Category Archives: Sport

The good, the bad and the ugly

I love sport, in pretty much all its guises (although I struggle a bit with boxing and snooker). I remember distinctly where I was and what I was doing when Liverpool won their first European Cup (as it then was); and watching Botham and Dilley flaying the Australian attack to all corners of the ground in the astonishing win at Headingley. My heroes are largely drawn from sport : Beckenbauer and Moore; Lendl; Leo Fortune-West (although Leo is probably a bit niche, to be honest).

But while sport has given me some great memories across the 50 years of my life, it also never fails to cause me distress and pain through its ability to do stupid things. This week is a microcosm of that lifetime of experience.

To start with the good – the revelation of the nominees for this year’s Sports Personality of the Year. Sixteen women and men who have excelled in a year of sporting excellence that arguably has never been surpassed in the UK. The celebration of British sport on 18th December will culminate in one of the 16 receiving the top accolade, but (cliche though it is) they are all already winners.

Now the bad. The disclosure this week that tens (and possibly more) of young footballers were subjected to the most appalling physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the coaches into whose care they had been entrusted. To compound the issue, this has been known about in football circles for many years but it has only been taken seriously due to the incredible courage of one man who waived his right to anonymity to talk about the abuse that he had suffered. The FA and the football clubs involved come out of this looking clumsy and ineffective – but there’s no great surprise there.

And finally the ugly. The series of tweets from former professional darts player Eric Bristow that managed to display both astonishing insensitivity and complete ignorance in condemning both the victims of the abuse, and conflating paedophilia with homosexuality. I’m not going to dignify the tweets themselves with a link from this blog, but you can find them easily enough if you really feel you need to.

Bristow has already paid for his stupidity and has lost a punditry contract with Sky Sports. Whether the FA will be able to ride out the storm of criticism that is heading in their direction, remains to be seen.

 

 

Together Stronger

European football’s governing body, UEFA, today announced that three Welsh players had made it onto the shortlist for their team of the year. Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale have been rewarded for a series of stand-out performances for Wales as they progressed to the semi-finals of the European Championships in the summer. Their recognition is well-deserved, as is that for Hal Robson-Kanu, who has been nominated for goal of the year for his audacious turn and finish in the quarter-final fixture against Belgium. There is no doubting that the European Championships was a major triumph for Wales – players, supporters, the management team under Chris Coleman, and officials. If qualifying for the first major tournament in 58 years wasn’t enough, wins against Slovakia, Russia, Northern Ireland and Belgium propelled the team into the semi-finals and the spotlight in a way that none of us could ever have dared to dream. I was fortunate to travel to Bordeaux for the opening weekend of the Championships. It was an experience that I will never forget and that I will probably never come near to matching. You can read my blogs about the opening games of the tournament here and here.

What has been most impressive about the way that Wales has gone about building a competitive national football team, is that it has not been an accident of good fortune or lucky timing. Whilst Bale, Ramsey and Allen are undoubtedly the pick of the squad in terms of technical ability and (in Bale’s case at least) world class, the success of the team is founded on the established principles of working hard for each other, never knowing when you’re beaten, and giving 100% effort for the cause on every occasion. Whilst Bale received the plaudits in France for his goals and all around attacking flair, in many ways it was Ben Davies who set Wales on their way with a miraculous goal-line clearance in the opening 10 minutes of the first game against Slovakia. You could sense in the stadium at the time a sudden surge of belief that we could do this! We were not just there to make up the numbers – cannon fodder for the ‘more established’ teams.

The Welsh Football Association’s plan for the development of all aspects of the game – under the banner Together Stronger – encapsulates that spirit of teamwork and togetherness and applies it to junior and women’s football, at the grassroots and elite levels, and across all four corners of the country. In partnership with the charitable FAW Trust, investment in the latest artificial surfaces now sees many FA Wales Premier League matches played on high quality surfaces all year round, irrespective of the weather. And those same surfaces support youth teams, development centres, women’s football, and disability football programmes throughout the rest of the week. It’s a commitment to the game that has seen participation rates increasing, with over 210,000 (8% of the population) adults regularly playing football or futsal according to the latest figures. Just by way of comparison, this is nearly three times the participation rate for rugby union in Wales. Given that the last published survey was in 2014, one suspects that the numbers may have increased further in the last two years.

