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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A Tale of Two Countries

Will Pearson

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

For Andrew Strauss and England, the best: a draw in the first Ashes test – snatched from what at the end of day three looked very much like the gaping jaws of certain defeat – must have tasted as sweet as victory.

For Ricky Ponting’s Australian side it was undeniably the worst: after scenting the metallic tang of first blood for so much of this encounter, the deflation at stumps yesterday was palpable;  nowhere was the pain more evident than in the image of tired resignation etched on the captain’s weary and weathered face as he trudged from the field.

And while it is far too early to label this Ashes series with the term so often afforded to the novels of Charles Dickens – “a classic” – this opener had all the hallmarks of what made the two previous contests so thoroughly compelling.

The story of the 2009 series, of course, began in a similar fashion: a famously stoical last stand between Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar saved England from defeat in Cardiff, after Australia had posted a mammoth first innings total of 674 – a deficit of 239 over England’s opening efforts.  The squandering of such a powerful position certainly damaged Australian morale and confidence that time, with England going on to win the next test at Lords – the first time they had done so since 1934 – and subsequently the series 2-1.

While England’s comeback at the Gabba might not be quite as psychologically galling to the Aussies as failing to bowl out one of the worst batsmen in international test cricket, it was a sizeable blow all the same.  That it occurred at what has long been an Australian stronghold in Brisbane – England last won at the Gabba in 1986 – only served in further souring Antipodean taste buds.

It has to be said, however, that Australia didn’t lose the match; the series is of course very much alive.  The interesting thing will be to observe how Ponting and his team respond to this setback.

An always-frantic build up had been largely dominated by Australian pessimism, yet for the first three days of this test the prevailing mood appeared ill-founded. 

It may seem like a lifetime ago, but things started very well for Australia: after winning the toss and electing to bat, England captain Andrew Strauss fell to the third ball of Thursday morning before Peter Siddle ripped through the middle-order with the first Ashes hat-trick since Darren Gough’s in 1999, leaving the visitors deposed for only 260.  The previously-maligned Mike Hussey and wicket-keeper Brad Haddin then vociferously proceeded in taking apart England’s muted bowling attack, launching Australia in to a 221-run lead.  This flying start resulted in a noticeable upsurge of mood and confidence in both the team and Australian public.

And surely if this series is to rank up there with classic Ashes of yore, that can only be a good thing.

Australia need that swagger and self-assurance. It has always been natural for Australian sportsmen to embody confidence and to maintain an unshakeable belief in their own ability, to revel in their status as world-beaters and to excel to such a loathsome extent.  If it were to become any different it would devalue this age-old contest: the Australian spirit is all part of the theatre of the spectacle, and England and its fans wouldn’t want it any other way.  It is, after all, the pantomime season and the English love nothing more than to hate a villain.

And so, in some ways, it was a shame when the wheels came off Australia’s unprecedented revival in the final two days.  A bad Sunday was followed by a terrible Monday, the likes of which even the most fanatical Barmy Army patron could scarcely have envisaged at the end of Saturday.  The best of times had rapidly wilted to the worst for Australia, and the lingering doubts and negativity returned. 

England, though, were in dreamland.  The fightback that had begun positively on Sunday continued unbroken through Monday, and with it a plethora of records fell faster than you can say Roy Castle and Cheryl Baker: the magnificent Alastair Cook’s 235 not out was not only the highest ever knock at the Gabba, but also the longest innings of any English batsman in Australia.  On a team note, it was the first time the top three had all scored centuries in an innings since 1924, and the first time that England have ever scored 500 for the loss of only one wicket.  Stunning.

Everything went England’s way, and Australia were unrecognisable.  When Michael Clarke put down a simple catch in the slips heads began to droop in what was an uncharacteristic display of self-doubt.  Ricky Ponting’s captaincy had taken a battering in the lead-up to the match and once again the Tasmanian failed to rally his flagging troops when faced with adversity.  Throughout England’s second innings Ponting was continually guilty of ball-following, and the defensive nature of his field settings on Monday morning was truly baffling.

Ammunition aplenty for critics of Ponting’s reign.

As the game slowly slipped away from Australia so too did their fans, as Monday saw the swathes of empty that Cricket Australia had earlier feared.  And when a contest as fiercely competitive as the Ashes is struggling to fill grounds then surely that should be a major concern for anyone involved with cricket.

Credit has to go to Kevin Mitchell Senior and Junior for creating a wicket that not only hosted two 6-wicket hauls, in Siddle and Finn’s efforts, but five centuries as well.  It may have flattened in to the type of road more at home on the Lincolnshire Fens by the final two days – when only two wickets fell for 624 runs – but it served in providing a superb sporting exhibition all the same.

The pitch was indisputably a dream to bat on, but the nature of the test’s denouement raised questions over whether either team can claim 20 wickets in a match.   Australia will certainly be looking at making changes, the awful Mitchell Johnson looks the most likely to miss out in Adelaide after returning figures of 0-170.  England’s attack is not completely bereft of worry either, with the usually reliable Graeme Swann appearing most out of sorts in the first test.  The Adelaide wicket – although also flat – usually offers a bit more turn but this will be elementary if Swann cannot regain a consistent length.

However, from an English perspective, this initial encounter did nothing if prove a newly-instilled resilience and confidence to take forward in to the rest of the series. 

The Australians should not be underestimated though.

Dickens’ themes of destruction and resurrection in A Tale of Two Cities resonate strongly in the sporting world.  Time and time again the world has witnessed eminent sporting teams crumble before rebuilding anew; and with such cricketing legends as Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist – to name but two – retiring in the last five years perhaps it is unsurprising to find Australia at their lowest ebb in two decades.  Before a rise there is inevitably a fall, and whether Australia’s renaissance occurs in this series or beyond, only time will tell.

