Paper Round
August 31, 2010

Blaming Pakistan misses the point

Posted by Josh Williams on 31/08/2010

Oliver Holt, writing in the Mirror, sounds a note of caution this morning over the spot-fixing controversy. He believes that it is not just the players who should be blamed, as it's a fair bet that gambling is the real culprit.

The blame heaped upon Pakistan for bringing cricket to its knees yesterday missed the point.

Singling out Pakistan and identifying England's opponents as rogue conspirators in an otherwise unblemished landscape was an easy way out.

Continue reading "Blaming Pakistan misses the point"

August 30, 2010

Nowhere to hide for Pakistan

Posted by Tom Walker on 30/08/2010

As educated observers continue to add their views on the Pakistan spot-fixing allegations, perhaps the strongest piece comes from the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel...

There is no darker force in modern sport than Pakistan cricket. The disciples of the Balco chemical factory, the architects of Bloodgate, cheating footballers, the roid-raging big hitters of Major League Baseball, all pale beside the institutionalised corruption witnessed year on year when we look at Pakistan cricket.

Those in the smart green PCB jackets are not among the accused this morning, but they have encouraged them, inadvertently or carelessly, along this crooked path. They have allowed an ethos to develop that has sullied cricket for too long. They have rescinded bans, turned blind eyes, colluded in outrageous acts of bad sportsmanship until we arrive here, at journey's end, with cricket in disrepute and disarray and one of the brightest talents the sport has produced as the collateral damage of a worthless culture that should now have exhausted its last sigh of public sympathy.

Pakistan cricket is not maverick or mercurial, it is rotten. Its inconsistencies are a sham and its avowed love for the game tainted and overwrought. If this is a country that holds cricket in such high esteem, how unfortunate that it consistently finds players who are prepared to debase it for their own ends. The PCB and the senior players can no longer be trusted with a duty of care. They do not care for the game, or for those who play it, the opposition or, most cruelly, their own.

If it is possible to feel anything beyond contempt for the protagonists of a betting scandal that has hit the summer like a Bank Holiday deluge, then Mohammad Aamer is the tragic figure at the heart of the tale. At the age of 18 he was to have his name on the honours board at Lord's, an achievement that has eluded many of the greats of the game, not least Shane Warne.

His six wickets in the fourth Test on Friday - at one stage he dismissed four top-order batsmen for no runs - stood as one of the highlights of the sporting year. Here, we thought, was a young man destined for greatness. We looked forward to a decade or more in his presence, imagined his feats to come.

Will we see him again in Test cricket? Who knows? Aamer is now implicated as one of the Pakistan players prepared to take money to bowl no-balls to order, for gambling purposes. There is already talk back home of a life ban if found guilty and while such sentences have too often meant nothing in Pakistan - a sound-bite to take the heat off, followed by a hasty and self-serving reprieve - if this is true, his career is ended before it has begun.

If the allegations are proven - and it is hard to imagine any other outcome - at the very least his reputation is in shreds before the end of his teenage years. And this shows the degree of malevolence at the heart of professional cricket in Pakistan. They did this to him in months, not years. They got their hooks into him as a baby, at a time when he would have had few confidants in the dressing room, few colleagues he could have gone to for guidance. These men, his team-mates, were meant to look after him; instead they corrupted him, blackened his soul and diminished his talent.

Their ruse is simple. Spot-fixing involves the pre-determination of a single ball in the game. A gambler bets that the next ball will be a no-ball, and it duly arrives. It is easy to fix if the player is willing, easy to arrange that Aamer's third delivery in his third over will be illegal. By comparison to match-fixing, spot-fixing seems minor, but one leads to the other. Once the fixer knows his man will bowl no-balls to order, what more will he do?

Now there is no way out because the fixer always has the bargaining tool of disclosure. When the PCB's team manager appeared to suggest that minor fixing offences merited lesser punishment on Sunday, he revealed the systematic nature of deception within Pakistan cricket. They have sliding scales for exposed cheats; as if there is any difference. It is highly unlikely the teenage Aamer, fresh from Pakistan's academy, introduced these ideas to his older colleagues, so he must have been dragged into their conspiracy.

And once it was suggested to him, what was he to do? Go to a team-mate, when senior figures such as the captain Salman Butt and experienced team member Mohammad Asif, a veteran of 22 Tests, were involved? Go to the police in a foreign country and attempt to shop the heroes of a damaged nation, beset by floods and human disaster?

Aamer would have been utterly alone with this nefarious proposal, his moral compass removed by the endemic cheating of his superiors. And while this does not mitigate his involvement - he could have walked from the discussion and simply refused, even if he lacked the bravery to blow the whistle - it makes him the hopeless stooge of more experienced men.

If the PCB had the real 'spirit of cricket' at heart - the ludicrous brand name for their series with Australia on these shores this summer - they would do the decent thing and go home. The question is: do we have the appetite for them to remain? How can we watch these remaining matches? How do we take them seriously? Every single action, each poor shot, every misfield, the strange collapses that are misguidedly considered part of the Pakistan cricket experience, must now be called into question.

Why should we continue to entertain Pakistan's contempt for the basic decency of sport? Why should we offer our hospitality (considering that terrorism has made it impossible to play international cricket in Pakistan)? This is no first offence, after all, merely the latest.

August 29, 2010

Cricket could face tragedy

Posted by Josh Williams on 29/08/2010

Following news of alleged spot-fixing in the England v Pakistan Test series, the Daily Telegraph’s Scyld Berry comments on a dark day for cricket.

IF the allegations concerning leading Pakistan players being involved in spot-fixing in the fourth Test against England at Lord’s are true, it is nothing less than a tragedy for the world of cricket.

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August 28, 2010

Bolt eyes switch to football

Posted by Tom Walker on 28/08/2010

Usain Bolt is one of the biggest sporting superstars on the planet. The Jamaican sprint sensation holds the 100m record - 9.58 seconds - and yet he calls himself lazy. Simon Hattenstone from The Guardian uncovers Bolt's views on his rival Tyson Gay, partying and the possibility of making it as a professional footballer.

Usian Bolt is a freak of nature. There's the size, for starters: 6ft 5in with size 13 feet (ideal sprinters are thought to be between 5ft 11in and 6ft 1in). Then there's the condition that should have ruled out a career in sport – scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, which resulted in one leg being half an inch shorter than the other. And the attitude – at warm-up, a do-or-die intensity is etched on the faces of his rivals, but Bolt smiles, hangs out, even dances. And, of course, the records: Bolt is the fastest man ever – at both 100m and 200m. Finally, and most outrageously, he wasn't even giving his all when he broke them.

Bolt has just flown in from Germany and is curled up in his chair like a sleepy cat. His voice is deep, soft and slow. He recently lost his first 100m race in more than two years, to Tyson Gay, and it has been splashed across newspapers that he is injured and will miss the rest of the season. But he's already focused on the two biggies – next season's world championships and, most important, the 2012 Olympics in London.

The world has been blessed with phenomenal sprinters, but nobody can hold a light to Bolt. In 2002 he became the youngest gold medallist at the junior world championships, winning the 200m. He was only 15, beating boys four years older than him. To put it in context, if Bolt didn't exist, his two major rivals, Gay and Asafa Powell, would be battling it out to be the fastest men in history. As it is, they barely figure in the conversation.

Bolt, 24, grew up in a small rural town in Trelawny, Jamaica. When he was a young boy, his parents, who ran the local grocery store, took him to the doctor because he couldn't stay still. "I was all over the place, climbing things. My mum goes, 'There must be something wrong with this kid', and the doctor goes, 'Nooooo, he's just hyperactive.' " His mother, a Seventh Day Adventist, was gentle and forgiving, his father a disciplinarian who had two other children with different women. Respect was an important word in the Bolt household. And when young Usain didn't show enough of it, he knew his father would beat some into him. He says he could always tell when he was for it, because his dad became quiet. "I'll do something and he'll talk and talk, but when he's going to beat you, he just says, 'Come here', he holds your hand and then he goes off."

Look, Bolt says, he doesn't want to give the wrong impression – his dad may have been tough, but both parents were loving in their own way, and shaped his values. "Manners is the key thing. Say, for instance, when you're growing up, you're walking down the street, you've got to tell everybody good morning. Everybody. You can't pass one person." When he talks about his childhood, he does so in the present tense. It's a reminder of how young he still is.

Cricket was his first love. He grew up when the West Indies were still a force, and he wanted to be the new Courtney Walsh or Curtly Ambrose. He was gifted, too, opening the batting and bowling for his local side. "But I just happened to run fast. They said, try track and field, and I continued because it was easy and I was winning."

By the first year of high school, he was already absurdly fast. His dad told him to give up the cricket and concentrate on track and field. "He said I should do running because it's an individual sport, and if you do good, you do good for yourself." He cracks his fingers – they're the longest I've ever seen.

Back then, he hated his name. Everybody got it wrong – Husain, Tusain, they'd call him, anything but Usain. But friends and family just called him VJ. That was the way it was in Jamaica, he says – you got a nickname and it stuck. Why VJ? "My mum just said, he needs a nickname, so let's call him VJ... That's a boring story, innit?" His laugh is loud, guttural and full of fun.

In Bolt's likable autobiography, his brother Sadeeki is quoted as saying he was the better cricketer. Is that true? "That's what he thinks," Bolt says. And is he a good runner? "Ah, don't even go there. My brother is really, really slow." Sadeeki, eight months younger than Usain, also claims that he is the cool one, the handsome one, more popular with the girls. "Oh my God! He's always saying that. But he's more laid-back. In that sense, he's cooler."

More laid-back than Bolt? Surely that's impossible. "Yeah, he doesn't get stressed. There are things that bother me. I try not to let them, but they do." For example, he says, he was so uptight before that junior world championships final that he put his shoes on the wrong feet. "I've never been so nervous in my whole life. I was shaking because everybody was expecting me to win or get a medal. That one moment changed my whole life, because after that I was like, why should I worry?"

He still thinks it's the greatest race of his life. "I saluted the crowd, they were screaming. I was 15, in front of my home crowd – no better feeling. Gold, record, make your country really proud."

But for much of the next three years he was injured. That's when Jamaica turned on him. His own people said he was undisciplined, he partied too much, he was a good-time boy. And, yes, he did like to party, but the truth was he was suffering with the scoliosis. Jamaicans, he says, are always quick to criticise. Even now. He talks about losing to Gay. "I lost one race and it's this big thing. I went to a party and I met this girl I know, we're good friends. I got pictured with her, and I got injured, and all of a sudden it's the girl's fault. 'Oh Usain, he's this, he's that.' It doesn't bother me, because I know that's how they are."

He stops and looks at me. "But they're not as bad as you. You guys are awful, man." The press? "Yeah, you guys are rough on everybody. You put people under so much pressure." Take the England football team, he says. "You guys set them up by saying they've got to get married early. That's the English way. But you're not ready to settle down, and that's where all the girlfriends come in, and all the problems. You do not want to get married at 22! Especially if you're famous, because girls are going to be throwing themselves at you."

He says there's an inevitability to the way our footballers are undone – marry young, have affairs, get exposed by the tabloids, and that's when the real problems begin. "I wouldn't get married now. It would be awful. Wayne Rooney's the same age as me – he's married and got a kid. I don't think these guys are ready to get married yet. There's less stress on me. If they say, 'I saw Usain out with a girl last night', whatever, cos I'm not married."

I've never met a sportsman quite like Bolt. While so many are a frustrating mix of buttoned-up, conservative and grand, he is opinionated, funny and grounded. He's not quite finished with the rights and wrongs of partying. "With me, people say he's always partying – well, I do party. I work hard, and I do good, and I'm going to enjoy myself. I'm not going to let you restrict me. That's when the stress comes in, that's when you start to lose it."

When he parties these days, he says, he enjoys "a couple" of Guinnesses. And in the old days? "Ah, I don't want to talk about the old days! I was really bad, because I wasn't really focused yet. I'd go all night. But I never got drunk. I don't do drunk."