Whilst the current World Cup qualifying campaign has not yet reached the heights attained during the Euros, Wales remain unbeaten after four matches and very much in contention in a group where everybody is taking points off everybody else so far. The two matches against the Republic of Ireland look likely to be crucial in determining both nation’s fate in the race for Russia. The game in Dublin in March will be a cracker.

In praise of… Andy Murray

I’ll start with a confession. I don’t get very excited by tennis. For me, it falls into the same category as squash and sailing – great to take part in, but rarely compelling to watch. However, there’s no denying the levels of skill, stamina, mental strength and single-minded focus that it takes to play at the top level of any sport; and for Andy Murray, this weekend has seen him reach the pinnacle of the world men’s game.

Murray’s career stats reflect the sheer, bloody-minded determination that has got him to this point. He has set a new record for the longest period since records began for a player to wait from first achieving a world ranking #2 to going on to claim the top spot (7 years and 2 months if you’re interested); and he is the second oldest player (at the grand old age of 29 years) to debut in the top spot. To give you a sense of how hard it is to reach world number 1 in men’s tennis, he is only the 26th man to achieve the feat since the modern ranking system was introduced 43 years’ ago. Players of the calibre of Michael Stich, Giran Ivaniscevic, Tommy Haas and Michael Chang all made it to number 2 but failed to take the final step.

That Murray has achieved this whilst at the same time – and almost single-handedly – carrying the hopes of an entire nation (meaning the UK and not only his beloved Scotland) on his shoulders, simply makes the achievement all the more remarkable. And that he has done it without once compromising on his core principles, and whilst appearing to have kept his feet firmly on the ground, says much about his popular appeal, even while he appears to hate the press and media attention that comes with being a global sporting brand. Self-deprecating appearances in the audience of TV satirical news programmes such as Mock the Week, and his commitment to representing Great Britain in Davis Cup fixtures even to the detriment of his personal performance in ranking tournaments immediately following, have earned him deserved national treasure status (at a time when that term is – as Private Eye is quick to highlight – bandied around far too liberally.

At a time when role models and heroes are in short supply, youngsters setting out in the sport could do a lot worse than seek to emulate Murray. A true and deserving champion.

If Carlsberg did Saturdays

“Saying is one thing and doing is another”. A quote from de Montaigne. The father of the Enlightenment and a resident of Bordeaux. I don’t know how much de Montaigne Chris Coleman has read (I don’t think it’s on the UEFA ‘A’ License curriculum), but his team executed the ‘doing’ in simply wonderful fashion.

There are defining moments in modern history : the declaration of war in 1939; the moon landings; the shooting of John F. Kennedy; the attack on the Twin Towers. People remember where they were at the exact moment that these things happened. To that list must now be added the moment when Hal Robson Kanu beautifully, exquisitely, agonisingly, scuffed a left footed shot into the corner of the Slovakian net 84 minutes into Wales’ opening game in the European Championships in France, 2016.

Hal Robson Kanu : as Welsh as a zebra, but he’ll f*****g do. My new favourite football song ever.

I can’t do justice here to the events of a day that started in a restaurant in the main square in Bordeaux with the kind of burger and chips that only happens in France (“How would you like the burger cooked, sir?”); and ended at 3am on Sunday morning outside a bar in the same square, singing with Slovakian fans as the local police stood, watched, smoked, and eventually went home bored.

In between, there was the journey to the stadium on the outskirts of Bordeaux in a bus designed for 60 but easily accommodating 200 Welsh fans and a French family on their way home who started off a little concerned, but ended up singing “Watch out Europe, the Welsh boys are back” by the time their stop came around. I still don’t think they quite knew what to make of the 18 stone Valleys lad who plucked their anxious six year old up into his arms and clear of the crush so that the boy was safe and out of harm’s way. But it was that sort of day.

The Slovakian anthem was observed with impeccable silence and polite applause. And then Mae hen wlad fy nhadau rang out around the stadium with an intensity, volume and passion that must have been heard in Paris. When Ben Davies cleared a goal-bound shot off the Welsh line in the opening 5 minutes, we began to think that maybe, just maybe, this was going to be our day. And then Gareth Bale did what only Gareth Bale can. We were stood right behind that free kick at the other end of the ground. I swear that new laws of physics were written as the flight of the ball changed direction three times in the 25 metres that it flew from foot to net.

