Friday, October 29, 2010

Why are we even smelling smoke?

Rumour has it that Chris Hughton is nearly cannon fodder. The tabloid gossip-mongers have recently suggested that he's one of the next managers on the chopping block should the Tyneside club fail to improve recent performances. Yesterday, the Newcastle cognoscenti rebutted that gossip and began talk about extending the EPL's least-paid manager.

But there's no smoke without fire.

Perhaps that's unfair. Once a few years ago, I awoke at 3am to the smell of smoke in my bedroom. Not having anyone to verify/refute my nasal competence and being unsure of where it was coming from, I phoned the fire brigade and was greeted five minutes later with four fire engines and about thirty firemen. They too smelled the smoke, made a quick recce and decided some teen had lit a local bin afire and trotted off back to base. My point is this: we don't even need smoke to get panicky. All we need is a hint of smoke and suddenly everyone mobilises so quickly you don't know what's happening.

You can draw the same parallels with hints that a board may be replacing a manager.

So why is there a smell of smoke on Tyneside? A 4-0 defeat to Arsenal arouses some suspicions, but surely ones put easily to bed considering Toon's defensive astuteness this year. It would be ungenerous to lay blame at Hughton for one poor game, especially one featuring a Magpie midfield of teens Tamas Kadar and Haris Vukcic alongside "gimp squad" members Danny Guthrie and Alan Smith. That they allowed all four goals in the final forty-five minutes is perhaps cause for concern - but this forgets one thing: it was the League Cup and therefore should be inconsequential.

Of greater concern is their inability to win consistently at St. James' Park but even after nine games (total), to fire a coach because they've lost twice and won only once at home is almost laughably intolerant.

To look at Newcastle United's regular midfield is to see quality. Ivorian Cheick Tiote has proven an astute signing, Joey Barton is probably approaching career-best form (I may rot in hell for even posing this question but: England? Probably not, but it's not something you can dismiss automatically any more) and Danny Guthrie, their best midfielder both of the last two years, is returning to fitness and form. There's been calls for Andy Carroll to represent England while Kevin Nolan has been his usual industrious self. They aren't shopping goals. They're scoring at a fair rate. They've been competitive. They've been (relatively) disciplined. Yes, they've missed Guthrie, Steven Taylor and Steve Harper, but their replacements have all proved more than adequate.

That the press are suggesting that he is on borrowed time at all is incredible. Even more remarkable is the tone in which this is being done. It's not one of persecution, a la Gary Megson, Gianfranco Zola or even Phil Brown. There's a tenor of evenness combined with a smidgen of disbelief because popular opinion has Hughton doing a good job. Popular opinion of this NUFC squad is that it's reasonable. Calling it above average would be a stretch. Chris Hughton knows it, the media knows it - hell, the fans even know it. hat the players have come out in support of their boss shows that they know they aren't a team of world-beaters. How and why the boardroom don't appear to grasp this amazingly simple concept is puzzling and ultimately, everyone also knows it's "the prawn sandwich brigade" who sign the manager's cheques.

Newcastle United sit ninth on the Premiership table after nine games. They sit amidst elevated company such as West Bromwich Albion, Bolton and local rivals (and next opponents) Sunderland. Surely even a smell of smoke is both premature and alarming for a club enjoying it's longest period of stability in over three years.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The new breed of Sledge

Today's blog features Matthew Wood of Balanced Sports and Ben Roberts, local cricket icon, of Melbourne in Australia.

That the Australian Test XI is aging is no secret. At 35 years old, Ricky Ponting leads a side facing their own cricketing mortality – Simon Katich and Mike Hussey are likewise 35 and Brad Haddin 31. Even the “Great Hope for the Future” Michael Clarke is rising 30.

As we say a fond final farewell to the Golden Generation of Australian cricket born between 1965 and 1980 to enter the future, Matthew Wood and Ben Roberts sit down over a drink (with significant geographic difficulty) and name the XI who will line up in Brisbane for the first Ashes Test 2014-15.

Matt: So, the openers. After a series of sterling performances, I'm quite confident in installing Shane Watson as one opener. Really, since Mark Taylor's early days I don't think we've seen such a consistent opener even if his ability to convert scores into big scores is still a little under question. All of Hayden, Langer and Slater were all "feast or famine", especially in their latter days and I think that having someone who can be relied upon at the top is important. By this stage he'll be one of the veterans of the squad at 33 and probably his medium-pace bowling will have succumbed to age and infirmity a la Steve Waugh but he'll still be very valuable experience-wise. I feel dirty for saying so, but he is my roughie to captain the squad - if Pup Clarke can't handle it, he's probably the next-best bet. Partnering him is Phil Hughes, the crazy-eyed Northerner. There's no question his footwork isn't of the same quality of his eyes - how could they be, have you seen Phil Hughes' eyes? They're enormous, like two giant plates - but I'm confident by age 25 he will have worked out some of the slight flaws in his technique and is six years younger than the next best candidate in Shaun Marsh.

Ben: My dirty little secret is out now – after many years of imploring him to improve and not breakdown - I am a Shane Watson fan. His batting has become top class, and he provides the benefit of being an above average seamer, which for a part timer means that he is an exceptional asset to have in the squad. I don’t reckon bowling 10 overs a Test will cause undue problems (fingers currently crossed). I cannot agree with Matt’s assessment of Watson as a potential captain, just like no Richmond Aussie Rules fan could give Matthew Richardson the captaincy, and England football fan would give Wayne Rooney the armband.

I struggled to make a selection between Shaun Marsh and Phil Hughes to partner Watson. Marsh I believe is a more complete batsman, whereas Hughes does have flaws despite immense natural talent. My great hope is that the previous 12 months and in the period until Katich retires he is grabbed by the throat and told to work on his technique. Assuming this happens I am going put Hughes in the second opening slot.

Matt: At number three, I've plumped purely and simply for potential – Mitch Marsh of WA and of the Deccan Chargers. He wins out over Calum Ferguson because in Marsh there's the chance to be great – really great – and I think Ferguson could end up going down the Marcus North (and unfortunately Mike Hussey) road of “serviceable”. At number four comes the likely captain, “Pup” Clarke who also is the Grand Old Man of the squad at 33. He's shown enough dedication to turn his batting from exciting and full of flair to boring and staid. I think as Australia transitions into a younger team his game will have moved full circle from Julien Wiener to Allan Border, but probably without Border's consistency.

Ben: I have been a bit clever with my choice of number three, done a “reverse Katich/Langer”, shifting an opener down the order. I really believe that Shaun Marsh is a complete batsman and has a great technique for a defensive game as well as the ability to ‘cut loose’ given the occasion. He may never be one of the greats but I reckon he could serve the side well at three.

Usman Khawaja is a genuine superstar in the making. From the numbers he has put up early in his First Class career he has a hunger for runs, big runs (Prime Ponting-esque big runs). In 2014-2015 he will be coming into his prime. Usman gets my nod for the number 4 slot.

Matt: At five I've gone for Cameron White. At 31 he'll be in his prime and there's a convincing-but-flawed argument that he's the best batsman outside the national team at present and has been cursed by the disdain of Ponting and the fanfare that accompanied his straight-breaks onto the First-Class scene. He's another roughie to captain the side should Clarke fail as he's done so for Victoria since he was 20.

At six I've gone for Ferguson. As I said earlier he's serviceable and has the talent, application and technique to average 45 for his career – which is more than Mark Waugh averaged – and he's very good in the field. Hopefully his Test debut isn't far off.

