Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Six Nations that no-one was happy with?

The RBS Six Nations ended on Saturday with England champions for the second year in a row. Was anyone happy with this year's competition though?

England - Finished as champions but failed in their bid to break the world record for consecutive wins and to claim back-to-back grand slams. Only really played well in one match, against Scotland.

Ireland - Would have had high hopes for their second title in three years after beating New Zealand last year, but slipped up against Scotland and Wales and finished second.

France - Third place was their best finish since 2011, but they haven't won a Six Nations championship since 2010 and are still well short of their best.

Scotland - Only fourth despite some encouraging performances, but sooner or later those encouraging performances need to turn in to more wins.

Wales - Solid against Ireland and for patches against Italy and England, but under stand-in coach Rob Howley they were very disappointing. Why did they let Warren Gatland leave for Lions duty for the second time in four years?

Italy - Bottom again, their seventh wooden spoon in ten seasons, with the possibility of relegation to a second division looming.

The neutral - Excitement was a bit thin on the ground this year, with fewer tries being scored than in 2016 despite the bonus point experiment. The big talking points seemed to revolve around the rules - firstly after Italy's rule-stretching ruck-avoidance against England and the twenty minutes of time added on at the end of France v Wales.

No sports fans want to watch twenty minutes of scrums collapsing, no matter how tense the state of play. Even when scrums don't collapse they're a bit of a waste of time, with scrum-halves practically feeding the ball to the number eight. Rugby needs to sort this out to remain a draw for the players and fans of the future. Hopefully something can be done before next year's competition.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Could your city host the Commonwealth Games?

On Monday Durban announced that it would no longer be hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games. They were set to become the first African city to host the event after their successful bid in 2015, but cited financial constraints as their reason for pulling out.

Liverpool, Manchester, London and Birmingham (which lost out to Barcelona in its bid to host the 1992 Olympics) have all expressed an interest in stepping in, but can anyone really afford to host an event of that size these days? The Glasgow Games of 2014 cost an estimated £575 million at the time, with the London Olympics costing around $15 billion. Sochi topped that in 2016, shelling out $51 billion on the Winter Olympics. Rio managed to bring in a much more cut-price $6.4 billion, but still saw the country facing significant social unrest over the amount spent on hosting the Games in 2016 and the FIFA World Cup two years before that.
 Spiraling costs have led a number of cities, including Budapest and Rome, to drop out of the race to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, leaving just Paris and Los Angeles, and 2020 hosts Tokyo have seen their costs already shoot up from their original estimate of $2.5 billion to $15 billion.

Other major sporting tournaments have been split between countries in the past, such as the 2002 football World Cup in Japan and South Korea, the 2012 European Championships in Poland and Ukraine and the 2007 Rugby World Cup which was played in Wales and Scotland as well as main hosts France. The 2020 European Championships will be played in 13 different cities in 13 different countries. Perhaps this is the answer for multi-sport events too, although the tradition is for just one city to host the event. We saw in London 2012 however a number of events hosted away from the capital, such as sailing in Weymouth, football in five cities including Scotland and Wales, and rowing, mountain-biking and canoeing all held near but not in London.

Perhaps joint bids are the way forward, at least in Europe where major cities are not too far from each other. For example, Paris could host the Games with some events in Brussels, Munich and Amsterdam, or how about a Scandinavian Games in Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen and Helsinki?

The Commonwealth Games Federation has said that joint bids will be considered, so we could see a split location event within the UK, but that would still mean UK taxpayers footing the entire bill. A dual-country Commonwealth Games would be difficult, as most member countries are a long way away, but it would certainly help city budgets. So what do you reckon - Liverpool/Manchester or Birmingham/London?

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Greatest Comeback Ever?

Many have hailed Barcelona's overhaul of a 4-0 first leg deficit against Paris St-Germain last night as the greatest comeback in Champions League history, but how does it compare to other amazing sporting comebacks? Here are a few other contenders:

Nick Faldo's final day Masters comeback against Greg Norman - 14th April 1996

Six shots clear of the field coming into the final round at the US Masters at Augusta, it looked like it would be a battle for second place behind two time major winner and world number one Greg Norman, but a fantastic five under par final round by Nick Faldo, coupled with a last day meltdown by Norman, saw the Englishman win the coveted green jacket by five shots.

