The dark truth behind the great spectacle

Lance Armstrong’s admission to doping earlier this week has opened up a grey area of sport that needs to be addressed – why are sports personnel so afraid to speak up if they know someone is cheating? Because that is what doping is, and there’s no two ways about it.

Former Great Britain road cyclist Nicole Cooke lambasted Armstrong earlier this week and made it clear she had no sympathy for him. She said that ‘when Lance “cries” on Oprah… spare a thought for all of those genuine people who walked away with no reward – just shattered dreams. Each one of them is worth a thousand Lances.’ Pretty strong words from the Olympic champion of 2008 who prides herself on being 100% ‘clean.’ Her retirement statement also included details of her finding ‘various bottles’ in the fridge at her team house during 1999 – being a young cyclist she felt she couldn’t do much because all of her team-mates were experienced professionals and she was just a novice, not even a professional yet. She took a stand and got rid of the drugs, yet it’s only now we are being told about it. And that is part of the problem – young athletes cannot report any form of cheating for fear of the older professionals ganging up on them, twisting the situation to make themselves look good and ruining the potential careers of the expendable youth. Cooke also shed some facts on Genevieve Jeanson, one of the greatest female cyclists of all time who admitted to drug use since she was 16 not long ago, but couldn’t do it until Jeanson herself had admitted it for fear of other cyclists turning against her. It’s bullying and should not be tolerated in sport, yet it seems that unless something drastic changes whistleblowers will only be those who already have solid careers, those who have respect and aren’t likely to lose anything as a result.

But even in these circumstances telling the truth can be just as difficult. Former Essex County Cricket Club bowler Tony Palladino was the man who told on Mervyn Westfield and Danish Kaneria for spot-fixing a one-day cricket game in 2009. But he didn’t report it for six months after the game because he ‘didn’t actually know what to do. We’d never had any training for that.’ Cheating has been rife in sport throughout many years, yet the players still don’t know how to report it. It was only when the Players’ Cricket Association gave him and his team-mates a talk saying that they had to report any instance of cheating because if they don’t they can be ‘liable as well’ that Palladino admitted what he knew. And in doing so he opened himself to a really difficult time at Essex before effectively being forced out. He did the right thing, he told the truth and kept the game respectable, yet he was the one who suffered for it. And it was the supporters who gave him the most stick: ‘I’ve had mostly positive stuff come back but quite a bit of negative stuff as well – not so much within the game but from supporters. Sometimes people didn’t 100 per cent believe me.’ Why is it us fans feel the need to defend those who have clearly done wrong? Fans of football teams are the worst, defending players who clearly cheat by diving and rolling around on the floor and then slating any other players who do it. We need to stop pressurising the athletes into thinking that they need to win in order to be loved and make them feel stupid when they cheat so they are deterred from it.

And it’s not only us fans and other professionals that stop professional sportsmen and women from having their say – it’s the National Governing Bodies and other groups based around the sports that also do it. Football again is a great example – how many players recently have been fined for airing their views on Twitter? Take Ashley Cole for example – he was fined £9000 for having a go at the FA for seemingly implicating him in the racism scandal with Mark Clattenburg at the back end of last year. While he didn’t exactly have his say in a very diplomatic way, he was punished for standing up for himself. And it seems that this is also a problem in cycling too, with Cooke suggesting that the ‘UCI have spent the past 10 years trying to defend the indefensible Armstrong position, with time wasting actions such as suing Paul Kimmage [journalist and former road racer who is strongly critical of drugs in the sport] for libel after Kimmage dared to bring their “good name” into disrepute.’ It seems that all NGBs want to do is show their sport off and attract more performers to make themselves more popular, and if that includes ignoring the fact that cheating is rife and silencing those who speak up then that is what they will do. Lance Armstrong’s interview on Friday certainly did nothing to dispel this argument. This has now led to us questioning anything we see that is an extraordinary act of sporting brilliance – is Andy Murray’s sudden rise to success drug enhanced? Is Michu on drugs, given the fact he was no-one before he came over here in the summer? What about Michael Schumacher in his prime? He must have been on drugs…

By coming clean Lance Armstrong has made everyone aware of just how much of an issue cheating is. It isn’t just a one-off thing that is hidden alongside lies and deceit, it is also clear to see on TV at times too. And yet when someone tries to speak up about it they are hounded, ridiculed and abused because no-one wants to believe that their sport is tainted. It’s unfair; it’s unjust; it’s just not cricket.

The year the man became a legend

2012 saw the emergence of Andy Murray as one of the true contenders in the world of tennis. He shrugged off the image that many British sportsmen and women seem to acquire of being ‘chokers’ in the big matches and proved many, many people wrong.

