Paper Round
February 28, 2010

A blessing in disguise

Posted by Jo Carter on 28/02/2010

England's defeat to Ireland ended talks of a Grand Slam, but the result just might be a blessing in disguise, says Stuart Barnes in The Sunday Times.

This defeat must be a turning point for England. Had they held on to the most tentative of leads established with Jonny Wilkinson’s late drop-goal, this would have been another muddling performance with the only exceptional element being the spin that would have ensued with continued talk of the Grand Slam.

Such an outcome would have guaranteed more conservatism from the deeply unimaginative Martin Johnson. Critics would have been told to look at the results, as if three poor displays in what is a second-rate tournament, excluding France, proved anything other than England are content to be second-tier nearly-men. That will not do but you can be sure it is what would have been happened had England held on and won this scrap.

English supporters should send Ireland wing Tommy Bowe a national vote of thanks for his two tries. The blinkers can come off now. There is no fallback position based on results against mediocre opposition.

For all the honest perspiration of Johnson’s England, this team still lack the chutzpah to build on their committed togetherness and reach for something special.

This aversion to risk is part of the England team manager’s DNA; he cannot change the way he is, but he can at least look in a mirror and see that the surplus Johnson spirit lacks a counterpoint to present England with the balance to develop as a team, not just nick another win.

This defeat is an opportunity for Johnson. It remains to be seen, though, whether he has the courage to take it.

Continue reading "A blessing in disguise"

February 27, 2010

Gallows humour from odd O'Neill

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 27/02/2010

Sir Alex Ferguson has had the measure of just about every manager he has come across during his glittering reign at Manchester United, from the Kevin Keegan “I’d love it” debacle to the Rafael Benitez “these are facts” rant. But if Ferguson can work out what’s going through the mind of his Carling Cup final foe, Martin O’Neill, on Sunday, he’s a better man than you or me – as Michael Walker reveals in the Daily Mail...

August 22, 2002: Neil Lennon is 24 hours on from the loyalist death-threat telephone call that terminated his Northern Ireland career and is back in Glasgow at his club, Celtic.

Awaiting him there is his manager Martin O’Neill who, like Lennon, is a Northern Irish Catholic and who, like Lennon, captained his country. O’Neill did so in the turbulent days of the early 1980s. So there would be understanding, sympathy, or so Lennon thought.

As he tells it, though, on returning to Celtic, O’Neill met Lennon with the words: ‘Ah, Neil, so you got my phone call, then?’

Reminded of this on Thursday, O’Neill laughed out loud. Of course there had been sympathy for Lennon, but as O’Neill said: ‘That’d be like something I’d come out with.’ Black, gallows humour to some; green, Irish humour to O’Neill.

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February 26, 2010

The boil should have been lanced

Posted by Alex Livie on 26/02/2010

Wayne Bridge’s announcement that he is no longer available for England selection sent the scribes into overdrive and the decision has polarised opinion. Sympathy for Bridge’s plight is overwhelming, although Terry Venables in the Sun would have preferred him to front up to John Terry and put the team first, but Oliver Holt in the Mirror points the finger firmly at coach Fabio Capello. Holt feels Capello made a grave error by stripping Terry of the captaincy but leaving him in the squad. ‘This agitated the boil rather than lanced it’ and was clearly not enough to appease a heartbroken Bridge.

It is not often that Fabio Capello has appeared foolish during his reign as England manager but he is looking pretty dumb today.

Not just because a couple of days ago he was adamant Wayne Bridge would join up with England on Sunday.

But also because he has made such an appalling mess of his handling of the whole sorry affair of the disintegration of the friendship between Bridge and John Terry.

It was evident to anyone who knew anything about the situation that sacking Terry as England captain three weeks ago would not fix anything.

Terry being captain was never the problem for Bridge. Terry being in the squad was the problem for Bridge.

Terry just being there, being in the same room, was the problem and Capello was not prepared to banish the Chelsea skipper from the squad altogether.

So he made a gesture. An empty gesture aimed at appeasing the media and the public. And now he is reaping the rewards of what he did.

Not only has Capello lost Bridge, who may have been his best left back in South Africa if Ashley Cole doesn’t recover from injury, but he has destabilised Terry as well.

He has conjured up the worst of both worlds and when Bridge quit England yesterday it was a worrying sign that Capello has badly misjudged the mood of his squad.

By linking the players’ private lives with their professional lives, he has also effectively put a price on each of their heads. Nice work, boss.

Bridge knew all that. He is not stupid. He knew that Capello had not lanced the boil by sacking Terry. He had merely irritated it.

Winter of content
The Winter Olympics are drawing to a close and despite some negative coverage in the media, Matthew Pinsent tells the Times that Vancounver has been an example for London to follow.

The challenge of hosting and winning lots of medals is something to which we have to pay close attention, with London next to light the Olympic flame. Most of the Canadians have performed to or above expectation, but some of the most high-profile and hyped athletes have slipped back. Our own gold medal-winner, Amy Williams, triumphed in the skeleton at the expense of Mellisa Hollingsworth, of Canada. The latter had every right to be considered a contender, but in the end she was a weeping wreck, apologising to viewers on television.

As ever, the reporting of the Games has been sharp and occasionally biting. The world’s press have descended on West Hastings Street, where Vancouver’s drug issues are arguably at their worst. It is testament to the hosts’ openness that they simply chose not to hide the issue. We have to expect the same rigorous investigation before the Olympics in London.

What sets Vancouver apart for me is how carefully they examine criticism. I was very politely refused an interview by Donald Sutherland, the actor, with the advice to “please tell the Guardian newspaper that this is not the worst Games ever”.

Newspapers here have a daily game of “quote what the rest of the world is saying”. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain the difference between BBC Sport and the British papers. Canadians have touchingly thin skins — or perhaps we have evolved into rhinos when it comes to press coverage.