The Slovakian equaliser after half time was inevitable. We are Wales, for gods’ sake – this was never going to be easy. And then came the moment. Robson Kanu introduced to the fray to replace the excellent Johnny Williams. Hal Robson, Hal Robson Kanu. The chant went up. We knew. Hal knew. 84 minutes. Ramsay rocks and rolls to the edge of the Slovakian area – never quite in control of himself or the ball. Toe ends it past the despairing challenge of Skrtel (good with his elbows – not so good with his feet here). Time stands still. There is a moment of stillness. Peace. And then Hal. Not the best strike ever. A scuff really. And the ball rolling in slow motion over the goal line and nestling gently in the back of the net. Pandemonium in the stadium. 30,000 Welsh fans looking at each other in disbelief – can this really be happening? Grown men in tears, hugging the bloke next to them. Cheering, singing, and – in at least one case – dislocating a shoulder in the sheer joy of the moment (it’s ok – it popped back in and no analgesia was required!).

Back in the fan zone later in the evening, watching Russia v England on the big screen. Drink in hand. England winning one nil and into the final minute of added time at the end of the ninety. The equaliser. At least five thousand Welsh fans devastated for our English neighbours…

If Carlsberg did Saturdays…

Bordeaux Saturday 011Bordeaux Saturday 012

Bordeaux Saturday 020Bordeaux Saturday 019

Bordeaux or Bust!

So – it’s finally arrived. That moment that I thought I would never see in my lifetime. Wales playing in a major football tournament. A real one. Not the Home Internationals. Not even the Nations Cup (remember that one?!). This is the real thing. The European Championships, for heavens’ sake. And to make things even better, it’s in France. The best place in the world to host a major sports event. The most beautiful people, cuisine to die for, wine which is the very nectar of the gods – and you can drive there from Wales!

Oh! And Dan and me have got tickets for Wales’ opening game against Slovakia on Saturday night.

So it was that we set out from Cardiff at 7.30pm on Thursday to catch the midnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen. Brittany Ferries MV Normandie had the honour of delivering more Welshmen to the French coast in a single crossing than at any time in the last 72 years! You knew that something special was happening when the strains of Calon Lan were intermingled with that bloody awful “Football’s coming home” (I refuse to include a link – you’ll have to search for it yourself!) as we waited to board the ferry. Yes – there were one or two English supporters making the same crossing on their way to Marseille for their opener against Russia.

One of the things that being a Welsh football supporter teaches you is resilience. Resilience in the face of decades of near misses and crushing disappointment (Joe Jordan’s ‘hand of god’ moment, anybody?). But that resilience also converts in limitless optimism. This was exemplified in Portsmouth by the 30 year old VW Camper Van packed with six burly, north Walian football supporters, five of whom were already well on their way to alcohol-fuelled unconsciousness by the time we rolled onto the ferry. I genuinely hope for their sakes that that van was only for transport purposes. I dread to think what it would be like if they were planning to sleep in it too!

Arriving in Caen on a cloudy Friday morning, we set out on the 500km drive to the south west of France and Bordeaux. It took a long time on very straight roads and we didn’t see anything very interesting on the way. That’s all that needs to be said about that.

Having checked-in to our hotel, we set off for a walk along the river bank in the general direction of Bordeaux’s European Championships Fan Zone. Stopping off for some food on the way, we arrived at the fan zone in plenty of time for the local pre-match warm up entertainment on a stage in front of the biggest, sharpest giant television screen that I have ever seen.

In truth, the opening match between France and Romania wasn’t a classic. It did however, provide further evidence of the truth that football is like modern jazz. Long periods of formless cacophany punctuated by moments of the most exquisite harmony. Last night, the harmony was provided by Dimitri Payet with a goal worthy of winning the Championship, never mind the opening group game. To say that the French fans in Bordeaux were pleased would be a severe understatement!

I hope that we Wales fans get to savour a similar moment against Slovakia later today.

IMG_0278

Pre-opening match dinner – the French recognise that beer drinkers can’t be trusted with glass!

Video referees – another nail in the coffin of the people’s game?

“A trial of the use of video assistant referees for ‘game-changing decisions’ in football will begin no later than the 2017-18 season.” The opening sentence of the BBC’s report of the International Football Association Board meeting held in Cardiff in March 2016. Newly installed FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, is quoted as saying : “We cannot close our eyes to the future but it doesn’t mean to say it will work. The flow of the game is crucial. We cannot put that in danger. That is why we have to be open to test.”

As a grass-roots football referee and somebody who has followed, played, coached and been involved in the ‘beautiful game’ for as long as I can remember, you would be forgiven for thinking that I would welcome trials of technological tools that have the stated aim of improving decision-making during matches. In fact, it is something that I am very uneasy about, for two main reasons.