Ben: Michael Clarke currently holds the number 5 position in the Australian side. Unfortunately I am not confident in his long term ability and the number 6 may be better with him shepherding the tailenders. By this time the ‘Pup’ may be heading for the vet’s needle! (Zoe - my unofficial sub-editor, professional life coach and dog - has just walked away at disgust to this last comment).

The man who should be in the Australian side in the 2010-11 series is Callum Ferguson from SA. I am heartened that his recent knee surgery didn’t have him drop into the abyss and he has been quickly recalled to the national setup. He will be at 5 in 2014-2015.

Matt: Never having been a big fan of Brad Haddin, in my role as sole national selector he's been dropped for inconsistency behind the stumps and too many brain-farts while at the crease. Tim Paine is probably the safest player in the team for mine as his recent performances for Australia have shown. He's gritty with the bat and has very safe hands, a real 'keeper and not a converted batsman a la Haddin or Mike Veletta.

Ben: The keeping position in my opinion is easy. Based on current performance Tim Paine deserves to continue in the role, and he is my choice as captain. This will raise eye-brows, even more when it is known that it was the Herald-Sun who first drew my attention to the possibility, But Paine has a good head on his shoulders. He bats above the shoulders well and his keeping is of high standard all day. He is my captain to take over from Ponting.

Matt: Nathan Hauritz now is unfortunately the best spin bowler in Australia. What that says about a country who's always had one quality turner is galling, but I don't see the other spinners (Steve Smith and John Holland particularly) being able to challenge him as a tweaker. Haury gets the no. 8 slot for mine.

Ben: I have pleaded on a number of forums and to pretty much who will listen to me that Australia needs to pick Steven Smith soon, and pick him as a full time spinner. Yes I know he can bat, but we cannot afford to lose someone of his immense talent and potential as a legspinner in favour of churning out a mediocre batting all-rounder. Assuming the Australian selectors do the right thing he comes in at eight, I know it is a big assumption.

Matt: Given that my number 8 is Nathan Hauritz, you can assume two things about my numbers 9, 10 and 11. First, they're rubbish with the willow, and secondly there's no room for Mitchell Johnson. “Zoolander” may be a strike bowler but I can't abide a striker who consistently outside the right-hander's off-peg angling to first slip. He'll also be 33 and though he's very fit, that's about the age that injuries begin to seriously slow down a bowler's pace – which given his lack of control, Mitch can't really afford.

Peter Siddle, who has disproved the above theory by being ruined by injuries since age 21. Fast, aggressive and generally accurate, he's probably going to be the spearhead of the Aussie attack by 2014 and will have taken over Hussey's “Underneath the Southern Cross” duties and the long-vacated role of Chief Sledger.

The other two bowlers are youngsters, like Marsh, picked solely on potential. Peter George has just made his Test debut and with his height if he can replicate even 75% of Glenn McGrath's accuracy then you've got a pretty fair fast bowler. He'll be 27 and should take Doug Bollinger's spot in the near future.

The future of Australian strike bowling is James Pattinson. The young Victorian is fast, moves the ball both ways and after only four First-Class matches sports an average less than 30. Moises Henriques (may my bones rot for jumping on the bandwagon), Alister McDermott, Josh Hazelwood and Mitch Staac are those that miss out.

Ben: Well I am also going for a three pronged pace attack. Mitchell Johnson will be older, but he has been selected and rewarded over his career thus far as much for his attractiveness to women than the odd great spell he delivers. So there is a fair chance he will hold his spot. Anyone who believes that he deserved the man of the match over Simon Katich against New Zealand in Brisbane in 2008 has rocks in their head.

Peter Siddle is another great love of mine. In my view he is a great competitor and workhorse bowler who epitomises everything good about competitive cricket. Such a bowler is needed to complement Johnson.

My final selection is the young NSW bowler Josh Hazelwood. Johnson will have lost a yard of pace and Siddle will be the stock bowler, we need someone with a bit of fire and who causes difficulty for the batsman. He is sending the pill down rapidly from 196cm. My apologies go to a number of players for this final slot.

Matt: My twelfth man is another bowling all-rounder in Jon Holland of Victoria. He's shown enough with bat and ball to say that he's probably the equal of Steve Smith in ability, if not in hair-colour and to paraphrase, all states were created equal amongst the Commonwealth, but some states were created more equal than others. Khawaja would be first batsman selected in event of injury of loss of form.

Ben: I am slightly disappointed that I was not able to select further players from my home state of Victoria, but the Vic’s seem to have great depth and team building potential without the standouts. NSW seems to be the spot for standout cricketers, and QLD the complete opposite, remembering Johnson has crossed to WA, with no current banana benders looking remotely likely of becoming a great.

All that's left now is just to wait and see. The summer of 2014-15 shapes up as an exciting time for Aussie cricket fans with some fresh faces on the scene. In fact the more we both have thought about the future, the more depressed we've become about Messrs Hussey, North, and Katich continuing through the 2010-11 ashes series.

Note from Editor: The authors of this article would like to make the Australian selectors aware that they will continue to be available for Australian selection in 2014-15. Indeed they will remain available until then time when the lure of wearing the whites on a lawn bowling green followed by a cheap beer or a carafe of house white becomes too strong to resist. Matt brings a ‘windmill’ bowling action akin to a bizarre hybrid of to the great New Zealander Ewan Chatfield and the less-great South African Paul Adams; Ben modestly describes himself as a multi talented cricketer in the mould of Keith Miller.

They are both available for positions as selectors as well.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Like/Dislike NBA Preview


Like: The all-new Motion Offence replacing their stagnant 1-on-1 Iso rubbish.

Dislike: That they ignore it at every possible opportunity.


Like: That they have a legit chance to dethrone both the Lakers and Heat.

Dislike: More undeserved exposure for Shaquille O'Neal. You're a 18min a night guy now, Shaq.


Like: A Tyrus Thomas breakout year finally benches fat Frenchman Boris Diaw for good.

Dislike: Point guards that Larry Brown loves: ie. none of 'em.


Like: The effort that a frontline of Noah, Boozer and Gibson brings night in, night out.

Dislike: First year head coach Tom Thibodeau has gotten a very easy ride so far.


Like: A squad full of championship-level depth. Maybe. If you squint a bit and tilt your head to the side.

Dislike: No star to go with that depth. Their best player is Anderson Varejao.


Like: A really big team. Built to dethrone the Lakers.

Dislike: Pity about everyone else. Not enough playing time for Roddy Buckets.


Like: A hopefully-healthy coach George Karl (who's a major upgrade over Adrian Dantley).

Dislike: No Melo = a gutted Nuggets squad. Chauncey Billups shouldn't be your main guy. Ever.


Like: Multi-skilled big fellas Greg Monroe and Charlie Villanueva.

Dislike: Multi-skilled except for rebounding, that is. A three-guard monster who can't/won't pass.

Golden State:

Like: Stephen Curry. That is all.

Dislike: If David Lee's your frontline enforcer for six years, you've got major troubles. Especially without Nellie-Ball.


Like: A GM that most franchises would kill for (are you hearing me, Paul Allen?)

Dislike: That the franchise is shackled to Yao and his marketability, no matter what anyone says.


Like: Roy Hibbert's development could mean another true franchise centre.

Dislike: There's been no adequate 2-guard since Reggie. Brandon Rush? Please no.

LA Clippers:

Like: A good young core of Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon and Eric Bledsoe.

Dislike: What else? They're the Clippers. We, like they, hate Donald T. Sterling.

LA Lakers:

Like: Steve Blake's acquisition. Sasha Vujacic's fiancee.

Dislike: Kobe's arrogance. Pau Gasol's beard. Sasha Vujacic's very existence.


Like: The re-emergence of the Z-Bo we all know and love.

