Paper Round
September 30, 2010

Ryder Cup is not a superpower challenge

Posted by Alex Livie on 30/09/2010

The tension is building as the Ryder Cup is now less than a day away from getting underway at Celtic Manor. It’s a huge occasion, massive, but the Telegraph’s Brian Moore has moved to play party pooper by attempting to rein the media, of which he is now one.

After Europe thumped the US in the 2006 Ryder Cup, captain Ian Woosnam publicly slated the BBC for not awarding his men the Sports Personality Team of the Year award, which went to St Helens rugby league club.

Perhaps he should have noted that, first, it was a vote by the fans that determined that award, and second, Europe that year had a far better team, were expected to win and did so; you should not get awards for doing the expected.

Behind Woosnam's displeasure lay the assumption that the Ryder Cup was such a special event that the winners, provided it is Europe, automatically deserve the accolade. That supposition appears to have evolved along with the purposeful portrayal of the tournament as something akin to war.

The structure of the Ryder Cup creates a number of interesting variables. Chief among these is that the US compete as a country outside their own borders, which is not the case in their three major sports. It is interesting to see how essentially solo performers react when asked to be part of a team. Moreover, the way in which the pairings and singles matches ebb and flow during the four days is fascinating, but let's get one thing straight – this is a golf competition, not some form of superpower challenge with attendant political ramifications.

This 2010 contest has the potential to be memorable, but for the wrong reasons. The choice of Tiger Woods in the US team has given some writers what they wanted: another chance to try to needle Woods into giving an undiplomatic reaction to a plethora of regurgitated and irrelevant questions about his personal life, many of which have the most tenuous connections to golf.

In a press conference on Tuesday one reporter showed not a shred of respect for Woods when he sneeringly put the following question: "You don't win majors any more, you don't win regular tournaments, you're about to be deposed as world No 1… is the Ryder Cup now your most important thing now you're almost an ordinary golfer?"

When Woods was faced with this impertinence he should have left the conference as no sportsman should have to put up with insulting behaviour. He stayed and tried to laugh it off because he knew that had he departed he would have been pilloried.

Had something similar been put to Sir Alex Ferguson about Manchester United the questioner would have got the answer he deserved. Had anyone mockingly asked me something similar in my playing days he would have got a righteous slap.

Nobody is asking for sycophantic toadying, but Woods is entitled to expect the basic courtesy that should be given to any interviewee; it is common decency.

Another reporter tried to generate sensation by asking what reaction Woods had seen from the US team's wives given that they play such a large part in the Ryder Cup. A large part; are they now involved in the planning and playing? And there were we just thinking they dressed smartly and cheered on their men.

There is sufficient rivalry, both on a team and a personal level, without the need to manufacture a personal spat between Woods and Rory McIlroy. The young Ulsterman's original comment, that he would not mind playing against Woods, came after Woods had shot 18 over par at Bridgestone.

When facing the media this week McIlroy was again peppered with questions about Woods and stressed the context of his comments. When pressed, McIlroy said nothing that could justify the claim made by the media that he had continued to stoke the supposed rivalry. What this should make plain to McIlroy is that no matter how neutral he thinks he is being, anything that he says can and will be twisted to suit the ends of those pursuing their own agenda.

September 29, 2010

Europe 1 USA 0

Posted by Jo Carter on 29/09/2010

Two days to go until the Ryder Cup, and Europe have the psychological edge after winning the battle of the catwalk, writes Hannah Betts in The Telegraph.

Camel tones and a Seventies flare may be über-fashionable for the female of the species, however, on a pack of American sportsmen — as we’re talking golf, one uses the term loosely — the effect is stomach-churning.

The arrival of the US team at the Ryder Cup this week resembled an invasion of science teachers, lost in time and space after an experiment went wrong back in 1977. Boxy jackets, Travolta trousers and – please God, no — are those slip-on shoes?

Small wonder that several team members chose to don dark glasses. The kit for the 1999 tournament was so heinous that Tiger Woods admitted to incinerating his outfit in its wake. This year, he may be tempted to set light to it before.

The team-photo garb the players wore is no less perturbing. Mud brown trousers accompany queasy cream pullovers boasting a sub-Vivienne Westwood cup insignia, offset by blue shirt and grey baseball cap. The effect is at once infantilising and profoundly unflattering to the golfing physique.

Team US will be on course in lurid terracotta tank tops (shriek!) with baby blue shirts and kiddie caps.

The responsibility for these most unstylish of style choices lies with Lisa Pavin, wife of US captain Corey. La Pavin claims to have been aiming at a “retro-inspired, vintage look”. And how. Still, at least her efforts raise the game of the Team Europe attire — bland it may be, but bland wins hands down over blurgh.

Continue reading "Europe 1 USA 0"

September 28, 2010

Almunia not to blame for Arsenal's woes

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 28/09/2010

The general consensus in England right now is that Manuel Almunia is an outfield player pretending to be a goalkeeper, a man who will inevitably cost Arsenal the Premier League title. Gunners legend Ian Wright, writing for the Sun, believes the biggest man to blame is not the Spaniard though, insisting Arsene Wenger must take his share of the critics...

You cannot blame Manuel Almunia for Arsenal's shock defeat to West Brom. Just like you will not be able to point the finger at his understudy Lukasz Fabianski if he costs the Gunners once more in Belgrade tonight.

That's because, ultimately, there is one man who must carry the can for the current goalkeeping crisis at my old club. And that is Arsene Wenger.

The Arsenal boss knows better than anybody the standard of his keepers. He has had numerous chances to strengthen that department in the last couple of seasons but refused to take them. Now his unwillingness to invest in a world-class stopper has come back to bite him and his team's bid for much-needed silverware.

Especially on Saturday. Almunia has come in for a lot of flak for his performance in his side's 3-2 home loss to the Baggies - and rightly so. The Spaniard may have saved Chris Brunt's first-half penalty after he brought him down but were it not for his two second-half howlers then Roberto di Matteo's well-drilled underdogs would not have left the Emirates with all three points.
He and any top class keeper should have easily stopped Gonzalo Jara's near-post shot that put Albion 2-0 up on 52 minutes. And he should not have gone walkabout in his area to gift Jerome Thomas the visitors' third with 17 minutes remaining.

Poor old Manny is having a hard time at the moment but it is not all his fault. Goalkeeping is a cut-throat business - just ask Robert Green - and keepers need to be kept on their toes. They're at their best when being pushed for the jersey.

Almunia showed that when he was vying with his predecessor Jens Lehmann. Whenever he was called on, he showed what a good keeper he was. Lehmann left for Stuttgart in June 2008 and, since then, Almunia has had no one to seriously challenge him. He has been in the comfort zone for 2½ years, knowing however he performs he will start the next game - unless, of course, it's the Carling Cup.

That is not healthy for any player at any club. And a club like the Gunners needs competition in every position. When I was at Arsenal, I remember David Seaman being pushed by young Austrian keeper Alex Manninger. Alex kept Dave on his toes and did ever so well when he had to stand in for him. We knew Dave was our No 1 but, if he was ever out, we could rely on Alex. Arsenal don't have that now.

Almunia is a worry and, if he is out, there is an even bigger concern. Clubs like Arsenal need what is known as a 'top-four' keeper. Chelsea have one in Petr Cech, Manchester United have Edwin van der Sar, Liverpool have Pepe Reina and Manchester City have either Joe Hart or Shay Given.

Is Almunia in that class? In my opinion, no. If he was good enough, surely he would have been capped by his country. I am not convinced and I don't think Wenger is. Why else was he linked with other keepers, including Mark Schwarzer, this summer?

Almunia must know his boss was looking to bring in a new face and that would have unsettled him further. Wenger claims Almunia has an elbow injury and is out of tonight's Champions League clash in Belgrade. Fabianski will replace him. But the Spaniard does not need pushing out of the team - he needs pushing for his place.

Wenger must sign a keeper in January or it is likely to be another trophyless season.

September 27, 2010

Toothless Arsenal lack steel

Posted by Josh Williams on 27/09/2010

The knives are out for Arsenal in the press this morning after they sank to an embarrassing 3-2 home defeat against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. Steven Howard, writing in the Sun, is particularly scathing in his assessment:

Flat-track bullies, it would seem. But no muscle, no machismo, no balls when the going gets tough.

Continue reading "Toothless Arsenal lack steel"

September 26, 2010

They told me I was dead - Gazza

Posted by Josh Williams on 26/09/2010

A candid interview with Paul Gascoigne in the News of the World sees the former England star admit he cheated death in a car crash:

"It was a bad time for me," he adds. "I'd been sober for six months, then I went to watch an England game and 15 minutes later I'm in a car crash.

"The girl was driving and the car went out of control and hit a wall. All I can remember is the car hitting the wall.

"They said I had died in the ambulance. I am lucky to be alive."

Continue reading "They told me I was dead - Gazza"

September 25, 2010

Delhi perspective

Posted by Jo Carter on 25/09/2010

Fears over a boycott by nations at the Commonwealth Games have subsided, but concerns over the state of the athletes' village remain. But Simon Briggs in Telegraph claims cricketers experience far worse.

If you are looking for a balanced perspective on the issue of athletes' living conditions at the Commonwealth Games, don't ask an international cricketer.

"Call that a hovel?" they roar, on seeing photographs of a dusty bathroom or a dirty mattress. "When we went to Cuttack in the 1980s, they didn't even have any toilets – just a hole in the floor in the corner of your room."