Man Utd's late goals against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final - 26th May 1999

With Bayern leading 1-0 in injury time, UEFA president Lennart Johansson left his seat to make his way through the inside of the stadium to the pitch to make the presentation. He was amazed to see the scenes that greeted him when he emerged onto the pitch. “I can’t believe it” he is quoted as saying, “The winners are crying and the losers are dancing.” United had scored twice, through Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer to leave the Germans heartbroken and secure a famous treble. 

The Miracle of Istanbul - 25th May 2005

Shock Champions League finalists Liverpool were in for a shock themselves as they found themselves 3-0 down against Milan at half time. Captain Steven Gerrard led the fightback though, getting a goal back, and further strikes by Vladimar Smicer and Xabi Alonso levelled the scores.  Jerzy Dudek then saved two penalties in the shoot-out to give the Reds their fifth European Champions cup win. 

The Miracle at Medinah - 30th September 2012

Trailing 10-6 after the fourballs and foursomes, surely the Europeans couldn’t come back from there. The US just needed 4 and a half points to win, with Europe needing 8 points to retain the trophy and 8 and a half to win it, but as the singles matches progressed the scoreboard was slowly turning from USA red to Europe blue. Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter cut the lead to 10-9, and Europe edged ahead 13-12. With the score 13-13 and the tension unbearable, Martin Kaymer claimed a point to mean that Europe couldn't lose, then Francesco Molinari claimed a half on the 18th against Tiger Woods to give his side an unlikely win.

Which is the greatest comeback? It's impossible to judge. At least none of these four involved dodgy penalties though...

You can read more about all of these comebacks in my book, Incredible Moments in Sport.

Monday, 27 February 2017

When owners and fans want different things

The sacking of Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri last week came as a surprise to some. Yes, his reigning Premier League champions were hovering dangerously just above the relegation zone, but he had done the impossible last season, leading the Foxes to a title that no-one thought they'd ever achieve and that they'll probably never achieve again. Surely that would protect him from the kind of treatment other managers would get in that situation?

Unfortunately the financial cost of relegation from the Premier League, even with parachute payments, is just too great these days, especially for a club that had rewarded its title-winning players with lucrative long term deals. With Financial Fair Play now a consideration, relegation would cause Leicester serious problems. That, along with the rumoured players' revolt, is surely what led to Ranieri's sacking.

For the fans though, is relegation a price worth paying? If you asked the fans of Premier League clubs other than the big guns whether they would accept a time in the Championship in exchange for a Premier League title, I think most would go for it. Surely that's what supporting a team is all about - wanting your club to win trophies, to call themselves champions. For most of our clubs it's an impossible dream, but dream we do, and Leicester proved that maybe, just maybe, those dreams can come true.

But league position, and therefore financial stability, is what you're after if you're a businessman running a club. Arsenal is a good example. An increasing number of Gunners fans are ready for Arsene Wenger to bid farewell, even though he delivers a top four finish and Champions League football every season. For the chairman that's fantastic, but for the supporter, they want to be winning the Premier League and Champions League.

Why risk that kind of stability though? Who would replace him? Could Arsenal finish lower than fourth under a new boss? It's the kind of gamble that owners and chairmen could do without, which is why Wenger seemingly has his job as long as he wants it.

Perhaps if Ranieri had three Premier League titles behind him instead of just one he might have been given a bit more time.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Who bet on the pies?

Sutton United reserve keeper, Wayne "the Roly-Poly-Goalie" Shaw, resigned today when it emerged that he was being investigated by the Gambling Commission and the FA for eating a pasty whilst sat on the bench during his side's FA tie against Arsenal.

Apparently his snack had earned some punters a decent sum with odds of 8-1 being offered on whether he would eat a pie on screen during the broadcast, but the payouts are now being investigated for possible betting irregularities.

The Gambling Commission has warned bookmakers in the past about the dangers of such "novelty bets", but surely they should be outlawed altogether if the credibility of gambling is to be maintained. There are any number of stupid bets that can be placed these days, with increased possibility of fixing taking place. There's nothing to suggest that Shaw had put a bet on himself, or knew people who had, but who else is likely to be interested in betting on something like that happening?

If easy-to-influence incidents were no longer available for bets to be placed on them, this would instantly wipe out a huge chunk of match-fixing. Pakistani cricketers Salman Butt, Mohammad Asir and Mohammad Asif wouldn't have been bribed to ensure that no-balls were bowled in particular overs, and Southampton footballer Matthew le-Tissier wouldn't have tried to kick the ball off the pitch at a certain time to produce the first throw-in of the match. Not being able to bet on these things would be no great loss. No-one wakes up thinking "I've got a feeling there's going to be an early throw-in in the match tonight", or "this cricket match has got no-balls written all over it."