Not surprisingly, people have questioned whether somebody can run so fast without taking drugs. "There was one interview, and this guy was saying, 'You've just come on the scene and now you're running world records, why should we believe you?' And I was like, first, go check your history. I was world junior champion when I was 15. I got injured, and that delayed me, but you can't come here saying I just popped up."

Was he angry? "I was annoyed, because he was really saying he didn't believe me. I understand why people ask, and I say it's fine to ask the question, because sportsmen have been through so much."

The thing is, he says, he's probably the most tested athlete in the world, so he has nothing to worry about. When he was growing up in Jamaica, all his track friends were clean, too, he says. But they must have been aware of all the drug scandals? "Of course. It was really bad with sprinters – they'd break the record, and a year down the line you'd hear they were on drugs." In 2007, Marion Jones admitted she had taken steroids just before the 2000 Olympics, was stripped of the five Olympic medals she won and was subsequently sentenced to six months in prison for perjury. For Bolt, the discovery was heartbreaking: "Everybody had loved her and looked up to her, especially the female athletes. Then to discover their idol was on drugs all those years kind of messes you up."

Bolt couldn't have arrived at a better time – just when athletics looked as if it had fallen into permanent disrepute, here was a man who looked and acted so differently from those who had gone before. But he still managed to bring his own unique brand of controversy with him. In 2008, he had to plead with his coach to let him run the 100m in Beijing. He had been running the distance for less than a year, and was surviving on a diet of chicken nuggets at the Olympics. Not only did he win gold, he broke the 100m world record with a time of 9.69 seconds and, most astonishing, started beating his chest in celebration 15m before the finish. He was accused of showboating, of not trying hard enough. International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said, "I think he should have more respect for his opponents."

How did he feel about the criticism? "It caught me off guard. I was worried that I really overdid it. But then I went to a couple of the other guys and said, 'Did you feel I disrespected you?' And they said, 'No, if we'd won we'd have probably done the same thing.' I was just happy. That was all the joy coming up."

In the build-up to his "proper" event, the 200m, he played around with his hair, demonstrated his new signature pose (based on a Jamaican dance rather than, as often assumed, a lightning bolt) and set a new world record of 19.30 seconds. He followed that with a third gold, in Jamaica's 4 x 100m relay team. A year later, at the world championships in Berlin, he smashed his own world records to win golds at 100m in 9.58 seconds and 200m in 19.19. Again, it looked as if he could have gone faster.

His team say, without a hint of a smile, that once he knuckles down he can break 9.4 seconds. Bolt himself says he can run faster. So does that mean he's lazy? "Yeah," he says enthusiastically. "Yeah, I am lazy. There's no doubt about that."

Ricky Simms, his manager, is sitting in with us. Does he agree with that assessment? "Yes, he is lazy. But when he trains, he trains very hard. The image on the track is that he just turns up and runs, but it isn't true. If you play football with him, he wants to beat everybody. He's very competitive."

The thing is, Bolt says, being laid-back ultimately helps him run faster. "On the track, that is just my personality coming out, me having fun. But it also helps me to relax. Back in the day, these guys were so tense, and then you make mistakes. So I have to let everything flow – that's my way."

Tyson Gay, on the other hand, looks as if he could explode with tension when he prepares. "That's just who Tyson is... I don't think Tyson goes out. He's a real shy person, just loves track and field, does everything right. We don't talk that much, because he doesn't really socialise. I've never seen him at a party."

Did it bother him when Gay beat him? "No," he says convincingly. But there seems to be a tension between the two of them, I say. He nods. "Of course. When Tyson was beating me early on, we were friends, and then, when I started beating him, everything went the opposite way. He didn't talk to me that much. I guess he's just one of those athletes who always wants to be winning."

But what if the situation were reversed and Bolt was regularly losing to Gay? "That would be hard for me. I couldn't deal with that." Would he regard it as failure if, say, he won a couple of silver medals in 2012? "Yes, I would, because you set a standard for yourself." Would he quit? "No, because I'd want to redeem myself."

We're talking about sporting legends, and I ask whether Carl Lewis won gold for sprinting at three Olympic games. He laughs. "I don't know the history of my sport. I'm not like those people who know everything."

What does he think makes him such a great runner? He looks a little blank. Perhaps the height helps and those huge strides, he suggests. "A lot of tall people don't have good coordination, but my coach says the one thing he can relax about is that I learn really quickly."

"Take off your clothes," Simms says to him, out of the blue. We both look shocked.

"I can't ask him to do that in an interview," I say. "It's not professional." Bolt just sits there giggling.

"Look at his body," Simms says with pride. "He's a specimen. The first time I took him to the track, the stride was like nothing I'd seen before. You know on the Discovery Channel, you see cheetahs, the way their feet move, the way the mechanics of their body work? He's similar. The mechanics are so perfect, and the strength he can generate from his hips, his hamstrings and his quads, everything is perfect for running."

We head off to a makeshift studio to get Bolt's picture taken and this time he does strip down to his undies. Simms is right, he is a specimen – more racehorse than man. What's it like to run so fast, to race the wind? "You don't really think during a race," he says. He clicks his fingers urgently. "It's just, what do I need to do now? Bang bang. When I get out of the blocks, I need to get this first turning, bang bang. There's no time to think. I'm just happy when I'm finished."

I ask about his ambitions. Ultimately, he says, he'd love to make a go of playing football professionally. He's being deadly serious. One of the perks of being Usain Bolt is that sporting stars love to meet him, so whenever he's travelling and there's time, he tries to train with a top football team. Last year it was Manchester United, a few days ago it was Bayern Munich. He's still carrying a copy of the French sporting newspaper L'Equipe, which features a spread on his football skills and praise from Bayern manager Louis van Gaal. He shows me a photo of himself with his arm wrapped round the dwarfed 6ft German forward Miroslav Klose. "If I keep myself in shape, I can definitely play football at a high level," he says.

"With his physical skills, I reckon he could play in the Premier League," Simms says.

But before that, Bolt says, there is so much more he has to achieve on the track. He can't wait for the 2012 Olympics; he says it will be like a home gig, because there are so many Jamaicans in London. And if he wins double gold there, then he might be prepared to rest on those considerable laurels. "People always say I'm a legend, but I'm not. Not until I've defended my Olympic titles." He smiles. "That's when I've decided I'll be a legend."

August 27, 2010

Has Ferguson wasted his money?

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 27/08/2010

Considering Sir Alex Ferguson seemingly could not afford to spend £12 million on a genuine world class talent like Mesut Ozil, it seemed rather bizarre when the Manchester United boss spent £7.4 million on a player nobody had even seen before – not even Ferguson himself. And after a poor first impression at Old Trafford, the Daily Mail’s Ian Ladyman wonders if United have thrown a small fortune down the drain...

Sir Alex Ferguson's research into potential transfers can be impressive. Before a Champions League semi-final against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, the Manchester United manager spoke in detail about Michael Ballack's goalscoring record. He knew about his tackle count, too. This was not just because he was about to face the Germany midfielder in an important game but also because he was thinking of signing him.

No wonder, then, that eyebrows have been raised this month by Ferguson's decision to pay £7.4million for a 20-year-old he has never seen play. The arrival of Portugal Under 19 forward Bebe was perhaps the most surprising story of the summer. Few people outside his own country had heard of the 6ft 3in forward with the ready smile and the now-shorn dreadlocks.
Now, reports from inside United suggest it could be a while until anybody finds out whether Ferguson has pulled off one of the signings of his career or wasted a few million quid and made himself look a little foolish in the process.

As reported in Sportsmail on Wednesday, United reserve coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could find no place for Bebe in the 16-man squad he took to face Manchester City. By all accounts, Solskjaer didn't feel he was ready. Just this week in fact he was taken out of a training match because he was 'off the pace'.

Few people involved in English football are better qualified to judge a forward than then man who won the 1999 Champions League final for United and - though he has been impressed with some of Bebe's finishing - the Norwegian's assessment of Bebe is that he needs some work.
Nothing wrong with this, of course. Bebe has been in England only three weeks. But the transfer did cause some disquiet among United supporters when it was rushed through, especially when Ferguson admitted he had not even seen him on DVD. The dissenting voices will not be hushed until Bebe is seen scoring goals.

Back in Portugal, there is less surprise at his move. Qualified observers presumed that Bebe - known at home as a raw, rough-edged talent - would some day be on his way to a big European club when he chose to join the successful and respected Gestifute agency of Jorges Mendes.

'Players from nowhere don't join a stable boasting people like Ronaldo, Nani, Carvalho and Mourinho if they are just going to stick around in the Portuguese leagues for ever,' noted one source in Portugal yesterday.

United have good relations with Mendes and Gestifute. Ronaldo, Nani and the Brazilian Anderson all belong to that stable of players. At Old Trafford, though, the connection is dismissed as coincidental and chief executive David Gill said the hurried nature of the transfer owed merely to the sudden interest from other clubs, in particular Real Madrid.

'We have been following him but he only really came on to the scene recently,' said Gill.
Quite. Bebe was playing in the Portuguese third division with Estrela da Amadora until the end of last season. Having signed for top-flight club Vitoria de Guimaraes at the start of the summer, the young prospect hadn't even kicked a ball for them when United decided to trigger a €9 million release clause on August 11.

The fact that Vitoria had inserted such a clause in the first place indicates that Bebe has some latent ability. Indeed, he had scored four goals in seven pre-season appearances before United stepped in. Estrela da Amadora coach Jorge Paixao said: 'He is the fruit of street football. Nowadays players are schooled in the clubs, but he has none of this. He's an old school player. He has that natural creativity, an irreverence, and that makes all the difference. He improvises very well, because he has the quality, and he has a set of characteristics that are difficult to find in a single footballer. He is tall, he is good in the air, he is technically gifted and he is very fast.'

It is certainly a glowing testimony and United, who were pointed towards the player by former assistant manager Carlos Queiroz, will hope it's accurate.

Maybe, though, it also hints at why Bebe has struggled to settle. Having grown up in a homeless shelter near Lisbon - his parents left him there when he was 10 - Bebe did indeed learn his football on the street and has never spent any time at a big club. The 20-year-old has no idea of the structure, the discipline and the intensity of life at a place like United.

Perhaps it is no wonder he is finding it difficult to adjust and acclimatise. Just last year he was scoring 40 goals - yes, really - in six games for Portugal at the European Football Festival for the Disadvantaged. Now he is on the staff of a club that claims to be the biggest in the world. It has been quite a journey already. Sir Alex Ferguson will hope he has not paid over the odds for the ticket.

August 26, 2010

KP needs to curb his aggression

Posted by Josh Williams on 26/08/2010

Former England coach Duncan Fletcher, writing in the Guardian, believes that England's batting problems are as much mental as they are technical - but he has urged Kevin Pietersen to stiffen up his defensive play.

It is a worry when a team collapses twice in short succession. If they do it three times then that suggests they have real problems. In this series England lost six wickets for 17 runs at Trent Bridge, seven for 46 at Edgbaston and seven for 28 at The Oval. All credit to the Pakistani bowlers, but they were not responsible in 2009 when England were bowled out for 51 by the West Indies and for 102 by Australia.

Continue reading "KP needs to curb his aggression"

August 25, 2010

Why is Arteta more foreign than Capello?

Posted by Josh Williams on 25/08/2010

Martin Samuel, writing in the Daily Mail, today declares his belief that it would be "preposterous" for the FA to advise Fabio Capello against picking Spanish-born Mikel Arteta to play for England.

The outrage over the potential selection of Mikel Arteta (below) for England grows more amusing by the day. The idea that the Football Association should advise Fabio Capello against picking him is the most preposterous development yet.

Continue reading "Why is Arteta more foreign than Capello?"