At the start of the year many British tennis fans weren’t keen on Murray, the man who never showed any emotion and classed himself as Scottish rather than British. There were even those who wanted him to lose in the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer. Unwittingly, this loss is what led Murray to becoming the dominant and much-loved player he now is. It spurred him on to prove to that he should be recognised amongst the greats of the game.

The year started solidly for Murray, winning the Brisbane International, his 22nd career title, to set himself up for the Australian Open. He played well throughout the tournament, but was unable to stop the rampant Novak Djokovic in the semi-final despite his best efforts. The rise of Djokovic to the top of the men’s game was another setback for Andy Murray – not only did he have to overcome Nadal and Federer in order to win titles, he now also had the Serb ahead of him. At this point it looked as though Murray may never win a Grand Slam with such fierce competition ahead of him in what many called the greatest tennis era of all time.

The defeat certainly looked to have had an effect on the Scot as he drastically lost form in the run-up to Wimbledon, failing to reach the semi-finals in any of the 4 major tournaments he played after and being knocked out by David Ferrer in the quarters of the French Open at Roland Garros. Questions were now being asked of Murray – would he ever win a Grand Slam? Was he good enough to win one in the first place? Is his mum holding him back? What about his temperament? But, although he didn’t win Wimbledon, his performances answered all these questions in a way we would never have expected.

His troubles, however, started even before the tournament began with him having to have an injection to help cure the back spasms that caused him so much pain in France. His start to the tournament was hard, having to come through 4-setters in both the second round and third round with no real fluency to his game, but it showed that Murray was prepared to slog it out to succeed. Indeed, his match against Marcos Baghdatis didn’t finish until 23:02, the latest a match has ever finished at Wimbledon. He then found his rhythm to force his way past Marin Cilic and Ferrer before out-classing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semis. He had already proved a large majority of his doubters wrong and was the first Brit to reach the final of Wimbledon since 1938, but could he go that one step further and win? Ultimately it wasn’t to be as Federer was just too good on the day, but his emotional interview after the match was yet another moment that made the critics re-evaluate their views. In the space of 1 tournament he had gone from being a ‘Scot with no emotions’ to being the sweetheart of the British public.

The timing of the Olympics was just perfect for Murray – it meant he had a stage to prove that the nation’s newfound love for him was deserved. Winning a gold medal on home-turf for Great Britain would have been the ultimate silencer for any remaining sceptics, and he didn’t just win – he outclassed everyone. He dropped 1 set throughout the whole of the Men’s Singles and obliterated Federer in the final. It was poetic justice for a man so unfairly disliked for so much of his playing career.

But still Murray was yet to win a Grand Slam with only the US Open left in the current season. Everything looked to be in his favour though – Nadal was injured, Djokovic was no longer at his imperious best and he knew he had the beating of Federer. Yet again his ascent through the competition wasn’t easy, having to overcome tough games against Feliciano Lopez, Cilic and Tomas Berdych. But these victories proved again he had the stomach for the fight and this finally came to fruition in the final, with a fantastically determined 5-set win against Djokovic. He finally had his first Slam, and boy did he deserve it.

2013 is full of promise for Murray – he now has the opportunity to create history at the upcoming Australian Open by becoming the first man to win his first 2 majors back-to-back and, with Nadal still crocked and Federer not getting any younger, the prospects for at least 1 more Open title this year look very promising. Watch this space, he’s not done yet!

Andy Murray, the man who not only fought tooth-and-nail for success, but to win the hearts of the nation. And he did it in style.

2012 – We Came, We Saw, We Delivered

As sporting years go, 2012 could not really have gone much better for Great Britain. From tennis to cricket to the greatest Olympic and Paralympic Games of all time it was a truly inspiring year that saw our little collection of islands turn from pretenders into true sporting greats.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing for England in the footballing world. They endured a difficult year, with a home loss to the Netherlands in February. Fabio Capello then resigned just weeks before the Euros and Roy Hodgson’s appointment as his successor was less than favourable. The Euros themselves were a disappointment, with England limping to the Quarter-Finals before the inevitable penalty shoot-out defeat, and the year was capped off with farcical scenes in Poland where the World Cup Qualifier was postponed due to a rather soggy pitch before Zlatan Ibrahimovic and ‘that goal’ single-handedly led Sweden to victory over the Three Lions in November.

Things were much better on the domestic front, though, with one of the most exciting Premier Leagues ever decided in its dying minutes by Sergio Aguero, handing Manchester City a well-earned first title since 1968, while Liverpool won a tense Carling Cup final over Cardiff. They could not beat Chelsea, though, in the FA Cup final and the Blues, led by fan favourite and former player Roberto di Matteo, then did the unthinkable and overcame Barcelona and Bayern Munich to win the first Champions League in their history. And with the 2012/13 season getting off to a flyer with plenty of goals it seems last season could easily be emulated or even bettered.