The sporting seal for Canada has still to be decided - the men’s ice hockey final takes place a few hours before the closing ceremony. We are constantly reminded that “hockey is Canada’s game” and that the men’s players have had, more than all other home athletes, to perform under fan and media pressure.

If they can display their best form in the final, then perhaps Canadians will at last believe that their Winter Olympics are what I’ve felt they have been all along - wonderful.

February 25, 2010

The Mexican apple strudel

Posted by Jo Carter on 25/02/2010

The first time he competed at a Winter Games, Torvill and Dean were still doing Bolero in Sarajevo. In a record fifth Olympic Games, the eccentric Prince Hubertus of Hohenlohe-Langenburg of Mexico is calling it a day. What a shame, writes Ian Chadband in the Daily Telegraph

"I'm a Renaissance Prince in the snows of Canada, so please don't look at my time – just look at my styyyyyle!" implored Prince Hubertus of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, breaking into half a Barry White impression. So we did and we swooned at the ageless star of these Winter Olympics.

At 51 and dolled up in the maddest ski suit this side of Acapulco, garishly painted bandido-style with ammunition belts and guns, we were hardly going to miss the oldest swinger in town, the one-royal Mexico Olympic team, European pop star, art photographer and one-time muse of Andy Warhol.

"No, the main thing was looking good. I won. On artistic impression. Isn't this the coolest suit ever made? The design was my idea. I did it with an Italian designer in Turin; I call it Mexican Desperado."

There was no stopping him. There never has been. Torvill and Dean were still doing Bolero in Sarajevo the first time Prince Hubertus competed at a Winter Games. This is his record fifth and it would have been more had Mexico Olympic chiefs on occasion not taken a stand against being represented by someone who seemed about as Mexican as apple strudel.

He was born and did live in the country for four years when his daddy, Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, was running a Volkswagen plant there and mummy, Her Serene Highness Princess Virginia Carolina Theresa Pancrazia Galdina of Fürstenberg, the Fiat heiress, nipped off to become a B movie star in Europe.

But now jetting between his homes in Vienna, the Italian Alps, the Costa del Sol and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, Hubertus has really become a playboy citizen of the world.

Did I say playboy? Sorry, your highness. "If I were a playboy, I'd be in St Moritz right now, not on this tough little hill fighting it out with the world's best," he scolded.

"I think we provide colour to the Olympics,'' Hubertus said. ''I've had a very, very interesting and unpredictable life. Strength, life and personality only comes out from doing something unexpected so I keep reinventing myself."

Continue reading "The Mexican apple strudel"

February 24, 2010

Double standards at Chelsea

Posted by Josh Williams on 24/02/2010

Chelsea dominate the headlines in this morning's papers for two reasons: their Champions League clash with Inter Milan, managed by former Blues boss Jose Mourinho, and their £400,000 fine of Ashley Cole for conducting himself in a manner viewed as damaging to the club's reputation while on Chelsea duty. On the latter point, Matthew Syed in the Times accuses the Stamford Bridge club of double standards in their treatment of Cole and John Terry.

Ashley Cole, if you ask me, is rather vain and self-obsessed, even compared with his fellow footballers. He is also, according to reports over recent days, a serial adulterer, an allegation that has caused Cheryl Tweedy to announce their separation. But why on Earth any of this entitles Chelsea to clobber the defender with a fine of £400,000 is beyond those of us who thought that a man’s sexual behaviour was a matter for him and his family rather than his employer.

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February 23, 2010

Go forth and sow though royal oats

Posted by Alex Livie on 23/02/2010

Ashley Cole and John Terry are two Chelsea players working to save their marriages following allegations of affairs. There are any number of reasons why someone would stray and Ian Wright in the Sun has come up with a cracker: It’s the clubs’ fault for encouraging players to settle down too early. I remember Eddie Murphy in Coming To America being encouraged to ‘sow his royal oats’ before settling down and it seems Wrighty is a big believer in that philosophy.

Football clubs have always encouraged their players to settle down. Most managers like them to marry and have kids in their early 20s, as it has generally been accepted that a happy home life makes a player more focused at work.

Yet I am now giving the opposite advice to mates of mine who are professional footballers and single.

What is happening to both Ashley Cole and John Terry proves the modern-day footballer should settle down only when he is totally ready for commitment.

Obviously, there are exceptions. It is widely accepted that Wayne Rooney has become a better player since he settled down at a relatively young age.

In general, people now marry and have kids far later than they used to. In football, though, nothing much has changed. A lot of lads are still getting hitched early. I don't see why the rush to walk down the aisle, even if the club manager says he would rather see his team all playing happy families.

I have also told my mates not to make the mistakes I made, which I regret to this day. It is better to go out and date plenty of women, providing they, of course, are also single.

We can’t get away from Ashley Cole and Kevin Garside in the Daily Telegraph points out that people’s desire for lurid headlines will ensure non-sporting antics will feature more prominently than what goes on in the sporting arena.

It is a measure of these enlightened times that, among the myriad selections on which one may place a bet in football, the list includes divorce. The bookies have closed the account on Ashley Cole. Reports from the Cheryl corner in Los Angeles seem conclusive. They say: “It’s over.

The willingness of William Hill to quote on the disintegration of a marriage says as much about us as it does the happy couple. We roll the dice on private grief. You can hedge your bets by following the text traffic between the warring parties. Who has lost their moral compass, Cole for his extramarital indulgence, or the public for gorging on the detail?

The following question was posed by a Mr Colin Smith on a newspaper website. “A very boring man who plays a very boring game gets very rich and has sex with lots of beautiful women. His wife doesn’t like it. Where’s the story; and why is it top of the news, even before the real crises in the world?”

Smith’s post hit the bull’s-eye. It reduced our prurient interest in the life of one famous figure to the tawdry fundamentals with which we appear besotted. It related to Tiger Woods, but its application is universal. For Woods, copy and paste football’s ritual sinners Cole and John Terry. They are all at it.

