An exhilarating and pulsating opening weekend to the 2013 RBS 6 Nations has proved one thing – so-called expert pundits don’t actually know what they’re talking about! England outplayed Scotland, who were flattened by the final score line after a couple of sloppy mistakes, in contradiction to predictions across the board that they would scrape to a Calcutta Cup victory, while France… Well, whoever predicted that they would win the Grand Slam clearly needs their head testing!
On Saturday, England played with a flair and excitement that hasn’t really been seen for a couple of years. Their offloading game, especially, was something to be admired but all aspects of their game were slick and they set an impressive foundation from which they can build during the rest of the tournament. Another clear improvement seen against the Scots was the disciplinary levels – for years England fans have been shouting at their TV screens at those in white for giving away penalty after penalty for the most needless things but there were only seven penalties conceded throughout the whole 90 minutes, of which only two could be converted by Greg Laidlaw, which is a vast improvement even from the autumn internationals just a couple of months ago.
Certain individuals also shone in this strong team performance, with Owen Farrell deservedly picking up the Man-of-the-Match award after a sublime display both off the tee and with ball in hand. He looks so calm and composed when he plays and this is relayed across the whole team. I haven’t seen an English number 10 do this since Jonny Wilkinson was in his prime. Ben Morgan also had a fantastic game at number 8, pushing his way over the gainline time and time again while Joe Launchbury looked every inch an international player at lock and was unlucky not to have been awarded a try. Billy Twelvetrees capped off a solid debut with his first international try and slotted seamlessly into the number outside centre role – Manu Tuilagi may have to wait a while before his next start – while the England bench was unbelievably strong, featuring the likes of Toby Flood, Danny Care, James Haskell and Dave Strettle.
Some, though, have questioned whether Mike Brown should still be in the England team after his mistakes led to both of Scotland’s tries on Saturday. But I think he more than deserves his place in the side – for the last two or three years he has injected searing pace into a Harlequins side still raw from the ‘Bloodgate’ scandal and has been key to their rapid rise back to the top of the game. And he made over 100 metres when he carried the ball, nearly double the distance of everyone else, and often was the basis of England’s numerous attacks on the Scottish defensive line. He showed his inexperience at times and his mistakes were quite basic, but he’s only human – give him a chance!
Overall, things are looking much better than even the most optimistic had predicted before the tournament began. However I do have a problem with one aspect of the team – the haircuts! Someone really does need to tell Joe Marler that his hairdresser has majorly screwed him over. I’m not volunteering though, given the size of him… But that aside, their performance was very good and their chances of a Grand Slam have also greatly increased given the performances of the other contenders over the weekend. France were abysmal against Italy earlier today, making error after error. I’m not taking anything away from Italy, who were superb throughout with Luciano Orquera playing like a man possessed, but Les Blues did nothing to prove that they deserved the favourites tag for the tournament. The writing was on the wall for me when I saw Freddie Michalak selected as fly half – I didn’t even know he was still playing rugby! Back in the early 2000s he was earmarked as the next best thing for France but he never delivered and disappeared off the international scene. And today he was terrible, with absolutely no creativity in his play – is he really the best France have? If so, fantastic!
The French lineout was also hugely suspect and, with Launchbury and Geoff Parling looking imperious, it is definitely an area the English should exploit when the two sides meet on the 23rd February. However, the French did show flashes of brilliance and Chris Robshaw and Morgan are going to have to be at their absolute best if they are to keep the superb Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles at bay. Beware the wounded smurf…
The other game this weekend highlighted the psychological weaknesses of both the Irish and the Welsh sides. It was clear in the first half that Wales, who hadn’t won an international game since defeating France last March to win the Grand Slam, had absolutely no confidence in themselves and this allowed the Irish to play some free flowing attacking rugby, highlighted by Simon Zebo’s wonderful piece of skill with his feet than eventually led to Cian Healy scoring. But the Irish showed their own lack of confidence when they let Wales back into the game in the second half. Personally I think this may have damaged the rather inexperienced Irish side more than the loss did for the Welsh as they are the ones who almost gave away what should have been an unassailable lead. It is now up to the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Jonny Sexton to change this mindset and push the side in emerald green to the heights of 2003 and 2006, which they have the potential to do. Wales, on the other hand, have the momentum after the match and with such talent in their side, including George North, Sam Warburton, Jonathon Davies and Scott Williams, they cannot go on losing forever and I think this is the point at which they turn their fortunes around. I cannot see anyone else giving England a battle for the 2013 6 Nations title.
