Tuesday, 30 August 2011

World Championships suffer false-start

Now i’m not a raving athletics fan, but watching some of the World Championships in Daegu this week, I really had to feel for some of the British athletes, and others besides.

Jessica Ennis today failed to emulate her Championships of 2009 and scoop gold in the heptathlon. Actually, ‘failed’ is a bit harsh, seeing as she claimed silver which is no mean feat, especially not spread across so many disciplines. But she was undoubtedly and understandably disappointed that she wasn’t able to become the first British athlete to defend a world title. Instead, that opportunity and associated pressure now lies with triple-jumper Phillips Idowu, whose qualification round begins Fridays morning.

Similarly, Mo Farah took silver on Sunday in the 10,000 metres, after being pipped at the post by an Ecuadorian he’d never even heard of! In his efforts to take the world crown, Farah broke away from the pack just a little too soon and ran out of steam, but the unbelievable amount of determination and exertion displayed across his face as he fought tooth and running-spike to hold onto his lead was awe-inspiring. Unfortunately in those situations, as idealistic as it may be to pressure your opponents by creating a gap and (quite literally) running away with it, the easier job may actually lie in chasing the leader. At least you have something to aim for and drive you on, whereas out in front, you’re looking over your shoulder and with no marker set down, it’s sometimes difficult to know how much you need to push yourself to reach the finishing line.

Nevertheless, despite the duos disappointments, better to suffer them now than next summer at the Olympics. It gives them both some extra drive and determination, if they need it, to succeed on the biggest and best stage sport provides.

But it has not just been the Brits suffering in South Africa. Usain Bolt and – ok, more Brits – Christine Ohurugou and Dwaine Chambers (my sympathy is limited where he’s concerned) have each been disqualified from their respective events for false starts. Under new-ish laws, there are no second chances for false-starters. Previously, the first athlete to jump the gun would be allowed to try again, although any second athlete would be automatically disqualified. This was changed because slow-starting runners could purposefully false-start once and hinder their opponents who were quicker out of the blocks.

In an ideal world, each athlete would be given one chance before disqualification, but in this 21st Century world, television rules and the time this could take means it is not an option. In my humble opinion (and apologies to my employers), TV can take a running jump quite frankly. Whilst Lord Coe believes getting away properly is all part of the race, it only takes one twitch, one bit of over-enthusiasm and two or even four years of training and hard-work (and in some cases drug abuse) is in tatters. And that’s only from an athlete’s perspective. What about the thousands of people who have paid through the nose (especially in the case of London 2012) to watch the world’s best competitors and those who haven’t been lucky enough to get tickets but have forked out for Sky/ESPN/Eurosport for the same privilege?

As it transpires, Usain Bolt can consider himself especially unfortunate, as television pictures actually show the eventual winner of the men’s 100 metres on Sunday (and Bolt’s training partner), Yohan Blake, twitched on the blocks before Bolt, well...bolted. Whether this movement triggered Bolt’s premature departure or not we will never know and the ever-gracious Olympic champion is unlikely to say. But in the black and white laws penned by the IAAF, Blake’s movement should have meant disqualification but the sensors failed to pick it up.

No matter what Lord Coe says, one strike and you’re out just isn’t the way forward for athletics. Except in the case of drug abuse, in which case Dwaine Chambers should consider his false-start disqualification the second chance that he blew.

Overall, the World Championships have so far provided many talking points. With five days left to go, let’s hope they continue to do so, but with more positive news for the Brits and athletics as a whole.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

It's Time for the Silly Season to Stop Before the Real Season Begins

It’s just over a week to go until football’s transfer window shuts until January. This summer’s window has been dominated by the ‘will he, won’t he’ saga surrounding Carlos Tevez and the ‘just get on with it’ bore-a-thon involving Cesc Fabregas. That’s not forgetting, of course, the confirmation from Manchester ‘webuyanyplayer.com’ City that they will sign Samir Nasri ‘any day now’ on July 8th...July 16th...July 30th...August 11th...August 20th...you get my point.

In short, it’s so far been a transfer window to forget, especially if you’re an Arsenal fan, and if that’s the case you may want to get on with forgetting the rest of the season too.

But does the transfer window go on too long? Should it shut before the season begins?

Every year we see players refusing to honour their contracts and represent their clubs in a bid to move to pastures new (and often richer). Last term, Asmir Begovic of Stoke was hankering after a move to Chelsea and so made himself unavailable to the Potters through fear of sustaining a move-busting injury. This time around, Arsenal want-away Fabregas and Chelsea target Luka Modric have both been struck down with ‘transferitis’ at various points over the summer, deeming them unable to play for their respective sides.