August 24, 2010

Fulham show the way forward for unfancied clubs

Posted by Tom Walker on 24/08/2010

The Premier League is only two games old but already the top four has a familiar look to it with Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City taking up the much-coveted Champions League berths. But following Fulham's 2-2 draw with United at Craven Cottage, Kevin McCarra from The Guardian says the outlook is bright for the so-called smaller teams.

The 21st of August is a little early for anyone to be demanding homage. Florent Malouda, all the same, was quizzical rather than arrogant on Saturday when complaining that there are no hymns of praise for Chelsea even when they have opened the defence of the title by scoring half-a-dozen goals without reply in each of the two fixtures to date.

The winger's bafflement may well be genuine. You can understand Malouda's frustration over the hosannas reserved for Arsenal, a club without a trophy since 2005, let alone the Double achieved by Chelsea last season. The Stamford Bridge club even set a Premier League record with their 103 goals. Nonetheless, Chelsea would probably be bewildered if they ever became the nation's darlings.

There is no imminent danger on that front. Should fans of the opposition ever fall silent it is because they cannot decide who to boo first. It does not take much effort to come up with seemingly high-minded objections to Chelsea despite the fact that the proprietor, Roman Abramovich, with the days of transfer market excess behind him, now looks as if the greatest ambition he harbours is to balance the books one day.

Manchester City have the sort of financial backing that makes the present Stamford Bridge operation look like a humble workers' co-operative, but results will have to improve before they can savour the satisfaction of knowing they are feared and loathed. Dread, indeed, is scarce throughout the Premier League. If other clubs sense that the elite are now vulnerable then the early results tend to vindicate them.

Chelsea alone have emerged from their first two games with full points. At this juncture a year ago, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City had kept pace with them. Carlo Ancelotti's team would go on to rack up half-a-dozen consecutive victories. City and Tottenham, for that matter, each started with four wins in a row. The environment this year is more challenging. Arsenal are perhaps the one English club in the Champions League that is expected to get better and the scope for progress was great in any case.

It feels as if there is a convergence of standards in the Premier League. Fulham's 2-2 draw with Manchester United on Sunday was, statistically speaking, a backward step since Sir Alex Ferguson's players had been beaten on their previous two trips to Craven Cottage. That, all the same, was not how it looked.

United did take the lead and would have held a late and unassailable 3-1 advantage if Nani's penalty had not been saved by David Stockdale, but Ferguson had the honesty to state that a draw was the least Fulham deserved. He will be better equipped when Wayne Rooney, who was suffering from ailing form in the goalmouth before illness kept him out of the match, is his true self again.

Fulham had no fear and there was conviction in the way Mark Hughes's men launched themselves at United after the interval. It would be crass to claim that the conservatism departed Craven Cottage when Roy Hodgson left to become Liverpool manager. If there is more self-belief in the ranks it must originate in the sort of nights he presided over, such as the pounding of Juventus, on the path to the Europa League final.

The striker Bobby Zamora is one of the men who seems galvanised by that experience. For his part, Brede Hangeland, scorer of an own goal and Fulham's equaliser on Sunday, envisages an eventful life for a club with reason to be forceful nowadays. "In the past against United and other good teams," the defender said, "even at home we've conceded ground and let them play. Now we try and press higher and take the game to them."

There is a degree of levelling down in the Premier League that should encourage boldness. While some clubs, such as Arsenal, have squads that ought be on the rise, there are few that look intimidating. Even Chelsea have to negotiate a long programme with key contributors, such as Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, who are not all that far from being termed veterans.

By their own expectations, the English representatives had a quiet time of it in the last Champions League campaign, whose final was contested by Internazionale and Bayern Munich. The foremost clubs in this country are very far from disintegration, but there is no cause to consider them unassailable. If the Premier League cannot claim to be the pre-eminent domestic competition in the world any longer, it will serve the public handsomely if it fills our weekends with suspense and unpredictability.

August 23, 2010

City's 'kamikaze' spending not so crazy

Posted by Jo Carter on 23/08/2010

Manchester City's summer spending spree has come under fire in recent weeks, but bucking the trend, Martin Samuel in The Daily Mail believes City may not be as silly as they appear.

Kamikaze spending, Sir Alex Ferguson called it, in one of those soundbites destined to pass into history judging by how widely it has been quoted this week. Yet what else are Manchester City to do? It is not their fault that a club with ambition has to approach the transfer market on the divine wind.

A ticking clock counts down the minutes to the end of this transfer window on the sports news channel, but there is a Doomsday scenario extending beyond that.
The next window, in January, is the last that will not feel the impact of the financial regulations imposed by Michel Platini, the UEFA president. By the time of the following financial year, April 2011 to April 2012, clubs must start to reduce losses and while there are four more seasons before the regulations properly take hold, the rules are complex and incorporate retrospective calculation.

In simple terms, after this year, all transfers will contribute in some way to UEFA's reckoning. City may not be getting the greatest value for money right now, but if there is an element of Supermarket Sweep about their behaviour, that is because Platini's legislation makes it now or never for big spenders.

The elite clubs, like Ferguson's Manchester United, can sit pretty knowing that once the controls are in place they will always have the largest budgets. It is the likes of City, desperately scrambling to get through the door before it shuts, who have been condemned to spend, spend, spend.

So, of course, the policy appears irrational. City have paid as much for James Milner, who had an erratic World Cup, as Real Madrid did combined for Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira of Germany, two of the revelations of the tournament.

David Silva, who could not make the Spanish team, has come in at a price not far behind David Villa, arguably the most talented striker in the world. Yaya Toure cost £24million, at a time when Inter Milan have balked at paying a similar price for a better holding midfield player - the captain of Argentina, Javier Mascherano of Liverpool.

Manchester City's total transfer bill since Sheik Mansour's arrival is over £350m, but why the surprise? The moment Platini made his flawed theories a reality, there was always going to be a reckless, lastminute scramble. By spending now, City no doubt hope to buck the system, assembling a powerful squad and achieving success before it becomes almost impossible for the little guy to get ahead.

Depending on how City manage the accounts, there could be an even greater advantage. Transfer expenditure is listed in one of two ways: as an outgoing lump sum, or with the fee spread over the years of the contract. So payment for Milner could be shown as £24m now or, for instance, £4.8m over five years, a process known as amortisation.

If City choose this option, some of Milner's transfer money will eventually be part of UEFA's calculation of City's budget; but put wholly into this year's accounts will fall outside UEFA's remit. Then, if Milner is later sold, the fee received counts as money coming into the club and helps increase the size of the budget. City's owners, unlike most rivals, actually have the capital to do this. They may not be as silly as they look.

Continue reading "City's 'kamikaze' spending not so crazy"

August 22, 2010

Hooliganism still taints the beautiful game

Posted by Tom Walker on 22/08/2010

The new football season has kicked off at a frenetic pace and we have seen goals, cards, tackles and the usual refereeing mistakes. But beneath the surface lies an association with football that just won’t go away – football hooliganism. Jamie Jackson from The Observer highlights the problem and it is clear that it is still tarnishing the beautiful game.

They hunt in packs, fuelled by cocaine, hooked on violence and occasionally wielding chains. Some are as old as 65. They use mobile phones and the internet to arrange showdowns with rival "firms" at agreed locations away from prying CCTV cameras and police surveillance. This is the profile of the 21st-century football hooligan, a breed of "fan" who, although decreasing in numbers and visibility, is recognised by the football authorities and police as never having gone away.

Less than a fortnight ago, Danny Scriven, a 26-year-old postman, and 21-year-old Kali Hagenstede – two members of the Tottenham firm the Yid Army – were jailed for 15 months and given six-year banning orders (keeping them away from football matches) for being part of a 20-strong mob that smashed up The George, a pub in Holloway used by Arsenal's firm the Herd, after Spurs lost the north London derby last October. Last Wednesday, 19-year-old Callum Ellis was given a maximum five-year banning order by Leeds magistrates for being the leader of a group of Bradford City hooligans who call themselves the Young Bradford Ointment. There has been a worrying series of violent, football-related incidents in the past three months.

Diligent and effective policing and widespread use of surveillance cameras make sure there is rarely any trouble at matches. Millwall fans travelling to yesterday's game at Elland Road had to pick up their tickets from a motorway service station on the way into Leeds, which kept them off the trains, and they were escorted in and out of the ground. Police with dogs, riot gear and video equipment set up a no-go area after the game to keep Leeds followers away from the 550 or so Millwall fans. Police reported only seven arrests, which was seen as a triumph.

Away from the ground it is a different story. A senior official at one of London's most prominent clubs, who has been involved in the game since the dawn of hooliganism and who did not wish to be named, told Observer Sport: "If anyone thinks the problem has gone away they are naive. The internet provides an easy way for hooligans to arrange meetings. This is gang violence that attaches itself to sport. It is naive to think football still doesn't provide an opportunity for a ruck – it does."

Risk supporters, as they are officially called, consider themselves tribal families who pass on the taste for fighting to their sons and grandsons, and will probably never be removed despite the continuing efforts of the government, police and football authorities. "The normal paying public wouldn't understand it," says Wally, a 46-year-old who was once a prominent force in Birmingham City's firm the Zulus. "We class ourselves as family. The Zulus have been together for over 25 years now. We go out together, drink together, go to weddings and funerals, and are in business together. We look out for each other."

A glance on internet chat forums and social-media sites offers evidence that many clubs' gangs still exist throughout the Premier League, Football League and even in the non-League pyramid. Precisely how active they are is difficult to gauge. But the spate of recorded incidents since May and ongoing intelligence work by the authorities indicate the police still have a big job on their hands every week.

PC Pete Dearden, Arsenal's football intelligence officer, says: "At a high-profile game at Arsenal where there are 60,000 people coming, we are looking at 150 to 200 who are part of the risk supporters group. I have some who are in their sixties and might earn £100,000 a week in the City. Many don't go to the game because they can't get membership or are banned, but they still attach themselves. What we have is a decreasing minority of quite well-organised groups seeking disorder with like-minded individuals a long time before and after the game.

"You might get a situation where Arsenal risk supporters sit in a pub near a stadium, then they might meet at a transport hub – say King's Cross for northern teams – in the hope that, even if it's a CCTV-dominated area, we're just not going to find out about it."

Dearden says that while there is a hooligans' code, their preferred drug has changed. "After a fight, they might go around the corner to the pub for a drink. Physically, the drive used to be alcohol that fuelled this anti-social behaviour. Today, cocaine is massively in abundance. It gives them that strength of character to go into situations where otherwise they might have been frightened. It makes them braver. Cocaine is the choice of a modern-day hooligan.

"The best way for me to curtail the activities of my risk group [in Islington, Arsenal's borough] is to cut off their supply of cocaine – with good intelligence, arresting the person supplying them."

Wally, who has now retired from the frontline and says he prefers to watch Birmingham City from an executive box, concurs. "It is coke now – that's always about. There is a younger firm coming through," he says. "They are 15-, 16-year-olds who want to get into it. They've read the books, want to buy the clothes and they've heard the reputations of their dads and uncles."

While trouble can still flare around high-profile games, the preferred location for fighting and disorder is away from stadiums, with British Transport Police reporting a 49% increase in arrests year on year, and 83 banning orders issued for incidents on the rail network in 2008-09, the latest season for which details are available.

On the eve of the new football season this moved the BTP to announce a crackdown on troublemakers and a determination to issue more banning orders. Stephen Thomas is the BTP's assistant chief constable in charge of football operations. He says: "The number of incidents has gone up and so are our prosecutions. During the season, we prosecute about 20 a week – everything from a caution or fixed penalty notice to putting them before the court."

Fifa's inspectors visit England this week to run the rule over the 2018 World Cup bid. How damaging does Thomas think any problems might be to England's hopes of hosting the tournament? "Fifa are mature and sophisticated enough to look at the big picture, not just pick up on isolated incidents because they don't reflect the behaviour of football fans in stadiums," he says. "Look at the World Cup in South Africa; there was no one arrested for football-related trouble."

