Thursday, September 30, 2010

Who's better, who's best?

The mother country Old Blighty, England, the home of Three Lions, Jason Statham and most importantly Doctor Who is rumoured to have pulled out of the running to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Their bid process was beset by scandal from the beginning – the affair of bid-chief Lord Triesman, controversy surrounding the awarding of handbags to FIFA representatives and finally, Triesman's magnificent-in-its-folly “The Spanish are bribing the Russians” being leaked to the press.

FIFA regulations require each country or countries to bid for two world cups – 2018 and 2022. Eleven countries began the process and since then both Mexico and Indonesia have withdrawn leaving England, Spain, Russia the USA and Australia as the five favourites to host the world's largest sporting event. It has been reported recently via several news sources – including ESPN Soccernet and – that the English bid has chosen to focus on winning only the 2018 event, rather than 2022, taking opposite tactics to those of Australia, Qatar, South Korea and Japan.

It's looking increasingly likely that Europe will host the 2018 Cup. The two before will have been held in South America and Africa, meaning it's probable one of England, Spain or Russia will host the tournament. It's unlikely that FIFA will sanction two consecutive World Cups in the same continent nor would they tend to go for “repeat business” – Japan and Korea joint-hosted in 2002 – meaning almost by default the USA and Australia become the first choices for 2022.

As an Australian living in North America, I can't wait for decision day on 2nd December this year: whatever decision FIFA council comes up with, I benefit! In reality however, the World Cup is so iconic that it seems a pity to see two countries equally adept at putting on a show to fight it out for the honour and money that comes to the host.

Look at what the 1994 World Cup did for the USA. The majority of the USA's well-performed 2010 World Cup squad would have been in Elementary school in 1994 and football now is making a strong push to be considered the fifth major North American sport. Surely it's time to give that opportunity to Australia, long a producer of quality players and occasionally quality teams, but on a shoestring budget as football is still fighting off basketball, lawn bowls and horse racing for a place in the national sporting consciousness.

At the time of the 2022 World Cup – assuming as most do that 2018 will be awarded to Europe – since 1970, South America will have hosted three Cups, Europe six, North America three and Asia and Africa both only one. It's time for FIFA to embrace Asia again and award the World Cup to the confederation which would benefit from it most.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why I fear Man City

As an English Premier League supporter, the reason I fear Man City is simple. Money. The manner in which they've splashed money about on transfers and wages is equivalent only to the height of the Real Madrid Galactico era. The only saving grace is they've spent it somewhat unwisely, apparently thinking the route to the Premiership goes through defensive midfielders and not-quite-elite strikers (with the exception of Carlos Tevez).

Manchester City is on the verge of becoming THE superpower in World Football. And being a Man Utd supporter, it hurts and scares me to write such a thing. City's vast pockets and financial backing has put them on a footing similar to that of Apple in the MP3 player market. Everyone knows of Apple's incredible reserves of money, resources, manpower and creativity in delivering services yet it remains unspoken, almost a taboo subject for fear of offending them – with the information Apple has the ability to collect, they could really mess with you.

The parallels are stark: Manchester City has incredible reserves of money, resources beyond those of any other football club and manpower in the shape of Carlos Tevez, James Milner and David Silva. The only thing they're missing is methodical creativity, which I'm sure they'll purchase next transfer window. The backing that these two entities have allows them to be major players – almost inevitably the major players – in their spheres of influence. If it were Real Madrid, Liverpool or even Chelsea rather than City holding the cards, I wouldn't fear so much – they have all been a big fish. City doesn't have that experience and their attitude over the past two years hasn't been a picture of a controlled, powerful figure but more of a baby brother who's all grown up and immaturely throwing his weight around.

I am in no way suggesting that Apple is using their clout in any way that's not perfectly respectable or legal. Nor is City. The rules as they stand allow teams to have financial benefactors who pay for the best players. That they've seen fit to employ players like Patrick Vieira is a boon to other clubs, but I'm sure in a year or two you'll see Manchester City's oil-fuelled rampage to the top of the Premier League end with them crowned Champions, surrounded by the twitching, dying, debt-ridden bodies of the Old Guard Liverpool, Arsenal and Man U.

The King is dead. Probably. Long live the King. Damn.

Extra Time in the Grand Final? No thanks.

After watching the Australian Football League Grand Final on Saturday morning (Montreal time), you must say that two fantastic football teams played themselves to a standstill. Post game, Nick Maxwell's suggestion they'd been “robbed of a result” was a painful statement for the neutral to hear because though he may have felt denied, were extra time to be played on Australian Sports' Day Of All Days the whole AFL fanbase wouldn't bear witness to what shapes as an extraordinary second half.

On Saturday, we witnessed one of the great Grand Finals, right up there with Hawthorn and Geelong in 1989, Brisbane and Collingwood in 2002 and last year's Geelong/St. Kilda epic. In fact, the match had many similarities to last year's decider – one team dominating the first half only to be pegged back by a more battle-tested finals team. Players like Lenny Hayes or Darren Jolly deserve a second chance to show their wares while players “down” on the day (Harry O'Brien, I'm looking at you) deserve the chance to make amends. The reaction of both sides was a sight I will never forget and the baying of the crowd at the Sports Bar at the Pepsi Forum was incredible, simply because everyone became so invested in the match even if they weren't actively supporting Collingwood or St Kilda.

The last-gasp deeds of guys like Goddard and Davis demand a replay. Season 2010 demands a replay. An outstanding umpiring display demands a replay. The drama that Saturday's last quarter produced could no doubt be sustained for the ten-minute extra time period, but were the Grand Final to finish that way I think everyone would admit to feeling robbed. These teams deserve to go at it again, and for each to give the other their best shot. The greatest load this week will be on the trainers, sports scientists and the physiotherapists whose job it will be to get sore bodies ready again after such an intense encounter.

After such a battle between teams who simply couldn't best each other – take Nick Maxwell's goal-saving dive in the last quarter, Brendon Goddard's last half or Lenny Hayes' last quarter goal for example – for fans to say that five minutes of extra time each half would be for the best is a nonsense. Pending a draw next week, the AFL has gone on record as saying Extra Time will occur. The sporting calendar can't take a third Grand Final so the idea of a second replay becomes an instant non-starter. There needs to be a time where the AFL Commission says Enough is Enough and they've done so appropriately here.

History says that the team plagued with inaccuracy struggles in the Grand Final. Two years ago Geelong wasted their chances to put Hawthorn away in the second quarter. Last year, St. Kilda had every opportunity to seal the game against the Cats but were unable to convert; only for the Cats to claw their way back into the match. Collingwood will have the biggest mental hurdle to cover this week as they look at how players like Travis Cloke and Jarryd Blair muffed their opportunities to bury St. Kilda. A great point raised by Maxwell in his Sunday press conference was that the Collingwood youngsters who hadn't previously played in a Grand Final now have experience on the grandest stage of all. This could be crucial as both sides suggested that they had several players “down” and as a result they may be better equipped to deal with the crowd and pressure.

One must applaud the AFL in changing the law allowing only next week's victors to receive a Premiership medal. Until Tuesday it appeared that only those who take the field next weekend would take home a prize, leaving those who miss out – perhaps Michael Gardiner and Sean Dempster due to injury – without a medal. On Tuesday they announced changes to this, meaning any player who steps onto the field during the course of the two Deciders will be presented with his trophy.

Congratulations to the AFL, the coaches and the players involved in Saturday's triumph. Everyone involved in the first instalment of the Grand Final have surpassed themselves – except the pre-game entertainment – and we can only hope the decider, as needed as it is can provide a fitting conclusion to a wonderful year.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Split Innings as unimaginative as ODIs now are

This season Cricket Australia, in their infinite wisdom, have chosen to experiment with the format of their annual One-Day cricket tournament. Long thought of as the best domestic competition in the World, probably for as long as Australia's been thought of as the best cricketing nation in the world, it finds itself now struggling for relevancy in a cricketing world where Twenty20 is king.

Although the Sheffield Shield is probably still the strongest first-class competition in the world, the Ford Ranger Cup has become lost in the midst of the imports boasted by the KFC T20 Big Bash as well as the loss of free-to-air broadcaster Channel 9's television rights. For the past two years, the only way to watch local one-day matches has either been to make it down to games or to pay $40 per month for Foxtel.

