Le French Open

The second Grand Slam of the year started at the weekend in Paris and it promises to be (hopefully) more intriguing than in recent memory.  King of the Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal, is still feeling his way back from injury and has not been as invincible as he once was on the red dirt.  World number one Novak Djokovic will be snapping at his heels like one of those yappy chiens posh French girls carry around in their Louise de Vittons handbags if the Spaniard is not as his absolute best.  You also can’t discount the evergreen Roger Federer, a former winner of this tournament back in 2009.  In the absence of Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga may fancy his chances of a run to the latter stages and David Ferrer will be another hoping to feature in the second week.  Here’s a rundown of the top contenders:

 

Rafael Nadal (Spain)

World Ranking: 4

Seeded: 3

 

The ‘Muscles from Mallorca’ is bidding for his 8th title on the Parisian clay and who would bet against him?  He has only lost once at Roland Garros, to an inspired Robin Soderling in 2009, and it is going to take a similarly superhuman effort to stop this clay-court juggernaut from adding to his already bulging trophy cabinet.  He did lose his Monte-Carlo title to Djokovic last month which will rankle with him and it remains to be seen whether his body can handle the rigours of a Grand Slam schedule after his injury problems.  If it can, expect to see Nadal’s fangs clenched around the famous trophy once again.

 

Novak Djokovic (Serbia)

World Ranking: 1

Seeded: 1

 

Djokovic is the man most likely to stop Nadal.  The Serbian doesn’t quite have the power of the Spaniard at the back of the court but if Nadal’s game is not bang on, you can bet your bottom Euro that Djokovic will be there to exploit any weakness.  He has supreme fitness so if the two do meet and it goes to 5 sets, he knows he has the stamina.  He has already beaten the Mallorcan on the clay this season but he has never won at Roland Garros and he has put in some rather tame performances in his previous finals defeats to Nadal.  He will be desperate to rectify this, and 2013 could be his best chance.

 

Roger Federer (Switzerland)

World Ranking: 3

Seeded: 2

 

Federer has had a quiet season so far, punctuated by an extended break in March to spend time with his family.  Consequently he is as fresh as a daisy and should have no trouble reaching the latter rounds.  He does tend to struggle against clay-court specialists of which there are a few in this year’s tournament.  His experience should see him through to at least the quarters but he doesn’t quite have the speed of old to last the pace in the longer rallies against the elite players.  The title will be beyond him but he makes tennis look like a piece of art so just sit back and revel in watching one of the game’s greats whilst you still can.

 

David Ferrer (Spain)

World Ranking: 5

Seeded: 4

 

The diminutive Spaniard reached the semis here last year, beating a certain Andy Murray in the process and a repeat performance is not out of the question (apart from the Murray bit).  He is not the most technically gifted player on tour but he has a relentless playing style, fighting tooth and nail for every point.  Ally that with a Mo Farah-esque stamina and you have a pretty handy clay-courter.  The problem with Ferrer is that he has a worryingly Henman-like record in grand-slams.  Semi-finals seem to be his maximum.  He is a very good player and he has won some big tournaments, just not the tournaments that really matter.  Credit to him, he has squeezed every last drop out of his potential but that potential is not good enough to beat the big boys.

 

Nicolas Almagro (Spain)

World Ranking: 13

Seeded: 11

 

This preview may seem like a bit of Spanish love-in, but they do have some quality players on the tour at the moment and Almagro is certainly one of those.  If God wanted to create the complete clay court player (and he’d somehow forgotten about Rafa Nadal) he could do worse than Nicolas Almagro.  The Spaniard knows the clay like Tim Henman knows Grand Slam semi-final defeats.  He has won some big tournaments in his career on the red stuff (all of his ATP finals appearances have been on clay) but the big one still eludes him.  He played one the best sets of tennis I have ever seen against Nadal in last year’s quarter-final, yet still lost on a tie-break (and lost the match in straight sets).  Rather like Ferrer, he doesn’t seem to win the matches that really matter against the top players.  That won’t change this year.

 

Richard Gasquet (France)

World Ranking: 9

Seeded: 7

 

The Frenchman has absolutely sod-all chance of winning in Paris but I have fallen slightly in love with him, or more specifically – his backhand.  In an era when the single-handed backhand is about as common as the sabre-toothed tiger (I was watching Marion Bartoli the other day and she has a double-handed forehand), the sight of Gasquet’s free-flowing caress of the tennis ball could make butter spontaneously combust.  He wields his racket like Monet with a paintbrush.  He is the latest in a rather stereotypical line of French flair players, inheriting the crown of Fabrice Santoro, Sebstian Grosjean et al.  Go to youtube and watch Gasquet’s defeat to Andy Murray at the French in 2010 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGWkwaMWaDk).  Never has a loss looked so beautiful, so perfect.  Even your girlfriend would struggle to provide you with 6 minutes and 17 seconds of comparable enjoyment.  Gasquet is not without controversy.  In 2009 He failed a drugs test and got caught with a small amount of cocaine in his system in Miami.  Astonishingly, the ATP accepted his explanation which consisted of snogging a girl in a nightclub who had mysteriously just taken cocaine and transferred it into him.  The ATP must still think Father Christmas still exists.  Anyway, even though Gasquet won’t win the tournament, watch him whilst you have the chance.  You won’t regret it.

 

So this year’s French Open is slightly more ‘open’ than usual, in that more than one person has a realistic chance of winning.  I can’t see past Nadal or Djokovic for the title and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the finalists too.  Obviously they will deny the final the public really want – Gasquet vs Federer.  Keep believing.  It could happen.

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Remembering previous play-off finals

The Championship/First Division/Second Division (delete as appropriate) play-off final has provided a large number of English football’s most memorable games and moments since the inception of the play-offs in 1987.  Styled as the most valuable game in the world, even more so this season thanks to a massive increase in TV revenue, a combination of the importance of the event, fatigue caused by the rigours of a long season, and an end-of-term atmosphere often contribute to an attacking, free-flowing game (with a few exceptions, I’m looking at you Birmingham 1-1 Norwich in 2002).  So, with this season’s final finale of many just around the corner, let’s have a look at some of the more memorable ones.

Leeds 1-2 Charlton 1987

A cursory search of the Internet throws no light on the question of who it was that came up with the idea of the play-offs, but whoever it was, a doff of the hat and a tug of the forelock to you.  They were introduced for the 1986-87 season, with a slightly different format to now, in that the fourth-bottom team in the First Division would take part to avoid relegation.  To be honest, the first few years of the play-offs were a little over-complicated – for some reason the fourth-bottom team of the First Division would have to take part, but only the third bottom team of the Second Division, and the final was held over 2 legs, with no penalties or away goals rule, leading to several replays on neutral grounds.  The oddest occurrence came in the 1987-88 Second/Third Division play-offs, when after drawing 3-3 on aggregate over the two legs of the final, Walsall and Bristol City had a penalty shoot-out, not to decide who would win promotion, but to decide who would win the right to host the replay.  Bizarre.