This stuff consumes us. We have become a nation of voyeurs, training the long lens at the curtains of the rich and famous in the hope of glimpsing a quick grope. When we catch them out we throw the moral book at them with the force of a medieval legate on the lookout for heretics in the attic.


February 22, 2010

Shock: Building site resembles a building site

Posted by Alex Livie on 22/02/2010

Fabio Capello will fly out to South Africa this week to cast his eye over England’s base for the World Cup finals. The papers are revelling in the fact that the base resembles a building site. Building sites do tend to resemble building sites when they are being built, still it makes good copy for Oliver Kay in the Times.

The disconcerting sight of diggers, breeze blocks and bone-dry pitches awaits Fabio Capello when he arrives for an inspection of England’s planned World Cup base today, only 108 days before the tournament in South Africa begins.

Capello, having flown overnight to Johannesburg, is due to travel with FA officials to the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus near Rustenburg this afternoon to approve formally the site as England’s base for the tournament. But the £20 million hotel and training complex — which, while five-star, is markedly less ostentatious than the venue selected in Baden-Baden by Sven-Göran Eriksson for the 2006 World Cup in Germany — remains a long way from completion.

The FA, having sent a party to Rustenburg in advance of Capello’s arrival, played down concerns last night about the progress made. Officials maintain that the England manager has been kept informed about every stage of the operation and is aware of what to expect. His priority today will be to assess the condition of the pitches; Capello said, after his last inspection in December, that they were poor enough to force him to consider alternative venues.

The expectation is that Capello will give Royal Bafokeng the thumbs-up, but the first impressions of British journalists who were shown around the complex yesterday — billed as “a world-class high-altitude sports training destination” — were that the Royal Marang Hotel still looks a building site. With the pitches scorched by the late-summer sun and the on-site medical centre not built, there is a lot of work to do on a project that was originally scheduled to be finished by November. It is now due for completion next month.

Golf will go on without Woods
The Times’ chief football commentator Patrick Barclay has dipped his toe into the world of golf. Tiger Woods is such a huge draw that he can make an appearance in Barclay’s column. The scare stories of golfing Armageddon because of Woods’ absence have been doing the rounds for a while, but they reared their head again following his recent appearance to confirm he is not thinking of returning to golf, yet. Barclay, though, makes the sensible point that the sport survived long before Woods and will be around long after he packs up his clubs.

At the end of last week there was such a fuss about the ill-timed and, for all I know, illintentioned coincidence of Woods’s statement of contrition with a tournament in Tucson, Arizona, that even yours truly bewildered was dragged into a studio to mumble inexpert analysis. It was not until Friday evening that someone on Radio 4 tired of the mantra that “golf needs Tiger” and was struck by the bright idea of turning to Peter Alliss, who quietly reminded us that the game, wonderfully though Woods could play it, ought to be able to get along without him.

Not that the fraternity were in any mood to listen. I read yesterday that “the Masters without Tiger will be like Manchester United without Fergie” and that put it in a nutshell. United without “Fergie” had, in 1958, the best team in their history. A decade later they became the first English club to win the European Cup. Yet Sir Matt Busby proved replaceable, as Sir Alex Ferguson will.

Similarly, there was golf when Snead and Hogan played, and Nicklaus and Palmer. And while Woods is someone after whom the game will never be quite the same again, so was Severiano Ballesteros. Yet Woods’s drama is being treated like a death in the sense that people are exaggerating his impact (as with Michael Jackson) on not only his particular sphere but the world.

Cole in another hole
It’s not been a good week for Ashley Cole, what with the texting shenanigans and reports that Cherly is ready to file for divorce. Football is probably not top of his agenda at the moment, but the Mail are claiming that he will be hauled before the Chelsea board this week and it will be spelt out that the club will not tolerate being dragged through the gutter.

Ashley Cole will have to fight for his Chelsea future in a courtroom-style hearing with the Stamford Bridge board.

Just days after Chelsea’s players were informed by the club hierarchy that Roman Abramovich will no longer tolerate behaviour that harms the image of the club, Cole was at the centre of a fresh controversy yesterday over an alleged extramarital affair on a pre-season tour.

It was claimed he lied to a senior club official who was then implicated in a damaging cover-up designed to stop details appearing in newspapers.

February 21, 2010

Cipriani example a lesson to Rodwell

Posted by Josh Williams on 21/02/2010

Although his involvement in the Everton vs Manchester United fixture did not span to ten minutes, Jack Rodwell's contribution was crucial. The 18-year-old England Under-21 international scored the Toffees' final goal in a 3-1 victory, provoking comparisons with another player who emerged from Everton's academy, one who went on to become one of the planet's best players - Wayne Rooney. Writing in the Observer, Paul Hayward says that Rodwell is a 'certainty' to play for England:

Upwardly mobile Scottish manager establishing a reputation as skilled team builder sends on two youngsters to defeat big-name opponent. Remind you of anyone? David Moyes, a mini Sir Alex Ferguson, lost Wayne Rooney to Manchester United but can still pull a wizard from an academy.

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February 20, 2010

Woods launches Brand Tiger

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 20/02/2010

So, Tiger Woods paused, spoke, paused, spoke some more, and then hugged his mum in a touching public statement on Friday, which was so uncharacteristically unnatural that viewers momentarily forget the God-given grace by which the world No. 1 plays on a golf course. Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail applauds Woods for Friday’s appearance, but only for the relaunch of what he calls Brand Tiger...

And still we wait to hear from Tiger Woods. Maybe we never will. The thoughts of Brand Tiger we know. He is sorry. We get that. He was selfish, he was irresponsible, he was foolish. Yes, we understand. He let down his wife, his children, his fans, his friends, his family, his business partners. Oh, those poor business partners. Won't nobody think of the business partners?

