Tiger back on the prowl

So Tiger Woods is once again officially the best golfer in the world after victory by two shots in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill Club.  Woods has had a stunning start to the season, winning three PGA titles already, and must be the favourite for The Masters next month.  But is this sudden rejuvenation merely a rich vein of form, or is the American settling in for another long tenure at the top of the rankings?

This is the first time Woods has hit sustained form since his much-publicised shenanigans in late 2009.  He had an average 2012 (by his standards), winning three times, but he was never consistently at the top of his game and hardly featured in the four majors.  He has been there or thereabouts in every tournament this season and it looks like we are seeing a new and improved Tiger, maybe even better than the pre-2009 model.  He seems a lot more focused, more relaxed on and off the course and, ironically, his private life could be the reason.

Last week Woods revealed that he has been dating U.S skier Lindsey Vonn for a couple of months.  Now I don’t claim there to be a direct correlation between his upturn in form and his relationship, but as we all know, golf, more than any other sport, is as much a game of the mind as the body (trust me – I can’t do either).  A happy Tiger and an improved Tiger; co-incidence?  I think not.

Across all walks of life, performance is enhanced by being mentally focused, be that alert, relaxed, determined or fired-up.  I doubt there is any difference in Woods’ actual psychological routine when he hits a golf ball than from last season.  He is always striving to shoot the lowest possible score.  You don’t win 14 majors without extraordinary mental strength.  But it is his approach to his thinking that has altered.  Whereas in the past couple of seasons Woods would be tetchy in his press conferences and get angry on the course if he hit a bad shot, this season his mental approach is more positive – for instance looking forward to the next shot instead of dwelling on his mistake.  A round of golf takes 4+ hours.  You cannot concentrate continually for that length of time so in between shots you have to have the ability to switch off.  This time is crucial because it defines the mind-set for the next shot and possibly inadvertently, the entire round.  So if Woods is naturally happier in his life off the course, his subconscious thoughts will therefore become happier, leading to a more positive mental approach and consequently, improved performance.  You can’t force your mind to think positive thoughts against its will (well you probably could but not for 4 hours) so your natural subconscious will determine your mental attitude when you switch-off in between shots or holes.  Dwelling on negative thoughts will indirectly affect your golf because it lessens the likelihood of hitting a good shot.  Woods has conquered this, not by sports psychology but by good old-fashioned romance.  He seems to have finally laid those ghosts of 2009, which haunted him everywhere, to rest.  That infamous toothy smile has returned and so have the regular victories.

Worryingly for his competitors, Woods’ form does not look like abating any time soon.  That familiar surge up the leaderboard on the Saturday afternoon.  The bright red top on the Sunday afternoon in the final pairing.  The inevitable victory.  It has all returned better than ever.  It was a path well-trodden for the best part of a decade and now it looks set to stay.  For how long?  Who knows.  Rory McIllroy may well have a say if he gets his act together but that’s the problem: IF.  With Tiger you feel as if there is no if.  It just is.  Winning is become a habit again and if (sorry) reports are to believed, he is hungrier than ever for more major titles.  The combination of a hungry and happy Tiger is an ominous one.  It is going to take a special performance from someone to stop him taking victory at Augusta next month in this form.  I know who my money is on.

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6 Nations Team of the tournament

So the dust has finally settled on the 2013 Six Nations.  A tournament which started and ended brightly was characterised by some cracking games and free-flowing rugby on the first and last weekends.  Just a shame that what was sandwiched in between was a load of turgid dross.

Ordinarily when selecting a team of the tournament, the inclination is to go with the players who have shown the most in an attacking sense.  That is where the excitement lies, and it is players who contribute a line-break, a deft pass, or a superbly accurate kick who tend to stand out.  However, this Six Nations tournament has seen comparatively little outstanding attacking play, partly due to the weather it must be said, and therefore in picking this year’s team of the tournament, it is not enough just to pick those who have shown most with ball in hand, especially amongst the backs.  Anyway, enough pseudo-intellectual bollocks, my brother and I attempt to find some of the shining lights from the relative gloom of this year’s championship.

15: FULL BACK

RDW:  Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)

Probably the easiest choice to make; Halfpenny has been simply outstanding this year (that said he’s been outstanding for a number of years now).  He is practically infallible under the high ball, a master at one-on-one tackles (I heard one stat during the tournament that he hasn’t missed a tackle in the Six Nations since 2010, which, if true, is staggering), a quite beautiful striker of the ball, both out of hand and off the tee, and a dangerous runner.  Full-back is a position that doesn’t lack for high quality performers in the Northern Hemisphere, with Stuart Hogg, Andrea Masi and Alex Goode all impressing, but Halfpenny was consistently excellent all tournament.

DDW:  Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)

I agree.  After waxing lyrical about Stuart Hogg earlier in the tournament, he rather unsurprisingly lost form, so the Welsh rock (if you say it like Jonathan Ross it’s sort of alliterative) gets my vote.  Flawless under the high ball and in defence, his goal-kicking ain’t half bad either (he finished the tournament as the leading points scorer).  Hogg though is a rare talent, reminiscent of a new breed of southern hemisphere attacking full backs (rather like Christian Cullen).  Definitely one to watch for the future.

14: Right Wing

RDW:  Alex Cuthbert (Wales)

Maybe Cuthbert doesn’t have the acceleration of the very best wingers in the game, but he is certainly quick enough once he gets going, and obviously extremely difficult to stop.  He finished masterfully twice against England, and was comfortably the tournament’s top try scorer.  He is occasionally a little unsure in defence, such as when he was bamboozled by Brian O’Driscoll’s pass to Simon Zebo in the opening game, but is still one of the better wingers around.

DDW:  Alex Cuthbert (Wales)

His finishing against Italy and England was clinical, and he showed a turn of pace to escape Mike Brown twice to score the tries that clinched the title.  Questions still remain about his defence, but having conceded no tries in the past four games, it can’t be that bad.

13. Outside Centre

RDW:  Wesley Fofana (France)

Yes, he started the first two games on the wing, and ended up there against England, but it’s obvious to all that centre is his natural position, and wherever he played he was always a class act.  His try against England, albeit against some pretty feeble tackling, was superb, and his finish against Scotland, brushing off Stuart Hogg like some minor irritant, was clinical.  He is just an all-round excellent rugby player.

DDW:  Jonathan Davies (Wales)

Admittedly not the most inspired selection, but it was more for the fact he was the least bad out of all the candidates than for anything spectacular he did.  Did an enormous amount of donkey work in attack and defence and showed good anticipation for his try against Italy.  Now if only he could pass or run into space…

12: Inside Centre

RDW:  Brad Barritt (England)

A controversial choice this; there are other centres who are more skilful (O’Driscoll, Mermoz, Marshall), more physically imposing (Basteraud, Roberts, Tuilagi) or more noticeable around the pitch (Lamont, O’Driscoll again, Davies), but in this tournament Barritt has combined efficient distribution with excellent defensive nous and rock-solid tackling.  He never does anything flash, but is totally dependable, and every team needs someone like him.

DDW:  Wesley Fofana (France)

Bafflingly selected on the right wing for the first two matches, once he was moved to his favoured inside-centre position he was a constant threat.  An elusive runner (as Chris Ashton will testify), he scored probably the try of the tournament at Twickenham.  Plays like Jeremy Guscott and hopefully the linchpin of the France team for years to come.