Charlton finished fourth-bottom in the First Division in 1986-87, back in the days when they ground-shared with Crystal Palace, while an attractive Leeds side under Billy Bremner had finished 4th in the Second Division, while also losing a belting FA Cup semi-final 3-2 to Coventry.  Both teams narrowly won their semi-final, Charlton beating Ipswich 2-1 on aggregate, while a last minute goal from lower league goal machine Keith Edwards put Leeds through at the expense of Oldham.  Goals from Charlton’s Scottish striker Jim Melrose, subsequently famous for having his cheekbone fractured by Chris Kamara leading to the SkySports ‘pundit’ being found guilty of GBH, at Selhurst Park, and then Leeds’ Brendan Ormsby, from all of 3 centimetres, at Elland Road meant a deciding match, at St Andrew’s, would be required.

Leeds had a reasonable team that season – former PFA Young Player of the Year Mervyn Day in goal, Mark Aizlewood, recently signed from…you’ve guessed it…Charlton, in defence, the smooth passing of John Sheridan in midfield, Micky Adams’ energy down the left and Ian Baird as a classic number 10.  Charlton, in their first season after promotion, had done rather well to avoid relegation considering the financial uncertainty surrounding the club, but they also had one or two useful players, a young Rob Lee providing goals and bustle from the right wing, Colin Walsh scheming from midfield, and in Paul Miller and Peter Shirtliff a couple of centre-backs who would find themselves (along with Malcolm Shotton and Brian Kilcline) near the top of a hard-bastard central defenders of the 80s list.

To be frank, the game itself wasn’t great.  Leeds probably shaded it, but there wasn’t much in the way of clear chances.  However, the drama was still to come in extra-time.  Ten minutes in, Miller was rather harshly penalised for handball as Edwards ran in on goal (nowadays he’d probably be sent off), and John Sheridan, with almost Federer-esque insouciance, curled the free-kick over the wall and in.  Advantage Leeds, but with seven minutes left, a typically English football in the 80s bout of penalty-area pinball, ended with Shirtliff, an irregular goalscorer to put it mildly, sweeping the ball in with his left foot from 15 yards with Rush-like efficiency.  A penalty shoot-out loomed, but Shirtliff, who scored more than 10% of his career goals in these 5 minutes, popped up once more, heading home Andy Peake’s outswinging free-kick.  Not the most scintillating football, but for drama and the throwing up of an unlikely hero, it’s right up there.

Swindon 4-3 Leicester 1993

Swindon had been denied promotion to the First Division in 1990 when, having won the play-off final against Sunderland, it became apparent they had been breaking all sorts of financial rules over the last 5 years, mainly involving illegal payments, but also including chairman Brian Hillier and then manager Lou Macari betting on Swindon to lose an FA Cup game against Newcastle in 1988.  There was therefore a whiff of catharsis in the air for the Robins, under the management of Glenn Hoddle; there was also unfinished business for their opponents, Leicester City, who had lost the final to Blackburn the previous season thanks to a very soft penalty.  Again the semi-finals were close – Leicester edging out Portsmouth 3-2 on aggregate, and Swindon beating Tranmere 5-4, but the final started cagily.  As you would expect from a team containing the passing and playmaking ability of Hoddle, John Moncur and Micky Hazard (although Hazard was only a substitute here), Swindon were easy on the eye, while Leicester were more direct, relying on the pace of Julian Joachim and Lee Philpott, and the physical presence of defender-turned-striker Steve Walsh.  Shortly before half-time Swindon took the lead when Nicky Summerbee whipped in a mediocre cross, Craig Maskell controlled it well, before playing a neat back-heel into the path of Hoddle who placed a first time shot just left of Kevin Poole.  So far, so unremarkable.

The second half, on the other hand started out like a house on fire.  Moncur tried to dribble his way through the middle, got a lucky rebound and managed to poke the ball through to Maskell, who tonked a left-footed strike across Poole into the top corner.  Then Moncur headed a loose ball into the penalty area following a corner, and Shaun Taylor braved Poole’s flying fists to nod the ball over the line.  3-0, and Swindon were surely strolling into the Premier League.

But not for long.  Three minutes after Taylor’s goal, Philpott and David Oldfield played a nice one-two down the left, Walsh headed Philpott’s cross against the post, and Joachim walloped the rebound home, nearly decapitating Swindon ‘keeper Fraser Digby in the process.  Ten minutes later, with Swindon’s defence looking petrified, Gary Mills’ cross from the right was retrieved by Philpott who stood up a 9-iron of a cross.  Digby waved a hand in the general direction of the ball, and Walsh, whose physique suggested he should have been playing with an oval ball at Welford Road instead, headed home.  Almost inevitably, Leicester equalised, when Mike Whitlow took the ball off Moncur with the brutal ease of a school bully relieving the school weed of his lunch money, went on a barnstorming run down the left, and cut the ball back across the penalty area.  Steve Thompson arrived late, dummied two defenders with a first touch of almost inhuman calmness, and touched the ball past the onrushing Digby.

Received wisdom suggests momentum is a crucial concept in sport.  According to the laws of momentum, Leicester should have gone on to win the game.  However, there were still 20 minutes left, giving Swindon time to recover themselves and keep things simple.  On 84 minutes, Hoddle played a delightful lofted through ball over Colin Hill into Steve White’s path.  The substitute knocked the ball past Poole with his first touch, realised Hill had recovered and threw himself to the floor in a rather unconvincing manner.  Convincing enough for David Ellery who, presumably practising for the two penalties he’d give at the next season’s FA Cup final, awarded the penalty.  In an era when full-backs seemed quite often to be regular penalty takers (Julian Dicks, Lee Dixon, Stuart Pearce, Denis Irwin), left-back Paul Bodin stepped up and sent Poole the wrong way.  Success for Hoddle, who joined Chelsea in the close season, and would become England manager just over 3 years later, and a case of history repeating itself for Leicester.