Andrew Strauss travelled not to Paris, but to Australia to bring an urn back to Lord’s; if he proves to be successful in his quest then critics in Australia may be calling for Ponting to do “a far, far better thing” than he has ever done as captain by calling time on his era as skipper.  Perhaps, like Sydney Carton’s demise in the Dickens classic, only the self-sacrifice of Ponting – unquestionably one of the greatest batters ever – will allow the rebirth of a truly great team.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Roar Strand loves sweeping chimneys...

Henry Salmon

All around the world, sporting greats live under constant scrutiny from the media, with their private lives receiving as much (and in some cases more) attention as their exploits in the profession that brought them fame. These top players usually go into coaching or punditry, whilst the ones that don't are able to live off their success for the rest of their life without too much concern. However, some sporting luminaries career-paths take bizarre turns, and I have chosen a few of the more amusing life choices to share with you.

Football is a sport associated these days with glamour and glory. The big contracts result in attractive girlfriends and lavish lifestyles. Not for Roar Strand. The first of two Norwegians on this list, the former Rosenborg player retired from football and took up the unenviable task of sweeping chimneys for a living. No joke.

One of the most peculiar ends to a career came when Argentinian international goalkeeper Carlos Roa gave up his gloves in 1999 (aged 29) to preach in Argentina. He believed the world was going to end in the year 2000 and spent his life trying to convert people to 7th day adventism. When oblivion failed to rear its ugly head, he went back to Real Mallorca and continued to play football until 2006. Roa is not the only footballer to have replaced football with religion, Alan Comfort became a vicar on retirement, and both are likely to be followed by the holy man himself, Brazilian star Kaka.

Some more politically minded readers might remember the curious case of Terry Marsh in the 2010 general election. Terry Marsh started out in the spotlight as a light-welterweight boxer. He retired in 1987 as undefeated IBF light-welterweight champion. In 1989, he was put on trial for the attempted murder of his trainer, Frank Warren, for which he was eventually acquitted. After this, he took the route any retired boxer and marine accused of murder would take – politics. In 1997, he ran as a Liberal democrat in Basildon, before having to withdraw under accusations of fraud. Better still, in 2010 he changed his name by deed poll to None of the Above X as a protest against the voting system, and ran as an independent candidate For South Basildon and East Thurrock. Needless to say, Mr. X was unsuccessful.

The next person on this list is here partly for his post-cricket career choices, but also for his incredible change of accent. Like Steve McClaren, Jack Richards, former England wicket keeper, has developed an extraordinary Dutch accent since emigrating. After retiring at 30, Richards moved to the Belgian/Dutch border working as a shipping broker in Rotterdam. He is also head-coach of the Belgian Under-16 team. Not in cricket, but in Rugby...

Americans seem to do everything bigger and better, and in the case of this blog, this is as true as anywhere else. Richard Seigler was a line backer in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers until a couple of years ago. On a handsome wage, one would think that he would not need to break the law to earn his living. Mr. Seigler though, might be described as “old school”. Not content with the money he was making from “football,” Siegler was found to be soliciting prostitutes in Las Vegas for his pocket money. As if being a pimp and a celebrity at the same time wasn't a stupid enough combination, he advertised them on popular US website, Craigslist!

Ugueth Urbina, may not be a name that British are familiar with but the Venezuelan former major league baseball pitcher is the second of our criminal sportsmen. His ranch in Venezuela was the scene of the attempted murder he was convicted of on two of his employees. He attacked them both with Machetes and tried to pour gasolene on them for “stealing a gun”. It turns out they were just trying to escape his employ as he was using them on his ranch practically as slaves.

Finally, Liverpool and Rosenborg fans might remember Norwegian right back Vegard Heggem. I remember his goal in the stunning win for Rosenborg at the San Siro in 1996, but it was my cousin, a certain Paul Gilbert esq. who informed me of his post football career as the owner of a salmon fishing business in rural Norway. I don't know why I found that so amusing, but in some ways, this is my favourite story of all. Salmon fishing – outrageous!!

Monday, 1 November 2010

Can the Six Nations fight Southern fire with fire?

Henry Salmon

For as long as I am able to recall, I have listened to the good and the great in rugby wax lyrical about the standard of the game in the southern hemisphere. In terms of style, there is a perceived gulf in class between the rugby played by New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and that of the Six Nations. After England’s success at the 2003 World Cup – a tournament they won as favourites – many pundits still criticised their tactics and suggested the best team in the competition was probably the All Black side defeated in the semi-finals.

In truth, watching Australia vs. New Zealand and England vs. France in 2003, it would be difficult to argue the case for the latter match as the more exciting. England won it (in drab conditions) thanks to the tireless endeavour of their forwards and the boot of Mr. Wilkinson. It was slow and predictable, contrasting starkly from the open encounter eventually won by the Wallabies. New Zealand further proved their credentials as rugby's most exciting side in the 3rd place play off, putting France to the sword with a string of breathtaking trys.

Exciting though, doesn't necessarily mean better. Before almost every World Cup, New Zealand are touted as one of the strong favourites (if not bookmakers favourite) arriving at tournaments on the back of impressive wins against most sides in the draw. Their flamboyance makes their games the most eagerly awaited worldwide. However, for all their attacking flair and perceived dominance, they haven't won a world cup since its inaugural year in 1987. France are another side heralded as enigmatic talents but who have also never won the most coveted trophy in Rugby.

In contrast, England's successful side of 2003, and to a certain extent South Africa's 2007 winners, won on the back of rugby's truest cliché: “Forwards win matches, backs decide by how much.” For England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, this is the basic mantra to the game. All four are built around the strength of their forwards to create opportunities to accrue points via boot or try. When correctly implemented, with a strong defence, playing this way is hugely effective.

Considering all of this, it may come as a surprise to you when I say that this will not be enough in the autumn tests starting Saturday – or at the world cup next year. I was fortunate enough to watch all 80+ minutes of Saturday's contest between New Zealand and Australia in Hong Kong. It was one of the most thrilling and evenly fought matches I have seen in any sport, with the fantastic extra-time climax. The standard of rugby on show was at times breathtaking, with neither side willing to relinquish possession by resorting to a kicking game, and keeping the ball in hand even within the confines of their own 22. The quality of handling on both sides resulted in phase after phase of attacking rugby which was only prevented from turning into a try-fest by the quality of both sides defence.

