Can we glean from the American Dream?

October 24, 2011

When Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre recently suggested that the larger among the Premier League sides should be allowed to negotiate their own independent television deals, he might have expected a mixed reaction from the other top division sides. For such a proposal to be ratified, Liverpool would need the approval at least 13 of the Premier League clubs – even Ayre would concede this to be unlikely. However, he could hardly have expected the vitriolic rebuke with which the proposal has been met across the entire Premier League, where opposition is seemingly unanimous. Critics of the TV proposal span the league from top to bottom, with the Manchester United manger, Sir Alex Ferguson, and Wigan chairman, Dave Whelan, among the most vocal. “You won’t get more money by killing the heart and soul of the Premier League” said Whelan. “It’s the American Dream”. Couple this sentiment with the outrage created by another recent proposal (this one from foreign based Premier League club owners) that relegation should be scrapped in favour of adopting an American style ‘franchise’ system – in which big clubs are safe-guarded and given years to develop – and one could be forgiven for suggesting that something of an anti-American feeling is starting to permeate English football.

But before we allow ourselves to be swept along with such animosity, therein lies a sporting question worth looking at objectively: Would English football benefit from borrowing some principles of American sport?

Yes, it could

Video Technology – The NFL utilises video technology through a challenge system known by them as ‘instant replay’. The head coach of each side is allowed two challenges during the game whereby they may question an official’s call and have the incident checked with the benefit of video technology. If both challenges are upheld then the side are rewarded with one further challenge. Bizarrely, English football has resisted implementing any such technology, often on the grounds that said process take too long and slow up the game. This argument seems less than convincing given that in the NFL a challenge can only be presided over by officials for a maximum of sixty seconds. Such technology would also provide the ancillary benefit of forever removing the manager’s ‘I didn’t see it’ excuse. Now they will; it’ll be replayed to the whole damn stadium on a fifty foot screen. 

Profit Sharing – Despite what so many would have you believe about the rampant fat-cat laissez faire cranked-up capitalist culture that exists in the USA, the truth is, when it comes to their major sporting sides, the American system is remarkably egalitarian in nature. In Major League Baseball, the money each team makes from ticket sales, merchandise and TV rights – which, quite obviously, will be significantly higher for the most popular sides – is taxed and then shared around across all of the teams in the conference. This is not just done for the warm feeling it gives every do-gooder inside, but rather in an attempt to induce competitiveness across the sport, and stop the same few sides dominating every year. In fact, the last six World Series have been won by six separate sides. Compare that with the fact that the last seven Premier League campaigns have produced just two separate winners and it’s clear which system provides a greater capacity for competitive change.

The Rooney Rule – Widening the interview process to include ethnic minority candidates for coaching jobs can only be a good thing. Read why in the previous article.

No, it wouldn’t

Excessive advertising – It’s bad enough for football fans in this country that for the fifteen minutes that exist between each half of a televised game we can expect approximately twelve of them to be taken up by meerkats and nodding dogs convincing us to buy their brand of insurance. But such is the driving force of advertisement across the pond, American Football has actually adapted its rules to create more commercial exposure. These ‘television time-outs’ are an untimely reminder of the market forces that threaten to trump the real reason why so choose to get involved in sport: sheer love of the game. Also, there’s something distinctly undignified about having to play your home football fixtures every week at Pizza Hut Park. 

Playoff Obsession – American sport is obsessed with the notion of playoffs. So much so, that since 2007 even their golf tour has been encumbered with the ridiculous system of caprice. Golf, by the way, is about as suited to ‘playoffs’ as the sport of bowls is to a ‘powerplay’. Americans love playoffs because of the drama they create – but so often it is cheap drama, created at the expense of consistency; the true arbiter of the best side over a whole season. The Premier League has done well thus far to forever resist the temptation of deciding their yearly champions based on such a system. The same cannot be said this year for the Super League (the top division of Rugby League) who saw their grand final title decider played out between the sides who finished 3rd and 5th out of twelve. That, to put it mildly, cannot be right.