Dislike: Michael Heisley. Hopefully he sells up to a Seattle-based consortium. Viva La Supersonics!!


Like: Undeniable cricket-score potential against squads like Golden State, Phoenix & New York.

Dislike: Doesn't Chris Bosh's head seem about 50% too small for his body? It's extremely creepy.


Like: A team with no real weaknesses - they have scoring, defense & depth.

Dislike: A remarkable resemblance to the early '80s Bucks - quality, but probably not enough to win big.


Like: Kevin Love will emerge as both a real-life and fantasy stud.

Dislike: (click here)

New Jersey:

Like: Avery Johnson's return to the coaching ranks. A goofy owner we can laugh with/at.

Dislike: Total & complete reliance on moving to Brooklyn and Prokhorov's billions as a franchise's good points.

New York:

Like: They finally have the horses to run D'Antoni's fast-paced offense well.

Dislike: The horses aren't exactly world-beaters.

New Orleans:

Like: Chris Paul is back, healthy and has players to pass to.

Dislike: Peja Stojakovic & Emeka Okafor are still on the books.

Oklahoma City:

Like: The Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka troika could rule the world in two years.

Dislike: They won't be ruling the world from Seattle.


Like: Dwight Howard actually worked on his post game (with The Dream, no less) during the summer.

Dislike: They should be able to beat the Heat. Maybe the Lakers as well. Not the Celtics.


Like: If they run, the Sixers can paper over myriad squad deficiencies.

Dislike: Bigs like Spencer Hawes and Elton Brand aren't exactly made for running.


Like: Steve Nash combines likeable, hardworking and horrible hair with ease.

Dislike: Hedo and "Fear the Fro" instead of Amar'e and Louis Amundson. Doesn't spell "grunt", does it?


Like: Almost nonpareil depth - Przybilla, Camby, Babbitt, Bayless, Matthews etc.

Dislike: Patty Mills very unlikely to be amongst that depth.


Like: DaMarcus Cousins could be the best player out of his draft class.

Dislike: They have no intent in providing him with discipline he and last year's top pick Tyreke Evans so obviously need.

San Antonio:

Like:Duncan + Ginobili + Parker + Hill + Blair = Playoffs.

Dislike: Duncan + Ginobili + Parker + Hill + Blair = Major Injury worries.


Like: They could legitimately field a starting lineup with five different nationalities, none of whom are American (Andersen, Bargnani, Kleiza, Barbosa & Calderon).

Dislike: The team will stink this year. And perhaps for ever. Take it to the bank.


Like: Al Jefferson should average 20/10 with Deron passing him the ball.

Dislike: Opposing bigs will average the same (or better) against him.


Like: Only four more years of Gilbert Arenas' contract millstone around their necks.

Dislike: John Wall will have been eligible for free agency by then and left.

Rooney's true colours aren't United's

I must preface this post with the following statement:

I love Manchester United. I used to love Wayne Rooney.

Now, to business. Wayne Rooney's actions before signing his new five-year deal with Manchester United have been just loathsome. He's spent the last six months agitating for a new contract, held out, slammed the club as lacking ambition, publicly contradicted his manager and now finally re-upped for a major wage increase.

To be brutally honest, although I suggested last week (link) that selling Rooney should be considered, I never honestly thought he would sign for Real Madrid or for Man City. The former option would involve him relocating abroad ("Does Señor want some chocolate for those churros? No Señor, we don't do baked beans here") and the second would involve verbal abuse for the rest of his life and, sadly, potential physical danger (see photo below). It seemed like posturing for a new contract until the doubt was magnified incredibly with SAF's Tuesday declaration that his star was adamant he was leaving. To read the "contract signed" headlines today brings what threatened to turn into a saga back into sharp relief: Wayne Rooney is a spoiled, childish athlete and we were fools to excuse his past actions.

Whenever Rooney's got himself in trouble it's been excused by both his followers and by United. Any problems have been dismissed as a bad combination of money crossed with his lack of years - a working-class kid with outstanding gifts thrust into the public limelight when not quite ready. Selfish acts have been attributed solely to capricious youth. We now know better. This furore wasn't a result of his thinking United lacked ambition or any desire to live abroad. It came down simply to money. Never more will we - or should we - look at his indiscretions and say "Oh well, that's just youth". Now we will look at them and judge them the sins of self.

Sometimes in sport, a player whose game is based on unselfishness is expected to live up to that

reputation outside the sporting arena. The most notable example is LeBron James. A truly unselfish basketballer on-court, his antics this offseason - remember "LeDecision"? - when switching from Cleveland to Miami were the epitome of a "me-first" athlete who didn't quite get it. People weren't upset so much about his team-swap but more the way he engineered it. With James, many were surprised because his sporting prowess is based on making others better.

Wayne Rooney - unlike celebrated former-teammate Cristiano Ronaldo - is obviously an unselfish footballer. He probably deserved a wage-rise. But the way he set about engineering it marked his cards permanently: by publicly slamming his club and teammates he became not an immature guy but a conceited one. His apparent apology to Ferguson and teammates is quite inconsequential. You can't say something, take it back and then continue to enjoy the full trust of your peers. Life doesn't work that way. From now on, United will see him as someone who was prepared to sell them out for an extra dollop of cash and rightly so. United will forgive, but they should never forget.

I will continue to cheer when Wayne Rooney scores. I'll also cheer when he gives off an assist, or marvel at his workrate. What I won't do though, is make excuses for him any longer. As a football-following public we've been too lenient with him. Even if his form returns to levels approaching last year all will not be forgotten, nor should it be. Fans don't necessarily have long or short memories, just convenient ones - we're happy to excuse players as long as they appear outwardly penitent and perform onfield. Wayne Rooney's recent conduct is something fans should never conveniently forget. He should now be recognised for what he is: a severely flawed footballing genius.

If he stays until the end of this contract or beyond, Rooney should be remembered as one of United's greatest players. All will be better, but it will never be completely right again. With his posturing over the last fortnight he's damaged his legacy and will now never be remembered as fondly as players like Giggs, Scholes or even as happily as someone who left like Denis Law.

I hope the extra few quid are worth it, Wayne.

(picture courtesy:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Andy Carroll charged with assault (again)

As sad and tragic as it is, it's also unsurprising on the morning check of the world football websites to see the headline “Carroll bailed to stay at captain Nolan's house”. As a young footballer, Andy Carroll has immense promise and myriad physical gifts. As a young man, however, there certainly seems to be a lack of either common sense, luck, or temper-control.

It's disappointing for two reasons: first off because it involves Carroll (again); secondly because Newcastle appear disinclined to punish him (again). Last year he allegedly broke centre-half Steven “Who-Boy” Taylor's jaw over a text message found on Taylor's phone from his ex girlfriend. Shortly before this he was cautioned for assault for being involved in an affray outside a Newcastle nightspot. He's also awaiting trial for glassing a patron at another Newcastle pub. Either the young man has serious alcohol issues, an inability to stay out of trouble, serious anger issues, or a disturbing combination of all three. That two of his recent fracas have involved ex-girlfriends means that he takes women very seriously or not seriously at all - to paraphrase (badly) Wilde, "Once could be considered misfortune, while twice could be considered careless". To put it mildly, Carroll is guilty already of carelessness.

This latest allegation – again involving an ex-girlfriend of the England U21 star – involves him allegedly assaulting her in the very early hours of Sunday morning at her Tyneside home. Appearing in the magistrate's court in Newcastle on Monday, he listed his address as a hotel room and was bailed to stay at the home of club captain Kevin Nolan, except on nights where Newcastle United have to play away from home.