Bolton 4-3 Reading 1995

The Reading team of 1994-95 are one of the unluckiest of all play-off losers.  Under the guidance of joint player-managers Jimmy Quinn and Mick Gooding (back in the times where such things were fashionable/possible), the Royals had been unexpected challengers for promotion, having won the Second Division the season before.  Challenge they did, though, ending up in 2nd place, 3 points behind champions Middlesbrough.  Ordinarily, 2nd place would have been enough to gain promotion, but with the football league going through another restructuring, reducing the number of teams in the Premier League from 22 to 20, only two promotion places were available.  Reading swallowed their disappointment and defeated Tranmere 3-1 in the semi-finals, while a John McGinlay goal in extra-time took Bruce Rioch’s Bolton past Wolves.

In the final, Reading started like a house on fire.  Aussie full-back Andy Bernal bombed down the right and scuffed a cross in towards Lee Nogan.  The striker somehow managed to wriggle his way past Alan Stubbs, dummied Scott Green and fired the ball past Keith Branagan.  That was after four minutes – eight minutes later a quick free-kick from Simon Osborn found the Bolton defence asleep, and centre-back Adrian Williams poked home.  On 34 minutes Michael Gilkes tricked his way into the penalty area and drew a rash tackle from a baby-faced Jason McAteer.  Joint player-manager Quinn was the regular penalty taker, but had selected himself on the bench (surely part of the point of being player-manager is to pick yourself at every available opportunity), so Stuart Lovell took on the responsibility.  Although, as has been seen, a 3-0 lead is in no way impregnable, surely were Lovell to score, Reading would have one foot, a heel and the best part of an instep in the Premier League.  Instead Branagan (keeping a little-known veteran named Shilton out of the team) dived the right way and kept out the striker’s well-hit penalty.

Despite the fact Reading held out until the 75th minute, there was something almost tragically inevitable about Bolton’s comeback.  First Owen Coyle emphatically headed in a right-wing cross, then, with four minutes left, Alan Thompson played in substitute Fabian DeFreitas , who (just) beat the offside trap and shot in across Shaka Hislop.  Extra time was practically a foregone conclusion.  Big-boned Finn Mixu Paatelainen nodded in from 6 yards, before treating the Wembley crowd to a forward flip that presumably could be felt back home in Helsinki, and then, with the Reading defence barely bothering to walk let alone defend, McGinlay crossed, DeFreitas stuck out a leg, saw the ball hit the post and rebound into his forearm, looked around guiltily and prodded the ball in.  There was still time for Quinn to lash in a consolation with the frustration of a man who has watched his dreams of top flight football slip away, but this was a missed opportunity for Reading who would have to wait another 12 years before attaining promotion to the top flight. 

Leicester 2-1 Crystal Palace 1996

Leicester City went on an impressive run of appearing in 4 out of 5 play-off finals in the early-mid 90s.  After defeats in 1992 and 1993, they had finally won at Wembley, undeservedly beating Derby County in 1994, and, following relegation, were back again, facing another side relegated from the Premier League the year before, Crystal Palace.

Martin O’Neill was starting to build the Leicester team that would win the League Cup the following season, and establish themselves in the Premier League.  Most of the midfield and attack from the previous season’s Premier League disaster had been replaced, with Garry Parker (surely far too good for Division One), Scott Taylor and Neil Lennon being signed, and Muzzy Izzet arriving on loan from Chelsea.  A strong left-sided attacker named Emile Heskey was breaking through, and just before the transfer deadline, O’Neill had paid over £1 million for journeyman striker Steve Claridge.  Palace, under Dave Bassett, had also made some important signings, including top scorer Dougie Freedman from Barnet, and Britain’s ginger-est man David Hopkin from Chelsea.

Palace went ahead early in the game, a perceptive pass from Ray Houghton finding Andy Roberts on the edge of the area whose shot hit a bobble and jumped over the unfortunate Kevin Poole’s outstretched arm.  For the remainder of the game, however, it was pretty much constant Leicester pressure.  Parker and Lennon probed away from the middle of the park, Izzet, playing on the left, was busy and tricksy, while Heskey did what Heskey always did best – make a nuisance of himself, run defenders around, create space for others, and resolutely fail to score.  Claridge hooked wide from 10 yards as the ball came over his shoulder, and Steve Walsh had a shot cleared off the line, although Poole had to be at his best to stop a tremendous long-range effort from George Ndah.  With 15 minutes to go, however, time was running out for Leicester.  Then Walsh played a terrific ball down the left for Izzet, who cut in towards goal.  Despite the fact there were three other Palace defenders around, with barely a Leicester player in sight, Marc Edworthy dived in to try and win the ball, a tackle as ill-judged as Phil Neville’s against Romania in Euro 2000.  A clear penalty, which Garry Parker put away with no trouble, and Leicester had the equaliser they deserved.

And so we had extra-time again.  Leicester continued to dominate, but failed to create any real chances, and the game drifted inexorably towards penalties.  Then after 119 minutes O’Neill played his masterstroke.  Looking over to the bench, most were surprised to see Leicester’s reserve (and future Milan) goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac ready to come on.  Apparently he had talked O’Neill into bringing him on, reasoning that his 6’8’’ frame would render him more likely to save penalties.  A rather odd decision in retrospect, especially given that Kevin Poole, who looked gutted to be taken off, had a reputation as a shot-stopper.  However, on he lumbered, and as Palace’s players watched this behemoth take to the field, Leicester launched a last minute free-kick upfield.  Ndah won the ball but could only nod it down towards the edge of the penalty area.  Claridge ambled onto the bouncing ball, and swung a tired right leg at it.  Now, Steve Claridge, admirable footballer though he may have been, was never one of the great technicians.  Here at the end of 120 minutes of one of the most important matches of his career, it is sad to report that Claridge’s technique deserted his exhausted body.  The ball hit his shin and went off at an improbable angle.  This improbable angle happened to be towards the left-hand corner of Nigel Martyn’s net, in a perfect curving arc.  The gobsmacked ‘keeper could only watch the ball loop into the goal, as Claridge wheeled away, scarcely believing what he’d done.  To be fair to the striker he had the good grace to admit he’d shinned it in the post-match interview.

There are several other finals I could have chosen, and I am aware that I am extremely biased towards my childhood.  For example, there was Palace coming from 3-1 down after the first leg to beat Blackburn after extra time in 1989, thanks to a brace from Ian Wright; or the famous 4-4 draw between Charlton and Sunderland in 1998, complete with Clive Mendonca hat-trick, and Michael Gray being responsible for one of Wembley’s worst penalties (tied with Gary Lineker’s against Brazil in 1992); Ipswich finally breaking their play-off hoodoo with a 4-2 win over Barnsley in 2000, with Britain’s craggiest man Tony Mowbray scoring on his last ever appearance; or Blackpool beating Cardiff 3-2 in 2010, with all the goals coming in the first half.  Anyway, I hope that this season’s game lives up to its illustrious predecessors.