In order to arrest the decline, CA has decided to revolutionise the format of Domestic One-Day matches and split each team's fifty overs in twain. This move comes with the ICC's blessing as it desperately tries to stop the slide of the One Day International into triviality. This trial is to be undertaken when the “International” players have departed for the World Cup late in the summer. As in a first-class match, each team will bat twice unless of course the unthinkable happens and a side wins by an innings. Each team will receive 25 overs in each innings but the second innings will carry on from exactly the same point at which the first was finished. That is, if a number four batsman is 55*, then he will resume at that score. If a bowler has bowled eight overs out of the first twenty-five, then he will resume in the second innings with only two overs to bowl. Thus, it's very much a split innings rather than a two-innings T20.

The simple question is this: Why? I can understand that generally in day/night matches the side batting first tends to have the advantage simply because the cooler air and dew in the atmosphere creates a ball which moves through the air more easily. This in turn makes batting more difficult for the team batting second. The split innings format gives both teams equal opportunity to make use of both sets of conditions. Fine, fair enough, I get it – it minimises the impact of the Toss. But the toss has been such an integral part of cricket since it's inception that this move doesn't so much minimise it as make it irrelevant. Splitting innings only confusing the issue (Cricket isn't confusing? I live in Montreal, Canada. You try explaining cricket to someone who hasn't grown up with it. Now try with a split innnings. I thought so.) If it's “fairness” you worry about, you can explore the options regarding the 12th Man a little more – make the extra player available so that the finals squad selections are made after the toss. This would allow both sides to pick and choose their players depending on when they're going to bat. This is cricket and players should have enough skills to play in all conditions.

The problem is one of differentiation. For thirty years, the smash-and-grab routine was solely the dominion of the One-Day fixture. Now the baseball format, Sorry, now that T20 has announced it's arrival and dominates the money and public interest in short fixtures, the role of specialist short-form players like Shaun Tait and David Warner has become even more curious. One Day matches are now only seen as a pale imitation of T20, for better or for worse. The moment David Warner made his debut for Australia in an ODI was the day the death-knell sounded for international One Day Cricket. Because of his ability to cleanly hit a ball in the hit-n-giggle format, Australia took into an ODI a player not good enough to play for his state in matches of the same length.

There are plenty of options – and it's not like One Day cricket hasn't seen enough innovations in the past – but really, the game has existed on the International stage for forty years and there are too many defining moments to let it simply sail into the sunset unimpeded. Who could forget Steve Waugh running behind the sightscreen to catch Rodger Harper in 1989? Or Aaqib Javed's 7-for as a seventeen year-old? To condemn these moments to ancient history by the inaction or wrongful action of the ICC would be negligent on the same scale as the guy who inspected Chernobyl trying to save money by using candles rather than torches.

Without question, the best option is to decrease both the number of T20 and One-Day fixtures that each team plays, domestic or international. Restrict access – the first law of business, of entertainment even, has always been to maintain control of your monopoly and to restrict access to your products – reveal only what you have to.

The International Cricket Council and the Control Boards are obviously reticent to take this action. So perhaps the best option is to change One Day matches to make them so different from T20 that the two can't be mistaken – so that there can't be a comparison, as in Tests and 50-over fixtures. Change the goalposts, as it were, so it takes a different skill-set to thrive in the conditions laid down. In the 1990s the ICC experimented with having a new white ball at each end and with replacing the ball after thirty overs. Why not go down that route again? Swing the advantage back at the bowlers and watch real batsmen, those able to defend as well as attack. The next option could be something as left-field as a randomly-assigned group of fielding restriction overs, where a computer randomly generates three groups of three overs in which fielding restrictions must be in place. Why not give the team batting second one extra fielding restriction over? This would give the Toss more relevance and the captain's decision less of a fait d'accompli. Perhaps raise – or remove entirely – the limit on the number of short balls that the batsmen can face per over. The options are endless. But to plump for a split innings simply because it's easiest is unimaginative and easy – two words which diametrically oppose to the spirit of One Day cricket.

The point here is to sway the game rather than changing the game by looking at quick fix scenarios. One Day cricket has become safe, passé and predictable in it's “innings building”. As fans we don't necessarily want runs or big hits – we want entertainment whether that comes through wickets, great fielding or good batsmanship. The game started as an exciting experiment and has slowly become formulaic and staid - everything it set out not to be. It's time to reverse that, one complete innings at a time.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Carling Cup: Ameobi subverts Carroll as New Messiah

Two high-profile debuts down for two improbable victories. In Sol Campbell's first game in a Newcastle shirt the Magpies pulled off another unlikely victory away at Chelsea, a team previously undefeated this season. Following Saturday's win at Everton, the Tyneside faithful are singing as loudly as ever and charmingly, slightly off-pitch.

Campbell's influence was moderate at best. A dubious penalty notwithstanding, the team shopped three goals, at times looked outpaced by a very speedy Chelsea unit and were saved only by an injury-time header by Shola Ameobi, since anointed on internet chatboards as Newcastle's New New Saviour. Rumours abound that the two-goal hero may replace last month's passé New Saviour Andy Carroll as target man for the weekend's match is tempered only with a modicum of talk about how Carroll has actually played recently.

There's talk of silverware – after six weeks, no less – and in Hughton and his boys the Toon army have found a club they feel are worthy of their support. Their depth, rightly questioned in the past, has perhaps become a strength as the Gaffer saw fit to play Ryan Taylor (what a free kick – sublime!), Peter Lovenkrands, old warhorse Alan Smith, Campbell and Ameobi alongside the youth of Nile Ranger, Tim Krul, Haris Vukcic and Shane Ferguson. From all accounts, Ferguson and Ranger were particularly effective, if occasionally overawed by the spectacle of playing a strong Blues side at Stamford Bridge.

With the news that No. 1 Goalkeeper Steve Harper is out (shoulder) until Christmas, discussion now centres even more around Krul and his suitability to replace the Grand Old Man of Tyneside Keeping. The Dutchman must be aware of new talk linking the club to an emergency loan deal for Shay Given but that for now remains pie-in-the-sky. Krul's game on Wednesday was just fair as he showed glimpses of talent but failed show display the requisite strength to command his area effectively. If a goalie fails to command his area, he must be an excellent communicator and a lack of this communication between himself and Campbell – as well as Ranger's ineffectual box presence – was at fault for the first goal.

An encouraging win to continue an promising start to the season. That the fans are discussing silverware is obviously both amusing, premature and true-to-form, but with a start like they've had there's no reason that Newcastle can't continue to surprise their opposition. Silverware, however, remains a long way away.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sol Campbell makes his debut for Newcastle United

After an ill-fated experience playing in black and white last year with Notts County, Sol Campbell tonight gets his enormous frame up to make his first bow as Newcastle United alum against Chelsea. It could prove a very interesting occasion as during his cup of coffee at the Emirates last season he proved he can still be a very effective positional defender, if not as athletically dominant as he was in his pomp. And to be fair, Sol's pomp was a decade ago.

Newcastle seems well-endowed with athletically-limited-but-good-positionally centre backs this season especially considering Steven Taylor has yet to feature due to his pre-season shoulder dislocation. Fabricio Coloccini could perhaps be the archetypal leaden-footed battalion commander and understudy Mike Williamson has won many initial skeptics over since his transfer from Portsmouth in January. It's likely that we'll see at least Williamson tonight as Chris Hughton experiments with a squad which has remained relatively steadfast over the course of the season so far.

Tim Krul and Ole Soderberg take the reins as goalkeeper and backup after Steve Harper's shoulder injury and they may face a flurry of peppered shots from the young legs fielded by Chelsea. Blues boss Carlo Ancelotti has made noises about starting several youthful players, especially as Captain John Terry and playmaker Frank Lampard sit out with injuries. Dan Sturridge has looked impressive, particularly in last week's Champions League tie and is blessed with pace that would win him selection for most countries Olympics squads, while Gael Kakuta has been long-trumpeted as the speedy future of Chelsea's left flank. To match up with another Premier League side in the third round of the competition could be disappointing for Premiership sides seeking advancement and eventually silverware, but could Chelsea really look for more encouragement for their youth than being faced with sticks-in-the-mud Campbell and Alan Smith?

Campbell comes to Newcastle after rebuffing interest from other EPL clubs including Arsenal. On arriving Tyneside, he said it was nice to feel wanted again and the Toon army should be confident he in him being more an asset this term than a hindrance. But in choosing to debut him in this match, Hughton's chosen a curious time. Sure, it's the Carling Cup and no-one will mind particularly if Newcastle are beaten by heavily-favoured Chelsea. But with his pace comparable to a guy in a bogged wheelchair the fixture very much becomes feast or famine. Either Campbell will be exposed for pace or he will triumph simply by his smarts; middle ground will prove very difficult to come across.

