Paper Round
March 31, 2010

A drug to replace that winning feeling

Posted by Jo Carter on 31/03/2010

"I very much regret my occasional use of cocaine in what have sometimes been the long days since my retirement from the ring,” said Joe Calzaghe after he admitted to taking the drug. But he is just another retired sportsman looking to fill the void that sport leaves, writes Matthew Syed in The Times.

Could it be that, after a few months out of the ring, Calzaghe is searching for a substitute for the euphoria of pugilistic conquest? Could it be that he needs a new kind of high to compensate for the absence of the elation of sporting victory?

The idea of sport as narcotic has a long history. “Winning is like a drug,” Ayrton Senna said, a view that has been echoed by everyone from George Best to Joe Louis. “You can’t get the same buzz anywhere else from scoring a goal in front of thousands of people,” Tony Cottee, the former West Ham United and Everton striker, said. “I could talk all day, but I still wouldn’t be able to explain what it feels like.”

So many athletes have struggled with the cold turkey of retirement that the booze-addled ex-pro has become a cliché. It is often only when we see a professional sportsman making a seamless transition into a new and meaningful life — Sebastian Coe, Alan Pascoe and Gary Lineker spring to mind — that the story becomes newsworthy. “Hasn’t so-and-so done well,” we exclaim, as if it is a minor miracle that they have eluded the front page of the News of the World.

But is snorting a line really like scoring a goal? Is the euphoria comparable? Is the high as vertiginous? Is the craving for victory the reason why sportsmen keep coming back to the ring (or the track or wherever) even when they are way past their best, rather as a wizened addict returns to his dealer for a new hit?

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March 30, 2010

Hamilton needs a father figure

Posted by Alex Livie on 30/03/2010

The wheels are falling off the Lewis Hamilton bandwagon. Not literally, but he has been called a d******d for his antics behind a road car which caught the eye of police, his tirade at his team which was aired during the Australian Grand Prix – an Australian Grand Prix in which he came home in sixth after being shunted off the track by Mark Webber. David Coulthard, writing in the Telegraph, is convinced the young Brit could benefit from having his father by his side.

I have seen Lewis grow up and the young man I know is not only a brilliant driver but a streetwise, well-rounded character.

His startled, anxious response to both the lying scandal he was caught up in last year — which was in no way his fault — and now this have been out of all proportion.

Where is the reassuring arm around his shoulder? Where is the sound advice coming from? Where is his father?

Lewis’s decision to dispense with Anthony’s services as his manager last month was hailed as a coming-of-age move on his part. But the folly of not appointing a replacement showed over the weekend. Having no manager is like a top tennis player having no coach. It’s fine when you are playing well but as soon as you are struggling people will point to it as a weakness.

I don’t know if they have had a bust-up but it does strike me as odd that apparently they did not speak to one another in the aftermath of Friday’s incident. Either way, Lewis needs to appoint a replacement soon so he can concentrate on his day job.

Labouring the point

In recent times, politicians have been quick to line themselves up alongside sports stars – seemingly in a bid to boost their profile. Nothing wrong with that, but Matt Dickinson in the Times has taken aim at the Labour government for wading in to the football ownership debate. He’s not hacked off with them wading in, just that it has taken them so long to do it.

Foiled in their attempt to get Gordon Brown on Match of the Day 2 to parade his “regular bloke” credentials — the BBC declined to give the Prime Minister the platform so close to a General Election — Labour’s sports advisers have evidently been racking their brains for another way to win the football vote. Happily for them, they didn’t have to think very hard.

Gazing out of their Whitehall windows, they will have seen a bandwagon of fan disquiet about the game’s governance. They will have noticed that there cannot be a more populist cause in Portsmouth, Liverpool and Manchester than intervention into club ownership; and those cities are merely the obvious hot spots.

So all aboard! Government sources have floated the idea that, should Labour be voted back into office, they would wade in on behalf of the honest supporter to shake up the FA and Premier League, and to fight greedy, bloodsucking owners.

Football’s governing bodies would be given deadlines to reform. The buying and selling of clubs would be regulated, with fans’ groups guaranteed first option.

Most radically, there is talk of forcing clubs to hand over a 25 per cent stake to supporters’ groups. New Labour meets old socialism, and never mind that the Glazers, and their lawyers, might not want to give up a quarter of their billion-pound business without a scrap.

Now you might think these proposals, however far-fetched, worthy of further investigation. You might even believe they have merit. Me, mostly I found myself thinking aren’t they laughably late?

Labour has been in office for 13 years and it expects us to set aside cynicism when it floats these ideas now?

March 29, 2010

Why has it all gone wrong for Andy Murray?

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 29/03/2010

Andy Murray is a puzzling individual. Just when you think he is ready to finally make an assault on tennis’s established order, he retires into his grumpy, brooding shell, losing to the likes of Mardy Fish in Miami. Neil Harman, writing for the Times, has taken a look into Murray’s decline over recent months, and he charts the Scot’s demise back to his Australian Open final defeat to Roger Federer...

A small voice in the crowd at the Sony Ericsson Open cried out “C’mon Andy, you’re my hero”. Even if Andy Murray had heard the exhortation, it is doubtful he could have pulled himself out of the faraway mood he has been in here. But the British No 1 is going to have to do just that, very soon.

At this stage last year, Murray had built upon his last-16 appearance in Melbourne by winning in Rotterdam, reaching the quarter-finals in Dubai, the final in Indian Wells and he played exceptionally to win this event, sweeping aside Novak Djokovic in the final.

In Australia this year, he could not have been more content. How can he put things back together again?

Continue reading "Why has it all gone wrong for Andy Murray?"

March 28, 2010

How to stop Lionel Messi

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 28/03/2010

Arsenal could not stop 36-year-old Kevin Phillips scoring on Saturday, so surely they have no chance of stopping Lionel Messi when they take on Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-finals this week. However, with Manuel Almunia flapping and Sol Campbell lumbering, Duncan White of the Telegraph urges Arsene Wenger to follow the Chelsea blueprint to shackling the world’s best player...

How do you stop Lionel Messi? It is the tactical equivalent of trying to understand string theory. Coaches in La Liga are flapping around in despair trying to find a way of containing the mop-headed genius who, with the ball at his feet, is as predictable as a quantum leap. Gael Clichy has probably got a better chance of repairing the Large Hadron Collider.

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March 27, 2010

Problems ahead for the big spenders?

Posted by Alex Livie on 27/03/2010

While Portsmouth’s troubles have been well documented with their host of owners, the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City seem untouched by financial problems. But UEFA bigwigs have been growing increasingly concerned with the rising debts in the game and the Times’ Matt Dickinson claims the governing body is ready to make drastic changes.

English football’s super-rich owners, including Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour, face drastic curbs on their influence under Uefa proposals.

The extent of the crackdown on “financial doping”, championed by Michel Platini, the Uefa president, is laid bare in a 60-page document seen by the Times. In it, Uefa sets out its detailed plans to force clubs towards break-even, allowing them to spend only what they earn.

Owners would be allowed to inject cash to cover losses for a transitional period, but the amounts will be restricted and closely monitored.

Over the initial three-year period of regulation up to and including 2015, owners would be allowed to cover losses totalling "45 million (about £40 million). The “acceptable deviation” from break-even would then fall to £30 million over three years and then less, with the amount to be determined.

In other words, an owner such as Sheikh Mansour would eventually be permitted to put less than ¤10 million a year into Manchester City on average, unless the money is spent on infrastructure or the youth team, which have no limits on investment. That compares with City’s most recent loss of £89.69 million.

While Platini has talked for months about introducing “financial fair play”, the working draft has brought those proposals into sharp focus.

The European Club Association continues to haggle with Uefa for concessions. It is arguing for a five-year accounting period, rather than three, and for owners to be allowed to invest extra funds through equity rather than debt.

Platini is determined to bring in regulations that will mark a watershed in the English game.

Tindall return all good

The dust has started to settle on the Six Nations and England will need to improve markedly if they are to make an impact in the autumn. Martin Johnson made a number of changes for the final game and Brian Ashton writes in the Independent that the return of Mike Tindall was a good move.

