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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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