Continue reading "Delhi perspective"

September 24, 2010

Tabloid tales could signal the end of sporting infidelity

Posted by Jo Carter on 24/09/2010

With a host of sporting names dominating both the front and back pages in recent months, Jim White in The Telegraph suggests that fidelity may be the only option for today's sports stars.

As he heads for South Wales next week, sending the pole dancers of Newport into a frenzy of expectation, Tiger Woods’s influence is now evident in areas of sporting life with which he was never previously associated.

Ever since his working interest in the world’s oldest profession was exposed last year, tabloid newspapers everywhere have been looking for a little Tiger-style story of their own, hoping to reveal another sporting superstar with a penchant for purchasing. Madams across the world have been alerted to the rewards of exposing their well-known athletic clients.

The first to be uncovered as a user of night time services was Tottenham’s Peter Crouch, followed soon afterwards by Wayne Rooney, whose nocturnal meanderings had been an open secret in Manchester for some time. Now another call girl has emerged in the US claiming close financial contact with Woods’ successor to the title of the world’s most famous, clean-living, sporting family man, David Beckham.

Even as Beckham’s people vigorously point up the factual gaps in the story which ran this week in the US supermarket tabloid In Touch, the prostitute concerned is making hay. Irma Nici is selling photographs of herself to enthusiasts surfing her newly launched website.

She has already trousered significantly more than the £3,200 she claims England’s 2018 World Cup bid ambassador paid for their alleged liaison. It is yet further proof that for the ultimate parasite, there is real money to be made off the back of well-known sportsmen.

The “exposure” of Beckham is a piece of opportunistic drivel, a speculative leap aboard the fast-rolling media bandwagon. But it still throws up one important question: why do so many sportsmen, young lads with the heady benefits of money, looks, vitality and renown, even consider the need to hire a hooker? They are men lusted after by at least half the women on the planet, surely they wouldn’t need to pay for it?

The answer is a simple one. In the other-worldly moral order which our top sportsmen inhabit, it has been received wisdom that if he wants to go off-piste, there is less risk involved in engaging a professional than in picking up a random groupie.

After all, that is the long-established practice in Hollywood. When buying the services of a hooker, so the wise old heads of the dressing room assured newcomers, a player is buying discretion. While any old bar pick-up might well turn out to be a gold digger, ready to sell their story quicker than they remove their underwear, the assumption with prostitutes is that the client is buying confidentiality. As a consequence the little black books of certain madams in Manchester, Liverpool and London read like a roll call of champions.

Or at least that used to be the case, before Woods muddied the water. Now that the short term benefits of subverting the unwritten rules of their profession have become so evident, previously reticent street walkers have started to sing like over-excited X Factor competitors. For the sportsman this is yet another chastening lesson in duplicity: if you can’t trust a hooker, who can you trust? If it goes on like this much longer the only plausible lifestyle choice the poor exploited souls will have is fidelity.

Continue reading "Tabloid tales could signal the end of sporting infidelity"

September 23, 2010

Pictures of the Athletes' Village in Delhi

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 23/09/2010

There seems to be an awful lot of fuss surrounding the 'filthy' living conditions of the Athletes' Village at the Commonwealth Games, but surely these track stars are just acting like divas? Surely stories of dirt-riddled bathrooms and dog-muddied beds are not true. Surely...

Photos of the Athletes' Village - courtesy of the BBC

Corrupt players must be banned

Posted by Alex Livie on 23/09/2010

With autumn on the horizon, the English cricket season is now finally over and it has been a summer of highs and lows. England have won all their series, but the game has been tarnished by the corruption revelations. And the Daily Telegraph’s Brian Moore feels those guilty of corruption must be banned.

Only a couple of months past this column discussed the questions of malfeasance in sport and the danger of a particular sport reaching a stage beyond which its credibility is so thin that it loses support and, as a result, might implode

While it took neither a genius nor Nostradamus to identify the many dangers in sport and then to predict that this would happen to one sport in the future, it is nonetheless startling that there should be an example to hand within so short a time.

It has to be fervently hoped that the unsavourary allegations and counter-allegations arising out of the tour by the Pakistan cricket team do not constitute such a juncture

However, for cricket this is an issue far more serious than was ‘Bloodgate’ for rugby or any ills that exist within football presently.

The behaviour of the officials who have commented on behalf of the Pakistan players and team has been thoroughly counter-productive.

It is a familiar tactic to try to divert attention from your own problems by attacking an accuser or anyone involved in the investigation of the misdemeanour but the first rule is usually to have some evidence, however threadbare, on which to hang any counter-accusations.

Three men holding positions of responsibility have recently availed themselves of this tactic but because of the lack of substantiating evidence or because of plain exaggeration they have made matters worse.

Pakistani High Commissioner Wajid Hasan’s ludicrous and uncorroborated claim that the three cricketers, Test captain Salman Butt and fast bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, were innocent because the video footage from the News of the World was shot after the event was sufficient to damn any further words that he uttered.

Further, his evasiveness when talking to Radio 5 Live’s Garry Richardson was so pronounced that even if his claims had substance, the manner of his delivery denuded them of any credence.

The chairman of the Pakistani Cricket Board, Ijaz Butt, has made the serious and unsupported allegation that the England team had received huge sums of money to lose last Friday’s one-day international at the Oval.

His evidence was the mere assertion that, “There is loud and clear talk in bookies’ circles that some English players have been paid enormous amounts of money to lose the match.”

On the back of this notably unattributed talk Butt has demanded an International Cricket Council investigation into the England team. Much easier to make the case against Pakistan if another team is also being investigated.

Following his appearance before the International Cricket Council in Dubai two days ago he called for the resignation of the ICC chairman Haroon Lorgat, of India, for his handling of the match-fixing investigation.

Even the incident at Lord’s where Jonathan Trott was said to have held Abdul Riaz by the throat was undermined as a vehicle for sympathy by Shahid Afridi, dubiously claiming the high moral ground by saying “we showed a big heart” by not pressing the matter with the police.

Every piece of dirt that is hurled by these representatives of Pakistan makes things worse and leaves those uttering the statements with no credibility at all, even when they make otherwise salient points.

It also removes another vestige of sympathy from those previously trying to help Pakistan by pleading the mitigating circumstances of naivety, poor education and a background of poverty and threats of violence.

Even the cries of entrapment are illegitimate because the essential trait of that practice is that it is an action by a person in authority, not a newspaper. Moreover, the tests of whether there was good reason to suspect criminal activity and whether the act was initiated or aided cannot properly be made against the reporters in question.

I have an instinctive dislike of set-ups that border on entrapment, whether they are technically such or not. Against the maxim that a person must have the propensity to sin in the first place you can set another axiom – that every man has his price.

It is possible to seduce someone in unique personal circumstances to do something that, but for those peculiarities and the temptation presented by a newspaper, he would not do ordinarily. However, this matter is not such.

The public reaction to these events has been curious but any positives probably do not come from the best of motives. The minds of many outside cricket and even some ardent fans have irredeemably been soured against any contest involving Pakistan.

The fact that the final one-day international at the Rose Bowl sold out came off the back of the Lord’s confrontation and had the hallmark of the playground huddle ready to chant ‘fight, fight, fight’.

For the authorities there are no easy answers. If found guilty, a team ban of any reasonable length could finish Pakistani cricket and who knows what allegations may be made or action taken if such a ban is made.

Nevertheless no country can be bigger than a sport and cricket has to stem the steady stream of invective and indictment because it threatens to engulf the 2011 World Cup (50-over) which is being held on the Indian subcontinent.

The $30billion (£19 million) illegal betting industry in India can easily reach Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the other two host countries.

Calls for the Indian government to allow betting on sports other than horse-racing will not work now the criminal interests are well established. In the light of previous scandals and given that it is impossible to prove a negative, how can the ICC reassure anyone that the games are not fixed?

Anything out of the ordinary will be suspect and in cricket there are scores of such variables by the nature of the game.

If this taint is not removed by rapid and firm action, which unfortunately will mean Pakistan and/or its players being banned, cricket could find the public has no faith in nearly half of its Test teams; that will be a tipping point.

September 22, 2010

Pakistan's real crime

Posted by Josh Williams on 22/09/2010

Pakistan's real crime over recent weeks has been to place a question mark over the head of all cricketers, according to Martin Samuel in the Mail:

This is the argument for the continued indulgence of Pakistan cricket. It comes, not from a charlatan such as Ijaz Butt, the head of the Pakistan Cricket Board, or an apologist such as Wajid Shamsul Hasan, senior diplomat at the Pakistan High Commission in London.

Continue reading "Pakistan's real crime"

September 21, 2010

Remove Pakistan to save cricket's dignity

Posted by Tom Walker on 21/09/2010

Pakistan may have levelled the one-day series at 2-2 at Lord's on Monday, but the spot-fixing allegations continue to take precedence and seem to upstage any of the action on the field. Nasser Hussain tells the Daily Mail that the ICC may have no option but to remove Pakistan from the world of cricket because the game's dignity is at stake.

There may come a point sometime soon when temporarily removing Pakistan from world cricket may be the only way to preserve the game's dignity.

It hasn't come quite yet, because everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

But thanks to those ludicrous comments from Ijaz Butt, the situation is so inflamed that the Pakistan Cricket Board and the ICC should meet at the end of this series and decide whether Pakistan should sit it out for a while until everyone calms down. Or at least until a proper investigation has taken place into the extent of the spot-fixing problem.

