19 May 2010

This blog has moved

The Sporting reflections blog has moved.

Please follow me to my new home at http://thearmchairsportsfan.wordpress.com/.

New posts will no longer appear here.

17 May 2010

The week in numbers: w/e 16/5/10

56 - The number of people who died in the Bradford City fire, 25 years ago last week.

0 - After six races of the F1 season, we have yet to see any car other than the two Red Bulls start from pole position. (Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber have three each.)

0 - The FA Cup has never been won by a team relegated from the top flight of English football in the same season.

2 - The number of missed penalties in Saturday's FA Cup final, the first time this had ever happened.

4 - The number of times the leader's pink jersey has changed hands so far during the first eight stages of the Giro d'Italia. Bradley Wiggins claimed it on stage one, since when it has gone to Cadel Evans (stage two), Alexandre Vinokourov (stage three), Vincenzo Nibali (stage four) and Vinokourov again (stage seven).

2 - Last Wednesday's Europa League final was the second time goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer had played in the final of Europe's second cup competition, with two different clubs. On both occasions he has lost to a Spanish side.

1 - Yesterday was the England men's cricket team first win in five attempts in a world final. They beat Australia by seven wickets in the final of the World Twenty20.

17 - Runs required by Australia off the last five balls of their World Twenty20 semi-final against Pakistan. Mike Hussey then hit 22 off the next four.

99 - Final points total for Barcelona, who clinched the Primera Liga title last night. Runners-up Real Madrid finished on 96, which also surpassed the previous record total.

4 - The number of seasons Oxford United spent in the Conference before earning promotion back to League 2 yesterday with a victory over York City. Oxford had been the first winner of a major trophy to be relegated from the Football League in 2006.

120,000 - Pounds per week reportedly demanded by 33 year old William Gallas during his contract talks with Arsenal. Bye bye.

11 May 2010

25 years on, the Bradford fire burns fresh in the memory

It was supposed to be a day of celebration. On the final day of the 1984/85 season, fans gathered at Bradford City’s Valley Parade to celebrate winning the Third Division championship, their first trophy in 56 years.

For those who escaped the ground alive that afternoon, celebration turned into a disaster which forever changed the face of English football.

It is believed that a dropped match – smoking was still allowed in football grounds in those days – ignited discarded rubbish underneath the main stand, a rickety wooden structure which was due to be demolished after the game. Once it had started, the wind swept the fire rapidly through the length and depth of the stand, turning it into a burning cauldron. Within four minutes the entire stand was ablaze.

56 people died. Over 200 others were injured, many with serious burns.

The resultant Popplewell Inquiry led to the introduction of new legislation to improve safety, most notably prohibiting the construction of new wooden grandstands at all UK sports grounds.

Today, 25 years to the day after the fire which devastated the community, memorial services are being held at Bradford's Centenary Square, Bradford Cathedral and at the Valley Parade ground.

More complete details of the tragedy, along with stories and tributes, are plentiful both online and in the broadcast media today. If you are not familiar with the events, they are worth a look, if only for a reminder of how far stadium safety has progressed in the past 25 years.

For those of us who are old enough to recall the images and emotions associated with that tragic day, the mere mention of the Bradford fire is more than enough. We remember.

10 May 2010

Vino's no dope as crashes gift him the maglia rosa

The race leader's pink jersey has been more patata calda (hot potato) than maglia rosa thus far in the Giro d'Italia. During three days' racing in Holland, the jersey has been worn on the podium by three different riders: Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans and now Alexandre Vinokourov.

Both yesterday and today, crashes on routes which have been narrow, twisty and full of road furniture have contributed significantly to the jersey changing possession.

On yesterday's stage between Amsterdam and Utrecht, major crashes in the peloton 40 and seven kilometres out brought down or delayed dozens of riders. Wiggins's Sky teammates were able to bridge the gap after the first crash, but not the second, allowing Evans to assume the race lead.

