drew that match two years ago and, looking back, it was clearly the turning point in a title race the Londoners had been leading for most of the season, as a series of stuttering draws opened the door for Manchester United to gallop past and win the league. Captain William Gallas stomped off, kicked an advertising board, then staged a one-man sit-down sulk in the middle of the field after the final whistle.

Eduardo would not return to the game for a year and has, in truth, been a shadow of the player he was prior to his injury.

Although the odds remain against them, we may yet look back on tonight's game as the turning point in a title race in which Arsenal have been trailing for most of the season, with the potential for a series of wins against lower-ranked teams paving the way for them to gallop past Manchester United and Chelsea. Captain Cesc Fabregas led by example, regaining his composure and scoring Arsenal's second, a penalty, setting up Thomas Vermaelen for the third, then organising a team huddle in the middle of the field after the final whistle.

Ramsey will, at best, return some time in the middle of next season, after a second Arsenal term in which he has quietly but impressively developed as Fabregas's understudy. However, it has always been notoriously difficult to provide a definitive prognosis for serious leg injuries. For instance, whereas Ramsey's Arsenal teammate Abou Diaby recovered from a broken ankle in 2006 and is currently enjoying his best season ever, the career of Coventry's David Busst was ended in 1996 by a compound fracture of his right leg.

Regardless, I wish Ramsey nothing but the best for what will be a long, difficult and at times painful recovery. I'm sure most football fans would too in the cold light of day. 

I'm not really angry at Shawcross, who was immediately and visibly distraught in a way that looked 100% genuine. Football is a contact sport, and terrible things can happen when players have to make split-second decisions in the heat of battle. I'm just sad for the injured player, who is often the forgotten party once the blood starts boiling on radio phone-ins and the like.

The debate about how to eradicate and punish such dangerous challenges will doubtless rage on for a while. Vehement opinions on one side will claim Shawcross 'isn't that kind of player'. Equally strong views on the other will demand he is hung, drawn and quartered or, at the very least, banned for as long as Ramsey is out. (That being a notion which, incidentally, I absolutely do not subscribe to - for me, punishment should always be meted out in proportion to the severity of the offence, not the extent of any injury caused. I have seen worse tackles result in no injury, and equally bad injuries result without a player even being touched.)

How can I be so certain these views will be aired? Easy: we have been here before with the reaction to the Taylor/Eduardo incident. We football fans are nothing if not predictable.

Anyhow, after Chelsea's unexpected defeat at home to Manchester City earlier today, this battling victory against a Stoke side who have established themselves as Arsenal's nemesis means the gap to the leaders has halved from six to three points overnight. 

I should be celebrating tonight, right? Somehow, though, I really don't feel like it.

Good luck, Aaron. We look forward to your return.

Who’s to blame for Pompey’s plight? No one, apparently

I wouldn't want to have Andrew Andronikou's job. Andronikou is the newly-appointed administrator of Portsmouth FC, the 54th league club to go into administration since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, but the first top-division one to do so.

Going into administration does not mean Pompey’s problems – and the long line of creditors beginning with HM Revenue & Customs, who are still owed unpaid tax of over £12m - have suddenly disappeared in a puff of magical smoke. It is more a stay of execution. The death sentence has not been overturned just yet.

As administrator, Andronikou’s primary objective is to maintain the club as a going concern, which generally means slashing costs and seeking a mutually advantageous agreement over unpaid debts. But a football club is not a normal business. A player wage bill still exceeding £3m a month – despite offloading high-earning stars such as Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch, Sylvain Distin, Glen Johnson, Niko Kranjcar and Lassana Diarra over the last 18 months – means the club continues to haemorrhage cash. In the meantime, the likes of David James, John Utaka and Kanu – all of whom are paid in excess of £200k per month – will remain a significant (and effectively protected) drain on resources until June at least.

So who is to blame for the unholy mess that Portsmouth find themselves in?

No one, it would seem.

Certainly not the Premier League, who last week denied Pompey’s desperate petition to be allowed to sell players outside of the transfer window, quoting the importance of preserving ‘the integrity of the [Premier League] competition’. With Portsmouth effectively already consigned to the Championship next season, it now becomes the Football League’s problem to deal with a club which will be at best decimated and at worst no longer in existence by the time the new season kicks off in August. Convenient, that.

Obviously, it’s not Peter Storrie’s fault either, as he has been reminding us on a seemingly daily basis. After all, he is only Portsmouth’s chief executive, the man ultimately responsible for the day-to-day running of the club, including such mundane and trivial things as, say, managing the budget. According to Storrie, he has been on the brink of securing a new owner and saviour all season – still waiting, Peter - and has repeatedly pointed out that everything was going swimmingly until former owner Alexandre Gaydamak decided to stop pouring his money into the bottomless pit. Which is somewhat disingenuous, given that Storrie was fully cognisant throughout of the pit’s existence and the rate at which cash was being sucked into it.