In the rugby union world, Wales dominated the RBS 6 Nations, winning their third Grand Slam and Triple Crown since 2000. England were a valiant second with a side much changed from that which had been disappointing in the World Cup not long before, with a whole crop of new players, a new captain in Chris Robshaw and Stuart Lancaster now at the helm. However the rest of the year didn’t quite go according to plan for any of the home nations – England lost 2-0 to the South Africans, although both losses were by the narrowest of margins and they did also scrape a draw, before upsetting New Zealand 38-21 in the last match of their year. Scotland had a good summer with wins over Australia, Fiji and Samoa but lost all of their autumn internationals, while Ireland had a terrible year, highlighted by a 60-0 loss to New Zealand in June. Wales’ fortunes drastically dropped while their injury list increased as they lost game after game in both the summer and winter series, leading to them slipping to 9th in the world. What a difference a year makes! Harlequins won their first Premiership title and Leinster defended their Heineken Cup trophy after defeating Ulster in the final.

England’s cricket team endured a pretty topsy-turvy year but it ended with more positives than negatives. It all started in the UAE with a humiliating 3-0 whitewash against Pakistan, but this was swiftly followed with a 4-0 thrashing of the same opponents in the ODI series that followed. England then drew the series in Sri Lanka 1-1 in February before defeating the West Indies to retain the Wisden Trophy in May/June to set the Three Lions up nicely for the much-anticipated series against the South Africans. But the series was a huge disappointment from an English point of view as the Proteas outclassed us in all areas to win 2-0, highlighted by the batting master class from Hashim Amla (311 not out), Jacques Kallis (182 not out) and Graeme Smith (131) in the first Test. This led to Andrew Strauss retiring from all forms of cricket, handing over the reigns of the Test captaincy to Alastair Cook. And it was Cook who inspired the English team to a historic 2-1 win in India, something which had not been done for 28 years. However the cricketing world has been hit by the recent deaths of legends Tony Greig and Christopher Martin-Jenkins, two men who helped define the game and really brought it to life.

In other sports, Andy Murray won his first ever Grand Slam at the US Open after narrowly losing in the Wimbledon final, while Bradley Wiggins became the first Brit to win the Tour de France. Europe staged the most remarkable of comebacks to win the Ryder Cup while Neptune Collonges won the Grand National, Synchronised the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Frankel made it 14 wins from 14 races and retired as the greatest racehorse there has ever been.

However, there could only really 2 two real highlights of the sporting year – the London Olympics and Paralympics. From the 25th July to the 9th September new heroes emerged, old ones retired in style, medal hopefuls delivered and unfavoured athletes shocked us all in success. We laughed, we cried, we cheered, we shouted, we supported, but there was one thing we didn’t do – we didn’t moan. If someone didn’t win a medal or underperformed, we didn’t have a go at them – we accepted that it just wasn’t meant to be. Never in my lifetime has this nation been so positive and it was just awesome to be a part of it all. These Games have left a legacy that will change sport, not just in this nation, but across the whole world. These were the Games that defined a nation.

Here are my 5 sporting moments of the year:

5. History made yet again

England’s first win in India since 1984/85 was truly fantastic. After being skittled in the first innings of the series the old questions of ‘Why can’t they play spin?’ and ‘Do they have the technique to overcome this deficiency’ reared their ugly heads but, led by captain Alastair Cook, a resurgent side made 406 in the second innings, setting England up to dominate the rest of the series. It did end pretty anti-climactically with a bore draw in Nagpur but it was a sensational end to a difficult year.

4. Super Saturday

Some may question why this isn’t top of the list, but for me I though there were more inspirational moments in the year. However it is undeniable that it was Britain’s best day throughout the whole of both the Olympics and Paralympics. Britain claimed 6 gold medals and 1 silver throughout the whole day, with the most success coming in the stadium. The hour that saw Jess Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford achieve greatness was surreal, exhilarating and unbelievable and will be forever remembered in British folk law.

3. ‘What you are seeing here, ladies and gentlemen, is that dreams do come true’

No-one has ever deserved Olympic gold more than Katherine Grainger. After her third silver medal in a row at Beijing she considered quitting rowing as she thought that elusive Olympic medal had slipped through her fingers. But then Anna Watkins came along. Together they formed an awesome Double Sculls pairing and from the moment the claxon went for the 2012 final the win was never in question. A truly amazing show of grit and determination that also led to the greatest quote of the Games.

2. Martine Wright makes her Paralympic debut

If you didn’t closely follow the Paralympics or watch Sports Personality you probably haven’t heard of this sitting volleyball player. She didn’t win a medal or make any real headlines with her success, but her story is what really captures your imagination. The day after GB were awarded the London 2012 Games she lost both her legs in the Aldgate train bombing – she was in a coma for 10 days and her life was in doubt after losing 80% of her blood. But on the 30th August she played in Britain’s 3-0 loss to Russia, making her debut on the world stage. Her story is remarkable and a true showing of what believing everything negative also has a positive can do for you. A truly inspirational lady.