I've generally agreed with Imran Khan on this: You can't kick out a team just because of two or three bad apples.

But we're seeing now what happens when accusations are bandied around with no thought for their consequences. Would Jonathan Trott and Wahab Riaz have had their dust-up before the start of play yesterday if Butt hadn't accused England of throwing the Oval one-dayer? Possibly.

But it's no surprise that tempers are fraying at the end of a summer in which England have had to put up with so much.

If I'd been in Andrew Strauss's shoes I would not have wanted to play the final two games of this series. I know we're different sorts of characters, and I applaud Strauss's decision to play on as well as his awareness of the bigger picture.

But after everything England have gone through, and after all the help the ECB have given to the Pakistanis, I'd have been seriously tempted to say enough is enough. If you're accusing my team of deliberately losing a match, then you don't deserve to be on the same field.

I would also have been spewing if I was a Pakistan player. They finally win a game on the back of some special seam bowling from Umar Gul and their chairman comes out and says the only reason they won was because England tried to lose.

I would say, though, that the ECB have handled it very well. They have shown real dignity and stuck by their players. When the ICC came out with their statement, ECB chairman Giles Clarke was very quick to say 'it wasn't us'.

So it's a shame the ICC haven't shown the same sort of decisiveness. Why on earth would they come out with a statement saying they were looking into the Oval one-dayer without clearing England's name?

The ECB had to do the job for them a couple of hours later, and that's not acceptable.

The ICC have got to be very careful in the current climate about what they say. They've either got to reveal everything, like the News of the World did, or stay schtum. Right now is not the time for the middle ground.

The game requires firm leadership. What it does not need are loose-cannon administrators, weak governance and yet more rumours. Some difficult decisions lie in wait. I just hope cricket is strong enough to take them.

September 20, 2010

Don't bet on Torres staying at Liverpool

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 20/09/2010

Liverpool fans are waking up with an unwanted headache this morning, and they cannot even take consolation in a big alcohol-fuelled night out. The Reds are nursing the wounds of their latest defeat to Manchester United, and the Sun’s Mick Howard has put the boot in by predicting Fernando Torres is on his way...

IT hasn't been the greatest eight days for Fernando Torres. After last Sunday's scrambled goalless draw at Birmingham, Jamie Redknapp described the Liverpool striker as being variously 'diabolical, 'frustrated', 'sloppy' and 'lethargic'. And, for good measure, 'showing no appetite for the game'.

It was some coating. Then, again, we always complain that former footballers are anodyne, hiding behind generalisations and never having anything to say - especially when asked to comment on players at former clubs. And then we came to yesterday.

It was certainly no day for an out-of-touch Torres to be compared with the high-flying Dimitar Berbatov. Even more so when the Bulgarian took his season's league tally to six in five games with the first Manchester United hat-trick against Liverpool since Stan Pearson 64 years ago.
Berbatov's hat-trick included two bullet headers and a beautifully-judged overhead-kick that went in off the underside of the bar. Even worse for Torres, the first of the headers came when he was supposed to be marking his opposite number at a corner.

In fact, Torres had both arms wrapped round Berbatov as the ball came in, only to notice referee Howard Webb was watching closely. He then relaxed his grip, the Bulgarian momentarily broke free - and the ball was in the net.

Yet, by the end, you couldn't help but feel sorry for the Spaniard. United got the win they deserved with Berbatov's third six minutes from time after Liverpool had come back from 2-0 down. While the United No. 9 continued to be mobbed by team-mates, Torres stood on the centre circle, hands on hips, his right foot resting on top of a match ball that would soon be on Berbatov's mantelpiece.

Considering everything, Torres hadn't done quite as badly as some were claiming. He had won the 63rd-minute penalty that had put Liverpool back in contention and then earned the free-kick five minutes later from which Steven Gerrard squared the match.

On another day (though not the World Cup final), Howard Webb might even have sent off John O'Shea when, as the last defender, the Irishman sent Torres spinning to the ground. Needless to say, there were a fair number in the ground - including United boss Alex Ferguson - who claimed Torres had dived. Then, again, Ferguson also claimed United could have won by 10. A slight exaggeration even by his standards of hyperbole.

For Torres, at least, it was a considerable improvement on the previous weekend. And it has to get better game by game. But you can't really see him being at Liverpool beyond the summer - especially with the planned refinancing of the club's £282million debt unlikely to produce fresh funds for transfers.

Even without it, there seems little to keep Torres at Anfield. The Spaniard must have looked at the support available to Berbatov and wept. He had Ryan Giggs on one flank and Nani on the other. They, in turn, were supported by Patrice Evra and O'Shea. Then there was Wayne Rooney tucked in just behind him.

And what did Torres have? Apart from isolation? In the absence of injured Dirk Kuyt, the game but withdrawn Raul Meireles was 20 yards adrift with a four-man midfield even further back. Yes, Liverpool enjoyed a fair amount of possession at times but never looked like hurting United. Until manager Roy Hodgson finally sent on David Ngog for Maxi Rodriguez in the 62nd minute.

It was no coincidence they scored twice in the next seven minutes. In the end, even that was to no avail.

It hasn't been the best 12 months for Torres, what with a series of injuries last season and a disappointing World Cup that saw him play just 24 minutes in the semi-final and final in South Africa. Despite all that, he still managed 18 league goals last season to give him a phenomenal aggregate of 57 in 73 starts at Anfield - against 27 in 58 for Berbatov at Old Trafford.

If he looks a bit jaded, are we surprised? At just 26, he has already played 446 games, most of them as a lone striker. Compare this with Didier Drogba's 507 at 32 and Berbatov's 535 at 29.
This season Torres has just one goal in six games, though with the Liverpool team going through another of its rebuilding phases this is scarcely a surprise, either.

Hodgson admitted: "He needs more games and time in training. There is no doubt he was a lot better than last week but he is still not firing on all cylinders."

Rafa Benitez may have left Torres and Pepe Reina as a legacy at Anfield but not much more. The club now lie fifth bottom of the Premier League, their only source of comfort Everton's presence one off the foot of the table. They need goals from Torres like never before. And he requires the same level of support.

September 19, 2010

Fergie could cost United £1 million

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 19/09/2010

Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has been delighting fans up and down the country by refraining from putting his face in front of the camera on the BBC, but the Daily Mail’s Rob Draper reveals his stubbornness could cost the Red Devils £1 million...

Manchester United are ready to pay whatever fines are incurred by manager Sir Alex Ferguson in his row with the BBC. The Premier League board will meet next month to draw up the list of sanctions they plan to impose on United as a result of Ferguson's refusal to give post-match interviews to the broadcaster.

United are likely to be hit with a series of fines, with the club potentially liable for a £25,000 penalty every time he declines a post-match interview with the BBC. That could, in theory, see the fines total £950,000 over the season, but the Premier League are not expected to impose such a massive punishment.

The League have confirmed that Ferguson will face disciplinary action under new rules introduced this season, which compel clubs to ensure their employees provide interviews for Premier League broadcasters.

'The new rules were introduced to ensure that the manager and players co-operate with our broadcast partners, so anyone who doesn't is in breach of the rules and subject to the disciplinary procedure,' said a Premier League spokesman.

Ferguson has refused to comply with the new regulations since the season began and will breach them again today as United take on Liverpool in the most important match of the Premier League season so far.

He has not spoken to the BBC since they broadcast a documentary in 2004 concerning his son Jason and his links to United. Ferguson insists that the BBC should apologise for the documentary if they want him to end his boycott and he is adamant that he will not change his stance.

The issue has come to a head because of the new rules but, even though United signed up to the new TV contract, a club spokesman said: 'We support Sir Alex Ferguson's position on this.'

Chief executive David Gill agreed to the rules, along with the other 19 clubs, although sources at United point out that the issue of managers talking to broadcast outlets was not voted on at the time. United, though, do accept that, having the signed the contract which included the new rules, the club are in breach of the regulations.

With the Premier League board of chief executive Richard Scudamore, chairman Sir Dave Richards and secretary Mike Foster meeting next month to discuss how to deal with Ferguson's continued defiance, United will be preparing simply to write off the fines and pay them for Ferguson to ensure their manager's position is not compromised.

Ferguson is likely to be fined a maximum of a few thousand pounds each time he fails to talk to the BBC. If there were no punishment, the Premier League would lose all credibility.
Ferguson labelled the BBC 'arrogant beyond belief' and claimed the organisation had shown an 'inability to apologise' after the documentary highlighted the close links his son allegedly enjoyed with the club while acting as a football agent, a career he has subsequently quit.

Although BSkyB, which pays the vast majority of the money for the £1.95 billion Premier League television contract, is unaffected by Ferguson's ban, the BBC remain important partners for the Premier League, paying £170m for the Match of the Day highlights package.
While Ferguson is required to speak to BBC outlets, including Radio Five Live, at all Premier League matches, his most high-profile snubs are at weekend fixtures, such as today's against Liverpool, when he is again expected to refuse to co-operate with Match of the Day.

September 18, 2010

Racing should unite to claim the Tote

Posted by Alex Livie on 18/09/2010

The government has once again raised the prospect of selling the Tote. The Independent’s racing correspondent Chris McGrath feels this is the chance for racing to get its house in order and buy the Tote and take the fight to the bookmakers.

