Wednesday, 26 April 2017

League Two is where the action's at

All eyes last weekend were on the FA Cup, the Premier League and La Liga, but the season climax in League Two is just as exciting as those more acclaimed competitions, with drama, stories and controversy throughout the division.

With two matches remaining only 6 of the 24 teams have nothing to play for. At the top of the table Doncaster Rovers, Plymouth Argyle and Portsmouth have all clinched automatic promotion, but any of the three could go up as champions as just 4 points separate them. For Portsmouth it could represent the start of a comeback following their fall from grace that saw the 2008 FA Cup winners go into administration and relegated three times.

Behind them a staggering 11 teams could find themselves in the play-offs. 5 points separate 7th place Stevenage, currently occupying the final coveted spot, and Grimsby Town in 14th. Two of the sides battling for a chance at promotion are, like Portsmouth, trying to bounce back from adversity. Blackpool, currently sixth, are trying to recover from relegations and financial problems that took them from the Premier League in 2011 to League Two, and Luton Town in fourth, who were a top flight team in the 90s, are trying to get back to the third tier of English football having got back into the Football League in 2014 after five seasons in the Conference.

It's tight at the bottom of the table too. Although Leyton Orient are already down, Newport County, Hartlepool United and Cheltenham Town are all battling to avoid joining them, and just above them, Yeovil Town aren't mathematically safe. Newport, currently 2 points above the drop-zone, were amazingly 11 points adrift of safety 6 weeks ago when caretaker manager Mike Flynn took charge, but 6 wins in their last 10 matches have taken them clear of the relegation positions. Their move has been at the expense of Hartlepool, who will themselves have a caretaker manager in charge at the weekend following the sacking earlier this week of Dave Jones after calls by lifelong Pools fan and Sky Sports Super Saturday presenter Jeff Stelling for him to be sacked. Just above them Cheltenham's manager Gary Johnson hasn't been sacked, but is recovering from heart surgery in March.

With every single match in the division having something riding on it this weekend and drama happening on and off the pitch, look out for the League Two results this Saturday.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Don’t stop believing

73 times Sergio Garcia had lined up to compete in one of golf’s majors, and 73 times he had failed to top the leaderboard. He had come close, finishing second twice in both The Open and the US PGA. In the 2007 Open a par on the final hole would have given him the title, but his putt narrowly missed and he went on to lose to Padraig Harrington in a play-off, and he lost out again to Harrington the following year in the PGA after relinquishing the lead by finding the water on the 16th in his final round.

He couldn’t have come much closer without winning one, but he finally put all that behind him yesterday as he held his nerve to beat Justin Rose in a play-off to win The Masters. After 20 years of playing in majors he had finally excused himself from the “best golfer never to win a major” debate. His win perhaps gives hope to the other contenders for that dubious title: Colin Montgomery (75 starts) and most notably Lee Westwood (76 appearances), who himself had a good weekend but finished 18th.

Garcia isn’t the first to have achieved sporting success after a long wait. Last summer Wales played in their first major football final for 58 years, and marked the occasion by making it to the semi-finals. Also from the world of football, one of the most famous FA Cup finals of all time saw the nation hoping that 38 year old Stanley Matthews could cap his 21 year long career with a winners medal, and indeed he did, inspiring his Blackpool side to come from behind to beat Bolton Wanderers in the 1953 final.

Away from football, what sports fan can forget Dennis Taylor beating Steve Davis on the final black to win an epic World Snooker final? That was his 12th appearance at the Crucible though, and many thought he would never become world champion at the age of 36, having lost in the final six years before. Nigel Mansell had to wait 13 seasons before he became F1 world champion, having finished runner-up three times, and in baseball the Chicago Cubs overcame the “curse of the billy goat” last year to win their first World Series in 71 years.

Perhaps the best at overcoming sporting hoo-doos however is Andy Murray. His US Open victory in 2012 was the first Grand Slam title for a British male in 76 years, and he himself had made four Grand Slam final appearances without a win before then. He followed it up with the first Wimbledon title in 77 years the following year, and he and his team-mates then won Britain’s first Davis Cup since 1936 in 2015. However, he still faces the challenge of winning the Australian Open, where he has lost in the final five times.