Overruled

September 16, 2011

  Of the 92 professional clubs which constitute the English Premier and Football Leagues, only two currently employ black managers. A remarkably low number given that over 25% of the playing employees for said teams are black. To counteract such a disparity there have been calls for the English F.A. to introduce their own version of the Rooney Rule – named after Dan Rooney, owner of the American Football franchise the Pittsburgh Steelers. The rule was instigated in American Football to ensure that at least one ethnic minority candidate was interviewed when any coaching job became available. Eight years on from its implementation, it is widely considered to have been a rousing success.

  However, proposals for a similar law to be introduced to the English game have been met with much scepticism, ranging from the reasonable to the downright racist. Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel, articulator of the former, has argued that the proposals would not be practical to the time constraints of English football, where two managerless weeks to interview multiple candidates could cost a side a potential twelve points. Yet, one could just as easily argue that, in knowing this, clubs may be less inclined to indulge in the caprice of mid-season manger sacking. A Rooney Rule would not only, in the words of civil rights lawyer Cyrus Mehri, “cast the net wider” to ensure that a higher calibre of candidate is selected, but also quite possibly provide the ancillary benefit of stability, too. Charlton Athletic – incidentally one of the only two English teams to currently employ a black manager – went from 1991 to 2006 with Alan Curbishley in the top job, and subsequently rose through the leagues to become a mid –table Premier League side. In the five years since, they have changed managers five times (including three appointments in the space of six months) and currently reside in the 3rd tier of English football.  Would a lengthier managerial interview process really have been to their detriment?

  Samuel’s second point of concern regarding a Rooney Rule is that of qualification. He argues that rather than because of deep-seated problems of institutional racism, black coaches have failed to land the top jobs in England because they have been under-qualified – usually lacking the required UEFA Pro License. Maybe so, but this doesn’t seem to be an obstacle which stands in the way of their white counterparts. The truth is that nearly half of the football league managers are without such a license, and 10% have no coaching qualifications whatsoever. To avoid confusion, the rules over this should be (absolutely no pun intended) black and white; either you need the coaching qualifications to manage or you don’t. But English football authorities have been unwilling to step into line with the rest of Europe on this matter. Instead there is a vague system of guidelines which, despite earnest intentions, has allowed the extemporising status-quo to maintain for too long.

  Quite possibly that same hesitancy to step into the modern age is responsible for the alarmingly skewed racial proportions in the English managerial demographics. If English football doesn’t enforce an equivalent of the Rooney Rule, making it mandatory for teams to interview at least one ethnic minority candidate for managerial positions, then there’s no real reason to believe that thngs will change any time soon.  Despite what so many would have you believe, a Rooney Rule wouldn’t be an act of racial tokenism. No one will be forcing the clubs to hire particular candidates and neither should they feel obliged to; merely candidates will be able to present their case for employment. Ten years ago there was much idle talk about that particular generation of black players becoming future head coaches, but whatever reason, it simply hasn’t materialised. At the very least, the implementation of a Rooney Rule would leave no-one wondering as to why.

The Perils of Premier League Buy-Back

July 20, 2011

It would seem to require some rather perplexing logic to comprehend exactly how after selling Robbie Keane to Liverpool for £19 million, and subsequently buying him back for £15 million six months later, Tottenham Hotspur got a bad deal. But somehow that’s exactly what happened. Keane has made just 39 appearances in two and a half seasons since his return to Tottenham in January 2009, and after sending him out on loan deals to Celtic, and more recently West Ham, Spurs will look to offload him permanently this summer – and will be lucky to recoup even a third of the money which they spent on re-signing him.Interestingly, Keane is by no means an isolated case of a football player returning to a former club only to yield disappointing results, in fact he’s the exception which proves the rule: buy-backs (almost) never work.

Recent examples of inglorious homecomings include Lee Bowyer at West Ham, Pascal Chimbonda at Tottenham, and Barry Ferguson at Rangers. Though, perhaps the most high profile case outside of Robbie Keane is that of Shaun Wright-Phillips at Manchester City. After transferring back to Eastlands in 2008, City fans had little doubt that Wright-Phillips, the ‘prodigal son’, would waste no time in picking up the fine form he had shown in his first spell at the club. Three years on, SWP has had limited playing time at Man City, and can probably expect to be sold this summer on a cut-price deal.