Fell off the back of a lorry, I suppose. Whenever the Government starts talking about selling off the Tote, as it did once again on Wednesday, you wonder anew whether there has ever been a more barefaced case of handling stolen goods. But in these austere times, it is surprising the Treasury hasn't already melted down the gates of Buckingham Palace. Certainly, it would have no compunction about hawking the Tote at a car boot sale, never mind to the vultures circling over some complex, ambiguous "open market process".

The very next day, the British Horseracing Authority announced a formal partnership, Racing United, to reiterate unanimity among the sport's various stakeholders that they are not getting "a fair return from the betting industry". This felt a bit like the scene in Groundhog Day where our man punches the insurance salesman: it might feel as though you have done something to redress your frustrations, but the bottom line is that it's still Groundhog Day. In other words, it's that time of year again, when the BHA and bookmakers stand glowering on different sides of the Levy abyss.

On Wednesday, then, racing found itself jumping up and down in a helpless tantrum, wishing that life was not so bally unfair. And on Thursday, it jumped up and down in a helpless tantrum, wishing that life was not so bally unfair.

The BHA leadership is often accused of lacking gusto, but there are limits to what they can do. The recent negotiation of fixtures directly between racecourses and the Horsemen's Group must give them intimations of irrelevance.But before they ride off into the sunset they should recognise their big cue.

If it's the last thing they do – and, if they don't succeed, it might as well be – they must get the Government to recognise the Tote as the Trojan horse by which to lift the bookmakers' siege at last.

Though trousering 13.5 per cent of the win pool – never mind up to 30 per cent in unique exotic pools, such as the Scoop6 – the Tote routinely manages parity with the prices returned by bookmakers. By cutting deductions to 10 per cent, or even less, they could presumably under-cut not just the bookmakers, but the betting exchanges as well. If racing could organise itself to pay off the Treasury, it might never again have to worry about getting a "fair return" from the betting industry. It would be the betting industry.

Punters would benefit, too. At the moment, racing has an invidious stake in bookmakers making money out of mugs. And it is infuriated by the new, smarter exchange generation. All that could change overnight. And what about the untapped, global potential for pool betting on other sports? (A betting exchange, after all, is itself just another type of pool wagering.)

It's not that simple, of course. The Government would have to prolong or protect the exclusive pool-betting licence. You would presumably have to write off Tote Direct, a vital conduit from other betting shop chains into Tote pools. The Tote's existing staff and infrastructure would bring their own burdens.

But handing over the Tote to predatory interests would replicate the original, disastrously myopic state decision to legalise betting shops in the private sector. There are businessmen close to racing's corridors of power who clearly consider the Tote a sleeping giant. And this is where you need a body like Racing United. Because if the bookmakers really are making all this dough, and won't share it properly, then the sport's stakeholders know just what to do. If you can't join them, beat them.

September 17, 2010

Freddie wasn't quite a great, but he was an Ashes hero

Posted by Josh Williams on 17/09/2010

The timing of Andrew Flintoff's retirement was crass but the all-rounder's part in Ashes folklore is undeniable - although he falls short of being described as one of the sport's greats. That's the view of Mike Selvey, writing in the Guardian:

The manner in which Andrew Flintoff chose today to acknowledge a fitness battle lost even as the tightest County Championship for years was coming to its conclusion did him little credit. What abject, thoughtless timing, a slap in the face for the game that nurtured him and set him on the road to fame and considerable fortune.

Continue reading "Freddie wasn't quite a great, but he was an Ashes hero"

September 16, 2010

Arsenal's dazzle could turn to dust

Posted by Josh Williams on 16/09/2010

Arsenal were in breathtaking form in the Champions League on Wednesday night as they blew away Braga with a 6-0 victory at the Emirates. But Dominic Fifield, wiriting in the Guardian, urges fans not to get carried away with the Gunners achievements as they still look defensively fragile.

There was something rather routine about all this pizzazz. Arsenal dazzled tonight, as they invariably do through the group stage of a competition that can feel little more than a giddy formality until the new year, with Braga gasping and the locals rejoicing in everything slick. All semblance of competition had been blown away, along with the visitors, by the interval though Arsène Wenger will not have been hoodwinked.

Continue reading "Arsenal's dazzle could turn to dust"

September 15, 2010

The day that Frank Warren was shot

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 15/09/2010

Frank Warren has become something of a marmite character in sport, loved by some, loathed by others, yet he has never done anything to deserve what happened to him 21 years ago. Reflecting on nearly 30 years in boxing, the opinionated promoters reflects with the Daily Mirror’s Oliver Holt about the night that made him want revenge...

It is what Frank Warren knows that makes him unusual. Sure, he stands out for other reasons, too. Like being Britain's best boxing promoter. Like being about to celebrate 30 years in the sport. Like rowing with Mike Tyson. But there's something else. Something more visceral. Something that still shocks.

It is not just that he knows who tried to kill him. Any old victim of attempted murder knows that. Warren is different because the man who shot him outside the Broadway Theatre in Barking 21 years ago is still out there. The gunman fled the scene. No one was ever convicted of the crime. The man is still walking free. Still unpunished. Still unforgiven.

Warren has said for many years he is "100 per cent sure" of the identity of the man who tried to end his life. He has connections. He has made inquiries. The man flits in and out of his consciousness.

He even bumped into him a few years ago."I was walking through a crowd of people when someone thrust their hand out for me to shake," Warren says. "You know sometimes when people go to shake hands with you, and you look up at their face. I looked up and it was him. I swore at him and walked past."

So there he was, the bloke who tried to kill him, trying to shake his hand, letting him know he was still around, rubbing it in that he had got away with it. Got away with it. That phrase irks Warren. He smiles icily as he sits in his office in Hertford. "In some ways, he got away with it," Warren says. "In others he didn't.

"But now he has got no respect. He has got nothing. I think he did himself a lot of damage. He has not in any way got any accolades for anything he has achieved. Nobody cares. People say that the man who shot me may be a danger to other people, but I think he is more a danger to himself.

"The way he acted on the night of the shooting, it was pathetic. He was a few feet away from me. If he had been any nearer, I would have got hold of him. And he still couldn't do the job properly. My business partner back then was a guy called John Botros, who had a double first from Oxford. He was not a physical guy and even John had the guy on the floor before he got away. The guy who shot me was incompetent. That's what he has been his whole life. He has been incompetent.

"He has always tried to challenge the system in his warped way and it has always gone t**s up for him. It's pathetic."

Warren does not like talking about the shooting. The .22 bullet from a Luger pistol missed his heart by an inch and he had to have part of a lung removed, but he says it has not affected him physically. He still plays tennis. And he insists that only rarely do the thoughts of revenge that filled his mind in the immediate aftermath of the attack flicker back into life.

"Sometimes, I feel like it didn't even happen," says Warren, 58. "It was such a long time ago. If I think about it, those feelings are still there but I don't want to think about it. It's negativity and negativity is a bad thing. I am a very positive person and I think the best of people, the best of situations.

"At the time, revenge was the first thing on my mind but I had to jump back and think 'it's not about me, it's also about my family and trying to keep things going'. Had I gone for revenge, which would have been very easy to do, then it would have been all over for me. I had young kids at the time and I wanted them to have a different life to the one I had. I was more concerned with that."

On Saturday, Warren will preside over a bumper show called The Magnificent Seven at Birmingham's LG Arena, featuring many of the country's rising stars such as Frankie Gavin and James DeGale. A couple of months from now, on December 10, Warren will celebrate 30 years in the sport. He will be feted for his achievements. And somewhere, somewhere away from the crowds and the lights, the man who tried to kill him will watch from the shadows of his life.

September 14, 2010

Rooney needs to look at Becks for inspiration

Posted by Alex Livie on 14/09/2010

Another day, another Wayne Rooney-dominated sporting section. This time he is on the back pages for the correct reasons, with Sir Alex Ferguson backing his star striker to shrug off recent controversies with a bristling display against Rangers in the Champions League. The England international is seen as the talisman of the national team, as well as Manchester United, but the Guardian’s Richard Williams feels he needs to take a leaf out of David Beckham’s book if he is to thrive in the later stages of his career.

David Beckham returned to Major League Soccer at the weekend, coming on for the last 20 minutes of LA Galaxy's 3-1 victory over Columbus Crew. This was his first appearance since rupturing his achilles tendon in March and the crowd gave him a warm welcome. Afterwards he recounted his second-half conversation with the Galaxy head coach, Bruce Arena. "He came up to me and said, 'How about 10 to 15 minutes?' I was like, 'Well, how about 20 to 25?' He kind of listened to me and we met in the middle." At 35 years of age, Goldenballs is still hungry for game time.

With all the money and honours and fame that one man could desire, his appetite is not sated. If he never pulls on an England shirt again, it will not be for the want of trying to convince Fabio Capello that his "too old" remark was premature. And only a fool would imagine that his principal motivation is to prolong the life of his brand. Beckham may be a shrewd businessman, but he loves football. As much, even, as Wayne Rooney does.

You can choose to believe Sir Alex Ferguson's claim before Saturday's match at Goodison Park that the decision to leave Rooney out of his squad was motivated by worries over abuse from the Everton fans. Or you can believe Mike Phelan, his assistant, who remarked afterwards that the decision had been taken because "Wayne wasn't ready to play". There is, however, a third possibility. Maybe Ferguson was just fed up with the whole Rooney circus and wanted to rid himself, temporarily, of a tiresome distraction.