England's main rivals in the bidding process are Russia, where football hooliganism is a far bigger problem.

Home Office figures for the 2008-09 season show an average of only 1.18 arrests per match, an overall total of 3,752 from the 38 million people who attended games in England and Wales that year. The authorities aim to keep it that way, although they remain vigilant and will be concerned by the outbreaks of violence this summer.

A Football Association spokesperson says: "In reality, football is safer than it has ever been and the great majority of people are able to enjoy football in a safe and friendly environment. Of course there is a very small minority of individuals who will cause disorder on occasion and we have strong legislation in place to deal with these people. The improvements in stewarding, appropriate policing, state-of-the-art CCTV systems and the efforts of clubs and leagues have added greatly to making football a fan-friendly environment."

Privately, the FA, BTP, the police on the ground and the government understand they have to remain wary. They point to last August's trouble between West Ham and Millwall during a Carling Cup tie in east London in which an innocent Millwall supporter was stabbed, West Ham fans invaded the pitch and police made 64 arrests. West Ham were fined £115,000.

Every week Dearden gathers intelligence from his counterparts at other clubs, "spotters" at train and motorway service stations, the transport police, traffic wardens, the public and paid informants on the inside of the Herd so he can grade the risk of potential violence and call in police resources.

Yesterday, Blackpool were at the Emirates. Dearden says: "We knew there would be around 20 of Blackpool's risk supporters. My Lancashire colleague knows who they are and I asked about Arsenal's risk supporters' intentions. We pay informants; there is a network of them across hooligan groups in England and if they give us good information we pay them. It's like having an undercover officer among them. Our intelligence is better than ever. If they were to fight in a pub and it was captured on CCTV I can identify individuals."

Dearden gave evidence in the case against Scriven and Hagenstede, the jailed thugs. The court heard they had come to the pub armed with a dustbin, a pole and barstools, but the Herd had moved on from the pub. Dearden says: "That's our most high-risk game. It was a midday fixture, so by 6.30pm everybody had gone home. The Spurs hooligans were still in their pubs in Haringey or the West End. But we had intelligence that they might come to the area.

"Our risk supporters had moved from one location to another and the Spurs risk supporters came on the Underground undetected, because we can't check every train. About 20 of them went to our risk pub, which is normally frequented by our hooligans, and attacked normal Saturday night punters.

"I'd suggest that was cowardly because its easy to attack a defenceless pub. It's the height of disrespect in the hooligan world to turn over the opposition's pub.

"CCTV evidence led to two of them receiving a 15-month prison sentence, which reflects that the judge has an understanding of the organised pre-planned ferocity of the incident."

The tipping point for English hooliganism came at Euro 2000, when rioting in Charleroi led to Uefa threatening England with expulsion and forced Tony Blair, then prime minister, to apologise. Parliament then passed the Football Disorder Act 2000, giving courts the power to issue banning orders and confiscate passports to keep troublemakers away from games.

A Home Office spokesperson says: "The strategy works well and there has been no significant English football violence overseas since Euro 2000. The arrangements are tried and tested throughout each football season, as around 100,000 English fans travel to international and European club matches overseas."

The hooligans agree. Wally says: "There used to be instances before where you could get arrested on the morning of a match and be out by kick-off with a £50 fine and a slap on the wrist. Now it's the first arrest and a three-year ban, minimum. It's not just whether you can get away with it on the day. Because of CCTV, six months later your door's liable to get a knock."

But Malcolm Clarke, chairman the Football Supporters' Federation, claims that banning orders are draconian. He says: "There can be inappropriate use of the powers. We have asked for a judicial review and I would say the pendulum has swung too far the other way."

The authorities, though, argue that the battle to control hooliganism and prevent a return to the dark days requires stringent measures. Dearden is sure the problem will never completely go away. "It would need a culture change. The minute we think we've got it under control there will be trouble. Polish fans attacked Arsenal fans recently during a pre-season friendly and a lot of countries have problems. With the European Championship in Poland coming up, I fear what may happen.

"If you poke the English animal enough it will rear its ugly head. South Africa [during the World Cup] was never going to be a problem because of the distance. We don't want that disease returning."

August 21, 2010

Holloway's dilemma

Posted by Jo Carter on 21/08/2010

Blackpool enjoyed their two hours at the top of the Premier League table last weekend after their stunning 4-0 victory at Wigan. But with a trip to the Emirates to face Arsene Wenger's Arsenal, Holloway faces an important decision, and if he gets it wrong, the Tangerine dream could become a nightmare overnight, writes Alan Smith in The Telegraph.

Does the Blackpool manager stick with his principles by going with the kind of attacking formation he has always favoured since arriving at Bloomfield Road? Or does he err on the side of caution by, first and foremost, trying to stifle Arsenal's attacking game?

For sure, it would be a very bold move to go with the adventurous 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 shape that secured a spectacular 4-0 win at Wigan on the opening day.

With Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Brett Ormerod operating either side of Marlon Harewood, and Elliot Grandin given licence on his debut to support those front lads, you could say that Holloway was going for broke. Only David Vaughan, sitting deep next to playmaker Charlie Adam, could be vaguely described as a defensive choice.

But if Holloway does something similar there is a distinct danger of Arsenal rattling home five or six. You can just imagine clever players such as Andrei Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky swarming into the gaps left by Blackpool's gung-ho approach. The chances created would probably be enough to end this contest before it has begun.

On the other hand, Holloway might take the view that conceding the initiative to Arsène Wenger's richly talented troops is only asking for trouble, and that attack, in this case, really does constitute the best form of defence.

If so, it will still mean the wide lads tracking back conscientiously whenever Arsenal's full-backs, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna, decide to bomb forward. If Taylor-Fletcher and Ormerod do not do that and leave their own full-backs with a steady stream of two-against-one situations, the results will be predictable.

Likewise, Adam and Vaughan must keep talking throughout to try to keep tabs on the blur of red and white shirts in their domain. Not only that, once Blackpool win the ball back it is important that Adam finds some space and starts using a very capable left foot to get his team moving in the opposite direction.

If the visitors manage to keep the ball for a bit to mount some attacks, the defenders will get a vital breather as confidence grows within the tangerine ranks.

In their favour, though, Blackpool's preferred formation does at least match up with Arsenal's. With both teams adopting variants of 4-3-3, Holloway will not have to start changing his tactics radically. As for the side's attitude, that is a different matter. A key to succeeding at the Emirates is accepting you will not have the ball for large parts of the game.

Continue reading "Holloway's dilemma"

August 20, 2010

Where are City's A-listers?

Posted by Alex Livie on 20/08/2010

Manchester City have shelled out huge sums to add to their squad this summer, but have they brought in enough quality? The Sun’s Steven Howard certainly does not think so.

They were the club who announced they intended to sign Lionel Messi, Kaka, Cesc Fabregas and Juventus keeper Gigi Buffon.

Oh, yes, and Cristiano Ronaldo was also on his way to Manchester City - in the January 2009 transfer window for £135million.

As the Manchester United fans waiting for the tram that would take them back into the city centre after the 3-0 win over Newcastle last Monday chanted: "They wanted Kaka and got Bellamy - City are a massive club."

To date Sheikh Mansour has splashed £355m on transfer fees, including £130m in the close season alone.

Throw in £488m in wages, the £210m cost of the takeover and a further £20m capital expenditure and we're already up to an incredible £1billion.

Kamikaze spending.

Yet City still can't get the mega-stars. Instead, they have been forced to settle for second best. It's David Silva not David Villa. It's Mario Balotelli not Fernando Torres.

The same David Silva who will remember Spain's World Cup-winning triumph in South Africa as the time he lost his place in the starting line-up.

And 20-year-old Balotelli, largely unknown outside Italy and on the bench during Inter Milan's run to Champions League glory.

Now 28 goals in 86 appearances isn't bad for a kid - not to mention his debut goal last night - but City are still forking out a massive £23m just on potential.

And a player with a reputation as a trouble-maker.

There are also massive question marks over holding midfielder Yaya Toure (£24m) plus defenders Jerome Boateng (£10.5m) and Alexsandar Kolarov (£16m).

Yet the key to buying the title is an out-and-out goalscorer.

As Blackburn proved when they broke the British transfer record by signing Alan Shearer for £3.3m in 1992-93.

As Chelsea confirmed in 2004 when they paid a club record £24m for Didier Drogba, the hottest young striker in Europe.

Yes, Carlos Tevez did everything that could have been asked of him last season knocking in 23 goals from 33 starts. But the Argentine needs to be playing off a more orthodox striker.

Emmanuel Adebayor? His problem is it all depends whether he's in the mood and he doesn't flick that particular switch too often.

Roque Santa Cruz? A Mark Hughes buy, he could be on his way out after just six league starts at half the £17.5m he cost.

And, finally, there's James Milner for another £24m - the same fee Manchester United paid for Wayne Rooney six years ago.

The same fee for which Real Madrid have purchased both Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira, two of Germany's outstanding young World Cup stars. Yes, BOTH of them.

Sure, Milner did well for Aston Villa last season but he's still an England squad player who had a half-decent game in South Africa against Slovenia but did little else.

An England squad player who was hooked after just 29 minutes against the USA after being given the run-around by 31-year-old full-back Steve Cherundolo.

City are paying through the nose for supporting cast players.

Top of the bill headliners like Messi, Kaka and Ronaldo remain as elusive as ever.

August 19, 2010

Great escape should earn Holloway a gong

Posted by Josh Williams on 19/08/2010

Harry Redknapp's achievements at Tottenham Hotspur last season, where he lifted the team into the Champions League places, attracted plenty of praise from his peers. Now Redknapp, writing in the Sun, has returned the compliment to another manager, Ian Holloway, by insisting that the Blackpool boss should be a shoo-in for Manager of the Year if he escapes relegation.

IAN HOLLOWAY has more front than Tesco and, if he keeps Blackpool up this season, he will get my vote as boss of the year.

Continue reading "Great escape should earn Holloway a gong"

August 18, 2010

Mum's the word

Posted by Jo Carter on 18/08/2010

Andy Murray's Rogers Cup victory in Toronto was his first title of 2010, and in only his second tournament after splitting with coach Miles Maclagan, Oliver Brown in The Telegraph believes his mum Judy deserves much of the credit.

Never one of life's natural rhetoricians, Andy Murray surpassed himself in dedicating a stirring triumph in Toronto last Sunday to his mother. A lesser champion might have blathered something vacuous about his girlfriend or his coach, but not this big Scottish softie.

Conspicuously without a coaching team, and enjoying a somewhat 'on-off' relationship with his beloved, Kim Sears, Murray turned instead to the one constant in his ever-changing entourage: his mum.

In this unabashed tribute to a pleased-as-Punch Judy for being there in Canada "as my mother", Murray joined a noble tradition of those not born great, but rendered so by the strength of maternal influence.

Consider the timeless words of Abraham Lincoln: "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother." Napoleon, likewise, found his character shaped by mother Letizia, whose iron discipline curbed young Boney's rambunctious ways.

"Ability is nothing without opportunity," he would later declare, his debt of gratitude implicit.

Judy Murray, it is fair to note, can be an acquired taste.

Her detractors see her pop-eyed, open-jawed exhortations to her son from the Wimbledon players' box and instinctively recoil.

They have a point; at Queen's Club earlier this summer, you could have heard her hysterical cries of "C'mon!" the other side of Kensington.

But equally, hers is a tale of selflessness, of railing against the deficiencies of our own Lawn Tennis Assocation, of sending a 15 year-old Andy to the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain for the good of his game.

Continue reading "Mum's the word"

August 17, 2010

Tough times ahead for the Toon

Posted by Josh Williams on 17/08/2010

Judging by the performance they put in during the 3-0 defeat at Manchester United, Newcastle are in for a long, hard slog this season on their Premier League return. That's the view of Steven Howard, writing in the Sun:

JOEY BARTON has always been one for a great idea.