This temptation for clubs to shoot themselves in the foot this way is heightened by the baffling escalation of the ‘buy-back clause’ – an increasingly frequent addition to the transfer deals of players departed whereby the clubs agree a fee at which said player could, potentially, be re-purchased. The loan system was created with the very intention of allowing clubs to suspend judgment on whether they want to keep a player long term by allowing such players to play first team football for other clubs on short-term deals. So why sell only to re-sign?

Perhaps the best explanation for this lies in the notion of sentimentality. Fans are suckers for the nostalgic promise of a former hero returning to their roots, and in such times it’s up to the manager to exercise some rationality. Arsene Wenger has been heavily criticised for his transfer policy at Arsenal, just as Rafael Benitez was for his at Liverpool. But credit is due to both for resisting temptation, and fan pressure, to bring back former club stars. For Wenger this was Patrick Vieira, and for Benitez, Michael Owen. As it transpired, both players (who had left to play abroad) did return to Premier League clubs, and subsequently proved themselves to be nothing like as effective as they had been the first time around.

The argument often put forward by buy-back advocates goes something along the lines of, ‘upon re-signing for (insert team), the player’s love for the club will invigorate their standards to new levels of excellence’. But this is a flawed line of reasoning. Even if one is to take the breathtakingly naïve plunge of believing that a player’s future is decided by more than monetary factors, it doesn’t explain the fact that the player’s love for his club was truly enduring then they never would have left in the first place.

The truth is that buy-backs are usually unproductive because they are seldom made for footballing reasons. There have been cases in which returning players have had success – David Dunn at Blackburn and Teddy Sheringham at Tottenham spring to mind. But, it’s a truism of football that the greater the amount of time which elapses from when player leaves a club, the greater their reputation among fans invariably becomes. We all have selective memories, and the only way to ensure that the reputations of our favourite footballers remain exactly as we remember them is to hope they never get bought, or brought, back to the site of their glory years.

The most open of Opens

July 13, 2011

This week’s Open Championship at Royal St Georges presents the opportunity for a potential sixth straight first time major champion in golf. It is a run that stretches back to Graeme McDowell’s victory in the 2010 U.S. Open, and is in many ways symptomatic of the game’s current state of flux. With so many of the golfing establishment – Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Jim Furyk to name but a few – now the wrong side of forty and struggling to consistently find form, there is very much a feeling that the guard is changing within the sport. No small contributing factor to this is of course Tiger Woods’ run of injuries and/or indifferent form which now stretches back as far as the, worryingly high, 18 month mark. In any case, only once since 1895 have there been six consecutive first time major winners; this week I expect to mark the second occasion.

  Now, given that currently the world’s 1 & 2 ranked players have precisely zero majors between them, perhaps this isn’t the daring premonition that my dramatic nineteenth century stat hinted at. However, I will be sticking my neck out below by listing three rank outsiders whom I feel have the potential to upset the apple cart at Sandwich and make the Claret Jug their inaugural major title.

Matteo Manassero – Age 18 – Odds 66/1

If it weren’t for the exploits of a certain Rory McIlroy then the golfing press would have long since touted Manassero as ‘the’ next big thing – even the next Tiger Woods, perhaps. After winning the Amateur Championship in 2009 aged just sixteen, Manassero subsequently claimed the silver medal honours as the leading amateur in that year’s Open Championship at Turnberry, finishing 13th overall. Since turning pro he has added two European Tour titles to his name (that’s one more than McIlroy has now), and all of this achieved before his eighteenth birthday. A straight driver of the golf ball and outrageously good putter, Manassero’s main advantage lies in his fearless attitude. In fact, he has so little to lose at Royal St Georges this week that he might just go out there and win.

 

Thorbjorn Olesen – Age 21 – Odds 150/1

Perhaps the least well known of the three, Olesen has quietly built a reputation on the European Tour this season as a birdie-making machine. Never was this more evident than in his final round 62 in the BMW Italian Open which propelled him out of mid field mediocrity into an unlikely tie for second. A further second place finish in the Open de France, staged at 2018 Ryder Cup venue Le Golf national – an event which the 21 year old must already be penning into his long term diary – saw him qualify for the Open Championship. If he can translate his recent form on to the links layout, he has a great chance.