Where there's money involved there will always be temptation for sportsmen and women, especially those who don't enjoy the riches that some of their counterparts do, to influence outcomes, but it's much harder to influence the outcome of an entire team sport match than an incidental statistic. Irregular patterns are looked for, but if you couldn't bet on them at all - problem solved.

There will always be problems with one-on-one sports such as tennis, snooker and boxing, but bookmakers can help themselves by not allowing bets on pie-eating.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Will captaincy spoil Joe Root's batting?

Joe Root is the new England cricket captain, the 80th to be given the honour. Obviously, some have done better than others. He was the obvious candidate - England's best batsman over the last few years, and one of the best in the world - but is it a good idea to make your best player captain?

Concerns have already been raised. Former England spinner Graeme Swann told the BBC "I'm still not convinced Root is the right man for the job. I want him to concentrate on being the best player we have ever had, rather than having his talent curbed by the pressures of captaincy", and Jimmy Anderson added "The decision is a big one because he's our best player, so you obviously don't want that to be affected."

It's been a long-held view that becoming captain can seriously affect your batting average, but do the stats actually agree? His predecessor, Alistair Cook, had pretty much the same average as captain as he did beforehand, as did Andrew Strauss, and Graham Gooch and Mike Atherton scored better as captain than when not captain. Away from England, the only two batsmen above Root in the world rankings, Steve Smith and Virat Kohli, have both improved their averages considerably since taking over as national captain.

So is the negative impact on batting just a myth then? Perhaps it comes in part from the experience of Ian Botham. Maybe he's a slightly different case as an all-rounder, but he was averaging 40 when he was appointed captain in 1980, only to average just 14 whilst skipper. After being relieved of the responsibility he immediately rediscovered his form in one of the most famous test matches of all time - the Headingley test of 1981.

So perhaps, as he's not an all-rounder, Joe Root will start to score even more runs as captain. England fans will certainly hope so, especially with another Ashes series just around the corner.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Should we expect footballers to be loyal?

On a fairly quiet transfer deadline day on Tuesday shockwaves were sent across one English city, with Bristol reeling from the news that Bristol Rovers' star striker Matty Taylor was crossing the city to sign for Bristol City.

It's a move that has been rarely made in Bristol, with Taylor becoming the first player to do so since Trevor Morgan in 1987. It's also one that continues to be controversial, with Rovers looking set to complain to the Football League that City knew the details of Taylor's release clause before making their bid. That will only add fuel to the fire in the West Country, as Rovers fans mourn the loss to their rivals of a striker who had helped them to successive promotions from the Conference to League One, scoring 61 goals in the process.

Players who have played for two local rivals are rare, and even rarer are those who have moved directly from one to the other. Rio Ferdinand and Eric Cantona both moved from Leeds United to Manchester United, and Sol Campbell signed for Arsenal from Spurs, but perhaps the most famous example is Denis Law.

Having spent a season with Manchester City he had a disappointing season at Torino before moving back to Manchester, this time for United. Between 1962 and 1973 he scored 237 goals for them, helping them to two League titles, one FA Cup and a European Cup. He was given a free transfer back to City in 1973 though, and famously scored a backheeled goal against United that he thought had relegated his old club (in fact other results that day meant that United would have gone down anyway).

Law was devastated by his goal, but should we expect players to feel such emotion for their current club as we as fans do? For them it's a job, a very well paid job, but unless they've grown up supporting their hometown club before going on to play for them, Steven Gerrard style, it's unlikely that they'll ever feel the same about the club as the fans. We sometimes see players refuse to celebrate goals against their old clubs as a mark of respect, but that doesn't stop them from moving on when a better offer comes along.

Who can blame them though. Few of them grew up supporting the clubs they play for. Hardly any of them grew up in the same country as the clubs they play for, so there simply isn't the same emotional attachment as there is for the supporters who've spent their lives experiencing the highs and lows of supporting your team. Players, managers, owners, almost everyone apart from the fans might kiss the badge for a while, but they could be kissing another badge after the next transfer window.

So, gutting as it is for fans to lose their talisman to your neighbours, we have to remember that the players don't feel the same.

Even so, Taylor will be hoping that his new club (currently three points above the Championship relegation zone with eight defeats and a draw in their last nine matches) don't have any derby games against his old one (three points away from the League One playoffs) next season.