England’s batsmen need to improve

England’s 170-run victory on Sunday was seriously impressive but it papered over the obvious cracks in the batting order.  Totals of 232 and 213 don’t really cut the mustard at international level and they needed their bowlers and some very injudicious shots from New Zealand to get them out of jail.  Against better teams they would have come unstuck and they cannot afford to repeat these batting collapses in the Ashes.

            England’s batting, especially in the first innings was worryingly pedestrian.  To score 160 in 80 overs is even slower than Geoffrey Boycott’s pet tortoise.  True, the outfield was overly lush which limited boundaries and the New Zealand bowlers were very accurate with the swinging ball, but England seemed to go into their shell instead of looking to rotate the strike with singles.  One man who was particularly guilty of this was Nick Compton; not naturally the quickest scorer in the world he scratched around for a painful hour and a half for 16 paltry runs.  Equally, his opening partner, captain Alastair Cook took two and a half hours for his 32.  Now there is nothing wrong with slow scoring as long as one is positive in one’s intent.  It was the first innings of the international summer so it is totally understandable that the batsmen were not at their most fluent but it seemed that at points, England were just aiming to survive instead of making the bowler think; for instance by batting out of the crease to disrupt the New Zealand attack’s length.

            The batsmen were much improved in the second innings until a wonderful spell by Tim Southee put the brakes on England’s total.  Joe Root and Jonathan Trott looked in good nick.  Root in particular has a very solid technique which has helped him flourish in the international arena.  He has a knack of making the bowler bowl to him so consequently he can manoeuvre the ball around the ground almost at will.  His mentality is impressive too – he is not afraid to knuckle down and build an innings patiently, as he demonstrated over the winter in India and New Zealand.

            However, England cannot rely on a rookie to score their runs.  It worries me that when Alistair Cook fails, the rest of the batting order looks vulnerable.  Trott is not scoring the volume of runs of old and Ian Bell, though often delightfully fluid, never inspires total confidence.  The brittleness of the batting was exemplified by Matt Prior’s pair at Lords.  England have relied heavily on his runs in the past 18 months but as a wicket-keeper, he cannot dig them out of a hole every match.  His two failures more than anything exposed England’s shortcomings.  I’m not convinced at all by Jonny Bairstow either.  He scored a fighting 95 against the South Africans at Lords last year and contributed 41 in England’s 1st innings last week but his technique for me still looks a little loose and he is yet to dispel the rumours that he is susceptible to a bit of chin music.  The Yorkshireman has a very good eye but for me that is not enough to thrive at international level.

            Various ‘experts’ have been suggesting that the return of Kevin Pietersen would solve all the problems.  There is no doubt that Pietersen is a wonderful cricketer and any team would be boosted by his presence, but even the Surrey man is not always a safe pair of hands.  Apart from his amazing hundred in India, he contributed relatively little in the four tests in the sub-continent.  Everyone waxes lyrical about his talents and rightly so, but time and again he throws his wicket away far too cheaply for a man of his undoubted ability.

            A lower order with the likes of Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann does not contribute often enough with the bat.  Broad in particular has a wonderful technique but lacks the application required to build an innings.  He needs to realise that he cannot just thrash the bat an anything outside off-stump.  Patience and judgement are required to score runs, not just a good eye.  Broad has more than enough ability to become a test number 7 – his century against Pakistan in 2010 is evidence enough, albeit against a supremely dodgy Pakistan attack.  At least he made a timely return to form with an entertaining, run-a-ball 26 in the 2nd innings.

            My criticism of England’s batting is doing a major disservice to the Kiwi’s bowling attack.  The seam trio of Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner bowled with no lack of skill and accuracy which were at times too much for the England batsmen.  Not since the likes of Chris Cairns, Dion Nash and Shane Bond have the New Zealanders had such a probing pace attack.  Boult impressed me, giving Compton a torrid time, exposing the flaws in his game.  He has the ability to swing the ball both ways and bowls that nagging Andy Caddick/Glenn McGrath length that is so difficult to score off.  Southee is also no mug with the ball.  His devastating spells on the third evenings and fourth mornings brought New Zealand within sight of a famous victory and he thoroughly deserved his 10-wicket haul.  I like his aggression – he is a tall man and is not afraid to mix it up with odd bumper and keep the batsman guessing.

            One thing that flummoxed me was Kiwi skipper Brendon McCullum’s decision not to have a fielder at point.  Instead he had a gully and a cover point in front of square, and this cost his team a mountain of runs, particularly in the 2nd innings.  Root and Trott were scoring at will through that area and yet McCullum stubbornly refused to change his field.  For me, point is an indispensable position; he not only stops boundaries and catches loose drives, but he can stop the singles too.  It is a no-brainer.

            Bruce Martin’s and Daniel Vettori’s injuries have left the Kiwis with a bowling vacancy for today’s test at Headingley.  It could be a blessing in disguise because the ground is traditionally a seamer’s paradise and the conditions are not dissimilar to back in New Zealand.  Doug Bracewell may well find himself thrust into the fourth seamer role.  He proved in March against England that he is not to be taken lightly.  Moreover Kane Williamson is more than handy as an occasional off-spinner and can be relied upon to bowl an extended spell if required.

            Before this series everyone was brazenly predicting an England walkover.  Did they not pay attention to the matches a couple of months previous?  New Zealand came within a whisker of winning that series.  This Kiwi side is not as soft as everyone thinks.  They do have a worrying propensity for a batting catastrophe (as well as Sunday, they were steamrollered for a sub-100 score in South Africa over the winter) but they also have some talented young cricketers who on their day and with a bit more experience can be a match for any side.  I wouldn’t put it past them to surprise England over the next 5 days.

Relegation finally becomes reality for Wigan Athletic

How can a team who wins the FA Cup by beating the reigning Premier League Champions in the final still be one of the three worst teams in the league?  Wigan Athletic can.  The Lancashire club finally ended their 8 year stay in the top flight with an abject defeat away to Arsenal on Tuesday night.  It concludes a mad, topsy-turvy season where Wigan have been utterly terrible one week (witness the 4-0 defeat at home to Liverpool on March 2nd) and then outrageously brilliant the next week (the 3-0 victory away to Everton in the FA Cup 6th round).  In reality, Wigan aren’t the 18th best side in the Premier League; for the style of football they play and the exceptional performances they are sometimes capable of producing they should be at least three or four positions higher.  They are a much more talented side than Stoke City and Sunderland, both of whom play diabolical route-one shite, yet still manage to retain their Premier League status every year (I’ve got my fingers crossed both go down next season).  Ultimately, football is a results-based business and Wigan haven’t got enough positive ones; hence they can look forward to delightful away trips to the likes of Milwall and Doncaster.