Whether he's guilty or not, Carroll is palpably guilty of a lack of common sense. Should he not be guilty of anything other than being involved in a private situation that got heated, he should have enough nous about him - especially given his bail status - to avoid either side escalating the situation to violence (he is currently defending his stance as being self-defence). Carroll needs to mature, otherwise he risks losing everything that his extraordinary body and talent have blessed him with.

Perhaps the magistrate who's bailed Carroll to stay at Nolan's is thinking both of community welfare and of the striker's. Nolan is a hard worker and a professional, an element of the game that Carroll obviously misunderstands - spending a number of months watching a true professional prepare can only benefit him and this seems a wise decision from afar.

Andrew Carroll is now a serial offender and there's the real possibility that he, like teammate Joey Barton before him, will serve time for his actions. In the past, Newcastle United have seemed reluctant to discipline their prodigy and in this case, part of, and perhaps all, the discpline has been meted out by the courts of law. This is a dangerous precedent for the club, but given NUFC's "live and let live" policy it's understandable that the magistrate felt he had no other option.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thinking the Unthinkable

After a mediocre World Cup and poor start to the season, followed by his recent disagreement with his Manager's assessment of his injury status, questions have been raised this week about Wayne Rooney's future at Manchester United. Fair enough too, given – despite management's insistence that they are not a “selling” club – their recent sale of Cristiano Ronaldo and, to a lesser extent Gerard Pique without adequate replacements.

Sir Alex Ferguson is dedicated to ensuring no player becomes bigger than the club – look what happened when Stam, Beckham, McGrath, Ince, Keane and recently Tevez and Ronaldo became too much of a distraction – to the point that it looks like he's protecting his own status as the biggest name at the Theatre of Dreams. Going back to the start of his reign, Ferguson has always rid himself of players he thought of as team cancers whether he was proved correct in his assumptions or not. Should this be true or just me philosophising is inconsequential. Rooney's form this term has warranted his dropping below Berbatov in the pecking order and it's plainly obvious that Rooney is unsettled and not performing.

Which is why the rumours that he could be off to Real Madrid have legs. Just examine the facts: an unsettled player, Real needing another Galactico to sign this offseason and Rooney the biggest name outside Spain, Rooney approaching the last year of his contract, SAF's tendency to shun the unsettled, not-quite-limitless reserves of Los Merengues cash and Madrid having a Galactico from every major footballing country except the enormous English market. Rooney's without question the best English player – indeed there's a convincing argument that he's the best English player since their World Cup victory in 1966 – and so the thought is he'd fit right in.

Perhaps it is time for SAF to sell? The frailty in the current squad combined with the Red Devil's terminal shortness of cash and the relative weakness of the Premier League (could you really see a Rooney-less United missing the Champions League spots? It's a stretch) means that a sizeable fee or cash-plus-player deal probably has more appeal now than at any time since their relegation in 1974. As a fan, I don't want him to leave United and I know selling sounds like blasphemy – I love his work ethic, intensity, ability and heart – but if the club were able to recoup, say, Karim Benzema, Mesut Oezil and 20 million Euros then the proposition becomes less galling and more tempting. Outside him directly agitating for a move which goes against the man's personality, I think it's unlikely that Roo will leave: he doesn't seem the sort to want to live a continental lifestyle, does he? But rather than just slapping an “Unsellable” sticker across his forehead it may be in everyone's best interests to see what the Madrid are prepared to offer.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Definite, Probable, Maybe ... Definitely Not.

When looking down the list at the Australian team that recently surrendered almost without whimper to India in Bangalore, it became apparent that Marcus North has an incredible ability to make runs when the pressure is on him but never scores when the pressure's on his team. His recent high-score of 128 brought his average up from 33 to 37. When taken in context, that's on a par with such luminaries as Neil McKenzie, Nathan Astle and Sanjay Manjrekar. On form – and on reputation, given his unpopularity with Australian fans – that seems about fair for a player who convinces no-one that he's about to usher in the next era of Australian greatness.

So drop him. The Australian team is unquestionably rebuilding – with Ricky Ponting, Mike Hussey, Simon Katich, Brad Haddin and North all the wrong side of 30 and unlikely to be present for Australian cricket's next period of sustained success, it's time to remove those players who won't be present in five years time and replace them with players who will be.

During the last major Aussie cricket remodelling, coach Bob Simpson and captain Allan Border identified early which players had the talent and application to be part of a winning system. Upon Simpson's hiring, the “definites” were Border, Steve Waugh, David Boon and Craig McDermott. Dean Jones and Geoff Marsh were listed as “probables”. On deciding who had the stones to stick, they then set about building a side around those players, trying a number of players in different positions in the XI – for instance it took three different wicketkeepers before chancing on Ian Healy and five spinners before Shane Warne was found. The great Australians of 1991-2007 slowly began to emerge.

When looking back, is it surprising that those listed first – Waugh, Boon, McDermott – had the longest and most productive Test careers? The probables weren't failures by any stretch as both Jones and Marsh played over 50 Tests as well, but the “definites” now rank among Australia's all-time greats.

The parallels between the two eras aren't so clear cut yet only because this batch of ageing Aussies haven't yet walked off into the sunset. But as each player from that Golden Era goes, the Australian selectors have tried to replace almost like-for-like rather than with vision. Brad Hogg was replaced by Beau Casson, Jason Krezja, Nathan Hauritz, Bryce McGain and then Hauritz again. Ditto Glenn McGrath, who passed on the torch to Stuart Clark and then Doug Bollinger. Australia has to pick players according to where they will be in three-to-four years and not for their immediate benefits. Although Australia was blessed with a remarkable number of great cricketers born between 1968 and 1978, the cricket revival our country saw in the 90s didn't come about simply as the result of a Golden Generation but of the foresight of Bob Simpson and Allan Border.

Cycling through the Australian lineup you see several players who couldn't be listed as “definites” or even “probables” for an Ashes series in 2014-15. These guys slide between the categories “Maybe”, like Nathan Hauritz or an outright “No” a la Simon Katich, if only because of his age. It's time to selectively breed out these “maybe” and “no” players and replace them not with a player who replaces what they do but with players who have a chance to be great.

To give an example of the mindset required, please take the following example plucked from my own day to day life. My wife and I are in the process of moving across the continent. On the weekend we set aside time to work out what clothes we needed or wanted, and which clothes we should give away. After half an hour of back-and-forth I worked out why the process was taking so long – I had gone into the exercise looking for reasons to discard clothes, whereas she had begun looking for reasons to keep them. The Australian selectors need to take the “What can we discard?” attitude to the current crop of Test players. They've done so before – Brad Hodge being omitted two Tests after a double-hundred springs immediately to mind – and they should do so again. Given their current run of poor results, the incumbents aren't making a convincing case to stay.

The time has come for the pressure not to be placed on underperforming Australian players but on the underperforming selectors. It's the job of Messrs Hilditch, Boon, Cox and Hughes to make the choices that don't just benefit us with an Ashes series win, but with another reign at the top of international cricket.

Vale Nellie

Vale Don Nelson. Sanity, for once, has won out as the NBA's winningest coach finally rides off into the sunset followed by a battery of short, athletic ballers.

Nelson was removed recently for the second time as coach of the Golden State Warriors after a crazy year even by his standards. Not long ago, we thought Nelson was zany enough to be one of those rare sporting identities deserving of their own sitcom but now after over 30 years of NBA coaching nearly nonstop he has finally been brought down by the forces of conformity that now run the League.