1. The one that set the ball rolling

For me, the greatest sporting moment of 2012 was Helen Glover and Heather Stanning winning the Women’s Pair at Eton Dorney on the 1st August. These women created history by becoming the first British female gold medal-winning rowers and told the nation that we can win medals after some early doubt. No-one came close to challenging them and this pair, one of whom is not even a full-time rower, created my favourite moment of 2012.

 

Forget 1981, 2005 and 2010/11 – 2013 is going to be the best yet

Over the years there have been some truly amazing and career-defining Ashes series – from Botham’s Ashes at the start of the ‘80s to England’s first win Down Under for 24 years, England v Australia is a rivalry that sets a precedent for world cricket. However, I think that the 2013 series over here may just eclipse that, and here are the 4 reasons why I think this.

1.  Revenge

Beating the Aussies is one thing, defeating them on their own turf another, but publically humiliating them in their own backyard… That’s just crossing the line! The Australian public were so outraged at their team’s shambolic display two years ago that they even went so far as to praise England (I know, I couldn’t believe it either!). Add to that the fact that they have lost 3 of the previous 4 Ashes contests and the boys from Down Under are going to be fully pumped up to atone for this next summer. Expect fire, tantrums, gamesmanship and a display of Bush Culture never seen before on these shores from the wounded beast in order to regain what they feel is rightfully theirs.

2. The battle of the quickies

Earlier this summer, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander proved that you don’t have to hurt batsmen in order to get wickets on our shores and, with these two rivals boasting some of the greatest seamers in the world at the time of speaking, I feel that success is going to be all down to can bowl the most consistently. For England, James Anderson has proved that he should be recognised amongst the greats, including Steyn himself, after some masterful performances with the ball both in and out of his favoured conditions. In Australia, where the ball isn’t supposed to swing much, he was by far the best bowler in the series with 24 wickets, 7 ahead of anyone else, while in the recent tour of India he bagged 12 wickets, 8 more than any other seam bowler. He leads the attack with authority and skill and should be feared by all Aussies.

England boasts a fantastic stock of seamers to play alongside Anderson but there is one fundamental problem – they all have horrible injury records. Stuart Broad has been hampered by niggles over the last 2/3 years and this has caused him to drastically lose form, while Tim Bresnan has been nowhere near the bowler he was since his elbow operation a few months back. Steve Finn is looking every inch a top-class international seamer but his body is also starting to fail him, while both Chris Tremlett and Graham Onions both have serious back injuries to thank for stalling promising England careers. For England to win the series at least two of these bowlers have to be fighting fit and near, if not at, the top of their game.

Meanwhile, Australia’s quota of fast bowlers has risen from not enough to far too many since the end of that horror show 2 years ago. Alongside the veterans of Peter Siddle, Mitch Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus are the wily John Hastings and youngsters Pat Cummins, James Pattinson, Mitch Starc, Trent Copeland and Jackson Bird, who impressed on debut against Sri Lanka just the other day. Like England, they are also struggling with the battle to stay fit but any one of these bowlers can turn a game on its head. Personally, I think Starc is the one to watch – he had a successful period over here last summer with Yorkshire so will know the conditions well and destroyed the South Africans with his pace and tenacity just a couple of months ago. Provided he can stay off the physio table long enough, he may just be the breakthrough act of 2013.

3. ‘My gloves are nicer than yours…’

With wicketkeeper-batsmen coming back into fashion I think the battle between Matt Prior and Matthew Wade will be a fascinating one come next summer. Prior has firmly established himself as one of the greatest ‘keeper-batsmen of the modern era, not far behind the legendary Kumar Sangakkara, after a slightly shaky start to his England career. He has undoubtedly been the country’s most consistent performer on the sub-continent in the last 2 years, shining against Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India, and his ability behind the stumps is unrivalled by anyone else. He has the ability to take amazing one-handed diving catches, score at a run-a-ball and even stick it out and play the long game if necessary and he has been vital to England’s success in recent years.

Wade, however, is a relative newcomer to international cricket. Having played just 8 tests at the time of speaking he has much to learn in international cricket but his statistics firmly show that he is a talented man. A batting average of 36.27 with two fifties and a maiden Test hundred coming against a tough South African attack is a solid foundation to build on, while he has also snared 25 catches and 2 stumpings with the gloves. But it is his inconsistency that means he is not guaranteed a place on the tour here next year. With the bat he will either get out for under 15 or over 65, while with behind the stumps he sometimes misses regulation chances yet can then follow that up with the most spectacular diving catches, including the one-handed special to dismiss Sangakkara during the Boxing Day Test. If he can use the rest of the Sri Lankan series to cement his place in the Test side then expect a strong fight from the small Tasmanian next summer.