While the Six Nations Championship is done and dusted for another year, done to death in some quarters, one certain aspect of the last weekend is well worth noting.

I have long advocated the importance of individuals contributing to the strength and positivity of a squad and a dressing room, and I consider the return of Mike Tindall to England's midfield to be a classic example.

Tindall is both an outstanding player and an outstanding individual, whose positive attitude to life and those around him is inspirational. He has the character and personality to transform a team, and the ability to coax the best out of young players with talent and the ambition to play at the highest level. You can rest assured that Ben Foden and Chris Ashton were the better for Tindall's presence in the lashing rain and toweringly tense atmosphere of Stade de France on Saturday night.

No surprise to learn that it was Tindall who put an arm around young Ashton afterwards and calmed him down when the Northampton wing admitted he feared his first cap would be his last after failing to make the best of two try-scoring opportunities.

It was wretched ill fortune that Tindall missed the 2007 World Cup because of a broken leg but, as with so many top-class players, injuries impact on careers. So seeing him back in harness for England at a time when young bloods are surfacing and getting their opportunities, is a very positive element for the national game.

Tindall, who is often regarded as one-dimensional, has an ability to read the game in the wider channels and has shrewd awareness of space that makes him a tremendous asset to any team.

March 26, 2010

Time to start afresh

Posted by Jo Carter on 26/03/2010

The fallout from Britain's Davis Cup defeat to Lithuania rolls on, and Neil Harman in the The Times believes that the only way to kick-start British tennis is to start completely afresh.

The integral parts of the British game were scattered far and wide this week as Roger Draper attempted to explain to MPs why — after Davis Cup humiliation in Lithuania — the LTA is still worth £27 million of taxpayers’ cash.

As the LTA chief executive gave his account in Westminster to the All-Party Parliamentary Tennis Group, the main bloc of male players were in Jersey, where they were almost outnumbered by the seven coaches deemed necessary for the ATP Tour Challenger event.

Farther west in Florida, Andy Murray was the lone British male in the draw for the Sony Ericsson Open, where he was joined by three female players, including Heather Watson, 17, who was granted a wild card. And way out west on a golf course in California the brothers Lloyd dwelt on the events that led John to quit as Davis Cup captain.

Big brother David ought to have been in charge of the sport in Britain long ago — he still should and is as motivated as ever to do the job. John resigned having secured a £150,000-plus payoff and so became the latest LTA employee to be hastened from his post.

Continue reading "Time to start afresh"

March 25, 2010

'Abysmal' Hammers lacking passion

Posted by Josh Williams on 25/03/2010

West Ham's beleaguered manager Gianfranco Zola, who is under pressure following his side's 3-1 home loss to Wolves on Monday, would surely have been hoping for respite from criticism in today's newspapers. No such luck. Colin Hart - season ticket holder at Upton Park since 1958 - has blasted the Hammers, saying in the Sun that it seems as if most of the players do not care what fate befalls the club:

When I got home from Upton Park after the Hammers' abysmal performance against Wolves, I looked up the quickest route to Scunthorpe. Because if they continue to play in that gutless and guileless fashion in the remaining seven games, then it will be Scunthorpe here we come in the Championship next season.

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March 24, 2010

Lessons learned for Jonny

Posted by Alex Livie on 24/03/2010

Jonny Wilkinson was a fall guy for England’s limp efforts in the Six Nations, being dropped for the final game with France, and he has admitted that he would have done a few things differently. Writing in his column in the Times, the fly-half says his goals are to take the knocks and improve.

At the end of another Six Nations, I should start by saying that there is nothing that makes me prouder than playing for my country and every time I do so, I go out there to be the best I can for my team and my nation.

The Six Nations did not go as well as hoped for the team or for me personally, but what is most important to me is that I have stood by my values. I could not have worked harder, thought more or talked more or listened more. I didn’t have a spare bit of energy that was not channelled into preparing for and playing in those games. What happened on the pitch — the product of all that work — is, by definition, where I am and I accept that.

If we started the Six Nations again, I’d be the same: same workrate, same desire, same player. Of course, with hindsight, there are certain decisions on the pitch that I might have changed and certain events I wish had turned out differently, but, on the whole, what you’d get from me would not change.

But the weekly media day, with England, can be hard. You spend up to an hour answering questions that, in the past two months, have been heavy with speculation about the way you are playing and that refer to the negative reports of your performance.

I see it as a challenge to stay true to myself. It is easy to see these questions as an attack on your identity and who you are. It can also feel as if they are taking away what you have worked and striven hard for. And then, when the hour is done, you are expected to turn round, flip straight back into England mode and rugby life.

I can’t deny that I would rather people wrote nothing. Or nicer things. But that’s not why I am in it. If people — not just the media — want to talk about how I am playing, so be it, but I am not in the business of trying to impress people. That is not why I started playing rugby; I was never after rave reviews. I just play the game to enjoy it, to try to help my team to win and to improve as a player and a person.

Arise Sir Clive

Speculation suggests Rob Andrew could pay a price for England’s disappointing Six Nations campaign and Mark Souster in the Times suggests the top brass could turn to the mastermind of World Cup glory – Sir Clive Woodward.

Speculation is mounting that Rob Andrew’s future as the Rugby Football Union’s director of elite rugby is on the line - and that Sir Clive Woodward could be sounded out as a possible replacement.

After another disappointing RBS Six Nations Championship campaign, Andrew’s position is under intense scrutiny. Andrew, who is on an annual salary of more than £400,000 and is understood to be on a 12-month rolling contract, has been in his role since September 2006.

If he were to depart, the name being mentioned as a likely successor is that of Woodward, who could resume the partnership with Martin Johnson that proved so successful up to England’s World Cup triumph in 2003.

Woodward is the British Olympic Association director of elite performance, in theory until after the 2012 London Games. But the former England head coach has made no secret of his desire to return to rugby union.

There is a belief that after Baron’s departure, England and the RFU need to move in a different direction and that a definitive vision for the game must override commercial considerations.

A review of the national team set-up is due to be held in July after England’s summer tour to Australia and New Zealand, and after Baron leaves. Andrew, 47, and Johnson, the team manager, will give their verdict on the international season today at Twickenham.

Richards in the firing line

The FA has decided to take its time before appointing a successor to the departed Ian Watmore. The chief executive’s departure is still a subject of widespread speculation, with suggestions it was to do with a clash of personalities with members of the FA board. Sir Dave Richards has denied having had a personality clash with Watmore, but Daily Mirror scribe Oliver Holt believes Richards needs to be removed from office.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that India’s military is going to use the world’s hottest chilli as a weapon against terrorists.

They’re going to put it in hand grenades to immobilise suspects, but I’ve another idea for it – use it on Sir Dave Richards.

Sprinkle a bit in the Premier League chairman’s milky tea while he’s lacquering another layer of pomade on his hair.

Lace his Yorkshire pudding when he’s nipped away from the table for a minute to brief against someone.

Stick a slice of it in his beef rendang while he’s filling his face on one of those Premier League glad-handing missions to the Far East.

Wouldn’t it be beautiful to immobilise Sir Dave. Just for an hour or two. Call another emergency meeting of the FA board and vote him off.

Richards insisted yesterday that claims he was to blame for the sudden resignation of progressive FA chief executive Ian Watmore on Monday were “utter rubbish”.

It was also clear that those close to Watmore are convinced the objections of Richards and others to Watmore’s modernising plans were the main reason for his exit.

The Watmore-Richards schism goes to the heart of the problems bringing the English game, with its vast debt burden, into disrepute.

FA insiders say Watmore had recently proposed the FA become more actively involved in the financial regulation of the leading clubs – something the game is crying out for – but that the move was blocked by men like Richards, who sits on the FA board as well as being Premier League chairman. While Richards retains a position of influence at the FA, he remains a symbol of the absurd conflicts of interest that paralyse decision-making in English football.

The English public is sick of the excesses of the Premier League, which is why the game needs people like Watmore and does not need people like Richards.

That Richards and other Premier League figures like Manchester United chief executive David Gill and the preposterous Bolton chairman Phil Gartside should have important roles within the FA beggars belief.