Don Nelson started NBA life being drafted by the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962. A 6'7 forward from Iowa State, he then moved to the Los Angeles Lakers. Cut in 1966, Tom Heinsohn suggested to Celtic Godfather Red Auerbach to sign him as he'd always found him a difficult proposition – no matter that he sported an unusual tippy-toe jumper and the athleticism you'd expect of a paper bag stuffed with small rocks. Nelson joined Boston and automatically became a rotation player for a squad in the middle of their famed 11-titles-in-13 years. When the older brigade of Cousy, Heinsohn, Sam Jones and Russell retired, Nelson became a starter on the remodelled early-70s Celtics. After winning his fifth title as a player in 1976, he retired having ushered in another decade of Celtic success.

Deciding against a continued career as a referee, Nelson opted to become an assistant coach to Larry Costello at Milwaukee. After 18 games, Costello was dismissed and Nelson found himself in charge of another rebuilding team, this one headed by rookies Kent Benson, Marques Johnson and Ernie Grunfeld alongside vets Bobby Dandridge and Brian Winters. No matter how successful his playing career was, it is as a coach that we'll forever remember Don Nelson – indeed it was on the bench that the ... alternative Nellie was born.

Benson was the Bucks' centre and suddenly Don Nelson was shown a vision of the rest of his life – a team blessed with above-average wings but without the stud big man any team needs to win consistently. This is how we'll remember Nellie – as a coach who ran (and I mean ran) such a varied and spread offense and rarely was an effective big-man coach, mostly because he just didn't have the bigs to coach. In all probability his early-80s Milwaukee teams, replete with Sidney Moncrief, Terry Cummings and Bob Lanier were probably the best teams he had the chance to coach. It's no coincidence that they also made it the farthest into the postseason.

In his thirty-one years helming NBA franchises, the best centre Don Nelson had was Patrick Ewing. For 59 games in 1995-96. That was before he was fired for placing too much offensive emphasis on wings John Starks and Anthony Mason and not on the Knicks' franchise player. Other than Ewing he coached Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Webber in Dallas and Golden State respectively, but neither was at the peak of their careers. Bob Lanier, who Nellie had for five years in Milwaukee was at the end of his rope. He simply never had the quality big guys to play, so he coped without 'em and created a vastly different type of basketball reliant on the strengths of the players he had to work with: athleticism and shooting.

The result: Nellie-Ball, defined by the font of all knowledge (ie. Wikipedia – accurately in this case though) as an unconventional, fast-paced offense designed by coach Don Nelson. Nellie-Ball relied on smaller, athletic players able to create mismatches by their sheer speed. After the three-point revolution in the early '90s, you also knew Nellie's teams would chuck up a remarkable number of three-balls. Fans and casual viewers alike loved Nellie Ball because there was always a show. There'd be points, rebounds, dunks and plenty of triples. If you played Fantasy basketball, Nellie-Ball was a veritable godsend unless of course he decided your fantasy stud had been starting too often recently and needed a good spell on the bench for no apparent reason.

The most fondly-remembered example of Nellie-Ball was Run TMC, which Golden State sprinted in the late 80s/early 90s. The perimeter-based core – SF Chris Mullin, SG Mitch Richmond and PG Tim Hardaway – allowed the Warriors their most success since the glory days of their last title in 1975. The Warriors then messed this up – as is their wont – by trading Richmond to Sacramento for the draft rights to Billy Owens. The beginning of the first end for Nelson in Golden State was when the Dubs traded for for rookie PF Chris Webber, who promptly feuded with his crackpot coach. Both got a ticket out of town and what had been so promising has been a slumped heap ever since with only vestiges of the proud days of Rick Barry and Phil Smith.

You never knew what to expect from a Nelson-coached team, aside from their reluctance to play a plodding, inside-oriented game. He could have 7'6 Manute Bol on the perimeter firing up threes. He could post “B-Diddy” Davis. He could send out 6'11 Brad Lohaus to guard a PG simply in order to disrupt their lines of sight. What you could expect was to be amazed – as the NBA loves to put it – at both his creativity and persistence. In many respects, Nellie the General Manager probably was better than Nellie the Coach. As a personnel boss, he prized cohesiveness, athleticism and shooting ability. As a coach he was able to use these skills, but not the coaches who played under him. This meant you always felt he wasn't done coaching and was preparing a roster he wanted, not one his coach wanted.

Never one to conform for it's own sake, Nelson suffered through an unhappy stint in New York before coming to Dallas in 1997. There he took over a truly horrible team and traded their three best players for bit-part guys, including the deal involving the most players traded in one deal at that time when he shipped out Jim Jackson, Eric Montross and Sam Cassell to New Jersey for what amounted to Shawn Bradley and change. Nelson again was stuck with a donut team – a soft middle – but this one he'd created himself. On leaving Dallas, he orchestrated one last great playoff upset by leading the Warriors over the Mavs in 2007 with a team based around PG Baron Davis and SG Monta Ellis – not a quality big man in sight. In an cutesy but equally disturbing way, he became a parody of himself only increasing during his second Dubs stint.

Nelson finishes (probably) his coaching career with 1335 wins, three more than the previous record-holder, Lenny Wilkens. What's more impressive though is that Nelson was an overachiever. His teams were amongst the most talented teams in the league only during the early 80s and (perhaps) the early 2000s. Indeed, his teams were mostly fatally flawed, often of his own doing. This said though, he managed to produce results almost to spite these shortcomings – they were his men, they were his methods and he was goiong to ride these guys to his success or to his doom. He was Nellie, and this was the way he played.

We'll miss Nellie. As heartless as it sounds, we'll probably miss Nellie-Ball more.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

To sign or not to sign?

Six million pounds is a lot of money to spend on a gimp. After having both tibia and fibula broken by an uncontrolled tackle by Nigel de Jong, signing Hatem Ben Arfa on a permanent basis becomes an expensive gamble for Mike Ashley, Chris Hughton and Colin Calderwood. With the figure of six million pounds being thrown around as the the agreed price to complete his signing, suddenly his loan period becomes less of a “try before you buy” and more a tantalising glimpse of what his precocious talent may allow the club to accomplish.

During his glittering few games on Tyneside before the unfortunate injury, Ben Arfa looked a good investment for the 1.5 million the Magpies paid for his loan stint. He provided a touch of magic to an otherwise pedestrian and staid midfield. Had he been able to keep his head and not fall out with either manager or teammates, Newcastle taking up the first chance to sign him for good at season's end was a certainty. But with the surgery to repair the break likely to keep him out of action until the end of the season, the still-penny-saving Newcastle United finds itself in a quandary. Do they take the punt and sign the obviously talented but also-obviously erratic creator, or do they feel his injury could make the six million too high a price?

It breaks down like this: there's a significant chance that Hatem Ben Arfa will never be the same player again. He is undoubtedly a talent, but as the Magpies have discovered the hard way with Alan Smith, once a player breaks a leg there are no guarantees that he is able to repeatedly produce the athleticism needed in a competitive league like the EPL. And unfortunately Smith isn't the only example: once Eduardo suffered his horrifying injury at the hands (or feet) of Martin Taylor he was unable to keep pace with the Premier League and has since moved to Shakhtar Donetsk and a lower standard of league. Questions remain about Aaron Ramsey's restorative powers and whether his leg will be able to stand up to the punishment of another strong challenge. Antonio Valencia's Man Utd career could be finished soon after starting.

But there is a chance that HBA will be the player that many expect: a full France international, a creator of chances and goals – as borne witness to by his magical strike against Everton. He's only 23 and a potential superstar. In an age of nonsensical transfer prices, six million pounds is an absolute snip for a player – a difference maker – of that quality and promise.

