Category Archives: Sport

It’s not all equally bad news

It’s been too easy recently to assume that we are all going to hell in a hand-basket. Austerity and its impact on the poorest members of our society; Brexit and the feral, anti-immigrant sentiment that it stirred up; abuses of position and sexual harassment in the corridors of political power – all suggest that we are becoming less tolerant, less social, less equal as a society.

Its good to be able to reflect on two pieces of very positive news today. The first details a change in maternity and paternity leave policy by the UK’s largest insurance company, Aviva. In future, both parents will be able to claim up to 26 weeks leave at standard basic pay in the first year following the arrival of a new child or completion of an adoption. Where both parents work for Aviva, this could allow a full year of child care to be provided by the parents without any reduction in basic pay. This is not only great for the child, but has the potential to significantly reduce the negative impact on the woman’s career of taking time out of the workplace after childbirth. What’s particularly encouraging about the Aviva initiative is the recognition that changing the policy alone won’t achieve the sort of cultural shift that they are seeking to achieve. “Aviva [will] use male role models to show it is acceptable to take up the offer of parental leave, to encourage a change in perceptions and foster a cultural change. Otherwise, male employees may still be reticent about taking time off, even if paid.” I genuinely hope that this is the start of a wider review of maternity and paternity leave policies across the private and public sectors. It’s in everybody’s best interests to support women and men equally as parents and employees.

aviva

The second ‘good news’ story this Friday comes from an unusual source. Swansea City FC and AFC Bournemouth have become the first Premier League football clubs in the country to formally recognize transgender and non-binary supporters in the way that they are addressed. In future, supporters will have the option to choose to be addressed as “Mx” as an alternative to the more ususal Mr, Miss, Mrs etc.. Explaining the change in policy, Swansea City’s equality and diversity manager said : “We’re continually looking at ways to make our services more inclusive. Language plays a really important part in delivering this and ensuring that everyone feels welcome – regardless of age, gender or gender identity, sexuality or ethnicity.” Too often, football and football clubs are associated with a laddish culture in which minorities and ‘difference’ are seen as fair game for ridicule or humiliation rather than celebration. It’s great to see some clubs now taking a much more enlightened attitude to these issues. This weekend also sees the launch of the Rainbow Laces campaign, promoted by Stonewall, and designed to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes in sport more generally. Of course, as with the challenges of cultural change at Aviva, adding Mx to a list of prefixes won’t suddenly lead to premiership football becoming a safe space for transgender and non-binary fans, but it may encourage those have been reluctant to attend football matches for fear of how they would be received, to go along. And that’s good for the fans and the clubs.

Have a good, equality-filled weekend!

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Ordinary, everyday tragedies

Looking for inspiration for today’s post, I stumbled across one of the most poignant things that I have ever seen. There is a Twitter feed and Instagram account dedicated to the chronicling of lost footballs.

Many of the images are framed in quasi-tragic terms : the deflated football abandoned in a deprived neighbourhood; the ball stuck immovable in the branches of an impossibly high tree; the one caught on rocks in a fast-flowing river at the bottom of a treacherous ravine. There is an aching sadness that attaches to the lost potential represented – the hours of fun that that football could have provided; the epic battles that would have been played out in formal matches on manicured pitches, or scratch games on stretches of scrub land; the journey home under the arm of a sweaty, exhausted child, placing the ball safely in a corner of the garden ready for the next game.

But some of the images prompt an altogether different response. There are those that show a fully inflated football floating across the sea, like a fugitive from the harsh life of constantly being kicked around. This example of the ball from Aberdeen that washed up in Denmark has all the hallmarks of a footballing ‘Great Escape’. This one may have been recaptured but “most of the balls that go into the river are never seen again”! This conjures up the image of a football nirvana, where escaped balls gather on soft sand gently rocked by the breeze and occasionally bobbing about in the shallows.

And then there are the photographs of footballs hiding in plain sight. On top of a bus shelter in a busy urban street; nestling in groups behind high-level advertising hoardings at an old-fashioned stadium; or sitting nonchalantly in the middle of glazed roofs – visible but utterly inaccessible. These are the drop-outs and misfits of the football universe. They are of the mainstream but separate from it – occupying the neutral spaces where footballs aren’t meant to be.

It’s been an eye-opener to see the vast array of places where footballs end up. I’ll be sure to keep my eyes open for footballs in strange places in the future, and adding my own contributions to the lostfootballs social media sites.

Ex-footballer dementia : a kick in the head

Two football stories feature in the main BBC News bulletin this evening. Alan Shearer has produced a documentary assessing whether regular heading of a football is a contributory factor for dementia later in life. It will be screened on BBC1 on Sunday 12th November and promises to make uncomfortable reading for those responsible for governing the beautiful game.