This time he came up with the ruse of asking Newcastle team-mates not to shave until they won their first league game of the season.

After their defeat at Old Trafford last night, they could be looking like ZZ Top come May.

Continue reading "Tough times ahead for the Toon"

August 16, 2010

Premier League back with a bang

Posted by Tom Walker on 16/08/2010

The first weekend of the 2010/2011 Premier League season draws to a close with tonight's clash between Manchester United and Newcastle. There were goals, there were sending offs and there were talking points aplenty. Martin Samuel from the Daily Mail looks over the main incidents and surprises many with his happiest moment from the weekend.

Remember the age of austerity in English football? Lasted about a fortnight as Portsmouth went skint. Suddenly, everyone was very keen on tightening those belts.

Politicians, administrators, supporters' groups, sports writers, all were adamant football should adapt to the harsh economic climate. Some even wanted the government involved, having done such a bang-up job on the economy.

The time of uncontrolled wages and transfer fees was over, we were told. The best chairman was a cautious one. Those who wanted to live a little, throw a bit of money about, see what happens, were beneath contempt.

Manchester City were a destructive force. Forget winning the league, forget having a go; 14th and a healthy bank balance was the level of success to which the new puritans should aspire.

Bored with that now, aren't we? Bored with watchful and conservative, bored with the absence of risk. Martin O'Neill packed it in at Aston Villa and the spotlight instantly turned to his employer, Randy Lerner, who had balked at the final round of investment required to enter the top four, and sold his best players to balance the books.

Over at Blackpool, Ian Holloway became increasingly frustrated at the failure to improve his first-team squad, resulting in a late round of transfer activity and a wonderful vindication on the first day of the season.

Tough calls lay ahead, though. To some at the club, living the dream involves getting into the Premier League, rather than remaining long term. It is a reasonable assessment given that Blackpool's ground capacity of 12,555 will make it hard to compete financially. Yet who wants tourists in the Premier League?

The most uplifting image of the weekend was the young Blackpool fan with the dyed hair and the face paint, his fists clenched in celebration as the goals flew in against Wigan Athletic.

That is what football is about, not balance sheets. Blackpool made a lifetime supporter yesterday, because that boy will remember the day forever. Try explaining a sound business plan to him, however, and watch his little eyes glaze over.

Football is not an extension of accountancy. We can't have it all ways. We cannot pontificate on the evils of debt one day and bemoan O'Neill's departure the next. Admit it. We want the roller-coaster. We want the highs and lows.

Aston Villa won on Saturday but will sell James Milner to Manchester City and their team will be much reduced. It is a sensible business strategy, in a way that keeping Milner and gambling a further £100m on rising two places is not, but our instinctive sympathy is with O'Neill, not Lerner.

In the same way, it is a source of delight Holloway was finally permitted the sprinkling of players required to make Blackpool competitive. Can his board afford it? Who knows: in the utter delight of the 4-0 win at Wigan, the issue was never raised.

Portsmouth's downfall was supposed to be a salutary lesson to all, but the people who really took notice were the chairmen and owners, who noted the fantastic sums required to succeed and shivered.

Supporters talk about business plans, but only as a means for further investment. The protests against the Glazer family at Manchester United have gathered strength with the perception that the level of debt has curbed Sir Alex Ferguson's spending power.

Nobody claims the owners are affecting Manchester United's famous youth policy. It is the failure to lure big names that offends them.

Even now, every prospective new owner must promise to spend, spend, spend. So what makes a good chairman? Lerner has greatly improved Aston Villa but will this continue to be acknowledged if the extent of his ambition sends his club into reverse?

He may talk about youth as Villa's future - in which case, why take the outstanding youth team coach Kevin MacDonald to manage the first team - but if the club continues to moves its best players to major rivals, it will always skirt the periphery of success.

For all the sermonising, the bottom line is football is supposed to be fun. It isn't brain surgery or fighting the Taliban. It is a sport, designed to deliver excitement, entertainment, skill and pride to the community in equal measure.

We feel saddened by O'Neill's departure because his emboldened vision of Aston Villa was more appealing than Lerner's competent middling club, punching its weight but no more.

Widespread financial catastrophe for the Premier League was predicted last season but well-run and well-financed clubs survived and the basket cases such as Portsmouth and Hull City did not. That is the way business works.

Yet, for all the warning signs, there was once a huge feel-good factor around Hull and Portsmouth, too. We like the idea of good housekeeping, but we like a thrilling narrative more.
Deep down, we all want Blackpool to go for it; deep down, we are all disappointed that Villa will not.

August 15, 2010

Captains liven up Ryder Cup preparations

Posted by Tom Walker on 15/08/2010

While the US PGA Championship reaches its climax on Sunday, preparations for the Ryder Cup are gathering pace. The squads for the two teams have yet to be announced and, while the players fight for their places, the exchanges between captains Colin Montgomerie and Corey Pavin is proving an intriguing sub-plot. Paul Hayward from The Observer investigates the relationship between the pair.

The Ryder Cup displays an amusingly split identity. It can't quite decide whether to be the war of the worlds or a transatlantic buddy-up.

For every Ian Poulter fist pump or American convoy of aggressively speeding buggies there are a dozen friendship speeches and blazered podium rituals. Like a party drunk, the Ryder Cup wants to be your best friend one minute and then fight you the next.

In this agreeably divided atmosphere the golf itself always managed to blow away any gaucheness by the protagonists, such as Nick Faldo telling his audience at Valhalla in Kentucky, "See you in Wales – and bring your waterproofs with you." Or Faldo, again, reciting the CVs of his children in a ceremonial address that would have made Alan Partridge cringe.

But what we see now is a cult of the captain so egregious that golf's great clash of the continents threatens to mutate into a major Premier League game, in which the managers assume adversarial positions and the press conference becomes the highest form of drama. When the last running turned into the Faldo show many of us thought there had been a temporary elevation of the captain's role, but it seems we were wrong, because Colin Montgomerie (Europe) and Corey Pavin (USA) are consuming newsprint at a rate that suggests the Ryder Cup really is now all about the contrived human sideshows that modern sport pretends to disdain but actually feeds off.

October's event at Celtic Manor in Wales has already ditched the old gentility convention in favour of spicy press conferences, bunker rage, spectacular bust-ups between captains and reporters and uncertainty over whether the world No1 will be there to seek to improve his lamentable record in Ryder Cup golf, which requires the supreme individualist to apply himself to a socialist cause.

Pavin's altercation with the Golf Channel's Jim Gray this week is a rollicking good read. It began when Gray claimed Pavin had told him Tiger Woods would definitely be one of his four captain's picks in the event of Woods failing to make the team automatically. Pavin denied Gray's claim on Twitter and then repeated his assertion that no guarantee could be given to Woods in a press conference at this week's PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, calling Gray's account of their conversation "incorrect".

Then the fun started. According to American golf writers Gray rounded on Pavin afterwards and shouted: "You're a liar. You're going down." This, it seems to me, is the point where the Ryder Cup ceased to be a Corinthian confrontation between men in slacks and started to be an episode of The Sopranos. Come to think of it, Tony Soprano and his clan wore slacks a lot, too, and they certainly told their enemies: "You're going down." Which they invariably did, often to the bottom of the Hudson River.

Pavin told reporters: "He [Gray] went nuts when he came in here. He said, 'You're going down,' then he turned around and walked away and I'm like, 'Down for what? You making stuff up?'"

According to some reports Gray raised his finger to Pavin's face. The New York Daily News claimed: "Even Pavin's wife, Lisa, got involved. At one point, she called Gray a 'wuss'." Montgomerie is said to have chuckled as Pavin was grilled in the preceding press conference but then endured his own stint on the barbecue when the questioning turned to his private life. Montgomerie batted away the questions but they may be aired again.

Strictly, Sergio García committing GBH on a bunker at Whistling Straits has no bearing on the Ryder Cup's growing appetite for gossip and hysteria but it came only days after he had announced his non-availability for Celtic Manor. García said he needed two months off, and while his tantrum in the sand demonstrated the accuracy of that diagnosis it also raises doubts about the Ryder Cup's importance to the modern player, because García had appeared to be one its most passionate proponents.

As is Montgomerie, who played eight times and has never lost a singles match. Monty is an impresario's dream. With an eventful private life to entertain the popular prints, a deep appreciation of the Ryder Cup tradition and an emotional nature that snags itself on the stresses of golf, he was sent from the gods to keep Celtic Manor in melodrama.

The cult of the buggy-jockey is not entirely new, granted. Who could forget Generalissimo Ballesteros sweeping up to the greens at Valderrama in 1997 or the lubrication provided by Ian Woosnam at Dublin's K Club? Or, Paul Azinger referring to Faldo as a "prick" in a newspaper interview? More and more we see the captain assume the role of news generator and lightning rod for the kind of interest that requires conflict and prurience before the mind will engage.

The modern mind, in other words. And lest the charge of hypocrisy wing in, it should be said that Monty's cabaret, America agonising over Woods and the possibility that "you're going down" will be used again as a clubhouse threat will shift a lot of product in south Wales.

August 14, 2010

Reason takes aim at retiring players

Posted by Alex Livie on 14/08/2010

The Premier League season bursts back into life on Saturday, but the troubles of Fabio Capello rumble on. He has seen a host of players call time on their England careers this week and has also jettisoned David Beckham. Mark Reason, writing in the Daily Telegraph, takes issue with those players who have taken the decision to call time on international football.

Is there anybody left in the country who wants to play football for England? Maybe the three lions should be replaced by three chickens. In recent few weeks Paul Robinson, Wes Brown, Emile Heskey and Jamie Carragher have all retired from international football. No longer is patriotism the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Does anyone other than millionaire sportsmen understand this business of retiring from playing for your country? You can bet that if the likes of Robinson and Brown were skint and offered a few thousand to kick a ball about for their nation they would weep with gratitude

These not-so retiring footballers are the new scoundrel class. They have not got any respect for the van driver or the nurse who forks out fifty quid he or she can ill afford to watch their team. No, we are retiring so that we can be with our PlayStations.

Paul Scholes packed it in early to spend more time with his family. Scholes should feel blessed that he is rich enough to put his children in front of all those other kids who genuinely dream of playing for their country. Scholes' kids get picked up from school. The other kids watch a reduced England unable to score against Algeria or getting Mullered by Germany.

You almost felt sorry for Fabio Capello as his Latin charm faded and the players walked out on him. Fabio Capello's red army? More like a bunch of deserters whose fancy boots don't keep the rain out. The poor sensitive souls have all got cold feet.

You almost felt sorry for Fabio, but not quite. He then decided to announce that David Beckham was "probably too old" to play for England any more. There aren't a lot of blokes in this mercenary sport who have always been willing to turn out for their country, but Becks is one of them.

A spokesman for Beckham immediately said: "There has been no discussion of retirement. He will always be available for his country, when fit and if needed he will be there." It would have been better if Beckham could have said it himself, but at least the sentiment was there.

Carragher first threw his shin pads out of his socks because he thought lesser players were being played in his preferred position. After eight years of international football and 34 caps the Liverpool player retired. The following year he released his autobiography Carra. He doesn't even deserve the trouble of a derisive adjective.

Robinson said: "I don't see myself as a number three or four" when Capello picked him for his latest England squad. Any self-respecting sportsman sees himself as the No 1, but the great ones will subjugate their ego for the team. Bobby Charlton did not kick a water bottle at his manager's coccyx on the few occasions he got substituted.

International sport should be further valued for the remarkably positive influence it can have on a country's culture. It is arguable that when black players began being selected for England, integration improved. It is indisputable that enlightened rugby coaches such as Kitch Christie and Nick Mallett had hugely positive affects on South Africa's attitude towards race.

The Spain football team are beloved by the people because they are seen as genuinely humble. They go back to their home towns, they walk in the streets, they talk in the bars. The English just become too big for their boots. No wonder they are no good at scoring goals.