This is nothing new though. Many southern hemisphere sides have displayed such feats of excellence without converting them into world cup successes. It is worth adding that neither side was without fault: both made numerous errors in terms of turnovers, penalties conceded and wasteful kicking – particularly when the Australians kicked from hand.

The reason I fear for the northern hemisphere sides is the quality both sides showed at the breakdown. Richie McCaw has been commanding at the ruck for years but in David Pocock, Australia have their own McCaw and all eight members of both packs showed enormous levels of skill and savvy on the floor. Their backs too showed willingness and adeptness in protecting the ball and counter-rucking. The result was regular quick ball and the aforementioned turnovers and penalties.

Previously, England in particular have been able to control the breakdown and stifle the attacking threats of the more creative southern hemisphere back lines. If they play this way during the autumn, they will be embarrassed.

I don't think any of the northern hemisphere sides will beat any of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa this autumn. However, I think they can prepare for the world cup and give themselves a chance if they play attacking rugby and try to take on their southern opponents on in all areas. The only way they will force mistakes is if they compete in all areas. If they kick the ball away – they will live to regret it.

Of the northern hemisphere sides, I feel it is England who have the best chance at next year’s world cup. Their backs seem to have the right blend of youth and experience, while their forwards will be bolstered by the long awaited return of Andrew Sheridan. Will they break the mould and attack? Who knows.

Monday, 25 October 2010

What a Week in Wayne's World

Will Pearson

The road to redemption is long and one beset with perilous pitfalls; for Wayne Rooney deliverance lies at the end of a particularly winding and thorny thoroughfare.
A great deal of water passed under several bridges during the course of an extraordinary week in football, the events of which breathed life into a saga of epic proportion.  In the seven days people of Britain will also remember for fiscal restraints instated by the coalition, Rooney positively disregarded his own purse-string altogether. 
In what was an astounding display of self-interest the Liverpudlian somehow ended the week not, as was widely expected, with an impending exit strategy from Manchester United, but as custodian to a new five-year contract believed to be worth around fifty million pounds.
It was a conclusion which appeared an unlikely proposition just days earlier.
When a downcast Sir Alex Ferguson descended from his Old Trafford stage shortly after 2pm last Tuesday, the frank and honest content of his stunning press conference appeared to confirm what had previously been labelled by United fans as tabloid conjecture: Wayne Rooney wanted away.  Ferguson spoke candidly about his “shock” and “disappointment” and what he perceived to be an ultimate “betrayal” by his star striker.
The situation was exacerbated further the next day when – just an hour before his team were due to kick-off against Bursaspor – Rooney released his own carefully constructed response to the previous day’s revelations.  He bemoaned the future spending power of the Reds and questioned the team’s ability to continue to win trophies; indirectly, he put his colleagues, his manager, the club and its fans to the sword in what was a merciless and scathing riposte.
At this point, Rooney’s position at the club looked untenable, his bridges all but left in embers.
Yet less than forty-eight hours later a smiling Rooney and Ferguson were pictured together, a new agreement reached to maintain the forward’s position as a United employee.  Newspapers everywhere elected the phrase “astonishing U-turn” synonymous with the denouement of the saga, bar The Guardian which preferred “about-turn”.  Whatever you call it, this was undoubtedly an incredible change of heart, one which left the world to pick over Rooney – and his agent Paul Stretford’s – motives.
A multitude of explanations for the ordeal have been purported, but the fact is we will probably never know the story in its sordid entirety.  One conspiracy theory suggests the expensive contract is merely an effort by United to fetch a higher asking price when the club sell him on in January or the summer.  The most popular assertion is that the whole affair was nothing more than a prolonged ploy of negotiation, engineered by Rooney’s agent to affect a bumper pay-day.
The matter elicited hostile receptions across the football world, none more vociferous than that of Blackpool manager, Ian Holloway, who said: “I've got big problems with the people running football. They are so wrong it's frightening”.  He seethed at the way Rooney and Stretford had attempted to “manufacture” an exit from the club which had developed the player into a world-beating forward.
The truth is that no one emerged from the week’s exchanges with much credibility – not Rooney, not football, and in some ways, not United or Ferguson.
The prodigious Scotsman has always prided himself on never allowing a player to become bigger than the club, on knowing when to let go.  The list of evictees is extensive, from David Beckham to Roy Keane, from Eric Cantona to Ruud van Nistelrooy.  This time, though, was different.  Ferguson knew that losing Wayne Rooney – especially given the number 10’s published concerns over the club’s future – was not an option.
It was a selfless move from Ferguson, who from the offset handled the commotion beautifully: personally he perhaps lost face – appearing bullied and pushed around by player and agent as never before; yet the other alternative – which for so long looked a certainty – was not worth contemplating.  If Rooney had been allowed to escape – perhaps unthinkably to Manchester City – while doubting the club’s stature, decreeing United as a falling star, then it would have been the club’s reputation that would have taken a battering.
Perhaps – for the first time in many years – people would have begun to contemplate the beginning of the end for United’s era as world-conquering dominators.   
And what of the outcome for Rooney?  You could say that things have worked out superbly after he secured a contract which doubled his previous earnings while broadcasting his powers of negotiation; but how much has it cost the former-Evertonian in personal terms?
Without doubt he faces an uphill battle to regain the trust and love of the Old Trafford faithful who feel bitterly hurt by Rooney’s supposed philanderings with arch-rivals City.  Furious United fans held banners aloft at Wednesday’s European game, one alluding to the striker’s recent marital strife: “Coleen forgave you.  We won’t”.  The tension culminated on Thursday night when an angry, balaclava-adorned mob congregated outside his Prestbury mansion; perhaps Rooney at this point actually began to fear for his own safety if he pursued a move across town to Eastlands.
In the end, this theory wasn’t tested as Rooney put pen to paper on Friday.  After securing the deal he was possibly seeking all along, Rooney afforded himself a satisfied smile.  This was the man as we have never seen him before: not the old-fashioned footballer of yore, but Rooney the business man. 
For so long it seemed like a negotiating tactic that had over-stepped the mark, but it eventually came good for Camp Rooney. 
Many others, though, have described it as simply a victory for greed, and at a time when the country struggles to regain its financial feet after recession. 
What a crazy week, and what a difference seven days makes: a story that began with Rooney warming the Old Trafford bench against West Brom – his mind racing with uncertainties over the brewing storm – ended with a balmy birthday break in Dubai as his team-mates put the saga aside to card their first away win of the season in his absence.  
While the celebratory piña coladas probably tasted like a million bucks, Wayne Rooney surely knows he has more than a 3,500 mile journey back from the Middle East to return to the heart of Manchester       