The second story covers the sacking of Patrice Evra by Olympic Marseille. Evra Aimee a kick at the head of a Marseille supporter before a European game earlier in the week. I can only assume that M. Evra had been spending too much time in heading practice.

Crisis averted

Having gone through a bit of a lean spell, I am pleased to report that my mojo has returned. With the help and encouragement of you, dear reader, I am running again! A gentle reintroduction in the beauty of Bute Park last Sunday, was followed up with a couple of runs around The Downs in Bristol during the week, and a Blackweir parkrun yesterday. However, the reason why I know I’m back on it is because this morning I set out on what was planned as a gentle 7.5 mile run to Roath Park lake and back. The sun was shining in a sky of unbroken, azure blue, the roads and paths were quiet, Roath Park was its usual jewel-like self, and well – to cut a long story short – I got carried away and ended up running 10 miles at more or less 2.15 half marathon pace. This is the first time that I’ve run more than 6 miles since the Llanelli Half Marathon in March, and whilst I am aching a bit at the moment, it felt good! I am now much more confident that the Bristol : Cardiff half marathon double header in September/October is achievable.

The motivation provided by a number of regular runners who happen to read this stuff occasionally, and who continue to inspire me with their performances in half marathons, marathons and trail runs (thanks Kev, Sarah, Tom, Bob in particular) has been complemented by Vassos Alexander’s book “Don’t Stop me Now!”. It is a fascinating compendium of insights and advice from a whole range of elite athletes, coaches and scientists, woven around an account of the 26.2 miles that Alexander ran as the final leg of an Iron Man event. It’s a highly accessible book and is a great reminder of all the benefits that come from simply putting your trainers on and getting out there. I highly recommend it, and I will be keeping it really close to my bedside to act as a kind of reminder of all the good things about running when I get up occasionally and the rain is falling and my whole being is screaming for me to stay under the duvet!

Because he’s worth it?

A footballer is on the verge of being transferred from one European football club to another European football club. No big deal. It happens all the time. Except this is a big deal. A VERY big deal. Paris St-Germain propose to pay Eu220m (£198m) to Barcelona to secure the services of 25 year old Brazilian striker Neymar. On top of that, his wage bill will exceed £775,000 a WEEK during the 5 year contract that he has signed. The total cost to the French club (assuming he sees out the full contract) will exceed £400m.

Reaction has been predictable. Football has lost its way; the amounts involved are obscene; how can anyone possibly be worth that sort of money; and so on and so on. It’s not clear to me why £198m for Neymar is somehow more indicative of a sport that’s lost its way than the £54m that Manchester City has allegedly paid to sign Kyle Walker from Tottenham Hotspur; or the £40m that Manchester United will pay Chelsea for the services of Nemanja Matic. The sums involved are frankly ridiculous and are sustainable only because European football is increasingly seen as a vanity project for US, Russian, and middle eastern billionaires with (literally) more money than they know what to do with. Following the ‘silly money’ transfer of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, I wrote that the concentration of wealth in a small number of European super clubs would lead inexorably to the creation of a larger European Super League, to the detriment of both domestic and grassroots football. I have no doubt that that remains the direction of travel. What’s less clear now, though, is whether that journey can be completed before the cash runs out. The old joke still has some validity : “How do you make a millionaire from a billionaire? Sell him a football club!”

Admittedly, the sovereign wealth funds underwriting the likes of Paris St-Germain and Manchester City are of a different order of magnitude from the corporate vehicles behind Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, or the complex public:private status of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Nevertheless, its hard to see how the financial bubble growing up around much of European football can be sustained in the medium to long term.

More worrying to me, though, is the growing void that is opening up between football at the elite, professional level, and the game that is played by girls, boys, women and men in parks and recreation grounds across the country every weekend. I have written previously about my reservations around the use of video assistant referees. My objections are not just about the technology (which inevitably slows the game down and which – on the evidence so far at least – has not reduced the controversy around decisions made). Rather, my concerns are about the way in which the professional game is starting to look and feel very different to the lived experience of football at the grassroots. This is particularly the case in respect of facilities and playing conditions. It should be a national disgrace that the Football Foundation (the Premier League’s charitable development arm) invests 75% of a Matic (£30m) a year IN TOTAL into grassroots football. To put it another way, if Neymar’s move to PSG goes through, then his annual salary will be one third more than the total amount being reinvested into grassroots football in England. Inequality at that level is obscene, but worse than that, it will prove to be ultimately self-defeating.

 

Help me out, here!

I’ve fallen off the wagon. I haven’t so much as put my running shoes on for over a month, and my motivation has flat-lined. Coming on the back of a first half of the year that went so well, it’s hard to explain why my running mojo has – well – run off. But it has. So here’s the deal. I’m asking for your help to get me back on track. I’m committing to getting back on the road from tomorrow morning, and I’ll post weekly updates on my progress as I build towards half marathons in Bristol and Cardiff in September and October. If you could help me out by demanding to know how things are going if the updates don’t appear, I’d be really grateful. Shame and embarrassment are great incentivisers for me!