4. Captains Marvellous

They have reinvented themselves as players after periods of horrific form during which they were almost dropped and are now two of the greatest batsmen in the world, as well as captains of their countries. In fact, the stories for both Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke are highly similar. Both burst onto the Test scene at a young age before their faults were discovered and exploited by ruthless opposition bowlers. Cook, however, is a man who has kept himself to himself over the years, grafting away at his game silently while certain other players take the headlines. He is loved by the entire nation for his hard work and dedication, but Clarke has a slightly different image in his homeland. He was a bit of a lad, if you see what I mean, and liked to party and get in the news. He had a model girlfriend and numerous spats with teammates and the Aussie cricket board. He was a talented troublemaker (remind you of someone else?) who almost became the pantomime villain of Australian cricket. The decision to appoint him as Ricky Ponting’s successor was not initially taken well by the public, but those feelings of resentment are long gone.

A whitewash of India started the year nicely for Clarke before a resounding 2-0 win against the West Indies followed. The 3-match Test series against was full of astonishing and exciting cricket, with Australia narrowly losing 1-0, before two obliterations of Sri Lanka in the last few weeks. Couple that with 4 double centuries in 2012, including 2 against South Africa, and becoming his country’s highest run scorer in a calendar year with 1595 runs in just 18 innings and, helped by a change in personality, he is now absolutely adored by the nation.

These are the men who will make the key differences next summer. They are the ones who are going to have to lead from the front, use what they have at their disposal to the best affect and create plans to get each other out. One thing is for certain – the 2013 Ashes series is going to be enthralling!

The Great Game – really?

What is up with football at the moment? Diving, cheating and players being racially, verbally and even physically abused by fellow stars and fans alike – I thought we’d left this all behind in the ‘70s!

Watching a Premier League match should be a treat, a reward after a long week at school or work.  90% of the time it is, with free-flowing attacking football and plenty of goals. But the remaining 10% of the time is spent cringing while players roll around on the floor or steal a cheeky few yards to take a throw-in. It really is pathetic and detracts from a game that should be known for its aesthetic beauty rather than its lack of sportsmanship.

Many fans like to believe that this influx of cheating has correlated with the rising importation of foreign players and that good old English stalwarts stay on their feet. This may be true as diving is even worse in Serie A and La Liga than over here but then you look at players like Ashley Young and see they are no different. Diving is a trait installed by managers to make sure their players win no matter what and they then make the hypocritical comments when someone dives against their team that cheating has no place in football. If you feel that is the case then do something about it and stop your players from doing the same! I’m not saying that all managers tell their players to fall on the floor to make it look like they have been scythed down by a sniper but there are certain teams who’s players seem to spend more time flying through the air than they do in possession of the ball.

It’s not just diving that riles me but the way in which the players protest to the referee to try and get opposition players booked or sent off or argue with them if they feel aggrieved by a decision. There is no respect for anyone in football except yourself and your team and the referee is often, rather unfairly, on the receiving end of the flack. This is something that is not seen in rugby – last weekend London Irish No. 8 Chris Hala’ufia was red carded by the ref after he was alleged to have spear-tackled a London Welsh player, who got straight up after the tackle and made no complaints. Although I think a permanent dismissal was very harsh, the Tongan took his punishment with no arguments from either side and some of the Welsh players gave him some sympathy as they also felt a red card was harsh. I’m not saying that rugby is the perfect sport to follow – especially in light of the unsavoury brawl at Welford Road last weekend in which resulted in red cards for Matt Banahan and Brett Deacon – but when do you ever see a player argue with the referee about a decision? Both of the aforementioned players accepted their fates with no qualms and even shook hands less than 3 minutes after they were punching each other in the face. Footballers need to have some respect installed back into their system and learn that the referee is of higher authority than them, not someone who can be bullied.

And it’s not just the players who have a lack of respect for the opposition but the fans too. I walked past a young rugby player earlier asking his dad why football fans feel the need to get up and hurl abuse at opposition players whenever they come near them and his dad couldn’t come up with a proper answer. Why the fans feel it necessary to insult and gesture at someone who they don’t know, will never know and has not really done anything to them personally is one thing, but to racially abuse them… That’s not just crossing the line but planting great big size 12 feet about half a mile over it. There really is no excuse for insulting a footballer about the colour of their skin or their heritage just because they are playing against a different team to the one you support. In games such as rugby and cricket there is no such abuse towards players, as well as other fans. Supporters of opposing teams are often mixed together as they can be trusted to get along well and not break out into fights every 5 minutes. This mob culture that football fans seem to have was supposed to have been eradicated from football 30-40 years ago and, although that it is nowhere near as bad as it once was, it does still exist and needs to be addressed if football wants to be recognised as a game for everyone and not just those with a love for pies and hurling insults at innocent people.