March 23, 2010

The eyes of a Tiger tell the story

Posted by Alex Livie on 23/03/2010

Tiger Woods gave his first interviews since the allegations of his affairs were made public, with ESPN one of the broadcasters given access to the world No. 1. Woods remained in his comfort zone during the questioning, but Derek Lawrenson in the Mail feels the player’s eyes were a giveaway that he is still deeply troubled.

Five minutes is how long you get to look for a lost ball. Or how long you have got to turn up following your tee-time before you are disqualified. Now, that brief time span has acquired a further significance in the Royal and Ancient game.

Five minutes is how long Tiger Woods deigned for questions on Sunday night, in his first interviews since Thanksgiving became anything but. As one acerbic American commentator put it, five hours would have been more like it.

There again, watching Woods mumble a few thoughts to the Golf Channel and ESPN in turn, five minutes was about as long as most people would have been able to stomach.

There is not much chance of Woods being a poster boy for rehab, is there? Watching him play humble, falling back at every opportunity on the religious card or the stock rehab cliches like ‘stripping away denial’ and ‘living a lie’ made you almost long for the non-communicative womaniser.

Anyone else worried about Woods’s state of mind?

I think I’ve attended every significant event in his professional life since he joined the paid ranks in 1996. They say the eyes are the windows on the soul and the eyes of the Tiger have always been brimful with excitement at another triumph, or raging with fury at another perceived slight. Now they look lifeless, and it is horrible to see.

Messi is magic

You probably know it already, but that Lionel Messi fella is pretty good. A second hat-trick inside a week for Barcelona had the normally effusive Spanish press lost for words, as Sid Lowe in the Guardian reveals.

Barcelona's talisman is so sensationally good at the moment that comparisons with football's greatest players are wholly justified.

It's not big and it's not clever but sometimes swearing is the only thing that will do. Sometimes you've used up every other word and nothing else quite hits the spot. You've rummaged round the back of the sofa, rifled through the drawers, turned out your pockets and still come up empty. Pep Guardiola insisted that he was clean out of adjectives and frankly so was everyone else. Spain was suffering a severe shortage of superlatives.

The Catalan newspaper Sport invited readers to send in headlines for what they had just witnessed and there were plenty of super, sensational and sublimes, some magic, magnificent and marvellouses, wows and wonderfuls, plus deities by the dozen, and even a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but still there was no way to really do it justice. No polite way anyway. Just wide eyes, a wider mouth and a simple: holy shit!

Civil Wor

You just can’t seem to keep some clubs out of the headlines. Newcastle had been making serene progress towards promotion, but the papers are filled with allegations of a bust-up between Steven Taylor and Andy Carroll that has left Taylor with a broken jaw and Carroll a hand injury. There has been no word from the club but if true it would not need a rocket scientist to work out what happened.

March 22, 2010

England are an accident waiting to happen

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 22/03/2010

Alastair Cook has largely been praised for the manner in which he has captained his first England tour, yet it is the Essex opening batsman who is currently to blame for England’s second Test struggles, according to the Telegraph's Simon Hughes. The problem, writes Hughes, has proliferated from a mistake made in Bangladesh’s first innings...

England have been caught napping in this Test. On the first day they were utterly taken aback by Tamim Iqbal's audacious assault on their sensibilities. After that blow to the solar plexus, the bowlers gradually regained their breath and dragged England back to level on points by the end of round one.

The young attack showed admirable staying power in unbelievably energy-sapping conditions. Imagine running in to bowl in a sauna and you get the idea. But on Sunday morning it was as if England were still groggy from the day before, and some absent minded cricket allowed Bangladesh to regain the upper hand.

It was one of those excruciating mornings for England supporters, an accident happening in slow motion that seems, to those on the sidelines, so preventable. A bit of logical thought, often beyond those caught up in the intensity of the battle in the middle, would have made a big difference. What was needed was a simple field change. When the fast bowlers were operating, extra cover should have been moved to third man.

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March 21, 2010

Improved performance masks England's deficiencies

Posted by Josh Williams on 21/03/2010

Even in defeat, England produced a Six Nations performance in France to be proud of on Saturday ngiht. The usual determination was there, but it was cranked up to a frenzy as the team reflected their new captain Lewis Moody. But the real improvement came in England's attacking play, with the ball moving between the backs' hands with more regularity than in previous games during the tournament. Writing in the Sunday Times, Stephen Jones acknowledges the improvement from Martin Johnson's side, but says that changes in the management structure are needed if England want to find more performances in the mould of their showing at the Stade de France.

Yet, let us be honest, and let us demand the utmost honesty from Twickenham. If anybody in a high place this morning or this week talks of revivals and even hints that a corner has been turned, then they must have their own agenda. This season has been too dire for words, and I have no doubt whatsoever that the team who competed last season are better than the team who competed this season.

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March 20, 2010

England losing game of top trumps

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 20/03/2010

Punditry and analysis doesn’t always look a simple job. Not in the world of sport. When you see the likes of Paul Merson struggle to pronounce Pascal Chimbonda, or Dean Windass attempt to work out the identity of the goalscorer at Brighton v Rotherham, you allow yourself a chuckle at their expense. They’re national treasures, the both of them. But then you listen to Will Greenwood’s reasoning in the Telegraph for why England will come up short against France in the Six Nations, and suddenly it all sounds so easy, like child’s play...

I grew up playing Top Trumps. It's a card game based on anything you can compare, be it cars, planes, monsters or, my son's current favourite, dinosaurs. Simply put, you split the pack between players and then compare stats, the winner taking the card of the losers. Get all the cards, you win the game. You don't want average cards. They win you nothing. No, what you need in Tops Trumps is something with a mega power that wins no matter what the opposition has in their hand.

My little boy Archie's face lights up with a grin when he flips over the Giganotosaurus, the best killer, the Brachiosaurus, the heaviest, or the Velociraptor, the most intelligent. All the cards score the perfect 10, and he gives the game away, no poker face required, no bluff, no spin. He has me beat and he knows it.

Well, on Saturday against England, it's France who are holding all the best cards, despite England's changes to their line-up. And if France were a Top Trumps team, then I know exactly who I would want in my side of the cut.

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March 19, 2010

Boring is the way to beat France

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 19/03/2010

Austin Healey has never been shy of going against the grain. Having once labelled the toughest man on the Australian Test side, Justin Harrison, a “plank”, it’s no surprise when Healey tries to tell you that black is white or that the earth is flat. Therefore, with the entire nation crying out for England to introduce flair to their game against France this weekend, Healey insists in his column for the Daily Mirror that Martin Johnson should do exactly the opposite...

Chris Ashton has scored more tries this season than the rest of the England back line put together. Ben Foden has shown more creative sparkle than the same group of players combined and Toby Flood has been identified as the man to bring the best out of them. France will clearly expect England to give them a run for their Grand Slam money in Paris tomorrow night. And so will most observers.

England must not oblige. For once their predictability has to be their unpredictability.

The reason is this. The French coaching staff has been the best in this Six Nations at analysing the opposition in the first half of matches - but not at implementing a Plan B. So against Wales, for example, they correctly identified that the Welsh like to play a bit of rugby, throw a few balls out of the tackle. They stood off every tackle, didn't commit to the ruck, picked off two interception tries and had loads of numbers in defence to ensure Wales had no chance to go outside them.

Then last week they worked out that Italy's blindside defence was poor and they exploited it early on, scoring a couple of tries to establish a winning lead. On both occasions the opposition came back in the second 40. Partly because they changed their set-ups at half-time, but partly because France didn't react.

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March 18, 2010

Where have England's heroes gone?

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 18/03/2010

Martin Johnson was adamant Jonny Wilkinson’s England career is not over after he dropped the iconic fly-half for the weekend’s Six Nations climax in France, but the Telegraph’s Kevin Garside has taken the news rather badly. Having returned to his home and switched on the laptop whilst watching Lionel Messi dance around Stuttgart on Thursday night, Garside wonders where England’s heroes have gone...