To quote Aussie race driver Dick Johnson “Old Age and dirty tricks will always triumph over youth and exuberance”. Agreeable sentiments you'll agree. But this age-old Immovable Object and Irresistible force dilemma could be skewed when the youth of Chelsea choose not to run through the Immovable Object but around it.

Debate: Is the BCCI the root of all evil?

Today's post features Matthew Wood of Balanced Sports and Subash Jayaraman of the cricket couch and concerns a few issues around the upcoming India vs. Australia Test series.

Matt: A transitional period for the Australian Test team has left them with a series of underwhelming performances and less expectations of a win in India since, arguably, the infamous 1986 series. In many ways, the teams sent by Australia are similar: some grizzled veterans and some players just finding their feet in Test cricket. The rise in political prominence of India in world cricket has not necessarily mirrored the fortunes of their Test team, even though the Indians hold the world number 1 Test ranking. It's no secret that the ICC has bent over backwards in recent times to ensure the happiness of the Indian cricket establishment, meaning that it's only now that their match performances are of the same level of clout that their board for control wields. Simply put though, India's performances have not been those of a World Number 1 and they hold the position more because of the failings of the other elite cricket nations rather than through any particular form of their own. Sure they haven't lost many matches of late, but it's very difficult to lose or win when groundsmen keep serving up pitches with all the variable bounce of an airport runway. The major question is whether Australia are able to get through this series unscathed by injuries and without uproar generated by the machinations of a rabid Indian media and some of the under-stimulated, over-arrogant prima donna-style Indian cricketers.

Subash: Whoa, slow down mate. You began with the resemblance of the current Australia Test team to those from the 1980s and seamlessly led into a tirade against the BCCI and India's seemingly undeserved Number One ranking. Let me try to respond one at a time.

Listen, the system is set up in such a way that a team that has not won a Test series in Australia or South Africa can be Number One. It's not India's fault. India can only play the teams wherever and whenever they are scheduled to. If Sri Lanka wants to lay out a road of a pitch, how is that India's fault? While talking on flat pitches, let's not forget Sydney and Adelaide. They may not be an airport runway, but they are certainly at least interstate highways. If you take out the Australian team from the early part of this decade, India has been a real consistent performer winning Test series in the West India, England, Pakistan and New Zealand. They gave Australia a run for their money in 2003-04 and if not for Blind Bucknor, the 2008-09 series Down Under could have been different too. The success of India has been due largely to its middle order, Anil Kumble and seam bowlers stepping up here and there. Yeah, the Indian team may not be as dominant as the Australia team of the 2007 Ashes but it certainly (when healthy) is the best of the lot in any playing condition.

Matt: As you say mate, one at a time - let's start with the World Number 1 ranking. There's no question in my mind that Australia aren't worthy of the Test No. 1 ranking. In fact, given the paucity of elite talent in world cricket today I think it's fair to say that none of the major teams bar South Africa are as strong as they were five years ago. India has the ranking due to the current ratings system - the only system of judgment we have - but they've hardly had to wrest the title from the cold, dead hands of the previous title holders (South Africa) and before that, Australia. I'm not accusing India (or the arch-nemesis of World Cricketing Commonsense, the BCCI) of rigging the system at all, more that they have the rating but haven't had to dethrone a King like Australia did in the Windies in 1995, who in turn did the same to Australia in 1978. With regards to No. 1 teams, I'm actually not a big fan of official rankings - everyone knew the Windies in the 80s were the best side and the ratings done since say the Kiwis were second best because Pakistan didn't play enough, which is laughable - and India can only play the teams on their schedule, but it just doesn't feel right that they've taken the belt without beating the champ - or in this case assumed a vacant belt after beating a legitimate No. 1 contender.

Subash: You got that straight. Once the giants like Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist retired, the quality in the Aussie Test side dropped precipitously and became only a matter of time before they lost #1 status. In all fairness, India did beat them 2-0 in a 4 match series in 2009, didn't they? Sure, they have not won a series in Australia but the Indians have performed pretty admirably over the last 5-7 years.

As to your point of India not dethroning a reigning world champion - you have a point. However, they have been the closest and most consistently competitive team to the great Aussie teams of '90s and 2000s. Surely that has to amount to something?

It has become an easy play for any administrator/writer from England or Australia to blame BCCI for anything and everything that's wrong with Cricket. Get over it already. I am not saying BCCI is a perfectly professionally run outfit, but can any cricket board make a claim to that? As you may have noticed, once India became the "official" #1 Test side, the BCCI scrambled around to schedule more Test matches - even going as far as converting a 7 match ODI series in to a 2-Test + 3 ODI tour and scheduling the Test series in South Africa. Sure, BCCI flex their muscles from time to time but Australia and England have been doing that for ages. Consider it a little payback.

Matt: So we both agree India hasn't wrested the cup from a reigning champ but simply waltzed into the No. 1 spot through a lack of better options? Then it seems we agree - that's what I consider unworthy. Yep, just like Australia's current government, assuming power simply because everyone can't decide who's better leads to a hollowness of that title on a par to "You're the best looking person - in Boston" or "You're an International footballer - for American Samoa".

The power however that the BCCI has gained over the ICC - though justified due to their coffers - has become a millstone for the International Cricket community's neck. That a board can decide to boycott matches when they dislike the decision of a Match Referee is completely opposite any tendencies of ECB & CA-swayed councils of the past. Perhaps it is true that those two nations have held more sway than most over the initial history of cricket but under their watch the cricketing world expanded from two countries to nine and they never forwent the responsibility of building the game.

It seems from the outside that because of their TV rights, the BCCI has an "I brought the bat & ball, if you don't play by my rules I will go home" attitude. The BCCI has been crass in its handling of so many issues recently - from their blockade of the candidacy of John Howard for ICC Vice-President going back as far even as the mess around Harbhajan Singh & Andrew Symonds - meaning that although cricket fans worldwide acknowledge their power, they do so in a similar manner to Pakistanis acknowledging the power of their government - at metaphorical gunpoint.

Subash: It is very true that India have become the top ranked team (without beating the top ranked team in their own backyard in a series) based on a system and without any dominant team around. Its possibly a case of "In a country of blind, the one-eyed man is king" but that should not take away India's due credits.

The BCCI may function in mysterious and crass ways in dealing with some issues. Let's take the case of Steve Bucknor. I commend the BCCI for twisting the ICC's arm in getting Bucknor out of that series in Australia. It was long overdue. I understand umpires are human and they make mistakes. But there is one distinction when it comes to Bucknor: he was a pinball wizard, deaf, dumb and blind. He needed to go. You remember the farce in the world cup final in Barbados 2007, don't you? In the case of John Howard, the BCCI may have influenced other boards but we are not completely sure so let's now throw muck around like Ijaz Butt without concrete proof. However, several boards had legitimate beef with Howard's selection as the ICC's VP including Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. However, as an Australian, you know very well his past as a politician and I, for one, am happy that Howard was not selected. Wrong means to the right end. Let's call it justice.

Listen - there have been several instances in the past where in an on-field incident involving a player from England/Australia and a player from the sub-continent, the former almost always got away with lighter punishment. Too many instances to quote here. With the Harbhajan/Symonds "monkey" incident, why wasn't it that Harbhajan said "Maa ki" and Symonds misheard? Oh, how can we trust what anyone from the subcontinent says, right? Of course, the Aussies were bathed in the ocean of self-righteousness when they were born and they could never lie or do anything contrary to the spirit of the game, right? Come on. It was, at best, a case of "he said, she said" and you cannot prove one story or the other. If the BCCI had not intervened, it would have resulted in Harbhajan being suspended and nothing more. So I am completely alright with what the BCCI did here.

Matt: Hang about a bit. You're suggesting that because the result was "needed" - and that's a separate debate entirely - then the means justifies the ends? I'm sorry but that's a viewpoint I can never agree with. I think that's it's a mistake to simplify the game down to the level of: Bucknor needed to go so it's good that he went, no matter how it was done. I was not Bucknor's biggest fan, but to threaten and twist arms because of umpiring decisions is a sign of the board's immaturity. In any cricket match, both sides will walk away feeling hard done by the umpires. You can write that down in stone alongside death, taxes and Sri Lankan pitches favouring batsmen. And the home team will almost always get the benefit of the doubt more so than the touring side - it's human nature and occurs in every single sporting contest the world over. No question his infamy for making slow, allegedly "well thought out" decisions cost him here as it allowed him more time to be influenced by a home crowd, but for a control board to complain, cajole and threaten enough to lead to one umpire's dismissal is plain and simple bullying. You can say the same for the Harbhajan/Symonds clash - to threaten to walk away summarily from a Test series because of what essentially amounted to an umpiring decision is again a case of unripe vine fruit. Of course it was he said/she said - the adjudicator ruled in one direction because he felt he had enough evidence to do so; it's just a pity that the issue became so cloudy due to ICC red tape and the self-righteousness of every single cricketer involved in that incident save perhaps Tendulkar. And to say "If BCCI had not intervened, it would have resulted in Harbhajan being suspended and nothing more" - and surely that's the point? A suspension and nothing more?