Alexander Noren – Age 29 – Odds 200/1

Despite being significantly older than the other two, Noren is still considered amongst golfing circles as a precocious talent. Indeed the fact that – regardless of the two European Tour titles he has to his name – he is seen as one of golf’s underachievers is testament to Noren’s potential as a world beater. Unfancied by most this week, as shown by his outrageously long odds, Noren has tasted victory as recently as six weeks ago, and his smooth swing might just be the perfect combatant to any adverse weather conditions that the British ‘summer’ is liable to produce in Sandwich.

Maturity is immaterial for Sergio

June 13, 2011

When Sergio Garcia tees it up for his opening round of the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on Thursday, it will mark his 47th consecutive start in a golfing major championship. Garcia takes his place in the field after coming through a 36-hole regional qualifying event – a path that was forced upon him following his world ranking plummet. Once ranked as high as second in the world, the precocious Spaniard now flounders as merely the world’s 75th best player. And, indeed, 47th consecutive start it may be, but Sergio will need no reminding that his current major record reads – as the Americans like to say – 0 for 46.

  If, however, as so many have prophesised, Garcia’s poor form has resulted from a perceived loss of passion for the game, then the U.S. Open may very well be the perfect setting for his rejuvenation. Seen as something of a firebrand in his earlier years, Garcia has always held somewhat of a fractious relationship with the American public – not least in the nation’s flagship golfing event, the United States Open. The 2002 Open at Bethpage Black was notable for a couple of unsavoury incidents which revolved around Garcia. Firstly, after completing his first round in adverse weather conditions, Garcia launched an attack on the USGA (United States Golf Association), claiming, with some justification, that had Tiger Woods been drawn to play at the same time, the event would have been suspended. Secondly, and more notably, Garcia got into a couple of run-ins with the fans. Garcia’s habit, at the time, of gripping and re-gripping before hitting the ball (actually far less annoying than Mike Weir’s ‘look-back’ or Jim Furyk’s putting peccadilloes) caused one fan to yell out “hit the damn ball Sergio”. Garcia promptly gave him the finger, and found himself largely booed for the remainder of the championship in which he went on to finish in a highly credible fourth place.

  Astonishingly, the general reportage on that incident suggested that Garcia’s response was that of a petulant child who needed to earn the respect of the American fans. It’s difficult to sum up in words just how misguided this suggestion was. Respect from the golfing crowd should always be unconditional; no player should have to earn it. If you don’t like what you see, then don’t applaud, but heckling is unforgiveable. This basic rule of etiquette was somehow missed in a swirl of hyperbole concerning the passion of the U.S. Open crowd, and the supposed immaturity of a young Spanish golfer. To strike a parallel with an upcoming British sporting event, could you realistically imagine a scenario whereby partisan Andy Murray supporters heckled his opponent before every shot? And if so, would the press dismiss such behaviour as ‘proud Brits defending their bulldog’? Unlikely.

  An examination of Garcia’s behaviour on the golf course since that event will show that he is still no paragon of virtue. Blemishes on his record include being fined for spitting into the cup following a three-putt at Doral in 2007. And at the 2010 USPGA Championship, failure to escape a bunker resulted in Garcia making a Happy Gilmore style assault on the sand-trap with a wedge. But, we should not forget that it is when such energy gets channelled into positive outbursts that Garcia finds his greatest glory, and that is why he remains one of the most exciting players to watch.  Now aged 31, Garcia has 20 professional wins, but alongside them more near misses and golfing agonies than most players twenty years his senior have had to harbour. Such factors may have softened the American sentiment towards him over the years, but one thing is for sure, Garcia won’t have to earn the respect of the U.S Open crowds at Congressional; if he we wants it badly enough, he’ll just take it.

Unporting Behaviour

April 2, 2011

   Is there a place left for player honesty in sport?

  Former England cricket captain Michael Atherton has strongly argued that batsmen who knowingly get a slight edge or nick on the ball – and are not given out by the umpire – should have no obligation to walk of their own accord. His justifications being that players are at times wrongly dismissed by umpires and under those circumstances often have no choice but to return to the locker room. The referral system in cricket has gone some way to eliminating such moral quandaries, but they still do happen, and in such cases the batsman who feels the edge or the fielder who knows he hasn’t taken the catch cleanly are left with weighty decisions to make.