At the end, he held his old mum tight and moved along the specially selected front row as if receiving condolences at a funeral. For a moment, it was possible to forget that this was, in fact, a happy occasion. Maybe they should have made it clearer with a giant banner that could have fallen in front of the solemn blue drapes at the conclusion.

'COMING SOON: TIGER WOODS - a new TIGER WOODS will be opening here in 2010.'

That was, after all, what this production was really about. Brand Tiger is gearing up to make money again. He might not be ready to hit a golf ball in public yet but he will be primed to get those cash registers ringing soon. The shuffling noise you hear is the sound of executives climbing back in from the window ledges at Nike headquarters.

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February 19, 2010

Skating on air

Posted by Jo Carter on 19/02/2010

Arguably the most recognisable figure at the Winter Olympics, the man nicknamed 'The Flying Tomato' with his flowing auburn locks, Shaun White has single-handedly brought the Vancouver Games to life. Such is the significance of White's defence of his gold medal, writes Lawrence Donegan in The Guardian, that it is right to compare his 'Tomahawk' move to Torvill and Dean's 'perfect' Bolero routine.

Step aside American Idol, America has a new idol. After a six-year unbroken run at the top of the US television ratings, the ubiquitous talent show fronted by Simon Cowell was pushed into second place by a 23-year-old Californian with the showmanship of Liberace and the athletic grace of the Bolshoi Ballet.

Such is the power of Shaun White, who brought Vancouver – and the Vancouver Games – to life with a stunning performance to take gold in the men's half-pipe snowboarding under floodlights on Wednesday night. Joy was unconfined – at the Cypress mountain complex, where the action unfolded; around downtown Vancouver, where the American's successful execution of his signature move, the Double McTwist 1260 (aka the Tomahawk; aka the single most memorable moment of the 2010 Games), was greeted in the streets with high-fives of appreciation; and, it is safe to assume, with broad smiles among the Games' organisers, who were hoping to change the narrative of a troubled first week.

Ludicrous as the comparison between the raucous hipster-ism of snowboarding and the more sedate world of ice dancing is, there is every chance the American's second of two runs down the half-pipe – the one that featured the Double McTwist (it is a double-flip, three-and-a-half spin manoeuvre for the uninitiated) – will live as long in the consciousness as the ­"perfect" Bolero routine of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean in 1984.

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February 18, 2010

Wenger's not so Fab at picking 'keepers

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 18/02/2010

Where else can we start Thursday’s paper round than with Arsenal's blundering goalkeeper, Mr Lukasz Fabianski? Two awful errors in Portugal - aided by Sol Campbell - but while inexperience cannot be blamed for the defender’s contribution, age can certainly can pinpointed in the case of Fabianski writes Rob Kelly in the Telegraph.

Another week, another woeful Arsenal goalkeeping error. How much longer can Arsene Wenger ignore the gaping hole in his defence? How much longer are fans going to have to put up with Lukasz Fabianski palming the ball into his own net, or Manuel Almunia flapping at crosses? And how much longer can Arsenal really expect to stay competitive without adequate investment in this most vital of positions?

Fabianski’s personal hell in Porto was nothing new, although the full extent of his wretched performance was surprising in its paucity. Supporters who had witnessed the Pole’s display in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea last season, or his dreadful showing at Stoke in the same competition this year, may have expected the worse. But not many will have anticipated what unfolded at the Estadio do Dragao.

In the pre-match build-up Wenger had attempted to boost the confidence of his young goalkeeper by insisting Fabianski had the potential to become “world-class”. At that stage Wenger’s words seemed baseless, but in the wake of yet another woeful showing that leaves Arsenal in real danger of European elimination, they seem ridiculous. Fabianski’s shotstopping may be impressive, but if his temperament is as suspect as it appears, he can never be considered world class.

His performance in Porto could spell the end of his Arsenal career. At some point there must be a tipping point for any player, and if Fabianski cannot handle playing in big matches then he should not be playing for a club that are aiming to compete for the biggest prizes. Yet the alternative to Fabianski - a confidence-shattered Almunia – is hardly appealing either. Like Gael Clichy and Theo Walcott, Almunia appears to be in retrograde and Wenger must make some ruthless decisions this summer.

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February 17, 2010

Cipriani treatment is unthinkable

Posted by Alex Livie on 17/02/2010

England’s laboured win over Italy at the weekend left many questioning whether Martin Johnson’s side have what it takes to win the Six Nations. England were crying out for some creative spark from their back line, but it was sadly lacking. Ian McGarry in the Sun is convinced England are architects of their own downfall for leaving Danny Cipriani in the reserves and points the finger squarely at Johnson. Brave man.

Danny Cipriani's been called selfish, flash and injury-prone - a playboy who's more interested in fame than the game. And most damning of all, Cipriani has been accused of disloyalty to his country and putting himself before England.

And the cause of so much criticism? His willingness to consider a move to Australia to play for Melbourne Rebels.

How dare he want to further his career in a league where the standard is superior to the Guinness Premiership.

Especially when playing the Super 15's season could rule him out of England duty for the Six Nations.

It's not his fault people made him out to be the saviour of English rugby at the age of 19. He didn't ask to be hailed as the player to fill the vacuum left by injury-jinxed Jonny Wilkinson. And he certainly never wanted the horrific ankle injury in 2008.

Now, however, it's not injury or form holding Cipriani back. It's personality. How else can you account him being dumped in the Saxons each time Martin Johnson names his senior squad? Cipriani is becoming familiar with that slap down from the England boss yet it's inconceivable it would happen in any other sport.

Can you imagine Wayne Rooney being sent to the Three Lions stiffs. Do you think Fabio Capello would survive in his job if he did?

Yet Jonno is barely asked to justify his treatment of English rugby's most-talented player.

Has Cole put Fabio in a hole?
The sex lives of Chelsea and England stars John Terry and Ashley Cole remain hot topics of debate. Terry’s alleged antics cost him the England captaincy and Oliver Holt in the Mirror asks whether Fabio Capello will take a similar stance with Cole.

