Ashes again.

Following Australia’s announcement of their squad for the First Ashes Test in Brisbane, coupled with Michael Clarke’s very helpful and in no way mind-game motivated disclosure of England’s XI for the same match (apparently Alastair Cook told him at the Remembrance Day service – unless he himself was indulging in a spot of double-bluff), we now know (probably) who will be walking out at the Gabba come the 21st November, for the start of the most eagerly awaited Ashes series since July.  So, the cry goes out, how is the series going to go?

It’s strange how in some quarters (mainly those near Mr S Warne) Australia came out of this summer’s series in England with a moral victory, despite losing 3-0.  This is to some extent based on Antipodean wishful thinking and the inbuilt inability of any Australian former cricketer to acknowledge English superiority, but at the back of each England fan’s mind is the nagging feeling that it might be fair.  England’s batting over the summer always seemed to be one Ian Bell masterclass away from abject failure; the bowlers, rather than bowling as a unit as in previous series seemed to be relying on someone having a blinding day to bowl the Aussies out; and several what-if moments seemed to go England’s way – what if Stuart Broad had slightly less chutzpah?  What if England had used all their reviews when Brad Haddin nicked one of James Anderson?  What if Haddin had bothered to attempt to snaffle Joe Root’s edge at Lord’s?  What if Manchester wasn’t so rainy?

The flip side to this is that England won 3 Tests because they are a side that over the last few years has learnt how to win in tricky situations, while Australia’s poor record means they haven’t got the know-how or confidence to push on for victory.  Their collapse from an undoubtedly winning position at Durham was the most obvious example of this, and Michael Clarke’s declaration at the Oval, while it gave the final day crowd some entertainment, was a desperate act by a captain unsure of where his team’s next win will come from.  There are those who argue that there is little difference between losing a series 3-0 and 4-0, but surely defeat after dominating the Test would have dented his team’s fragile confidence even more

Yet Australia have cause for optimism.  They have some excellent fast bowlers, and if/when Ryan Harris or Mitchell Johnson get injured, there are a large number of potential replacements to call on.  Their batsmen seem to be running into form at just the right moment – Michael Clarke is and always will be a class act, but David Warner, Chris Rogers and Steve Smith have been in the runs recently.  Crucially, they seem to have worked out how to stymie one of England’s most dependable run machines, Jonathan Trott – put in two short mid-wickets, bowl at his legs, stop him scoring in his favourite area, then pitch one up outside off stump, and accept the resulting edge.  Or just bounce him out.

What of England?  In contrast to the Australian top order, their batsman are mainly in poor form.  Alastair Cook is once again struggling with what to leave outside the off stump, Joe Root looks susceptible to the moving ball and is too easy to pin on the back foot, Trott we have discussed, and Matt Prior suddenly can barely buy a run.  It’s impossible to tell whether Kevin Pietersen is in form or not, as he is a one-off who can produce a sparkling innings from nowhere, but it must be worry that he can only play with his knee swimming in cortisone (which according to KP himself is not a problem, a view not shared by most others).  Michael Carberry, Cook’s probably opening partner for the First Test, has played beautifully in the warm-up games, against admittedly pretty mediocre bowling, but any player, no matter how experienced, is going to be nervous in only their second Test.  As for the bowling, Clarke seems to think that Chris Tremlett will get the nod as the third seamer.  I must admit, having seen Tremlett bowl a little over the summer I’m not convinced.  His pace is significantly down compared with when he previously toured Australia and, while his control and consistency are admirable, he also looks innocuous.  However, he may be the best of a relatively mediocre bunch of improbably tall men.  Steve Finn is the opposite of Tremlett – expensive, but always liable to take wickets, while Boyd Rankin’s length is too inconsistent.  His natural length is slightly too short, but when he does try and pitch it up, he tends to float it in the manner of Andrew Caddick, and bowls too many half-volleys.  The question on many people’s lips is ‘where is Graham Onions?’  The Durham man looks like he may be this generation’s Martin Bicknell – unplayable in county cricket, but destined to be forever ignored by England.  To be fair to the selectors, I can see why they have their reservations – he bowled like a drain in the tour matches in New Zealand earlier this year, and his injury record makes Darren Anderton appear the picture of health, but surely some variety in the bowling attack is required.  I would be inclined to go with Tremlett simply because he can be relied on to keep an end dry, whereas I suspect the Australian batsman would be inclined to target either Finn or Rankin.  Tim Bresnan is, of course, on tour as well, but is unlikely to play in at least the first two Tests, and then may be wary of bowling flat out so soon after injury.

Despite England’s recent hold over Australia, I spent my formative cricket-watching years in the 90s, and can’t quite get used to the idea of an England cricket team being expected to win the Ashes.  Whereas the preparation 3 years ago screamed professionalism, this time round things aren’t going as smoothly.  There have been injuries; other than Broad and Anderson, the bowlers have looked poor; most of the batsmen haven’t had much of an innings; and then there’s the 82-page England cricket recipe book, which is either an indication of the meticulous preparation that has gone into this tour, or a sign that the team has gone so far up its own arse it’s tickling its tonsils.

There are still plenty of question marks over the Australian team.  Chris Rogers, David Warner and Steve Smith are still relatively callow at this level, and Smith’s technique is still a potential matter of concern if he loses confidence.  George Bailey, who will be making his Test debut, has been selected thanks to his form in the one-day matches, but averages only 18 over the last year in first-class cricket.  A good one-day player does not a good Test player make (Michael Bevan).  Mitchell Johnson, likewise, has been picked thanks to good performances in one-day cricket, but let’s not forget his previous performances against England.  When he gets it right, he is probably the most devastating bowler in world cricket (even including Dale Steyn), as seen at Perth last time around.  If he gets it wrong, as at Lord’s in 2009 or at Melbourne in 2010, then he’s a passenger in the side.  There has been talk about how his bowling action has improved, how his bowling arm is now much higher, but, after a cursory trawl through YouTube, it looks pretty similar to me.  If England (and the Barmy Army) can get under his skin, then he could once again prove a liability.  There are fitness concerns over both the remarkable Ryan Harris and Shane Watson, and losing either of them would be a real blow to the Aussies.

It’s a tricky series to call.  Since there has been such a small gap between the end of the last series and the beginning of this one, there hasn’t been much of a build-up.  Logic suggests that England should win, but I can’t help but feel that while England are a team on the way down, Australia are a team on the way up.  I’ll go for a 2-2 draw, but very much fear the Aussies could sneak it.

Advertisements

Drugs in Sport

The IAAF recently announced that they are doubling the suspension for a failed drugs test from two years to four years.  It is a welcome move.  But will other sports follow Athletics’ lead?  Recent high profile drugs revelations have lead me and millions of other sport lovers to question the integrity of competitive sport.  The public have been deceived so many times by cheats and cover-ups that patience is wearing thin.  Sports across the board need to get their act together and tackle this cancer head-on and with zero tolerance.

            The reality is that almost every major sport is tainted by drugs to some extent; to think otherwise would be highly naïve (motor-racing is the only sport in my mind that is relatively drug-free).  In disciplines such as Athletics, Boxing and Cycling, drugs have been prevalent for almost a century (the following Wikipedia article makes for depressing reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doping_at_the_Tour_de_France) but in other sports it is only becoming more widely understood.  Cricket and Football have historically had relatively drug free existences but with the rewards so great in both sports these days, drugs are a real concern.  Where there is money to be made, the temptation to use drugs, and the people willing to supply them, will always be there.

            The sport with the largest connection to drugs is Cycling.  Since 1969, only seven winners of the great race have never been tainted or connected to drugs in their careers.  That means, on average, one in every six winners of the Tour did so riding clean.  It is a horrifying statistic but it is not all doom and gloom. The last three winners, Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans have never failed a drugs test.  Cycling needed to go through the dark time in the late 90’s and early 2000’s to get where it is today.  In a way, the fact that so many cyclists returned positive tests meant that the cheats were getting caught and the wider public started to take notice.  The sport had to clear up its act otherwise it faced fading into anonymity.  However damaging the past scandals may have been and after years of sweeping cases under the carpet, it has helped shaped a healthier and hopefully drugs-free future for cycling.  (For those interested in cycling’s shady past, read Tyler Hamilton’s autobiography The Secret Race)

            The same cannot be said for Athletics.  The two positive drugs tests recently returned by star sprinters Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay were a real blow to a sport which has been plagued for years by such scandals.  During the Cold War, communist countries, such as the U.S.S.R and East Germany, systematically doped a large majority of their athletes (especially women) to win major sporting titles.  This was seen as an attempt to legitimise their totalitarian regimes not only to the outside world but also to their own people.  Ironically, Russia has over 40 high profile athletes suspended for positive drug tests today.  The sport was particularly shady in the 80’s and 90’s and not only in the Eastern-bloc.  There has always been doubt cast over Carl Lewis, with strong rumours that a positive drugs test was covered up by the authorities.  Florence Griffith Joyner, still the holder of both the women’s 100m and 200m world records, mysteriously lowered her personal bests in both events by half a second in 1988.  And lest we forget, our very own Linford Christie failed a drugs test in both 1988 and 1999.  More recently, American sprinter Justin Gatlin (who has failed two drugs tests in his career, yet mysteriously is still allowed to compete) and 400m runner Lashawn Merritt (who claimed his performance-enhancing drug was for use in the bedroom) have successfully returned to the sport after their respective suspensions.  This riles me a lot given that clean athletes are being denied their just deserts (earnings and medals) because of a cheat.  A convicted drug-taker should not be allowed to continue to earn a living from sport after making a decision to defame that same sport in such a shameful manner.

            The Balco scandal was probably the most infamous in all Athletics history.  It came to light that its founder, Victor Conte, had been supplying steroids and growth hormone to athletes across numerous sports, the most high profile of which were sprinters Tim Montgomery (at the time the 100m world record holder), Marion Jones and Dwain Chambers, baseball legend Barry Bonds, and boxer Shane Mosley.  The worrying thing about the Gay-Powell saga is that they had no excuses.  Tyson Gay effectively admitted that he had taken drugs by stating ‘I don’t have a sabotage story… I basically put my trust in someone and was let down.  I know exactly what went on, but I can’t discuss it right now.’  If athletes don’t know themselves precisely what they are putting into their bodies then they can have no excuse.  Putting your trust in another person is a risk that in this case backfired spectacularly.  I don’t think Tyson Gay is the type of man to wilfully gain an advantage through illegal means, but he has been naïve in his choice of advisors.  Knowing or unknowing, a positive drugs is still cheating and Gay and Powell deserve the sanctions they receive.