11. Left Wing

RDW:  George North (Wales)

This was one of the harder decisions to make – North or Tim Visser?  Visser has taken to international rugby like a duck on seeing the Atlantic for the first time, is big and fast, and runs some intelligent support lines (in the way Chris Ashton used to).  However, in this tournament North, despite his upright running style which can lead to him being turned after tackling a little too often, has provided some of the better attacking moments, was a Mike Brown manicure away from scoring a scorcher against England, and showed his try-sniffing ability when helping conjure a try out of nothing against France.

DDW:  George North (Wales)

Again, did nothing spectacular (save for a match-winning try against the French) but also didn’t make any major mistakes, and that consistency wins you championships.  Solid in all facets of the game, although seems to have lost the ability to find space on the pitch, often seeking contact rather than the gaps.  A certain Lion.

10. Fly-half

RDW:  Owen Farrell (England)

Let’s be honest, the Northern Hemisphere isn’t exactly awash with high-quality outside-halves at the moment.  Whereas in the past, the most talented rugby player in the team tended to play at number 10, nowadays he plays at either 7 or 15.  Had Jonny Sexton remained fit, he would probably have won the prestige of being named in this team, as it is Farrell wins almost by default.  Dan Biggar got better as the tournament progressed, but was poor against Ireland, and mediocre against Scotland;  Luciano Orquera followed a blinder against France with a stinker against Scotland; Ian Madigan looked promising, but raw; and Freddie Michalak looked like a scrum-half playing out of position.  Farrell didn’t play to his potential against France or Wales, but was excellent in the first two games of the tournament, and kicked his goals when required.

DDW:  Frederic Michalak (France)

Only joking.  As much as I really want to include Italy’s mercurial Luciano Orquera, my choice goes to Owen Farrell.  Great in defence and at kicking, he has added an attacking edge, exemplified by his pass for Geoff Parling’s try in on the opening weekend.  Has an invaluable, almost Wilkinsonesque ability to make the correct decision at the right time.  Displayed a unnecessary confrontational attitude against the French though.  Dan Biggar grew as the tournament progressed but he kicked too aimlessly against France and wasn’t at the races against Ireland.

9. Scrum-half

RDW:  Greg Laidlaw (Scotland)

Another position without any outstanding candidate.  Laidlaw kept the pace of Scotland’s attacks going, has a blinder of a pass off either hand, and can land his box kicks on a sixpence.  He just edges out Mike Phillips (physical as ever but, again as ever, too inclined to try and do it all himself) and Ben Youngs (great runner, crap passer).

DDW:  Mike Phillips (Wales)

Completely disagree.  Phillips was another who improved with every game, he was the driving force behind the final two victories against Scotland and England.  Gone are the sniping runs around the fringes of the rucks but his delivery has improved since his swich to Bayonne and he seems to have found some much needed maturity on and off the field.  Morgan Parra ran him a close second with his assured displays against England, Scotland and Ireland.  Danny Care and Ben Youngs faded badly as the tournament progressed.  Greg Laidlaw was great at goal-kicking but not so much with possession going forward (and Scotland had none), the true yardstick of an international scrum-half.

1. Loose-head Prop

RDW:  Thomas Domingo (France)

There have been suggestions that his scrummaging technique might not be legal (don’t ask me why – I know as much about the scrum as most international referees), but Domingo made life difficult for every tight-head he came up against, winning several penalties off Adam Jones, and making Dan Cole look ordinary, until he was ludicrously taken off.  He may not show in the loose as much as Gethin Jenkins or Cian Healy, but the French scrum was one of the few facets of their play that wasn’t disappointing.

DDW:  Cian Healy (Ireland)

Yes he executed a disgusting stamp on Dan Cole but from a purely playing point of view, he was awesome.  A destructive force both in the scrum and the loose, Healy reminds me a bit of Andrew Sheridan.  Needs to reign in his discipline but his aggressive approach has reaped rewards, so one indiscretion shouldn’t change his approach.  Honourable mention goes to Gethin Jenkins who started slowly but was indomitable against the English.  Showed Mako Vunipola just how far he has to improve to reach test-class status.

2. Hooker

RDW:  Richard Hibbard (Wales)

The Welsh scrum was immense during their last three games, and Hibbard must take some of the credit for that.  He was also reasonably accurate in the lineout, scored a poacher’s try against Scotland, and put in some bone-jarring tackles.  Why is it, though, that front-row forwards are tending towards the hirsute?  Does it give you extra power, like Samson?  Tom Youngs was excellent in the loose (as you’d expect from a converted centre), but too wayward with his throwing, while Ken Owens always impressed when he came on.

DDW:  Rory Best (Ireland)

The best (thank you) all-round hooker in the tournament, Best was a rare positive in a desperately disappointing Ireland.  Richard Hibbard might be better in the loose, and Ross Ford and Leonardo Ghiraldini may be stronger at line-out time, but the Irishman is an all-action player who popped up all over the place, rather reminiscent of Keith Wood.  Like his compatriots, will want to forget the Rome nightmare in a jiffy.

3. Tight-head Prop

RDW:  Adam Jones (Wales)

At the start of the tournament, there were many that said Adam Jones’ time as the Northern Hemisphere’ outstanding tight-head was at an end, with Dan Cole taking his mantle.  It turns out that’s rubbish.  Despite a tough time in Paris on a dreadful pitch in filthy conditions, Jones was the foundation on which the Welsh scrum could build their dominance, and he even found time to make a couple of passes.

DDW:  Adam Jones (Wales)

An obvious choice.  Re-asserted why he is the best tight-head in the northern hemisphere.  A tireless worker in the loose (next time you watch him, count how many times he’s at the breakdown), he schooled Castrogiovanni et al in the scrum, taught the Scots a lesson in Murrayfield, and (insert pedagogical metaphor) against Dan Cole.

4. Lock

RDW:  Geoff Parling (England)

Parling may look like he should be a whimsical stand-up, or an advertising executive, but he is a reliable lineout operator who puts in his fair share of work in the loose.  There’s not much more to say about him, he seems to be just the sort of unflashy, hard-working bloke you want in your side.

DDW:  Ian Evans (Wales)

The Welshman is finally delivering on his early promise after putting his injury problems behind him.  Has settled a traditionally jittery Welsh line-out and is a formidable ball carrier to boot.

5. Lock

RDW:  Ian Evans (Wales)

Lock is one of the positions where the Lions selectors are spoilt for choice.  Jim Hamilton was immense in defence against Ireland, Joe Launchbury, despite a chastening time against Wales, is clearly a star in the making, Alun Wyn Jones’ return helped the Welsh cause no end, and Donnacha Ryan was a lineout machine.  However, Evans was not only dominant in the lineout; he was also prominent in the loose, made tackle after tackle, and provided plenty of grunt in the scrum.

DDW:  Quentin Geldenhuys (Italy)

The Italian with the less-than-sounding Italian name has impressed me in this tournament with his work rate.  The Italians have traditionally won the odd Six Nations match through forward domination, and although this year their backs were more prominent, Geldenhuys was one of the main reasons Italy could play on the front foot.  He was instrumental in an Italian lineout that ran smoother than a German train timetable.  I must mention Alun Wyn-Jones’ stirring performances in the last two games too.