In the meantime, I’ll also try to put into practise the 12 habits of regular runners here.

Orlando City v LA Galaxy : football, Jim, but not as we know it…

Our family holiday to New York and Florida over Easter coincided with Orlando City’s early season encounter with LA Galaxy at the home team’s recently opened, purpose-built ‘soccer’ stadium in downtown Orlando. Tickets having been secured before we left the UK, we travelled into Orlando from our base in Polk County in plenty of time for the 2.30pm kick off that the club’s e-mail had confirmed earlier in the morning. The Orlando City mascot is a lion and the stadium is seeking to brand itself as The Lion’s Den (prompting all kinds of comparisons with the sort of bear pit atmosphere generated by fans of Millwall FC in London). Unfortunately, the comparisons lose some of their intensity when you add the name of the sponsor to the title – “The Walt Disney World Lion’s Den” somehow lacks the fear-inducing punch of the Bermondsey version.

Orlando City stadium

 

The problem with football as a summer sport in a place like Orlando is that it’s very warm during the day. Even at this stage in late April, the temperature was in the mid 80s at kick off. This makes it great for the spectator, but a nightmare for the players. Copious amounts of water were sprayed onto the playing surface in the run-up to kick off and at half time, at least in part to cool the pitch-level atmosphere. The mid-afternoon kick off was (I suspect) to meet the demands of live television coverage, but it’s surely something that MLS needs to take into account in scheduling games as the season progresses and temperatures rise.

Perhaps partly as a result of the conditions, this game was played out in three distinct phases : an opening 15 minutes that saw Orlando hit the post, score, and then hit the same post a second time; a middle 60 minutes of huff and puff, limited quality, and gentle pace; and a final 15 minutes in which Galaxy created a series of excellent chances, equalised, and then contrived to concede a 91st minute goal scored by Orlando’s Larin – his only meaningful contribution throughout the entire game. That effectively summarises the key events. So time for some more general observations.

Will Johnson celebrates OC’s opening goal on 10 minutes

 

The overall quality of football on display today was not brilliant. At times, some of the defending bordered on the comical. That said, certain players stood out. Orlando’s Nocerino bossed the centre of midfield like an infantry general – barking orders and marshalling his team-mates with the kind of no-nonsense intensity that commands obedience. His reading of the game allowed him to get into positions to disrupt Galaxy attacks time and time again, and it was perhaps no surprise that the west coast team’s best moments came as he tired as the clock ran down. For Galaxy, their stand-out performer was Alessandrini, effectively playing in the modern no. 10 role. His close control and vision was – unfortunately for Los Angeles – so far in advance of his team-mates that they were often unable to anticipate his ability to get out of tight situations and open up the play. It was no surprise that Galaxy’s equaliser came from Alessandrini (a sweetly struck right foot effort from 20 yards). What was surprising was the much easier chance on his preferred left foot that he squandered moments before.

Alessandrini missed this glorious chance before equalising moments later

 

‘Soccer’ is still evidently a minority sport in the US. Whilst the club claimed a sell-out for this match, it was clear that many (presumably) season-ticket holders had not made it to the ground on this Easter Saturday. There were lots of empty purple seats in the two stands on either side of the pitch, and the terrace behind the goal opposite our seats was only about 80% full. The fact that there was a dedicated standing area does at least demonstrate Orlando’s commitment to creating the sort of atmosphere that makes football a compelling live event. Flags are encouraged in this part of the ground (and there was a proud Y Ddraig Goch on display for the Galaxy game), and huge plumes of purple smoke were released as the teams entered the stadium and when Orlando scored. The problem, though, is that there were almost no away supporters at all (unsurprising given the geography of a continental competition). When Galaxy equalised in the 80th minute, we only saw one LA fan rise to his feet to cheer (and I think even he was a holidaymaker rather than somebody who’d made the trip specifically for the game). As a result, the game was played out in a sterile environment with none of the banter between supporters that provides the humour and edge (and sometimes, yes, the menace) of the European football experience. That certainly contributes to the ‘family friendly’ feel of the event, but for me at least, it was all a bit anodyne – a kind of ‘if Disney did football’ theme park experience. I’m not saying that that is necessarily a bad thing – it is just different.

The LA Galaxy fan – we didn’t see another one…

 

So – overall : a good day out in the sun at a well-designed stadium watching too pretty equally matched teams struggling to overcome the heat and humidity but doing enough at either end of the game to send us home feeling that the trip was worthwhile.

No pyro, no party

Orlando City are now 4-0 in their new stadium – an MLS record for a club moving to a new ground #statattack

 

(Thanks to Dan for the match day photos)