            It is perhaps easy to see how performance-enhancing drugs directly benefit stamina and power-based sports.  However, can such a skilled sport such as football profit from banned substanes?  The very successful Juventus team of the mid-90’s was systematically doped (without the players knowledge apparently) with the blood-boosting hormone EPO (common amongst cyclists at the time as it allowed one to ride at a higher intensity for longer).  Dutch players Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids and Frank De Boer all tested positive for nandrolone (which promotes artificial muscle growth and red blood-cell stimulation) in 2001.  The most heralded football coach in the world, Pep Guardiola, failed a drugs test for nandrolone in that same year.  New Liverpool signing Kolo Toure tested positive for a slimming aid in 2011 and Rio Ferdinand was suspended for 8 months in 2004 for missing a drugs test, although that was more dopey than doping.  In his compelling autobiography, Tony Cascarino revealed that he was injected with what club doctors called ‘vitamins’ and ‘minerals’ in his spell at Marseille in the early 90’s (Marseille weren’t exactly strangers to controversy after the match-fixing scandal in 1993).  I am slightly worried that football doesn’t currently do blood tests.  Urine samples have to be given by randomly selected players after every game but blood samples are not mandatory.  A blood test is a much more thorough way of detecting illicit substances in an athletes’ body.  Sports like Cycling and Athletics have gone so far as to set up a blood passport system (anti-doping agencies can check samples against each other to spot irregularities).  Football needs to act fast otherwise the situation risks getting out of hand.  A drug such as EPO can increase stamina and intensity by up to 20%, so not only can players play for longer, they can train harder too.  Yes it could result in some embarrassing findings but for the sake of the game, it is imperative.

            Even more worrying for football is the links it has to the Operation Puerto scandal in Spain.  Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes provided numerous athletes, mainly cyclists but also footballers with performance-enhancing drugs (including testosterone pills) and blood doping.  There are rumours that he supplied seasonal plans for Real Madrid and Barcelona, and also assisted Real Sociedad in systemised blood doping.  If this isn’t evidence enough that blood testing is required then I don’t know what is.  What is most ridiculous of all is that the judge presiding over the whole Fuentes case ruled that the blood bags should be destroyed.  This is evidence that could be vital in catching not only dopers of the past but drug cheats of the future.  It seems the Spanish authorities are desperate to cover up this humiliation.  They obviously have something to hide.

            Another sport that was named in Operation Puerto was tennis.  It is rumoured that Fuentes worked with many tennis players, including the Spanish Davis Cup team, bafflingly the most successful nation during the 2000’s in the competition.  Tennis, like football, requires high levels of not only skill but also fitness.  That small advantage that blood-doping can give you makes a sizeable difference at a professional level.  With tennis becoming so athletic it is no wonder stories of doping are abound.  Remember the likes of Boris Becker, Tim Henman, Andre Agassi?  All very fit guys in their own right, but compare their physique to modern day players like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych.  I’m not saying these players are doping, it’s just the physicality of the sport has got that much more intense that you have to be in top shape to even compete with the top players.  Agassi had his own well-documented troubles with recreational drugs but recently top-100 ranked player (not for long) Victor Troicki has been slapped with an 18-month ban for failing to provide a blood sample.  A week after that, world number 15, Maran Cilic, was banned for a positive test.  Richard Gasquet has also been nabbed but this was for cocaine use, which he claimed was via kissing a girl who had just taken some.  Encouragingly, tennis is pressing ahead with plans to introduce blood passports which should help catch potential drug cheats.

            Cricket is a sport that one wouldn’t usually connect with performance-enhancing drugs.  It has had its problems in the past with recreational drugs.  Ian Botham, Keith Piper, Ed Giddins, Dermot Reeve, Phil Tufnell, Graham Wagg and tragically, Tom Maynard have all been found to have taken recreational substances at some point in their careers.  But taking drugs to improve say one’s strength to hit the ball further wouldn’t necessarily be an advantage in cricket.  Timing is much more important than brute strength, though I dare say it couldn’t do any harm.  However, players have been known to take drugs to aid injury recovery.  The injury-prone Pakistani fast bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif both failed tests for nandrolone in 2006 and were handed bans which were later overturned on appeal.  Asif claimed his was due to a faulty nutritional supplement.  He later failed a test in the IPL for steroids in 2008 and also was detained at Dubai airport that same year for possessing illegal substances – all apparently linked to injury recovery.  Sri Lankan batsman Upul Tharanga was handed a three-month ban in 2011 for a banned steroid which he claimed it was an herbal remedy for a shoulder injury.  The legendary rotund Australian text messager Shane Warne infamously missed the 2003 World Cup for taking a banned diuretic (allegedly one of his mother’s slimming pills – a believable argument).  With the increasing riches on offer to players, cricket needs to be more vigilant in its approach to drug-testing.  The rewards are so great and the sanctions relatively minor that one or two players are going to be tempted to take short-cuts.  The IPL is especially vulnerable in this respect.  Indeed, young Indian fast bowler Pradeep Sangwan returned a positive drugs test for steroids in this year’s IPL.

            Golf is another sport which has links to drugs and injury recovery.  Fijian Vijay Singh admitted using deer-antler spray, a banned growth-hormone on the World Anit-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list, but was acquitted after it was revealed that it wasn’t taken in sufficient enough quantities to enhance performance.  Tiger Woods was linked to controversial doctor Tony Galea during his recovery from knee-ligament surgery in 2008-9.  Galea had links to the Balco scandal and Victor Conte having been involved in both Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.  Galea’s method involved taking blood from Woods, placing it in a centrifuge to increase red platelets (don’t ask), and injecting it back into the affected ligament, thus speeding up the healing process.  To me, this is no different from blood doping that cyclists used – surely artificially increasing the body’s red platelets is the same as artificially increasing the body’s red blood cells and oxygen capability.  The rules have tightened since 2010 on the procedure but I believe it still remains legal.  Now I’m not suggesting that Woods is a drugs cheat, but having links to a man who is known to be involved with Conte and human-growth hormone is a bit fishy.

            The ultimate skill sport, snooker is not exempt from drugs.  Bill Werbenuik took beta blockers in the 1980’s to slow his heart rate when at the table and Neal Foulds also admitted to having taken a similar substance.  It is doubtful whether this would have a positive effect on performance but if a player suffers from nerves, it could be beneficial.  Recreational substances have long been associated with snooker: Kirk Stevens was known to have taken cocaine and Ronnie O’Sullivan was disqualified from a tournament in the 90’s for testing positive for cannabis.  Jimmy White and Alex Higgins were also no strangers to drug scandals during their careers.

Rugby League recently found itself at the centre of a drugs scandal in Australia where six clubs have been implicated in doping thought to include AFL too.  There has been little information since the report in February but rumours are surfacing that supplements (mainly muscle growth-hormone) were administered by the clubs, not by the odd rogue player himself, which is more worrying.  AFL player Jobe Watson has admitted that he took a banned anti-obesity drug but only after signing a consent form provided by his club. (http://theconversation.com/essendon-scandal-a-symptom-of-australias-sporting-woes-12085).  This whole affair draws parallels with the Festina affair during the Tour de France in 1998, where drugs were found in the Festina team car, and subsequently numerous teams were under suspicion of providing illegal substances for their riders.  Closer to home, Bradford Bulls star Terry Newton was banned for two years for taking Human Growth Hormone.  Martin Gleeson also received a ban for a failed drugs test in 2011.  One can see the benefits of taking these sorts of drugs in sports like rugby where power and size are central factors.  Recreational drugs are also not uncommon – Australian Rugby League Star Wendell Sailor tested positive for cocaine in 2006, as did new Salford Red Devils forward Gareth Hock in 2009 whilst playing for Wigan Warriors.

Rugby Union is no stranger to drug scandals either.  2009 was a dark year for Bath Rugby Club in particular as their England prop Matt Stevens received a two year ban after failing a drugs test.  He later admitted to having taken cocaine on more than one occasion and confessed that he found it almost a relief that he had been caught.  Later that year, after an end-of-season party, four Bath players were embroiled in a scandal after allegations of cocaine abuse.  (http://www.rugbydump.com/2009/07/1023/the-ins-and-outs-of-the-bath-drugs-scandal).  Their Australian lock, Justin Harrison confessed and was handed an 8 month ban whilst the other three, co-captains Michael Lipman and Alex Crockett and Andrew Higgins all resigned after refusing to give samples.  However it is very rare that a Rugby Union player is found to have taken performance enhancing drugs which for the sport is a saving grace (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/24626491).

            Boxing is a shady sport that has had all manner of problems in the past and drugs are just one of the many issues facing it today.  It has a fairly lackadaisical attitude towards drug testing which it needs to rectify pretty quickly if it is to retain any credibility.  Recent scandals have included Lamont Peterson’s positive test for synthetic testosterone in 2011 which he failed in the lead up to his victory against Amir Khan.  Wrangling over drug testing scuppered plans for a ‘super-fight’ between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2010 after negotiations over blood-testing failed to reach a conclusion.  Boxing doesn’t have a fixed set of anti-doping criteria which immediately sets the alarm bells ringing.  The drug-testing is not determined by a central body but is instead agreed between the two fighters themselves.  Legendary Mexican Juan-Manuel Marquez, before his sixth-round knockout of Manny Pacquiao last year, started to work with a less than reputable ‘conditioning coach’ Angel Hernandez, who has links to BALCO and Victor Conte (http://globalnation.inquirer.net/62195/did-drugs-nearly-kill-pacquiao).  Marquez’s physique was visibly more chiselled than at any point in his career and in his previous three meetings with Pacquiao, he had failed to knock down the Filipino.  Yet he put him on the canvas in round 3 and knocked him out cold in round 6 to record his first victory against his nemesis.  Worryingly, no drug testing of any sort was done pre-fight to either boxer.  In his most recent fight (which he lost to Timothy Bradley) Marquez caused controversy again by reneging on a pre-fight drug-testing deal (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/boxing/2013/10/08/drug-testing-rift-tim-bradley-juan-manuel-marquez-fight-is-on/2948991/).