With Alan Smith's lame-duck status fresh in their minds and Mike Ashley still attempting to deal the club, it's hard to believe that the bankers will look well upon an investment which isn't a sure thing. The first question is whether or not the Toon will use their first option to buy before the end of the season. If they do, they will be damned with a player who could stumble about a shell of his former self. If not, they risk the next great French player showing his wares at Juventus, Rangers or Sevilla. As simple as it sounds, they don't want that clause to expire as there's no possibility that Ben Arfa will play next season at home club Marseille because he and coach Didier Deschamps don't get along. He will be somewhere else next term, whether it be Newcastle or elsewhere.

Questions remain as to whether or not Newcastle even can survive this season. If they are relegated, this becomes a moot point as there is no chance HBA will play for a second-string team. But whatever happens, it willl be a curious few months for the Toon. Once again the star-cross'd couple of Newcastle United and the fans waltz down the road of uncertainty, hope dashed against the rocks, and of Hatem Ben Arfa.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Book review: Red and Me, by Bill Russell

A few months ago I was in the book shop at the Central Station in Washington DC and happened upon a book by Bill Russell in the remainder bin. It was marked down from $24.99 to $4.99, so I bought it. It was entitled “Red and Me: My Coach, my lifelong friend”. I only recently picked it up to read and without fail, every thirty pages I was forced to exclaim to my wife how horrible a sports book it was with statements like “Now he's claiming to teach an 80-year old Auerbach about basketball from the stands!” or “I can see why it was in the remainder bin” or, less tactfully “What complete and utter BULL SHIT”. Yeah, I was yelling by the end of the sentence.

An insight into a particularly successful coach/player relationship? I think not. It is only 180-odd pages of drivel by a man whose ego simply knows no limits. When many people think back on the age-old “Wilt or Russell” debate, Chamberlain's ability to reel off his statistics and accomplishments has usually marked him the more egotistical of the pair. Russ, however, simply put it as “Eleven rings, ten fingers”. That Wilt only won twice – on mostly inferior teams – was the burden he had to lug about and as such in the “Who's better, who's best” game he had to rely on his extraordinary personal achievements. Russell has always been seen as the less-outspoken and less crass of the pair.

Until now. Red and Me was less about Red and more about Me. It was undoubtedly the most arrogant, selfish, egotistical and self-gratifying sports book I've ever had the misfortune to read and without question ranks at the bottom of the pile. And I've read Dean Jones: One day Magic, Punter: The first Tests of a Champion and the immortally bad Second Coming where Sam Smith attempts to revisit the success he had with The Jordan Rules but with only a modicum of enthusiasm. The point is, I've read some rubbish in my time but never have I read a sports book I enjoyed less.

These are not the recollections of a coach/player relationship and what made it so successful, more an attempted apologetic at how good Bill Russell was as a player. For several years during and after the careers of Wilt and Russell – I hate bringing Wilt's name into this but their careers will always be inextricably linked – Russell always said the Celtics triumphed most often because they had the better teams, which was for the large part true. Now he appears to be coming out saying that his teammates weren't nearly as good as history has made them out, and that all the glory for their championship years should go to him, simply because he was that good. I get the feeling now there is a swell of posthumous support for Chamberlain's case as greater and this is Russell trying to tell everyone that he was the best ever in a very gentle sense. He fails horribly in this.

Throughout the book, as he dwells on his family history, his relationships with his coaches and his experience Russell says “It is better to understand than to be understood” and lets on that this is his personal philosophy, the mantra he's led his life by. What twaddle! It may very well be true, but when he follows it immediately with a “Why do the citizens of Boston hate me?” soliloquy after purporting to understand them it rings very false indeed. He then uses the “... than to be understood” as an excuse to do just as he wants in life and be excused for it, no matter what the consequences on those around him. This makes him look a very sad, extremely angry and ultimately exceedingly lonely man.

Russell has a reputation for being a little spiky, perhaps hard to get to know. He often has refused to sign autographs for young fans, backing it up with statements like “Young children should ask their teacher for their autograph”. Within 30 pages he shoots that argument in the foot automatically and irrevocably by stating that he learnt nothing from his coaches at the University of San Francisco or from Auerbach during their ten years together. Indeed he then says he never respected any coaches he'd had except Red Auerbach, and the reason he held Red in such esteem was that he didn't try to get Russell to play according to team rules but changed the team rules to what was best for the Big Fella. He then says he knew everything about basketball before comin into the NBA as a 22-year old. According to Bill, Red identified early his talent and then essentially gave him carté blanche to do as he pleased.

No-one can ever argue with the record of the Boston Celtics during the 1950s and 1960s. I would have said “No-one can ever argue with Bill Russell's record ...” except this book has engendered such a dislike of the man in me that I now simply refuse to acknowledge him out of the Celtics team. That this man, such an icon of the sporting world, the first black coach in any pro sport comes out and says “I liked Red Auerbach because he let me do things the way I wanted”. No-one can dispute the results of this theory, so perhaps Auerbach was every bit the coach we now think of him as. To effectively get a player with a chip on his shoulder the size of Russell's to suit up and play hard every game ensures Red's reputation as one of the greats but more than that, Red and Me places Bill Russell inelegantly balancing at the top of Sporting Hall of Fame for Complete Dicks.

So to sum up: Red and Me: My Coach, my lifelong friend – 0 stars.

Don't even buy it for your worst enemy.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Where did all the bats go?

I still want a Gray-Nicolls Elite 500 Limited Edition. This bat was released in 1990 (or was it 1991?) during the height of my “I will bat no. 4 for Australia” phase and without question would have earned me many more runs than my trusty old County Sportsman. I even got to hold one a few times as I investigated spending $350 1991-dollars on a bat which I was sure would last me the rest of my life, Australian career included. It was perfectly-balanced and not big on embellishments: no double scoops, no Dynadrive printed on the back, and best of all, no Kookaburra logo.

I was, and probably still am, a Gray-Nicolls man. But do you remember the cricket equipment landscape back then? We were positively spoiled for choice with the number of brands we had to choose from. Where did they all go? Stuart Surridge? Symonds? Gunn & Moore? Duncan Fearnley?

So far as I can make out, Australians currently use one of four bat manufacturers: Gray-Nicolls, Kookaburra, Slazenger and Puma, of whom the first three have been around for years. But let's go back to my halcyon days of cricket and take a peek at what the Aussies used then – I can still recite them off the top of my head: Taylor (GM), Marsh (G-N), Boon (G-N), Border (DF), Jones (Kookaburra), S. Waugh (GM), Healy (Kookaburra), Hughes (County), May (Kookaburra), McDermott (County) and Reid (Never in the middle long enough for me to notice/care). Within that admittedly small sample, there a minimum of five different bat makes, not counting the Symonds that both Waugh and Taylor broke into the side using, the GABBA that McDermott shifted to, nor the Callan that Dean Jones allegedly had re-stickered to look like a Kooka.

To me, this is another sign of how rigid and commercialised Australian cricket has become. The variety of bats any young player was able to pick up at their local cricket club was startling varied – perhaps the best bat I ever used was a late-70's Wisden blade that I could never find in Nestles' CC coffin again. That the bat you use – be it Puma or even MRF – is a measure of your endorsements is a shame: after the tearaway, personality-fuelled days of the 1970s and '80s suddenly the equipment market has become as bland and predictable as the current one-day game. It was indeed a breath of fresh air when late in his career Steve Waugh removed labels from his bats and came out to bat wielding fresh, naked willow.

The answer as to what happened is predictably simple. Some companies, like Impala, failed. Other companies – Duncan Fearnley and Millichamp & Hall chief among them – chose to downscale and focus on local, hand-made equipment amidst the mass of outsourcing & mass production of bat-making to India. County Sports are now Hunt County Sports after being bought out during a takeover. Stuart Surridge has evolved into Surridge Sports and now focuses priority on jerseys for low-tier English football clubs.