No more Jonny. Another staple of British sport stood down by the ultimate arbiter; time. An antechamber of sporting heroes on the way out is filling. Wilkinson, ironically dropped not injured, joins that other blond bomber David Beckham and Michael Owen in the ancient clearing house at the end of careers.

All three hope to prolong their playing days but not where it matters, at the heart of the action, and by extension in our hearts. We are in a bad trot. Last year Freddie Flintoff left us, that one-man theatre who commanded the English cricketing stage like none since Sir Ian Botham.
Watching England labour to victory against Bangladesh, a team beaten by an innings 33 times in Tests, showed how much we miss him. The fall of Kevin Pietersen, a convenient Englishman at best, on 99 shone a symbolic light across the landscape. We are a run short of heroes to love, of players to get us out of bed in the morning with a song in our throats.

In our three most important sports; football, rugby and cricket, we are thus diminished. Praise be to the higher authority responsible for the gargantuan talent of Wayne Rooney. Where would we be without Manchester United's blue-eyed zephyr? With him England are in the queue to win the World Cup in South Africa. Were he to come to any harm, I'm relocating to the moon for a month.

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March 17, 2010

Woods hijacks the Masters

Posted by Josh Williams on 17/03/2010

After Tiger Woods announced yesterday that he would return to competitive golf at the Masters in April, thereby ending months of speculation, Lawrence Donegan in the Guardian today accuses the world No. 1 of "putting his own narrow interest above those of his fellow competitors" by choosing to return at Augusta, in an easier environment for him to control:

Tiger Woods, the man who just cannot stop taking, has done it again, announcing today that he will make his comeback to golf at next month's Masters and, as he did so, a tournament famous for its history and drama became one known for the height of its security fences and the selectivity of its media arrangements.

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March 16, 2010

England's cheerleader

Posted by Jo Carter on 16/03/2010

David Beckham's hopes of playing the the World Cup this summer may be over, but he should still travel to South Africa with Fabio Capello's squad, writes Martin Samuel in The Daily Mail

If the greatest worth David Beckham had to England was as mentor, ambassador, old head, voice of experience and arm round the shoulder of the younger players, then put him on the plane as just that.

His influence as a footballer was negligible anyway. Beckham looked good for AC Milan at Old Trafford last week, charged by emotion and with the outcome long resolved, but when was the last time his presence significantly told on a competitive game for England?

His true attribute was what he came to represent, as a figure of significance in the English game and to English players. He can no longer lead by example on the field but his most useful role for England had evolved beyond the diameters of the pitch.

Just as a home crowd is often considered the 12th man, so Beckham can be England's 24th. He can divide his time between trying to win the 2018 World Cup in his Football Association blazer and trying to win the 2010 edition by being introduced to the camp as a talismanic figure at times Capello considers appropriate.

There will be those who are horrified by the thought of what is disparagingly called the Beckham circus rolling into town during the World Cup, but Capello will avoid any hoopla. He has already exiled the WAGs, and, if Beckham is there, it will be because of what Capello knows of his substance, not his style. He will not be inviting the peacock but the professional.

Beckham is very capable of dazzling on behalf of 2018, but for 2010 they just want the footballer; even on one leg.

Continue reading "England's cheerleader"

March 15, 2010

The end of the road for Beckham?

Posted by Alex Livie on 15/03/2010

The World Cup dream is over for David Beckham and the man who loves to dominate back-page pictures for the right reasons, is doing just that for the wrong reasons. A ruptured Achilles tendon has ended the hopes of a fourth World Cup finals gig and Henry Winter in the Daily Telegraph compares the injury to the one suffered by another famous England winger, John Barnes.

David Beckham has fallen victim to the silent assassin of footballers, the snapped Achilles, the injury that occurs even when no opponent is close by, the incapacitation that brings curtains down on careers.

Even for those who felt his usefulness to the England national team had long gone, this is a desperately sad development.

Medicine has advanced, of course, and Beckham is a tough character, but for anyone with any knowledge of England’s history, the news that Beckham flies out to Finland on Monday for an operation is particularly poignant. Helsinki was the setting for England’s past grim experience with such Achilles injuries.

The story of John Barnes’ invaliding on the eve of Euro 92 provides the darkest of prognosis for Beckham. Barnes was playing in a friendly in Helsinki on June 3 1992 when he collapsed screaming. Such was the excruciating pain in his lower leg, the England winger looked angrily around to see who had fouled him, even shouting abuse at Finland’s innocent centre-half, Erik Holmgren.

The following morning, possibly in the same hospital awaiting the arrival of Beckham, Barnes underwent an operation; on coming round from the strong anaesthetic, he enquired of the surgeon how long he would be out for. "Seven months,’’ came the reply. He made it in five months, but was never the same again.

The early word from Milan’s medical people is five-six months’ minimum. The reality is that Achilles damage particularly afflicts the older player, those whose elasticity has gone in their legs. At 34, Beckham was always vulnerable.

For all the talk of Milan’s magical Lab, for all the hope of Beckham being a force in the World Cup, football remains a young man’s game, particularly heading into a tournament like this summer’s spectacle in South Africa which will be about pace, pace and more pace. The little acceleration Beckham enjoyed early in his career had already ebbed and has now been destroyed.

Yet there must be sympathy. For all the celebrity circus around Beckham, he remains a remarkably humble individual obsessed with football and he will be devastated to miss the World Cup. Beckham can still deliver for England in a World Cup but only as an ambassador, in winning the rights to host the 2018 tournament.

Reds on a knife edge
Liverpool are a club in a state of flux, having failed to mount a title challenge this term, and Alan Hansen tells the Daily Telegraph that the club have to spend big on and off the field if they are to avoid slipping back into the pack.

Whatever the outcome of the proposed investment in Liverpool, somebody has to come in and save them because it is clearly crunch time in terms of the club's history.

The mere fact that Fernando Torres chose to speak about the need for "four or five top-class" players to be signed by the club will be a worry for Liverpool supporters because, in a perfect world, he would have said nothing and simply got on with the job.

But it isn't just about signing new players. The most important thing for the club is the building of a new stadium with a greater capacity to generate greater revenue. Without this, it becomes so much more difficult for Liverpool to compete with all of their rivals.

On the pitch, things are not looking great because it looks as though they are going to miss out on Champions League qualification.

To qualify, they are going to have to win 95 per cent of their remaining games this season and they don't look capable of doing that.

If they fail, that's when the problems could really start. I don't know about the intentions of Torres or Steven Gerrard, but if you are in the top 100 players in the world, you want to play in the Champions League because it is the only place to be.

If Liverpool are not in the Champions League, will they accept missing out as a one-off or fear it happening season after season? Should either of them decide to leave, it would leave an enormous hole that would be impossible to fill.

Tiger in the spotlight
The talk of Tiger Woods making an imminent return to golf is gathering pace and Kevin Garside in the Daily Telegraph is far from convinced by the content of his recent address to the media.

Still think Tiger Woods was genuine? All that schmaltz, the remorse, the appeal for clemency, the hope that some day we could find it in our hearts to forgive him. Poor old Tiger. He did not know whether he was coming or going.

A return to golf? It could be this year but no guarantee. Oh dear heart, come to momma. Momma will look after you.

How long after that tearful embrace with Tilda did the call go out to spiritual healer Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary turned image retriever, a Max Clifford plus intellect?

From having no idea when he would hit a ball again, a vision has formed in the gloom revealing the Tavistock Cup at Isleworth next Monday as a possible return event. If not there then perhaps later in the week at Bay Hill.

That is not something he could have known when he slipped quietly through that blue curtain at the PGA headquarters in Florida to return to rehab, is it?

Surely his comeback is not timed to coincide with the calendar's most celebrated tournament, the US Masters at Augusta next month. Tiger couldn't be that cynical, could he?

The Woods address was supposed to be a sincere claim on our sympathies. He was in trouble, he said, but was working through his problems. Stick with him, please. If that were the case, if he were on the point of emotional breakdown, there could be no thoughts of hitting golf balls in his back garden, never mind Augusta.