So, now that Fabio Capello has been appointed the guardian of the nation’s morals, what does he do about Ashley Cole?

Now that Capello has set himself up as the moral majority’s favourite authority figure, what does he do about a bloke who spends his free time at the England team hotel taking pictures of himself in his underpants and sending them to a woman other than his wife?

My own opinion is that what Cole does in the privacy of his own room has no bearing on his status as the best left back in the world but we know by now that Capello doesn’t separate a man’s private life from his football so easily.

He’s our Sleaze Czar. When it comes to punishing moral turpitude, he’s a one-man lynch mob, football’s version of Judge Fenton from Hang ’Em High.

Well, can’t he? If Capello kills Terry for what he does off the field, he has to treat Cole the same way doesn’t he?

February 16, 2010

Wilko and Becks under fire

Posted by Josh Williams on 16/02/2010

Two of English sport's most iconic figures, David Beckham and Jonny Wilkinson, are accused in the media today of being past their best. Wilkinson, says Robert Kitson in the Guardian, is hindering England's rugby team due to his failure to take responsiblity for playmaking duties:

Yet anyone who witnessed the Scots playing with massive precision, pride and passion, albeit without ultimate reward, could not fail to wonder why England seem incapable of doing likewise on a consistent basis. Dan Parks, the much-maligned Glasgow fly-half, had the game of his life while the so-called Killer Bs – Brown, Beattie and Barclay – were similarly outstanding. The difference was that Scotland were brimful of intent and purpose while England again spent a large chunk of their 80 minutes painting by numbers.

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February 15, 2010

Jonny - he's only human

Posted by Jo Carter on 15/02/2010

With Ireland's defeat in Paris on Saturday, and England's rather laboured victory in Rome, Martin Johnson's side and France are now the only two teams still on course for a Grand Slam. But England's performance was far from perfect, and what was more concerning, was Jonny Wilkinson's innacuracy with the boot, writes Simon Barnes in The Times

England made almost absurdly heavy weather of this closely fought match. Near the end they were fending off an enthralling Italian attack with a safety margin of only two points. The whiff of upset was in the air, and so was the triumphal march from Aïda. The shag-haired, bearded, big-bodied Italy forwards were inspiring the crowd and charging forward with a sudden belief that the eternal underdog of the RBS Six Nations Championship was about to bite the snootiest dog of all.

England finally outlasted Italy to win 17-12. They are unbeaten in the championship, just like France, except not really all that much like France. Wilkinson’s contribution was a nightmare of uncertainty in a team who are plagued with the stuff. Jonny uncertain! You’ll be telling me next that he’s got the yips.

But — well, it did look a tiny bit like the dreaded yips. He missed three kicks at goal, two of them bringing gasps of disbelief from the mighty England contingent in the stands. He took on a long shot, just inside his own half — that was perhaps a 60 per-center, an 80 per-center when Wilkinson was at his best in the early Noughties.

He didn’t miss it in terms of accuracy. He just didn’t kick the ball far enough. Even when Wilkinson misses, you expect him to make sweet contact, that perfect impact is the very core of his being. But no, the ball fell humiliatingly short. As if Wilkinson was just like everybody else. You know — fallible. Human.

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February 14, 2010

No walk in the Parks for Wales

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 14/02/2010

General theory is that, since the game of rugby union turned professional, rugby players have become about as interesting as a night-in with a dictionary. Outstanding quotes are by-and-large a thing of the past, but on Saturday Wales captain Ryan Jones proved they have it within them to produce when the stakes are at their very highest. Having just triumphed against Scotland after being 24-21 down with 20 seconds left, Jones commented “I put my **** on the block and I guess it paid off.”

Superb. But the Welsh should not be allowed to steal the headlines, not in James Corrigan’s eyes, who championed the cause of Scotland’s Dan Parks in the Independent...

Even allowing for the fact that this Wales team are like the culprit in an episode of Miss Marple – they never turn up until the 60th minute – Dan Parks enjoyed the finest hour of his career. When he stood in the 65th minute with his arms aloft, he must have believed this was his moment. He had just kicked a drop-goal from nigh on halfway and with the score-board at 24-14, glory beckoned.

Parks has always put the "much" before "maligned". In the build-up even Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, had pointed to the Glasgow fly-half's selection over Godman and highlighted how limited the visitors' gameplan would be. Well, Gatland was right: Parks' tactical kicking was crucial to the Scottish performance. Yet so was every facet of Parks' game.

If his drop-goal might have been – probably should have been – the afternoon's defining score then his brilliant left-foot grubber kick to set up Max Evans' first-half try was just as spectacular. He is heading to the Cardiff Blues in the summer and there had been whispers of discontent in reaction to the signing. There were none last night.

For the Blues faithful, this was a win-win situation. For the man of the match, there was only agony. "There's no justice," said Parks. "To have it taken away from us like this... heartbroken is the only word."

Continue reading "No walk in the Parks for Wales"

February 13, 2010

Peer hoping to build bridges

Posted by Alex Livie on 13/02/2010

Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer will be in the spotlight at the upcoming Dubai Tennis Championships, after being excluded from the event 12 months ago after the UAE refused to grant her a visa. She will be in the field this year and in an interview with the Independent’s Paul Newman, claims she hopes her appearance can ease political tensions.

Sport should be outside of politics, so obviously I want to go and play there. I think we all need to be equal. It hurt mentally and professionally, because I was playing very well. I was on a good run and I was ready for the tournament. It was a big tournament and I couldn't go, so it really stopped my momentum. To be barred from a country is not a nice feeling. I think there's no place for that in sport. I actually think that sport can make it better and help political situations, not make it worse.

Terry is good company
A lot of negative press coverage has come John Terry’s way in recent weeks. He gave an interview to the Times’ Mark Crampton shortly before the revelations about his private life came out and it seems he made a positive impression.