            With the rewards on offer and the relatively minor sanctions, performance-enhancing drugs are an attractive proposition to sportsmen and women.  The only logical conclusion is to introduce a zero-tolerance policy of life bans for any convicted drugs cheat.  In the case of recreational drugs, a less hard-line approach would suffice given that often there are deep-set emotional reasons for such substance abuse.  There is a worrying trend in certain countries of drug-taking getting out of control.  During and after the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Indian athletes returned a disproportionate amount of positive drugs tests; similarly, Russia has over 40 suspended Athletes at the present time.  Chinese, Turkish and Greek authorities all have major problems with doping.  China in particular seems to have a particular problem with Swimming and Weightlifting.  There is a disturbing situation arising in Jamaican athletics where alongside Powell, two other high profile female sprinters, Sherone Simpson and double 200m Olympic Gold medallist Veronica Campbell-Brown, have returned positive drugs results amid claims that testing has been few and far between (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/athletics/24517780).  The worry is that the testers are always playing catch-up with the takers.  The introduction of blood passports is a big step in the right direction but until all governing bodies across all sports make it a top priority, the situation is not going to improve.

            I love sport.  When I was younger I would marvel at the seemingly super-human abilities of professional athletes on TV and wish I could do what they could.  The concept of someone achieving something by artificial means never enters a child’s head.  I suppose the first time I really took interest in a drugs scandal was Dwain Chambers’ positive test in 2003.  I couldn’t believe that an English sprinter would do such a thing.  I mean it is so un-English.  When Chambers pleaded guilty a little bit of me died inside.  I naively assumed that illegal narcotics were consigned to Athletics only.  Then the world of cycling was turned upside down after Floyd Landis’ positive test after his Tour de France ‘victory’ in 2006.  Again, I assumed it was an isolated case limited to a minor sport.  Yet, when the recent Lance Armstrong scandal reared its ugly head, I slowly started to realise that one should not take every amazing performance, every world-record, every breath-taking sporting moment at face value – and that is really sad.  I now have a slightly cynical view of the sporting world thanks to those athletes who decided to take the short-cut, the easy way, the cheater’s route to success.  I still love sport and I still marvel at sporting prowess but now, at the back of my mind, there is always some doubt.

 

This Wikipedia article makes for rather disheartening reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_doping_cases_in_sport#Q

Can England be the Dark Horse?

Phew.  We’ve finally done it.  Qualification achieved; next stop Brazil and the World Cup, in the slightly unfamiliar territory of underdogs.  It’s strange to think that a side with such proven world class talent as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and er, James Milner is not classed as one of the favourites – but the shift in the football paradigm has been so marked in recent years that even the so called lesser teams are all more than technically proficient (witness Montenegro).  True, England did make a bit of a dog’s dinner of qualification from a group that, let’s be honest, was about as tough as a soufflé, and in doing so ruined their chances of being one of the top seeds.  Yet this could be seen as a good thing: the British public no longer has unrealistic expectations of its football team and neither does the rest of the world.  Consequently England can go into the tournament under the radar without so much pressure and attention.  This should release them from their familiar turgid tournament performances of recent times and hopefully result in at least a respectable showing in Brazil.

Reasons to be Cheerful:

  1. The younger generation of England players are really starting to make an impact.  Roy Hodgson’s selection of Andros Townsend was inspired and England finally has someone who can deliver some end product down the right flank (take note Theo Walcott).  Kyle Walker, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge are still relative novices at this level, yet have contributed significantly during this qualifying campaign (Welbeck especially).  With the likes of Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley waiting in the wings (who seem at home on the international stage and could slot straight into the team), the future looks bright for the England team.
  2. Wayne Rooney has returned to form, and just in the nick of time.  After the Manchester United forward’s turbulent summer, he has settled down under David Moyes and is showing signs of returning to his top performances of three years ago.  I have noted a slight maturity in Rooney’s place.  Gone is the fearless tyro who would chase after everything like a dog on speed and shoot on sight.  He is now more measured in his play and has become a vital link man between the midfield and attack.  Couple this with a timely goal-scoring knack and England has a player who is absolutely crucial to any chance of success next summer.
  3. Leighton Baines.  As much as I rate Ashley Cole (even though he is a deplorable man he happens to be a very good footballer), the Everton man brings more to the table.  The way he overlapped time and again against Montenegro and Poland gave England an extra dimension that they have been crying out for.  People go on about how good Cole is at defending, but they don’t seem to realise that Baines is almost as good, and is also an infinitely more dangerous attacking threat.  He provided the delivery for Rooney’s opener against Poland and together with Gerrard, England have two of the most lethal dead-ball specialists in the world.  If England are to progress in Brazil, Hodgson must be bold – and that means selecting Baines.

Reasons to be fearful:

  1. Central defence.  Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill are very good players in their own right, but will the likes of Neymar, Messi et al be losing sleep at the prospect of facing these two?  Almost certainly not.  Admittedly, the pair did manage to keep the Brazilian quiet last season at Wembley but that was only a friendly.  Nevertheless, the manner in which Poland wilfully opened up England like a can of beans was slightly worrying and had Robert Lewandowksi not left his shooting boots at the team hotel, the scoreline could have been very different.  Against better teams than Poland, England will be punished.  If either of the first choices get injured (God forbid) then the next in line are Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Michael Dawson – all unproven at international level.  Oh for the good old days when England had Sol Campbell, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ledley King and Jamie Carragher at their disposal…
  2. England only just managed to scrape out of a group that included such football powerhouses as Moldova, Ukraine, Montenegro and Poland (and San Marino).  Away from home, England only managed to beat Moldova and San Marino.  Now I know that going through a whole qualifying campaign unbeaten is impressive but when it comes to Brazil next year, plucky draws just won’t cut the mustard – witness England Neanderthal performance against Italy at Euro 2012.  Finding ways to win when you aren’t at your best is the hallmark of a quality team (e.g Spain in the 2010 World Cup Final).  England have beaten some of the world’s best teams in the past few seasons; Brazil, Spain and Sweden all spring to mind.  However England rarely does it when it matters in competitive matches at major tournaments.  Roy Hodgson must find a way to change this before next summer.
  3. Goalkeeper.  A lot of nonsense has been written about Joe Hart in recent weeks, most of which has been totally unjustified.  He had two commanding games against Montenegro and Poland and silenced the critics who had been slamming his recent performances.  He is the best keeper England have had since David Seaman hung up his gloves and hopefully he will remain between the sticks for a good while longer.  There comes a serious problem however if Hart gets injured.  England does not exactly have a wealth of goalkeeping talent at its disposal and below Hart the options are thin on the ground.  John Ruddy, Scott Carson and Jack Butland all have international experience but two of them play in the Championship and the other, Ruddy, plays for a team that are struggling in the Premier League relegation zone.  There has been recent clamour for the inclusion of Celtic’s Fraser Forster and I wholeheartedly agree.  He has played in the Champions League for the past two seasons against some of the world’s best (Barcelona three times in the past year alone) and hence has experience at the top level.  He should at least be given a chance because if, touch wood, something befalls Joe Hart, England needs someone of the requisite ability to step into his rather sizeable shoes.

So there you have it.  England almost certainly won’t win the World Cup but at least they will be at the tournament and these days, that is an achievement in itself.  I would be happy if England simply progressed out of their group and in doing so played some attractive football that made the rest of the world sit up and take note.  Many things aren’t in their favour – the biggest of which is the heat they will have to endure but, if they trust in their ability (maybe don’t trust James Milner’s), they can hopefully achieve something (not being a laughing stock would be a start) especially if they can stay under the radar and out of the spotlight.  At least I have an excuse to spend a whole month in front of the telly and for that England, I thank you.  Roll on next summer.

Sporting Heartbreak

As a sport lover, one of the questions I get asked most often is ‘Why do you like sport?  What’s so great about watching a load of people running around indulging in an ultimately pointless and futile activity?’  All right, they might not use quite so many words, but the tone used often implies them.  It’s an interesting question – there are many things that make sport, both the playing and the watching, utterly marvellous, and it is usually very difficult to elucidate these when put on the spot in that way.

Don’t worry, this particular article isn’t going to be chock-full of pseudo-intellectual bollocks on the meaning of sport; it will still be dripping with pseudo-intellectual bollocks of course, but on a slightly different subject.  One of the things that I find wonderful about sport is that it causes the participant or watcher to feel some pretty strong and intense emotions, but via a medium that ultimately doesn’t matter.  So the sight of your team scoring a goal causes elation and excitement, but fleetingly, and if they didn’t score at that particular moment, you wouldn’t miss the brief high.  However, sport can also cause distress, sadness, and occasionally real heartbreak.  In this article I would like to detail some of sport’s most heartbreaking moments.

Before starting, I should acknowledge the debt the format of this article owes to The Guardian’s excellent Joy of Six series – if you have a few hours to spare, look up the back catalogue online; one of life’s most enjoyable ways to waste time.  As the old saying goes – if you can’t beat ‘em, steal ‘eir idea and pass it off as your own.

 

1. Andy Roddick v Roger Federer, Wimbledon Final 2009

Recent Wimbledon finals have seen plenty of outpourings of emotion, whether it be in victory, such as Pat Cash’s perilous ascent up to his family in the players’ box in 1987 (a move now seemingly de rigeur for any champion), Goran Ivanisevic’s touching incredulity after his victory as a wild-card in 2001, and, dare we say it, Andy Murray’s relief this year, or in defeat, most famously Jana Novotna’s world collapsing in 1993, but also including Rafael Nadal in 2006, Andy Murray again, last year, and Sabine Lisicki this year.  However, for me Roddick’s loss to Federer in 2009 was the most heartbreaking precisely because he didn’t break down in floods of tears afterwards.