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Haye vs Harrison: Battle of Britain or Phoney War?

By Henry Salmon

On the 13th of November, David Haye is defending his WBA crown against fellow Brit and former European champion Audley Harrison in Manchester. The hype in the British press over the fight has been immense with a vitriolic war of words between the two fighters contributing to a real sense of anticipation. The excitement, though, is entirely superficial: the fight will almost certainly be a decidedly one sided contest. Harrison has never developed into the boxer his Olympic crown in Sydney suggested he might be. His punching pedigree is insufficient to worry Haye and his ageing frame will struggle against the force and speed that the world champion possesses.

The fight is an obvious publicity stunt. For David Haye it represents a chance to make some easy money while gaining a little more time and experience at this weight-division before taking on the brothers Klitschko. For Harrison the fight represents a no loss situation. If he achieves the impossible in beating Haye, it will go down as one of the greatest upsets in the sports history; the prospect of merely being in the same ring as Haye has catapulted him from the depths of underachievement into the limelight. It is a smart move for both boxers in the short term.

The most daring boxing fans have made comparisons between this match-up and the Moorer vs. Foreman bout of 1994. Foreman was granted a rematch against Moorer having been destroyed in the first fight. He was 45 and hugely unfancied. However, he came through and regained the title – becoming the oldest man ever to do so, 20 years after first losing his crown to Muhammad Ali. The important difference between the two scenarios is that Foreman in his pomp was one of the greatest boxers of all time and a multiple world champion. Under no circumstances could Harrison, even at his best, be compared to the great George Foreman, rendering this comparison (and possibly this whole paragraph) obsolete. This really is a no-brainer.

While the fight is unquestionably boosting awareness of the sport in Britain, it is a clear display of the current weakness of international heavy-weight boxing: that this fight was even considered is a reflection of the veritable dearth in top class boxers in the division and exposes a worrying lack of personnel. Ruiz and Valuev are both former world champions but are not great boxers and provide little interest in the press room. The Klitschkos (particularly Wladimir) seem to possess star quality but haven't really been tested. They also lack the charisma to really captivate a world audience.
It is a far cry from the glory days of the 70s, late 80s and 90s which saw regular and competitive fights between such greats as Tyson, Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Foreman, Berbick, Michael Spinks, Ali and Frazier to name but a few.

Boxers of the current era in general seem overly concerned with remaining undefeated and there are fewer rematches and big fights than there used to be. Haye is worried he might lose to the Klitschkos, denying the boxing public the fights they really want to see. Haye knows he will only get one or two fights against either brother, and will want to time them perfectly. Limiting the number of fights limits your chances of becoming a boxing great. Selfishness, ironically, is denying their ultimate goal. Even if Haye beat both Klitschkos once that would not be enough to consider him in the same bracket as someone like Mike Tyson who proved himself again and again. Boxers are remembered – before their fight records – for their persona outside the ring and the big showdowns inside the ring. Just ask an American where they rank Joe Calzaghe in their all time list of great boxers... If Haye or either Klitschko want to achieve true greatness, they will have to address this. They can fight all the Mickey-Mouse fighters in the world but they need to start fighting each other for their own sake and the sake of the sport.

I can't see this big change occurring without a drastic shake up. In my opinion, what heavyweight boxing really needs is an American heavyweight with the talent to take on the current big three and the personality to reawaken the US audience to what has historically been the most popular weight division in world boxing. As it stands, the top heavyweights are too comfortable and the calendar is becoming predictable. I will of course be tuning in on the 13th in the hope of a vaguely competitive bout, but realistically I will have to continue my diligent wait for heavyweight boxing worth shouting about.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Breaking the Fourth Wall: tackling the future of our 'beautiful' English game