August 13, 2010

Capello's hand forced by dearth of talent

Posted by Josh Williams on 13/08/2010

Kevin McCarra, writing in the Guardian, has put forward the theory that Fabio Capello cannot banish his World Cup flops as the emerging generation of players are not of sufficient quality to provide any improvement.

The manager does not suppose there is a generation of precocious stars to take over from all the familiar and well-lined faces, even if he does appreciate that time has run out for some, including the 35-year-old David Beckham.

Continue reading "Capello's hand forced by dearth of talent"

August 12, 2010

Beckham 'retirement' highlights communication problem

Posted by Tom Walker on 12/08/2010

Thursday's headlines should have focused on England's return to winning ways, but instead the debacle of David Beckham's apparent enforced retirement is the main talking point. Paul Hayward from The Guardian offers his views on the latest drama in Fabio Capello's camp.

As a moth to the media lamp David Beckham can hardly object to having his England career ended in a TV interview. He minded when Steve McClaren dumped him after the 2006 World Cup and fought his way back, into the squad but there is no skirting round Fabio Capello's insistence in a televised pre-match conversation that Beckham is "a little bit old" to win another competitive cap.

The England coach's sureness of touch deserted him in South Africa and there was no sign of it returning as he appeared to have demobbed Beckham without telling him first, though there were claims late last night that Capello had conveyed his decision through an intermediary. "I say thank you very much for helping me at the World Cup but probably he is a little bit old," Capello said on ITV before the 2-1 victory over Hungary. But in a statement sent to the BBC, Beckham's agent said: "There has been no discussion of retirement. He will always be available for his country, when fit, and if needed he will be there."

This all fits the comedy of ego-struggles and miscommunications that has characterised English football this summer. Beckham can control most things but not time or Capello's aloofness. The Italian has been tiptoeing across an ice sheet of supporter angst and player disaffection since England were hammered by Germany in Bloemfontein and has landed himself with another diplomatic problem by stating the obvious on TV rather than allowing Beckham his choreographed exit.

After the debacle at the World Cup plenty of England players expected to feel the cold steel of Capello's blade but it was a non-combatant who went first: "Coach Beckham", as he was known after joining the England back-room staff in South Africa, recovering from a serious achilles injury and now doomed never to break Peter Shilton's England record of 125 appearances.

On a night when a cull of underachievers was demanded by many England fans in a stunningly large 72,000 Wembley crowd, Capello erased the last international ambitions of the leader of the so-called golden generation, who emerged in the Noughties with huge reputations and even bigger pay packets. Some, such as Steven Gerrard, the new captain, who scored both England goals against Hungary, survive, but at 35 Beckham has been consigned to a shadowland of thwarted promise.

Capello is under immense pressure to discard a generation of players who have fallen short for the past decade and the truth is that it was easy to start with one who is burdened with ageing and increasingly injury-prone legs. In last night's game Capello used the young flyers Theo Walcott, Adam Johnson and Ashley Young in wide positions. There is no room now for Beckham's intelligent but ponderous dead-ball prowess.

Twelve years after he scored his first England goal, against Colombia at the 1998 World Cup in France, Beckham has been purged in absentia. An achilles problem, sustained in a game for Milan in March, may seem an appropriate weakness for a player who turned himself into a god of the new football celebocracy. Beckham overcame countless obstacles before the clock defeated him: McClaren's faintly showy attempt four years ago to prove England could live without their product-shifting idol, Capello's anger when the two were yoked at Real Madrid and Beckham announced he would be joining LA Galaxy, and finally the hostility of those who accused him of prolonging his England career to protect the Beckham brand.

Some felt he had no business surpassing Bobby Moore to become England's most capped outfield player. Beckham ramped up his total with cameos in friendlies. This classically English drama has no bearing on the team's prospects of qualifying for Euro 2012. Beckham was a bit-part player by the end and has slowed in his movements to a regal stroll. But the symbolic importance is unmistakable. The former captain had waged war on the most formidable opponent: time itself, and was intent on being remembered as the most ubiquitous England player in history.

All this disguised the reality that his international career was one of badly timed injuries and blow-outs. Sent off in his first World Cup, 12 years ago, he had barely recovered from a broken metatarsal in 2002 and was a ghostly presence at Euro 2004. In 2006 he left the podium in tears after resigning the captaincy in the wake of England's quarter-final defeat. He constructed around himself a beguiling myth: he was the new Moore for the commercial age. Much of it was sincere. In other aspects it reflected his awareness that the England crest boosted his corporate profile.

Capello's clumsy announcement will be demotivating. At 35 an achilles injury is particularly hard to overcome. Beckham trained diligently in South Africa to extend his England reign. Now all he can look forward to is run-outs for LA Galaxy. Obsolescence claims him, as it does all footballers: even those accustomed to writing their own narratives.

"Too old" said Capello. And Beckham heard it on TV: the window for his life.

August 11, 2010

Every little helps

Posted by Jo Carter on 11/08/2010

With the FA still searching for a new chairman, the man responsible for Tesco's success has been lined up as Lord Triesman's replacement, according to Charles Sale in The Daily Mail.

Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy is the heavyweight name being promoted inside and outside the FA as the preferred choice to be the next chairman of English football's ruling body.

Support for Leahy has grown since he announced he would step down as Tesco chief executive in March, which fits the FA timetable of appointing a permanent chairman after the 2018 World Cup vote in December.

Leahy would also suit the Government, who want a properly independent FA chairman rather than someone from inside the football family.

The FA are in the process of abolishing the statute requiring their leader to have been free of football ties for 12 months.

But Leahy, who first watched Everton in 1962, has plenty of football knowledge gained through his Goodison attachment as well as Tesco's FA sponsorship and his England 2018 advisory role.

The void at the top of the FA is all too clear and reluctant caretaker chairman Roger Burden announced during his speech before the Community Shield that it would be the last time he was heard at Wembley.

Beleaguered Club England and Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards, under increasing pressure to step down from one of those roles, is speaking for the FA before tonight's England match.

Continue reading "Every little helps"

August 10, 2010

The management merry-go-round

Posted by Alex Livie on 10/08/2010

Aston Villa are looking for a new manager and you get the impression the papers are not quite clear who is in the frame to succeed Martin O’Neill.

The Sun says: ‘O’Neill quits, now Villa look to [Slaven] Bilic and US boss [Bob Bradley]’

The Daily Star screams: ‘Villa want [David] Moyes’

The Daily Telegraph claims: ‘Aston Villa target Mark Hughes’

The season has not even started and the management merry-go-round is in full swing.

Zamora debut speaks volumes

England tackle Hungary in a friendly on Wednesday and there are a few new faces in the squad. Bobby Zamora, at 29, is one of them and the Daily Telegraph’s Kevin Garside feels handing a debut to a 29-year-old is a worry.

The finest footballers in the country today are more likely to be foreign than English, a feature that has driven the technique and intensity of club football higher than it is with England. Therefore when Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard step out for their country they are in effect stepping down a level because the spread of talent is thinner.

Emile Heskey could barely get a game for Aston Villa last season yet he went to South Africa as England’s first choice partner for Rooney. On Wednesday Bobby Zamora, of Fulham, is expected to make his debut at 29, which makes Wenger’s argument forcibly. If Zamora is good enough now, he was good enough five years ago. He hasn’t changed that much. Circumstances have.

The reduced talent pool is compounded by a wounded coach. Capello is clearly embarrassed by his own failings as much as the team’s. He was shocked by the South African experience, unnerved at having his certainties shredded.

Capello’s pride is hurt. He did not expect to have to prove himself all over again. Not many on his salary do. But that is his lot. Against Hungary on Wednesday Capello is on trial as much as his players.

Cook needs to get the message

Alastair Cook has been given support by England captain Andrew Strauss, but former skipper Nasser Hussain has written in his column in the Daily Mail that the selectors should make it clear to the struggling opener that his place in the team is hanging by a thread.

If I were an England selector I would now say to Alastair Cook, 'You have two more games to prove that you should still be our man to open the batting in Australia'.

Cook is totally out of sorts and there must be a temptation for the selectors to leave him out of the third Test against Pakistan at the Brit Oval next week.

It is a temptation I think they will resist, not least because Ian Bell is injured and not available for the last two Tests. I would resist it too and stick with Cook, but with him understanding that he is playing for his immediate future.

If Bell was fit there would be a strong case for bringing him in at No 3 and asking Jonathan Trott to open the batting with Andrew Strauss.

The pair of them looked really composed and good alongside each other yesterday and there's no reason why the Warwickshire man could not open as well as play at No 3.

Yes, I know there are in-form opening options in Michael Carberry and Adam Lyth whom England could bring in but I am not sure I would go down that road at this stage, not least because I am a firm believer in giving someone an extended, proper opportunity. Especially when that player has shown himself to be such an excellent performer at Test level, as Cook has.
But the fact that he has a very good record, is mentally strong, has a good temperament and is seen as a future England captain can only count for so much when Cook is so clearly out of form.
The one mitigating factor in Cook's poor form is that both Tests so far against Pakistan have been played in bowler-friendly conditions. It has not been easy for any batsman in this series and that has to be taken into account.

That's why the next two games, on good pitches at The Oval and Lord's against a good Pakistan attack, will be a much better indicator of whether Cook, who has a moderate record against Australia, should be in the Ashes squad. I am not sure sending him back to Essex to try to score county runs would really prove anything.

August 9, 2010

Shearer sounds note of caution on Wilshere

Posted by Josh Williams on 09/08/2010

Alan Shearer, writing in the Sun, has sounded a note of caution after Fabio Capello included youngsters Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs in his England squad to face Hungary. Shearer does not believe that these precocious talents currently possess sufficient experience to be of any great benefit to England.

It was refreshing to see some young talent brought in by Fabio Capello - but I wonder how much sustained impact they will have on the England team.

Continue reading "Shearer sounds note of caution on Wilshere"

August 8, 2010

Premier League will wash away World Cup gloom

Posted by Josh Williams on 08/08/2010

Paul Wilson, writing in the Observer, says that the new season in the Premier League has a job on its hands to lift the cloud hanging above English football after the disastrous World Cup campaign that resulted in a second-round exit.

They say World Cups better or worse are swiftly forgotten once the tribalism of the domestic season returns, and the Premier League had better hope it turns out to be true. The temptation at the moment is to greet every golden touch from Frank Lampard with a chortle at his iPod meltdown, or to asterisk anything Wayne Rooney manages with a footnote to the effect that he never performed like that in South Africa.

Continue reading "Premier League will wash away World Cup gloom"

August 7, 2010

Pakistan debacle not making good viewing

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 07/08/2010

Simon Hughes, like everybody else on Friday, could not help having a chuckle at the state of Pakistan’s batting. But on a serious note, the Telegraph columnist confesses he did not enjoy their latest Edgbaston collapse one bit...

The heaviest defeat in first-class history occurred in Pakistan. Railways made 910 for six declared and then bowled out Dera Ismail Khan for 31 and 27 to win by an innings and 851 runs in Lahore in 1964-65.

Unsurprisingly Dera never played another match, but the way Pakistan batted on the first day of the second Test at Edgbaston suggested their legacy lives on. They were strokeless and clueless. Pakistan's batsmen are proving that while you cannot win a Test match in a single session you can certainly lose one.

Once again their top six were blown away at the first sign of a moving ball. In such conditions an opening batsman's first priority must be to leave as many balls as possible, and play only when strictly necessary. Try to force the opponent to bowl where you want him to. Leaving the ball outside off stump often results in the bowler veering too straight and then you can pick up runs safely off your legs.

If a defensive shot is required, it is best to bring the bat down as late as possible to allow for the movement and ensure that any edges go down. A batsman who is 'at' the ball will always keep the slips interested. Most importantly, footwork should be decisive, quick singles should be sought and intent obvious.