Wrong man, wrong job

He won the Champions League in his first season as manager of a new club, an FA Cup… a Community Shield and the European Super Cup and now it has been decided that former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is the man to guide Chelsea back to their ‘former glory days’ after the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo after the ‘Blues’ won just 1 of 5 games in November. That’s a bit ridiculous isn’t it – just 6 months ago the club was celebrating winning Europe’s most prestigious domestic title as well as the greatest cup competition in the world under the guidance of  Di Matteo, yet owner Roman Abramovich suddenly felt that the Italian wasn’t the man for the job just because they hadn’t guaranteed their place in the next round of the Champions League and were only third in the Premier League. The sacking was a bizarre and unpopular decision but the appointment of Benitez was incomprehensible. The Russian billionaire must have been extremely drunk on some of his country’s famous vodka while making these decisions!

Just 5 years ago Benitez said he would never manage Chelsea because of his respect for Liverpool and yet now he couldn’t wait to take the job. Football managers are almost as hypocritical as politicians aren’t they! However it seems as though the only reason he has gone to manage Chelsea is to hang out with their rather large Spanish contingent as there aren’t many in the north west at the moment. Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, Cesar Azpilicueta and Oriel Romeu are all citizens of the greatest international football team at the time of writing and this must have been the major influence for the 52 year-old’s decision to take up the reins at Stamford Bridge. When he was manager of ‘The Reds,’ Benitez was the man who brought Torres over to this country and immediately made him a favourite of the Kopites, but his departure Anfield coincided with his fellow Spaniard’s form going down the drain and his injury count rising rather rapidly. Torres has not been the same player since and one of the conspiracies behind Benitez’s appointment is the hope that he can get the striker playing like he used to. But even Benitez seems to have written the striker off, saying that he may never be the player he was at Liverpool due to his lengthy list of problems – not something the fans or the owner wanted to hear!

If he thinks Torres will never be the same player again then it will be interesting to see what Benitez does in the forthcoming transfer window to address Chelsea’s striker shortage. His transfer policy at Liverpool was inconsistent to say the least – from 2004-2009 he bought 76 players and spent just under £230 million. This included the acquisition of now-Anfield favourites such as Torres, Dirk Kuyt, Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia as well as current players Daniel Agger, Lucas, Glen Johnson, Pepe Reina and Martin Skrtel but he also invested in some absolute donkeys – £8 million was spent on Alberto Riera, £20 million on Alberto Acquilani and £19 million on Robbie Keane – while he also brought in players such as Andrea Dossena, Josemi, Charles Itjande and Nabile El Zhar who would do well to make it into teams in the EvoStik Southern Division nowadays. The fact is that Chelsea need a decent striker either to play alongside Torres or take his place in the team, which will hopefully give him a royal kick up the backside and force him to start actually trying again. At the moment Falcao is the player linked with the Blues and I think his acquisition will be hugely beneficial for them. With 22 goals for club and country already this season he seems the obvious affordable choice but the question is whether Benitez will feel it necessary to invest in him or try someone else who isn’t as good, or just someone Spanish with a cool name.

Another of Benitez’s favourite traits as Liverpool manager was to insult other managers for no apparent reason and declare a verbal war on them, with famous examples being Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. This time around it is not other bosses he has been criticising but players currently playing – he has been in charge for less than 2 weeks and he has already told David Beckham he is ‘too slow’ to return to the Premiership and his whole team that they aren’t fit enough to win matches. He needs to calm down and focus on the job in hand rather than fight with people he will never win an argument with.

So, is Benitez the right man for the Chelsea job? I don’t really think I need to answer that one. The real question is who is and I feel there is only 1 answer. As a manager he has a 51.41% winning ratio as a manager, just 0.6% less than Benitez, has won a Champions League and an FA Cup and is a Blues legend. The man I feel should be in charge of Chelsea FC is… Roberto Di Matteo. He did nothing wrong when he was manager – everyone has bad patches, Sir Alex Ferguson would have been out of the Manchester United Job a long time ago if he was sacked due to a poor run of form – and won Chelsea their first ever European trophy and is loved by the fans. The Russian needs to get off his high horse, admit he is wrong and bring back the man with whom Blues fans have fallen in love with.