March 14, 2010

Hamilton and Button's rivalry

Posted by Josh Williams on 14/03/2010

A potentially fascinating Formula One season begins today in Bahrain, a subject that unsurprisingly dominates column inches. Martin Brundle, writing in the Sunday Times, delves beneath the diplomatic language emanating from Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, team-mates at McLaren, sensing a potentially explosive rivalry simmering below the surface.

Hamilton has been playing the humility card well, saying: “Well, Jenson’s number one, the world champion, so of course he’ll get all the development bits first.” I laughed when I read that. They talk of working together to bring home the title for the team, but there can only be one winner in this contest and you can be certain that Hamilton will be incredibly motivated to get the title back from Button.

Continue reading "Hamilton and Button's rivalry"

March 13, 2010

Millstone not a milestone for Liverpool

Posted by Alex Livie on 13/03/2010

Almost a year ago to the day, Liverpool were giving Manchester United a mighty beating – leading the world and his wife to suggest the Merseysiders were ready to end their long title drought. Oh how things can change and Patrick Barclay in the Times points this out all too well.

Whatever you say to any pals who support Liverpool this weekend, there is one phrase to avoid. “Happy anniversary” would not be appropriate, for tomorrow it will seem a lot longer than a year since Rafael Benítez’s team went to Old Trafford and, having given Manchester United a goal start, won 4-1.

Was it really only 364 days ago? Everything was so different. The refereeing, for instance: if Nemanja Vidic committed a “professional” foul, he was sent off. Other sepia-tinted memories are of Steven Gerrard performing with a swagger, Fábio Aurélio bending it like Beckham and Andrea Dossena lording it with a late lob. Nor (though United were less emphatically outplayed than the score might suggest) was this a freak result. Liverpool beat Aston Villa 5-0 next and the only points they dropped in the rest of the Barclays Premier League season were to Arsenal in a 4-4 draw majestically dominated by Andrey Arshavin.

Had they promptly sold Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina and Javier Mascherano without buying replacements and supplanted Benítez with Lily Savage, who appointed Harry Enfield’s Scousers as his assistants, put David Ngog in goal and announced that the new central midfield partnership would consist of Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr, the decline in their fortunes could hardly have been more radical.

French flair is the business
The Six Nations is heading dow to the business end and Brian Ashton in the Independent is convinced France have what it takes to claim glory in Europe and quite possibly in the World Cup as well.

Last month, just before the first round of matches, I expressed a particular interest in the various centre partnerships, because it seemed that if there were to be any signs of an expanding mindset in the European game, these were the people most likely to be responsible. Who would have the wit, the confidence and the courage to ask different questions of defences by shifting the first point of attack to the No 13 channel?

We've seen flashes of inspiration from a number of midfield players. Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland have had their moments, albeit individually rather than in partnership. Gonzalo Canale, the Italian centre, made the decisive play in his team's victory over Scotland, while James Hook of Wales has demonstrated genuine footballing ability, frequently when his team have found themselves miles behind and in dire need of a spark.

But the most potent partnership has been forged by Yannick Jauzion and Mathieu Bastareaud, the French combination, and their success has largely been down to the performance of Morgan Parra, the young scrum-half from Clermont Auvergne whose contribution has been among the most striking features of the championship. He, of all the half-backs on view, has shown the best understanding of what to do when – whether to kick, to run, to feed his forwards on the drive with a short pass or release his backs.

It boils down to this: Jauzion and Bastareaud have found themselves in the happy position of receiving the ball precisely when they want it, at moments when their potential to cause real damage is at the optimum. Time and again, they have broken the first line of defence as a result of Parra's intelligence at No 9. For a 21-year-old, he has quite a head on his shoulders: it's a while since I've seen a relative newcomer at international level blessed with such awareness. He kicks goals, too, from all over the field. When you think the French also have Dimitri Yachvili, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Julien Dupuy in contention for World Cup places, it is difficult to imagine any side travelling to New Zealand next year with a stronger group of scrum-halves.

March 12, 2010

Becks the king of self promotion

Posted by Alex Livie on 12/03/2010

David Beckham stole the backpages on Thursday by donning a green and gold scarf. No he was not showing his support for Norwich City, rather a gesture of support for the anti-Glazer movement at Manchester United. The club remain close to Becks’ heart but Simon Barnes in the Times feels Becks’ actions were more of self promotion.

David Beckham knows a must-have fashion accessory when he sees one. Now he has stolen the front pages again, this time not with a sarong or butterfly stitches but with a green’n’gold scarf. Looks good against the black shirt, no?

So he’s lining up with the Manchester United supporters who wear the scarf as a statement of their dislike of the club’s owners, the Glazers. There’s no other reason for wearing it, as everybody in football knows.

Beckham said: “I’m a Manchester United fan. When I saw the scarf I put it round my neck. It’s the old colours ... and that’s all I know.” A bit disingenuous, methinks. If he is a United fan there is no way in the world he could be unaware that the scarf has a significance beyond antiquity.

All the same, I don’t think Beckham wore it as an anti-Glazer statement. People don’t wear images of Che Guevara because they agree with Guevara’s notion that: “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.” No, people wear the Guevara image because it is cool and because it expresses a certain kind of fashion solidarity.

Beckham wore the Newton Heath scarf to be in the swing of things. It was a gesture of solidarity with the fans who gave him such a cheer when he returned to his former club. In a surreal second half on Wednesday, in the second leg of the Champions League round-of-16 tie at home to AC Milan, United were so far ahead that their supporters had nothing to do except cheer Beckham — “Fergie, Fergie sign him up” — and shout bad words about the Glazers.

So with his sense of timing and his gift for gesture, Beckham took a green’n’gold scarf, knowing that picture editors around the world would lap it up. It was a gesture of sycophancy towards the people who had been cheering him; if you wish to take a more generous line, it was a gesture of thanks. But its meaning was to do with Beckham, not the Glazers: “I’m like you — a real fan.”

Beckham is a junkie for love. He was high as a kite on love after all his cheers and knew the scarf would only add to that love. Whether the move was premeditated or spontaneous, he couldn’t help himself.

The gesture won’t harm Beckham, because he doesn’t depend on the Glazers for anything. It will simply raise his stock in certain quarters that matter to him. He hasn’t spoken out against the owners, he has simply, as ever, lined himself up with the fans. He doesn’t want the Glazers out; he wants the love of United fans.

England right to go with Worsley
England must win the Calcutta Cup against Scotland at the weekend to stand any chance of winning the Six Nations and Shaun Edwards,writing in the Guardian, is convinced Martin Johnson has made the right decision by drafting in defensive star Joe Worsley.

Anyone wondering why England turned to Joe Worsley this week should have a look at the tape of Wales versus Scotland last month. Not the final four minutes with its 10 points; we've all seen that often enough to commit every run, tackle, pass and kick to memory. No, look at the first 50 and remember the killer stat – that in all that time Scotland made only two mistakes.

Two mistakes in 50 minutes of rugby is, by definition, close on perfection. It just does not happen. Not even on the training ground, let alone in a Test match arena where everything is 100mph. It's like applying the principles of Swiss watch-making to the demolition business.

Anyway, after 50 minutes at the Millennium Stadium, Scotland looked to be running away with the game and largely because their back row was causing mayhem. John Barclay, Johnnie Beattie and Kelly Brown, ball carriers all of them, were running through tackles, bursting the defence wide open.

They are a well-matched trio – Barclay at 6ft 3in and a shade over 16st is the shortest and lightest, Brown at 6ft 4in and more than 17st is the biggest – and they know each other's game, all three playing for Glasgow where they are known as the Killer Bs. Take a back step and they can take a game away from you. So welcome, Joe Worsley, one of the game's great defenders.

He's no slouch when it comes to making the hard yards himself but Joe is one of those guys who can be relied on to do a job. Most will remember his performance against Jamie Roberts in last season's Six Nations but Worsley has proved time and again that defence and dynamic tackling do win games, tournaments even.