Will Pearson

When Nigel de Jong scythed through Hatem Ben Arfa last weekend, he didn’t just break the Frenchman’s leg in two places; he also irrevocably ruptured the paper-thin sheath barely shrouding one of English football’s most pressing debates.
A weekend also permeated by Wolves captain Karl Henry’s horror-tackle only served in compounding the fallout from a string of incidents involving contentious challenges this season in the Premier League.  The subject of disproportionate aggression in the English game has been simmering more noticeably in recent years ever since the infamous Eduardo injury at St. Andrews in 2008 – an incident which led Arsène Wenger to propose a lifetime ban for perpetrator Martin Taylor.
Passion, speed, and aggression: the three characteristics which have long defined – and indeed popularised – the traditional style of our domestic football are now threatened as never before. The uproar that has ensued in football and the media since the events of last weekend has propelled the issue to a new level of scrutiny; one has to wonder about the long-term effect the dispute might have on both the style of our teams’ play and the way our football is policed.
While undoubtedly none but the vilest of hardcore supporters would ever wish serious harm on an opposing professional, this is –and always has been – a contact sport, and there are always going to injuries for as long as it remains that way.  And if you asked every professional footballer whether the game’s physicality should be maintained then the answer would unquestionably be an equivocal yes. 
The crux of the matter lies within the word excessive.
Some players, managers, and affiliates of the game argue that the problem is rooted in the unnecessary and unjust levels of hostility exuded by particular teams and individuals.  The idea that this is somehow new to English football, though, is complete fallacy.
There have always been thugs in the Premier League, but more often than not perceptions of individuals are either founded or cloaked in perspective and bias.  Where it would be nigh on impossible to defend a man like Ben Thatcher for his career of violent altercations, (see Pedro Mendes), or Michael Brown and his stamp on Ryan Giggs, there is truth in the suggestion that the confrontations perhaps would have been quicker forgotten if the two players were of a higher footballing quality.
Just last season Steven Gerrard escaped punishment for swinging an arm into the face of the aforementioned Brown, and was again lucky to emerge unreprimanded after an elbowing incident on Danny Welbeck in Liverpool’s recent game against Sunderland.  Roy Keane – for all the protests of dedicated United fans (admittedly sometimes myself included) – had a chequered disciplinary record and was prone to moments of great ferocity, as Alf-Inge Haaland could well testify. 
But will this be the abiding memory when football fans reminisce about Gerrard and Keane’s careers?  Not likely.  By the majority they will both be remembered as fantastic, hard-tackling, passionate, and combative midfielders, as footballers that imbued the very spirit of English football.  Their precocious talents will obscure the moments of lunacy, in the same way that Thatcher and Brown’s lesser abilities have only proved to expose their overly-aggressive tendencies.   
It is, then, certainly an issue of grave complexity and one often clouded by judgement.
Some have suggested the problem is more pronounced in the Premier League, as opposed to an issue with the English domestic game in general.  While covering the Rochdale/Yeovil League One game this weekend for another website, I asked a number of Dale fans their opinions on the matter: the general consensus was that there is as much hard tackling in the lower leagues, and that it only appeared more of a problem in the top-tier because of the level of media exposure and microscopic attention paid towards it.  There is certainly a lot of truth in the point.
There is also a need for clarification to the laws of football.  De Jong – despite the resultant injury to Ben Arfa – did win the ball first, and no foul was given by Martin Atkinson.  Sometimes a foul is awarded despite contact with the ball, if adjudged to be “unduly dangerous”; the fine lines of the law in this area are murky to say the least. 
There have been countless overreactions to the Manchester City man’s challenge: we have seen far worse tackles, including Henry’s the same weekend.  Fifa Chief Medical Officer Dr Michel d'Hooghe decried there to be elements of “criminality” and “brutality” creeping into the top-flight; and De Jong could be considered unfortunate to have been dropped from the Dutch squad in what appeared to be more a statement of intent by Netherlands coach Bert Van Marwijk after his side’s much-maligned performance in the World Cup final.  The fact that De Jong has emerged as a repeat offender is counting against him, with now even Ben Arfa’s home-club Marseille wading in to the debate by threatening legal action against the Dutchman, citing a need to “get rid of this type of individual from European grounds."
The FA and Fifa certainly need to address the issue of retrospective punishment: by banning it they only serve in tying their own hands over dealing with incidents on an individual basis.  What Fifa fear is undermining their own officials; the only Premiership example of retrospective punishment in recent years was forced when Greater Manchester Police threatened Ben Thatcher with assault after the Mendes incident.  There is no doubt criminal charges would be brought against a normal person acting with such aggression in the street, so as fans are we supposed to suspend our disbelief by suggesting acts like Thatcher’s are expected and may go unpunished on a football field?  Football is not theatrical realism, though; it is sport, real people, and real lives.
It is true Arsenal have been more cursed than most, with serious injuries rendered to Eduardo, Diaby, and last year, Ramsey – all resulting from rash challenges.  Fabregas was quoted in The Times this week, suggesting, “No Spanish teams would play like Bolton.  Here in England, it is all about the passion – the fans love it when there are hard tackles and you play long balls and counterattack.  But if you do that in Spain they will boo you.  Even if you win.”  It seems somewhat ironic that Bolton’s Kevin Davies – a man renowned for his own robustly physical approach – has earned an England call-up in the wake of such a current debate.
Fabregas also admitted that in Spain, “the way we play is the most important”.  This is also true of his Arsenal side, one crafted by Wenger in to a thing of beauty, yet one that has struggled to bolster its silverware in recent years.  Arsenal would probably do very well in La Liga, but at this time their approach has not reaped recent rewards in English football.
The English game is an individual animal, and one that requires balance between all facets of approach.  To take out its physicality would be to amputate one of its limbs, to remove one of its vital organs.
Perspective needs to be garnered across the board, and a more sensible approach to policing the game needs to be installed.  Immediate steps need to be taken to preserve the history and heritage of English football style to prevent a wholesale descent into European, continental grey. 
We have our own beauty and brilliance in England, and we can only hope it is allowed to continue – it is entertainment unbridled, it is theatre of the highest quality.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

The Ryder Cup: Canada, The Ashes and World War Two

Henry Salmon

By the time this is released for general viewing, the conclusion of the 2010 Ryder Cup will be imminent. The biennial tussle between Europe and America's finest is one of golf’s most treasured possessions and yields a prize more coveted than any other in the sport. As a sporting occasion it is entirely unique and its set up is altogether peculiar. This year the tournament is being broadcast to 197 countries, only 48 of which are eligible to play and only 8 of which are represented. The obvious reason for the world-wide popularity of this contest is the presence of the world's finest golfers. However, the really gripping element goes beyond golf - it is the theatre of the event. The passion and desire to win shown by players from both sides is unlike any other date in the sports calendar. It has always seemed to draw the best from golf's greatest characters.