6. Blindside Flanker

RDW:  Alessandro Zanni (Italy)

Like the second row, finding outstanding performers in the back row is not a problem.  Tom Wood, Peter O’Mahony and Ryan Jones all showed their class, with Jones particularly excellent against France.  However, Italy’s back row is starting to look dangerous and Zanni, who has improved steadily over the last few seasons, showed himself to be the complete back-row forward, carrying the ball often, tackling hard, winning lineout ball and, according to Opta Stats, offloading the ball four more times than anyone else in the tournament.  That’s good enough for me.

DDW:  Alessandro Zanni (Italy)

Had Ryan Jones not been injured, he would probably have taken the blindside flanker role for his industrious displays against France, Italy and Scotland.  As it happened, Zanni was the standout 6 in the tournament providing a reliable lineout option, as well as some tough tackling to go with his try against Scotland.

7. Openside Flanker

RDW:  Justin Tipuric (Wales)

Ah, the famous number 7 jersey.  Should you pick a ‘jackal’ like the Southern Hemisphere teams, and try and steal turnovers/slow the ball down/cheat (delete as appropriate), or should you pick an all-round athlete who can carry the ball, compete at the breakdown, be useful in the lineout, and probably make a blinding cuppa too.  Sam Warburton is probably the closest thing the Northern Hemisphere possesses to a jackal, and, for one reason or another, his tournament was very up-and-down.  Sean O’Brien, as always, carried the ball manfully, but is a little too one-dimensional.  Chris Robshaw was superb until the final match, tackling hard, carrying the ball more than most and leading by example, but he was comprehensively outplayed against Wales by Tipuric who, throughout the tournament showed he is nearly a complete number 7.  He has the intelligence and hands of an inside centre, the pace of a back, is a useful lineout option (he’s comparatively small so can be effectively flung into the air), a willing ball-carrier and a warrior at the breakdown.  His lack of size is a negative on occasions (being bounced by Manoa Vosawai off a scrum against Italy), but otherwise he is yet another world-class Welsh back-rower.

DDW:  Chris Robshaw (England)

Over the whole five weekends, he was the most consistent openside flanker.  Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric may have had the odd stellar game, but Robshaw was England’s player of the tournament and gave the aforementioned Welsh flankers a run for their money in the Cardiff finale (even if the rest of his teammates didn’t).  Lead the Red Rose with a calm assurance that bodes well for the future.  Still not certain of a Lions berth.

8. Number Eight

RDW:  Louis Picamoles (France)

The man with the thickest thighs ever recorded (not actually a fact) has, at times, seemed to be carrying the French team by himself, often requiring several defenders to bring him down.  His quick-thinking led to the match-saving try against Ireland, and he was always a nightmare for the opposition.  It seems strange to be compiling a Six Nations team of the tournament without including Sergio Parisse, but excellent though he was, he missed the Wales game, and ten minutes of the Ireland game through ill-discipline.  Toby Faletau also deserves a mention for his consistency and work-rate.

DDW:  Sergio Parisse (Italy)

Probably the most hotly contested position.  The stats don’t lie, and yes Louis Piccamoles gained the most yards among the forwards and yes he was a man mountain whilst all others around him were mere boyish mounds, but Parisse was the reason Italy won their two matches, whereas despite Piccamoles best efforts, he couldn’t quite drag Les Bleus over the line.  Piccamoles is for all intents and purposes a battering ram, and a bloody good one at that, but Parisse is the complete Rugby footballer: he is a majestic runner, he’s awesome at the breakdown, he can catch and pass like a fly-half, and he always breaks the gain line.  He does all this with an imposing physicality of a Piccamoles, which is why he just gets the nod for me.  In the three matches he played, he displayed why he is the premier no. 8 in the world.  It is no co-incidence that Italy were more competitive with their talismanic captain in the side.  Toby Faletau also impressed in the latter stages of the tournament with his ball-carrying skills.  A place on the Lions tour beckons.

Another Six Nations preview

Anyone remember the first weekend of this season’s Six Nations?  Way back in early February when optimism reigned high, France were many people’s favourites for the tournament, and England still had a representative in the European Champions’ League?  Well, on that first weekend, 16 tries were scored.  England looked clinical in attack, Scotland had a new and exhilarating back three, Ireland and Wales served up a try-laden classic, lit up by some startling skill by Simon Zebo and Brian O’Driscoll.  And Italy beat France.  Not be out-grunting them in the forwards, but by outplaying them all over the pitch.  My my, we thought to ourselves (probably), this season’s Six Nations looks like being a throwback to the early 2000s when scrums took mere seconds, tries were abundant, and Ronan O’Gara looked, well, exactly the same actually.  Roll on the rest of the tournament.

And what has ensued?  Turgid game after turgid game.  Watertight defences, torrential downpours, butchered overlaps, endless penalties and as much excitement as watching beige paint dry whilst listening to Geoff Boycott explain the history of the forward defensive.  16 tries in the first 3 games has led to 15 in the next 9.  The shrewd mathematicians amongst you will have noticed that makes 31 tries in total.  The lowest total number of tries in Six Nations history came last year when 46 were scored.  We’re on course for a record low by some margin.

I know what many of you will say (when I say many, I mean both.  This blog isn’t popular enough to warrant the use of the word ‘many.’  Yet).  Lack of tries doesn’t necessarily mean lack of excitement.  And you’d be correct.  Remember the Ireland v Australia game at the last World Cup?  No tries, but a gripping game nonetheless.  However, the games in this year’s tournament have been nothing like that absorbing contest – two excellent well-drilled defences snuffing out some inventive attacking play.  Instead we have seen excellent well-drilled defences finding it pretty simple to keep out predictable attacks, with said attacks pissing all over any chances they do get due to lack of basic skills and calmness under pressure (exhibit A England failing to score with a 6 on 2 overlap v Italy).

So what can we expect from this weekend’s games?

Italy v Ireland (Saturday 2.30)

Let’s be honest – any game that isn’t England v Wales this weekend is right on the back-burner as far as the tournament is concerned.  Yes, there’s the scramble not to finish last, and both of these teams could yet finish in that ignominious position, which for Ireland would be a disaster and probably lead to some pretty strong questioning over Declan Kidney’s position as Head Coach.  The main subplot to this weekend’s games, however, will be of course The Lions.  Warren Gatland has said that he has yet to make his mind up on about a third of his 37-man squad, so a strong performance this weekend could force one’s way into Gatland’s thinking.  For Ireland, that means Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Craig Gilroy, Conor Murray and Rory Best (among others) will be looking to play their way onto that QANTAS flight.  Italy, on the other hand will be looking for their first Six Nations win over Ireland, and, following their strong performance at Twickenham, confidence will be high.  Given stakes are low, and the pressure is off, one might hope that both teams will go on the attack.  If Luciano Orquera plays well, then Italy could win, but I think Ireland, given the incentive of grabbing a Lions place, will win by 7 points.  Hopefully Brian O’Driscoll will remain fit, and play the whole 80 minutes, as it seems this will be his final Six Nations games, and it would be appropriate if such a truly outstanding player (he’s probably the best number 7 in the Ireland team as well as the best 13) could bow out in style.