It is now seven years since Ferguson's irritation with Beckham's celebrity, and in particular with the supposed effect of his pop-singing, clothes-designing wife on his ability to concentrate on the job at hand, reached critical mass. There was a famous occasion when Beckham was given a day off training to look after his young son, who had a tummy bug, only for Ferguson to explode when he discovered that Posh had been photographed that same evening at a fashion show in London.

For the crime of being a caring father who believed his wife's career to be as important as his own, Beckham was fined a fortnight's wages – £50,000 – and dropped.

It is poignant, in the light of recent events, to recall Ferguson's very deliberate praise for Coleen Rooney a couple of years ago. "She's a clever girl, who is down to earth," he said, in words taken by many as a tacit criticism of the flibbertigibbet Victoria Beckham. "Marriage helps footballers," he added. "It helps them settle down. You know where they are, too."

Well, maybe. Six years ago Ferguson paid £27m to attract Rooney to Old Trafford and he has certainly had his money's worth from a man who scored 35 goals in all competitionsfor Manchester United last season. This year things have been a little different.

Rooney has not been the same player since he was rushed back from an ankle injury to play a Champions League match last May. After a dreadful World Cup he came into the new season looking slimmer and more alert, but his first touch and his long-range shooting have become unreliable, and there has been a dimming of the sense of adventure that was so pronounced in the 16-year-old.

His effort is beyond dispute. His focus is not. We know, from various bits of evidence, that he likes a cigarette and a drink. And he seems to get himself into the sort of trouble that dear, old-fashioned Fergie apparently believed could be avoided by getting married.

It will be remembered that Beckham had his own little escapade shortly after leaving Old Trafford and moving to Madrid. His wife has said that, in the end, it made their marriage stronger. It certainly never affected his football. And while David Beckham plays on into the second half of his fourth decade, Wayne Rooney has us – and perhaps his manager, too – wondering whether he will still be in the game at 30.

September 13, 2010

End of the line for Hatton

Posted by Jo Carter on 13/09/2010

It was always in doubt whether Ricky Hatton would ever return to the ring, but following allegations of cocaine use in the News of the Worlfd, it looks like it could signal the end of the former world champion's career, writes Jeff Powell in The Daily Mail

The chances of Ricky Hatton fighting again have dipped from slim to none after he was filmed apparently snorting several lines of cocaine while on a drink and drugs binge.

There is also a risk that the former world champion will have his license as a promoter revoked or suspended by the British Boxing Board of Control.

scene is little short of tragic but this is a controversial sport which has no option but to limit the damage to its image.

Sadly this latest, alleged fall from grace of another of our sporting legends is as unsurprising as it is unwelcome.

While the Hitman could hardly be classed as a role model, he is a hero to tens of thousands of his fellow Englishmen.

The potential removal of the charismatic and hugely popular Hatton from the big fight

Be it as an all-action fighter, an animated mingler with the vociferous fans who followed their Mancunian idol on his title-winning adventures abroad, a boozer in his local pub or a compulsive eater between his heroic bouts, Hatton has always done everything to excess.

Continue reading "End of the line for Hatton"

September 12, 2010

Was the Lord's Test fixed from the first ball?

Posted by Tom Walker on 12/09/2010

The Daily Mail’s Peter Hayter opens up a new debate regarding the Pakistan spot-fixing scandal, following an interview with Anti-Corruption Unit advisor Mark Davies...

A senior betting industry expert and adviser to world cricket's Anti-Corruption Unit last night urged them to add the first ball wide from Pakistan fast bowler Mohammed Aamer to the three no-balls under investigation from the tarnished Lord's Test.

Mark Davies was one of the founders of Betfair, the world's largest internet betting exchange, and has advised the Unit on all aspects of the sport's links with the gaming industry. He believes the International Cricket Council inquiry into allegations of bowling no-balls to order - against suspended Pakistan trio Mohammad Aamer, Mohammad Asif and Test captain Salman Butt - should also focus on the opening delivery of the match by Amir, a wide that cost five runs.

The ICC inquiry is running parallel to Scotland Yard's criminal investigation which has led to Aamer, Asif and Butt being interviewed under caution, with a fourth tourist, Wahib Riaz due for interview on Thursday.

The delivery in question was bowled by the left-arm paceman Aamer, 18, over the wicket from the Pavilion End to England captain Andrew Strauss. It landed a foot outside leg stump and carried on, with the angle, passing the stumps by at least a yard on its way to the boundary.

Wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal, along with Butt currently under ICC investigation over possible spot-fixing at the Asia Cup and the World Twenty20, made no attempt to reach the ball as it sailed to the fine leg boundary. Umpire Billy Bowden signalled four wides which, with the one-run penalty for the wide itself, added up to five runs from the first ball of the match.

The bowling of a wide off the first ball has long been understood in cricket circles as open to manipulation for spread betting and spot-fixing. First ball nerves and, in this case, the need to adjust to the slope at Lord's means such a delivery is not uncommon there. But Davies, whose involvement with the ICC began soon after the setting up of the Anti-Corruption Unit, believes that in the light of the current allegations, Aamer's five-run wide should be scrutinised by the investigation, led by former policeman Sir Ronnie Flanagan.

'The knowledge that five runs will be scored from the first ball could be used in several spot-betting and spread betting markets, the kind of books that the ICC ACU know are made in the illegal betting markets in India and other parts of Asia,' said Davies, who currently runs betting analysts Camberton UK and who is the son of football commentator Barry Davies.

'Most obviously it could be used to make money on the spread for the number of deliveries before the first wide is bowled, then any spread on the number of runs from the first ball, the number of runs in the first over and also to take a position on the number of runs scored during the first three or first 15 overs. In theory, there could even be spreads on the number of deliveries before the first 'five' is scored.

Anyone armed with certain information that the first ball would be a wide and produce five runs could make a lot of money on all those spreads.

'As for the delivery itself, everyone knows your opening ball is a little bit of a loosener, but I don't buy the explanation given by the commentators that it is hard to adjust to the conditions at Lord's. It is extraordinary that any top class bowler would ever bowl a ball like that, full stop. If I was advising the Anti-Corruption Unit on their investigations, I'd be reviewing everything from ball one.

'The ICC has done a lot to educate players from a very early age. That's why, if these allegations are proven, these guys should be thrown out of the game. I don't see how you cannot impose the harshest penalty, to send a clear signal. If you don't do that you are saying that crime pays.'

September 11, 2010

Houllier needs time

Posted by Jo Carter on 11/09/2010

Gerard Houllier may not have been every fans’ first choice as Aston Villa manager, but Henry Winter reminds people in the Telegraph of some of the Frenchman’s crucial contributions to English football...

Gérard Houllier and Aston Villa were formally introduced to each other on Friday but nobody knows when the first date will be. Houllier must disentangle himself from his long-term passion, the French Football Federation, before getting to grips with Aston Villa. For all the Villa fans' frustration at Houllier's delayed start, they should realise it is a sign of the new man's calibre. The French Federation is playing hard-ball over his release because it doesn't want to lose a prized employee.

He talked of "aiming for the moon'' with the club, of his "great pride'' at being asked to oversee the fortunes of former European Cup-winners. Sitting yards from an empty Holte End, the distinguished Frenchman talked of his admiration for Villa's "vocal support''.

A well-respected member of Uefa's technical cadre, the coach who steered Liverpool to the Uefa Cup, FA Cup and League Cup enjoys a well-earned reputation for making good players better. Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher have readily testified to that. A paternalistic man-manager, Houllier is not shy at delivering rollockings. Gerrard and Carragher will again attest to that.

Villa have appointed well but his arrival has undeniably been awkwardly handled. He has yet to sign his contract even. "Not yet, no,'' replied Houllier. "But it's a formality. For me, the word is more important than what is signed. I still have to sort things out with the French Federation. They could have said you have to work three months [notice].

"I couldn't get back for the Stoke game [on Monday when Kevin MacDonald will be in charge]. I have several important things to do meeting with [French] championship managers on Monday. I apologise for that. You understand I'm the head of the national coaches, the regional coaches. The season has started, the work is underway.

"To me, the earliest would be the Bolton game [Sept 18], not in charge, but there. Even the Wolves game [Sept 26]) I can't promise. All I can tell you is that I will come. At some stage I will be here. The other thing is that if I don't do the three months maybe I have to go the odd day.''

Adding to the uncertainty, Houllier is still looking for a No 2.

"Patrice Bergues won't come for family reasons,'' he said. "Kevin prefers to go back to his job as reserve-team manager. I understand why Phil Thompson could not come, he is working for Sky. It is because of his family.''

Houllier rejected the idea that some of the Villa players had issues with him from their Liverpool days. "No, no problems. Stephen Warnock was too young and don't forget Brad Friedel had to leave for work permit reasons.''

His old Lyon striker, John Carew, received praise as "an outstanding talent, extremely skilful, can change a game''.

A fistful of short-term negatives aside, there are plenty of long-term positives to Houllier's appointment. Like Martin O'Neill, Houllier will accelerate the development of the younger players. "If you look at some of the players I had at Liverpool, they made some progress. One of them [Michael Owen] won the Ballon d'Or.''

Villa have plenty of English players and Houllier emphasised his admiration for the breed. "English players haven't fallen behind technically. Not any more. You have to be careful when you judge players, when you sometimes say the English are not so technical. The English do things at a higher speed than anywhere else in the world. If you play at 60mph, you are more comfortable technically than if you play at 100mph. But in England you play more often at 100mph. You need to keep that and also be a bit slower at times. This is what the foreign input has brought to the English game. You can't say the English are bad.

“The national team are proving at the moment they can play.''