During their 8 seasons in the Premier League, Wigan have only failed to be involved in a relegation scrap three times, the last of which was in 2008/09 – Steve Bruce’s final season in charge.  Their current manager, Roberto Martinez, is feted all over the country as one of the best young managers around, yet his team are consistently in the bottom 5 of the table every season.  Is this a performance of an outstanding young manager?  True, Martinez has a very limited budget with which to operate and has had to deal with an alarming turnover of players, but surely the club had a plan to improve long-term instead of just aiming to scrape survival every season?

One of Wigan’s major problems is their supporter base, or lack of it.  In an area with Liverpool, Everton, both Manchester clubs, Blackpool, Preston North End, Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Bolton Wanderers, Rochdale, Oldham Athletic and Stockport County within a 40 mile radius, they are up against some stiff competition for fans and consequently, they struggle to contend with the more established clubs.  Moreover, Wigan is predominantly a Rugby League town whose team, the Wigan Warriors, have rich history of success and a wider, die-hard support.  Throw in the mix the fact that Wigan is not exactly the most affluent of areas and you have a very difficult climate in which to compete.  Money talks in the game of football and Wigan understand their status as one of the smaller teams so they struggle to attract the top-level players.  Often they have to wheel and deal ‘Arry Redknapp style to build a squad.  Credit must go to the owner, Dave Whelan, a local man who has built up this Wigan side since the early days when they were playing in the old Fourth Division to crowds of less than a thousand.  Whelan is an astute businessman and will not overspend and put the club at serious financial risk.  This is all well and good but to guarantee safety in the Premier League, you have to at least spend some money.  Since their arrival 8 years ago, Wigan have consistently had to over-achieve just to stay in the top flight.  Sooner or later, the team will simply ‘achieve’ their potential or under-achieve – like the current season.  The players have made too many mistakes, the team has been consistently inconsistent and their defence has been leakier than a colander.

Wigan’s lack of financial clout has resulted in their star players being tempted elsewhere.  Key players such as Antonio Valencia, Wilson Palacios, Leighton Baines, Lee Cattermole, Emile Heskey (stop sniggering at the back), Titus Bramble (I said stop sniggering!), Hugo Rodallega and Mohammed Diame to name but a few have all left the club, the majority of which still had their best years ahead of them.  It is therefore very difficult to build a team around key individuals if said individuals keep leaving every year.  Martinez especially has had to work with almost a blank canvas at the start of every season.  With such a high turnover of players, it takes time for the team to gel which explains Wigan’s pedestrian starts to almost every Premier League season.  Consequently they have to turn it on in the second half of the season against teams who are desperate for points at both ends of the table.  This season it has just proved beyond them and ironically it is probably their finest moment which has contributed the most to their downfall.  Winning the FA Cup is a terrific achievement and to overcome the superstars of Manchester City in the manner they did in the final is a testament to the team’s ability (which has been all too absent this season) but like Middlesborough, who were finalists in 1997, it has come at the expense of their Premier League status.

After 2012’s Great Escape, I genuinely thought Wigan were going to be OK this season.  They seemed to have a (relatively) settled side which played attractive, penetrative football and crucially, a home-nations spine to the team in the shapes of Scotsmen Gary Caldwell, Shaun Maloney and James McCarthur and Irishman James McCarthy.  The likes of Ali Al-Habsi, Emmerson Boyce, Antolin Alcaraz, Caldwell, Maynor Figueroa, McCarthur, McCarthy, Maloney, Jean Beausejour and Franco Di Santo had been at the club for a good two years or more and there was a sense that they could really kick on and finally establish themselves in mid-table security.  They acquired a true goalscorer in Arouna Kone from Levante after a productive season in La Liga and with the likes of exciting young winger Calum McManaman coming through the ranks, the future looked bright.

Instead what happened was an unmitigated disaster, winning only four league matches before Christmas, collecting a mere 15 points with half the season already gone.  Wigan’s defence was wonderfully accommodating if you were an opposition striker and goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi was giving away goals like he was having a yard-sale.  January and February were an improvement but again the defence was the problem conceding four against Manchester United and Chelsea and three in a painful home defeat to Sunderland.  Crippling injuries played a key part because there was never a settled back four (or three depending on the system Martinez played) and often they looked like they had just met each other five minutes before the match.  At various points in the season, Spanish centre-back Ivan Ramis (who looked very promising) and Alcaraz were sidelined for significant periods of time and Martinez had to sign the Austrian utility player Paul Scharner on loan for his second spell at the club to provide cover.

By the beginning of March it was clear that Wigan needed a revival of Lazarus proportions to stay in the Premier League, but they just left themselves with too much to do.  They were relying on the fact that they had done it the previous year but calamitous mistakes at key points in the season proved too costly.  Drab performances against Liverpool and more recently at QPR provided them with a mountain to climb meaning that they effectively needed to win at least three out of their last four games.  Ultimately, this metaphorical mountain was insurmountable but all is not lost for the discerning Wigan supporter.

The team is in a healthy financial position; at the helm is a promising, if slightly overrated manager and vitally, the club will not have to sell too many of its first-team players.  If the club can hold on to the likes of McCarthy, McCarthur, McManaman and do some shrewd business in the transfer market (preferably with a name beginning with Mc), a rapid return to the top flight is not out of the question.  I expect Kone, Figeuroa and Maloney and maybe a few others to leave in order to trim the wage bill and free up some extra funds but the basis of the football club is there.  Wigan have a clear footballing philosophy and in Dave Whelan, they have a chairman who has the best interests of the club at heart.  Plus there is the added bonus of European football for the first time.  I really like Wigan Athletic and I hope to see them gracing the Premier League again.  Preferably at the expense of Stoke City.  Or Sunderland.  Or West Ham.

Cricket – no longer a gentleman’s game

The other day I did something unforgiveable; an act so distressing that it’s tantamount to treason to even write about it.  But here goes: I watched the IPL.  I know, I’m going straight to hell.  I feel like I’ve committed cricketing adultery.  Anyway, I settled down on the sofa to watch a bit of this commercialised slog-fest, a rather drab encounter between the Kolkata Knight Riders and the Pune Warriors India, and this one incident made my heart sink.  Jacques Kallis of KKR bowled a ball to Pune’s Robin Uthappa who drove the ball back down the ground.  Kallis flicked out a boot to try and stop the ball, flicked the ball (very faintly) onto the stumps at the non-striker’s end, and ran out Aaron Finch.  Kallis wheeled away in celebration, convinced that he had dismissed the Australian, and the umpire called for the television replay.  Finch was clearly short of his ground and therefore should have been on his bike pronto.  Except, the 3rd umpire proceeded to spend at least four minutes determining whether Kallis had actually touched the ball which would validate the dismissal.  Television replay proved to be inconclusive (it looked like Kallis had got at least a stud to the ball) and Finch was given not out.  A visibly irate Kallis then remonstrated forcefully with the umpire and you could see him on TV saying ‘are you calling me a cheat?’