Over the years I have interviewed a fair few footballers. Some (Ryan Giggs) I’ve liked, some (Ruud Gullit, Alan Shearer) I have disliked, and some (Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Robbie Fowler, Andrew Cole) I’ve been fairly neutral about. Needless to say, taken together, they are not symptomatic of anything much; they’re just young men good at doing one thing.

Next to Giggs, Terry was probably the best company of the bunch. It’s worth saying that, unlike some of the footballers I ended up, after protracted negotiations, not interviewing, Terry didn’t demand payment for his time.

A good deal of Terry’s likeability came from his observance of the rules of simple human decency, an observance not always honoured, when we met, by some of the men listed above, some of whom gave every impression they did not care whether this latest intrusion into their cosseted existence lived or died. Terry, by contrast, shook hands, listened, gave me my agreed time (an hour), was solicitous of the various other people hanging around.

February 12, 2010

Blatter's Latin blather

Posted by Jo Carter on 12/02/2010

Sepp Blatter waded into the John Terry debate yesterday, claiming that in a Latin country the England captain "would have been applauded" for his alleged infidelity. Gabriele Marcotti in The Times was less than impressed.

One of the most common grievances aired at politicians is that they are out of touch.

As president of Fifa, Sepp Blatter is the game’s most powerful politician and on Wednesday he showed that, like his colleagues in parliaments throughout the world, he too can appear disconnected from reality.

Especially when there are no Fifa media officers around to rein him in. (Blatter was speaking at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in his capacity as a member of the International Olympic Committee.) When asked about the recent controversy engulfing John Terry, Blatter’s response was as glib and offensive as it was baseless.

Why? Because at the heart of the Terry controversy was not his alleged infidelity, it was that it took place behind the back of an England team-mate and close friend. Had it been just a case of infidelity, public opinion would probably have let things slide: just ask the previous two England managers. This was different. This was seen as some kind of betrayal of trust that could have a negative effect on the performance of the team, and that’s how the debate was framed in England. Evidently, Blatter is oblivious to all that.

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February 11, 2010

The men (and women) in black

Posted by Jo Carter on 11/02/2010

When Amy Fearn replaced injured referee Tony Bates for the last 20 minutes of Coventry's 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest, it a momentous occasion. Former referee Graham Poll, who received more than his fair share of abuse in his time, was full of admiration for the financial analyst from Loughborough in the Daily Mail.

Even though I have been verbally abused all over the country, I cannot imagine how tough it must be for a woman to referee a Championship football match in front of more than 18,000 fans.

Supporters, when not resorting to the stereotypical shouts at the blind, useless or the product of unmarried parents, will refer to a point of difference.

I was always ‘fat’, having eaten all the pies, David Elleray was ‘bald’ and Paul Durkin was ‘ginger’.

When I spoke to people who were at the Coventry game, they told me in clearly surprised tones that Fearn did rather well. So she should, as she was there on merit, having been assessed on her refereeing ability, irrespective of gender.

The way she dealt with her two highest-profile situations — Mike Newell’s outrageous slur against her in 2006 and Tuesday’s debut when referee Tony Bates was injured — suggest she just might be good enough to reach the top — and why not?

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February 10, 2010

Pompey's journey from Wembley to High Court

Posted by Josh Williams on 10/02/2010

Portsmouth's late equaliser against Sunderland on Tuesday night was, however small, a rare piece of good fortune for the club. They could receive more cheering news today if they are granted a 28-day delay to their winding-up hearing at the High Court.

All the same, the Fratton Park side's story since winning the 2008 FA Cup has been one of near-constant decline. David Conn, writing in the Guardian, traces the reasons and warns that other clubs may follow Portsmouth into near-extinction:

The 2008 FA Cup final was scripted as a romantic Wembley journey for two solid clubs from football's provinces but today, only 21 months on, Portsmouth and Cardiff City meet again in a more sobering ­London setting: the companies' ­winding‑up court.

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February 9, 2010

Words of Warneing for Strauss

Posted by Alex Livie on 09/02/2010

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Steve Harmison had his say on Andrew Strauss’ decision not to go to Bangladesh on Monday and the Australian legend Shane Warne has waded in by telling the Times the England skipper is disrespecting the game by opting not to tour.

There is something about it that does not sit right with me. I just do not think that the England captain should be resting from a Test series. I hope they are not taking Bangladesh too lightly.

If somebody told Allan Border [the former Australia captain] that they were going to rest him from a Test series to make sure he was all right for nine months’ time, he would have ripped their head off. I do not know the pressure of Strauss’s schedules, but there are ways you can rest.

Richest man in India eyes Reds
Liverpool have had a disappointing campaign on the field and their owners are struggling to renegotiate loans that could cripple the club. But there could be light at the end of the tunnel, as a report by Helen Power in the Times suggests they could soon be awash with Indian rupees.
Liverpool emerged as a takeover target for the seventh-richest man in the world last night as the pressure mounted on Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr to cut a deal to sell Anfield.
Mukesh Ambani, the wealthiest man in India, is one of two tycoons from the sub-continent competing to buy a stake in the Merseyside club. The Sahara Group’s chairman, Subrata Roy, and Ambani’s Reliance Industries have each tendered similar bids to pay off Liverpool’s £237 million debt in return for a 51 per cent stake in the club.

Hurricane No. 1
Alex Higgins is plotting a return to snooker in the Jimmy White-inspired Legends Tour, but the Hurricane claims that given the right conditions he could still be a match for the best in the world. The body may have been ravaged by cancer and alcohol, but the confidence remains as he revealed to Jim White in the Telegraph.

The cancer robbed me of my teeth. I would need to have proper teeth, then I could eat properly, I need to gain 2½ stone in weight, get that power back in my arm. And I would need to play with fellow professionals I like and get on with, people who enjoy playing. But given the right conditions, I could be at least as good as anybody in the top 32.