This afternoon, another crash on an extremely tight and dangerous turn ten kilometres from the finish in Middelburg brought down Wiggins, among others, and delayed Evans who, despite a heroic solo effort to regain contact with the chasing pack still finished 46 seconds down on the leaders, gifting the pink jersey to Vinokourov. In addition to his losses yesterday, Wiggins gave up another four minutes today, eliminating him from overall contention.

It is difficult to imagine a less popular - or more controversial - race leader than the 36 year old Kazakh. Less than a year after returning from a two year ban for blood doping at the Tour de France, Vino has already won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, one of the most prestigious Spring one day classics, and now leads the Giro, a position from which it may prove difficult to unseat him. Evans remains within striking distance, but Garmin's Christian Vande Velde was forced out today with a broken collarbone, and Wiggins is one of several other contenders now effectively out of reach.

Add to that the absence of the top three finishers from last year's race: winner Denis Menchov (who elected to miss the race to prepare for the Tour), Danilo di Luca (doping ban) and Franco Pellizotti (withdrawn due to ongoing investigation), not to mention Messrs Contador, Armstrong and Schleck (both of them), and the number of credible challengers to Vinokourov has already dwindled significantly.

It will be a sad state of affairs if Vinokourov is still wearing pink in Verona on May 30th. Not so much because of his original crime - for which he has served his time - but because he was so utterly unrepentant of an offence of which he was so clearly guilty, and for which he still protests his innocence. (When tests reveal you have another person's blood in your system, there isn't much of a defence.) And, even more than that, he betrayed cycling fans everywhere by shattering the illusion that his swashbuckling, kamikaze attacks we loved so much were fuelled by more than mere talent and determination.

Tomorrow is a rest day as the circus decamps back to Italy. Which, given the travails of the last couple of days, is probably just as well. I'll be hoping that the extra recovery time for some pretty banged-up teams will help someone depose Vino in Wednesday's team time trial.

The week in numbers: w/e 9/5/10

138 - In millions of pounds, the current debt of Portsmouth FC, about double what it was when the club went into administration at the end of February.

0 - The number of Grand Tour stage wins for both Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins before his two second victory in the opening time trial at the Giro d'Italia on Saturday.

103 - The final tally of Premier League goals for Chelsea, who hammered eight past Wigan yesterday. It is the highest total for a season in 47 years.

18 – Yesterday was the 18th consecutive league game without a win for Wigan in London, underlining quite how remote Man U's chances of securing the title really were.

1 - Mark Webber became the first F1 driver in five races this season to convert pole position into a race win at Barcelona yesterday.

85 not out - Runs scored by Cameron White off just 49 balls (including six sixes and six fours) in Australia's World Twenty20 win over Sri Lanka last night. The entire Sri Lankan side managed just two runs more than White.

31 - The number of league wins (from 37 matches) for Real Madrid after their 5-1 thumping of Athletic Bilbao. This is one more than Barcelona, who still lead Spain's Primera Liga by a point with one game remaining. The previous record for wins in a season was 28, jointly held by ... Real Madrid and Barcelona.

92 - The previous points record for a Primera Liga season (set by Real Madrid in 1997), already broken by both Barcelona (96) and Real Madrid (95).

00:54 - The time on Tuesday morning at which Australia’s Neil Robertson finally overcame Graeme Dott to win the World Snooker Championship.

8 May 2010

Pretty in pink as Wiggins takes Giro lead

In the greater scheme of things, the Giro d’Italia represents little more than a tune-up opportunity for Team Sky’s British leader Bradley Wiggins. However, any stage win in one of cycling’s three Grand Tours is a big deal, and victory for ‘Wiggo’ in today’s opening time trial in Amsterdam will have come as a welcome confidence boost.

But Wiggins’ single-minded focus remains the Tour de France in July, where he will seek to become, as a minimum, the first Briton ever to finish in the top three, with his ultimate ambition being to unseat defending champion Alberto Contador as the wearer of the yellow jersey in Paris on July 25th.