Subash: Look at this "arm twisting by BCCI" from an average Indian fan's point of view. We see it as long-overdue justice. The Anglo-Australian axis has been running the show for too long and many of the decisions seemingly have gone against teams/players from the sub-continent. Aussies have been getting away with their boorish on-field behaviour in the name of "hard nosed gamesmanship" and "That's how the Aussies play their cricket" for a long time. It was about time someone drew a line in the sand and said "Enough is enough". It may seem crass and even look like the rich kid taking away his bat and ball after a wrong decision, but it needed to be done. We, the sub-continental fans, have felt aggrieved with the biased decision making of match referees but haven't been able to do much about it.

My saying that the Harbhajan episode would've led to "a suspension and nothing more" if the BCCI had not intervened was to point out the fact that Symonds instigated that event and would have gotten away without any punishment. I am not saying Harbhajan is a saint, but Aussies are known as instigators and pretending they did nothing wrong. Once again, too many instances to quote here.

This attitude of Aussie fans/writers/board to paint the BCCI as the Satan is a little too much. If you have such misgivings, why not just cut off the relations? Wait, they need the money. Let's get one thing straight: no cricket board is holier than any other. They are all run by power hungry, money grabbing, self-pretentious, holier than thou pricks. Usually, the fans get screwed by one thing or the other yet we try to defend them due to misplaced jingoism. As Forrest Gump says, "That's all I have to say about that."

Matt: Surely if you feel that you have been wronged, then the worst thing to do when you obtain power is to punish those who did similar to you? If you applied that to life in the world, then we're going to be faced with an ongoing "War on Terrorism" for the rest of our lives simply because the attitude of "I've been wronged, so when I get big enough and strong enough I will punish you", creates a never-ending cycle of vengeance. In my opinion, that simply does not wash and the boards are the ones who should be responsible for the sanctity and health of the game and not for partisan politics - which as you point out, all are. However, given it's unusual power the BCCI plays the political game with more verve and relish than anyone else.

I also reject that decisions have consistently gone against cricketers from the subcontinent. I'm sure everyone's favourite umpire Bucknor, Mike Gatting, Johan Botha and perhaps even Darrell Hair would disagree. In all four cases these men were punished for crossing subcontinental "authorities", whether their actions justified it or not. There's also a case to see things from their point of view not just that of subcontinental cricket fans. Botha could perhaps be the unluckiest of the lot - when there were serious question marks about Muralitharan's action (another debate for another time, that one!), due subcontinental uproar the ICC changed the laws of the game to allow him to continue bowling. Did Botha, Henry Olonga, Grant Flower, Jermaine Lawson or even Ian Meckiff receive the same treatment? I'm afraid your argument that the subcontinent has copped the brunt of the ICC's wrath really doesn't hold water for mine.

But - and this is what makes cricket such a wonderful talking point - that is a matter of opinion. Your experiences and those of the subcontinental cricket fan make for a cricketing world without which International Cricket would be much poorer.

Subash: Match referees have handed down punishments harsher to subcontinental players than to Aussie or English players. Stuart Broad, Ricky Ponting and everyone have gotten away with murder. I do not condone the fact that the BCCI at times has chosen to flex its muscles in a very unsubtle way but I think in some cases, it is fine by me because it had to be done. One thing you must note however is that although the BCCI is the richest board, other boards have actually made money off it as well. The same cannot be said for the time England and Australia had the game in their grasp and monopolized it. At any rate, I do agree that BCCI needs to polish off its politicking ways, you know, have the cake and eat it too!

No-one puts Bebé in a corner

Tonight we should get our first look at Bebé, Manchester United's boom Portuguese recruit. Did I say boom? Surely I meant boom-or-bust. Sir Alex Ferguson allegedly spent 7.4 million on the youngster who infamously was homeless while trying to kickstart his professional career and during that time played at the European Festival of Street Football.

This man is a story is because of his story. In today's world of the super rich athlete, coming across homeless footballers occurs only for when they've played up on the missus. Living out of a car is story you hear more about actors like William Shatner and Sam Worthington than of Bobby Charlton or Wesley Sneijder.

There's no question that he's a risk, especially for a club watching its coffers like United, and also for Ferguson. With the money that Man City, Real Madrid, Chelsea and even some Russian clubs are able to throw around, he's gone to ground to seek bargains and to attempt “a Wenger” - buying young, talented kids and moulding them into his already-impressive team. He knows his job is safe for as long as he's interested in coaching, so all he has to risk by spending Glazer money like this is pride. And I'm sure his pride has taken enough knocks for him to live this one down – Juan Sebastian Veron, anybody?

The English footballing world will be very curious to see what the youngster has to show. There's no possible way given his performance for Portugal U21s and the Red Devil Reserves that he's worth the moolah now, but from the mouths of the Man U coaches comes nothing but praise for the Dreadlock Express – for his touch, for his finishing, for his outstanding hair.

Today the football world finds out if S.A.F. and Carlos Queiroz are foolish or foolish like a fox. Fearless prediction time: I'm going to go out on a limb and say he shows enough talent to be worth watching in the future but not enough to suggest he's worth more than what they paid for Chicharito.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Game 5: Everton vs Newcastle United

It's taken all of 62 minutes for Hatem Ben Arfa to prove his worth to Newcastle. His wonderful strike against Everton has turned English admirers-from-afar into disciples. The goal was magnificent – controlling the ball, wrong-footing two opponents and firing a left-footed screamer into Tim Howard's top corner. It was a inescapable, masterful piece of football genius and one for which the crowds of Marseille perhaps are pining given their sputtering start in Ligue 1.

That on his full debut for Newcastle he produced such magic is only to be expected, really. There's never been any debate about his footskills, with more questions raised above shoulder level than below. His elegant manner on the ball is only emphasised by his nuggetiness and ability to stand up in the challenge. His goal proved that his left foot especially is a cannon.

The more unexpected comment came to me this morning with ESPN Soccernet's headline: “Hughton hints at permanent deal for Ben Arfa”. I'm sorry, what? This is a headline? Of course they're looking for a permanent deal, he's the most naturally skilled player – and probably the most talented player – the Toon have had since Alan Shearer turned 30. Why wouldn't you try to sign him? For Newcastle, the loan deal for Ben Arfa was never a “try before you buy”, but more Ben Arfa getting a free look into life Tyneside before committing to becoming Andy Carroll's competition for the title of Next Messiah. Unable to meet Marseille's straight-up asking price over the summer, they'll have to pony up the pounds in January (or at season's end) to keep him. That they have first option to buy is a very encouraging sign as his performances as “feature” player in the Toon midfield could well pique interest in the Frenchman.

That his full debut was accompanied by that of Cheick Tiote can hardly have hurt HBA. The Ivorian was superb as he completed all of his 43 passes and provided a strength and mobility in the midfield which the game-but-overmatched Alan Smith has heretofore unable to provide. With Smith undoubtedly the weakest link in the centre of the park and Danny Guthrie yet to return, the fervent Toon Army hope is the troika of Tiote, Barton and Guthrie are able to keep Smith from the side, as disappointing as that would be for such a likeable sort.

In an otherwise uneventful match, the Toon defence looked solid – as usual – and the pace on the flanks stood up well after having looked slightly misguided over the past two matches; Routledge had a good chance and it appeared the Toffee fullbacks were at times unable to cope with his and HBA's speed. Mike Williamson and Fab Coloccini again showed their mettle against forwards completely devoid of jinks and tricks – as this season has shown, Beckford's pace could well have troubled the pairing but they were able to cope with minimum of fuss. That they were also able to nullify the aerial prowess of Marouane Fellaini must go down as another feather in their caps; however a slightly smaller feather as the other Evertonian bombardier Tim Cahill was injured and unable to play.