Men’s tennis in the United States is, while not in a parlous state, nowhere near as strong as it was in the 80s and 90s, where American men would routinely contest Grand Slam finals, often against each other.  There seemed to be an endless production line of world-class players from Ashe, Connors and McEnroe to Chang, Courier, Agassi and Sampras, and when Andy Roddick first came onto the scene, it was assumed he would be the next in that line.  Since then, despite the likes of Jan-Michael Gambill, Robby Ginepri, James Blake, John Isner and Mardy Fish (one of sport’s greatest names), Roddick is the only American player who has consistently been in the top 10, top 5 even.  He, like Lleyton Hewitt, straddled the era between Sampras/Agassi and Federer/Nadal, and therefore was at his peak ranking-wise at a young age.

He was clearly an excellent player, although, if not an enfant terrible, at least an enfant assez mal, prone to on-court outbursts and racket throwing.  His serve was his main weapon, but he also had an excellent forehand, and his backhand improved as he got older.  What he lacked in comparison with the greats was tactical nous, and the ability to mix up his play.  However, he won a Grand Slam, the 2003 US Open, and before 2009 had reached three other finals, Wimbledon in 2004 and 2005, and the US Open in 2006, each time losing to Federer.

Federer in 2009 was a player just starting to wane.  Defeats to Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final and the 2009 Australian Open final (the latter loss prompting a biblical outpouring of tears) had dented his aura somewhat, but with Nadal incapacitated by knee trouble, he won the French Open in May 2009 to complete a career Grand Slam, and also move level with Pete Sampras on 14 Grand Slams.  He was clearly the player to beat at SW19, and he moved through the rounds serenely, losing only one set before the final.  Roddick had come through a titanic 5-set quarter-final against Lleyton Hewitt, before turning Pete Sampras to Andy Murray’s Tim Henman in the semi-final and sending yet another year’s worth of British tennis fans home disappointed.  He was clearly playing well, and serving excellently, but there were doubts as to whether he could seriously challenge Federer, whom he had never beaten in a Grand Slam.

Everything was set up for Federer to win his record-breaking 15th Grand Slam.  It was at Wimbledon, his favourite venue.  Past legends Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver were in attendance, while Pete Sampras turned up halfway through to much fanfare, his first visit to Wimbledon since 2002.  But Roddick would not stick to the script.  He played the match of his life, and it was all Federer could do to hang on.  Most importantly Roddick served out of his skin, barely giving his opponent a sniff.  As a result Federer was always under pressure when serving himself, although with typical insouciance he usually brushed it aside.

In terms of pure tennis it wasn’t a particularly good game, being effectively a serve competition.  Roddick broke twice to win two sets, while Federer won two on a tie-break.  The final set was particularly attritional, but Federer managed to cling on to his serve on every occasion, and just waited for his chance.  Finally, after 37 consecutive holds of serve (a consistency which is frankly astonishing) Roddick was broken in the final game of the match, losing 16-14 in the fifth.

It is in Roddick’s response to defeat that the real heartbreak lies.  For him to break down and bawl his eyes out would have been a perfectly reasonable course of action.  He had played probably as well as it was possible to play in a match against a man who he would beat only three times in his career, at the final of tennis’ most prestigious tournament, one which he had been told from a young age was the most likely for him to win, and yet he had still lost.  It must have been crushing.  He must have felt conflicting emotions, proud at himself for having played absolutely to his potential, but at the same time utterly deflated.  Here was a man who needed an outlet for these emotions.  As the microphone-toting Sue Barker approached for the on-court post-match interview you felt sure that the waterworks were imminent.

Instead Roddick gave an interview of quite staggering magnanimity.  He praised Federer for his performance, he thanked the crowd, he even made a joke.  But all the while, you could see the devastation lurking just below the surface.  From the moment he was introduced to the crowd as runner-up and received a tumultuous ovation, to the moment he walked off the court Roddick was struggling to keep his emotions to himself.  As any actor will tell you, it touches people so much more if they can see you trying to supress the fact you are upset, rather than just crying straight out.  We have all been in situations where we know we shouldn’t cry, but just can’t help it, and so can empathise when we see it in others.  That Roddick managed to get through that presentation ceremony and interview with barely a tear is to his immense credit.  No-one would have been surprised had he broken down – in fact most may have expected it – but his refusal to do so makes this defeat of his far more heartbreaking.  This game should have been all about Federer breaking Sampras’ record, but, even to a Wimbledon crowd that is perennially pro-Federer, Roddick’s conduct made it more about him.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lR79Bi-GqB4 – watch it here, and compare Roddick’s speech to Federer’s egocentric crassness.

2. Felipe Massa 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix

The thing about sport is that it’s a competition, therefore at the end there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser.  That may sound like stating the bleeding obvious, but bear with me.  As a youngster playing sport, you are often fobbed off with platitudes after defeat such as ‘you were all winners out there’ and ‘it’s not the winning, but the taking part.’  This may indeed be true at the level of junior or social sport, but at the highest level, winning is everything, not just to assuage the competitive instinct, but also because defeat may be the difference between getting a playing contract for the next year, or indeed a large amount of prize money.  So it is of little consolation to the elite sportsperson to lose a hugely memorable contest.

The climax to the 2008 Formula One season was famously one of the most dramatic moments in any sport.  The denouement was such that the writers of Happy Days would have dismissed it as fanciful, and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, would have cast it firmly into the Not section.  Coming into the final race of the season, Lewis Hamilton had 94 points and Felipe Massa had 87.  Both drivers had won 5 races, and the permutations were thus: if Hamilton finished 5th or higher, then the 4 points he would gain would be enough to win the title, wherever Massa were to finish; if Massa won, and Hamilton finished lower than 5th, then Massa would be World Champion; if Massa finished second and Hamilton finished out of the points, then Massa would be champion; if Massa finished second and Hamilton eighth, then everyone who tried to work out the mathematics of it all would spontaneously combust because of its complexity, and the championship declared null and void.  I made that last bit up, mainly because I’m not sure what would have happened.  Arm wrestle maybe?

As with Federer above, it seemed as though all was perfectly set up for Massa to triumph.  The script had been written.  It was his home Grand Prix, Hamilton had choked from a similar position the season before, and two races previously a controversial Japanese Grand Prix had involved a collision between the two title rivals that caused Hamilton to rejoin at the back of the field from where he was unable to conjure up a points finish.  Would the two points Massa gained that day prove vital?

The race was an exciting one, with intermittent rain causing all sorts of tyre changes.  With 8 laps remaining, Massa was leading, but Hamilton was in a fairly comfortable fourth position.  Then it started to rain.  All the leaders came into the pits to change from dry to intermediate tyres, with one exception, the Toyota of Timo Glock.  When the order had re-settled after the pit-stop flurry, Hamilton found himself in 5th position, still ahead in the Championship, but with Sebastian Vettel, then merely an annoyingly precocious German, up his chuff.  Struggling for grip, and hampered by back-markers, Hamilton ran wide with two laps remaining, allowing Vettel through, and seemingly once again coughing up his Championship chances.  He chased Vettel for two laps, but couldn’t get close enough to even attempt a pass, and that, you thought, was that.

But remember Timo Glock?  The man who had decided not to change his tyres?  He was now in fourth place, but struggling badly on an increasingly wet track on slick tyres, his lap times dropping furiously.  On the final corner of the final lap, Vettel and Hamilton caught him and passed him, thrusting the Englishman up to 5th position, and making him World Champion.  In the Ferrari garage the mechanics and the Massa family celebrated, unaware of this last minute pass, before someone tells them the bad news.  The look on the faces of Massa’s father and brother as they realise what has happened is heartbreaking.  It is almost impossible to believe a countenance can change from elation to disbelief to devastation in such a short space of time.  That the entire season should come down to the final corner of the final race is incredible, but for Massa the fact that he played his part in such an exhilarating finish was of no consolation.

In hindsight it is even more heartbreaking.  Massa was gracious in defeat, saying ‘I know how to lose and I know how to win and as I said before it is another day of my life from which I am going to learn a lot,’ and intimating that he was looking forward to challenging for the title again, but this was his best chance.  A year later he suffered a near-fatal injury at the Hungarian Grand Prix, and hasn’t been the same driver since.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsLX2Uen2dc – watch the final laps here.

3. Derek Redmond, 400m semi-final, Barcelona 1992

Why do we empathise with sportsmen and women when they break down in public?  It’s not as if we can put ourselves precisely in their situation.  99.9% (a conservative estimate) of people watching an elite sporting event will never come anywhere near to experiencing what a sportsperson does – performing, after years of hard work, sacrifice and practice, in front of a vast audience, knowing that every action you take will be scrutinised, over-analysed and dissected until the cows have returned to their domiciles.  We can recognise, however, the pain of failing to attain something we desperately want, and when that failure comes because of something arguably out of your control, the distress is intensified.  Derek Redmond’s famous breakdown at the Barcelona Olympics contains this form of heartbreak, along with oh so much more.

Redmond was a genuinely high-class athlete, although not a world-class one.  He held the British record at 400 metres twice, and was part of the team that won the 4x400m relay at the 1991 World Championship (involving a goose-pimple-inducing final lap from Kriss Akabusi).  He was, however, injury-prone; he had missed the previous Olympics thanks to achilles-knack, and had undergone 8 operations during his career by the time he arrived in Barcelona.

His performances in the early rounds suggested Redmond was now in the form of his life.  Nearly 27, perhaps his body had matured enough to withstand the rigours of international athletics.  He breezed through the first round, setting the fastest time of all the qualifiers, and then won his quarter-final with ease.  He was expected to have no trouble qualifying for the final, before, hopefully, bothering the medal positions in the final.

Looking relaxed before the race, Redmond started well, running smoothly and easily, and looked to be in a good position, before, around halfway through the race, he clutched his right hamstring and came to a very abrupt halt.  This is a mildly heartbreaking scenario in itself; injury-prone athlete, seemingly recovered and performing at the peak of his ability, is let down by his body again at a crucial stage.  We’ll call this your common, or garden, sporting heartbreak.  A few moments later, we see the heartbreak-o-meter ramped up to level 3, as Redmond decides that, despite being practically lame, he wishes to finish the race and starts hobbling around the track towards the finish line.  What is interesting to notice is that he still stays in his lane as he slowly progresses, as if his muscle memory is preventing him from straying out of lane and risking disqualification.  Redmond said that his motivation for completing the race at this point was that, in his addled state he believed that he could still catch the other runners, and by finishing could still potentially fulfil his dream and reach the final.