I must admit to being surprised on discovering so many of these famous, grand old batmaking companies are still alive and hitting – on starting this article I expected to find the road to our current hell strewn with the fresh or decomposing corpses of failed and taken over artisan companies. Even St. Peter cricket bats still exist, several years on from the immortal image of Tony Greig clad only in all his cricket protective gear saying “When I go home to face the wife, I make sure I'm protected by St. Peter” (I looked hard so as to share this classic image with you but was ultimately unsuccessful. If you know it, you'll remember it).

Unsurprisingly the almighty dollar is singing it's simple, sad, boring and ultimately melancholy song again. The most marketable players in Australia earn the biggest dollars from the biggest sponsors, leaving craftsmen licking their wounds. And when I next get around to purchasing a cricket bat, it will probably for lack of choice be a Kookaburra. Just typing that made me shudder involuntarily and I can feel the bile rising. Ever since Packer, cricket has changed unforgivingly into a multi-billion dollar business where market share goes to the big fish and only niche markets are left for the artists. Which only goes to show that everything that guys care about – beer, women and sporting equipment – the best stuff isn't made and found easily but takes a lot of sampling and groundwork before you happen upon the one best for you.

We'd love to hear your comments on makes of bats which you remember but don't seem to be around so far. We'll compile a list and revisit this topic during the Australian summer to find out “Where are they now”?

With injurious tackles, intent is irrelevant

In her blog piece “de Jong tackle devoid of intent”, ESPN's Rebecca Lowe has completely missed the point with regards overzealous tackling in world football. She describes it as “just one of those incidents”, while saying that Toon manager Chris Hughton was “more angry with referee Martin Atkinson about the penalty than the tackle”. There's no question Hughton would be more concerned about the penalty conceded - Managers focus on what they can control, rather than what they cannot.

Her next sentence however gives the game away. “I think the general consensus is that it was a bad tackle, but it wasn't intended to break his leg”. Of course it wasn't aimed at breaking Hatem Ben Arfa's leg! What ridiculous, fatuous nonsense! Rebecca Lowe has missed the point like an Asamoah Gyan penalty: very rarely will a player set out to intentionally injure another. It occasionally happens – a la Roy Keane and Alf-Inge Haaland – but the fact is Nigel de Jong has form for injurious tackles and as such intent doesn't matter. Either his technique is very poor, his decision making is very poor or he is extremely unfortunate. There is no middle ground. That Lowe suggests that players are now “afraid” to tackle because they risk a card is ludicrous given the voracity with which de Jong has challenged Alonso, Stuart Holden and now Ben Arfa.

To defend a player and say he shouldn't be punished because he didn't mean to injure someone is akin to defending a motorist who by poor driving ability breaks a pedestrian's leg. If you can't do something dangerous well, then you should use caution when applying that dangerous procedure, it's simple risk minimisation. More than that, it's plain common sense and common sense should always apply on the sports field.

A player who tackles poorly deserves to be punished, especially if the tackle seriously hurts another player. Calls for the tackling to be banned for as long as the tackled one are completely unworkable but without question a three-game ban is completely insufficient for a challenge of such magnitude and destructiveness. Repeat offenders, of which there can be no question that de Jong and Wolves' Karl Henry are, must be punished more severely by the powers-that-be. If that is a FA-sanctioned ban or their national team coach omitting them. Intent just doesn't enter into the matter – the result is all that matters. That being said, poor challenges often don't have such a traumatic result, so hindsight is very much the key action in play here.

Perhaps it would be best to assemble a matrix as in the Australian Football League. In such a system, challenges and offences are graded according to whether they are Negligent, Reckless or Intentional and punished according to a sliding scale. Another layer is added if a challenge is assessed as being Low, Medium or High Impact; in this system a player is punished more with a more serious injury. Should a tackle not be ranked as negligent, reckless or intentional then the impact would not count against the “offender” - take for example the Kirk Broadfoot/Antonio Valencia injury three weeks ago.

With this system, the AFL has stamped out a lot of head-high contact and the duty of care in preventing injuries and concussions rests solely on the defender. Many sports have the defender accountable for injuries incurred while guarding their goals, it's time for football to wise up and do likewise.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Game 7: Manchester City vs Newcastle United

As startlingly and dramatically as he arrived, Hatem Ben Arfa's season is likely over courtesy a tackle by Man City destroyer Nigel de Jong. This loss – in the fourth minute of Sunday's match – compounded Newcastle's defeat to a curiously set up Citizens team whose aim seemed to be ensuring defensive stability at the expense of offensive creativity. That City chose to display their creativity at the wing position however was astute as, usually for this season, right-back James Perch was the weakest link in an otherwise tightly-fought game.

Perch has achieved the admirable record of seven games for six cards this term as he struggles to establish himself as the Toon right-back for the future. Perhaps Ryan Taylor's spectacular first performance for the season last week at Chelsea has unsettled him further; again on Sunday he was exploited as David Silva and James Milner consistently forced him into poor defensive position and his inexperience in the top-flight put his teammates under pressure time and again.

He was hardly the only one though. With Coloccini – unexpectedly Newcastle's “pacy” central defender – injured in the 36th minute, Hughton was forced to call upon Sol Campbell to partner Mike Williamson. Williamson was made to pay for his lack of legspeed as he gave away a controversial penalty: from the stands, it looked a certain penalty while replays only clouded the matter, but whatever the result he must be thankful that he didn't receive the automatic red card that should have accompanied the spot kick. That the Tyneside centre-backs (and indeed Perch) are so immobile seems to be their Achilles heel: forever being beaten for pace, they are then forced to tackle from inopportune positions and risk fouling the opposing forwards. That they have been able to achieve a measure of defensive strength so far this year is credit to their technique but it is an ill omen for whenever they are face speedy strikers.

That Adam Johnson went around two Toon defenders (Enrique and Barton) before beating Tim Krul – who has so far delivered exactly what was expected of him: good shot stopping but less of a box-presence – in the 75th minute is an indictment on the defenders Hughton has used this season. It is understandable to rely on Enrique and Perch given the paucity of options but the entire back four has too often been shaped too squarely and allowed opposing defenders to break the offside trap and to create easy chances. That the scorer was Johnson, with the most tricks of any Sky Blue winger, is unsurprising as he again is a mobile flanker rather than a positional threat.

Jonas Gutierrez was superb on the left flank and will need to maintain performances of this level should creative hub HBA remain on the disabled list. His 24th minute goal following up his own cross left five Man City defenders bewildered and bemused in his wake. More repeats of a similar tune from Newcastle though – presence through the wings (if slightly effeminate ones with lightweights Routledge and Gutierrez), with the impressive Barton and Tiote manning the centre of midfield.

Shola Ameobi made his third straight start for the Magpies, leaving Andy Carroll on the bench. The Boy Wonder came on with thirteen minutes remaining in place of Kevin Nolan who was both sporadically effective and subdued. Long a whipping boy of the terraces, Ameobi scored thrice in his first two starts this year to earn himself another attempt in the opening lineup and comments from the manager (thinly veiled at Carroll) that no-one's starting place is considered holy. Even neutral observers have can say Ameobi's had a better fortnight than the New New Messiah. Unfortunatley, Shola basically doesn't have the same ability or Greek-god physique that Carroll sports, meaning he doesn't have the same happy knack of creating time for himself or others in the opposition's area. His appeals for a late penalty were optimistic but had he not been dispossessed as easily by Gareth Barry ten minutes before, perhaps the Toon wouldn't have needed a late spot kick. Simply by virtue of their respective talent levels, expect Carroll to start again at home to Wigan after the international break.