            Now, what should have happened is Finch should have asked Kallis if he had touched the ball before it cannoned into the stumps.  If Kallis replies in the affirmative, Finch should then walk off the field, satisfied that he has the bowler’s/fielder’s word.  Instead the above farcial situation occurred where actually nobody was at fault.  If the on-field umpire is unsure about an aspect of the dismissal, he is correct to refer the decision to the television replay.  The problem occurs when the television replay cannot concretely prove that the batsman is out.  In these cases, the decision invariably goes against the fielding side.  Now Jacques Kallis is an extremely experienced international cricketer of some integrity.  If he says he touched the ball, he touched the ball and the batsman walks off, end of story.  Kallis started playing cricket when, if you edged the ball to the wicket-keeper, you walked off without even waiting for the umpire’s decision, something that simply doesn’t occur in modern-day cricket, especially in the international arena.  This is why, when his integrity was called into question, he reacted with such incredulity.

            This is one example of a wider problem in the game of cricket.  Yes TV replays have improved the game no end and yes, 99% of the time they provide the correct decision, but often, particularly in the case of disputed catches, they cannot provide 100% certainty.  Until 15 years ago, the status quo was, in the case of a disputed catch, to ask the fielder whether he had caught the ball.  If the reply was yes, you accepted his word and walked off the field.  No need to get the umpires involved.  It is a worryingly recent trend for a batsmen to stand their ground, even when clean catches have been taken, hoping the decision will be referred to the third umpire who often can’t decide whether a ball has bounced before the catch has been taken because the television replays prove ‘inconclusive’.  Batsmen think they can get away with it even when they know deep down that they’re out.  It creates unnecessary hostility, resentment and ultimately, the game of cricket loses out because fewer and fewer players are inclined to be honest, especially in the younger generation who have grown up with TV referrals as the norm, watching the often dubious behaviour of modern-day cricketers.

            In days gone by, batsmen would walk if they knew they had edged the ball behind the wicket.  The last international player to do this on a regular basis was Adam Gilchrist of Australia who would, as recently as the 2006/07 Ashes series, be off towards the pavilion with his bat tucked under his arm before the umpire could even move his finger.  Refreshingly, this honesty still occurs in county cricket.  At a sun drenched Oval on Bank Holiday Monday, I watched Hampshire’s Michael Carberry walk after a thin edge off a Jade Dernbach delivery in the third over.  The bowler knew it was out, the batsman knew he’d nicked it, the catch had been cleanly taken by Steven Davies behind the stumps; no fuss at all.  The umpire didn’t have to get involved.  As one Geoffrey Boycott would say: ‘proper cricket’.  On the international stage however, this behaviour is as rare as a Monty Panesar century.  The stakes are higher and there is more pressure to win at all costs.  There is a sense of ‘it is the umpire’s job to give me out’.

It all started with the Australian cricket team of the early 1990’s.  They were one of the most successful cricket teams of all time because they had a ruthless winning mentality.  If this meant eroding the spirit of the game then so be it.  Other teams followed suit and now cricket is in a situation where a player’s word counts for nothing.  A few players, notably India’s Sachin Tendulkar and Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara are the exceptions that prove the rule.  Tendulkar was famously instrumental in recalling the England batsman Ian Bell after he had been controversially run out in the 2rd test at Nottingham of India’s tour of England in 2011.  Bell had mistakenly believed his partner, Eoin Morgan, had hit the final ball before tea for four and started walking off the field.  The fielder, Abhinav Mukund, dived to stop the ball and behaved as if the ball had gone for four.  He then threw the ball back to the wicket-keeper MS Dhoni who removed the bails and appealed to the umpire for a run-out.  The appeal was originally upheld until the Indian team were asked to withdraw their appeal by the England management.  Tendulkar was the man who told his team-mates that they should withdraw the appeal.  The Little Master is a man who values the traditions of the game and is widely believed to be an influential figure in India’s continued refusal to use the DRS system.  It is Tendulkar’s belief that the umpire’s decision is final – that is how he has always played the game and in the Bell run out case, the spirit of cricket should prevail over technicalities and misunderstandings.

I realise that in writing this I might sound like a bit of an old whinger.  Believe me, I enjoy nothing more than a hard, competitive game of cricket where both teams are trying their utmost to win.  This is when cricket is at its most compelling and for me what makes it the greatest sport in the world.  Unfortunately the days when honesty, integrity, fair-play, spirit and gentlemanly conduct were second nature are gone.  In an ideal world, captains and coaches would instil this culture into their teams but that is just a fanciful dream.  Instead we can look forward to over-commercialised, sponsor-riddled T20 bonanzas where the TV replay becomes overly prevalent and the player’s honesty becomes but a distant memory.

The Lions – a conservative squad

Warren Gatland’s Lions squad announcement on Tuesday threw up precious few surprises.  All the names were more or less expected and there were no massive left-field selections; it is a very pragmatic, a very Gatlandesque squad.  I agree that the New Zealander has chosen a squad that probably has the best chance of winning down-under.  There is a wealth of experience and defensively, the squad looks nigh on impregnable.  However I feel there is something missing from the squad, a player with the X-Factor who can do the unexpected – a mercurial maverick if you will.  In 1997, this player was Gregor Townsend; in 2001 – Austin Healey, 2005 – Gavin Henson, 2009 – James Hook.  2013 – N/A.  There is no obvious candidate, no one who can supply that defence-splitting pass, nobody who can provide that step/dummy/burst of pace.  This used to be the raison-d’être of the Lions.  Alas no longer.  Up-your-jumper, down-the-middle, safety first play seems to be the order of the day.  It is a shame that this Lions series will probably be decided at the breakdown, not by a moment of brilliance in open play.

My first gripe with Gatland’s squad is the omission of Rory Best at hooker.  Now Richard Hibbard and Tom Youngs are relatively inexperienced at international level whereas the Irishman has 67 caps and is renowned as a strong leader.  True, Dylan Hartley is a seasoned international but he hasn’t exactly had the best season and was usurped by Youngs during the Six Nations.  Best was a bit shaky on his throw during that tournament but his performances for Ulster have been nothing short of barnstorming.  His work in the loose more than makes up for his apparent shortcomings in the line-out which for me, was only a temporary loss of form.  I hope this oversight does not come to haunt Gatland later in the tour.