Pakistan were hesitant and hapless. Imran Farhat, Salman Butt's opening partner, stood mesmerised for 24 balls before guiding Stuart Broad's angled delivery to slip. He made a belated attempt to withdraw the bat, which only underlined the fact that he should have left it in the first place.

Butt, the captain, occasionally prodded forward without conviction, and wafted lazily at a widish ball from Steve Finn, his front foot in the air, his weight leaning back and away from the ball. He must have a lot on his mind, not least who the selectors are going to spring on him next, but it was still loose cricket. No wonder England practise their slip fielding with such feverish anticipation.

Shoaib Malik, who has some useful experience of English pitches, tried to play the ball late but he gave the bowler, James Anderson, a full view of his stumps as he poked tamely at his fullish outswinger. Umar Akmal at least tried to be positive, but his feet were stuck in blocks of concrete as Finn fired a delivery into his pads and he departed lbw.

Azhar Ali, stuck on nought for 32 balls looked utterly hypnotised until Broad put him out of his misery with an inswinger. His attempt to counter it was stiff and ungainly.

The statistics make worrying reading for Pakistan's batting coach. In their three innings in this series they have been 47 for six, 41 for six and now 36 for six. That is a combined total of 124-18 for what is deemed to be the cream of Pakistan's batting. How can a country that once boasted some of the leading Test run-makers in world cricket be so bad?

Pakistan's problems mirror England's some years ago. The greats of the 1980s such as Javed Miandad and Zaheer Abbas were reared on a high standard of domestic cricket first at school, then at first-class level. The teams may have had inauspicious names (Railways, Habib Bank, Pakistan Airlines) but the quality was exceptionally good.

Batsmen set their stall to bat all day, and batting records – on admittedly some of the flattest pitches on the planet – were often broken. Pakistan touring teams of the 1980s always arrived here with players whom you had never heard, but who clearly had an insatiable desire to make runs (and a great reluctance to field.)

But Pakistan domestic cricket is in serious decline. Major schools have lost interest in the game. The number of first-class teams has almost doubled and includes even more dubious sounding teams such as Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited. I am not making this up.

With the international players invariably absent on some junket or other, there is not enough quality to go round. Few have played county cricket, and, on this showing, are ever likely to. Well as England bowled, seeing them overwhelm such novices did not make enjoyable watching.

August 6, 2010

Ferry Cross the Yangtze

Posted by Jo Carter on 06/08/2010

As we wait with bated breath for the outcome of the Liverpool takeover saga, The Daily Mail's Des Kelly hits out at Liverpool fans questioning the morality of the Chinese involved in a potential takeover bid.

It’s too late to moralise over human rights abuses just because China wants to buy a Premier League football club.

It’s too late to start whining about the implications of taking cash from the Chinese Government just because some men who kick a ball about might find they have unsavoury new paymasters.

Take a look at your clothes, or at the sports shoes you are wearing. The chances are they will say ‘Made In China’ on them, just like the label on your refrigerator, on the back of your television or on half of your child’s toy collection.

China is the largest exporter in the world - and their largest export is money. We can pick and choose when their cash and trade might be acceptable, but it would be preposterously naive.

When America teetered on the brink of financial collapse, it was Chinese money that dragged the economy back from the precipice.

Our own Chancellor George Osborne said the UK’s recovery is reliant on China’s trade and investment when he went cap in hand to Beijing just eight weeks ago.

So what is he going to do now, express concern that Liverpool might pass into Chinese ownership? Don’t be ridiculous.

China already owns a considerable chunk of Canary Wharf in east London, the heart of the nation’s financial empire. So it’s meaningless to complain Britain is selling its soul. That was traded a while back, with repayment conditions.

Anyone who tries to pretend football is different and exempt from the rules of the international market has not been paying attention over the last decade.

Oddly, some are still embarrassed by their dependence on Chinese cash, if only for public relations purposes.

The Apple iPod sitting next to me, for instance, is labelled ‘Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China’, as if the thought that the gadget had been sketched in Cupertino makes a difference to workers paid less than £1 a day to bring the design to life in Shanghai. Either way, I’ll bet you bought one. Does that make you a hypocrite? Probably.
Our Premier League actively sells itself as a global product. The fact that there remains anything English about it is merely down to a quirk of geography.

England might be where the matches are played (for the time being, at least) but conglomerates, governments and businesses from around the world increasingly control the process.

The Premier League has been happy to embrace oligarchs like Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who has links directly to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

You may think he is a private investor, just as you may think he earned those billions of his without government help.

Remember the Premier League also rolled out the red carpet at Manchester City for Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand, despite huge controversy over his involvement in human rights abuses in his homeland.

When he was sentenced on corruption charges, the Abu Dhabi United Group stepped into the void. They are the investment arm of Sheik Mansour and the royal rulers of the United Arab Emirates’ second largest federation.

If you imagine they don’t have human rights controversies in the UAE, visit a building site in Dubai or Abu Dhabi and ask the migrant workers from Pakistan for their views on the matter. Yet few complain this is ‘dirty money’.

And who do you think funded all those wonderful stadiums when Britain was waving the Union flag at the last Olympics? China is a one-party Communist state.

When you deal with China, you deal with the government somewhere along the line, end of story.

That does not excuse ongoing human rights abuses. It does not mean we should forget the horrors of Tiananmen Square.

But ethics are not something to be brought out for special occasions, like your mother’s best porcelain tea set. We either do business with China or we do not.

Twelve months ago the Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore oversaw a new TV deal that ensures live football is moved on to the Communist-run CCTV terrestrial network for maximum exposure to the 1.3bn population.

The Communist state’s TV propaganda arm will boost every club’s profile and profit. How can English football now complain China wants to spend that money on the product they have been asked to endorse?

The Premier League is merely another plaything, like a giant game of Risk, where America, China, Russia and the Arabian oil powers move their pieces around and use sport to promote their image, boost commerce and shift huge sums across international borders.

Hand-wringing about the moral consequences is futile. Yes, the Free Tibet movement might sell more T-shirts to Everton fans, but beyond that, everyone knows the Kop would happily sing Ferry Cross the Yangtze if Chinese cash helps them win the league again.

Continue reading "Ferry Cross the Yangtze"

August 5, 2010

England's rise from rabble to rousing

Posted by Jo Carter on 05/08/2010

England are now one of the strongest and most consistent teams in world cricket, but it was not so long ago that it was all falling apart at the seams. Now they have a genuine chance of winning the Ashes in Australia for the first time since 1987, and, writes Simon Hughes in The Telegraph is down to technology, attention to detail and a human element striving for perfection.

It is just over 18 months since Andy 1 and Andy 2 (that's Strauss and Flower) took over at the England helm. At the time the team were an underperforming rabble with their third captain in five months and having jettisoned the coach of two years (Peter Moores).

From the low point of a shocking innings defeat by the West Indies in Jamaica, the leadership has turned everything round. Since early February 2009, England have regained the Ashes, held the powerful South Africans to a 1-1 draw in their own country and won the World Twenty20. Their Test record has been P20 W10 D8 L2.

Much of this has been achieved through attention to detail, orchestrated by Flower. He has drawn his influences from a number of sources, notably Moneyball, the book by Michael M Lewis that reinvented how baseball players were analysed. England spend more on research and have better facilities than any other country, and are reaping the rewards.

But there is a human element too, centred around a collection of specialist coaches as astute as any in the game. Their achievements disprove the old theory that coaches are vehicles that transport you to the game. Here then are 10 reasons why England are shaping up to be the best team in the world.


A bowling machine with a difference, developed by England's former batting coach Dene Hill and David Parsons, the performance director at the England and Wales Cricket Board's national academy cricket centre at Loughborough. It features a video wall on the front on which is projected the run-up and delivery stride of any bowler in world cricket. The machine adjusts to the speed, trajectory and style of the chosen bowler, so that as his arm comes over on the screen an appropriate delivery emerges. An idea borrowed from baseball, it gives the batsman real experience of facing a particular bowler.


Flower is a great believer in varying practice methods to keep challenging the players. At Loughborough last week instead of the usual nets session, he devised a circuit with six stations –
pro-batter set to left-arm over, a bowling machine replicating Danish Kaneira's
leg-spin, a bowling machine operated by Graham Gooch moving the batsman backwards and forwards to vary the pace, and other skills relating to Test batting. Each player remained in his batting kit for a number of repetitions of the circuit to prepare them for the rhythm and duration of a day's play. The Loughborough indoor facility was also deliberately heated up to 30C to check on players who might be prone to cramp in hot conditions.


Flower, who utterly maximised his ability as a batsman, used to practise by hitting a golf ball with a stump after remembering that Don Bradman had done so in his youth. He advocates occasionally practising with a specially-made thin bat (about the width of a stump), or a heavy bat (Paul Collingwood sometimes uses a 4lb version, almost twice the weight of his normal bat, in the nets) as well as practising catching and throwing and even bowling with specially weighted balls.


Statistical analysis of the game has underlined the importance in Test cricket of runs from the lower order (against tiring bowlers using an old ball). It can make all the difference in the match. The bowlers are urged to take their batting seriously and are offered the same sophisticated support as their betters. They are encouraged to challenge and stretch themselves. This materialised in the way No 11 Steven Finn managed to hold out for 50 balls on Saturday at Trent Bridge – without once giving in to temptation – to see Matt Prior all the way from a score of 63 to a self-enhancing and team-strengthening century.


The new bowling coach, David Saker, who was a bustling outswing bowler from Victoria, has a different approach to previous incumbents. He is principally a strategist rather than a technician. He believes in better utilising what you have got rather than tinkering with biomechanics. He advocates thinking on your feet and outsmarting the batsman rather than worrying too much about arm and wrist positions. This is invaluable to a group of highly skilled but predominantly young bowlers to fast-track them to bowling maturity. His influence was particularly evident in James Anderson's performance at Trent Bridge. He looked relaxed and rarely strained for the 'magic' delivery, pitching leg and hitting off. Instead he coasted to the wicket and settled for systematically working a batsman over. Saker has also largely abandoned using coloured cones for bowlers to aim at in practice, preferring life-size dummies so the bowler can aim, say, his bouncer accurately at the head.


It sounds basic, but many fast bowlers are so consumed by their bowling that they forget to polish the ball. England have developed a more strenuous routine centred around Paul Collingwood. They have also identified the men who have the least sweaty hands in hot conditions. The ball must be kept scrupulously dry to maximise reverse swing in such conditions so only these players handle the ball as it is relayed back to the bowler.


The fielding coach, Richard Halsall, has introduced a number of new tools for catching practice, including a special rubber ramp off which the ball, fired from a cut-down bowling machine, flies at unpredictable angles. He also has an assistant to film every fielder individually during a match to analyse their anticipation, movement and agility. But for a frustrating inability to throw down the stumps, England's fielding has been generally brilliant.


One of the disadvantages of Andrew Flintoff's presence in the side was that he fielded at second slip when he was not bowling, so someone had to stand in for him when he was. Now England have a settled slip formation, with Strauss at first, Graeme Swann at second, Collingwood at third and Kevin Pietersen in the gully. They look totally relaxed together. It is no coincidence that England's slips now snaffle everything.


You cannot create the adrenalin of a match situation in practice. But you can place a player under duress to explore their powers of concentration. England batsmen are often expected to run two, or three, or sometimes even 10 runs between practice deliveries, taking them to the edge of exertion, after which they still have to respond to the ball. Or they are forced to bat while being bombarded with noise.


The ECB research people have developed Trackman, a piece of kit which monitors a spinner's revolutions on the ball. It has revealed that Graeme Swann spins the ball more than any other finger spinner in the game. Also, every county is now equipped with a Merlin bowling machine, which can replicate any spinner in world cricket.

Continue reading "England's rise from rabble to rousing"

August 4, 2010

Great expectations could ruin 2012 Games

Posted by Josh Williams on 04/08/2010

Martin Lipton, writing in the Mirror, has urged Britons to show caution in the attitude they show towards Olympic stars ahead of the 2012 Games in London. Lipton believes that Great Britain's record medal tally of 19 at the European Championships will not necessarily translate into Olympic success.