In 2007, when Wasps last won the Heineken Cup, there were some hairy moments even getting out of the pool stage – particularly at Castres, currently top of the French league, but then a pretty unfashionable club who tended to blow hot and cold about Europe. In the final pool game down there, which we needed to win, they were having one of their hot days. Luckily for us, so was Worsley

March 11, 2010

England need to back the right man

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 11/03/2010

There appears to be a lack of understanding in the England rugby camp right now. Jonny Wilkinson says he intends to play more ‘off-the-cuff’, Martin Johnson acknowledges the need to create more with ball in hand, yet arguably England’s most dangerous back, Ben Foden, is once again left kicking his heels on the bench. England, in the eyes of Daily Mirror correspondent Alex Spink, are in the danger of dishing out the ‘Cipriani treatment’ once again...

Ben Foden trains with England today - doubtless asking himself what he has to do to get a game. In the autumn, when Delon Armitage was injured and Foden was the only fit full-back in the squad, team boss Martin Johnson picked three wingers instead. Now Armitage is so out of form as to be unrecognisable from the great player he was last year - and Johnson still prefers him for Saturday's game against Scotland.

Foden, 24, won't say he's 'livid' to be ignored, as he did in the autumn, not least because that got him a sharp rap over the knuckles from the England boss. This time he simply says he is "very disappointed".

Continue reading "England need to back the right man"

March 10, 2010

To be chief for one day

Posted by Jo Carter on 10/03/2010

Britain's defeat to Lithuania in the Davis Cup will almost certainly cost captain John Lloyd his job, but that will not solve the much more serious problems that have turned one of the world's most expensively run programmes into a laughing stock, says Neil Harman in The Times. Harman outlines his rescue plan for British tennis.

The Roehampton renaissance building in southwest London is a £40 million cradle of elitism, too opulent and cosy and not fit for purpose. It is everything that the sport has no right to think that it is. There are six indoor courts and more than 60 people staring into computers. There are not enough players of sufficient quality to make the figures stack up.

When Judy Murray said that, rather than building one £40 million centre, the LTA should have funded forty £1 million centres across the country, she was spot on.

Continue reading "To be chief for one day"

March 9, 2010

Rusedski and Henman not the answer

Posted by Josh Williams on 09/03/2010

Following Britain's ignominious defeat to Lithuania in the Davis Cup, there is broad agreement that there must be structural changes to the way tennis is coached on these shores. With head coach John Lloyd considering his position, former Davis Cup players Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman have been mooted as potential replacements. Kevin Garside, chief sports writer in the Telegraph, is not enthused by the prospect of either of those men replacing Lloyd should he leave.

There is no coaching crisis. Great Britain lost in Lithuania as a result of a structural flaw that runs through the game. The inquiry into this latest embarrassment, promised by the Lawn Tennis Association chief executive, Roger Draper, is a recurring lament, a howl at the moon.

Continue reading "Rusedski and Henman not the answer"

March 8, 2010

Hamilton is a man at last

Posted by Alex Livie on 08/03/2010

The Formula One season is fast approaching, with the Bahrain Grand Prix next week, and Lewis Hamilton is intent on winning the title back from Jenson Button. His father no longer acts as his agent and Kevin Garside in the Telegraph feels it is a wise move to fly the nest.

Lewis Hamilton is a single man for the first time in his life - and this has nothing to do with LA getaways with Pussycat Dolls. The layer of separation that he has slipped between himself and his father, Anthony, was a long time coming. They both understood the requirement. That junior felt able to pull the trigger on the story with the cars loaded for Bahrain says much about his growing maturity.

Hamilton followed one revelation with another last week, confessing that he might have handled his toxic relationship with Fernando Alonso differently during his debut season in 2007.

He didn’t properly understand the dynamic between the double world champion and his employers McLaren. It was a tacit admission that he contributed to the mess that saw the season implode, him miss the title by a point and Alonso return to Renault.

Both shifts are welcome advances in his development. They recognise the need to take responsibility for events. At 25 he is coming into his man years.


Is it the lure of winning the World Cup or working with the supremely gifted Wayne Rooney that keeps Fabio Capello tied to his England job? Well not if the Daily Mirror’s Alan Nixon is to be believed. It is the golf courses of England.

Fabio Capello will stay on as England boss for the next two years - and one of the main reasons is his love of golf.

The Italian has become hooked on the sport since coming into the country and pals reveal that his obsession is so great that it is why he won't quit as the national football coach.

Capello is so crazy on golf that he plays a couple of times a week, has brought his handicap down to single figures and even has a putter and a practice green at his FA office.

The Three Lions chief is so caught up in his new passion that he talks about it in his spare time - even MORE than football according to some of his closest associates.

Capello has been the target for rival countries after his success with England, but his top allies reveal he will definitely see out his contract and carry on for the two years after the World Cup finals.

There had been concern that Capello may see the South Africa showcase as the time to cut and run, but those in his camp are convinced he will carry on...with golf one of the driving forces behind his decision.

word is that Capello's handicap may be as low as six, a dramatic drop since he came to the London area where he finds the courses and time to work on his swing.

Capello is so content with his lot - also having time off in his Alpine retreat - that he seems sure to stay as England boss for Euro 2012 because life is so sweet for him.

And when he weighs up his future in the summer it will only take the thought of the fairrways and greens of his adopted 'home' to make sure that he stays in the top job.

March 7, 2010

And the Oscar goes to...

Posted by Jo Carter on 07/03/2010

As Hollywood prepares to honour the best in the business, Piers Morgan in his column in The Mail on Sunday, ponders on who would win a sporting equivalent of the Oscars.

BEST ACTOR Tiger Woods. Nobody in the movie world has ever even come close to straddling so many different genres in one year.

COMEDY — His wife allegedly using a four-iron to smack his car after discovering his philandering, when everyone knows the two-iron would have been more effective.

ACTION — Self-explanatory; Tiger saw more action than Ron Jeremy.

SCIENCE FICTION — His ridiculously insincere ‘I’m a Buddhist, please forgive me’ comeback Press conference.

HORROR — Did you see the state of some of those tattooed, peroxide-infested, Vegas girls? I’m only surprised Tiger didn’t need medical treatment for his own Hurt Locker.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Tiger’s caddie, Steve Williams, claimed last week that he knewnothing of any of his boss’s womanising and would have shopped him to his wife if he had. Of course, you didn’t and, of course, you would have, Steve.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE John Terry with Wayne Bridge’s girlfriend. To outrage even your own greedy, amoral, sex-crazed, selfish Premier League colleagues is really impressive. Well done, JT, you Inglourious B*****d.

BEST FILM EDITING Ashley Cole, for those delightful underpants photos that he sent on his phone to any Page 3 bint who asked for them, while assuming they’d never show anyone. Duh!

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY Amy Williams. An attractive young woman choosing to propel herself head-first down an icy shaft on something called a ‘skeleton bob’ and winning Olympic gold is a script even Hollywood would find too far-fetched. Yet there was something undeniably thrilling about watching her do it. Britain isn’t the best in the world at much these days, so it is curiously comforting to know that we’re globe-toppers at such a ridiculous pursuit.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS David Haye jabbing 7ft Russian giant Nikolai ‘Beast from the East’ Valuev repeatedly in his vast stomach until he eventually won on points. Utterly absurd, yet utterly compelling TV.

BEST SOUND So many spoiled brat tantrums, so little space. But Serena Williams shrieking, ‘If I could, I’d take this ball and shove it down your throat and kill you’ threat to some poor, innocent line judge who called her for a foot fault was quite gloriously repulsive.

BEST MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG) Some of the greatest songs ever written come from football terraces. Few finer in the last year than this one from the Newcastle fans: ‘Sunday, Monday, Habib Beye, Tuesday Wednesday, Habib Beye, Thursday Friday, Habib Beye, Saturday, Habib Beye, is rocking all week with you!’

But for sheer simplicity, how can you beat the Manchester United fans’ lament to their Korean hero: ‘He shoots, he scores, he’ll eat your Labradors, Ji-sung Park, Ji-sung Park.’

BEST MAKE-UP For reasons that are not entirely clear, France’s Mathieu Crepel decided to compete in the snowboard halfpipe at the Vancouver winter Olympics with a fake moustache painted on his face. Which was almost as silly as the name of his chosen sport.

Continue reading "And the Oscar goes to..."