  Or do they? Atherton is not alone in implying that the onus should be solely on officials to make important sporting verdicts. During a UK indoor athletics meeting in 2010, the BBC commentary team picked up on a replay that clearly showed a British athlete running out of their lane – a fault punishable by disqualification. However, Steve Cram smugly maintained that if there was any over-sight on the part of the officials, it was simply their responsibility to pick up on it. Or put bluntly: it’s okay to cheat, just so long as you’re not caught. Staggering hypocrisy from a man whose brazen disgust towards former drug users (since rehabilitated) in athletics single handedly ruins the BBC’s ostensible impartiality in their athletics coverage.

  In any case, the argument for officiating cognizance trumping player responsibility would seem to be morally defensible position, but only with the inclusion of one highly important caveat: that you take the rough with the smooth. This is what Michael Atherton and countless other sportsmen do; they accept that they will both benefit and suffer from officiating ineptitude. However, there are those, and far too many of them, who happily acquiesce with the favourable mistakes, whilst fiercely attacking the official when an error acts to their detriment. Regrettably, the most salient examples seem to almost always occur in football. Messrs Ferguson and Wenger are particularly guilty of this offence. Indeed, it is with astonishing frequency that they ‘fail to see’ the controversial incidents that benefit their side, but when the shoe is on the other foot, their abuse of referees goes even so far as to draw the impartiality of their decision-making into question.

  Back to square one. If officials are biased how can we expect players to be honest? The answer of course is that officials are not biased, but merely fallible. And the gap to fairness must be bridged with a conscious effort on the part of the players. This might seem to be unrealistic, but there is a sport where honesty rules, it’s called golf. It’s a point that I like to labour, but golf really is the only game in town in which players routinely call penalty strokes against themselves. Anyone who’s seen golf movie ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’ will recall the scene on the final hole in which Matt Damon, whilst tied for the lead, calls a penalty stroke upon himself for a ball that moves by an inch. Any non-golf fans who saw that presumably thought they had witnessed mere Hollywood hyperbole; they would be wrong to think so. Last year, whilst in a playoff to win his maiden PGA Tour title, professional golfer Brian Davis called a two stroke penalty upon himself for a rules infraction that only he alone could have seen. Golfers are fiercely proud of their honesty. Erm, Tiger Woods notwithstanding.

  In fairness to football, it has more scope for infraction of the rules than any other sport. And indeed players are subject to the each individual referee’s interpretation of the laws of the game, and that can change from week to week. A footballer might get more bad officiating calls against him in one game than say a cricketer would in his entire career. But the point remains, that a little honesty will usually go a long way. That’s why Paolo Di Canio is remembered more for catching the ball against Everton – to check on the health of an opposition player no less– with the goal at his mercy, than he is for pushing over referee Paul Alock in an act of stupid petulance.

(Okay we all know he’s remembered best for scoring that volley, but you still get my drift)

Swing Doctoring

February 23, 2011

 

Tiger Woods is currently in the process of remodelling his swing for a third time since he turned pro fifteen years ago. This time it is under the tutelage of golf coach Sean Foley, and it is fair to say that things are not going well. Much of Woods’ poor form in 2010 can be attributed to (the very public) matters in his private life, but after joining up with Foley around the time of last year’s USPGA, general feeling was that Woods’ on-course results would improve. Thus far they have not. In his last event, The Dubai Desert Classic, Woods slumped to a final round 75, and his swing looked very, very un-Tiger-like.

  There’s a tendency to get rather blinded by science when examining the mechanics of a golf swing, so in looking at the changes Woods and Foley have been making, I’ll try to keep things (relatively) simple. Okay, here goes:  For a long time, Wood’s Achilles heel has been to push his shots – particularly with the Driver – high and wide of the fairway to the right. This was caused in part by his upper body working ahead of his lower body, causing him to get ‘stuck’ behind the ball at impact. However, this tended to be a problem that only really affected him when attempting to hit the ball monumental distances, causing him to compromise balance and tempo. In light of this, Foley has been encouraging Woods to ‘clear his hips’ before impact, meaning that his legs will move move ahead of his arms and body, thus creating the maximum coil and torque in the golf swing. The problem is, that this system looks much better on paper than it does in practice. The result of Woods’ swing changes are, as one commentator cheekily puts it: “he’s now swinging his hips more than Shakira”. Chortle.

  Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. After all, history tells us that when Tiger Woods makes swing changes, he usually has the last laugh when it comes to the trophy count. Indeed it is often the case that only after extensive swing changes can a player make the transition from ‘very good’ to ‘world class’; Nick Faldo being the most salient case in point. Yet,  equally true, is the truism that you shouldn’t mix with the perfect formula; a lesson that ‘serial tinkerer’ Padraig Harrington has discovered in the time since his double major winning year of 2009. And in fact last week’s L.A. Open on the PGA Tour proved that sometimes it’s just best to go back to what you know. Aaron Baddeley clamed his first win in four years, after reverting back to the swing method that served him so well in his youth.

  Though on current evidence, even Tiger Woods’ most ardent followers would think twice before suggesting he’s likely to re-capture his glorious form of 2000. Indeed, this week marks a significant moment for Woods; in lieu of the Accenture World Golf Matchplay Championship, bookmakers price Woods at 14-1 to claim the title – the highest pre-tournament odds placed on him since he burst on to the scene with an astonishing twelve stroke victory fourteen years ago at the 1997 U.S. Masters. Jack Nicklaus once said of Woods, that “he plays a game with which I am not familiar”, perhaps even Woods isn’t familiar with that game anymore.

  Woods will take some hope from the fact that in 2004, when he endured his only previous golfing slump even comparable to the one he currently withstands, his solitary title of the season was in fact the Accenture Matchplay Championship. Indeed match-play can often provide welcome respite for a player struggling with his swing. Factors like mental toughness and ability to make clutch shots under pressure become paramount, and there is probably still no-one greater than Tiger as far as these assets are concerned. The real question is whether he is comfortable enough with his swing to win the five consecutive matches required to take home the title. The answer to that question is surely an emphatic no.

No Gray Areas

February 1, 2011

  As the Premier League cools down in the wake of a frantic final twenty four hours of the January transfer window, the speculation as to whom will act as the long term replacement for Andy Gray as head analyst at Sky Sports only hots up. And I for one beseech the powers that be to go down a very different route from their last appointment.

  Recent events have very publicly highlighted a rather unsavoury sexist side to Mr Gray, but even putting that issue aside for a moment, there have been grounds for his removal from Sky for years, based on nothing more than his awful awful commentary. Football fans have, for far too long, had to endure Gray condescendingly remind us that there are some things you simply cannot understand in football “unless you’ve played the game (at professional level)”. Well I’m sorry Andy, but equally valid is the maxim that there are some things about football punditry you cannot understand until you’ve sat back and listened to it over and over again (strictly at armchair level). And the same old clichés, mistakes and downright sloppiness were commonplace during his tenure. Though worst of all were his infamous ‘footballer’s conversations’; captured deliciously by Dennis Hurley in this article from football magazine, WSC:

“Frank Lampard says to Drogba: ‘Go on son, I’ve just played you in, have a goal for yourself.’ And Drogba says: ‘Thanks very much Frankie, don’t mind if I do.’ But Edwin van der Sar’s got other ideas, he’s saying: ‘What ya reckon Didier, I’ve won the Champions League with different clubs and set a clean-sheet record.’ Drogba’s having none of it, though: ‘Don’t care, big man, I’m just going to slide it under your legs.’”

  General consensus in the footballing world seems to be that whilst Gray deserved to be fired, his misogynistic partner in crime, Richard ‘would you smash it?’ Keys, has been somewhat unfortunate to have been tarnished with the same brush. Though in all honesty, his departure from Sky has been no great loss either. During a Champions League broadcast, Key’s once provided the sage reminder to the viewing public that “away goals count double”. A comment that tells you just about all you need to know about his particular grasp on the basic laws of the game. Don’t question his understanding of the offside rule though, he might just go potty.