My predictions for the final table:
1st – England (but not a Grand Slam)
2nd – Wales
3rd – France
4th – Ireland
5th – Italy
6th – Scotland
Last weekend’s 5-0 drubbing of a hapless Norwich signalled to the footballing world that Liverpool are returning to the glory days of the ‘70s, ‘80s and 2005. It may have been a long time since The Reds have lived up to their trophy-studded past but under Brendan Rogers it seems that the good times are coming back.
Ever since Liverpool threw away the Premier League title in 2008/2009, a couple of seasons after their Champions League final loss to AC Milan, they have been on a downward spiral. Since then they have finished 7th, 6th and 8th and have had almost as many managers as Chelsea in that time period! (I know, I couldn’t believe it either!) Being a fan of the club has been hard, but now things are looking up. Despite a slow… Actually no, despite an abysmal start to the season Liverpool find themselves 7th at the time of writing and are still in the FA Cup, although a tie with Oldham later today will be tricky, and the Europa League. They are only 3 points behind Arsenal, but they aren’t exactly a team doing their status any justice either.
The argument for the last two seasons has been that Liverpool are a 2-man team and without Suarez and Gerrard they would be nowhere. It’s true in that they have scored the large majority of the goals this season for the team, but where have all these goals come from? The team have worked so hard around these two players and have provided a large majority of the goals on a plate for them. The main problem is burnout – Liverpool’s lack of strength in depth means that these players have been hugely overworked and, while having not suffered so far, could easily break down and leave Rodgers with a real problem. But this has allowed young players to show that they have the potential to become great players – Raheem Sterling, Andre Wisdom and Jonjo Shelvey have all flourished in the first team this season and there have also been other notable performances from Adam Morgan, Jack Robinson, John Flanagan and others. The future is looking bright for Liverpool and, with the likes of Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Jose Enrique finally finding their feet at this prestigious club, there is a really strong, and predominantly British, nucleus that could one day rule British, European and even world football.
Brendan Rodgers is the perfect man to restore the north-western team back amongst the great teams – his belief in passing football is much more suited to the likes of Suarez, Glen Johnson, Gerrard and the rest compared to the long ball tactic employed by both Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalgleish. Bringing in Joe Allen to fit in with this was an inspired move as, although his statistics suggest he hasn’t done a lot, he is the one who has looked after the ball while others make runs around him. Johnson is now allowed to do what he does best and get forward and there is now an attacking intent that has been lacking for a while. There have been some hairy moments at the back with Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and Pepe Reina trying to pass their way out of trouble but, on the whole, the new system is a success.
Another thing that Rodgers has done really well is utilise players to suit his system, not just use who is already there and try to make them do things they cannot. He has got rid of the likes of Charlie Adam, Andy Carroll and Jay Spearing who really did not justify themselves in a red shirt and brought in small, slight and quick individuals such as Allen, Oussama Assaidi and Suso who are perfect for passing football. While only having two first team strikers was a blemish from an otherwise successful summer transfer period he has recognised his mistake and brought in Daniel Sturridge. This was yet another inspired move from the Northern Irishman, with the English striker scoring in each of his first 3 games and quickly becoming a fan favourite.
So, Rodgers has the players, he has the finances and he has the backing of the board. But he also has something else, the one crucial thing that will bring him trophies – has the respect of the fans. The last man to really have this was Benitez and look at what he did for the club. Liverpool are a team rising from the ashes and will be back, winning trophies before you can say “I hate that Swansea ballboy, what a cheat – and look at his haircut!’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!