France v Scotland (Saturday 8.00)

Who would have predicted such a dismal tournament for the French?  Yes, last season they were poor, but the 33-6 thrashing of Australia in November made many people sit up and take notice.  They also have some of the outstanding performers in world rugby – Wesley Fofana is a gem of a centre, with speed, gracefulness, and an eye for a pass, not dissimilar to Jeremy Guscott; Louis Picamoles is a true man mountain, who always makes yards and saps the life out of the defenders who have to tackle him; and Morgan Parra is, you would think, the perfect French scrum-half, able to run the game, quick of pass, accurate of boot and fearless in defence.  The decision not to start him in the early stages of the tournament appears ludicrous.  It seems as though that defeat in Italy dented their confidence, and subsequently they haven’t looked like a coherent attacking force.  Parra will start against Scotland, and given the huge amount of talent in the backs (Clerc, Medard and Huget is, on paper at least, a formidable back three), you suspect it’s only a matter of time before it all clicks.

After Scotland’s victory over Italy in Round 2, all the talk was of the Scottish back three, who, between them, had scored 4 tries in 2 games.  The clamour for all three of Hogg, Visser and Maitland to go to Australia has subsided a little following Scotland’s try-less last two outings, but with positions on the wing for the Lions definitely up for grabs, a good performance in Paris could be crucial.  The problem for Scotland this tournament has been the opposite of that in previous seasons.  Instead of having plenty of ball, but failing to do anything with it, they have been starved of ball, losing the breakdown battle, but have looked dangerous, with Greig Laidlaw forcing the pace from scrum-half.  I suspect that France, despite being under pressure to avoid their first wooden spoon in the Six Nations era, will finally come good and win with comfort, by at least 10 points.

Wales v England (Saturday 5.00)

And finally, the championship decider.  One of these two teams will win the tournament (it could even be shared if Wales win by exactly 7 points, but England score two more tries.  Just like I could own a Ferrari, date Jessica Biel and win several Oscars with a little more luck.  And talent).  But does either team deserve to?  England have been rampant against Scotland, diligent against Ireland, resilient against France, and lucky against Italy, while Wales, apart from the first 50 minutes against Ireland, have been efficient and impregnable.  Neither side has shown vintage form – Wales’ starting backline, unchanged during the tournament, always looks as though it will deliver something dazzling in attack, and never quite seems to, but the effort required to fell North, Cuthbert, Roberts et al, not to mention the forwards, takes its toll over the course of 80 minutes, and Wales’ fitness levels appear the best of all the teams.  England have picked up the knack of finding a way to win, without always playing particularly well, but importantly, their big-game players have been excellent.  Ben Youngs, despite always taking that fraction of a second longer than seems necessary to make a pass, has kept the tempo flowing, and made a couple of eye-catching breaks, Geoff Parling, unlikely-looking athlete that he may be, has ensured the lineout has remained steady, and Chris Robshaw has foraged constantly and led by example.

Warren Gatland has said this match is not a trial for selection for the Lions (he has also given hope to any Scottish and Irish hopefuls by stressing that they have big games too), but it is impossible not to see it as such in certain areas.  Robshaw v Warbuton, Tuilagi and Barritt v Roberts and Davies, Youngs v Phillips, Launchbury v Alun Wyn Jones – all of those battles will be interesting subplots, and whoever wins each individual battle will not only help their team towards victory, they will also edge ever closer towards selection for Australia.  Despite their stuttering performance against Italy, and Wales’ watertight defence, I’m going for the return of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell to make a difference, and for England to win by 5.

Can anyone stop Sebastian Vettel?

The 2013 F1 season starts in Melbourne this Sunday and it promises (hopefully) to be one of the most intriguing for years.  There are more title contenders than you can shake a stick at.  No less than 5 teams have a chance of winning the constructors championship.  Plus, HRT have quit the sport so there’s one shit back-marker fewer.  Will Lewis Hamilton thrive after his move to Mercedes?  How will Sergio Perez deal with the added pressure as his replacement?  Can Kimi Raikkonen step up and mount a serious title challenge?  Can anyone stop that energy-drink driving German from winning again?  There’s a faint whiff of the Michael Schumacher about Vettel, and although a hat-trick of championships is very impressive, it’s time someone else had a go.

            With the rather pointless pre-season testing yawnfest now over, we’re no closer to predicting a major challenger to Vettel’s throne.  Fernando Alonso looks the most likely; last year, the Spaniard drove an almost flawless season in an absolutely terrible car that was (literally) miles off the pace in March, yet still only finished three points behind Vettel.  Give Alonso a competitive package and he will deliver every microsecond of performance.  If Ferrari have delivered, Alonso will be, like cement, right up in the mix.  Lewis Hamilton is probably Vettel’s other main rival, but after his move to Mercedes, I think he will struggle, at least in the early part of the season, to get settled in his new surroundings.  I have no doubt he will still have the pace, but it’s just a case of delivering that consistently for a whole race and over an entire season – something Mercedes have noticeably lacked.  And not crashing into all and sundry.

            Of the other front-runners, it is Kimi Raikkonen who intrigues me the most.  Kimi is at a crossroads in his career; he’s already a world champion and he’s clearly still got the speed, but he’s the wrong side of 30 and has he still got that burning ambition inside him?  He is a driver’s driver; the sort of guy who turns up to the half an hour before the start, hops into the cockpit and delivers the goods.  He doesn’t bother with all the technical nonsense.  He just gets on with his job – driving fast.  Remember last season when his engineer gave him a load of hassle during the race?  Kimi’s retort was ‘leave me alone – I know what I’m doing.’  Classic Raikkonen.  If he truly does know what he’s doing, and the ice-cool Finn has the hunger and desire to compete up top with the big boys, then we’re in for an exciting season.

            I’m slightly worried by McLaren this season.  They’ve lost their number one driver and replaced him with a (sort of) mercenary in Sergio Perez.  He’s good and he’s quick, but the step up in class to McLaren is something for which I’m not sure he’s prepared.  It’s not good enough to have the odd stellar weekend when the rest of the time you’re scrapping around in the midfield.  He needs to turn up every weekend and perform at his best in every session because that is what McLaren demands – the best.  Moreover, I can’t see Button really troubling the champagne manufacturers much because he hasn’t been consistently fast enough.  Every other weekend he seems to be qualifying 8th or 9th.  He rarely sticks it on the front row in qualifying which puts him at a disadvantage, and with the seemingly pedestrian package McLaren have provided, another fourth or fifth finish beckons.

            Nico Hulkenberg’s move to Sauber is the probably the most noteworthy of the midfield teams.  The German has serious pace, a cool head and will be the leader in a team which was quick enough to win last season.  If he can learn the ropes quickly and his car set-up is right, he could cause a few surprises.  Pastor Maldonado is another who has pace to burn, but unfortunately the young Colombian’s driving style is so rash that he makes Romain Grosjean look like a cautious driving instructor.  After his debut race victory last season, he went nine races without scoring – exactly the sort of consistency which will get him a drive at Caterham next season.  If he can rein in his youthful exuberance (and it is a big if) and manage to keep his car somewhere in the vicinity of the road, he may be able to challenge for a race win or two.

            For what it’s worth, I think Alonso will be World Champion this year.  It is now 7 years since his last crown and he has lost the title at the final race twice in the past three seasons.  This has really hurt the Spaniard and he will return this campaign a new, improved, more mature and complete driver, ready to take on the might of Vettel and Red Bull.  In my heart I want Raikkonen to come second, but he probably won’t because he’ll turn up at the wrong racetrack or oversleep and miss the race.  Here’s to cracking season.  Let the racing begin.