Even former manager Harry Redknapp – the man so quick to claim credit for (expensively) rebuilding the squad and leading the club to its 2008 FA Cup triumph – cannot be considered entirely blameless. For while Harry correctly points out that it is not the manager’s job to mind the pennies, he is nonetheless a canny operator - it is inconceivable he would not have been aware of the club’s rapidly-spiralling problems, and the contribution his wild recruitment of largely overrated and overpaid players will have had to those. The timing of his hasty exit to take over the manager’s job at Spurs may have been coincidental, but there is no doubt in my mind that Redknapp is, if not exactly culpable, then certainly a knowing accessory to the fact.

As it stands today, the fate of Portsmouth FC is uncertain. The club will probably be allowed to finish the season - albeit on its hands and knees – but beyond that who knows? It is hard to see how it can possibly be an attractive proposition to buyers – even at a nominal price – with the shadow of definite relegation, crippling £60m debts and a squad which needs to be stripped bare looming large. The threat of extinction is not scaremongering; it is very real.

The only thing that is certain is that the Premier League, Peter Storrie and Harry Redknapp bear no responsibility for the sorry state Portsmouth finds itself in. It must be true, because they said so.

26 February 2010

Pompey lived the dream, but woke up to a nightmare

As was widely expected, Portsmouth FC – bottom of the Premier League, with debts of around £60m, and on their fourth owner of a troubled season - went into administration today. Although considered a necessary step to ensure survival with a winding-up order looming next Monday, the action carries a mandatory nine point penalty. That will effectively leave Pompey 17 points adrift of safety with just 12 games left of the season.

In effect, Portsmouth have accepted becoming a Championship side today as the lesser of two evils – the less palatable alternative being extinction.

Yes, the fans enjoyed their 2008 FA Cup triumph, won with a squad which we now know the club could not actually afford. But the glory has come with a significant price tag attached, and who knows what the ultimate cost will be? Whatever, it’s hard to feel sympathy for the club’s senior figures, no matter how many times Peter Storrie proclaims his lack of culpability – excuse me, but aren’t you the chief executive of the football club? – they rolled the dice, and they lost big time.

A spreading disease?

Beyond Portsmouth, it’s been a bad day for English football, with Chester City expelled from the Football Conference after failing to fulfil two fixtures (as a result of failing to pay their players and other bills) and League Two’s Bournemouth being served with a winding-up petition over unpaid tax debts less than two years after going into administration.

This comes hot on the heels of Crystal Palace being put into administration last month with debts of close to £30m, with other clubs such as Southend United and Cardiff City known to be peering over the precipice. And even the likes of Liverpool and the mighty Manchester United are known to be struggling, with the latter attempting to renegotiate their £716m debt burden.

In total, according to a UEFA report published this week, Premier League clubs have accumulated debts of £3.5bn (this figure excludes Portsmouth and the equally debt-riddled West Ham) – four times the level of Spain’s Primera Liga, the next most indebted division in European football.

It’s not a pretty picture.

On the bright side

But it’s not all bad either.

Whatever the merits of it, the hundreds of millions ‘owed’ by Chelsea and Manchester City to their deeply-pocketed sugar-daddy owners are effectively risk-free and cannot be regarded as traditional debt. Other, smaller clubs are run as extremely tight ships: Stoke City, for instance, have no external debt, and teams such as Everton seem to balance their books well without foregoing sustained achievement.

And then there’s my own team, Arsenal, who published mid-year results this morning in stark contrast to Portsmouth’s travails, with pre-tax profits significantly up at £35m at the half-year and – more importantly – net debt down from £333m to £204m in the space of six months.

Unlike Portsmouth, Arsenal’s debt – which was taken on to build the money-spinning Emirates Stadium rather than to fund ill-advised purchases of overpaid players - is largely long-term and well-structured. Repayments are demanding, but do not strain the club’s finances excessively. And, given Arsenal’s position as one of Europe’s more successful clubs (in both commercial and football terms), the wage structure is - if not exactly modest - certainly in keeping with its means.

For all that some Arsenal fans complain about Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to splash the cash in the transfer market – and, to a certain extent, they have a valid point – there is much to be said about a club which puts its long-term well-being ahead of short-term, count-three-and-pray expenditure.

Portsmouth are by no means the first club – nor will they be the last - to reach for the stars only to shoot themselves in the foot. Leeds United were Champions League semi-finalists in 2001, but subsequently over-reached themselves in a fog of grasping ambition and financial mismanagement. They were relegated to the Championship in 2004 and, after going into administration, dropped into League 1 three years later. Currently second in that division, they look well set to return to the second tier of English football next season, but the Premier League and the dizzying heights of that 2000/1 season remain a million miles distant.