Firstly, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the use of video technology in both rugby union and cricket is ruining those sports as spectator events, undermining the credibility of the on-field officials, and contributing very little to the conclusive determination of often marginal decisions. In cricket, for example, it seems that every run out or stumping decision now gets automatically referred to the third umpire, disrupting the flow of the game and shifting attention from the umpire and players to the TV director and the gadgetry that allows for multiple repeats from all angles and zoom-in close-ups. And even with all of that, it’s still often unclear whether a ‘catch’ has been taking cleanly or if the ball has brushed the ground before nestling into the palm of the fielder. Watching coverage of the current T20 World Cup from India has become incredibly frustrating as the tension during a tight and compelling run chase is allowed to seep away while fourteen replays confirm that the on-field umpire’s initial feeling was correct!

Similarly, in rugby union, the award of a try is delayed while the TV referee checks for foul play on the fringe of a ruck half a minute before the crucial break was made; or seeks to determine with the help of six angles and a slow-motion replay whether the critical pass was fractionally forward. An eighty minute rugby match now typically takes at least twenty minutes longer than that to complete through a combination of delays for injuries, multiple substitutions, and waiting for TV referee advice to the on-field official. And often, with the ball buried somewhere in a pile of bodies, despite all the angles available to the TV director, it’s still not possible to say conclusively whether it’s been legally grounded beyond the try line or not.

And has the use of video technology in rugby or cricket meant that all decisions are now 100% correct? Have the players and supporters of these sports stopped once and for all the heated discussions about whether a player was out or not, or whether that last-minute penalty should have been awarded? I’ll leave it to you to decide on that.

My second objection is much more philosophical, and builds on the comments of two current English Premiership managers when they were asked about the use of video technology in football earlier in the year. Roberto Martinez was quoted as saying : “We should allow the referees to make their own decisions and manage the game. Clearly if they cannot see an incident that is something they need help with. Mistaken identity for example. Those sorts of decisions I always felt video technology could be helpful, but I wouldn’t like to take the human error away from the game. Human error is part of football. It is a game of errors and how you react to these errors as a player and a referee should be exactly the same.” Mauricio Pochettino was even more emphatic : “More technology? I doubt whether it is good for football. The good thing in football is that we can speak after the game a lot about whether it was a red card or yellow card or was it offside or not offside. I think football needs to keep things important such as the human decision. I think football needs to keep its sense of the past.”

It’s interesting that both Martinez and Pochettino are foreign managers who have grown up in countries (Spain and Argentina respectively) where football’s contribution to regional and national identity and culture is at least as significant as it has been in the UK. Pochettino and Martinez emphasise the importance of the human element (including the potential for human error) as one of a recipe of ingredients that makes football the compelling drama that attracts crowds of spectators to grounds all over the world and at all levels of the game.

I would go one step further than this, suggesting that its the direct connection between the game played by the very top players at the FIFA World Cup finals, and that played by enthusiastic amateurs on their local park on a Sunday morning, that gives football it’s universal appeal. In essence, its 22 players on a rectangular pitch, with universal markings, standard sized goal-posts, a round ball, and a referee with two assistants. Wherever you go in the world, those fundamental elements  are what define football – whether on the municipal parks pitches of major UK cities, the memorial grounds of rural communities, the dust pitches of Morocco, or the covered 3G arenas of Iceland. Even children having a kick-about on a patch of scrub land can throw down a couple of jumpers for goal-posts and let their imaginations transport them to the Etihad, the Maracana, or the Camp Nou. Football is, to this extent at least, still essentially a socialist sport – accessible to all irrespective of class, gender, ability, age, or ethnicity. The introduction of technology-enhanced refereeing threatens the universality of the footballing experience, breaking the connection between the version of the game played at the elite level and that played at the grass-roots. I may be a romantic, but that seems to me to be a high price to pay to ‘correct’ the handful of dodgy decisions that can truly be described as significant in the context of any given season or tournament.

Baggies, Magpies and the Poshest Greggs in the World…

I must have been a very good boy this year because I got to go to two football matches over the Christmas period! I’ve already written about my visit to Haverfordwest County FC on Boxing Day. If that was cake and ale football, then the visit to The Hawthorns and West Bromwich Albion on 28th December was much more like champagne and caviar. And that must be the first time that West Bromwich Albion, champagne and caviar have all featured in the same sentence.