England lucky to escape with a draw

Ah, the refreshingly familiar sight of an England first innings collapse.  As disappointing and as quick as one’s (my) first sexual encounter with a female, yet as predictable as Paul Gascoigne re-entering rehab (I could continue with more similes but that would be as tiresome as this weekend’s 6 nations matches).  The first test against New Zealand was, for the opening two days, an unmitigated disaster as England failed (almost literally) to turn up.  Batting first on a pitch that was fairly lifeless, England boldly and quite impressively managed to make it look like a veritable minefield as they contrived to get bowled out for 167 (on debut, New Zealand’s opener, Hamish Rutherford, alone scored more).  Now the Kiwis’ bowling attack is about as fearsome as a sleeping goldfish, but they put the ball in the right areas to tempt England into making mistakes, and like the charitable guests they are, England duly obliged. They just about redeemed themselves in the second innings by avoiding defeat but that barely papers over the significant cracks in both the batting and bowling performances.

            Many have questioned why England can’t perform in the first test of a test series abroad?  A good question.  Is it a lack of practice matches?  Is it the failure to adapt to different pitches and conditions?  Is it the complete lack of concentration and application?  The answer is yes to all three but most resoundingly to the latter.  In the current series, to play (and lose) one warm-up match where two of your premier fast bowlers don’t even feature is asking for trouble.  England will argue that they played three T20s and three ODIs but a bit of crash, band, wallop is no preparation for the intricacies and graft of Test cricket (apologies for sounding like Boycott).  On the other hand, England had ample preparation for the recent tour to India, yet still lost the first test, although that was mostly down to some team selection (a lack of Monty Panesar).

            Theoretically, England should have no trouble in adapting to conditions in New Zealand as they are very similar to those in early-season England.  The ball was hardly doing anything at all in England’s first innings; the only movement the Kiwis found was off the seam.  In such conditions patience and technique are required by the batsmen to see off the new ball, but this was strangely lacking.  To counter seam movement batsmen should resort to the fundamentals, such as playing the ball late and leaving the wide deliveries.  These basics were conspicuous by their absence.  In fact it was down to the tail to drag England to 167 in their first innings.  England’s top order are more than capable of playing on these pitches and in these types of conditions so there is not a technical deficiency.  The bowlers are equally talented and although the pitch was not exactly seam friendly, instead of restricting the batsmen, they decided the best option was to spray the ball around everywhere and bowled with a complete lack of control (the exception – James Anderson).  For me both the batsmen and bowlers betrayed a lack of concentration and a certain naivety.

            The manner of England’s first innings collapse and bowling performance bore the mark of complacency.  England’s players are not good enough just to turn up and expect to win playing with a carefree attitude.  Test cricket, especially away from home, is always an intense examination of not only a player’s technique but also his mental fortitude.  If you are not prepared to apply yourself to an innings or a spell of bowling, the opposition will soon target your weakness – as happened in the first test.  I am not trying to dampen the fluency of England’s batsmen; it is a fact that at the beginning of an innings, a batsman is always a bit vulnerable and needs to play himself in, be that for 10 balls or 100.  With his century in the 2nd innings, Nick Compton showed that with some patience and concentration, there are runs aplenty to be made.  In fact, Compton’s innings was all the more satisfying because it was made on the back of a run of poor form.  It’s all very well scoring runs when your tail is up and the team is doing well, but it is doubly hard when the pressure’s on and you’re facing a sizeable deficit.  This bodes well for his career and his 2nd innings performance has convinced me that he has what it takes to succeed at test level.

            Going into the Thursday’s second test, I expect (and hope) that England will have learned their lessons.  I think they have the right personnel in their team, so they just need their players to turn up and perform.  It was slightly worrying that in India, England relied heavily on Alistair Cook and Kevin Pietersen for runs.  Jonathan Trott showed glimpses of his potential in the second innings and he is due a big score.  A return to form for Stuart Broad would also be very welcome.  As would an England victory.  They do have history on their side.  On the last tour to New Zealand in 2008 England played equally as poorly but lost the first test, then went on to win the next two.  Let’s hope history repeats itself.

What’s wrong with Rory McIlroy?

            He’s the number one golfer in the world.  He’s just signed a multi-million pound sponsorship deal with Nike.  He’s stepping out with one of the most desirable tennis players on the planet.  On the surface, life is pretty good for Rory McIlroy.  But scratch a little deeper and all is not as it seems, culminating in his withdrawal from the Honda Classic halfway through his second round last week.

            Now, withdrawing from an event may seem like a fairly trivial matter to some, but golf has a certain etiquette to uphold.  I’ve seen a lot worse behaviour on a golf course: clubs thrown into trees, a plethora of swearing, buggies driven into hedges (guilty), but as the top professional in the sport, McIlroy has a sense of duty to at least complete his round, even if he’d rather be elsewhere.  He may not like all the publicity that comes with being the most recognisable golfer on the planet, but it comes with the territory, so he’d better get used to it sooner rather than later.  Sponsors, fans, TV companies all pay top dollar to see the best players, and if one player decides that he’s having a bad round and walks off after nine holes, it doesn’t send a great message – least of all to his fellow professionals.

            To his credit, McIlroy has admitted this week he made a mistake quitting in Florida so that might spare him a suspension, but I think the PGA tour should at least fine him because he came up with the rather feeble excuse of ‘a toothache.’  In the annals of excuses, it’s right up there with ‘my dog ate my homework.’  Come one Rory, you can do better than that.  He originally claimed he was ‘not in a good place mentally,’ and then later cited a troublesome wisdom tooth as the ‘real’ problem.  Look, there are plenty of times on the golf course when I’ve ‘not been in a good place mentally,’ (usually after my 6th three putt of the round), but I move on to the next hole and start again (and then cry inside when my tee shot fails to reach the ladies tee).  We all have bad rounds now and again but surely, to get to the pinnacle of your sport, you need a certain mental fortitude as well as an abundance of talent.  This part of McIlroy’s game is currently eluding him and until he sorts it out, it will seriously minimise his chances of winning.  Whatever the problem in Florida (toothache my arse), it was good to see him apologise for his conduct: “No matter how bad I was playing, I should have stayed out there. I should have tried to shoot the best score possible even though it probably wasn’t going to be good enough to make the cut.”

            A lot has been written about McIlroy’s change of equipment to Nike.  Now I have no doubt that changing manufacturer is a significant step and it takes time to get used to the feel, trajectory, distance and weight of the new clubs.  He has been using these for at least three months, so he should have adapted by now (when cricketers change bat manufacturers, it is a similar process, but it rarely takes them so long to adjust).  When I got my new Nike clubs last year, it improved my game no end within about 9 holes and I won my first competition three months later.  So, am I better than McIlroy?  Possibly, but the key to this story (apart from an opportunity for me to gloat) is that my new clubs gave me renewed confidence.  Unlike Rory, I didn’t have the whole of the world’s media analysing my every shot (thank god) and I think this is where his problem lies.  He has gone from being a very famous person within the sporting world, to a name that almost everyone all over the globe will recognise, regardless of whether they follow golf, just like Tiger Woods.  This level of scrutiny is something you can’t prepare for, and therefore, when he has a couple of bad rounds, it is magnified and certain people are quick to jump on his back.  This results in a loss of confidence which can translate to negativity towards his new clubs.  It is not his actual clubs that are the problem, but what they represent and the expectation that they bring, and McIlroy is struggling with this; he himself has said that his new equipment is ‘fantastic’ and admitted “I know if I can get my swing back on track, the results will follow.”  To his credit all the sounds emanating from the McIlroy camp in the past few days are positive so I’m hopeful that a change in fortune is just around the corner.