The biggest question raised by Saturday's match though concerns the Goalkeeper. With Steve Harper going down at the thirty-fifth minute with a shoulder injury it left young Tim Krul to hold the fort. Highly rated by the Newcastle coaching staff, this may be the opportunity he requires to step up and show he has what it takes to replace Harper long-term. Rumours abound the Magpies are in the market for a new goalie – Shay Given, anyone? – but there are a few question marks concerning Shay's potential Tyneside return. Surely Given must be conscious of the old adage “Never go back”? And secondly, the Newcastle defence has been served well with the vocal, organised Harper where commanding a defence ranks below shot-stopping on Given's list of attributes. The position for the short term is Krul's to lose; though he's thought well of, there are bountiful question marks about his ability not necessarily to stop shots, but to command and organise a defence – in that way he, like Given, is a very different type of keeper to Harper. That Coloccini and Sol Campbell have some of these administrative skills is a plus and takes some of the pressure off the 22 year-old, but Harper has been crucial to the defensive watertightness that NUFC has attempted this year, so the changeover itself could be a destabilising influence.

Monday, September 20, 2010

All time best? No way.

While doing my daily scan of ESPN's NBA page, I noticed their feature front-page article was one allowing the punters to pick their team's all-time franchise starting five. It proved an adventure for me as I – an extremely well-informed basketball fan – was forced to laugh at some of the selections made by fans worldwide.

After checking the results, I was amazed at who had made it into the teams selected. Flabbergasted. What it proved was this:

  1. That sports fans have an incredibly short memory.

  1. That the voters on the site have only a minimal idea of the game's history, nor the context that should have been applied when voting on the players.

  1. Statistics matter, especially when evaluating players pre-1980, the modern era of basketball.


  1. That these fans were voting just for the hell of it, swayed only by the one-line descriptions offered onsite.

I'm not going to say the exercise had any meaning – of course it didn't, apart from to pull in the casual browsers. But what really made me mad were things like (in no particular order):

  • 55% of the vote for the best-ever Miami Heat Power Forward going to Udonis Haslem.

  • Wes Unseld beaten out best Washington Wizards Centre by Walt Bellamy. In the same team, Bobby Dandridge – the difference maker behind the Bullets winning the title in 1978 and getting back to the finals in 1979 – got only 3.6% of the SF vote.

  • Ray Allen's 86.8% vote for Seattle/Oklahoma City's best ever shooting guard became laughable when considered that the runners up – Dennis Johnson (6.4%) and “Downtown” Freddie Brown (1.2%) have legit claims to be the best guard in Seattle's history.

  • George McGinnis behind Jermaine O'Neal as Indiana's PF? Puh-lease. That Don Buse (0.6%) finished as Indiana's sixth best PG – with one sixth the vote of Jamaal Tinsley – makes one cringe. One of the bets defensive PGs ever (with Al Attles, KC Jones and Gary Payton) rating this low is a sin.

On only cursory examination, it's obvious that many people plumped only for names or statistics. Steve Kerr didn't even start at Chicago yet his profile since retirement (firstly on TNT and then as GM of the Phoenix Suns) means he achieved double the vote of John Paxson, by every account a smarter player and far superior defender; as shooters there really wasn't much difference. Basketball minds far and wide should worry that visibility is other only category on which players are judged, though perhaps Paxson's role in Vinny Del Negro's Chicago coaching cul-de-sac could also factor in. Players – genuine greats of the game like McGinnis, Unseld & Buse are by this measure, being treated only as average players.

You can be sure that many votes were “donkey votes”, chosen only to get to the end of the process, rather than having any meaning. But not to fear. To eliminate these we can simply assign the votes of anyone with less that 1.0% to the winner at their position, ie. Scottie Pippen's 97.1% would receive another 0.9% of the vote from Toni Kukoc and Luol Deng (making his final tally 98%) - and I challenge anyone, anyone to tell me Luol Deng's a better small forward for Chicago than Pippen. That ESPN's chosen to give everyone only one line of statistical and background information hardly promotes effective results. Ask any statistician and they will tell you “You use shitty data and you get shitty results”.

Secondly, I'm certain the voting was swayed by the less-informed masses selecting players not on being the best players for that team, but the best player who played for that team at any time. By logical extension, Paul Gasol suddenly has Dennis Rodman as competition for the Lakers' starting PF gig, and Tim Hardaway has to compare with Gary Payton. Perhaps the best example comes from the Houston Rockets. Clyde Drexler was dealt there in 1995 as the team made their way to the second of their back-to-back titles. If you take their entire careers, there's no doubt that Drexler was superior to the other candidates McGrady, Cat Mobley and Calvin Murphy. But could you honestly say that Drexler from 1995-1998 was a better player than Calvin Murphy, who gave the Rockets 12 years, 20ppg, all-star appearances and shooting for which most current coaches would give their left ball?

Another curious fact is the lack of respect afforded the 1970s. Long considered the dark ages of professional basketball due to the appearance of the rival ABA and the multitude of fights, drugs and excesses of the era, it appears the fine players of that time – Unseld, Dandridge, Buse and the Nuggets' Dan Issel – have suffered because of the league's lack of exposure. Rather than definitive players receiving accolades, poor substitutes and pale imitations get the kudos. Awareness of basketball in popular American – and let's be fair, in world – culture came only after the 1979 Indiana State/Michigan State NCAA Finals, which ushered in the Bird vs. Magic era and shortly after that, the Jordan era.

This is, however, the nature of the internet. To paraphrase that cinematic masterpiece Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back - “The internet has given everyone in America a voice, and evidently everyone in America has chosen that voice to diss Dennis Johnson”. Because the net is only 21 years old, the internet generation is a young one, most of whom wouldn't even know Bobby Dandridge's exploits with the Bucks and Bullets – let alone even recognising the name. Couple this with the explosion of television coverage starting with the Bird/Magic era and suddenly the youth of today – and even those interested in sports history – have a much greater chance of seeing and being swayed by the deeds of the 1980s than even the 1970s.

This isn't the time for the Peak vs. Longevity debate. Or for Intangibles vs. Numbers vs. Impact. The point here is that this process is so subjective, therefore it's ultimately polarising. I'm sure if you took the most knowledgeable NBA fans and asked them for the All-Time Starting Five for a middle-of-the-pack NBA franchise, say the Bucks or the (Zombie) Sonics or the Bullets/Wizards then there would be discrepancies. Some value scoring, others defence, others great service.

Slowly, over time, I have come to realise that comparison between eras is simply a futile exercise. Without an educated populace, methods of comparison or ways of compensating for the changes in the rules of the games it becomes simply an exercise in popularity with the most likeable, approachable and best-remembered players receiving precedence over others with potentially superior bodies of work. Comparison is great for stimulating debate but no seriousness can be placed upon the results of any such exercise.

So why am I devoting so many column inches to the results of something ESPN must have posted simply for clicks and giggles? Because I feel for basketball history and don't want to see players who should remain all-time greats gets only a 0.6% vote. It goes against my sensibilities as an educated fan to think that 90% of people think Ray Allen was a better Sonic than Dennis Johnson.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Jury and Executioner: Everyman

After hearing several voices espousing potential punishments for players found guilty of spot -fixing, I thought perhaps it's time to take a novel and contextual approach as to how to deal with these “fixers”. I think everyone agrees that those guilty of putting themselves before the integrity of the sport which made them so wealthy should be banned, the question though is for how long?

Do immediate lifetime bans work? That most gambling-related bans have occurred in the last ten years seems not to have dissuaded the current crop of alleged bribees, making them either super-naive, super-stupid or super-arrogant. Life bans handed out to Mohammed Azharuddin, Salim Malik and Hansie Cronje have left little or no impression on those allegedly fixing since. Mohammed Amir was 9 years old when Malik was banned, old enough to know that the Pakistani ex-captain had been “in the wrong”. Even if he wasn't aware of it at the time, fixing has been the bane of subcontinental cricket for much of the past twenty years meaning the responsibility for informing the players falls directly on the shoulders of the control boards.

That Pakistan and India have been the centre of most of these allegations is quite obvious, giving an indication of the roles that their boards must play in stamping out this scourge. That cricket plays such an important role in the mass-psyche of these countries also cannot be ignored. Perhaps it's time to start holding players and officials accountable for the hopes and dreams of their nations.

The Pakistani average per capita income has been announced for 2010 at somewhere around 2600 International dollars, with International dollars being hypothetical money used for comparative purposes only. Compared to other cricketing nations, that's miniscule; using International dollars, Pakistan ranks 130th worldwide in average income, smack-bang between economic powerhouses Nicaragua and Uzbekistan. This International dollar total equates to somewhere around $US 1000.