March 6, 2010

Turf war rumbles on

Posted by Josh Williams on 06/03/2010

The Wembley pitch comes in for criticism this morning as the turf war that has been raging all week shows no sign of letting up. In the aftermath of the Carling Cup final, Aston Villa midfielder James Milner declared that the national stadium had the worst playing surface he had encountered all season. Following those remarks, victorious manager Sir Alex Ferguson blamed Michael Owen's hamstring injury - which will sideline him for the rest of the season - on the pitch. Now Terry Venables, a man who has graced the dugout at Wembley on numerous occasions, has lambasted the state of the grass in his Sun column.

IT IS supposed to be the Hallowed Turf - but in reality, Wembley's pitch wouldn't disgrace a rubbish tip.

Continue reading "Turf war rumbles on"

March 5, 2010

A tea and biscuit budget for the LTA

Posted by Jo Carter on 05/03/2010

As Great Britain attempt to avoid a fifth straight Davis Cup defeat, Mark Hodgkinson in The Telegraph looks at the vast gulf between the nation who hosts Wimbledon and their opponents Lithuania.

The facility is named after an American player and libertine of Lithuanian ancestry who drove a yellow convertible Rolls-Royce, partied at New York's Studio 54, snorted cocaine and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

For John Lloyd, Great Britain's Davis Cup captain, one of his happiest memories of Gerulaitis was the time when they left Studio 54 together at four or five in the morning, when the sun was coming up over Manhattan, and they drove away in that convertible with the top down and the girls screaming.

And yet this weekend could bring about an unfortunate link between Lloyd and Gerulaitis, if events go against the Briton at a centre filled with photographs of Vitas, plus a pair of his old shorts, a shirt and a graphite racket.

If Britain lose this tie in Group Two of the Euro-African Zone, the third division of the competition, it will be Lloyd's fifth successive defeat, and he understands that might mean "my time could be up".

It would also put Britain into a relegation play-off against Ireland or Turkey the weekend after Wimbledon, and if they lose that too, they would be as low as you could go in the Davis Cup, down with tennis superpowers such as Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Malta, Moldova and San Marino.

Since Tim Henman retired in 2007, Lloyd's team have failed to win a tie, but this could be the excruciating weekend when Britain, a grand slam nation and one of the founders of the Davis Cup, starts to disappear off the tennis map.

Those who follow tennis only from their sofas for two weeks of the year are wondering how a nation that stages the Wimbledon Championships, whose governing body has an annual budget in excess of £30 million, could find itself playing and possibly losing against a country such as Lithuania, whose tennis federation has to get by on around £90,000 a year.

This is a moment to consider the fact that Britain's Lawn Tennis Association spent around half a million last year on free lunches for its players, coaches, visitors and administrators at the national tennis centre in London: the Lithuanians would probably struggle to cover the LTA's bill for tea and digestives.

And yet there is a horrible possibility that Britain could lose this tie, as, in the absence of Andy Murray, who decided to sit it out, this is the most inexperienced British team in history.

Not one of the British players has won a Davis Cup rubber, and only doubles player Colin Fleming has won a set. Singles player James Ward and doubles specialist Ken Skupski will be making their first appearances.

Britain will not even have the highest ranked player at the indoor hard court. That will be Ricardas Berankis, who was the junior world No 1, who won the boys' title at the 2007 US Open, and who broke into the top 200 of the men's game after last month reaching the quarter-finals of a tournament in San Jose in California.

Continue reading "A tea and biscuit budget for the LTA"

March 4, 2010

Light at the end of the tunnel for JT

Posted by Alex Livie on 04/03/2010

Whether England were poor in the first half or Egypt were very good is a matter of debate, but there is no doubt the Three Lions were much improved in the second half at Wembley. John Terry was in the spotlight for much of the match, but came through with his stock on the rise and he earned praise from Matt Dickinson in the Times for shoring up a shaky defence.

So how long did the booing of John Terry last at Wembley last night? About as long as it took for the crowd to realise that he was the best English defender on the pitch.

Say what you like about Terry’s morals but, 23 minutes into the game with England trailing to Egypt, did anyone care who he sleeps with?

Most of us were more concerned about whether Wes Brown and Leighton Baines really were the best full backs available to Fabio Capello. And what Matthew Upson was doing gifting a goal to Egypt by falling on his backside.

Terry’s personal escapades had put him in the line of fire, and his form had creaked under the pressure (more than his marriage has, by all accounts). But at Wembley last night, even with one very uncertain moment when he was put into retreat, he was the sole defender who offered any sort of assurance. It is why most England fans have happily come to the same pragmatic accommodation as Capello — they may not want “JT” as the leader of their team but they are in no position to do without his tackles.

If this was as bad as the stick is going to get, he has got away lightly compared with David Beckham, Owen Hargreaves, Ashley Cole, the Nevilles and a long list of victims subjected to abuse from their own supporters. For every fan who jeered Terry’s name, there were others trying to drown them out.

Walcott worry for Capello
While much of the focus was on JT, there was an intriguing tale unfolding on the right wing. Theo Walcott got the nod from the start and began brightly, setting up Frank Lampard with a dazzling run, but he faded to be replaced by Shaun Wright-Phillips. Little SWP did himself no harm by capping a bright display with a goal and Alan Smith in the Daily Telegraph feels Capello may now have more to ponder.

Rarely can a player have been in such poor club form and still won a starting place for England. Theo Walcott must know that, as must Fabio Capello. Mind you, the England coach didn’t have too many choices on Wednesday night.

Aaron Lennon, surely the Italian’s first choice on the right wing, has been ordered to rest his groin for a further six weeks, while David Beckham possesses neither the legs nor the game to fit Capello’s requirements – ie a genuine wide man blessed with genuine pace to counter balance the narrower style of Steven Gerrard on the left. Which leaves Capello with Walcott – an enigma of a player who promised so much with that hat-trick in Croatia but who has almost gone backwards in the 18 months since.

Not only that, during the four years he has been exposed to the Premier League at Arsenal, Walcott doesn’t appear to have learned very much.

At worst, he resembles an eager schoolboy with little understanding of the game. At best, he looks like a thrilling prospect who just needs to lose one or two rough edges.

Wright-Phillips replaced Walcott straight after the goal and went on to impress by scoring one and making one to maybe put him ahead in Capello’s World Cup thoughts. If so, Walcott’s fall from grace has been truly spectacular.

Tough times for KP
Life is tough for Kevin Pietersen at the moment. He can’t seem to buy a run and a second failure in the ODI series with Bangladesh has only increased the pressure. The fear for Simon Wilde in the Times is that Pietersen does not have the capacity to grind his way back into form.

The chances of England being severely embarrassed in the Tests in Bangladesh cannot be ruled out as an air of vulnerability continues to hang over their batting. The top four in the order could well comprise a man captaining his country for the first time at the age of 25 (Alastair Cook); someone making his debut (Michael Carberry); and two players chronically out of form (Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen).

If Paul Collingwood ends up walking out at 25 for three, do not be surprised. As ever, Pietersen’s situation is the most intriguing. It doesn’t seem to matter whether this fame-junkie is doing brilliant things, or looking sorry for himself as he is now, the viewing remains compulsive.

There appears to be a general belief that Pietersen never doubts himself, or has no interest in whether others admire him or not, but The Edge has always been of the view that he is someone in constant need of reassurance and support. When he was churning out hundreds in the good old days (he hasn’t scored one for almost a year), his confidence fed off the regular doses of adulation that came his way.

It takes a certain type of mentality to grind out big scores against the less glamorous teams. Sachin Tendulkar (820 runs against Bangladesh, average 136.7) has it. So does Graeme Smith (743 runs, average 82.6). So too did Marcus Trescothick (551 runs, average 110.2).

But Virender Sehwag does not. This most mercurial of batting geniuses has yet to pass 60 in five innings. Like Sehwag, Pietersen needs his creative juices to flow. And the signs are not good: in his only meetings against Bangladesh in official internationals to date, Pietersen has scored 23, 10, 1 and 18. And in all matches in Bangladesh on this tour, he has managed just 25 runs, average 6.3.