            It is easy to criticise McIlroy for his poor start to the season, but something very similar happened in 2012 too.  He had a serious lull after his victory in the Honda Classic and people were questioning him after his lowly performance at the Masters.  Leading up to his US PGA triumph he had missed three consecutive cuts and lost his number one ranking.  Since that US PGA win at Kiawah Island, he hardly looked back and finished the season at the top of the money list for both the PGA and European tours as well as retaining the Ryder Cup.  Every golfer will go through peaks and troughs, and a few bad performances in a row do not mean a golfer in terminal decline.  Remember McIlroy’s meltdown at the US Masters in 2011 and everyone wondered how he would recover from such a massive setback?  Well he went on to win the next major (U.S Open) by a record margin.  It seems that he thrives on adversity, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him up at the business end of this week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in Florida.

Sendings off that changed a game

So, Manchester United felt hard done by following their Champions League exit at the hands of Real Madrid on Tuesday.  The cause of their beef lay in the red card Nani received, after which ‘the game totally changed’ according to Mike Phelan.  To say such a thing is entirely hypothetical, as no-one knows how the game would have continued had Nani stayed on the pitch – Mourinho may have sent on Luka Modric anyway, and encouraged his team to attack more, which may have reaped rewards even against 11 men.  But what is certain is that before the sending-off, United were winning and looking as comfortable as it is possible to look against a team brimming with such attacking talent; afterwards they conceded 2 goals, and, despite working hard and creating several half-chances, scored none.  It certainly seems like Phelan’s assertion is correct.

This got me thinking about other games, where a sending-off has apparently changed the course of a game, and here are a couple of examples:

Tony Gale, West Ham v Nottingham Forest, FA Cup Semi-Final 1991

‘I’ve never forgiven him’ said Tony Gale in 2011 about Keith Hackett, the referee who sent him off.  Twenty years after the incident, and the resentment clearly still lingered.  West Ham, were a Second Division side at the time (back in the days when Second Division meant Second Division, men were still men, and you were allowed to hack off an opponent’s leg without censure provided it happened in the first 10 minutes. Pah!), embroiled in an ultimately successful promotion campaign, and their side contained several excellent players – the silky smooth playmaker Ian Bishop, the flaky but occasionally unstoppable Stuart Slater on the wing, and Gale, the dictionary definition of good solid pro, at the back.  They had also notched up some noticeable results on the way to the semi-finals, thrashing First Division Luton 5-0 in a Fourth Round replay, and then surprising Everton 2-1 in the Quarter-Finals.  Their opponents would be a Nottingham Forest side, who always seemed to be bothering the latter stages of cup competitions in the late 80s/early 90s.

Brian Clough famously never won the FA Cup during his managerial career, and, with said career clearly coming to end (he bowed out 2 seasons later following Forest’s relegation) there was a certain amount of popular support for the green-jumper-wearing maverick.  However, despite all the posthumous Clough-worshipping, and the fact he was utterly unique and clearly an incredible manager with a knack for making almost every player play to his utmost potential, he was a bit of an obnoxious twat at times, and, given the Brit’s love of the underdog, I remember clearly wanting West Ham to win, as I settled down in front of the telly.

West Ham started the stronger, and were on the front foot when the incident occurred in the 22nd minute.  I have only a hazy memory of it, and the only YouTube video of the match scandalously omits the red card, but from what I remember, Forest’s right-winger Gary Crosby broke away at least 40 yards from goal, and was lightly bundled to the floor by Gale.  In all probability, by modern standards the red card would be justified; Gale was denying a clear goalscoring opportunity, and the distance from goal or severity of foul is immaterial.  However, at the time, the ruling on professional fouls was less clear cut, and referees tended only to send players off for bad fouls, or ones much closer to goal.  Or so we thought.  In actual fact, during the preceding week league referees had been told, according to Hackett, that ‘a simple foul was all that was necessary for a sending-off.’  So, when Hackett produced the red card the shock was huge to everyone, be they player, spectator or commentator.  The Hammers held out until half-time, but once Crosby scored the first goal, they capitulated, and goals from Stuart Pearce, a young Roy Keane and Gary Charles ensured an ultimately comfortable 4-0 win for Forest.

To an extent this match has defined both Gale’s and Hackett’s career.  Gale played over 700 senior games, and won the League with Blackburn in 1995, but is most remembered for the day when he became the first high-profile casualty of the FA’s decision to tighten the rule on what referees call DOGSO (denial of goalscoring opportunity).  Hackett is now General Manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, but says ‘it’s all people ever talk to Gale about.  That goes for me too.’

Antonio Rattin, Argentina v England, World Cup Quarter-Final 1966

Horacio Troche, Uruguay v West Germany, World Cup Quarter-Final 1966

In a sense both of these sendings off are linked.  They occurred on the same day (July 23rd) and occurred in a World Cup Quarter-Final between a European team and a South American team.  A West German (Rudolf Kreitlein) sent off the Argentinean, and an Englishman (Jim Finney) sent off the Uruguayan.  Both matches showcased different styles of thuggery – straightforward strong tackling and clear fouling from the Europeans, more niggling, underhand tactics from the South Americans.  At least that’s how it’s seen in this country.

It’s easy to forget, given that they were playing with home advantage, how good England actually were in 1966.  Watch footage of their games, and the fluidity of their passing, along with the way the midfield change positions is reminiscent (or prescient) of, if not Holland 1974, then certainly the West German vintage of the same year, or maybe the Danish team of the mid 80s.  Yes they occasionally looked a little blunt up front, and too often resorted to speculative shots from long distance, but when one of the players taking said shots is Bobby Charlton, maybe that wasn’t such a bad tactic.

West Germany were also a terrific side.  Next time you have a spare moment, watch a compilation of Beckenbauer’s moments from the 1966 World Cup – it’s a true joy to behold, some of football’s most aesthetically pleasing moments.  Helmut Haller was an uncompromising goal machine up front, Wolfgang Overath could run and pass until he dropped, and Karl-Heinz Schnellinger was a superb left-back. 

As for the South Americans, both teams were seen as talented but pragmatic.  Gone was the fragile, beautiful Argentinean team of the 40s and 50s, scarred forever by a 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Czechoslovakia in 1958.  In their stead was a group of hard but skilful individuals, marshalled by the metronomic passing of Antonio Rattin, and spearheaded by finisher supreme Luis Artime (24 goals in 25 internationals).  Gone too was the Uruguay of 1950 and 1954, full of attacking intent, and always looking to force the play.  In their stead was defensive organisation, coupled with the knowledge that players such as Pedro Rocha and Julio Cesar Cortes could be relied upon to provide attacking inspiration if need be.  The only goal they had conceded in the group games had been a penalty given for a foul committed outside the penalty area.