Leeds, at least, managed to stay in business. Portsmouth may not be so lucky. The nightmare is only just beginning for the club’s loyal fans.

15 February 2010

Risk and spectacle in glorious high-definition

For a couple of weeks every four years, I sit transfixed in front of the TV watching a collection of seven sports, the vast majority of which I haven't followed at all in the past four years and will probably not follow for the next four years either.

No, not the Summer Olympics. I'm at least passingly familiar with the key events and personalities in several of the summer version's 26 sports. I'm talking, of course, about the Winter Olympics, which kicked off in Vancouver on Friday night.

From events in and around Vancouver and Whistler over the last few days, you could easily be forgiven for thinking the host city was somewhat cursed. Firstly, the weather conditions have been diabolical: depending where you have been and when, there has either been insufficient snow (the organisers have had to ship in tens of thousands of tons already), too much snow or too much rain - a combination of the two causing the postponement of the men's downhill skiing (which is to the winter games what the men's 100 metres is to the summer edition), or, on occasion, impenetrable fog.

Then, of course, there was the tragic death of 21 year old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a practice run at Whistler, an accident quickly blamed by the authorities on "pilot error", who then proceeded to make hasty changes to the course to reduce speed and increase safety without consultation with any of the competitors. Make of that what you will.

And then there has been the pressure and opprobrium which the Canadians have brought on themselves. A far from unsuccessful Olympic nation in its own right, the albatross hanging around Canada's neck from failing to win a single gold medal as the host of two previous Games - Montreal in the summer of 1976, Calgary in the winter of 1988 - has weighed heavily on the country's psyche in the build-up to Vancouver, and one of the side-effects of its 'Own The Podium' programme - highly restricted access to the venues for non-Canadian competitors - has drawn heavy criticism from many quarters for going against the Olympic spirit.

To top it all off, there have also been two separate clashes in the city of Vancouver between police and an anti-capitalism group called the Olympics Resistance Network. Unsavoury, to say the least.

But all of the above makes no difference to me. I love the Winter Olympics - in some ways more so than the Summer ones. 

Why? It can be summed up in two words: risk and spectacle.

There is a large element of physical jeopardy to many of the sports on display in Vancouver this fortnight which is absent in the vast majority of Summer Olympic sports (boxing and equestrianism being two obvious exceptions). Okay, so the risks in curling are pretty minimal - although I suppose dropping one of the stones on your foot would be quite painful - but the consequence of making even a minuscule error in any of the Winter Olympics' high-speed events could easily be a broken limb or, as we have already seen, worse. The risks are high, and somehow more visceral than sports such as Formula 1 where cocooning, space-age monocoques and expansive tracks tend to downplay the extreme risks involved in motor sport.

And with large, high-definition TVs in many of our homes, coupled to super slow-motion replays, we now have a technological platform which allows us to fully appreciate the spectacle of some amazing telegenic events.

The luge is a case in point; an event whose sense of theatre has only been heightened by Kumaritashvili's death. Even with the men's event moved 176 metres down to the women's start line, avoiding the steepest section of track at corner two (which has a 20 percent gradient), the fastest sliders were still exceeding 145 kph (about 90 mph), while lying flat on their back, feet first, on what is effectively a high-tech tea tray on runners. At that speed, and experiencing lateral g forces similar to what a fighter pilot might undergo in combat, competitors are at the very limit of human ability as peripheral vision starts to blur and darken. Let's just say it's not exactly the most comfortable or safe way to travel. Utmost respect goes to a group of Olympians for competing in this event even in 'normal' circumstances, let alone on a track which has already proven lethal.

And the TV coverage of the luge event has, for perhaps the first time, truly done the event justice. Crisp, high-def images show each competitor flashing in and out of shot in stunning detail, conveying a frightening and spectacular sense of speed which was simply impossible on older, smaller cathode-ray sets. Luge is just about the fastest sport you can participate in without the assistance of an internal combustion engine. We've always known that. In HD, you can really see it and get as close to experiencing it as the vast majority of people ever will (or would want to).

Look across the schedule for the next two weeks, and you will not be short of visual treats. We have already seen the luge, moguls and the first of the speed skating (think demolition derbies on ice - what's not to like?) and ski jump events (the super slo-mo replays of take-offs are simply stunning). And then we have the rest of the sliding events (bobsleigh and skeleton bob), the alpine skiing and the snowboard events. (And, for those who prefer more pedestrian pursuits, there's always the curling.)

Risk and spectacle. Great competition. And being able to watch lots of snow and ice without having to spend hours clearing your own driveway. What more could a sports fan ask for? It's times like this that make me really appreciate HD.