Both Contador and defending Giro champion Denis Menchov are absent from Italy this month, as are other top Tour contenders Lance Armstrong and the brothers Andy and Frank Schleck. Nonetheless, perennial nearly man Cadel Evans heads a strong field which includes Christian Vande Velde and 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre, as well as Ivan Basso and Alexandre Vinokourov, two top riders who have both served doping bans. They will provide a good benchmark for Wiggins, who should still be a fraction short of peak form at this point in the season.

Wiggins completed today’s 8.4km stage in 10:18, two seconds faster than BMC’s Brent Bookwalter and his team leader Evans. Victory earned him the right to wear the race leader’s pink jersey, the maglia rosa. Afterwards, Wiggins said:

"It was hard but I just went for it, especially in the corners. If you want to win it, you've got to commit 100 per cent, like a sprinter when they go for a sprint. For me it's beautiful to be wearing the pink jersey. It's iconic and one of the most special jerseys. To wear it means a lot to me and is a big honour."

However, he also insisted he will not getting carried away by his early success.

"I don't want to make the mistake of being at my best form and getting carried away in the Giro and then being knackered at the Tour. A lot of guys tried that last year, and fell short in July.”

The race will spend two further days in Holland before making its way back to Italy, ending in Verona on May 30th. Wiggins is unlikely to stay in pink for only a few days at most. The maglia rosa is a welcome addition to a trophy collection which includes three Olympic golds, but the biggest prize of all remains over two months away.

7 May 2010

Pellizotti investigation casts a cloud over Sky's Giro debut

I should be really looking forward to Team Sky's Grand Tour debut at the Giro d'Italia, which kicks off in Amsterdam tomorrow and concludes in Verona on May 30th. It will provide the first real yardstick to assess Bradley Wiggins' prospects of improving on his fourth place finish at last year's Tour de France, as well as the progress of several other leading contenders.

Actually, I am looking forward to it.

However, my anticipation of the race comes in spite of rather than because of events leading up to it, with news breaking on Monday of yet another doping investigation into three riders, including Liquigas's Franco Pellizotti.

Pellizotti finished third on the road at the 2009 Giro, having placed fourth the previous year. That was subsequently upgraded to second after the original runner-up (and 2007 winner) Danilo di Luca returned two positive tests for the prohibited blood-booster CERA during the race. Add that to the 20-month ban recently completed by Riccardo Ricco, the 2008 runner-up (positive for CERA at the 2008 Tour), and you have a grim record which shows that half the podium finishers - all Italian - from the past two Giros have been either banned or suspended for actual/suspected doping offences.

It's not great, is it? Despite the considerable efforts (and money) invested into sophisticated and comprehensive drug-testing procedures - for which the sport should be applauded - it seems the potential rewards for those willing to cheat continue to outweigh the growing risks of detection. Ricco has already returned to professional racing. So too Michael Rasmussen, who was thrown out of the 2007 Tour while wearing the yellow jersey.

Something needs to be done. But what?

6 May 2010

Motherwell add to a season of incredible comebacks

Motherwell 6 Hibernian 6

In the highest-scoring game in Scottish Premier League history last night, Motherwell recovered from a 6-2 deficit with 24 minutes remaining to draw 6-6 at home to Hibernian.

It really has been quite a season for comebacks, and it says something that this is only the second most incredible one in recent months. Barely two weeks ago, we had Wigan turning a 0-2 scoreline into a 3-2 win against Arsenal - the first time since the inception of the Premier League that a team had won having been two goals down with ten minutes remaining. But even that pales into insignificance when compared to the opening match of January's Africa Cup of Nations, when Mali recovered from 4-0 down against the hosts Angola to draw 4-4, with the final two goals coming in the 93rd and 94th minutes.

This one ran it close, though.