To the games.  It is difficult to find a balanced view on the England v Argentina game in this country – but it appears that the England players were subjected to sly digs behind the referee’s back from the first whistle.  At a time when even bookings were relatively rare, Rudolf Kreitlein had cautioned 5 players within the first half-hour, including Rattin and (surprisingly) Bobby Charlton.  There were few clear cut chances within this time, just a couple of long range efforts that whistled wide, before Kreitlein, with Argentina faffing about in their own left-back area, suddenly pointed Rattin towards the dressing room.  What happened next is well-known with Rattin refusing to leave the field (he later claimed he was asking for an interpreter, although a referee pointing a player off the pitch is fairly clear in terms of body language) and then encouraging the rest of the team to follow him off.  Eight minutes of wrangling ensued before the game could continue, with Rattin slowly making his way around the perimeter of the pitch.  A man light, Argentina (who had been warned about their conduct earlier in the tournament following a bad-tempered draw against West Germany) became less and less subtle in their violence, and as a result England struggled to find any rhythm to their game.  Eventually, Geoff Hurst (replacing the injured Jimmy Greaves) neatly glanced in a Martin Peters cross, and England prevailed, but Rattin’s dismissal meant Argentina were even less inclined than in the group games to show themselves as an attacking force.  This game really started the England-Argentina football rivalry, inflamed by Alf Ramsey preventing George Cohen from swapping shirts with Alberto Gonzalez at the end of the game, although the Argentinean just wandered over to Ray Wilson and swapped with him instead.

Meanwhile, up at Hillsborough, a similar game was being played.  The difference in this one is that the West Germans took a fluky lead after 11 minutes, Haller unwittingly deflecting in Siggi Held’s shot, forcing Uruguay to come out of their shell, which they did to great effect.  Goalkeeper Hans Tilkowski made two excellent saves, as did defender Schnellinger.  For some unfathomable reason, however, the referee failed to notice that Schnellinger had clearly used his hands in making said save (it’s crystal clear on the TV footage), which helped fuel a Uruguayan sense of injustice.  What also niggled them was the tendency of the West Germans to exaggerate the effect of any foul they suffered (probably influencing a 2-year-old Jurgen Klinsmann).  Five minutes into the second half, with the South Americans looking the more likely to break the deadlock, captain Troche lost his cool, kicking Lothar Emmerich in the stomach.  Five minutes later, Hector Silva, who earlier had flicked a boot at Tilkowski as he collected a loose ball, was sent off for absolutely leathering Haller near the centre circle, before, hilariously, going over to the stricken West German, pretending to apologise, while grinding his studs into his ankle.  Two men down, Uruguay continued to try and score, but were picked off with ease by the Europeans, and lost 4-0.

There were dark mutterings from the South Americans about a FIFA directive instructing referees to go easy on the more muscular type of play preferred by the Europeans (Pele and Brazil were kicked out of the tournament by Portugal), and in a tournament of 5 sendings off, 4 were against West Germany.  Plausible as that may sound, it is more probable that European referees were used to European tackling, South American players were not, and therefore a sense of injustice grew within them as games, and the tournament, progressed.

An interesting post-script to the England v Argentina game; in the wake of the Rattin incident where he appeared not to understand that he had been sent off, and the fact that Jack Charlton didn’t realise he’d been cautioned during the match until afterwards, Ken Aston, head of the FIFA Referee’s Committee at the time, decided to look into a clearer method of indicating when a player had been booked or sent off.  With the help of a set of traffic lights, red and yellow cards were born.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFWRyYySbQE

London’s best Premier League ground

It’s the question everyone’s asking.  In the pubs and bars of the capital, the debate is raging.  Kids are OMGing and FYIing about one subject and one subject only.  If you were allowed to talk to a stranger on the underground, you’d both be discussing this.  That’s right, you’ve guessed it: What is the best Premier League ground in London?

            I recently realised that I have attended a match at every Premier League stadium in London and found myself wondering which one was the best.  Do you define ‘best’ as the most entertaining football?  Is it the value for money one gets for (supposedly) top quality football?  Does ‘best ground’ mean the best atmosphere?  Am I going to stop writing endless rhetorical questions?  Who knows?  All these will be questions I will attempt to answer in a thorough and shamelessly subjective manner.

            The Emirates

            This is the ground I most recently attended – the harrowing 3-1 defeat by Bayern Munich in the last-16 Champions League tie.  At £63.50, the ticket wasn’t cheap, but, bearing in mind this is the world’s finest football competition, not a disgrace.  From my seat behind the goal (apparently the cheapest in the price band) I could see the match perfectly; apart from I couldn’t because all the Arsenal fans insisted on standing up for the whole match (at 5ft 5ins I have a slight disadvantage in this respect.)  The stadium itself is very impressive and very accessible, only a 5 minute walk from Holloway tube.  The best thing about the ground is its simplicity.  Once through the turnstile, I was in my seat within 20 seconds.  There was little in the way of queues for anything (apart from the toilets obviously) and everything was laid out it a clear and structured manner (the most important thing for every football fan I’m sure you’ll agree.)  I couldn’t tell you the price of the refreshments available because I smuggled in a pack of Penguins (the biscuit not the animal) for a half-time snack.

What didn’t impress me was the Arsenal fans themselves.  After going 2-0 down in about the 15th minute, one ‘supporter’ three rows in front of me turned around and walked out.  The rest thankfully stayed until at least half-time, when a chorus of boos echoed around the stadium.  When players tried something that didn’t come off, some fans around me started getting on their back – not conducive to a winning team.  The supporters didn’t seem to appreciate they were playing one of the best teams in Europe, a team that are light-years ahead of Arsenal at the present time.  Whilst there was definitely some negativity emanating from the stands, I must state that there were an equal number of fans that admirably got behind their team even when they went 2-0 and 3-1 down, constantly singing and urging their team on.  Arsenal need more of those supporters, especially given the current predicament in which they find themselves.

Stamford Bridge

            Now I must admit that the last (and only) time I saw a match at Stamford Bridge was at the age of 11.  That day I remember Sam Dalla Bona and Mario Melchiot scored and possibly Gus Poyet too in a 3-0 victory (a scoreline they can only dream of these days.)  I have been back since, but only to an after party at ‘Under the Bridge,’ Roman Abramovich’s nightclub under (funnily enough) Stamford Bridge, and I remember even less about that so let’s discuss the football instead.

When I went, it was already a lovely stadium – what I like about Stamford Bridge is it is not a new-build stadium, so it is very compact, like everything has been squashed in as tight as possible.  I was sat almost parallel to the goal, but in those days there were poles holding up the stand so unfortunately I had an impaired view of the action.  My Dad bought the tickets so I have no idea how expensive it was, but apparently, these days, attending Chelsea matches isn’t the cheapest.  I can recall quite a lot of ‘hilarious’ comments flying out of the crowd around me (I really love it when these ‘comedians’ pipe up with their words of wisdom) and the overall atmosphere being quite jovial and friendly.  There was also a plethora of swearing which, as a good-natured boy of 11, I found rather a shock to my innocent, little cherubic ears, not to say embarrassing as I was with my Dad (to this day, his idea of turning the air blue is the word ‘crap.’)  But overall (and it really pains me to say this as a Liverpool fan) I remember having a very enjoyable day out.

Craven Cottage

This is my favourite-looking ground in London.  Everything about Fulham’s stadium is picture-perfect: it’s position right on the river Thames makes for an idyllic walk from Putney Bridge station, the pavilion in the corner of the ground which still houses the players’ changing rooms, the Johnny Haynes Stand where it’s like going back to watching football in the 1950’s.  So quaint and romantic.