Major Test-playing country

Per Capita Income (International $)

Rank (Worldwide)

Per Capita Income ($US)













New Zealand





Barbados, Jamaica & Trinidad/Tobago (avg.)


(Would be 50)


(Would be 51)

World Average


Would be 76


Would be 60

South Africa





Sri Lanka















(source: International Monetary Fund 2009 tables)

The table above paints a stark picture. It would be much worse had Zimbabwean cricket not collapsed so horribly seven years ago – the average annual per capita income there has fallen to only $US 375. There's no question as to why subcontinental, African or even Caribbean cricketers could be tempted to take the money on offer – if a gambler lays on $US 50,000 then that's more money than the average Pakistani could earn in 45 years. To put it another way, those 45 years comprise give or take two-thirds of the average lifespan in Pakistan. When compared to an Australian it's no wonder that the Western cricketing establishment doesn't seem to be as tempted. The same $US 50,000 makes up one year's income for the average Skippy, hardly worthwhile throwing a career away for when the money from endorsements, central contracts and other miscellany can last a lifetime.

It's also no coincidence that the performances of any national side defines a population. Most players speak of their joy at being able to represent their country and what it stands for; to wear the crest of a nation made up of of people of whom you are very proud is perhaps a country's highest honour. The general populace of every country lives vicariously through their sports teams and most people would be horrified if that faith and trust were to be thrown away by players with opportunities that Joe (or Mohammed) Public would die for.

So with this information in hand, a novel way of punishing the guilty party might be to take the lowest common denominator – in this case Pakistan – and apply the same principles to the punitive action. If found guilty, a player would be banned for the length of time it would take the lowest-earning cricket fan to earn the amount of money alleged to have been accepted. So for example, of the eight major test-playing nations, Pakistan has the lowest average annual income of $US 1017. If an Australian is found guilty of fixing, then it is only fair to judge them by Pakistani standards as by its very nature cricket is a worldwide community and every nation suffers should the game be brought into disrepute. If that Aussie is found guilty of accepting $US 50,000 then ban them for fifty years – the amount of time the least among us would take to make that money legitimately. If our hypothetical Aussie is found guilty of accepting $US 10,000 then ban him for ten years.

It may be harsh – being found guilty of accepting anything over perhaps $US 8000 would amount to a lifetime ban – but this method would judge players by the “everyman” standard. It works this way because cricket is a world sport. Obviously penalising our on-the-take Australian by his country's per capita income is less of a penalty – to make a quick $US 20K he risks only a little over six month's ban if discovered. Obviously this has almost no value as a deterrent and it forgoes cricket-mad Mohammed Public in Rawalpindi, earning $US 1017 (and potentially far less), finding the sport he loves weakened by the iniquities of its players. This puts the the cricketing punishment into terms that the public both identifies with and enforces; in essence the guilty party is judged by those he is representing – his own peers

There are undoubtedly flaws in this argument. Policing alone would require solid evidence, probably nigh on incontrovertible proof or even a confession. Also, this simplifies the issue to the nth degree and doesn't allow any flexibility – “black and white” laws tend to work well in theory but less well in practice. But in the whole sphere of world sport, cricket is very much an afterthought. Played as a major sport by only eight nations, cricket needs to maintain its integrity in order to survive in the long term. The accountability to this must rest on everyone – fans, administrators, coaches and especially the players.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Valencia Injury seriously jeopardises United's title challenge

Antonio Valencia's horror leg injury could prove the most crucial injury in the EPL this year. With him out for several months, Sir Alex is forced to resort to a varied collection of wing talent. Those capable of filling in on the right include Ji Sung Park, Ryan Giggs, Nani and Gabriel Obertan – his options run the gamut from the very old to the very young.

Park may end up being the best long-term option here, simply because Giggs' body probably won't allow him to play the minutes required on the right; Nani's best work for the Red Devils has come from the left and this year should be the one he establishes himself permanently in that position for the forseeable future. Obertan has the feet and the pace, but he is young and question marks remain about his suitability in big games – fan opinion is that he tends to lose his head very easily.

SAF must be cursing that he allowed Tom Cleverley to leave on loan (to Wigan) at deadline day – although his best position tends to the centre, he is also a capable right winger and could have provided United one extra body so the minutes don't mount so much on Park and Giggs. Perhaps another option, though one I'm sure Fergie will not want to rely upon, is to shift Wayne Rooney out to the left, moving Nani to the right and allowing Berbatov and Chicharito extra room up front. His performances during the second half of the 2008-09 season at left wing – Champions League Final notwithstanding – were nothing short of spectacular and he personally orchestrated their 5-1 drubbing of Tottenham in April as Cristiano Ronaldo moved forward. But Berbatov and Hernandez aren't anywhere of the standard of “the varnished one” and as a result this may leave them with a blunt spearhead.

With two draws snatched from the jaws of victory and now one key player down, Man U's season has started slowly. It's not panic stations yet as they've done this the past two years. Whether they can pick it up to mount a serious challenge to Chelsea and Arsenal may be down to who they find to best replace the Ecuadorian who's made such an impact on the United right.

How to avoid "doing a Hull"

With their second win in three road matches, the Tangerine Army have vaulted into fourth on the EPL table with seven points from their opening four games. Manager Ian “Olly” Holloway seems to have inspired his men with that crucial sense of self-belief and Blackpool are defying the predictions of practically everyone who tipped them pre-season for relegation.

Where did such a result come from? Certainly not from the stats, where Blackpool conceded 22 Newcastle shots while generating only eight themselves; they allowed Toon 57% possession and were caught offside on ten separate occasions. After being selected as relegation certainties in the Championship last year, Olly's men surprised everyone playing an attacking, fluid brand of football and upstaged Cardiff City last year in the playoffs to clinch promotion to the Premier League. It now appears they have what it takes to make a fight of staying up.

Always known as a character and a genuine bloke, there's no secret that Holloway loves his current charges – perhaps to his own detriment. As an example, he signed striker DJ Campbell during the transfer window even though his premier league pedigree is questionable at best. Part of his modus operandi has been to show faith in the squad which earned that magnificent promotion last year. Upon the last whistle in the Playoff Final last year he rambled “I just wanted to give some of my boys a pay raise for all they've given me” indicating the automatic raise clause in player's contracts generated by promotion.

So it goes that Ian Holloway, after ten years in management, has earned his stripes as a Premier League man. After leaving Plymouth Argyle for Leicester City and sitting at home for a year following his subsequent dismissal, Olly reflected about that chastening experience in the following terms: “I had a year out of football and had to think about what went wrong in my life. I was given some decent values from my mum and dad in our council house and one of them was honesty and trust and loyalty, and I forgot to do all that at Plymouth. I left them and I made the biggest mistake of my life. But I ended up here and it was the best thing I have ever done”. All this sounds like a man who'd learnt the lessons that life tried to teach – lessons that he's now said include eschewing boring football for an attacking mindset and a refresher course in loyalty.

All this bodes well for Blackpool. As a club there's no question they were unprepared for the jump in both quality and professionalism that promotion to the Premier League involved – chairman Karl Oyston's resignation statement three weeks ago said as much – but as a group they are well grounded and may just have the humility required to stay up. Two years ago when Hull City reached the top of the table after only five weeks in the Premier League, the overreaction was both remarkably quick and ridiculously over the top; it's little surprise the consequences for Hull were appalling. Suddenly Phil Brown was the toast of the town and the belief evident in the play of his Hull Tigers meant he became the “automatic choice” for next England manager. Unfortunately, Hull City believed the hype, if only for a fortnight and after leading his charges to an away win at Arsenal, it seemed Brown began to believe he could walk on water. His ego grew so large that he thought it appropriate to finish the season serenading the Hull faithful even though they had survived through none of their own achievements but the utter ineptness of the Newcastle United management.

That he's humble and gracious really suits Olly. In his post-match interview on Saturday, he mentioned his surprise at his boys trumping a club who finished 32 points ahead of them last year in the Championship; what was touching also was telling the world that Saturday's victory was his “proudest moment”, including even the Wembley Playoff victory last year. It seems that the higher-placed the manager, the more excuses they are able to spout to justify their teams performance. This is obviously a factor of expectation: no-one expects Blackpool to win much this year, so Holloway can afford some humility when they're winning. No one would deny that he faces a completely different line of questioning to Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson.