You should be dancing – it may just save your life

It’s the age-old question – is dance a sport? Having recently been a part of the backstage crew for my school’s dance production I think I have the answer…
According to the dictionary a sport is ‘an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature,’ while dance is classified as an ‘art.’ This is very true as it is a very representative art, but find something in the definition that dance isn’t! Judging by how physically drained some of the performers were after 3 solid nights of high intensity dancing I think it is fair to say that it is very athletic, while it is plain to see that a good dancer has to be extremely skillful. Rather than just using certain parts of their body to execute a set few skills that are practiced every day and used for a whole career, as seen in cricket, dancers have to learn new routines for every dance they do, each with varying patterns and steps , not just using their feet but the whole body – the coordination a good dancer requires is absolutely phenomenal. And most dancers don’t just specialise in one type of dance but in several – there were some girls in the aforementioned dance production who were involved in six or seven dances, from tap to Irish to contemporary, each different style requiring a different set of skills. There is no other example of a sport where there is such a diversity of skillfulness that performers are required to master.
   And in terms of dancing competitions, there are a number of different events every week in the UK and across the world for children, amateurs and professionals alike. There are even several categories of dance competition, including Open competitions where all types of dancing can be exhibited or Dancesport competitions such as Strictly Come Dancing where only a couple of disciplines are on show. Events can be regional, national or international, are very well structured with well-defined rules and attract hundreds or thousands of spectators, while there are actually 8 National Governing Bodies for the different dance disciplines. Not everyone wants to dance for competition but there are an increasing number who do and the provisions are all in place for those people.
Dance can, therefore, be classified as a sport but it can also be put under other headings. It can also be a performing art, where it is used to represent an image or a person, a cultural ritual and a leisure activity to boost health and fitness among others. I think it is this that questions whether dance is really a true sport. While most games such as rugby and football can be used to boost the physical and mental wellness of a participant the main aim is competition, but with dance this isn’t always the case. People don’t always dance to win trophies and for some this means that dance cannot be classified alongside the likes of cricket and netball.
   The stereotypical view of dancers also doesn’t help the argument. For some dancing is only associated with girls and they ‘don’t do sport’ so therefore dance cannot be one, while ballroom dancers are often classified as being old and retired so they cannot be competitive. Dancing is also seen as very uncool, especially for men. But this is far from the case; for starters it is claimed by some that up to 50% of dancers are males, so if you are old-fashioned in your views and feel that only men can play sport then this shows that dance can be classified as one, while men who dance are often cooler than those who don’t. They have pretty girls all around them and at parties they can throw amazing moves even when they’re drunk without embarrassing themselves while having the rhythm, flexibility and coordination that most of us can only dream of. And in terms of ballroom dancers, if you watch ‘Strictly’ you will notice that all of the pro dancers are young, cool and rather attractive, as well as being arguably fitter than most other professional sportsmen and women due to the very physical nature of their activity. Fourthly, the idea that only men can do sport is crazy. Looking at the recent Olympics and Paralympics, the standard of female sport is rapidly rising and they are becoming as good as men in many events, so even if it is only women who dance that in no way means it isn’t a sport.
Finally, with the alarming rise in obesity levels in Great Britain I think dance should be used as one of the main ways to combat the problem. The fact it is so physically demanding means that in just a few sessions a performer can easily burn off more excess fat than they would do following a diet over a number of months. By decreasing your weight, the vital organs are under much less pressure to keep the body working so are less likely to fail, while also increasing the efficiency of both the CV and respiratory systems. Looking at all the performers in the dance production they were all very athletic and slim, while I have a couple of friends who are extremely good ballroom dancers and at the peak of their physical condition. It can significantly increase your health and reduce the risk of potential problems such as heart attacks or strokes. Zumba, for example, is a fantastic way of losing weight – it is a fun session that pushes you very hard – while taking up dance competitively means you have to be extremely fit in order to be swift across the dance floor.
   The government really need to plug dance as a physical activity in order to keep our nation healthy, and hopefully in turn the population will realise that dance is as much a sport is everyone else and dispel all the unfair and untrue stereotypes it has.

The ultimate farce

The unforgettable 2012 Olympics have given our nation an amazing legacy and also seem to have cured the problem (at least short-term) of a lack of youngesters participating in sport. The Games, however, have created a big dilemma – what on earth is going to happen with the stadium?

So far the suggestions have been it could host football, F1 or NFL, but everyone seems to have ignored what I think is the perfect solution – athletics! Why build a stadium with a running track and sandpits if you’re not going to use them? They say that this idea isn’t feasible but surely the greatest Games ever (not debatable) must have gone a fair way to paying it off… It should be used to host the British leg of the Diamond League every season instead of going up to Birmingham where all it does is rain. It could also play host to national championships and suchlike to give youngsters a feel of what they could be doing in the future. Also, there will be loads of people who will want to visit it having not got tickets and visit the place where Mo, Jess and Greg took us by storm so why change its purpose?

But we decide to ignore the simple solution with least hassle and try to fit a round peg in a square hole as us British not having the same normal brain structure as everyone else! Tottenham, Leyton Orient and West Ham are the football teams who have all bidded but their plans all have significant flaws! To start with, Spurs are based in an entirely different part of London so every home fixture will feel like an away game while Leyton Orient struggle to attract more than 2 fans so will bankrupt themselves and the nation! West Ham seem the best option because of the proximity but does their football deserve such a great arena?