Gerrard's performance in Basel on Tuesday confirmed that. It was on the midfielder's previous visit to St Jakob-Park, in the 2002 Champions League, that Houllier questioned his dedication, accusing Gerrard of believing his publicity. Carragher also received a lecture from Houllier about his refuelling habits.

Reminded of those incidents on Friday, Houllier delivered a homily which certain members of the Professional Footballers Association should absorb.

"This is a job which is very exacting – you play only 10 years, sometimes a little bit more,'' said Houllier. "For 10 years you have to live for the job and not use the job to get the lifestyle. A player has got 10 years to devote his time and his energy, his diet and rest for the job. Hard work helps. I had some players who were not so good with their right or left foot, so I said 'stay after training and do a bit more'.”

When he finally arrives, Houllier must be given time and patience.

September 10, 2010

Murray needs a major mental overhaul

Posted by Jo Carter on 10/09/2010

Andy Murray's premature defeat at the US Open once again raised doubts whether the Scot can ever win a Grand Slam, but the pressure of being British seems to have finally got to him, writes Matthew Norman in The Telegraph.

Whether it’s finally having the doctor look at that itchy, raised mole, or opening the Inland Revenue brown envelope that has lain menacingly unopened on the sideboard for months, the potentially hideous truths must eventually be faced.

For me, regarding Andy Murray, the moment arrived on Sunday night.

So often has Murray departed majors after an opponent produced the tennis of his career, as with eventual finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the first round of the 2008 Australian Open, that his failure to win one could be dismissed as a transient jinx.

The defeat to Wawrinka, however well the Swiss No 2 and his exquisite one-handed backhand performed, was something different. Here was a study in mental frailty to make Tim Henman at his most enfeebled look like Rafael Nadal at his most ferociously defiant.

However painful the vision of Murray’s disintegration after failing to hold serve for a two-set lead, the ensuing press conference was more so.

Utterly forlorn, dejected and bemused, he could offer no reason for the sudden and total drainage of energy that brought to mind a plane sent into a corkscrew spin by the loss of all its engines.

The explanation seemed purely psychosomatic. The power of neurosis to produce more tangible physical symptoms than fatigue is, as all decent hypochondriacs will know, astounding.

Soon after convincing myself once that I was in the latter stages of heart failure, a watery swelling (oedema) appeared on my right ankle.

A year later, after a thorough examination, the GP declared that the only specialist to whom she would refer me was a psychiatrist. The next morning, the swelling had vanished.

On Sunday, it was heart failure of another kind that both preceded and provoked Murray’s exhaustion. After edging the first set Murray’s courage deserted him, and that fatal penchant for awaiting unforced errors rather than imposing himself re-exerted itself.

In this, he is the equivalent of the England football team attempting to husband a 1-0 lead by defending too deep in defiance of their own will and their coach’s express instructions.

The only rival whom Murray always relentlessly attacks, liberated by the certainty that he cannot outlast the Spaniard in rallies, is Nadal.

Extending that fearless aggression to other opponents is a challenge that may, being middle aged in tennis terms at 23, be beyond him.

Following the Wawrinka disaster, there is talk of him needing a new coach, and one less matey and indulgent and more disciplinarian than the entourage presently led by his mother Judy.

Close comparison of England’s World Cup form under Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello respectively warns against too much faith in that particular fix.

Some flaws are too deeply buried for even the finest coach to reach, and it begins to look like Murray’s is the familiar one of being British.

Like Paula Radcliffe, so dominant in the marathon until drained by the stress of Olympic favouritism, and compatriot Colin Montgomerie, who won countless minor tournaments but collapsed when poised to win a US Open, perhaps he cannot bear the weight of expectation this country imposes on its sporting stars even when he is not consciously aware of it.

Tennis, like psychosomatic exhaustion, is a game of the subconscious mind.

So if he must have a new coach, my suggestion would be Paul McKenna, whom boxer Nigel Benn thanked for the bewildering reserves of energy that somehow took him to victory over Gerald McClellan in that peerlessly brutal and ultimately tragic world title fight.

If McKenna could hypnotise Murray to believe he is German or Australian, and always to see Nadal on the other side of the net, he would confirm himself as the world’s preeminent hard court player at US and Australian Opens, as he does in the Masters series events he routinely wins with the capacious self-belief that evaporated so alarmingly in New York this week.

September 9, 2010

Snooker not in the clear yet

Posted by Jo Carter on 09/09/2010

John Higgins was cleared of frame-fixing yesterday, but for many in the sport it was the wrong man in the dock. The World No1 may have been cleared, but snooker faces a tough battle to convince the public that the sport is clean, writes Owen Gibson in The Guardian.

All the main protagonists – World Snooker, John Higgins, the News of the World – had reason to claim some form of victory following yesterday's verdict on the case that rocked the World Championship in May and has cast a shadow over it ever since. Even Higgins' former manager Pat Mooney, damned as the villain of the piece and in effect banned from the sport for life by Ian Mill QC, saw the two worst charges against him dropped on a technicality.

But no one felt much like popping champagne. The newspaper's investigatory methods again came under scrutiny, Higgins was exposed as naive if not downright foolish and snooker's governing body still faces a huge challenge to persuade the public the sport is clean. The man in charge of its new anti-corruption unit last night warned that the worst possible outcome from the decision to clear Higgins of the most serious match-fixing charges would be to believe that it was in the clear.

David Douglas, the former Metropolitan Police detective chief superintendent, has vowed to clean up snooker but conceded it would be no easy task. Many within the sport believe the News of the World's sting was largely a case of right investigation, wrong man. "What has happened is that it has allowed us to focus on compliance. We've got to reform, review the rules, our processes, help the players and educate them. It's all about taking this forward and not burying our heads in the sand," said Douglas.

Barry Hearn, the World Snooker chairman who more than anyone is aware of the collateral damage to the sport, said yesterday of the unit: "It will have far-reaching powers to investigate and act as a deterrent to possible corruption. It will be very high-profile because I want snooker to be seen as clean."

For Hearn, determined to give snooker its lustre back following a period when sponsors and the public have deserted it, the timing could not have been worse. Now, he will attempt to turn a crisis into an opportunity. As the trickle of match-fixing allegations in all sports have become a flood in recent months – from the spate of arrests in Turkey and Germany over match-fixing in football to the cricket allegations that have dominated the news – snooker has never been far away.

There have been increasingly loud questions around the probity of snooker over recent years and at least three players – Stephen Maguire, Jamie Burnett and Stephen Lee – remain the subject of police investigations. As in cricket, a number of factors have coalesced to make it a prime target for those seeking to manipulate results and to increase temptation for players.

Some are common to all sports such as the rampant growth and increased sophistication of the illegal betting market in Asia and the Far East, and the increase in the variety of bets on offer and the ease with which they can be placed over the internet and mobile phones.

Others are peculiar to snooker including the decline in the sport's commercial value since its 80s heyday, the increase in the amount of snooker played around the world and the dangers inherent in round-robin formats, where not every frame is vital. Then there is the difficult of proving wrongdoing. It is notoriously difficult, even for expert eyes, to tell whether a player has missed a shot on purpose.

One of the major challenges – and the reason why so much of the rhetoric is around educating young players – is challenging the betting culture that exists within snooker, as within many other sports in the UK including football. Up until recently, it was common practice for players to bet on themselves to lose as "insurance" against going out in a major tournament.

As with the current cricket spot-fixing scandal, some players may even have convinced themselves it was a relatively harmless activity. Some point to a reluctance among those who oversaw the sport before Hearn's takeover to tackle the problem.

While the outraged reaction to the News of the World's initial revelations and apparently damning video evidence indicated that this was a recent problem – Steve Davis referred to a "dark day for snooker" – the sport is rife with bar-room talk of fixed frames and betting stings.

Hearn's vow to clean it up chimes with what is going on elsewhere. The newspaper pages and airwaves have been jammed of late with sports governing bodies vowing to clean up their act. One recommendation of the recent government review of sporting integrity issues, chaired by the former Liverpool FC chief executive Rick Parry, was to set up a new Sports Betting.

The new body, to be chaired by CCPR chairman Tim Lamb, is designed to agree a set of standards that will be applied across sport, on issues such as standardising punishments and disciplinary codes, and educating sports stars about the dangers.

The Gambling Commission, which has come under fire from some in sport for not getting to grips with the problem, has been tasked with setting up a new integrity unit. Nick Tofiluk, who is director of regulation and oversees the unit, said he was pleased with the level of co-operation from sports governing bodies.

But there must be serious questions about whether these moves will be enough to stamp out corruption given the international threat and huge power of the criminals who control the illegal betting markets. Douglas accepts the strategy must partly be one of containment. "It's not about one sport or another. It's about illegal betting – they'll go for anybody. You need constant vigilance and to make sure players are well educated and know the risks when the bad guys come calling," he said.

Last week, the head of the ICC's anti-corruption unit Sir Ronnie Flanagan - another of the former police chiefs doing so well out of battling corruption in sport - vowed to co-operate with other sports to lobby governments around the world to regulate betting markets more effectively. Douglas said he is "100%" behind the move and there is a growing realisation that this is largely a problem that must be dealt with by sport itself, given the length of time and practical difficulties involved in pursuing investigations.

Like the battle against doping, those at the sharp end warn that it will be a long slog and will require serious investment. They retain doubts about the determination and ability of some sports to see it through. Through a combination of harsh penalties, education and intelligence based information gathering, they hope to make headway. But unless they can also convince governments of the seriousness of their mission, the odds on success will lengthen.