The competition had its inaugural year in 1927, featuring the best players from Britain and Ireland against the best from the United States. Initially an equally contested battle, the Americans dominated after WW2 resulting in the inclusion of continental Europeans from 1979 onwards. The purists among you may still disapprove of "these continental types rocking up and playing in our historic tournament" (slightly - and i stress only slightly elaborated quote from old man in the pub!!), but this obscenely archaic point of view ignores the immensely passionate contributions of golfing greats such as Seve Ballasteros, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal to name but a few! If we accept the presence of continental Europeans (and I apologise right now for using a rhetorical question), then why not players from other continents? In previous eras, top golfers from outside the US and Europe were few and far between, with players such as Player and Norman being exceptions that proved the rule. In recent years, however, there have been major competition winners from Argentina, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Korea. Why shouldn't they be allowed to partake?

Trying to incorporate the world's best players regardless of their nationality provides us with a number of difficulties. It would be impossible to fit more nationalities into the current teams. Which side would they join, and how would they fit in with the rivalry? They could form a new “rest of the world” team, but this would mean a change of format. However, changing the format would almost certainly remove some of the needle of the tournament. The only competition in world sport that has a comparable effect on both players and fans alike is the Ashes. Beyond the quality of the cricketers on show, there is the bragging rights, the fear of losing to the enemy. If either contest lost that magic, it would sink into theatrical (if not sporting) mediocrity. The fragility of the Ryder Cup's popularity is perhaps perpetuated by the lack of attention paid to events such as Golf's world cup and the Davis cup in tennis. Both are examples of team versions of “non-team” games that attract little attention. Without the “us versus them”, the Ryder cup would just be like any other competition.

I must re-assert my stance as a non-purist. I am not against anyone playing in the Ryder cup, regardless of their nationality, as long as the Ryder cup doesn't lose its spark and its individuality. If there is a way to involve the Ernie Els's and Angel Cabrera's of this world, let me know. For now, it works. The world is fascinated and long may it last!

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Having read this post and the other 3 from previous weeks, you may have questions or comments for us. Here at team teestacklesandtons, we are always looking for any sort of feedback! So if you have a question, an answer to one of ours, a criticism or a compliment, email us at - the best (not just the ones that agree with us) will be posted on here during the week. Don't hold back!!

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Dragon and Saint George: is the media killing sport?

Will Pearson

The word “exclusive” is one riddled with complexities:
When used as a noun by the media, the traditional association is that of sordid, cheap gossip columns and the garish front pages of tabloid papers, perhaps detailing the latest political scandal or the misdoings of a Hollywood regular.  In its voracity for scandal, certain spheres of the media have evolved into a money-spinning, fire-breathing monstrosity of almost mythical proportions. 
Increasingly, this ‘tricky’ word, exclusive, is now attached to stories of luminaries in the sporting world – the Georges to our Dragon in this modern fairy-tale en noir.
Such is the level of celebrity now attained by men and women at the peak of physical and athletic pursuits, their respective stars burn as brightly and far-afield as any politician or renowned actor.  The degree of global media attention on the private lives of sportsmen, and the universal interest that their stories now command, has never been so pronounced as in the past twelve months.
When the world’s number one golfer, Tiger Woods, crashed his SUV into a fire hydrant close to his Florida family-home on Thanksgiving last year, the volume of international coverage of both the incident, and the damaging revelations which subsequently unravelled, was both monumental and unparalleled in its breadth. 
This was a story – about a sportsman – which no longer just occupied the back pages of the papers, nor merely the front page either, but near-as-dammit filled every other page in between.  This was a story which transcended media platforms – dominating all forms of print, television, the airwaves, and every online outlet imaginable; this was near-total blanket-exposure on a scale previously unimaginable for an athlete.  And for sport’s first billionaire, that is truly saying something.
For Woods it was undoubtedly a PR disaster.  For a man that had built such a vast and all-encompassing empire based on the sturdy foundations of privacy and familial principles, it not only rocked his home-life but also shook the very core of what had propelled him to fame in the first place: his golf.   In the fallout, and in the wake of numerous sponsorship losses, Woods admitted to “transgressions” and decided to take an indefinite hiatus from golf in December 2009. 
Whilst Woods’ actions could never be condoned or pardoned, the media furore raised questions about both the privacy rights and the moral statûs of high-profile sportsmen; should – as is frequently mooted – sportsmen in fact be considered satisfactory role-models in the first place?  It is obvious and expected that young people will aspire to attain the athletic peaks achieved by men like Tiger Woods, but is it also necessary for them to be a good person into the bargain?  Anyway, surely parents (and the media) everywhere should be sourcing more palpable targets for garnering a right-and-true moral compass than those of a man who hits a little white ball around a field. 
Many would suggest that sportsmen have an obligation, as soon as they turn professional, to offer a good example; that they should accept their personal lives will be played out in full view of the public eye, just as long as they are banking large sums of money for their troubles.
But what of the effect on Tiger’s sporting talent?  After the media uproar, and after twenty weeks break from golf, Woods returned to the sport at the 2010 Masters in April only to complete a season scattered with some of his worst-ever rounds and tournament finishes, and with no PGA Tour win – the first barren season of his fourteen-year professional career.  Whilst it will be cited that Woods inflicted the original problems on himself, shouldn’t we – in some ways – be protecting a talent as prodigious as Tiger’s; selfish as it is, shouldn’t we attempt to preserve his genius for our own sporting pleasure as long as is physically possible? 
Though it would be foolhardy to jump aboard the “Tiger’s-never-going-to-win-another-major” bandwagon which has been gaining impetus in some sections of the press, it is very possible that Woods might never again return to the golfing heights he attained in the years before his media-driven slaughter.  And as a sports fan, is that not a great shame?    
Since the turn of the year, there have been numerous more accounts detailing the philandering of the world’s prized sportsmen – usually exacerbated by the oily, fuel-guzzling engine room which is the tabloid press.
Snooker’s number one, John Higgins, was accused earlier this year of match-fixing after another News of the World set up; despite being cleared in a recent tribunal the Scotsman will struggle to shake off the stain rendered on his reputation by the charade.  And with his deteriorated esteem, the chances of returning to his former glory-days have also dimmed considerably.
 Just months before the start of the world cup the very same papers which insisted on exclaiming in articles laced with hyperbole that “This was our year”, published allegations against the then captain of the England football team, John Terry.  This damning exposé about the personal life of the team’s captain only served in further cranking the already-taut noose of pressure around the squad – and Capello’s – neck; the revelations about Terry’s private life, and the consequent unease which perpetuated around the team, perhaps contributed towards the limp displays in South Africa.
Wayne Rooney, having last term completed the most successful season of his career, scoring 34 goals, is now also struggling to regain his best form after the News of the World published stories linking him to a number of prostitutes.  How much of Rooney’s recent on-the-field mediocrity has also stemmed from the immense build-up afforded him by the press in the run-up to the world cup, and the resultant criticism he received when his performances paled?  Often – and rightly – touted as not only a great hope of English football, but also a world-class striker, does it not seem sad – to an impartial fan of sports – that his talent is being obscured by the circulation-enhancing approaches of some sections of our own national media? 
There would seem to be no brighter future in prospect for the sportsmen seeking to keep their private-lives clandestine; reports published in The Times this week suggest measures are being taken to curb the securing of media super-injunctions which have been used in the past to illegalise the printing of specific stories.  In January, John Terry notoriously had his plea for a super-injunction overturned on the grounds that Mr Justice Tugendhat believed the application to be more concerned with the impact the allegations would have on Terry’s sponsorship deals, rather than as an affront on his privacy.
And therein lies the rub: money.  Would the News of the World have bothered setting up stings on Pakistan cricketers or publishing pictures of Ricky Hatton ostensibly snorting cocaine, if they thought that no one was going to pay to read it? 
The fact of the matter is that many people adore nothing more than the very public lynching of a well-known individual; they revel in the juicy allegations, they relish the scandals to a degree verging on cannibalism; they delight in the rise-and-fall of past heroes – in effect they are witnessing the Dragon this time slaughtering George.
It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to suggest that the majority of the general public that buy into the coverage are not even sports fans.  Is their hungering for the next piece of gossip belittling top-class sport?     
 News of the World sports editor, Paul McCarthy, was asked on Sky Sports News whether his paper actually liked sport: he gushed about “loving sport”, and “outing” the bad-men poisoning it.  Whilst McCarthy might wish to portray their efforts as a moral crusade, the notion is entirely hypocritical; his paper hardly has the best track-record of morality itself.
Money is both the cause and the consequence in this issue.  Perhaps Terry was looking to protect his lucrative sponsorship deals; perhaps Tiger Woods’ millions made him lose sight of his family values.  Indisputably the abilities of various sporting greats are being driven down by the hunger of the public for scandal, and the media’s happiness to provide them with it.
And so, to “exclusive”- the adjective: elite, special, private? 
As true sports fans, we don’t care about “indiscretions”, we have no interest in the private lives of the protagonists – we simply want to maintain and sustain the elite of our sportsmen and the talents they have bestowed on us.  What we hunger for is more moments like that Tiger Woods chip: moments that thrill the soul and invigorate the senses, moments provided by special sportsmen.    
In this modern legend, though, Saint George – perhaps having had his head turned by the glamorous Princess – momentarily neglected his otherwise-knightly and laudable duties, thus allowing the Dragon to steal in to commit a merciless kill.  The Dragon returned to the village with George’s ravaged corpse in tow, whereupon the people set upon their former hero, feasting hungrily on the very-human skin and bones of his exposed flesh.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Carefully does it, or does it?