February 8, 2010

Everyone makes mistakes

Posted by Jo Carter on 08/02/2010

Terry may still rule the roost at Stamford Bridge, but Rio Ferdinand will be the man to lead England at the World Cup this summer. Like virtually every other member of the squad, Ferdinand has had his misdemeanors, but it is time, says Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail, to forget his past mistakes and judge Ferdinand on his ability to lead the team.

So what is it going to be then? Do we continue down this route where every captain of the England football team must have lived a retrospectively blameless life, or are we to allow Fabio Capello to lance the wound of the last days of John Terry’s captaincy and move on?

Do we judge Rio Ferdinand, the first officially appointed black captain of England, by crimes and misdemeanours from another century or do we accept that any man, every man in fact, will have a past and that it will include the odd episode of which he is no longer proud?

The choice is ours. We tear ourselves apart or reason that individuals must be allowed the capacity for personal growth.

Ferdinand missed a single drugs test, too, six-and-a-half years ago as you will no doubt grow sick of being reminded now he is England captain. Yet, if he has not transgressed since, if he has learned and moved on, surely there comes a time to allow him to escape the past, the way we would any professional who has messed up.

The alternative is to continue breaking butterflies on wheels, the spectacle of which will tell more of us than it ever will of them.


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February 7, 2010

A step in the right direction

Posted by Jo Carter on 07/02/2010

England's victory at Twickenham got their Six Nations campaign off to a much-needed win; Johnno's attacking line-up had the desired effect, but the performance was far from perfect, and there is still a long way to go, writes Stuart Barnes in The Times

This was the result Martin Johnson desired but not the performance. In the first 30 minutes it was hard to know whether England planned to batter or bore Wales to defeat. It was sturdy but second-rate stuff in terms of international rugby.

All this despite the management urging the England players to liberate themselves from the proscriptive chains which choked them through the autumn; the crowd were agitated with their turgid play and the men wandered around as if blinded by the light of freedom after a long stretch in rugby’s version of solitary confinement.

Gary Kasparov was once asked how many moves in advance he planned, to which he answered — to paraphrase the chess Grand Master — “look too far ahead and you will miss the obvious”. So too with England; a little less science and some more poetry would improve the balance. This would create a far more ambitious and dynamic driving game, which will be required against teams lacking the lemming-like rugby instincts displayed by Wales. Charging rather than dawdling would give the backs a chance to operate going forward.

Quick ball will prove the acid test for Jonny Wilkinson, whose ability to ignite the midfield remains as debatable as his Test goal-kicking is unquestionable. Delivery of the ball is too slow through his hands and his tactical kicking is shoddy. The hesitancy he engenders outside him, allied with the lack of drive from the front five (for whom Dylan Hartley was an outstanding exception) allowed Wales back into the game.

If not for the petty Alun Wyn Jones trip (England won the yellow card session 17-0) and the Tom James dropped pass on the line, this could have been another awful day for England. Care and Easter were two plusses but despite victory the negatives held sway.

They have the win but to keep winning they must improve substantially from yesterday. In terms of freshening up the team the options are few but experimentation is required. Neither Ben Foden nor Chris Ashton are finished articles but Rome next Sunday is an ideal place for Johnson to try and up the English pace.

Continue reading "A step in the right direction"

February 6, 2010

Capello's monumental error

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 06/02/2010

By the time Fabio Capello balanced himself on his good knee to send John Terry packing with his tail (not anything else) between his legs on Friday, it was widely accepted that the England boss had no choice but to strip the Chelsea man of the captain's armband. Not so if you are Oliver Holt in the Daily Mirror though, who absolutely lambasts Capello for choosing dignity and respect over scandal and national shame...

Fabio Capello made his first real mistake as England coach yesterday. What a shame it was such a big one. The sacking of John Terry as England captain risks plunging the squad into anarchy a few months away from the World Cup finals.

It proves nothing and solves nothing. Its only effect will be to make the players wonder whose side Capello is really on. Capello made an illogical and arbitrary judgment yesterday, a judgment that belies his reputation as a clear thinker.

There was no suggestion that Terry would be banished from the squad altogether so let’s try and get it straight: Terry is not fit to be England captain but he is fit to represent his country. He’s not fit to wear the armband but he is fit to wear the shirt. How exactly does that work? So much for the England coach’s reputation as the strongman of international football. What he did at Wembley yesterday was weak, weak, weak.

Continue reading "Capello's monumental error"

February 5, 2010

Terry to keep armband?

Posted by Josh Williams on 05/02/2010

With the John Terry saga ambling towards resolution - the England captain is set to meet Fabio Capello later today - Kevin McCarra in the Guardian proposes the most likely outcome after assessing the Italian's handling of the situation.

McCarra suggests that the delay in a decision, ostensibly because Capello wanted time to assess his options, makes it more likely that Terry will keep his place as skipper of the national team. He writes:

There is something quaint about the John Terry furore. It could only be addressed, we were told, once Fabio Capello got back to Blighty. Nobody explained why it was impossible for him to take ­soundings before his return to London. Perhaps the England manager feared making a decision while his mind was still clouded by the anaesthetic required for knee surgery in Switzerland. Maybe he just couldn't be bothered adding the +44 to all the contacts in his mobile that he wanted to consult.

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February 4, 2010

An early Easter gift from England

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 04/02/2010

If there is one label you would never use to describe England international rugby union player Nick Easter, it is “headline-grabber”. As understated off the pitch as he is on it, the England back row has become as taken-for-granted as the time of year his surname echoes. Easter is also a perfect encapsulation of English rugby, nothing flash but always solid, which is sometimes the trademark but occasionally the flaw of England rugby teams. However, during a one-on-one with the Independent, he does at least provide a telling insight into why English rugby finds it so difficult to change its brand of rugby, as is so often demanded by media and public alike...

"Sometimes people have been involved with England and wanted us to play a new style of rugby and get all the quick youngsters in. But you can't go away from your roots or your traditions because that's what the opposition fear the most. Traditionally we have a good set-piece and try and get a lot of front-foot ball to the backs. From generation to generation you are brought up that way and you pass it on."