March 3, 2010

Rio is England's perfect leader

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 03/03/2010

In an age when footballers have it all in their celebrity lifestyles, the “iPhone”, the “iPod”, the “iTouch”, the “I can’t get out of bed without help from somebody”, it is a serious buck to the trend when one comes across England captain Rio Ferdinand, as Stephen Moss did for the Guardian. The Manchester United defender hates WAGs, refuses to predict success for England at the World Cup, and is so shut off from the world that he did not even know Wayne Bridge had quit the national side until somebody told him. And as for a certain armband embroidered with three lions, he will not accept his status as England skipper until the words leave Fabio Capello’s mouth.

"I haven't spoken to the manager yet," Rio says, matter-of-factly. "The team hasn't been briefed on anything. We haven't spoken to the manager; he hasn't spoken to the players; he does it a certain way."

I express surprise: surely when Ferdinand was made captain in early February, Capello told him personally? "No, we have to wait until we go with the squad. I found out I was captain from the TV."

What's the Italian like as a manager? "Brilliant," says Ferdinand. "He's similar to the gaffer we've got at United. The best thing about him is he's black and white. You know exactly what he wants from you before you go out on the pitch, and that's what we've lacked in the last few campaigns. He says, 'This is what I want, this is what I expect, this is what I demand' – and if you can't do it, regardless of who you are, you won't play."

You've lost one of your key defenders today, I say, alluding to Bridge. "Have we?" says Ferdinand. "Yes, Wayne Bridge," I say, "he's not going to play in the World Cup." "Why's that?" "Because of the situation," I say tactfully. The news broke six hours ago, and it seems scarcely credible that Ferdinand doesn't know, but his look of surprise and the way he is blowing out his cheeks suggests that is, indeed, the case.

"I don't want to comment on anything like that," he says, when he has recovered his balance. "I want to speak to him myself before I'll believe it. He hasn't said anything to me."

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March 2, 2010

Eyeballs out for IPL

Posted by Alex Livie on 02/03/2010

Lalit Modi is never slow in voicing his opinions and in an interview with the Guardian he says he wants the IPL to become the dominant sporting league in global sport and is convinced Test cricket has to become a day-night event.

We hope to become the dominant sporting league in the world, that's our aim. We are only a two-year-old league but we had close to 3.8 billion eyeballs last year. I use that phrase every time a person sits down and watches an IPL game live or on TV – that's an 'eyeball'. Every game last year we had 100m eyeballs. But because our objective is to become the most watched sporting event in the world we are now targeting 150m every day.

Twenty20 will become the dominant format – without doubt. It lasts only three hours and people don't have time any more to sit all day watching cricket. We're competing with football and other sports and I think three hours is a good time limit to help us expand the market. We are definitely bringing new consumers to cricket.

I am a great supporter of Test cricket. People say I'm not but I also run the marketing department of the BCCI [the Indian board of control] and Test cricket is extremely important to us. All I am trying to do is remind people that we live in a modern age and Test cricket has a big problem: it is played in the daytime when most people are working.

We should be embracing every opportunity for getting viewers into watching Tests and the most effective way is making it a day-night game. If you take it to day-night, then people can watch it on TV when they get home from work – or they can go to the stadium. There has been a big drop in Test cricket viewing [outside England and the Ashes] and it's because people don't have the leisure time in the day to watch it

Red Knights to ride in?
The disharmony among fans at Old Trafford over the Glazers' ownership of Manchester United has cranked up a level. A high-powered group of United fans going by the name of the Red Knights have met to discuss the possibility of putting together an offer for the club, but David Conn in the Guardian believes they will be in for a real fight.

Yet before any takeover becomes real there are, of course, major challenges. Put bluntly, they are: can this group of 40 or so people raise anything like the money required to make a realistic offer and, even if they do, would the Glazers sell?

To the first question, assumptions and figures are tossed around. The assumption is that the Glazers, who seem so resolutely thick-skinned in the face of their always stormy welcome in Manchester, would certainly not go without a profit. Of the original £810m purchase price in 2005, they paid £272m, with the rest borrowed from banks and, very expensively, from hedge funds. The presumption is that they would want a significant increase on that £272m before they even entertain a sale. The Red Knights would have to find that, and also take on or pay off the £716m debt. That takes the amount a group of wealthy Manchester United fans need to raise up to around £1bn, a massive mound.

Even if they do, the family has said it is not for selling. The sole point of the bond issue was to enable the Glazers to take money out of the club, £95m initially, to part pay-off the hedge funds whose £202m loans are accruing interest at a heartbreaking 14.25%, rising to 16.25% this August. With that device achieved, and a Wayne Rooney-inspired United still successful enough, the Glazers may dig in for what they claim they want – to remain owners for the long term.

England cant take Hart
England's defensive problems might not be too bad, writes Kevin McCarra in the Guardian, but the goalkeeping position is an issue. One McCarra feels can be solved by the relatively unheralded figure of Birmingham City's Joe Hart.

If serenity is of value, Joe Hart is the best placed of the candidates. A loan move to Birmingham City spared him the turmoil and expectation at Manchester City. He has had a measure of peace and security at St Andrew's, appreciating the steady cover of defenders such as Scott Dann and Roger Johnson. He came through a difficult period in comparative obscurity since it was not national news that Birmingham considered dropping him in the early stage of the campaign. By last month, Capello was extolling Hart's "fantastic season", only for him to have an unhappy time against Derby County the following week in an FA Cup tie that his side did at least win.

It is assumed that Hart will get his second cap at some stage tomorrow. These are early episodes in what ought to be a long career yet it says everything about the present reservations over England goalkeepers that the real debate may be over the timing of the invitation to make the position his own.

March 1, 2010

Overshadowed by a handshake

Posted by Jo Carter on 01/03/2010

The Winter Olympics have finished for another four years, and whereas we were all still reeling from the stunning medal haul after the Beijing Games, the lack of success for Team GB has made it difficult viewing at times, says Barney Ronay in The Guardian. So much so, that it was overshadowed by 'that handshake', or lack of it.

The Winter Olympics have been hard to watch at times. If there is a problem with the BBC styling them as primetime entertainment it is that without expert knowledge and deep background, what you are watching is essentially helmeted people engaged in multiple variations on the idea of slipping. To be fair, this is slipping taken to its absolute physical extreme, every event a struggle against the eternal slipping nemesis of falling over. The problem is that falling over generally makes for great primetime TV – entire careers have been built around it – while managing not to fall over is only so-so in a slot that just requires the Winter Olympics to be a bit more entertaining than Dancing On Ice.

There have been other problems. It is always easier for the BBC if it can peg these events to a bunch of medal-waggling MBEs in the making. But this time the Blondes in a Bob, the Ho in the Snow or the Geez on Skis have sullenly refused to materialise. With the corporation in the horrible position of having to justify pretty much everything it does, instead we have had Claire Balding bouncing around the streets of Whistler doing what amounts to a high-pressure sales job. Balding started out from a position of being incredibly excited. Later she changed tack, spending some time being no more than unbelievably excited. It was exhausting stuff and by the end an image of her swirling, toasted-golden-brown highlights, that foliage of honeyed bouffant, was burnt irrevocably on to my retina.

There were no such problems of hype-massage for Sky Sports, where the central televised act of the weekend was presented to Richard Keys borne aloft on a towering weather front of outsourced hot air. "A lot has been said and written," Keys sighed wearily, introducing live coverage of Wayne Bridge not shaking hands with John Terry. Sky could afford to hold a perfumed handkerchief to its nose in the build-up to the big shake. It was just a case of going with it. "Impossible to ignore of course," Keys sighed again, over some surprisingly poignant shots of JT looking sad and vulnerable in the tunnel beneath his new future-punk outlaw hairstyle. Keys had with him Mark Hughes and Glenn Hoddle, both of whom look literally made for TV, their huge, square heads filling the screen impressively. Within three minutes Hoddle would refer to "the Wayne Bridge situation", "the England situation" and finally "the handshake situation". Although with a whole hour of build-up situation to fill you did yearn for some alternative to these leonine middle-agers, who both seemed slightly nonplussed by it all.

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