133

The slightly faded club badge on the outside of The Hawthorns

Things returned more or less to normal for this trip. It was Dan and me. I drove. And the traffic around Newport on the way to the Midlands was awful. However, there were a couple of striking differences too. Dan – newly financially independent now that he’s working full time – had bought the tickets. And – following earlier Bank Holiday ground hops to Shrewsbury, Oxford, Wolves and Yeovil – this was our first sojourn to a Premiership match.

Newport notwithstanding (when will somebody finally approve the start of work on the new M4 to the south of the city?) the trip to West Bromwich was uneventful. The club’s website had helpfully stated that parking was plentiful and reasonably priced all around The Hawthorns, and that proved to be the case. We left Cardiff at 11.40am and parked within 10 minutes walk of the ground (£5) at 1.20pm. Thankfully, this was a dry day, and the temperature was a balmy 13 degrees C as we strolled towards the ground.

125

Probably the poshest Greggs in the World – and the focal point of the WBA Fan Zone

We stopped off first in the WBA fan zone just outside the stadium, drawn mainly (to be honest) by the sight of the poshest-looking Greggs that we have ever seen! Eschewing the delights of that establishment’s chicken pasties, we instead plumped for an excellent burger from one of the outlets within the Fan Zone before leaving for a walk around the stadium.

130

Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown – WBA legend

It’s fair to say that The Hawthorns is not the most picturesque ground in the world. There is little to whet the appetite of the amateur photographer in the stadium’s external architecture. Just outside what passes for the main entrance to the ground, there is a statue of Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown. Brown is a WBA legend having made over 550 senior appearances for the Baggies, scoring over 200 goals along the way. Another WBA hero was remembered more poignantly on the day that we were there. Don Howe had passed away on 23rd December. Howe played over 340 games for the Baggies between 1952 and 1964, before returning to manage the side between 1971 and 1975. There was a heartfelt minute’s applause to mark his passing before the kick-off, which was marked in equal measure by WBA and Newcastle fans.

149

Players and fans joined in a minutes’ applause in memory of Don Howe before kick off

Having made our way into the ground, we were amazed to find that our seats were almost within touching distance of the playing surface. Normally, I like to watch the game from a slightly more elevated position, affording a degree of perspective over the whole match. However, it’s only when you’re down at pitch level that you get a true appreciation of the the speed of the game and the physical attributes of the players. Victor Anichebe and Jonas Olsson both started this game for WBA and they were by some margin the most intimidating players on the pitch. Anichebe bullied the Newcastle defence all afternoon, and Baggies boss Tony Pulis will be hoping that the injury that he picked up in the final few minutes is not as serious as it looked at the time.

152

Anichebe (10) and Olsson (on stilts!) making life difficult for the Newcastle defence at a 1st half corner

The game itself was actually very entertaining. The Albion won it with the only goal coming from the head of Darren Fletcher with 14 minutes remaining. It was no more than the Baggies deserved, although Newcastle will be disappointed that a determined (not to say occasionally desperate) rearguard action did not bring them a  share of the points on the day. Stand-out players on the day were Anichebe, Sessegnon and Fletcher for the Baggies; and Coloccini for the Magpies.

150

The mandatory kick-off pic – Fletcher was excellent for WBA

Mike Jones and his refereeing team had a generally good day, although there was a blatant pull back on Wijnaldum by Jonny Evans at the mid-point of the second half that should have resulted in a penalty kick to Newcastle and a red card for the WBA centre back. With the benefit of the replays on Match of the Day later in the evening, it seems likely that Jones was unsighted at the critical moment, but it was certainly a let-off for the Baggies. Unusually, Jones didn’t produce a card throughout the entire game; which is in part, testament to the spirit in which both teams approached the match.

In the car on the way home, the match summariser from Radio 5 Live suggested that Newcastle had shown enough in the game to suggest that they would avoid relegation this season, despite their precarious current position in the table. I’m not sure that I’d agree with that assessment, given their lack of any sustained attacking threat on this occasion. But I hope they do survive if only as a reward for the Geordie fans who filled the away seats at The Hawthorns and supported their team noisily and consistently throughout the entire 90 minutes.

139

Newcastle players going through their pre-match warm-up routines – orange and fuschia bibs brightening a dull afternoon!

145

The pre-match ‘Respect’ handshakes – that’s Sessegnon behind Olsson, not one of the mascots!