Chris Robshaw was very unlucky not to be selected but who would he have replaced?  Sean O’Brien is a must at blindside flanker and is a great ball-carrier.  Tom Croft is also an all-round option who can provide cover at 6 or 7.  At openside flanker, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric are ahead of the Harlequins man.  Robshaw may feel slightly aggrieved that Dan Lydiate has only played 4 or 5 club matches yet still managed to make it onto the plane.  However, Lydiate is a genuinely world-class no. 6 and if he can find his top form of 2011/12 Gatland’s selection will be vindicated.

The only other slightly controversial selection in the pack was Matt Stevens at prop.  The Saracens man retired from international rugby in late 2011 after the World Cup but Gatland must have seen something that he liked through his form in the Heineken Cup.  Stevens, the gnarled old pro is a formidable scrummager but nothing can replicate the intensity of Test Match Rugby.  Can he step up to the plate after almost 2 years in the international wilderness?  In the 2011 World Cup he looked off the pace and gave away far too many penalties.  He cannot afford to replicate those sorts of performances this summer.

The lack of creativity in the backs is slightly worrying.  Maybe I am romanticising the traditions of the Lions too much but aren’t they meant to play (and win) by throwing the ball about with gay abandon?  What about the likes of Phil Bennett, JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards, Jeremy Guscott and Rob Howley?  Lions legends who played hard but also with flair.  Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Davies anyone?  They all have their various merits, but genius creativity is not one of them.  Did it cross Gatland’s mind to select someone like James Hook or Billy Twelvetrees?  Or even Danny Care?  Players who, if the Lions are losing, can unlock a defence in an instant.  O’Driscoll has the weaponry to do so, but he is more of a running centre than a passing centre and the Irishman no longer has the pace of old.  The lack of cover at fly-half is also worrying.  For such a specialist position, taking just Farrell and Sexton is a risk.  If one of them gets injured three or four days before a test match, then you are looking at Stuart Hogg as the back-up option.  Hogg is undoubtedly a talented player but he is in no way even a club-level no. 10, let alone at the level required to face the Aussies in the pressure cooker of a Lions series.

The distinct lack of subtlety to Gatland’s game-plan is an issue.  The Wallabies aren’t exactly going to be scratching their heads, wondering how the Lions are going to play.  They know it’s going to be very physical, forward-dominated game and so they can prepare for that right now and tailor their training accordingly.  If it is to be a war of attrition and a survival of the fittest then we could be in for a forward-dominated borefest akin to this year’s Six Nations.  I sincerely hope this is not the case and the Lions play some fluid running rugby but I doubt they have the personnel to do so.  As long as they have the correct ethos, then ultimately that is all that matters.

Dissecting the shambles that is QPR

‘There is no way we will be in this situation again in my time here.’  Mark Hughes’ assertion following QPR’s unlikely escape from relegation last season was prescient in two ways.  Firstly, because Hughes would not last long enough to ensure his team would avoid such a situation; and secondly, because, partly thanks to him, QPR will not be in a situation to avoid relegation on the final day of the season.  They have, instead, already been relegated.

In order to decipher what has gone wrong at QPR, let us go back to the summer of 2010.  Nigel de Jong was acknowledged as a kung-fu master, Matthew Upson was England’s most recent goalscorer, and Neil Warnock was embarking on his first summer as QPR manager.  Understandably, Warnock tended to prefer players he had worked with before, bringing in Shaun Derry, Clint Hill and Paddy Kenny, whilst also signing Jamie Mackie from recently relegated Plymouth, second-tier stalwart Bradley Orr from Bristol City, and crucially Adel Taarabt from Spurs at the ridiculously low price of £600,000 (plus numerous clauses and add-ons).  Many of these signings were seen as underwhelming by the R’s fans – indeed the Loft For Words website greeted Derry’s arrival with the words ‘the anti-footballer signs,’ but as the season started, it became clear that Warnock had created an extremely well-balanced side.

In many ways, the QPR side that won promotion in 2010-11 took advantage of a perfect storm.  The Championship was weak that year, with three poor sides (Hull, Burnley and a financially-crippled Portsmouth) having been relegated from the Premier League the previous season, and crucially all the new signings contributed to an excellent start (Rangers were unbeaten until December), including an improbable 2-2 draw away to Derby County, where Patrick Agyemang and Mackie both scored in stoppage time to salvage a point, underling the resilience of this rebuilt team.

In truth, that QPR team were probably not quite good enough to go up.  They had two outstanding performers (Taarabt and Kenny), and the rest of the team were anything between very good and excellent.  However, Warnock appreciated that in order to compete in the top flight he would have to strengthen the squad, especially in defence.  Instead, thanks to Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore’s thriftiness (they were in the process of selling their shares to Tony Fernandes, and as such reluctant to speculate on anything they wouldn’t see a return for), Rangers started the 2011-12 season with an injection of Premier League cast-offs (DJ Campbell, Danny Gabbidon, Kieron Dyer), Championship stalwarts (Jay Bothroyd) and plain rubbish (Bruno Perone, Brian Murphy).

When the takeover occurred, just before the end of the transfer window, it is arguable that Warnock panicked.  He suddenly had all this spending potential, a squad that had already been exposed as lacking Premier League quality (a 4-0 opening-day home defeat to Bolton had shown that), and very little time to find a remedy.  At the time it seemed as though Warnock had made good use of these sudden riches – Joey Barton, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Armand Traore, Luke Young and Anton Ferdinand all had Premier League experience – but they were all let go of their clubs for a reason, and in retrospect it looks as if he just searched Championship Manager-style for available players who had played in the Premier League.

Despite initial promising signs (Wright-Phillips was outstanding on his debut against Newcastle, Barton in the 3-0 win at Wolves), Warnock was sacked in January with QPR just outside the relegation zone, the season’s best player Alejandro Faurlin out for the season, and rumours of dressing-room disharmony abounding.  Players such as Hill, Derry and Mackie, who had been instrumental in Rangers’ promotion, were understandably miffed to have been discarded in favour of higher-paid, underperforming players, while Joey Barton was up to his usual trick of falling out with a teammate (this time the admittedly exasperating Taarabt, who he had usurped as captain).