Continue reading "Snooker not in the clear yet"

September 8, 2010

Woods selection destined to divide opinion

Posted by Tom Walker on 08/09/2010

As predicted, Corey Pavin made room for world No. 1 Tiger Woods in his 12-man team for October's Ryder Cup. The decision to pick the 14-time Major champion appeared a formality, despite his inconsistent form. However, Jonathan Liew from The Telegraph believes Pavin's decision to pick Woods will divide opinion.

European captain Colin Montgomerie was relieved to have the chance to test his side against the world No 1, saying he was "delighted" Woods had received a wild card selection. "I am delighted to see Tiger Woods amongst Corey's selections – the Ryder Cup is a better event with him in it," he said.

"Corey has used his four captain's picks to good effect, as I knew he would. Like my European team, the American side has an excellent blend of youthful talent."

Montgomerie felt Pavin's pain. He had his fair share of out-of-form stars to sift through last week, when he selected Padraig Harrington but omitted Sergio Garcia from the European dozen.

Perhaps Montgomerie's satisfaction owed something to Woods's Ryder Cup record, an anomalous one given his predominance in stroke play. The criticisms of Woods as a Ryder Cup player are legion, and critics point to his poor record in foursomes and fourballs as a sign that his single-mindedness is counterproductive to team golf.

Peter Oosterhuis, who played in six Ryder Cups against the Americans, believed that Woods would be a hindrance rather than a help.

"Reading about things that have happened with Tiger playing in the Ryder Cup before, he hasn't fitted in with the team very well at all," he said. "I have my doubts about how he will this year. He should be leading and inspiring.

"I don't think he's going to help the team. I think he's just going to muddy the waters and cause problems that they don't need."

Oosterhuis is not alone in his view. Woods's former coach, Butch Harmon, has previously said that Woods needs an extended break to "get his head right", while Tony Jacklin believes that Woods's ego, as well as the media circus that is sure to accompany him, will have an unsettling effect.

"The way he is playing, he wouldn't beat anybody," Jacklin said last month. "If it were up to me, I wouldn't pick him. The focus on him would be detrimental to team spirit."

Still, leaving Woods out had the potential to cause a far greater fuss than picking him. Greg Norman defended Pavin's decision, saying: "How could you not put him on the team?

If you had to make a six-footer on Sunday afternoon to win the Ryder Cup, who would you pick? It would be Tiger Woods. He's made more six-footers to win championships than any other player on that team."

September 6, 2010

The answer to the Rooney riddle

Posted by Jo Carter on 06/09/2010

Wayne Rooney's failure to shine at the World Cup in South Africa was put down to fatigue after a long season with Manchester United. But Oliver Holt in The Mirror believes the answer behind Rooney's problems may have just surfaced.

When Wayne Rooney scowled and scuffed his way through England’s game against Algeria, everyone asked the question.

When he stared into the camera in Cape Town and snarled about England’s fans booing, they asked it again.

When he wrote 'Fcuk U Floyd' on his trainers on his way to a golf trip to Sun City and turned his feet inwards so the paparazzi could see, they asked once more.

"What's wrong with Rooney?" was one of the most common phrases to spill from the mouths of England supporters and journalists during the World Cup.
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The more he struggled and the worse his body language became, the more varied the theories grew.

The most popular was that he was struggling with the after-effects of the injury he suffered against Bayern Munich in March.

Another was that his detestation of Capello?s regime had reached such a level that he had come to hate playing for him.

Maybe 4:4:2 didn't suit him, everyone said. Maybe the secret to rediscovering his genius was pushing Steven Gerrard into a supporting role behind him.

Sir Alex Ferguson said he thought Rooney had been crushed by the weight of expectation.

His Manchester United assistant, Mike Phelan, admitted that Rooney had returned from South Africa in a state of dishevelment.

Then yesterday, allegations about Rooney?s private life emerged and it felt for the first time as though one of England?s World Cup mysteries was finally unravelling.

Rumours about Rooney's private conduct have been swirling around the media world for several months.

Some of the details that emerged in weekend newspaper exposes were familiar to many who first heard them mooted several weeks before the World Cup.

So it is almost certain that by the end of the Premier League season and as he prepared to leave for South Africa, Rooney knew the details of his liaisons were seeping into the public domain.

Once that happened, he must have realised that it was only a matter of time until they found their way into print.

However you care to judge him, that knowledge and worry about the impact the revelations might have on his family life with wife Coleen and new baby Kai must have been a heavy burden to carry.

And it is the most convincing explanation so far for why the Wayne Rooney we saw in South Africa was so far removed from the player who has grown into England?s most exciting talent since Paul Gascoigne.

Something was eating at him, that?s for sure, and history is full of great sportsmen temporarily derailed by private torments.

The irony of the timing of the publication of the allegations made by an escort girl is that Rooney appeared to be returning to something close to his best against Bulgaria on Friday night.

He created all four of England?s goals for Jermain Defoe and Adam Johnson in the team?s first Euro 2012 qualifier and was brimming with the kind of creative energy that deserted him in South Africa.

Capello will be thankful that, contrary to initial suggestions yesterday, Rooney is intending to travel to Switzerland today with the rest of the England squad.

England need to him to be at his best in Basel for the tie against a Swiss team tomorrow night that will present a sterner test than the hapless Bulgarians.

In those circumstances, it would be useful if Capello does not persevere with the ludicrous policy of punishing players for transgressions in their private lives.

That cost John Terry the England captaincy back in February. It is to be hoped Capello has recognised the foolishness of that move and that Rooney will be allowed to travel to Switzerland without the England manager barking instructions on morality into his ear.

Continue reading "The answer to the Rooney riddle"

September 4, 2010

Little and large show is sidelined

Posted by Alex Livie on 04/09/2010

Jermain Defoe took his chance to impress Fabio Capello quite spectacularly with a hat-trick in the 4-0 win over Bulgaria and Alan Smith, writing in the Daily Telegraph, feels the Tottenham man has blow apart Capello’s desire to have big man-small man partnership.

When he first arrived on these shores to try and lead England into the Promised Land, Fabio Capello was sure what he wanted from his strike force.

A strong centre-forward was required to work the backline. Someone quick enough to occupy two central defenders by running down channels or holding up the ball; generally leading the line with intelligence and purpose.

And why? Well, this was all planned with one aim in mind - to draw out the best in England’s main man. If Wayne Rooney played well, the chances were high of the team doing likewise. As a result, a stage simply had to be built for this to play out.

One big problem: England didn’t boast a quality front runner in the Didier Drogba mould. Capello realised that immediately, so was reluctantly forced to improvise by asking the most experienced man out there to do the job instead.

And to be fair, Emile Heskey didn’t do too badly in leading England’s attack during England’s impressive march towards the World Cup finals. More often than not, he helped create the space for Rooney to flourish and score a load of goals along the way.

Fast forward two and a half years and the situation isn’t much different now, since England still can’t call on that type of centre-forward. Though injured for last night’s game, Peter Crouch clearly doesn’t do it for Capello, judging by the way he was shunned in South Africa.

Neither does Carlton Cole, otherwise West Ham’s striker would have started against Bulgaria, or at least made the bench instead of the stands. As for Darren Bent, who did make the bench, his overall game isn’t up to scratch.

That just leaves Bobby Zamora (presently injured) in with a shout of fulfilling the role Capello values so much. And without wishing to write off Zamora’s chances before he’s had a proper crack, it’s a huge leap of faith picturing Fulham’s striker – though vastly improved - as England’s saviour.

So where does that leave us? Well, with the lad who grabbed a Wembley hat-trick in such impressive style whilst showing a neat understanding with his strike partner.

Whenever Jermain Defoe made a run, Rooney quickly spotted it. If a pass had to be made, Rooney delivered on cue in a system that allowed him to drop off the front line and get involved.

What’s more, the wait for results didn’t last long. After only a couple of minutes, Rooney’s instinct took him to the left wing from where he floated in a clever ball that led to the first goal. That actually became a feature of England’s first half attacks – Rooney restricting his movement to the left half of the pitch.

It was as if Capello had said beforehand: ‘Right Wayne, you link up with James Milner and Ashley Cole and of course show for the ball when Steven Gerrard and Gareth Barry are in possession, but leave Jermain on the right to combine with Theo Walcott.’

Rooney, in turn, responded superbly to cast off all those doubts about his form with a performance that showcased his creative skills.

Even better, Defoe clinically took his chances at the sharp end. His goals gave more meaning to Rooney’s contribution. The only reservation would be that, in this formation, England’s number 10 wasn’t able to get in the box as much as you would like.

Because the last thing Capello wants now is to get into a situation whereby Rooney stops becoming a threat to opposing goalkeepers.

It’s awkward enough not having an obvious answer to his centre-forward needs. It might just be that, for the foreseeable future, the Italian is forced to change his philosophy. Which won’t be all bad if things carry on like this.

September 3, 2010

The Cantona of cricket

Posted by Alex Livie on 03/09/2010

You just can’t keep Kevin Pietersen out of the news; he probably likes that. But at the moment it is his lack of form with the bat that is making headlines and The Times’ Simon Barnes feels he is taking a leaf out of the book of a famous French footballer.

Kevin Pietersen is suffering from an inferiority complex. He keeps thinking he’s just the same as everybody else. And it has devastated him. Dropped! Dropped from an England team who play Pakistan in a Twenty20 match on Sunday. He was man of the tournament when England won the World Twenty20 this year, and these things mean a lot to Pietersen.