Henry Salmon

For two weeks now I have been slowly compiling and editing my first article for this blog. Whilst my style is not as naturally verbose as Msr. W.R. Pearson, I have felt it my duty to maintain the high standard of literary ingenuity that he attained. It may therefore come as a shock for me to say that this morning (18/09/10), one day before my blog is posted, I have scrapped my original work and started afresh. The previous has been saved for a barren period of interest, perhaps sometime in February, but a far more pressing issue needs my attention. This issue is the England one-day team selection (50 overs not T20). Apologies to non-cricket fans who were eagerly awaiting some sort of witty reminiscences from my afternoons as an inmate in Selhurst Park but bear with me – it's worthwhile.

It is easy to criticize a side that has just lost, as England did Friday, but the result wasn't what bothered me. The selections all summer have worried me. There is an ethos within the whole England set-up that demands “multi-faceted” cricketers of peak physical and mental fitness. Anyone found wanting in any of the areas must alter themselves in that respect before returning to the fold. This irks me on two levels.

Firstly, by insisting on all of the above, the England selectors miss out on some of the best talent available. Adaptability and all-round steadiness is valued higher than great talent. This mentality not only limits England's abilities as a team and, it is detrimental to the sport as a spectacle. Yardy, Wright and Bresnan all featured Friday whilst players such as Key, Patel, Pietersen, Shahzad, Sidebottom, Cook, Panesar and Bell were left on the sidelines.

On Thursday I was fortunate enough to see one of the best compiled and least selfish innings one could ever care to see, in Nottinghamshire's successful bid to win the county championship. Samit Patel scored 96 from 91 balls, at a time when his team desperately needed to get the run rate up to stand a chance of getting enough bonus points. He got out trying to hit boundaries, rather than scraping his way to 100. During the commentary, Paul Allot said “The rules of engagement from England are that you have to attain a certain level of fitness before we consider you for selection and that's that. If Samit Patel isn't prepared to buy into that work ethic or fitness ethic then he just doesn't get selected.” Patel is fit to bat and bowl his spin. He is also remarkably quick in the field for a member of the well-lunched gentry. He is eminently more talented and exciting to watch than Michael Yardy (to make a direct comparison) but does not get selected because he is perceived to be unfit. A distinction needs to be drawn between being fit to do your job, and looking fit.