  In any case, whilst Keys’ presenting role is as interchangeable a job as you’re likely to find on television, the task of whom to replace Gray with as head analyst, should prove to be rather more difficult. The safe (and cheap) option for Sky, would be to promote from within their own infrastructure, and that would most likely mean Jamie Redknapp. This would be a mistake. An online poll on the Daily Mirror revealed that with 36% of the public vote, Redknapp is by far and away the most popular choice for the job. For shame people, for shame. No doubt this 36% are the same people who think that David Beckham should still play for England whilst simultaneously holding public office, with a knighthood thrown in for good measure. Image leaden vacuousness champions the Redknapp case, and if you don’t believe me, actually listen to what he says next time he’s on television; you’ll be lucky if four out of every five words make sense.

  Having spent a year in America, it became clear that despite the annoyingly frequent advertising breaks attached to their sporting coverage, the level of in-depth analysis by the talking heads both before during and after sporting events over there is far superior to the standard in England. If you ever wonder why football coverage is so much more engrossing whilst listening on the radio, it’s not just because the commentators describe the action on the pitch in far more detail (which they do), it’s because they are not afraid of calling the action as they see it; Alan Green of Radio Five-Live being the prime example. It is in this mould, that Sky should find a replacement for Gray, and if that desecrates their holy adage of only employing ex-footballers then so be it.

Respectfully Dissenting

January 24, 2011

  Football isn’t exactly a sport with its priorities in order. For proof of this we need look no further than FIFA’s recent decision to eschew infallible goal-line technology in favour of the use of extra officials, or indeed their choice to award the 2022 World Cup to the corrupt emirate of Qatar. But that’s just FIFA, the English F.A. would never allow such depravities to occur…. or so Richard Scudamore and the other supercilious executives of the Premier League would have you believe. The ostensible party line of the F.A: that the laws of the game are guided by common sense was proven to be erroneous a long time ago. But events in two recent matches served to highlight just how ridiculous the standards of the English game really are.

  A week ago, during Manchester United’s 0-0 draw with Tottenham Hotspur, Wayne Rooney, already booked, was unpunished after shouting “fucking wanker” in the face of the referee. Fast-forward six days to West Ham’s fixture against Everton, where Frederic Piquionne, after scoring what he believed to be a last gasp winning goal, celebrated by running to the crowd (strictly to the West Ham section) and embracing the front row. Like Rooney, Piquionne had already been booked, but unlike Rooney, he was given a second yellow and subsequent red card by the referee, whom incidentally Piquionne did not verbally abuse in any way shape or form. And of course to add insult to injury (well, suspension I suppose), Everton went on to score a stoppage time goal to deny West Ham victory. This idea that celebrations should be punished, whilst degradations ignored, is mind boggling to say the least. The point has since been laboured that in sending Piquionne off, the referee was just following the rules of the game, but that’s exactly it, it is the rules which are wrong, not the referees. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that there is something terribly amiss with the priorities of the F.A. here, and it is a misgiving that they have tried to counter only frivolously.

   In 1989, whilst officiating a game between Arsenal and Milwall, referee David Elleray was miked-up; thus amplifying the voices of those around him on the pitch. The players behaved in what is now the customary caustic manner, as Tony Adams at one point clearly calls Elleray a “fucking cheat”. Needless to say the experiment was discontinued, and for years absolutely no deterrents were put in place to dissuade players from hurling obscenities at referees. In more recent times the ‘Respect’ campaign has been launched as a token gesture and unsurprisingly has achieved, well, pretty much nothing. The F.A. website blithely announces that assaults on referees are down 13% on last year, as if that’s a statistic to be proud of.  And indeed any impartial viewer will tell you that verbal abuse of referees has, if anything, gotten worse rather than better since the campaign began. If the ‘Respect’ campaign has taught us anything, it is that governing bodies and officials of football cannot just appeal to the player’s sense of decency and honesty, because that is simply not enough. After all, these are players who routinely try to con referees by diving, feigning injury and claiming throw-ins and corners that they (knowingly) have no right to. The F.A. must change the rules to enforce harsher penalties for dissent, or face the ignominy of seeing the players like Rooney, (whom they represent) broadcast obscenities to millions of viewers without fear of repercussion.