So, Mark Hughes arrived, and added another batch of highly-paid players, many of whom were not used to the pressure of a relegation dog-fight.  However, he also recalled Derry and Hill to his first-choice team, crucially adding some fight and experience.  Hill, in fact, was so impressive he was voted Player of the Year, despite starting only 19 League matches.  Despite a lamentable disciplinary record (6 red cards after Hughes took over), QPR somehow survived due to a variety of factors.  First of all, the goalscoring form of Djibril Cisse, one of the January acquisitions; secondly, the sudden upsurge in home form (Rangers won their last 5 home games); thirdly the fact that Wolves, Blackburn and Bolton were even more crap; and finally the help of Agent Peter Crouch, a boyhood QPR fan who missed a sitter in the dying minutes for Stoke which, had it gone in, would have left Rangers needing to beat Man City on the last day of the season, and then dived to win Stoke an equalising penalty against Bolton.  Phew, we all thought, that was close, time to put all that behind us, and prepare for a summer of sensible signings.

To be fair to Hughes, most QPR fans were reasonably pleased with the initial summer deals.  True, he seemed to be trying to put together a title-challenging side from 2007, but convincing Junior Hoilett to join was seen as a coup, while Park Ji-Sung had been Alex Ferguson’s go-to man for the big games.  ‘Had’ is the crucial word in that sentence – Ferguson rarely lets a player go prematurely (Jaap Stam being a notable exception), and it soon became apparent that without his stamina Park is a deeply mediocre player.  It has since come to light that he was only signed as a shirt-selling brand-promoting exercise, a saddening indication of the priorities in modern football.

As Warnock had done the previous summer, Hughes appeared to be buying players on reputation, rather than trying to build a team.  Esteban Granero has a lovely touch, and excellent vision, but he has proved wanting when the pressure is on, and is just a marginally less good-looking Alejandro Faurlin.  Stephane Mbia, who has it must be said improved as the season has progressed, was signed to play central defence (a position where Rangers have been lacking for years), and proved instead to be a mildly unhinged defensive midfielder, exactly the same as Samba Diakite.  Signing Julio Cesar just after signing Rob Green made sense, given Cesar’s quality, and Green’s ropey start to the season, but why then insist that this had been the plan all along, when, given Green’s comments in the press, he had been signed as the number one ‘keeper.  Hughes then seemed bemused that this collection of individuals failed to make a coherent team.

Hughes did have some bad luck.  After the atrocious 5-0 home defeat against Swansea, and an inferior performance against Norwich which somehow ended in a 1-1 draw, QPR played excellently against Manchester City, Chelsea and Spurs, probably deserving 7 points, but only gaining 1.  A victory in any of those games may have galvanised the players, and taken the pressure off, but instead performances steadily deteriorated, the nadir being the pathetic 3-1 defeat at home to Southampton, which eventually proved to be Hughes’ last game in charge.  He claimed to have meticulously prepared for each game, but played a lightweight midfield against West Ham, and watched nonplussed as Mo Diame ran riot.

And so St Harry of Dagenham appeared, forcing QPR’s hand by pretending to be interested in the Ukraine manager’s job.  Rangers have improved since his arrival, winning at Chelsea and Southampton, and running Manchester City close, but his record of 4 wins in 22 games is inferior to Hughes, and recent performances have been that of a team who gave up long ago.  And, of course, Redknapp has wheeled and dealed like he always does, adding yet another layer of players to a squad so bloated, you could dress it in a check shirt and bum bag, and call it an American. 

Now that relegation has been confirmed, what does Harry do now?  The sensible answer would be resign, retire to his luxury home in Sandbanks, and spend some time with the lovely Sandra, Darren Bent’s nemesis.  He still may, but recent quotes suggest he is looking forward to the challenge, comparing it to the job he did with Portsmouth.  His biggest challenge will be to create some sort of dressing room harmony, something he has recently acknowledged.  Following the 0-0 draw with Reading that confirmed relegation, Joey Barton blamed the club’s failure on the fact there are ‘too many wankers in the dressing room.’  That may be a bit like a pot sitting in a glasshouse calling a kettle black whilst throwing stones, but he has a point.  QPR haven’t played like a team at all in the last two seasons.  It’s unreasonable to expect players to care as much about a club as the fans, but the lack of effort put in by a large number of players this season is horrendous.  Most of the players signed over the past two years have been the wrong side of 30, have already made their reputations, and therefore know that QPR will provide them with their last decent contract.  Professional pride doesn’t come into it – they’ve never had to scrap in a relegation battle before, possibly don’t have the strength of character to do so, and have no reason to push themselves as they’re getting paid well, and their reputation is already made.  Will Park be remembered more for his miserable performances this season, or for his contribution to a highly successful Manchester United side over a number of years?  Similarly, Jose Bosingwa has been rotten this season, but he surely will be remembered for his time at Chelsea.

According to Barton, these ‘wankers’ were all brought in by Hughes, and presumably are all on nice long-term contracts, with no clause to reduce the terms in the event of relegation.  In recent years both Newcastle and Portsmouth have gone down with a squad full of big names and high earners, and next season the R’s could feasibly follow either path.  If they stay, Remy, Taraabt, Zamora, Cisse, Onuoha, Granero and Faurlin are far too good not to thrive at Championship level.  On the other hand, without an influx of players with what Redknapp has called ‘the right character’ we could see another season of apathy.

At least the purchase of a site, and the reception of planning permission for a new training ground is a step in the right direction – at the moment QPR train at a college field in the shadow of Heathrow, but within a couple of years a new facility at Warren Farm in Ealing should be ready (albeit at the reported cost of £25, or 2 and a bit Chris Sambas).  Hopefully this will also go some way to addressing the pathetic lack of youth team players to make it into the first team on a long-term basis.  The last player to do so was probably Richard Langley (who made his debut in 1997) – since then there has been a long list of players trumpeted as the next big thing, but who have turned out to be crap, including (deep breath) Dennis Oli, Richard Pacquette, Marcus Bean, Scott Donnelly, Antonio German, Angelo Balanta, Bruno Andrade and Max Ehmer.  Sadly the most promising youth-team graduate in the last 15 years, Ray Jones, died just after he turned 19.

One of the most frustrating things about the last two seasons is that QPR have gone from being a well-liked club to a highly-disliked one.  Before, when I told people I was a QPR fan, I may have got a patronising smile or an encouraging ‘really?’ in response.  Now I get open laughter and a sneering comment about money not buying success.  The thing is, if I weren’t a QPR fan, I’d hate us.  I really hope that Redknapp can perform the same miracles as he did at Portsmouth (first time round anyway, look where they are now), but I don’t see it.  Who is going to take the high earners off the club’s hands?  What is another summer of complete overhaul going to do to team morale?  And has Tony Fernandes really learnt his lesson, as his Twitter account constantly claims, or will he continue to authorise the signings of high-profile, past-it players, who can help promote his AirAsia brand?  I very much fear for the club’s future.