Who knows, Sergio might carry on winning Majors how he’s broken his duck, or he may never win another, but either way, at least he’ll never be remembered as the best player never to win one.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

When video replays go too far

In last week's football friendly between France and Spain something unusual happened. Video replays analysed by a fourth official were used to correct two goal decisions, something which the French team wouldn't have been overly happy about as the first disallowed an French goal for offside and the second allowed a Spanish goal that had originally been ruled out for offside.

Nevertheless, the overall view seemed to be that this was a good thing, the way forward, and FIFA President Gianni Infantino seems keen to press ahead to introduce the system in next year's World Cup.

However, another incident happened at the weekend which showed how care should be taken when dealing with the use of video replays in sport. American golfer Lexi Thompson was given four shot penalty for incorrectly replacing her marked ball whilst leading the ANA Inspiration tournament by two shots on the final day. That sounds fair enough, until you consider that her offence had been committed during the previous day's play, and was not spotted by officials or her playing partner. Instead an eagle-eyed TV viewer had spotted it and alerted officials.

Bizarrely, the rules of golf allow penalties to be given at any time whilst the tournament, but these surely need updating in an age where almost every professional tournament, men's and women's, is shown all around the world on TV, not to mention the internet. It can't be right that viewers can influence the outcome in this way, even if what they've spotted is correct. I think most people would agree with that.

Does that mean though that we don't mind mistakes being made, as long as the sport is kept real? Is sport better with a few officiating errors here and there to give us something to argue about? Is there a danger that football will become more boring if every refereeing decision is correct?

Getting refereeing decisions right is a very big deal. Look at the cost of relegation from the Premier League. Every club playing in the Premiership next season will receive more than £100m, compared with parachute payments for the three clubs that go down of £25m, reducing to £20m and £10m in the following seasons. With the battle to avoid relegation still tight, imagine if a refereeing error between now and the end of the season made the difference between a club staying up and going down.

But some of the most famous, talked about moments in the game’s history involve refereeing decisions – England’s goal against West Germany in 1966, Maradona’s hand-of-god goal. Would we be robbed of football folklore if video replays were introduced?

What about other sports that have brought in technology to make decision-making better? Hawk-eye is now well established at tennis Grand Slam events, but would we remember John McEnroe the same way though if he hadn’t had any of his many Centre Court tantrums because he’d been able to make three referrals every set?

Overall it’s difficult to argue against the use of technology in sport. Ultimately the better competitor on the day should win and not be robbed by a poor refereeing decision, but it’s use needs to be closely governed. Viewers at home certainly shouldn’t be able to act as a fourth official. But it may just mean that we have less to talk about in work on a Monday morning.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

What does Brexit mean for the Ryder Cup?

Theresa May yesterday triggered Article 50, signalling the UK’s exit from the EU in two year’s time. The potential impact on the UK and the rest of the EU has been debated ad nauseam, but as well as the economic, political and cultural implications, will there be an unexpected effect on the world of golf?

Since 1979 the USA has competed against Europe rather than Great Britain / Great Britain and Ireland, who had only troubled the trophy engravers once since the Second World War. That created the problem of what flag to match up against the stars and stripes, and the EU flag emerged as the most suitable even though non-EU Europeans could represent Europe (none actually have).

However, once the UK is no longer part of the EU the bulk of the team every two years could well be from a non-EU country. For example, in 2012, 2014 and 2016 seven out of twelve team members were from the UK. Will the EU flag still be appropriate, and if not, what could be used in its place?

The European Tour, which manages the European Ryder Cup team, has said that they consider the flag to represent the whole of Europe and that they will continue to use it. However, with Brexit representing a considerable change in European affairs, with possible repercussions across the continent, it remains to be seen whether it can still be viewed as representative of the whole of Europe.

The Ryder Cup is unlikely to form part of the Brexit negotiations, they’ve got plenty to sort out besides, but it will be interesting to see under what flag the Europe team lines up in Whistling Straits in 2020. At the very least it will have one less star on it.

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.