The gulf in quality between England's top two divisions is self-evident. In the last ten years, 15 clubs have been relegated either after their first or second season in the top flight and only once during that time have all three promoted teams survived. Olly knows he's facing an uphill struggle and has chosen to inspire confidence in his charges and a knit together tightly his playing group while maintaining his down-to-earth nature. When Hull thrived and faltered, it didn't take long for Phil Brown's ego to run away from him beyond all control. The more successful promoted managers of the past five years have been Tony Pulis, Steve Coppell and Alex McLeish – those who've sought expediency rather than a footballing philosophy and, McLeish excepted, are “back-room boys” and not front-men. Team which insist on playing beautiful football on promotion often find themselves demoted even before the season is half over.

Perhaps the pass-the-ball-into-the-back-of-the-net philosophy doesn't work, but what may be successful is the “Us against The World” mentality, where a small club is taught and guided to trust and depends on each individual teammate to pull their weight. Some days one player will carry the team like goalkeeper Matthew Gilks did on Saturday, on other days no-one specifically steps up and a team performance will win or lose the day. The accountability of mateship is much stronger and plays a much greater role any players performances than accountability to a contract or to money. In his book Showtime, NBA supercoach Pat Riley diagnosed “The disease of more”. He describes it taking place when a team has achieved a certain measure of success and suddenly the players lose focus on team goals and begin to focus on “getting theirs” within the framework of team achievement – in basketball this usually represents more shots or more minutes. In signing players hungry to play his type of football rather than those who are trying to prove they are of Premier League quality, Olly has any short-circuited any potential cases of “the disease of more”.

Every single player, from Gilks to Adam started playing the game because they love it, rather than as an opportunity to make money. Perhaps this is Mad Olly's best piece of scheming – bring back the love of playing with each other, bring back the accountability and bring back the sheer enjoyment of playing footy. He, like other grounded managers realise that players always play best when they enjoy themselves.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Game 4: Newcastle United vs. Blackpool

Game Four

Newcastle vs. Blackpool, Saturday 11th September

0-2 at St. James Park, Newcastle

Ronaldoisadiving[***]: “I'll say it again. Typical @#$%& Newcastle. Pardon my french, but i @#$%& knew we would lose today. Newcastle have to be the most frustrating team to support in the history of the game.”

BecksA09: “utter rubbish today. i can't stand these days! @#$%& weekend now.”

Ronaldoisadiving[***] again: “If we can't beat Blackpool at home then it isn't going to be a good season for us. Don't know about you guys, but my alarm bells are ringing that's for sure. Everton away next week? Can't see us winning that one either.”

It didn't take long, did it? After four matches, the Toon army has begun to turn on the players so gallant in achieving promotion last term. These are direct quotes from (, a Newcastle United fans website where the Toon army can celebrate or commiserate anonymously after the team's weekend performances. I must admit to not watching the match as getting a live feed proved as difficult as it is for Sol Campbell to refuse a free buffet lunch, but from all reports and in all respects the Magpies were outclassed by lowly Blackpool.

It was for days like this that I chose to follow the Newcastle United journey this season – losses to clubs that statistics, commonsense and comparison put down as probable victories for the Geordies. But lo! After ninety minutes of spirited fight from both teams, a botched tackle in the box by Alan Smith and central defenders beaten on the break by two players yet to be fairly recognised for their abilities, suddenly the Geordie faithful are at the players throats again shouting out the usual laundry list of complaints: The Gaffer's too inexperienced. The players aren't up to it. If only Alan Shearer was still playing. If only Diana was still alive.

Blackpool finished thirty-two points in arrears of Newcastle in the Championship last year yet Ian Holloway has them playing an attacking brand of football capable of troubling the mid-table sides; the mid-table sides where Hughton needs to be focusing all his attention and where NUFC should be aiming to reside at season's end. By cultivating an “us against the world”, tight-knit attitude amongst his team, “Olly” has managed to take the Tangerines from “Dangerous at home” category to “Not at all a certain three points wherever we are”. Whether he can maintain this spirit and the results it's produced is very much still in question, but given the disparity in wages between the two clubs, the size of their fan bases, stadia and reputations, the fans on pre-match were confident and predictions of a 3-0 win were thrust willy-nilly onto message boards.

So where did it all go wrong? Blackpool aren't the most skilled side, neither are they the speediest. What they do have is a creative hub in Charlie Adam and a few goal poachers able to make their chances count. For the Magpies, though they controlled the ball for much of the match (57%) and generated nearly three times as many shots as their opponents it was for nothing as they were unable to pass Blackpool GK Matthew Gilks. The hype around Carroll has yet to dissipate fully perhaps meaning that too many heads were in clouds (or was the injury that prevented him from playing in the England U-21s actually genuine? Someone call “Tales from the Crypt”...) and new signings Tiote and HBA are yet to gel with the crux of last year's Championship winners. It's obvious that Hughton has faith in his team if not his new high-profile acquisitions as Ben-Arfa was only afforded 18 minutes of field time while Campbell and Tiote didn't play at all. In HBA's defence, he made a significant impact and the clamour now will be to replace a foundering Alan Smith with the Ivorian or the new boy from Marseille next week.

Given their past two results – a draw with Wolves and this loss to the Tangerines – it's obvious that Newcastle have had opportunities to really put their opponents in a vice and squeeze throughout both matches yet have failed to do so. Is this because the players aren't good enough? They should be given their sterling performances against Villa and Wolves. Because they were able to apply that pressure last year in the second tier without a second thought.

Hughton has talent on hand, but it just didn't perform this week. And his model of achievement both last year and this has been very much like Olly's – he's confident in his charges and has inspired that confidence in the players themselves. He is honest and humble, resulting in him having the backing of the team. That he prefers the back room rather than the spotlight makes him the diametric opposite of past bosses Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear and to a lesser extent, Alan Shearer – and the players know full well where attention seeking managers got them.

But to sum up, all is not lost for the Black and White. The expectations of the fans have been tempered since their heady days of two years ago. Later, in the same conversation thread, I found the following posts from more moderate fans like tunyc:

“... To be fair, it sounds like their keeper had a blinder. It also doesn't sound like the forwards were the problem, as Carroll had chances and Nolan is described as lively-all for naught against a keeper who was very much on his game. That we surrendered a penalty on what I'm reading described as a foolish, unnecessary and late challenge by Smith is irritating... ... I really hope Tiote can offer some more pace and better tackling. Beyond that, meh- we hit a post before they opened and their second goal was at the end when we were throwing everything forward. If you guys thought this season would be a walk-even to survival-you're going to be proven wrong. Bring on the next one...“

Monday, September 13, 2010

Brett Favre: A matter of definition

After watching “The Wrestler” last night, it occurred to me that the battle between what's best for you and what defines you as a person is something which most athletes fight against throughout their careers. In the movie this battle is unsubtly portrayed as Randy “The Ram” Robinson is forced to reconsider his future due to health problems – the drama that nearly won “The Wrestler” several Oscars comes as he tries to reintegrate into a society that replaces peer and fan accolades with normal human relationships.

I can't help but think this is partly what haunts Brett Favre. Once you could know with absolute certainty that he'd start 16+ games in the green and gold, but over the past few years he's been traded to New York (seriously, can you think of a larger paradigm shift than moving from Green Bay to New York City? I can't), retired, unretired, signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings, flirted with retirement, held out and finally come back to the Vikings apparently re-energised and ready for a twentieth NFL season.

His consecutive streak of starts remains unbroken after Thursday's loss at New Orleans, but Favre continues to ride the Pro Football bus. The most decorated QB of the past two decades, Favre is perhaps one of the most complex men in the league no matter how simple and corn-fed he and his agent have made him out to be. His life took a new turn in 2010 as he became a grandfather, the only one in the pro football today.

There can only be two reasons for his continued NFL existence – he still loves the game as much as ever, or that he's scared of the future. Sure the money is nice, but for a man who's made more money than Gordon Gekko – to continue the movie theme – surely it can't be the determining factor. And nothing in sports is as cut and dried as it seems, especially with Brett. The guess here is that his decision to go around again stems from both Column A and Column B. There can be no question that he loves the game, but I'd bet my last dollar that Favre's defined himself in his own brain, his own ego, as a quarterback. He's done this since high school football. It's fair to surmise he has minimal idea what his life will involve once he finally hangs up the helmet for good.

And to be fair, this doesn't just happen with pro athletes although they do form the most striking example of post-career blues. I once knew a therapist in Melbourne – call him Lal – who'd worked in the same area for nearly seventy years. He tried to retire and hand over control of his practice five separate times to his successors, moved down to his beach house and promptly returned in less than two months to demand reinstatement at the head of the clinic. At last count, he was 93 and had finally retired for the sixth time. It turned out he got bored easily. Can you imagine how bored one must get after nearly thirty years of adrenaline highs?