This brings me neatly onto point number two. The England staff use this ethos as a positive and unquestionable force for good. Really it shows negativity. I still feel that your batsmen should bat and your bowlers should bowl. Anything else is a bonus. “Bits and Pieces” players such as the three aforementioned gentlemen are selected for the worst scenarios. England claim to “bat deep” and have “options in the bowling department.” Really this just means that the front-line bowlers aren't being backed to take enough wickets and the top order batsmen aren't being backed to score enough runs. I would rather see England have faith in the ability of the players at their disposal. Pick the five best batsmen, the best keeper-batsman, the best all rounder, and the four best bowlers. Once selected work on their weaknesses but they will win more games and play more exciting cricket.

Now you may point to England's recent good record in all forms of one-day cricket to disarm me. But I am here to predict, to foresee. We will struggle at next year’s World Cup because our ODI selection has been affected by the inherent negativity of T20 cricket. The bits and pieces style is perfect and England’s ability to squeeze runs out of the game in all areas of T20 is truly admirable. In 50 over cricket, the winning record is shallow. Since winning in South Africa last year, we lost our first ever game against Bangladesh, won three games against a rusty jet-lagged Aus before getting trounced when they found their feet, and lost against a hugely weakened Pakistan side after only scraping the second game. The negativity that has slipped in is denying the quality players needed to win the world cup the chance to gain valuable experience. To challenge the best teams consistently and dominate world cricket, the same trust must be put in England’s greatest talents as was put into the Australian team of the 90s and West Indian team of the 80s.

England haven’t lost a 50 over one day series for well over a year. You might say I’m being pessimistic. Don’t be fooled. Come back to me in 12 months time and we will discuss things then, and anyway, as Will so wonderfully reminded us, sport creates debate – debate away.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Cantona, Cork, Caddick, and Campsites: Sporting Memories

Will Pearson

My passion for sport began long before my episodic memory began to store moments of a special disposition.  
I was – though recollection of the momentous, life altering occasion now eludes me – present at my first Manchester United game at Old Trafford in March 1993.  My seven-year-old self was privy to a palatable nil-nil draw with Arsenal that preceded the seven-game winning streak which would take Cantona and co. to a ten-point lead over Aston Villa, thus crowning United champions in the Premier League’s inaugural season.  It is fitting that the generation-spanning family advocacy of the Red Devils was passed on to my brothers and me in a season of such significance in the history of the club, the title returning to Sir Matt Busby Way for the first time in twenty-six years. 
Reminiscences of my childhood camping holidays to northern France are frequently coloured by international test match cricket; we would insistently attempt to tune into Radio 4 LW in the hope of catching Henry Blofeld – when not remarking on superfluous details like red buses or wood-pigeons – covering England’s trials and tribulations in his own inimitable way.  At the age of 9, I can recall imbibing Dominic Cork’s sensational hat-trick against the West Indies in 1995; Australia being skittled for 118 in 1997; and Caddick’s four-wicket over in 2000. That these most vivid and happy of sporting memories occurred to the incongruous backdrop of the most uncricketing nation on Earth – France – is merely an odd footnote.
My own sporting zenith came, rather more annoyingly, at the tender age of 14; having spent years playing local football and cricket week-in-week-out I reached the dizzy heights of the Cheshire county cricket excellence academy and football trials for Stockport – feats which would, unfortunately for my heady sporting ambitions, never be surpassed.  I have, however, since my competitive apogee, soldiered on regardless in my distinctly amateurish sporting pursuits – still regularly playing football, cricket, a bit of golf (badly), and the odd frame of snooker.  The standard might perhaps be lower than I would have wished as a boy, but the immense enjoyment remains unaltered.      
I am, nevertheless, a much more established armchair critic of most sports – mainly of the afore-mentioned pursuits.  Having grown up surrounded by a family of journalists (including a golf writer) news and sports literature has always been compulsory reading.  I find fascinating the relationship between the media and sport; there is a strange bond which becomes (unsurprisingly) soured during periods of unrest, controversy, and defeat and yet (even less surprisingly) blossoms into a rose-tinted-Hollywood-super-romance in times of success.
Regardless, it is often pure theatre: without sport would we have ever been party to incomparable Mourinho quotes like, “Sometimes you see beautiful people with no brains. Sometimes you have ugly people who are intelligent, like scientists.”  Who would guess he was merely discussing the state of the Stamford Bridge pitch.
Sport is ultimately a very animalistic action, both in its actual contenders and its affiliates, and in the perfunctory, massed ideologies of the supporters who follow it; it is the people, their stories, and their own sporting heritages that truly cement our obsession.  The Corks, the Blofelds, the Mourinhos, the roar of the Stretford End; it is the people of sport that surely decree it as the most complete allegory for human nature.  
And I absolutely love it.     


Hello and welcome aboard the good ship Tees, Tackles, and Tons.

For a fair while now, myself – Mr Will Pearson – and my good friend-cum-respected-colleague Mr Henry Salmon, have considered dipping a tentative toe into the world of blogging. Originally planning solo ventures we had the brainwave to amalgamate our efforts instead, combining to create a no-holds-barred Sports Super-Blog. Our “blog of two halves” is an antidote to the world of regular sports punditry.

We shall endeavour to produce regular – and usually alternate – individual pieces on a broad compass of sporting topics, presented in varying degrees of seriousness/silliness. The content of our blogs will range from features on current sports events and news; research-led sporting studies; and anecdotal pieces on our own sporting memories. Our individual efforts will also be supplemented by duodecannual (or monthly for philistines) extended articles on which we will collaborate to produce a unique take on sporting events. You will also be able to follow the most current/interesting of sporting news/events via our twitter ( which we shall aim to update at a verging-on-annoying rate.

Regardless, the common link between the content shall be the immutable love we share for all sport – from football, cricket, golf, to Man Versus Horse. The hope is that via this blog we might offer some modicum of comment on an assortment of multi-sport stories from a Pearson/Salmon view-point; alternatively one might suggest it merely presents us with the opportunity to talk/think/dream about sport more than we do so already.

And that’s fine by us.