As he rounds the bend, with pain and distress etched on his face, a figure emerges from the crowd, fighting off the (rather flimsy) attentions of the security guards, and approaches Redmond.  It turns out to be his father and mentor, dressed rather comically in blue shorts, a large white Nike cap, and a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Have you hugged your foot today?’  The heartbreak-o-meter goes up to 11 before exploding in a billow of smoke, as Redmond, becoming aware of his father by his side breaks down completely, collapsing onto his shoulder and sobbing uncontrollably.  They cross the line together, Redmond absolutely broken while his father, remarkably calmly given the circumstances, shoos away any official who dares to approach.  The crowd, recognising a seminal moment with far more perception than said officials, cheer themselves hoarse as Redmond Sr leads his emotional wreck of a son off the track, to somewhere where he can grieve more privately.

The footage of this incident has been replayed countless times, and yet it never fails to move.  There is so much to it, the emotion as multi-layered as an onion.  The advent of Redmond’s father is where the heartbreak becomes too much to bear, as we see a fully grown man, a top-class athlete, revert to being a small child, seeking comfort and solace in the arms of a parent.  It’s something I’m sure many of us have wished we could do when times get tough.  They say that there is no love that can surpass that of a parent for a child, and Redmond Sr (enough shilly-shallying, he has a name, so let’s use it.  He’s called Jim.) acts in a beautifully caring way.  He instinctively knows what to do – he at first joins his son, just offering his presence if it is required; next he comforts his son, all the while continuing to help his towards his goal, the finish line; and finally he protects his son from the attentions of the green-jacketed officials.  There are tens of thousands of people in the stadium.  There are hundreds of millions watching on television, but for Jim and Derek Redmond there are only two people present, a caring father comforting his devastated son.  For me, this is the most moving occurence I have ever seen in sport.

Sadly the only footage on YouTube is of montages set to vomit-inducingly saccharine music, but this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nifq3Ke2Q30 is the closest I could find to experiencing the event as it happened.  I challenge you not to cry.

4. Simon Shaw, Lions v South Africa 2nd Test, 2009

Any regular readers of this blog (stop sniggering at the back there – it could happen) will know that I have a bit of a thing for the British and Irish Lions.  It’s wonderful how a scratch team (of admittedly extremely good players) can, after a handful of training sessions, mix it against one of the top three international teams in world rugby (we’ll forget about the 2005 tour to New Zealand for the moment).  Most rugby players share the same love of the concept of the Lions, and for many the ultimate dream, and the ultimate accolade is to pull on the famous red jersey.

In 2009 Simon Shaw was approaching 36 years of age.  He had played top-flight rugby for nearly twenty years, international rugby for thirteen, had toured with the Lions in 1997 and 2005, and was generally regarded as one of the hardest men in the game.  His call-up to the Lions squad was unexpected and fully deserved – he was tough, fit, brimming with experience, a huge presence in the set-piece and, above all, a leader and winner.  Although definitely not a favourite for a starting place in the Test team, his presence on tour was expected to be a bonus, and he certainly wouldn’t shy away from any physical challenge.

To be honest the 2009 Lions tour is one of sport’s ‘what ifs…?’  What if Ugo Monye could keep hold of a rugby ball?  What if Adam Jones had started the first test?  What if the referee had had the stones to send Schalk Burger off in the first minute of the second test?  What if none of Jamie Roberts, Brian O’Driscoll and Adam Jones had got injured in the second test?  What if Ronan O’Gara’s parents had persuaded him a rugby career was a terrible idea?  The Lions should have won the first test, choked in the second test, and won the third at a canter when it didn’t matter.  Like the team that toured Australia in 2001, they played some mind-blowing rugby, and still managed to find a way to lose.

After losing the first test, despite threatening to complete one of sport’s all-time great comebacks, the Lions made a few (some enforced) changes to their team, including replacing the rangy athletic Alun Wyn Jones with Shaw, who partnered Paul O’Connell in what is scientifically proven to be the most gnarled second row pairing of all time.  The game was a belter.  Stephen Jones, the Sunday Times Rugby Correspondant, and generally held as the authority on rugby in these isles (when he’s not being unreasonably patriotic about Wales) rates it as the greatest test he’s ever seen.  Frankly you could write a Tolstoy-esque tome on the match.  Suffice to say South Africa won the game 28-25, with a last minute penalty from inside his own half by Morne Steyn, thus taking an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series.  The Lions, and their fans, were devastated.

Out of all the team sports, rugby is probably the hardest to shine in as an individual.  All 15 players need to contribute, and much of the most valuable work is unseen, or at least unheralded.  However, in this game Simon Shaw was demonstrably magnificent.  He won line-out ball; he tackled non-stop; he was omni-present at the breakdown; he was prominent in the loose, carrying ball, making breaks, offloading with a hitherto unsuspected dexterity.  In short he, like Roddick, played the game of his life, and still lost.

To paraphrase The Cure, rugby players don’t cry; especially not hard bastard forwards.  As man of the match, Shaw was interviewed afterwards, and from the very beginning you can see the pain in his face.  His answers are delivered in a flat, tired voice, but you can see he is trying to provide as much good humour as is possible, a thoroughly decent bloke doing his best to help out the interviewer who seems to understand that this is a pretty thankless task for both of them.  Towards the end of the interview, the interviewer (not sure who he is, sorry) suddenly gushes out a torrent of praise for Shaw, telling him that he’s never seen him play so well in all his career, and asking how it felt finally, at the age of 36 on his third tour, to play for the Lions in a test match.  Not many of us are comfortable with receiving such praise that directly, especially not when we are feeling as distraught as Shaw was then.  You can see the tears start to well up in his face as he searches for a way to reply that won’t unleash the waterworks, eventually coming up with the pathetic (in its original sense) ‘I would’ve liked to have won today,’ like the good team player he is.  He did, however, manage to keep the tears in, thus preventing him from being banished from the rugby forwards’ union.

Here’s the interview in full http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9-WejPDRyY

5 & 6 Darren Clarke, Ryder Cup, 2006 and Matthias Steiner, Beijing Olympics, 2008

In a sense, these two examples don’t belong here.  While the previous stories have been of heartbreaking moments occurring because of sport, these two are of heartbreak within a sporting context.  Yet because they happened within a sporting context, and both within contexts where the stakes were so high, they do belong.

Let’s begin with Clarke.  A popular player, famous for always having a cigar on the go, he seemed, along with the similarly rotund Colin Montgomorie, to be destined to finish his career as an unfulfilled talent.  A smooth backswing led to consistency off the tee, but he was let down around the green somewhat, and, despite regularly bothering the leaderboard at major championships, had never been able to make the step up from very good to great.  In the Ryder Cup, however he was a different proposition, especially in the fourballs, where he could afford to play the risky shot that you often cannot when playing just for yourself.  A final record of played 20, won 10, halved 3 is excellent.

In 2004 Clarke’s life and that of his family changed forever, when his wife, Heather, was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, a particularly devastating blow as she had come through primary breast cancer in 2001.  Over the next couple of years he played little golf, nursing Heather through the illness until, in August 2006, she died.

Six weeks later, at the K Club in County Kildare, the Ryder Cup started.  Given his partial withdrawal from golf over the previous two years, Clarke did not qualify to be on the Europe team automatically, but the captain, Ian Woosnam, had said that if Clarke was ready, he would be one of his wildcard picks.  Presumably needing the catharsis, Clarke decided to play and, supported by his teammates, including his very close friends Paul McGinlay and Lee Westwood, won all three of his matches as Europe walloped the Americans 18 ½ points to 9 ½.  The wall of sound that greeted him as he stepped up to the first tee in his first match was hair-raising, a reception he received throughout the tournament.  As he knocked it his putt to seal a 3&2 win over Zach Johnson in the singles, the crowd on the 16th gave him a thundering prolonged ovation, reducing Clarke, many of the other players, and probably most of the crowd to tears.  When asked what he felt in the moments after that putt had gone in, he replied ‘emotions that I hope you never have to feel.’

The story of Matthias Steiner is similar in that it involves the death of a spouse and the use of sport to help in the grieving process.  However, there is much more to it than that.

Steiner is a heavyweight weightlifter born in Vienna.  Starting in the under 105kg category, he competed internationally for Austria for several years, finishing 7th at the 2004 Olympic Games.  However, things went sour at the 2005 European Championships – Steiner had decided that the efforts to keep his weight under 105kg was too much, and so competed in the over 105kg category for the first time.  After disagreeing with his coach over how much he should attempt for his first lift, he proceeded to fail to complete all three of his lifts, with the national federation accusing him of having deliberately failed his final one.  Steiner got in a huff and vowed never to represent Austria again in international competition.

Luckily, this didn’t mean the end of his international ambitions – earlier that year he had married a German girl named Susann (they met due to some mildly stalker-ish behaviour on her part – after seeing Steiner on TV, she pestered Eurosport with e-mails until they finally gave her his contact details, but we won’t dwell on that).  As a result, he could qualify to represent Germany, which would mean three years of non-competition in any international event.  He would be eligible to compete again in 2008, which just happened to be Olympic year.

In his three years out, Steiner concentrated hard on bulking up, ready to be able to compete in the over 105kg category.  However, in the summer of 2007, Susann died in a car accident.  Steiner was, as you might imagine, devastated, stopped training and lost 8kg, quite a significant amount if you’re lifting more than twice your own body weight.  Eventually, using Susann’s memory as an incentive, he started training again, getting himself in peak condition as the 2008 season started.

An overall silver at the European Championships proved that he had used his time away from competition well, and, with the giant Iranian world record holder Hossein Rezazadeh retiring just before the Olympics, there was no obvious favourite.  To cut a long story short, big blokes lifted implausible amounts of metal one after another, until eventually it came to the final lift in the competition.  Steiner, in the clean and jerk, would have to lift 258kg, 10kg more than he had never managed before, to win the gold medal.