Now he has been dropped and it isn’t a f*** up. It is a piece of deliberate policy. He has been singled out. He’d like that part of it. Others had an indifferent series with the bat against Pakistan and have been retained. In fact, being retained is the most obvious policy of the present England set-up. So much so that not retaining Pietersen is a very powerful statement.

Pietersen’s instantaneous and ill-advised lament on Twitter was the real f*** up, but it demonstrated the depth of his dismay. Ayrton Senna was a once rebuked for some minor infraction of the racing drivers’ code. His response was not so much arrogance as bewilderment: “But I’m Ayrton Senna.” Pietersen has the same sense of self.

Eric Cantona was the Kevin Pietersen of football. He turned up his collar to show he was different. He had a special walk. He came to Manchester United with a history of disrupting every team that he had belonged to, but at United he found his home. His perversities and arrogance were exactly what the club needed. Cantona made them feel different, made them feel worthy, made them feel entitled. Pietersen has been a central part of a similar process with England to a point where they can beat any team in the world.

September 2, 2010

KP needs to rediscover his virtuosity

Posted by Alex Livie on 02/09/2010

Kevin Pietersen made a return to cricket, just a day after his Twitter blunder, but he failed to make the impression hoped for on his Surrey debut. Pietersen made 38 before offering a return catch to Shaaiq Choudry as his new county were mauled by Worcestershire. The plan is for Pietersen to get some time at the crease ahead of the Ashes and Simon Hughes, writing in the Daily Telegraph, feels he is a high-maintenance talent in need of constant tinkering.

Kevin Pietersen is a man apart. He is not a team player in the usual sense of the word. This is not to say he is a divisive or disruptive influence, because he very definitely is not.

To outsiders he is perceived as arrogant. The Australians called him The Ego and then upgraded it to FIGJAM which translates as '---- I'm Good, Just Ask Me'.

In fact, the strut conceals an insecurity. He is always seeking approval. While other players are finishing their warm-ups before play or revising final plans with coaches, Pietersen stands on the pitch chatting to his confidant Ian Botham or other former players who can offer words of praise or encouragement. His conversation largely revolves around himself in a bright and breezy sort of way, discussing property or deals or his young son's development. He rarely discusses his batting, but you sense he is fishing for compliments. Emotionally he is high-maintenance.

In the field he stands at gully, at cover or at mid-off, often in slightly isolated positions. He fields excellently but often seems disengaged, distracted by matters. He rarely joins in the banter around the bat during an over.

The biggest clue of all to his character, though, is when he arrives at the crease. There seems to be a desperation to register his first run, which usually causes a mini hiatus as he seeks a madcap single. With Pietersen on nought the non-striker must be on red alert, getting off the mark has become almost an obsession. Nothing else matters until he has achieved it. Multiply that feeling 10-fold and that is how much he desires his first England hundred for 18 months.

The daily stress he must put himself under is unimaginable. He places so much expectation on himself it has become intolerable. In a way he is suffering from the same malaise as Marcus Trescothick, constantly performing for England with no release or downtime. No gorging on easy runs off county attacks to rekindle the love of batting. It is England or nothing.

If it is going well he is surviving on adrenalin but if it is going badly everything is a trial. Depression sets in. Subconsciously he wants to run away and hide, effectively what he did with his first-ball duck at Lord's.

The selectors have given him an escape. He may not be able to see that yet, but in time he will. Time away from the spotlight. Time to find his rhythm. Time to regain his appetite. Time to rediscover his virtuosity. Don't worry he will, he will.

Talent hides itself in funny places, but it never disappears.

September 1, 2010

It's time to call a halt to playground abuse

Posted by Tom Walker on 01/09/2010

England's World Cup debacle still lingers in the memory but Friday brings Fabio Capello and his side the chance to begin afresh when they take on Bulgaria in their opening Euro 2012 qualifier. And Martin Samuel from the Daily Mail says it is time to show Capello the respect he deserves.

A life in football being what it is, there will come a time when one of the greats, Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger, makes a real mess of the season. Brian Clough, remember, finished not with a bang but the whimper of relegation with Nottingham Forest, the club he led to two European titles.

The equivalent now for a member of the established Champions League elite would be to finish without a trophy and outside the top four. It marked the end for Rafael Benitez at Liverpool, and may one day hasten the departure of men of greater standing at Manchester United and Arsenal.

The death throes are never swift, either. In Benitez's final season, it was plain Liverpool were in trouble from October and there followed steady decline: exit at the Champions League group stage, FA Cup elimination to Reading, the Europa League semi-final stumble against Atletico Madrid and the hollow guarantee of a top-four finish. From halfway through the campaign, Benitez's departure was presumed and, in similar circumstances, many would expect Ferguson or Wenger to call it a day.

Yet even in retreat, it would not be possible to speak of either man as a fool. There will be decades of brilliance, of inspiration and success to be taken into consideration. An appraisal that amounts to 'Useless pillock Ferguson stuffs it up again' would ignore spectacular achievements. Clearly, Ferguson is not useless, just having a bad year. Whatever the consequences, they could never override his past.

Yet for Fabio Capello, different rules apply. Winner of the Champions League and UEFA Super Cup: weirdo. Winner of five Italian league titles at two clubs: gormless. Winner of two La Liga titles with Real Madrid: jackass. All terms used to describe Capello either in reports or banner headlines during the last three weeks.

What is it with the vilification of England managers? Nobody is claiming Capello has not made mistakes. Nobody would argue that, by his standards, England's performance at the World Cup in 2010 was a professional low point. But, come on, Fabio Capello? Gormless weirdo jackass? It rather places the 16 straight seasons of achievement into context. No mean feat for a fool.

'The donkey is fine,' I was told, by one of Capello's allies this week. 'We have fed him some hay and he is very happy.' Dry humour conceals serious irritation, however.

Capello was agitated at the press briefing preceding his squad announcement. He believes there is a media campaign to oust him and compared it to his second spell at Real Madrid, when he received considerable criticism and then a sharp volte-face when he delivered the title on the final day of the season.

The first thought is that he should get over it. He is not paid £6million annually to worry about headlines. Capello was supposed to be the finished article, the great problem-solver, not a man susceptible to petty distractions. A second thought is that we need to get over it, too. A manager of international renown has experienced, not even a bad season, but a torrid few months, culminating in a succession of performances that were entirely out of character for his team.

He has endured some bad luck - most notably the injury to his captain, Rio Ferdinand, and Frank Lampard's disallowed goal against Germany - and made a few wrong calls. If he was an idiot, however, he would not have consistently won Europe's greatest prizes.

So in a week when every decision, each twitch and grimace will be analysed for signs of stupidity or drool, it might be time to pause and ask if we truly have the hunger for this. Are we going to spend the next two years pretending one of the most successful managers in the history of European football is actually a clown, or are we going to afford him a little respect, and cut him some slack over decisions that are really no more than differences of opinion?

Take the selection of Jack Wilshere, the Arsenal midfield player. He was included in the squad for the first international of the season, a friendly against Hungary, and then returned to the Under 21 team this week. It was this decision that saw Capello branded an ass. Yet most would agree that Wilshere is nowhere near ready for a full England appearance in what will be a tough competitive game against Bulgaria. He is barely ready for Arsenal and only started at the beginning of the season because Cesc Fabregas was not fit.

One could argue that Wilshere would benefit from being around world-class or at the very least first-team England players; yet he trains at this level every day with Arsenal, surrounded by international footballers such as Andrey Arshavin and Robin van Persie. He can only progress so far this way. He needs match experience, which is why Arsene Wenger, his manager, loaned him to Bolton Wanderers last season, and why Capello thinks he is better off playing for the Under 21 team, rather than admiring the seniors.

Still, there are those who will always want the brightest talent fast-tracked and Wilshere is certainly that.

It is a talking point, then; but not one that is so defined on either side that it warrants use of the word jackass. If Capello had, for instance, become embroiled in a street brawl and been arrested on suspicion of assault - which is what happened to Wilshere on Saturday night - a stronger term might be justified. Even if it was claimed Capello was acting as peace-maker - as is said of Wilshere - there would still be questions over his judgment. By comparison, thinking an 18-year-old with 15 Premier League starts is not ready for England hardly merits the stocks.

So much of the charge sheet against Capello regards peripheral matters. For instance, there is a way to prevent him putting his foot in it over David Beckham and that is to stop badgering him on the subject. Stop pretending that a 35-year-old squad player with a serious injury is relevant to the task of beating Bulgaria and only raise his name again when he is fit and functioning or the team are in such disarray that they cry out for his return.

Capello should have brushed aside the Beckham question before the match with Hungary, we all know that. He should never have offered a farewell game as a sop when the storm blew up, either. These were the actions of a manager who was poorly advised and on the defensive. Yet, having made his mistakes, the matter should rest. Instead, Capello is repeatedly confronted with his past, as if Beckham remains a serious topic, not a tired national obsession.

Capello's reputation, his supposed infallibility, took major damage in South Africa. Yet if he is going to be dogged by cynicism, at least let it concern subjects of relevance to qualifying for the European Championship: motivation, team selection, his style of play.

That we remain mired in name-calling and celebrity sideshows says more of us than him; not least why we have to pay such a ludicrous premium for our managers. It is for this same reason the parents of spoiled brat kids are charged through the nose by baby-sitters.