  The point is often made, and rightly so, that if players in Rugby, Cricket and let’s face it, virtually every sport other than football can abide, and indeed flourish, without abusing sporting officials, why can’t football follow suit? It’s an uncomfortable question for football’s governing bodies and indeed one to which they pretend there is no obvious answer. There of course is an obvious answer, which is that they are petrified that by enforcing stricter penalties for dissent, improved player conduct would not be a corollary and instead referees would be forced to send off five or more players every game, thus causing chaos. In any case, it is clear that the likes of the F.A. hold no real confidence in the pragmatism of players; a view that would actually be acceptable if only they came out and said it. Instead they over-compensate in other areas, by punishing petty offences like the removal of the player’s shirt in celebration. Pathetic.

  The abuse of officials in Scotland recently led to a referee’s strike, and current trends would suggest that the same thing may happen in England; though the good it will do is sadly highly doubtful. The players won’t take the initiative to change their ways, so the F.A. simply must.

The start for Dart recognition

December 17, 2010

 It’s a lamentable fact that amongst some quarters, professional darts players still aren’t considered to be true sportsman. Darts has to validate itself against the kind of charges levelled at no other professional sport. And it’s grossly unfair.  As a great proponent of darts, I find myself constantly having to justify the legitimate reasons for it to be considered a sport; usually to people who know virtually nothing about darts, but still like to take the condescending high ground in the debate. It’s a conversation that I’ve had enough, to know that it can be effectively ended inside a minute:

Tom: So why wouldn’t you consider darts to be a sport?

Response: Well, it’s just a pub game really.

Tom: Well so are snooker and pool. Are they not sports?

Response: Um, well, yes. Because they involve different kind of shots with different uses of spin played all around the table. Darts is just aiming at a target.

Tom: Ah, you mean like archery – that Olympic sport.

Response: ….

Let us be honest, people who refuse to accept darts as a sport, do so not on any legitimate sporting grounds, but rather because they so vehemently dislike the culture. Played out in arenas that echo with the alcohol-induced chanting of the crowd, televised darts may present an unsightly scene for the more dignified sports viewer. However, it is with blinding presumption that so many fall into the fallacy of believing that just because the crowd behave in a somewhat provincial manner, the professionals should be judged by the same standards. For some it is the jocularity of the walk-ons, for others the garishly coloured shirts and for the rest perhaps it is the sheer corpulence of some of the competitors, but whatever the reason, there are pre-conceived notions of the darts player as a beer swilling indolent chancer. Nothing could be further from the truth.

World number one, Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, has explained how he spends on average, four hours a day on the practice board, and in the build up to major tournaments as many as six. Similar work ethics can be found amongst all of the world’s top players, and for some even this is not enough. Second ranked player in the world James Wade and 2010 World Championship semi-finalist Mark Webster both retain part-time employment as mechanics and plumbers respectively. Wade (winner of six major PDC titles) is in all likelihood a multi-millionaire from his darts earnings alone. Indeed, his decision to retain his manual work in spite of his wealth is testament to the hard working nature which embodies the professional darts player. It may be all fun and games during the walk-on, but the moment the players step up to the oche, concentration is paramount, and the skill becomes evident.

For the longest time, darts lay only on the periphery of the British sports scene, receiving little air play. However, in the last six or seven years, its popularity has positively snow-balled; most people will be surprised to learn that in 2009, darts was second only to football in terms of viewing figures on the Sky Sports channels. Winners of any of the major televised events now stand to win at least £100,000 – just reward, some will argue after years of paltry earnings. There also appears to be recognition for the sport on a national scale, as after years of inexplicable omission, Phil Taylor has found himself with nominations for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award in the previous few years; 2010 included.  

 The Christmas and New Year period also signifies the merriest moment in the darting calendar: The World Championship. I would implore any sceptics of the sport to give it more than cursory glance over the coming weeks, because you’ll surely be rewarded with entertainment of the highest order. It guarantees to provide drama, suspense and enthralling match ups, all relayed to us by the iconic commentary voice of Sid ‘this lad has more checkouts than Tescos’ Waddell. In any case, you don’t have to take my word for it; self-confessed darting fanatics include Andrew Flintoff, Steven Gerrard and even the more cerebral individual, Stephen Fry. So if you still don’t think darts is a sport…. I suppose you can just, fuck off.


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