Category Archives: Sport

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!

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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)

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.