There could only be one outcome, I suppose.  Steiner steps up, looking incredibly determined, but also clearly struggling emotionally.  He composes himself somewhat, bends down to grab the weight, and lifts.  Somehow, from somewhere, he finds the ability to lift the bar first to his shoulders and then above his head, his eyes almost popping out of his face with the effort.  As he slams the bar down the realisation kicks in.  He lets out a scary animal-like roar, clutches momentarily at his chest, and then goes beserk, totally unsure of how to celebrate.  He jumps up and down; he rips off his outer vest; he hugs; he kisses the floor; he waves to the crowd, all accompanied by shouts of who knows what emotion that seem to come from deep down in his gut.  Knowing what has occurred before, you cannot fail to be moved by the release of it all, watching this man who has lived the last year under the most extreme emotional pressure, who is only able to compete here because of someone who cannot be with him to share his joy.  To top it all off, Steiner holds a photo of his wife on the podium as he receives his medal, before sobbing – not crying, not weeping, but sobbing – through the national anthem.  Heartbreak can occur in sporting victory, as well as defeat.

Slim YouTube pickings on these, but http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLN4OHxfbGQ for Steiner, and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWBwasy_h7I (briefly, at around 2mins 30 – make sure you fast forward through the nauseating spectacle of the USA winning at Brookline in 1999, wearing those t-shirts) for Clarke.

 

 

NFL at Wembley

I was fortunate enough to attend the NFL match between the Minnesota Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend at Wembley.  What an experience it was.  A close game that went down to the final play between two evenly matched teams in an atmosphere entirely alien to an English sporting audience.  If you think the Premier League is ruled by advertisements and TV companies, then the American Football coverage takes it to a different level.  ‘Timeouts’ litter the action and TV ads interrupt play at every feasible opportunity, in some instances delaying the game deliberately.  Yet, when you are in the crowd, none of this seems to matter.  An NFL match is like a well-oiled machine; as soon as the action has stopped, an army of scantily-clad, implausibly athletic cheerleaders enter the field of play (or some piss-poor male-dominated drumming band – thankfully dressed more conservatively) and suddenly, you don’t care if there is a 2 minute pause.  In fact, all these intermissions are handy because they allow you to nip to the loo or top up your dwindling beer supplies.  Yes NFL allows the supporter to actually see the pitch with a beer in hand.  Shocking I know.

            Whilst ambling along Bobby Moore way to the stadium I noticed two things.  One, I, wearing a black suit and black shirt, was subject to quizzical stares from American Football aficionados because of my outrageous choice of attire.  Apparently if you don’t wear a ridiculously colourful and oversize replica NFL jersey, you are identified as a complete outcast.  The other was the sheer number of different NFL tops on show.  It seemed like the whole American Football fraternity had come out in force, not just Vikings and Steelers fans.  How many times have you been to a Chelsea match and seen Liverpool, Arsenal or Man Utd shirts milling around too?  Fans of all franchises were on show, happy just to revel in watching the sport they love.  There was no segregated seating either; fans of both teams sat side by side without any problems.  That is not say that the atmosphere was jovial and unpassionate.  When the PA announcer in his wonderful American drawl implored the crowd to ‘make some noise,’ a deafening roar ensued as if England had just won the Ashes, the World Cup and Six Nations in one fell swoop.  Flags of the respective franchises were waved fervently and I must say, although it was very un-English, I found it a wonderful experience.

            Is that all American Football is though?  An unashamed commercialised spectacle that has no real sporting merit to it?  Well yes and no.  The television coverage of NFL is an advertisement orgy where companies fall over each other to be associated with the sport.  Even half-time has a sponsor.  Yet none of the teams are allowed a shirt sponsor (which occurs in cricket, football, rugby union and rugby league), only the logo of their respective kit supplier.  There is no doubt that the game is tailored towards a TV audience but interestingly that the game doesn’t suffer as a live sporting occasion.

            The sport itself is not very difficult to understand.  Some of the technical jargon is slightly unnecessary but the basic aims of the game are pretty simple; the attacking team has four attempts to move 10 yards up the field; once this is achieved, the whole process re-starts until either the attacking team score a touchdown/field goal or the defensive team prevent them from advancing 10 yards, who in turn become the attacking team.  The game is all about speed and power and the physical shape some of these American chaps are in is absolutely ridiculous.  Some of the defensive line are more power than speed admittedly, but they are still not lacking in skill and strength.  What is slightly ridiculous is the sheer number of players in an NFL squad.  There are at least three specialist teams (offense, defense, kick-off/punt) as well as replacements for all these players.  The quarter-back obviously has the most important job but surely the easiest of the lot is the kicker.  All he does is kick field goals, conversions, punts and re-starts.  He is probably on the pitch for a total of one minute per match.  Not a bad way to make a living.

            The best player last Sunday was the running-back Adrian Peterson for Minnesota.  He scored two touchdowns and looked a livewire throughout the match with his powerful running and quick footwork.  However it is not only offensive players who get all the praise.  Defense is arguably as important and the Vikings’ defensive end Jared Allen had storming game, sacking (when the quarter-back is tackled before releasing the ball resulting in a loss of yardage) Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger at least three times (I started losing count as the number of beers consumed increased).  Another admirable trait of the NFL is how the umpires are universally respected.  Not one player showed dissent – they simply accepted their decisions and got on with the game.  Football, take note.

            I would urge everyone to give American Football a chance.  Many friends have dismissed the game without really getting to know the idiosyncrasies of it.  Yes, on the television it can become irritating with the endless commercials and breaks in play but to see it live in the stadium is a totally different experience.  The atmosphere is incredible and the entertainment, both on and off the field, is memorable.  The shameless Americaness is actually a refreshing change from the often traditional stoicism of English sport.  If you get the opportunity to watch a game live, either at Wembley or elsewhere, take it.  You won’t be disappointed.

Problems at Surrey

After two seasons in Division 1, Surrey were relegated last week at Warwickshire with only a single victory to their name.  As a fan and member of this once great club, watching them this season has been a depressing experience.  The batsmen have continually failed to post competitive first-innings totals and the inability to bowl sides out twice has been very costly.  The sight of batsmen trudging back to the pavilion after yet another ill-judged dismissal for an embarrassingly low score has become all too familiar at the Oval.  Even signing three legends of the game in Graeme Smith, Ricky Ponting and Hashim Amla hasn’t saved Surrey from the drop.  The club has been guilty of a short-term attitude for quite some time and unfortunately, it has finally caught up with them.

            Since gaining promotion in 2011, Surrey have not had the easiest of rides.  The tragic death of Tom Maynard last year overshadowed the whole season.  The fact that the club avoided relegation was an achievement in itself.  Their captain at the time, Rory Hamilton-Brown took compassionate leave and many of the players’ performances were understandably adversely affected.  It was down to the leadership of spinner Gareth Batty that they managed to stay in Division 1.

Things looked up at the start of the 2013 season.  The signing of Graeme Smith as captain was a major coup and a new crop of youngsters, like Rory Burns, Zafar Ansari and Arun Harinath were finally fulfilling their potential.  Things didn’t get off to a great start.  Smith arrived with an injury and had to return to South Africa after a month.  Early draws and defeats in the County Championship put the pressure on and in mid-June, with the team still winless in the 4-day game, the coach Chris Adams was removed.  Bowling coach Stuart Barnes and Surrey legend Alec Stewart were installed as the interim management team but the change failed to arrest the inevitable slide into Division 2.  A season that had promised so much had turned in to a complete disaster.

            So what went wrong?  In the championship winning side of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Surrey had a core of home-grown talent in their prime.  Players such as Graham Thorpe, Alec Stewart, Ali Brown, the Hollioake brothers, Martin Bicknell, Mark Butcher, Alex Tudor had all come through the age-groups at Surrey and were instrumental in its success.  Imports such as Saqlain Mushtaq, Ian Salisbury and Mark Ramprakash supplemented the core group.  The present day squad is littered with old pros at the wrong end of their careers.  Gary Keedy, Zander de Bruyn, Jon Lewis, Vikram Solanki were all signed from other clubs.  Now I admit that experience is vital in any team sport (remember, you don’t win anything with kids) but some of the purchases reeked of short-termism.  Keedy was a particular bizarre signing.  He doesn’t have a particularly impressive bowling average and the team was hardly in need of another spinner given that Ansari would be available from June onwards, yet he was promptly snapped up.  Lewis was a more understandable acquisition given that he was to advise the younger crop of fast-bowlers and Solanki has performed impressively this season as the club’s leading run-scorer.  This is also not a recent phenomenon for Surrey.  In recent past they have signed Usman Afzaal, Michael Brown, Mohamed Akram, Ed Giddins and Jimmy Ormond amongst others, all of whom had pretty unsuccessful stints at the club.  The problem with these signings is that they only ever provide a quick fix.  It is not a long-term plan that will lead to a legacy of success – just temporary solution to paper over the cracks.

            Since their title-winning years, Surrey have let an alarming amount of talent leave the club.  Current England opener Michael Carberry started his career at the club but left due to limited first-team opportunities.  A similar situation led to Tim Murtagh’s departure.  He has now gone on to become one of county cricket’s most consistent seamers.  Another Middlesex seamer, Toby Roland-Jones was on Surrey’s books as a youngster but was allowed to leave.  Rikki Clarke started his career at the Oval and was at first a great success.  After a few lean years he departed for Derbyshire and is now a key component of last year’s title winners, Warwickshire.  Surrey have some very talented youngsters and they must be allowed opportunities in the first team to showcase their abilities.  If seasoned veterans are blocking their progress then the club is suffering as a whole.

            What about the future?  In some ways, relegation to Division 2 is a good thing because it forces to club to take a long, hard look at its recruitment policy.  Without the threat of relegation, Division 2 gives more opportunities for younger players to stake a claim for first team action.  Talented 18 year-old batsman Dominic Sibley (who as I write has just become the youngest double-centurion in the history of the County Championship) must be given a chance, as should promising fast bowlers George Edwards and Matthew Dunn.  They are the future of the club.  The club needs to clear out the older deadwood and start afresh with young, hungry home-grown players.  Players like de Bruyn (who thankfully has already left), Keedy and dare I say it, Batty should all be let go.  Solanki still has something to offer the team and from what I have seen this season, he still has the hunger and desire for success.  There is also the issue of what to do with Graeme Smith.  Will he really be willing to lead the county in the 2nd Division?  In the meantime, Surrey must learn the lessons of past mistakes and look to the future with a long-term strategy.