Last night's match had added importance because Motherwell entered it holding a one point advantage (with just two games remaining) over Hibs in the battle for fourth place in the SPL, which yields the reward of a Europa League spot.

I won't repeat the full details of the game - try the BBC Sport website here for a match report - but a Colin Nish first half hat-trick and a brace from former Arsenal and Sunderland striker Anthony Stokes saw the visitors take a commanding 6-2 lead after 65 minutes, only for Motherwell to score three goals in nine minutes. That still left sufficient time for Lukas Jutkiewicz to earn an 86th minute penalty which Ross Forbes failed to convert before Jutkiewicz himself struck a ferocious volley from a narrow angle in the third of four minutes of added-on time. The draw leaves the Steelmen in control of their destiny going into their final game against champions Rangers at Ibrox on Sunday.

It's well worth seeking out the highlights on either YouTube or the BBC website, if only for Jutkiewicz's equaliser. Anyone familiar with Marco van Basten's amazing volley against the USSR in the final of the 1988 European Championships will know what I mean when I say that this is virtually a left-footed mirror image of that goal. It was a goal worthy of crowning an amazing game.

And it was a prime example of the danger of walking out of a game early, as thousands of Motherwell fans did at 6-2. Comebacks like this may only happen once in a lifetime, but how gutted would you be to have missed it?

Spurs win limits options for City's summer transfer spree

Manchester City 0 Tottenham Hotspur 1

Peter Crouch's late header at Eastlands last night was worth a lot more than three points to Spurs. It was even worth more than the undoubted jubilation it brought to one half of North London at achieving their first ever Champions League spot - technically, entry into the final qualifying round as opposed to the Champions League proper - something which has become routine to their neighbours and rivals Arsenal. (It is only the second time that Spurs will have played in Europe's top club competition, and the first time in 49 years.)

It was a result which will have brought great joy to many neutrals, as well as fans of Liverpool and Aston Villa, the manager's office at Old Trafford, and even a small corner of West Berkshire, where this particular Arsenal fan - one, I suspect, of a very small number of Gooners - actually considers Spurs to be the lesser of two evils.

It may well prove to be only a temporary forestalling of twelve months, but defeat for Manchester City will make the job of turning the club into a dominant European force in this summer's transfer market considerably more difficult, despite the backing of Sheikh Mansour, owner of the deepest pockets in world football. A top four finish - and the carrot of Champions League football that goes with it - would have opened the door for the potential signing of many of the game's very best players. Now, however, instead of the grand stage of Champions League ties against BarcelonaReal MadridInter Milan or Bayern Munich, City can only offer the less attractive prospect of Europa League Thursdays against the likes of Palermo, Real Mallorca or Borussia Dortmund.

True, City can always offer more lucrative financial incentives than anyone else - and therefore attract those of a more mercenary disposition (of which there are many in the sport). But for many of the small band who can truly count themselves among the world's elite - players like Fernando Torres, David Villa, Franck Ribery and Steven Gerrard - cash alone will not be enough to persuade them to exchange their current colours for sky blue.

The reality is that defeat last night has put a serious dent in City's summer transfer plans. Not only does that hurt their prospects of success next season, but it also gives some of their closest rivals vital leeway to regroup and rebuild. Liverpool are cash-strapped and will be potentially Rafa Benitez-less. Villa remain short of squad depth. Man Utd have not yet adequately replaced Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. And Chelsea need to add youth to an ageing squad packed with over-30s.

Indeed, Chelsea serve as a salutary warning to City. As Roman Abramovich has discovered, endless spending does not necessarily guarantee future success. For all the hundreds of millions of clubs the Russian billionaire poured into the London club, they have still never been able to secure the one prize he covets above all else: the Champions League trophy.

So for one more season, at least, money can't buy you everything. Tomorrow will have to wait another year. And possibly longer. It's hard not to raise a smile at that prospect, which is why - for probably the one and only time in my life - I'm not fuming at Spurs' success. Don't tell anyone, though.