In sport though, the contrast can be even more stark. Anyone who retires from their local sports club can depart appreciated, but the level of adulation that John Public receives after fifteen years sterling service at Dumbarton FC could only be the most poor imitation of what pro athletes go through. When you get to the Pros, the volume is turned up to eleven: there's more money, there's more and prettier women, and the lifestyle involves greater excesses. The comedown off the NFL high – especially one that's lasted twenty years and four different cities – is something to be feared.

This problem of definition tends only to raise it's head later in an athlete's career. But should it occur earlier, these issues with self-definition can haunt an athlete's legacy forever. One of the more well-rounded athletes of recent times was basketball's David Robinson. Robinson retired in 2003 after winning his second NBA Championship with the San Antonio Spurs and has never looked back. That he had foundations and several business interests from an early age perhaps detracted from his NBA career – the main criticism of him while in the NBA was that basketball wasn't a matter of life and death to him – but it did make for an easier transition into retirement and normal life. To paraphrase, the road to retirement is paved with good intentions. Robinson will forever be labelled as never reaching his potential because the game just didn't mean enough to him. Several coaches have said that he was amongst the most talented players ever, but failed to live up to his potential. But should we as fans look down on him for those same reasons or celebrate a man who realised more and earlier than the rest of us that sport is an outlet, a means to an end?

With Brett Favre, it isn't the Liberatore Conundrum ( all over again, not even close. Favre is an offensive player whose skill is delivering the ball rather than stopping an opponent. But I can't help but feel sad looking at a player and realising he knows everything there is to know about one sport but he's yet to discover that there's more to life. What becomes even more tragic is when onfield performance begins to suffer and the last limping seasons become defining memories. This isn't a major concern yet given the strength of his offensive line and his characteristic poise. To that end, Favre is coming off one of his best ever statistical seasons. But even after such a dominant season to find him having second thoughts about continuing makes me think his heart really isn't in it but he knows little else.

Does this reluctance to walk into the sunset show up as a black mark on his career? I don't think so. Firstly, his performance hasn't slipped that much and it's unlikely to slip much more (unless his offensive line stinks) because he plays predominantly from the pocket. Favre's singular strength has always been the combination of accuracy and head smarts and this means he could even play for another year or two yet. But when you think about a generation-defining player, usually the lasting memories you have tend to be those of their final moments. Michael Jordan, author of several of the greatest moments in basketball history: “The Shot”, “The Pass”, “The change-hands”, “The Shrug” finds these all superseded by one defining memory: of him at the foul line with arm extended. “The Other Shot” against Bryon Russell and the Utah Jazz has become Michael Jordan's piece de resistance, the final morsel to be savoured before retiring, not his early high-flying days or his nasty Washington Wizards coda. More than anything else though, Michael Jordan's had a curious off-field persona ever since his days with Chicago and all of this is masked by the happy, vibrant memories he gave us while playing for the Bulls.

Perhaps this is closer to the truth as to why Favre sat on the fence so long before coming back. One of his last acts in an outstanding potentially-final season was to throw the ball away under pressure in last year's NFC Championship game against the Saints. Perhaps, like MJ, he understands his own legacy and feels that his messy exits from Green Bay and the Jets could mean his off-field persona is forever marked somewhere between indecisive and spoiled. Perhaps he feels he needs a happy ending before finally walking into the sunset.


Friday, September 10, 2010

The Very Powerful and the Very Stupid

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common – instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts which needs altering”.

Doctor Who, played by Tom Baker in “The Face of Evil” (1977)

Mohammed Asif's reported request for asylum in England throws the role of players allegedly involved in spot-fixing into stark contrast. Gone are the callow days of cricket, farewell to “innocent until proven guilty”. No doubt Asif's suddenly found himself in more trouble than he could have ever imagined but an plea for safety of this sort really gives one an idea of what trouble these potentially misguided and undoubtedly unfortunate men will face at home.

When the safety of players is threatened due to on-field performance – or lack thereof – the first name mentioned is usually Andrés Escobar, the Colombian who was shot dead in 1994 after his own goal at the FIFA World Cup. It is thought that his own goal was the catalyst for heavy gambling losses sustained by drug warlords who then took their revenge on the Atletico National defender. Hansie Cronje was also subjected to death threats as a result of his role in the “tempted by Satan” affair of 2000 while mystery still surrounds the 2007 death of Bob Woolmer at the ICC World Cup. That Woolmer, the retiring coach of Pakistan, was to publish a tell-all memoir detailing gambling's arm-in-arm relationship with Pakistani cricket can hardly have eased suspicions of a gambling-driven murder.

That our athletes are subjected to such stresses makes me very, very sad. There's no question that each person seduced by gamblers, be it for information, point shaving/spot fixing or match fixing deserves to be punished to the full extent of the laws for that sport. If that's a flat ban, then so be it. Should the laws dictate fines and suspensions, then apply them to the fullest. But the laws need to be enforced by the police and the governing bodies and not by individuals. Taking one's frustration out on a person who's wronged you rarely helps a situation and tends only to complicate matters – but sporting pride or indeed national pride engenders such fierce parochialism that it becomes impossible to talk with a devotee in rational terms. A case of “white line fever” can develop remarkably quickly into the more serious “white line foaming at the mouth” and finally result in “white line dead-on-arrival”.

No doubt Mohammed Asif fears for his safety. He lives in a country in which disease, death and destruction are commonplace yet has risen to become one of the world's best fast bowlers and he's done this amidst violence on a scale that most of us could only have nightmares about. If he fears for his safety, you can be sure he has ample reason. To take money from gamblers means that you are always in their pocket – they can always approach you again, and if you ever refuse the option forever remains for them to “out” you. Or “off” you. And if exposed, you risk the scorn (at best) and the vengeful ire (at worst) of your country's sporting faithful. So no matter what your economic situation, to take money from these people is naive at best, clinically stupid at worst.

As the good Doctor tells us in the opening quote, the very stupid may think that gambler's money is just easy cash and this obviously is not the case. A fool isn't necessarily someone who doesn't see risk – that simply makes them unfortunate or unintelligent – a fool is someone who justifies that risk as worthwhile. And the very powerful will always have that power. Like any good gambler, the powerful ensure they hold all the cards before being dealt in. If only we could say the same for the very stupid.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Holman adds another string to Australia's bow

When I first saw Brett Holman play for the Socceroos several years ago against Uruguay, I thought he was lucky to have made the team. If he and Carl Valeri represented the “new” generation of Australian footballers, the post “Golden Generation” Socceroos could well be in serious trouble. Touted as Australia's attacking hub for the the coming era, he ran around like a crazy person yet was ineffective off the ball, didn't threaten with either pass or dribble and it appeared he was taught his finishing skills by Gary Neville. What was evident however was his stamina and enthusiasm as he played off primary striker Scott McDonald, then of Celtic, another talented “skippy” yet to make his mark on the international stage.

But since that warm-up match for the 2007 Asian Cup in Sydney, Holman has moved clubs (to AZ Alkmaar) and through persistence achieved a solid international footing. One can argue that with Luke Wilkshire, the headless chicken of the past was one of Australia's best at the recent World Cup and provided the highlight of South Africa 2010 for the Green and Gold Army with his 25-yard goal against Serbia. His only drawback for the tournament was then-manager Pim Verbeek's reluctance to pair him and Tim Cahill together, fearing a duplicity of talent.

His record for Australia still isn't great statistically but Holman has scored in three of his last five matches – including against Poland in a startling cameo on Tuesday – bringing his international goal tally up to 5. Against Asian competition who won't have his combination of power, pace and stamina he looms alongside Cahill's aerial ability as Australia's trump card going into the 2011 Asian Cup. This in turn allows new coach Holger Osieck to add a second string to an Aussie bow which under Verbeek consisted only of high crosses into the box by the Socceroo “bomb squad”. Australia will for once have a creative dynamo with the ball on the floor as well as the dominant box presences of Cahill & Joshua Kennedy. The key now is to ensure that these three are suitably ready and meshed to provide that combination.

The re-retirement of old stager Scott Chipperfield robs Australia of a forward threat that replacements Tommy Oar & David Carney may initially struggle to match. This means a squad replete with staid midfielders may again need a spark – one which Holman is now perfectly capable of providing on a regular basis.