The Ashes Squad

After two months of intense Ashes cricket, what better way to celebrate than by doing it all again?  The process all starts on Monday with the announcement of the touring party for the winter down-under.  The weeks leading up to the announcements of England squads to Australia used to be the subject of endless speculation.  In years gone by the squad always used to include one or two left-field youngsters who would go along just for the experience.  Martin Bicknell’s selection in 1990/1 was such a selection, as was Alex Tudor’s in 98/99 (although Tudor ended up playing an influential role in the series).  These days, the competition for places within the England team means there is no space for such luxury.  The selectors will pick the 17 players they think are capable of retaining the Ashes urn.  No room for any passengers.  So who will be on that flight to Australia.

Firstly, the batsmen; Alastair Cook is making his maiden voyage to Australia as captain so he’s obviously the first name on the teamsheet.  Add to that Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen and Joe Root and there are probably only two more spaces left for specialist batsmen.  Michael Carberry was mooted as a possible candidate but he seems to have done his chances more harm than good with his recent performances in the ODI’s.  I don’t think he will, but Nick Compton should go.  He has Test Match experience and can play as an opener as well as in the middle order.  I saw him play this season in the T20 quarter-final for Somerset against Surrey at the Oval.  He seemed very composed and compiled a tidy 20-odd not by slogging but by manipulating the ball around with classy touches and deflections.  He was by far the most accomplished batsman on either side that day.  I know he had a tough time earlier this summer against New Zealand but those problems were more mental than technical.

To go with Compton, Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan have also been mentioned due to their recent form in the one-day game but they have had their chances and been found wanting at Test level.  Ben Stokes could be a prudent selection.  He has been in the England limited overs squads for a couple of seasons now and has shown enough promise to be given at least an opportunity in the Test arena.  His batting stats are a bit disappointing in the four-day game this season; 563 runs at 28 apiece but his bowling is much more impressive – 40 wickets at a shade under 25.  He is still a very raw talent and to be a Test no. 6 his batting would have to improve, but he is an exciting cricketer and his performances over the past 3 seasons have warranted an opportunity with the Test squad.

The wicket-keepers pick themselves: Matthew Prior and Jonny Bairstow with the Yorkshireman just about good enough to play at no. 6 as a specialist batsman (he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory this summer however).  As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, Bairstow’s technique is looser than a wizard’s sleeve – not ideal for combatting the world’s best bowlers.  Until the England management are convinced that Bairstow has made his game more compact, the selectors should seriously consider moving Joe Root down the order to 6 and putting Compton back in to open for the first test in Brisbane.  Bairstow has become a bit of a liability in the batting order who does not put a high enough price on his wicket for my liking.

Until Monty Panesar’s ignominious fall from grace, the spinner situation was fairly simple.  Since Panesar was questioned by police in August, there have been serious question marks over Panesar’s mental capabilities.  If he is on top of his demons then he has to go because he is the second best spinner in the country, no question.  However if the England management feel he is going to be too much of a hindrance because of his off-field issues, a space becomes vacant.  Whoever is selected would most definitely be going as back-up to Graeme Swann, but with the Nottinghamshire man’s dodgy elbow, he may be called upon to play in the Tests.  I can safely say Simon Kerrigan will not be named in the touring party.  My 64 year-old father (he once took all 10 wickets in an innings) could have bowled better than the sack of shit Kerrigan served up at the Oval last month.  James Tredwell would be my choice.  He will not pull up any trees but he bowls very tight and deserves his chance after performing admirably in the one-day arena (he has a bowling average of 24.88 for England).  An outside choice would be Middlesex’s off-spinner Ollie Rayner.  I saw him bowl at the Oval last month and he took 15 wickets in the match and was nigh-on unplayable on an admittedly helpful wicket (and against some pretty dross batting).  His 6ft 5in frame makes him a very awkward customer to face and on bouncy Australian wickets, he could be a real handful.  The logical choice is Tredwell but if the selectors are feeling adventurous, Rayner could sneak in through the back door.

The seamers almost pick themselves.  James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan are certainties.  Steven Finn is pretty sure of his place despite his indifferent season and Graham Onions has had yet another stellar year and must go on the tour.  I feel sorry for Onions.  He finally made it into the England team in 2009, only to be decimated by injuries and has always been on the fringes ever since.  He has taken a hatful of wickets in the past two seasons but has never been given his chance to show what he can do.  I really hope he gets an opportunity if he is selected.  The final seamer spot would seem to be Chris Tremlett’s.  Chris Woakes rather bowled himself out of contention with an innocuous performance in the fifth test against the Aussies.  Tremlett hasn’t had a great season for Surrey and when I have seen him in the flesh, he seems to have lost a bit of zip – a result of a catalogue of injuries throughout his career.  He had a real impact on the series in 2010/11 but I doubt whether he could re-create those performances.  If Tremlett isn’t selected then Boyd Rankin would seem to be in the driving seat.  A very similar bowler to Surrey man (like Tremlett he is 6ft 7in tall), Rankin is a very awkward customer to face.  The pace and bounce of the Australian wickets will most definitely suit his style of bowling.  The only drawback to his selection would be his lack of experience in Test Cricket.  He has played over 40 ODI’s, both for Ireland and England with great success but that is nothing compared to the intensity of an Ashes Test.  He would represent a very progressive selection.

No-one else has stood out this season in the county game.  Toby Roland-Jones was bandied about at the start of the season as a potential England bowler but injury has ruined his season and at 25 years of age, he still has time on his side.  Sussex’s Chris Jordan has had a wonderful season with both bat and ball since his move from Surrey. 50 wickets and a batting average of 25 is a very impressive return and his form was rewarded with a place in England’s one-day squad.  The Test touring party may be a step too far for him but he is certainly one to watch for the future.

So after much deliberation, my touring party would be as follows:

Cook

Compton

Root

Trott

Pietersen

Bell

Stokes

Bairstow

Prior

Swann

Panesar

Anderson

Broad

Bresnan

Onions

Finn

Tremlett

I’m pretty sure the 17 names on the above list would have more than enough to overcome Australia.  England aren’t at the peak of their powers by any stretch of the imagination, but the Aussies, especially with star fast-bowler Ryan Harris’ fitness doubtful for the series opener, aren’t in much better shape.  There’s even talk of bringing scattergun Mitchell Johnson back into the team.  If this is indeed the case, England are almost certain of returning to Blighty with the little urn in hand.

Who’s going to win the U.S Open?

The final Grand Slam of the year begins in earnest this week and the competition is pretty wide open.  Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal are all Major winners this year and it is hard to separate them.  Add to that the evergreen Roger Federer and 2009 winner Juan Martin Del Potro and you have a tournament that promises some tasty match-ups in the second week.  The women’s competition is slightly less of an enigma – Serena Williams is the girl to beat but if she gets knocked out, anyone has a chance of taking the U.S Open crown.

            Andy Murray goes into this Grand Slam in the slightly unfamiliar role as the man to beat.  Instead of gunning after Djokovic, Nadal et al he is probably expected to at least make the final as the defending champion.  How Murray deals with this added pressure will be interesting.  He certainly has seem to find a formula that sees him peak at exactly the right time for the Grand Slams; 4 finals and two championship victories in his past four appearances is reminiscent of Federer at his peak.  He won the Miami Masters earlier in the season on hard-courts but his form of late has been slightly lacklustre.  Murray will need to raise his game significantly (which I’m sure he will) to retain his title.

            One player who is in top form is the Spaniard Rafael Nadal.  Two titles in consecutive weeks on the U.S hard-courts is the ideal preparation for a tilt at the U.S Open.  For a man of his exceptional talents though, Nadal doesn’t have a great record in the majors on hard-courts.  He has only won 2 Grand Slams (1 Australian Open, 1 U.S Open) on the hard stuff in his entire career and there is a feeling that Djokovic and Murray are both superior on hard-courts.  He is the man in form but he will have to do something extra special to avoid being beaten once again by his nemeses.

            Which brings us to Novak Djokovic.  If God wanted to create the perfect hard-court player he would have probably made something very similar to the sinewy Serbian.  Wonderfully athletic and as strong as an ox, he has the lean, fatless physique that us mere mortals can only dream of.  But enough of my mini man-crush.  His rippling torso has in fact helped him become probably the greatest hard-court player of the modern era, and add to that a freakish talent with a racquet, he is a good bet to add to his already bulging trophy cabinet.  He himself has announced Nadal as the favourite in New York but I think he’s just playing a bit of mind games.  Like Murray he has also reached 4 finals in his previous 4 appearances but has only managed to win one, which might play on his mind.  Nevertheless, Djokovic is my (very ill-advised) tip to win.

            Coming in slightly under the radar is the mercurial Argentinian, Juan Martin Del Potro.  He won his first and only Grand Slam to date in New York four years ago and he is in top form on the hard-courts at the moment, winning the Citi Open and reaching the semi-finals of the Western and Southern Open.  He played brilliantly during his run to the semi-finals of this summer’s Wimbledon, taking Djokovic to 5 sets and also showing unprecedented determination to overcome an injury in beating David Ferrer in the quarters.  He has mighty ground strokes and an unstoppable serve – ideally suited to the fast hard-courts in the Big Apple.  The only drawback is that Del Potro is not in the same league physically as Murray, Nadal, Djokovic.  He does move well for a man of 6ft 6in tall, but his speed across the court is not as good as the top three.  A dark horse, yes, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he made to at least the semi-finals.