I really like Fulham.  As a club they understand their position in football’s hierarchy.  They never try to overspend or attain a position beyond their means.  In fact they regularly overachieve.  For a club that has a stadium capacity of just over 25,000, to stay comfortably in the Premier League for more than a decade and reach the final of the Europa League, beating the likes of Italian giants Juventus on the way is a credit to everyone involved in Fulham.  Yes they are backed by Mohamed Al-Fayed, but he is hardly ploughing hundreds of millions of pounds in the club à la Chelsea and Manchester City.  Al-Fayed has taken a back-seat role in recent years (gone are the days of signings like Steve Marlet for £11.5m) and has recently stated that “the continued success of Fulham and its eventual financial self-sustainability is my priority” (thank you Wikipedia.)  They operate a shrewd transfer policy, combing promising young players and loan signings with experienced professionals keen for a challenge (e.g. Dimitar Berbatov.)

But I digress.  I attended the 3rd round FA Cup tie at Craven Cottage against Blackpool and could purchase tickets for a bargain £16.25 for a very good seat behind the goal.  The facilities are not top notch like Arsenal or Chelsea (probably) but more than adequate all the same.  The stadium is right on top of the pitch and, where I was sitting, home and away fans could mix freely without any trouble.  Indeed I went for a few pints before the match with some friends in a pub near the tube station which actively welcomed visiting fans (welcome: a word that has disappeared from the vocabulary of most Londoners.)  The atmosphere at the match was not compelling, but I didn’t hear many supporters berating their own players (except when Berbatov couldn’t be arsed to track back, the lazy git.)  Fulham are never going to have the die-hard, hardcore following of a traditionally more working class club such as Tottenham or West Ham, but from a pure enjoyment point of view, I couldn’t have asked for a better afternoon of football.

Loftus Road

The smallest ground in the Premier League by some margin, Loftus Road is probably my favourite.  Like Fulham it has the sense of the old-school about it: a small stadium that rises out of a residential area; stands so close you can almost touch the players.  None of this brand-spanking new spacious luxury facilities lark here.  What real football fans want is to be squashed in like sardines, watching a shit match with a pint that tastes like the piss that the bloke next to you just did on your shoes in the toilet.  And if this is your idea of a real football experience, QPR is the place to go.

Like Fulham, QPR are a real community club.  You don’t get many people travelling to games from outside their West London fan base (apart from the 100 or so Koreans, desperate for a glimpse of Park Ji-Sung.)  Unlike Fulham, it has a much more passionate support.  QPR aren’t renowned for playing one-touch attractive football and putting 5 goals past the opposition, so you don’t get the feel-good fans like at Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, and to a lesser exent, Fulham.  Only real Rangers fans go to Loftus Road because they’re the only people mad (and stupid) enough to watch them (if you lived in West London and had any sense, you’d go to Chelsea or Fulham.)  But as a result the atmosphere is awesome.  Because the stadium is built-up in all four corners of the ground and the stands are so close to the pitch, the noise stays inside and the experience is incredible.  Equally as important, and Arsenal fans take note, Rangers fans know their team’s limitations, so when the players invariably do something a bit rubbish, the crowd rarely victimise them, instead cajoling them into winning the ball back or defending for their lives.  It’s a compelling 90 minutes, whatever happens (usually a QPR defeat.)

One issue I must raise is the price of a match day ticket.  To see QPR vs Man City in early February, my brother and I paid over £50 for a seat that was close to the action, but not what you would call ‘premium’.  I understand clubs have tier systems with their ticket prices, and a game against Man City comes at the top end of that scale, but for Rangers to charge that when you could see two rather better teams only a few miles away in Fulham and Chelsea is somewhat naive.  Mind you, with the astronomical wage bill at QPR, they might have to start charging three figures per seat just to keep Chris Samba at the club for another week.

White Hart Lane

Many people will be surprised to read that Spurs is a club very much centred on its community.  The area in which the stadium is situated is not the most affluent and, to its credit, the club realise this and you get a sense of a real bond between the club, the players and the supporters.  For a man who thinks anything outside of zone 2 on the underground is not worth going to, to me White Hart Lane really is in the arsehole of nowhere, requiring a couple of train changes and a good 15 minute walk to the ground.  BUT this is no bad thing as the walk creates a sense of solidarity and unity among the supporters which is translated to the terraces.  Spurs fans are among my favourites because, although they are doing well at the moment and have been for the last three to four years, they always have a slightly glass-half-empty mind-set, almost believing that their team is somehow going to grab defeat from the jaws of victory (which it used to with alarming regularity).  Hence they have a very dark sense of humour and when something (inevitably) goes wrong, they don’t take it well exactly, but with a grim understanding of the footballing gods.

I attended the final game of the 2011/12 season at White Hart Lane against Fulham.  A friend of mine bought the ticket so I don’t know how much it cost exactly but I imagine it was between £40 and £50.  Not bad value for a team who was fighting for third place.  Again, the disadvantage with the older stadiums is that the poles holding up the roof can obstruct the fans’ view and this is indeed the case at the Lane.  Still, I had a good seat in line with the goal, and at £4ish a pint (it’s my attention to detail that is really impressive), the refreshments were not stratospheric.  The football too was of good quality.  Moussa Dembele, then playing for Fulham, was by far the best player on the pitch, even eclipsing Gareth Bale, and the defending was gloriously dodgy, wholly befitting of a team managed by Harry Redknapp.  Another commendation to the Spurs fans: throughout the match they sung the name of the opposition manager, Martin Jol – also an ex manager of Tottenham.  Really good to see.

Upton Park

I have mixed feelings about Upton Park.  Like Tottenham, it’s miles away from anywhere useful and it has some of the most impatient and annoying fans in the world, but it is the only time I have ever sat in the director’s box, so at least I had some very tasty sandwiches at half time and got to meet Trevor Brooking and Phil Brown (back when people thought he was a half-decent manager.)  The match itself was the first Premier League game I had watched live for a good five years, and I was struck by the high quality of the football (I seem to remember Scott Parker and Danny Murphy had blinders.)  Value for money-wise (the tickets were free) you couldn’t beat it.

What I didn’t enjoy was the season-ticket holder sitting directly behind me who, for the duration of the match, decided to shout at the top of his voice, regularly berating his own team.  Not only is this clearly detrimental to the players, more importantly it was also terribly annoying for me and my poor eardrum.  The rest of the Hammers fans weren’t much better, constantly shouting expletives at their beleaguered team.  Now I’m no expert, but I think if you shout encouragement to players, they are probably more likely to improve their performance.  Whereas if you constantly remind them of their complete lack of ability, question their parentage, and how you regularly treat their missus to a dinner date and then don’t call her, they will probably get more down on themselves and play worse.  Hammers fans, take note.  In the event, the match ended 2-2 even though Fulham had a player sent-off after about 30 minutes.  Good football match, less good fans.

A footnote to this story is the walk home my friend and I did in our suits from the ground to his local, about a half-hour walk away, through some less than enticing areas of London.  The reactions we got from the various shady looking characters we encountered on our stroll (two middle-class white boys walking through the depths of East London apparently isn’t advisable) ranged from bemusement, to one man who looked as all his Christmases and birthdays had come at once.  I’ve never been more happy in my life to see the relatively safety of Wanstead Flats.

I realise that in writing this rather long-winded account of London’s football grounds I have provided a completely useless guide to each stadium, instead focusing on trivial matters that the average football fan would deem completely superfluous.  However, for what it’s worth, my favourite club: Fulham.  Favourite ground: Loftus Road.  I’m sure you’re as glad as I am that it took over 2000 words of at times inspired, but mostly drab anecdotes to reach this most enlightening of conclusions.

 

David de Winter