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February 3, 2010

Bold strategy or blind faith?

Posted by Jo Carter on 03/02/2010

Martin Johnson's squad to face Wales in England's Six Nations opener is his most attacking yet, but could this hand Warren Gatland's side the opportunity to take full advantage? Eddie Butler in The Guardian certainly thinks so, as he predicts a high-scoring encounter at Twickenham.

Wales often struggle to escape the stranglehold of a mighty England pack, and by the time the game escapes its rigid structures it is too late for Shane Williams in space to make much of a difference.

But if the game is deliberately loosened by England, Wales may consider a fair proportion of the hard work done. And if you're going to experiment with liberty, it constitutes a major risk to do so against experts in broken-field rugby.

Wales have been talking up the importance of the kicking game from hand and how they will increase the volume of punting at the expense of a handling game. It has sounded as if Warren Gatland has swapped his customary pre-match barbs for a promise to be boring.

But what Wales say and what Wales do are not to be confused. And if England accept the perils of the trap and go ahead anyway, we could be in for a majestic opening to the Six Nations. Who will win? Can't say, but it won't be 7-6.

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February 2, 2010

A dose of deadline day nostalgia

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 02/02/2010

Let’s be honest, this year’s January transfer window carried about as much excitement as a Tuesday evening episode of “Eggheads” where, for those of you who haven’t seen it, a bunch of the country’s brainiest quiz-players prove they are bigger bookworms than five equally humourless hopefuls. Unless the prospect of seeing Alan Hutton raiding down Sunderland’s right flank or the vision of Mido looking moody on West Ham’s bench does anything for you, deadline day was a damp squib. It hasn’t always been that way though, as the Daily Mirror’s Marton Lipton recalls in a trip down memory lane...

That first window - and remember, this was six months before the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea changed the face of football forever - saw around £40 million spent by the top flight clubs.

Big deals included Robbie Fowler leaving Liverpool for Manchester City, who also signed French defender David Sommeil, with the pair costing £39.5m, while Newcastle asset-stripped doomed Leeds to take Jonathan Woodgate to St James Park for £9m.

With the exception of 2007, where the one stand-out deal saw Ashley Young move from Watford to Aston Villa for just under £10m, that money has risen every year. The 2008 window saw the biggest jump, with £150m and Chelsea responsible for a big chunk of that with the arrivals of £15m Nicolas Anelka and Branislav Ivanovic.

Last January, it reached an eye-popping £170m, more than half of which was spent by newly-rich City - Wayne Bridge, Shay Given, Nigel De Jong and Craig Bellamy - and Spurs - who re-signed Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe and Pascal Chimbonda and acquired Wilson Palacios - between them.It would have been even more, of course, had City’s quest to land Kaka from AC Milan not fallen through.

But fast forward 12 months and spot the difference. Prior to the Adam Johnson signing, City had added only veteran Patrick Vieira.

Continue reading "A dose of deadline day nostalgia"

February 1, 2010

Federer cements his place as the greatest

Posted by Alex Livie on 01/02/2010

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Andy Murray edged closer to his first Grand Slam title, but once again Roger Federer proved too good. The Swiss made it Grand Slam title No. 16 with his victory in the Australian Open and James Lawton in the Independent is on a different level to any other sportsman.

The great champions, men like Muhammad Ali and Jack Nicklaus, have always shared an ability to reach down and find again qualities that the world believed lost forever. But it is not often they do what Roger Federer did in Melbourne. They do not re-make themselves quite so remarkably. They tend to fall short of re-incarnation. Federer did not. Astonishingly when you think of all that he has achieved, in both victory and defeat, Federer's latest gift to the sport he has dominated so profoundly, so beautifully for so long carried more than anything the element of surprise.

At the age of 28 he has surely done more than stretch out further the target facing anyone who in the future makes the improbable assertion that he has the means to be the greatest tennis player of all time. He has done nothing less than consolidate his claims as the supreme phenomenon of modern sport.

Federer is someone whose consistent hold on such imperatives as fitness – a great, often ignored attribute, we were reminded as his 22-year-old opponent showed clear signs of physical stress in a near heart-stopping third set and tiebreaker – relentless practice and unswerving dedication to the avoidance of any distraction has outstripped all opposition not just in tennis but any sports discipline you care to mention.

There was a time when his level of performance was inextricably linked with the deeds of his now embattled friend Tiger Woods. But for the moment at least such comparisons are not so much remote as savage.

There, in Melbourne, was Federer, the ultimate sportsman, the adoring father and the devoted husband. And somewhere shielded from the gaze of a judgmental world was the Tiger, engaged in of all things, we are told, a battle against an addiction to casual sex. No-one should easily dismiss the capacity of Woods to re-generate the splendour of his golf, or reproduce the mental toughness that once enabled him to share the peaks of sport with the man with whom he regularly exchanged text messages of mutual congratulation. But then it would also be idle not to believe their current situations might be residing on separate planets.

Away from the tennis, John Terry is front and back-page news. He scored the winner for Chelsea at Burnley, having had to contend with talk in the press about his private life. It’s quickly been dubbed Terrygate and there have been calls for him to quit as England captain. Sam Wallace in the Independent is convinced that what is best for the national team should be the only consideration.

As the pressure grows on Terry and every question in every Fabio Capello press conference relates to the scandal, and the World Cup draws closer, so the stakes are raised. Does Capello take the Campbell approach and decide that a sacrifice is needed so that everyone can move on? Because right now, Terrygate has pitched its tents on every front page and is refusing to budge. This is not the place for a debate on the attitudes of the British media towards a story of this nature. It is enough to say that Terry knew the territory when he got the job and while he was not obliged to be blameless in his life, he did have a responsibility not to drag the England team and its manager into these kind of episodes.
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