            This is the first time in more than a decade when I don’t count Roger Federer as one of the tournament favourites for a Grand Slam.  The Swiss virtuoso has had a lean year by his very high standards and it would seem that age is catching up with him.  He has won two tournaments this year, both on grass, yet his performances at the Grand Slams have been worrying.  Defeated at the French Open by an inspired Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, he suffered an ignominious loss to Ukranian Sergei Stakhovsky (albeit to some brilliant serve-volley tennis) at the 2nd round of Wimbledon.  Federer is still capable of superb tennis and I have no doubt that he could beat some of the top-4 ranked players, but I doubt whether his body can endure 2 weeks of intense Grand Slam tennis.  There is a definite feeling of his star waning; players are no longer as fearful of him.  The 32 year-old used to have this unbeatable aura about him – where players almost knew that they were going to lose before they even began the warm-up.  Alas no longer.  Thankfully, we can still marvel at his beautiful and sometimes balletic forehand.  However, I doubt the man with the second best backhand on the tour (behind Richard Gasquet of course) will feature heavily in New York in the coming weeks.

            On the women’s side, the peerless Serena Williams is still the girl to beat, and with confectionary entrepreneur and part-time tennis player Maria Sharapova out of the tournament injured, her task is made that bit easier.  World number two Victoria Azarenka actually beat Williams in their most recent meeting in Cincinnati but the Belarusian has never won when it really matters at the Grand Slams.  Petra Kvitova has an ideal game for the hard-court surface – she hits the ball very hard and could have a good fortnight if she gets going.  Apart from those two there are very few players that can trouble Williams on the tour.  Laura Robson is Britain’s best hope but she is nursing a wrist injury so do not expect her to repeat last year’s run to the last 16.

             So there you have it.  A pretty conservative prediction I know but hopefully an accurate one for once.  Of course I’d love it if Murray won but for me Djokovic is the superior player on the hard-courts.  It would certainly be a mouth-watering prospect if they both made it to the final.  Here’s hoping.

The Premier League 13/14

The Premier League season starts on Saturday but to be honest, I’m not that bothered by it.  Why?  It feels like there hasn’t even been a break.  Since the Champions League final at the end of May we have had international friendlies at the start of June, then the U-21 European Championships and then the Confederations Cup during the rest of June.  By that time, pre-season has already started and we are into the endless cycle of transfer sagas, manager speculation and predictions.  There is just no let-up.  Football has lost its allure as it creeps ever increasingly into the summer months traditionally reserved for cricket.  Because of the insatiable appetite for the beautiful game, one can watch it all year round and for me, that seems wrong.  I like my June and July to be totally football-free (unless the World Cup is on of course) and so when August comes around, I am genuinely tingling with anticipation at the thought of my first glimpse at the newest signings to the Premier League.  Remember that glorious time, pre-internet, when players like Andrei Kanchelskis and Daniel Amokachi came to England?  The first opportunity one had to see them play was the first game of the season (unless you were some super-keen fanatic who would travel to Bury on a sweltering July evening to see your team put in a half-arsed performance) and one would be genuinely excited.  Nowadays, all the mystique has disappeared.  It’s like a girl on a first date handing you a picture of herself completely starkers.  Yes it’s good to have this information but all the mystery has been ruined.  A couple of clicks and you can see your new signing in action on youtube, read his personal preferences on twitter, get to know his family on Instagram; so this pre-season I have steered clear of youtube, deliberately not followed Iago Aspas on twitter and avoided watching videos of pre-season games.  Despite this impressive self-denial, I am still completely apathetic towards the coming season – and this seriously worries me.

            Part of the problem is that this summer has seen amazing achievements from Britons in other sports.  Whilst our brave footballers were drawing with Ireland, Andy Murray was busy becoming the first British man for 77 years to win Wimbledon.  The Lions were winning their first test series in four attempts and England’s cricketers are currently making mincemeat of Australia in the Ashes.  Not to mention Mo Farah’s 10,000m victory at the World Championships or Christine Ohurougu’s incredible British record to reclaim her 400m crown on Monday.  In other sports, British competitors are improving, testing themselves against the best in the world and regularly coming out on top.  The footballers meanwhile are plodding along, seemingly content to be good enough, but not world class.  There has been a recent change in the British psyche from being gallant, plucky losers to hard-nosed winners.  This is evident in Rugby Union, Tennis, Cricket, Athletics and Cycling but seems to have passed football by.  I daresay the fact that there is so much money in English football at the moment is to the detriment of the game.  Young players who have achieved relatively little get rewarded with huge contracts and suddenly at 19, 20, 21 they are already millionaires living a very comfortable lifestyle.  Take Raheem Sterling for example.  He played maybe two or three good games for Liverpool last season, yet was demanding a £30k plus per-week contract (as an 18 year-old) when in real terms, he had done absolutely sweet FA.  Liverpool, loathe to lose one of their brightest talents, relented and Sterling proceeds to go and behave like a complete wally and gets himself arrested last week.  Is that the behaviour of a potential star of the future?  Do you hear about the best young Spanish or German or Italian players (let’s forget about Balotelli for a second) conducting themselves in such a manner?

            One thing that I have noticed about successful athletes from other sports is their hunger and desire to win, their willingness to work hard to achieve their goals, and how grounded and disciplined they are.  Take Mo Farah for example.  In preparation for the World Championships he spent several weeks training at altitude in the Swiss and Austrian Alps.  Farah has a young family and he sacrificed seeing them in pursuit of his goal of a gold medal – so much so that he admitted his youngest daughter barely recognises him.  Bradley Wiggins, in a similar situation to Farah with a young family, spent weeks training at altitude in Tenerife in preparation for his tilt at the 2012 Tour de France.  This is the sort of dedication and ruthlessness required to become the best in the world.  The footballers of today seldom have such drive and desire.  Last year, England cricket’s star batsman, Kevin Pietersen, fresh from a stunning 149 not out to save the game against South Africa at Headingley, was dropped for creating dressing-room unrest by sending provocative texts to the opposition and generally being a bit of a Billy big-bollocks.  England lost the next game, but sent Pietersen a strong message which was along the lines of ‘nothing is bigger than the team.’  The Surrey man repented, was re-admitted to the team with the proviso of a new attitude and look what has happened since: England have not lost a series.

            I like the Premier League, I genuinely do.  It is probably the most exciting league in the world and it showcases some of the greatest players on the planet.  However, especially since the 2012 Olympics, I have become slightly disillusioned with football.  The Olympics was a glorious festival of sport, where athletes dedicated up to four years of their lives living off pittance in some cases in the pursuit of a medal (in some cases, just the start line).   That is what sport is about – the passion, the determination, the drive to try hard every day in the pursuit of excellence.  When I see Premier League footballers not giving much of a shit (Q.P.R take note) who are on more money per week than most athletes earn in a year, it leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.

            So, what hopes do I have for the coming season?  I hope that the football will take pride of place instead of debates about strikers trying to eat central defenders.  I hope the season will throw up a surprise package that plays enterprising football (Stoke and West Ham to be relegated please).  I hope that just for once, greedy footballers stop thinking about how much money they can earn, handing in transfer requests and actually get on with improving themselves.  I hope that I can fall back in love with the beautiful game.  I hope, but I won’t hold by breath.

England should go for the jugular

So far, so good Ashes-wise.  Two games, two victories, and everybody of an English persuasion is happy.  We’ve even had some history-making moments.  We have had a record score by a number 11 batsman; we have had a record 10th wicket partnership; we have had a truly outstanding delivery to dismiss the opposition’s captain and main batsman (Anderson to Clarke at Trent Bridge); we have had a bollock-clenchingly close finish; and we have had a hilariously brutal spanking.  Yet, there are some who claim to feel a particular emotion that is utterly alien to almost every English cricket fan; that of sympathy towards the Aussies.

This was most notable at the end of Australia’s first innings at Trent Bridge.  Ashton Agar had just been dismissed for 98 in his debut innings, an astonishing effort as everyone acknowledges.  However, you could hear murmurs of ‘isn’t it a shame that the poor lad didn’t make his century.  I wouldn’t have begrudged him an extra two runs.’  Excuse me?  This lad has just contributed to a stand which may very well have taken the first test away from England.  From a position of impregnability, we are now staring down the barrel of a 70 run deficit after the first innings.  We want him out as soon as possible.  Every run may be crucial.

There is something in the British psyche that looks down on winning too easily.  Drumming home one’s obvious advantage is seen as vulgar, not the done thing.  We root for the underdog, and often fail to acknowledge sheer sporting class because we are too busy sympathising with the loser.  For example, following this year’s women’s Wimbledon final, most reports concentrated on the collapse of Sabine Lisicki’s form, rather than praising Marion Bartoli for her high-class, tactically prefect play.  This may have something to do with the relative attractiveness of the two players, which is a different issue entirely (for more information write to J Inverdale Esq, BBC Sport, Chauvinism Place, Misogyny Road, I’m-no-looker-myself-ville), but also displays the British fixation with a plucky, but tearful loser over a deserved winner.

In reference to the cricket, any supporter who has lived through the barren years of 1989 to 2005 is not going to feel sorry for the Aussies in a hurry.  The first Ashes series I was aware of was the 1989 fiasco which, to my mind, seemed mainly to consist of Steve Waugh scoring runs, and Graham Gooch getting out to Terry Alderman.  England fielded 29 different players in that series, including such luminaries as Phil Newport, Tim Curtis and John Stephenson.  Between 1991 and 2005, the following players have played Test cricket for England against Australia: Eddie Hemmings, Martin McCague, Mike Smith, Warren Hegg, Ian Ward, Jimmy Ormond, Richard Dawson.  In the same period Australia have had the following selection dilemmas: which Waugh twin to play (1991); Michael Slater or Matthew Hayden (1993); which fast bowler out of McGrath, Gillespie, Reiffel or Kasprowicz to leave out (1997); Ricky Ponting or Michael Bevan (also 1997); Michael Slater or Justin Langer (2001); how are we possibly going to deal with the loss of Shane Warne, oh well better call up Stuart MacGill I suppose (2003); is our batting line-up strong enough to ignore Brad Hodge, Stuart Law, Matthew Elliott, Jamie Cox, Michael Hussey, Darren Lehmann and Michael Di Venuto (most series from 1997 onwards – the answer’s yes by the way).  Given the disparity in quality and selection policy between the two teams for 16 long, predictable years, I am certainly not about to offer up any sympathy towards this current Aussie outfit.  Keep your metaphorical foot on their metaphorical throat is my message to the England team.  And don’t worry about the metaphorical bit.