8 February 2010

Super Bowl XLIV in numbers

New Orleans Saints 31 Indianapolis Colts 17

The Super Bowl remains the most-watched single annual sports event in the world, and in a country whose major sports are all stat-lovers' wet dreams, it boasts more statistics than any other event on earth. For instance, four million Americans bought new TVs to watch last night’s game, during which a 30-second commercial would have set you back an eye-popping $2.8m (£1.8m). Meanwhile, approximately 4,000 tonnes of popcorn and 11 million pounds of potato chips were consumed during the action. And so on, and so on.

As a small doff of the cap to what sometimes feels like a thinly-veiled excuse to hold the world’s biggest numbers game, here is a potted summary of Super Bowl XLIV, told in statistics.

1 - This was the Saints' first trip to a Super Bowl - a big enough achievement in itself for a franchise historically known as the 'Aints'.

44 – Last night was the 44th Super Bowl. It is also the shirt number worn by Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark, who was the game’s leading receiver with 7 catches for 86 yards. (Incidentally, Barack Obama is also the 44th President of the USA.)

22 – Multiples of this number seem to represent pivotal cultural moments in Super Bowls. Last night’s game was cheered on as a victory for Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. Super Bowl XXII was the first to feature a black starting quarterback, the Washington RedskinsDoug Williams.

10 – New Orleans tied a Super Bowl record for the greatest deficit overcome to win the game. Like the Redskins in the aforementioned Super Bowl XXII, the Saints trailed 10-0 at the end of the first quarter.

96 – Yards covered on Indianapolis’s first touchdown drive (a 19-yard pass from Peyton Manning to Pierre Garcon), a Super Bowl record.

12 – The longest drive of the game covered 71 yards in 12 plays, and resulted in no points as the Colts stopped the Saints on a fourth down play on their own one-yard line late in the first half.

0 – The number of onside kicks attempted during the first three quarters of all 43 previous Super Bowls, until the Saints executed one with the second half kickoff, recovered it, and marched downfield to their first touchdown – and lead – of the game.

18 – Consecutive points scored by New Orleans, overturning a 17-13 third quarter deficit.

47 – The number of turnovers (including postseason) forced by the Saints in their 18 games this season prior to the Super Bowl.

1 – The number of turnovers forced by the Saints last night. But what a big one it was, with Tracy Porter returning a Manning pass 74 yards for a touchdown, just as the Colts were driving towards the tying score with three minutes remaining. Porter’s pick-six effectively clinched the game.

38 – In yards, the longest field goal successfully made by Saints’ kicker Garrett Hartley during the 2009 regular season. Last night, he was successful from 46, 44 and 47 yards, becoming the first man ever to kick more than two field goals from 40 yards or more in a single Super Bowl and raising his postseason record to a perfect five from five.

1- The total number of sacks in a game which featured a dizzying 85 passing plays. It was recorded by the Colts’ Dwight Freeney, despite struggling throughout with an ankle injury which required heavy strapping.

30 – The measly number of rushing yards gained by the Saints’ leading runner on the night, Pierre Thomas. (The Colts’ Joseph Addai accumulated a more respectable 77.) It is also the overall percentage of plays called which were runs (37 out of a total of 122). Be in no doubt, the NFL is very much a pass-oriented league these days.

0.500 – The distinctly average postseason win percentage of Peyton Manning, widely regarded as one of the NFL’s best-ever quarterbacks. Nine wins, nine losses.

82.1% - The percentage of passes completed by New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees (32 of 39), eclipsing his 2009 regular season average of 70.6%, in itself an NFL single season record. Two of his seven incompletions were a deliberate spike to stop the clock and a routine catch which was dropped by the receiver. Seriously impressive.

1 – The number of Super Bowl-winning teams led by a quarterback born in Texas, the second-largest and second most populous state in the US with 25 million inhabitants. That would be Drew Brees.

66.7% - The percentage of Super Bowls won by the winner of the NFL International Series game at Wembley since its inception. The New York Giants won the Super Bowl after the inaugural match in 2007, while the Saints won at Wembley in 2008. (As a San Francisco 49ers' fan, this gives me double cause to celebrate their participation in this year's Wembley showpiece on October 31st.)

5 - The total number of postseason game victories in the Saints' 43-year history - three of which have come this season, culminating in Super Bowl triumph.

And finally …

4 – This was the first Super Bowl to be represented in Roman numerals by four different characters. The first Super Bowl to require five different numerals will be number 144.

Hey, I’m allowed one utterly trivial statistic, aren’t I?

Beyond these bare numbers lies the full story of a closely-fought game - the third straight Super Bowl to feature a lead change in the fourth quarter - which started on a low simmer and built gradually to a grand climax. If, like me, you stayed up until nearly 3am (UK time) to witness the denouement, it was a richly rewarding spectacle. If you didn't, well, there's always next year.

After all, the numbers don't lie.