Still, at least football is a relatively logical solution. Bernie Ecclestone finally seems to have lost it – he thinks London’s streets could play host to an F1 race with the stadium incorporated in it somewhere! That final part is so vague though – does he mean drive through the stadium itself or drive along a section of the circuit where drivers can see it for about a second? It would also mean having to close some of London’s roads, which really isn’t sensible as the they are already a nightmare (hence the Congestion Charge Bernie). By closing them all you are doing is turning more commuters into miserable and angry people. What I would like to see, though, is an F1 race with traffic still flowing through the circuit – now that would be entertainment!

And finally, even thinking about hosting NFL games in the stadium is an insult! How can a stadium that played host to some of the greatest sporting moments ever, where every athlete was participating for their nation, now be a home for a sport where nationality doesn’t exist and a player’s bank balance is the size of Luxembourg? Despite the fact that I was impressed that Boris knew what American Football was, his suggestion is rather worrying? Can he not see that this is the USA’s final step towards colonising us? Firstly, they gave us McDonalds to make us fat and slow, then it was Apple to bamboozle our poor minds and now they’re sending their ‘beefcakes’ over to finish the job!

Over to you chef…

So, Alistair Cook is the new England Test captain with the job of taking England back to the number 1 spot in the long format. But I think he has a greater job in trying to stop the team becoming the laughing stock of international cricket, where we are currently heading. This isn’t a criticism of anyone in particular but there are a number of factors that seriously need to be addressed.

The first is that England fans need to stop moaning about other teams and focus on their own. Yes, India have taken a slightly cheeky step in that they have not played any out-and-out spin bowlers in the recent warm-up match so England will be under-prepared going into the first Test, but surely that’s England’s own fault for making it so plainly obvious that they rubbish against spin? Having said that, why is it that our batsmen can make spinners such as Saeed Ajmal look like an absolute donkey one minute and then make him look like an Asian terminator the next? Just because he has a bent elbow when he bowls it doesn’t mean that he has turned into Murali overnight! And it’s not as if we don’t exploit home advantages during our summer of cricket by making maximum use of swing bowling against sides who come from countries where wind and clouds are as rare as a sunny day is over here, therefore putting them at a disadvantage. All India are trying to do is win a series against a team who they see as a massive threat, so we as fans should stop being bigger hypocrites than our government and do all we can to help our players do the impossible and actually win down in India.

England’s deficiency against spin is very worrying, however, and Kevin Pietersen has inadvertently not helped the situation in any way. In 2008 he branded India’s Yuvraj Singh a ‘piechucker,’ which is quite an insult for a spinner (I know this from personal experience having been called it a few times), yet just yesterday he took 5 wickets for an India A side against a full strength England XI, including KP. We have recalled the man, arguably the best batsman in the country, to bolster an inexperienced batting line up and he is getting out to a bowler who he reckons shouldn’t be playing Sunday League cricket – what on earth is this saying about our side? If our best player is getting out to a second-rate, part-time bowler then we are well and truly stuffed when the Test series starts in two weeks, with Ravi Ashwin and Praveen Ojha picking up 15 out of 20 New Zealand wickets not long ago. Cook needs to tell his players to keep quiet to avoid any more embarrassing situations such as this!

Finally, Cook and the selectors need to stop picking players with ridiculous names if we want to reverse our fortunes! There are so many English players whose names are also nouns and verbs – Cook, Trott, Bell, Onions, Swann… Thank God Phil Mustard isn’t in the team anymore otherwise we’d have most of the ingredients for a hot dog rather than a cricket team! Some of the names are highly appropriate though – Jonathon Trott rarely bats with any intensity while Stephen Finn can scare opponents like a great white when he feels like it, which isn’t seemingly going to be soon after he hurt his thigh over-stretching his ostrich-like legs trying to stop the ball. Even head coach Andy Flower’s name reflects his tenure in charge – he took over the team from the bottom, set some really strong foundations and made them big and strong before they have wilted away recently. And with Joe Root looking to firmly set himself at the top of the England order and Jos Buttler opening a door for himself in the middle order the trend that has spanned decades looks set to continue. In the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s Geoffrey Boycott seemed to think that running would get him nowhere except for the local A&E department so avoided it like the Plague while ‘keeper-bastman Alan Knott used to bamboozle opponents with his extravagance in front and behind the stumps. Yet England have never had any real long-term cricketing success and I think this could be why!  Our players need sexy, stylish names such as AB de Villiers or Shane Watson, not Graeme Swann, if we want to dominate the world! Still, I suppose the name Pat Cummins could worse…

So, here we go then…

My first post then – it’s much more daunting than it seems! I am here to offer a light-hearted and witty insight into some sporting issues that people take way too seriously. However, although I like to think I am, many people I know would like to argue that I am in fact not witty but just very immature… Anyway I hope you all enjoy my blog and please feel free to leave constructive comments if you want, or even make suggestions as to what you may like me to talk about. First real post should be up by the end of the week!