OK, so that's sorted then. On the back of the European Championships, the GB team will sweep the board in track and field at London 2012.

But while Jessica Ennis and Phillips Idowu will be favourites, we need to get our targets properly set.

Continue reading "Great expectations could ruin 2012 Games"

August 3, 2010

England can send out Ashes warning

Posted by Alex Livie on 03/08/2010

England head into the second Test with Pakistan on Friday and Ian Botham, writing in the Daily Mirror, feels the scene is set for Andrew Strauss and co to hammer out a warning to Ricky Ponting’s Australia.

England have put the first of four messages in a bottle and sent it on its way Down Under.

They were so clinical in Nottingham, I can't see anything other than a 4-0 win for England in this series and the only thing that could save Pakistan is bad weather.

England need to be as ruthless as they were in this match through the rest of the summer.

They have said their aim is to be consistent and I see no reason why they can't give Pakistan a thorough going over in the next three Tests so they are primed and ready for the Ashes in Australia.

This series is important in itself and there is no doubt the players are focused, but they also know that what they do here will send the right messages down to those shores 12,000 miles away.

Let's not forget that Pakistan drew 1-1 with Australia a few weeks ago - and what does that Headingley defeat now say about the Aussies? In truth, it is hard to gauge just how good this England side is because the teams they have played recently have not tested them to the full.

Bangladesh were plucky but nowhere near England's standard, while Pakistan's youngsters have fallen at the first hurdle and will struggle to clamber over the next three even with Mohammad Yousuf in their ranks.

What we can say is that England needed to win in style at Trent Bridge and they certainly did that. To win by 354 runs is a job well done in any language, the only question is can they sustain it and I believe they will.

A tough task for Butt

Let’s face it, Pakistan were hammered by England at Trent Bridge – with their batting shockingly inept. Captain Salman Butt faces a tough task and Nick Hoult in the Daily Telegraph explains why it is so hard for him.

The latest example of the permanent chaos surrounding Pakistani cricket was played out in a squash court at Trent Bridge on Sunday evening.

There Salman Butt, the current Pakistan captain, pleaded with the selectors to stick with youth and not recall old heads to the side. Within a few hours Mohammad Yousuf, a 35-year-old former captain and polarising figure within the dressing room, had been added to the squad and Butt, 10 years Yousuf’s junior, became one in a long line of Pakistani cricketers to be humiliated in the job.

If the life stories of every Pakistan Test captain, and there have been 27 of them, were published in a book the plot would defy credibility and lack any real star quality. In only two weeks Butt has supplied a couple of juicy paragraphs and if his predecessors are anything to go by, he will contribute much more if he manages to last in a world where captains need the survival skills of an endangered species.

August 2, 2010

Time to get real about European athletics success

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 02/08/2010

Reality. Something that is rarely seen in a British newspaper, particularly when it comes to British sporting success. But reality is what Neil Wilson delivers in the Daily Mail in the aftermath of the European Atheltics Championships, and it is an attitude that will hopefully be mirrored by our athletes ahead of London 2012...

While Jessica Ennis talked to the media at Britain’s team hotel about her gold medal, loud words could be heard across the lobby. Charles van Commenee, the team’s Dutch chief coach, was giving the women’s sprint relay team the mother and father of a rollicking for failing to qualify for the final.

The texts, tweets and golden headlines that rained down on Britain’s athletics team after their most successful European Championships since 1998 were moments to savour. It was not, though, a time for those who rose to the occasion to get ahead of themselves, their hard-headed coaches made clear, nor a time to think the work was done.

The danger of the plaudits is that the athletes are exposed to a cold shower of reality at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in 12 months. These championships are not the Olympic Games. Their relationship to the events that will take place in London in 2012 is about as distant as a first cousin once removed. It is a rare athlete among Europe’s winners who can say they leave today wearing the mantle of Olympic favourite. Phillips Idowu and Jessica Ennis, yes.

It was important to Idowu that he was able to confirm himself as the supreme championship performer. It was important to Ennis that the aura that surrounds the world No 1 heptathlete was reclaimed from the American Hyleas Fountain before the winter break. Mo Farah, the first double gold medallist at 5,000metres and 10,000m since 1990, and Dai Greene, the 400m hurdles champion, are close to being contenders, too.

But one devastating statistic says it all about these European Championships. Greene is the only man from any country on the track here whose performance ranks him in the world’s top six this year — and at sixth. Farah thinks he is close to being there. ‘I was sixth and seventh in the last two world championships. Last lap in the last worlds was 57sec; I ran 55 last night. I have that belief now, I have that confidence,’ he said.

Greene accepts there is more to be done to challenge the Americans. ‘I have to be under 48 seconds to win a medal at worlds or the Olympics — I hope to be there before this season’s out,’ he said.

And he will target the Commonwealth Games to push him through the barrier. ‘To be the best in the world I had to be the best in Europe,’ he added. ‘It was one of the boxes I had to tick. Naturally now, if I keep putting in solid work, I will progress.’

The four gold medallists illustrate the commitment needed from others in the team. Idowu and Greene changed coaches and moved homes to other cities. Farah spends weeks of every year parted from his wife and daughter in the ‘middle of nowhere’ in Kenya, sharing a room in a hut with African runners and eating meals cooked on an open fire.

‘You have to train with the best, everything focused,’ said Farah. ‘There’ll be times when you think it’s too hard but you have to be strong mentally. You can’t live a normal life if you want to be the best in the world. They (the Africans) are beatable. You’ve just got to be stronger mentally, not scared. Just dig, dig and dig it will come.’

The professional coaches yesterday were encouraged more than euphoric about the week’s results. Greene’s coach, Malcolm Arnold, simply said ‘well done’. ‘High praise coming from him,’ said Greene, laughing. The medal count confirms only that the Brits are rising from the depths they reached in 2006 at these championships when they did not win one individual gold. It takes the pressure off UK Athletics from their paymasters at UK Sport because the team have won more medals than their top target of 15.

But Britain won 16 medals in 1998 in Budapest, nine of them gold, and a year later at the world championships only Colin Jackson won gold. Van Commenee has said he wants eight medals in London, one gold. What happened this week will increase his confidence that the target can be achieved, but it will not encourage him to be bolder in his predictions.

August 1, 2010

Behind-the-scenes with Jessica Ennis

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 01/08/2010

Jessica Ennis is undisputedly the best heptathlete in the world after she added European gold to World Championships gold on Saturday. Here, the Independent’s Emily Dugan provides an insight into the world of a girl who carries the hopes of a nation at London 2012...

At just after 8pm last night, Jessica Ennis hurtled across the finish line, strides ahead of her competitors. The 800-metre race in the warm Barcelona evening was her final event in the European Athletic Championships – and secured the heptathlete both the gold medal and a championship record. Ennis consistently led the scoreboard over the seven events, beating Olympic champion Nataliya Dobrynska by 45 points, with a score of 6,823.

Speaking with typical humility after the race, she said: "It's been nerve-wracking having all the athletes on my heels. It feels so good to win again. I had to raise my game to come out on top, I'm so proud to come out on top again. Before the 800m I just wanted to win and I have! I'm so made up."

The 24-year-old, who has been captaining the Great Britain squad in Barcelona, is – despite some strong rivals – the best female heptathlete in the world. Not that you would know it to talk to her. "I still go out there nervous and worried. I don't go out there thinking I've got it in the bag because that's never the case," she said, speaking at Newcastle stadium ahead of the championships.

Even before she had racked up the thousands of points that were behind her on the scoreboard as she went into the final event last night, the bookmakers had been making her the favourite for gold – but that did not stop her keeping expectations low. "Well, it'd be good to get a medal, but I don't want to say...," she hedged.

It would be understandable if Ennis was cocky: she has taken home gold medals two years running – first in the 2009 World Championships for the heptathlon and then in the 2010 World Indoor Championships for the pentathlon. She has also long been tipped as a golden girl for London's Olympic Games in 2012 – now less than two years away. But bragging just isn't Ennis's style.

"I hate it when people are like, 'Oh, I'm so brilliant at this'," she said, matter-of-factly. "I do understand that sometimes in athletics you have to big yourself up – especially the sprinters, where it's all about macho and being the best – but, for me, it's about being realistic."

Born in Sheffield, where she still lives with her boyfriend, she remains close to her mother, a social worker from Derbyshire, and her father, a painter and decorator originally from Jamaica.
Ennis's parents first introduced her and her sister, Carmel, to athletics in the hope that it might stop them getting bored in the summer holidays.

"They took me and Carmel down to this athletics summer camp to keep us entertained and tire us out. I'd be running round doing everything, and she'd be sat down in the corner just chatting and would say, 'I can't be bothered to run'. I think she preferred the social aspect. I don't think they had any idea I'd turn out to be any good."

And she didn't just turn out "good". Despite being no more than 5ft 5in tall, she has jumped higher than any British woman before her (1.95 metres). For most people, accolades of that magnitude could only result in a similarly sized ego, but the closest she comes to gloating is a fervent peek at her silverware. "I always have a sneaky look at my gold medal every now and again because it was such a big moment for me." But before anyone could accuse her of bragging, she added: "I don't really put any of my medals and stuff up, though. They're in a drawer. I've got quite a few at my parents' house, which my dad displays everywhere, and I'm just like, 'Take them down'."

With all that modesty, when she does brush against the showbiz world that comes from being one of Britain's best-known sportswomen, she finds it just as nerve-racking as stepping onto the track. "When I compete, I'm really nervous and my heart is pounding. But then doing other things, like presenting awards at the Mobos, that was just so nerve-racking, too. Having to walk out on that stage with massive heels on and read off an autocue, I was thinking, 'Oh God, what if I say something wrong or fall over', and all those things that you panic about. But it was great fun."

Despite admitting to being star-struck by all the big names backstage, she acknowledges that some were starry-eyed at seeing her. "Lamar came up and said, 'I watched you – well done', and I thought, that's really weird. And then JLS came up to me and said, 'You did really well', and one of them said, 'My mum loves you. Come and meet my mum', and I just thought, this is all really, really odd."

The contrast between Ennis and some of her more posturing contemporaries in athletics is stark. In the gym at Newcastle stadium, she shifted from one baggy-tracksuited leg to the other while her picture was taken. "I'm not a big fan of getting photos done," she admitted. In training next to her was the triple jumper Phillips Idowu, dressed head to toe in shiny Lycra and stretching flamboyantly while music pumped into his ears from oversized headphones.

Ennis's normalcy came in handy in 2008 when she was ruled out of the Beijing Olympics at the last minute because of a fracture to her right ankle. The disappointment and pressure to recover from an injury that could have put her out of the sport for ever was immense, but Ennis approached the task with a typical lack of fuss. "It was a real blow because it was an Olympic year ... I watched loads of DVDs and my boyfriend bought me Smallville, so I watched season one to seven. That kept me entertained."

But having recovered from the injury, she inevitably feels even more pressure to succeed when the Games come to London in two years' time. "I hoped Beijing would be my first opportunity to experience the Olympics and be a part of it, so it makes it so much more important this time round. I really want to be ready for it and in great shape. Because I missed out on that opportunity two years ago, it definitely makes it more important for me personally."

But Ennis wouldn't be Ennis if she didn't have a level-headed way of coping. "I'm not letting it get to me. There's a lot going on between now and then. There's more training and things I want to achieve, so that keeps me distracted for now. Though I do think about 2012, I try not to worry about it – it's something that I want to enjoy and make the most of, not something I'm dreading."

When her car arrived for the three-hour drive back to Sheffield, one of the public relations team offered her a bottle of water for the journey. "Er, no thanks, I'll only need a pee if I do that," she confessed, adding: "I don't drink all that much actually, but I probably shouldn't admit that should I?"