Another close defeat by Newcastle. They seem to be making a good fist so far of staying up – apart from the first match against Man Utd they've been in every match until quite late. However, it is time for the Magpies to start turning close-run defeats and draws into wins. This will come with greater defensive efficiency and more consistency going forward from their so-called flair players.

van Marwijk sets a laudable precedent

With his decision not to select Nigel De Jong for the Netherlands two Euro 2012 qualifiers this week against Moldova & Sweden, coach Bert van Marwijk has made a call which should be roundly applauded all over the football world.

Nigel de Jong is not a hack. Nor is he a thug. Unfortunately however, he has approached the latter title with his performances over recent months. His high-kick to Xabi Alonso in the World Cup notwithstanding, de Jong has been the subject of scrutiny for his tackles throughout this Premier League season, with the heat intensifying since this weekend's leg-breaking challenge on new Newcastle Golden Boy Hatem Ben Arfa. Although the tackle was innocuous enough at the time, it left Ben Arfa with not one broken bone in his lower leg but two, and his crumpled form lies alongside those others de Jong has injured during his time in England; names like Alonso and Stuart Holden.

Over recent years we've seen a number of defenders receive death threats due to either the injudiciousness or unluckiness of their tackles – Martin Taylor and Ryan Shawcross spring readily to mind – but rarely does the punishment, which in England maxes out at a three game ban, fit the offense. “He's not that type of player” is often trotted out when one player is injured by the tackle of another. I haven't honestly seen enough of de Jong to say whether he is suffers from bad technique, bad judgement or bad luck, but with repeat offenses a player moves catgories from “not that guy” to “not him again”. The issue here however is not whether the Man City midfielder is evil, misguided or even unlucky. It's that his national team coach van Marwijk has chosen not to select him as punishment for his indiscretions.

When Holland's manager said in the media he couldn't select a player who has committed such acts, he must be balancing two trains of thought. First, he is certainly thinking about the results of his team. The publicity de Jong has received due to these unfortunate leg-breaking incidents is sure to be remembered by any referee he happens to cross. Should the big fella even blink incorrectly he risks immediate and harsh sanctions, potentially leaving the Netherlands down a man against big group rivals Sweden. Better to leave him out for this International Break, let the furore simmer down and select him next time.

Second though, BVM must be thinking of the big picture. The job of creating and guiding a team philosophy is solely that of the manager. It is his selection of both playing and back-room personnel that indicate the personality of a team and he's the one who both lays down and enforces standards. By van Marwijk refusing to select a player who has form for injurious challenges it sends a message both to Nigel de Jong and the rest of the football world that malarkey of this kind is not to be tolerated – should you tackle poorly, there will be ramifications. He should be congratulated for taking such a stand. It's unlikely his decision will be emulated by other managers as they may not have either the replacement talent at their disposal, nor the job security to be able to omit one of their most productive players. The man in charge making statements about the players he will or will not select is a very clear message, and loud enough that it should be heard all over the football world.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Quebec Saints win the OAFL Grand Final

OAFL Division 2 Grand Final 2010

After a season on the road which included seven round-trips to Toronto and two to their “home” venue in Ottawa, the Quebec Saints have repeated as Division 2 Premiers in the Ontario Australian Football League. The kilometres travelled were well worth the celebration as the Newest Club in Canada – sporting a roster containing only five of last year's premiership players – convincingly outplayed the Central Blues in what proved a hard-fought and remarkably intense encounter.

Both teams made several changes for the Decider. For the Blues, tall midfielder Carl Hastrich proved the major inclusion while the Montrealers welcomed back four who missed the Semi-Final due to injury: the erratic but athletic Nico Pouessel, tough-as-nails defender Lachy Trumble, playmaker Kyle Graham and big man James-Robert Theis.

The Blues, who began the season on paper as many's tip to win the Division, were ultimately unable to repel the forward-sweeping forays of the Saints. Early in the first term it became apparent that the Saints were more adept in the wet, greasy conditions and were playing high on confidence after their ten-goal Second Semi Final win against Central. Even with the Blues playing a loose man in defense for the majority of the quarter the ball remained in the Blues' defensive half with the Saints half-back line pushing up and preventing the ball being moved into the Blues forward zone; with Trumble and “Eddy Baby” Duff marshaling the defence, the Blues forwards looked overmatched and unable to stamp their influence on the game.

The Saints though were unable to convert their midfield dominance and forward pressure into a sizable lead on the scoreboard; the first goal came at the ten minute mark when Pouessel snapped truly from 25 metres. Although they ended the quarter with only the one major, the Saints looked confident moving into the second term as Darrin Haverhoek was typically effective at the contest and able to get free into open spaces in order to use his devastating footskills. As per usual, Ryan Oxley set the tone for the Quebec side with his willingness to put his head over the ball and make the extra handpass.

The second quarter was astonishingly similar to the first. After his sublime performance as a leading forward in the Second Semi, captain Mat Wilson found himself subdued early by the double-teaming Blues defenders. This in turn left Theis and the late-arriving Cam Beaman single-covered and the half-forward line became the strength the Saints set about exploiting. Big Jim was superb in retrieving the contested ball and while Beaman didn't take the marks that have made him among the Division B&F's top vote-winners, he provided a strong body and won the ball often at ground level, while frequently being the target of several high contacts. Excellent forward pressure came from Dan Barker and Mark Morin, while Duff, Greg Bretiere and Jason Hodgson in the backline had the measure of their Central opponents. Again the Saints were inaccurate – and occasionally selfish – in front of goal but they managed another major through Theis and the favourites went into half-time up 2.6 to 0.1.

The Premiership Quarter belonged to the Province of Quebec. The Blues tried valiantly to even up the midfield matchups in the third quarter, but to no avail. Although coming off a down year, ruckman Matt Wood used deft touches to bring Graham, Pouessel and Haverhoek first use of the ball. They found the mad Irishman Ronan Shaughnessy and Oxley willing targets on the wings who then proceeded to tear the Central defence to shreds with raking, accurate entries into the forward 50. Confident they'd quelled Wilson, Blues coach Jaye Macumber chose to double-team the dangerous Beaman and almost instantly the Saints found Wilson leading strongly three times for two Captain's conversions. Shaughnessy then kicked the goal of the day while trapped in the right forward pocket, slotting it through after shrugging off two tackles. After weeks of stressing the importance of shepherding and protecting the ball carrier, the Blues were clearly unable to cope with the work ethic of a Saints team who for most of the season have looked much more comfortable offensively than defensively. The Premiership Quarter produced five Saints goals to one.

As the teams broke for three quarter time, the Blues were obviously rattled. They'd kicked one goal for the match via a 50-metre penalty and were looked very ragged. One of the Saints' bright hopes for the future Lagace came into the game in the second half as a sweeper and was able to produce run and stability from half back. As the minutes ticked away, the Saints coaches were able to relax until the final siren sounded with the Saints victorious 9.7.61 to 2.1.13. Haverhoek tireless performance on the ball saw him voted the Best on Ground, while retiring Coach and Administrator couple Luke and Dani Anderson were fittingly, charmingly chaired from the field.

Quebec Saints AFC 1.4 2.6 7.7 9.7.61

Central Blues AFC 0.0 0.1 1.1 2.1.13

Best: (Que): Haverhoek, Oxley, Duff, Shaughnessy, Poussel, Graham, Beaman.

Best: (Cen): Macumber, Gibson, Hastrich, Monero.

Goals: (Que): Wilson, Haverhoek, Shaughnessy 2, Oxley, Pouessel, Theis.

Goals: (Cen): Monero, Fraser.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Not a patch on '86

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A statistical comparison of the 1986 team that toured India with today's Aussie tourists.