Modric missed last night’s match at Old Trafford, with his boss Harry Redknapp saying the Croatian had a ‘slight injury’, whilst also admitting his head ‘wasn’t in the right place to play’.

This is another factor affecting players who are being chatted-up by new clubs whilst the season is already underway. Knowing their dream move is on the horizon (or one of a multitude of dream moves if you’re Robbie Keane...) then it can become increasingly difficult for players to focus on their jobs for their current clubs. Is this fair on the clubs who own the players and want the best out of them whilst they remain under contract? Hardly.

It’s equally unfair if a player doesn’t want to play through fear of injury or becoming cup-tied, as Samir Nasri would have done had he played for Arsenal against Udinese in the week. On the same point, it’s not fair either for those players who are model professionals and wish to go about their jobs as normal, if their club wants to shift them for a sizeable fee and so won’t select them whilst negotiations are ongoing.

With a January window in place too, it becomes unavoidable as the New Year hits, but often players are already cup-tied in various competitions and few ‘big moves’ really materialise at this time of year anyway.

But at the start of the season, the transfer window turns football into a farce. It would seem best for both players, clubs and the paying public if the ‘silly season’ were to end before the real season begins. Let's just get on with the football!

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Premier League Almost-Preview

So the Premier League season tiptoed it's way into action last weekend. Having had weeks of hype without any 'proper' football to fill the void of the close season (sorry, the new Women's Super League doesn't count) and endless transfer speculation that only the silly season can adequately provide, the Big Kick Off was something of a damp squib really. 5 draws in 9 games didn't really set Match Of The Day alight, but we welcomed it back with a fond cuddle just the same.

Now, having missed the opportunity for a proper Premier League preview last week (obviosuly foreseeing that things wouldn't really get going until the second weekend...), I thought I'd dive in before this week's fixtures commence with the lunchtime Tyne and Wear derby on Saturday.

Here are my thoughts (no benefit of first-week hindsight necessary).

Title race: As a Chelsea fan, it saddens me to say that Andre Villas-Boas' men don't look to have much of a prayer this year. There may be the odd fleeting challenge here and there, the odd tentative knock on the door, but in truth I can't see anyone forcing it down with a battering ram. It's Manchester United's for the taking.

They've lost some key players over the last six months and surely their biggest loss (in more than just surface area) will be Edwin van der Sar and, as yet, replacement David de Gea doesn't look quite up to scratch. But the signings of Phil Jones and Ashley Young are shrewd moves from Ferguson, though it does remain to be seen if Young's quite the standard Old Trafford fans will be looking for.

The only way Chelsea can realistically challenge for honours is if Villas-Boas persuades Roman Abramovich to splash the cash. Not necessarily huge sums, but a winger is vital and a playmaker would be handy as well, to complement Torres' movement and provide him with the service he needs. Having said that, Romelu Lukaku is certainly one to watch. Very much in the mould of Didier Drogba, let's just hope he throws a few less strops.

Manchester City are one club who have certainly not been adverse to a bit of retail therapy this summer, with Sergio Aguero and Gael Clichy both joining the ranks...and they don't look like they're finished yet. Samir Nasri wants out of Arsenal (and who could blame him) and City will be offering lots and lots of crisp notes to tempt him, even though he's far from guaranteed a game (numpty). Yet despite their 4-0 mauling of new boys Swansea on Monday and their perilous strike force, I still can't take them seriously. They are still just a team of mercenaries, unconcerned whether they get a game or not. It's the ultimate case of fantasy football and come Christmas, when it's getting a bit chilly oop norf and Manchester's two decent restaurants have been exhausted, the players will implode.

And I suppose a 'title race' section isn't complete until Arsenal's credentials have been considered. Oh sorry, my mistake...

In all seriousness, the loss of Fabregas and imminent departure of Nasri will hit Wenger's side hard - however much he tries to disguise it. Signings such as Southampton teenager Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Charlton's Carl Jenkinson won't really cut it amongst the likes of Rooney, Terry and Silva. Arsenal already boast a plethora of young talent coming through the ranks, not least Jack Wilshere, so it's experienced heads that are really required. Another year, another wonder-kid, another empty trophy cabinet at the Emirates.

European Challengers: Gone are the days when Aston Villa and Everton would start the season hoping to sneak it to a Champions League place come May, but realistically be expecting UEFA Cup (sorry...Europa League...) football the next season. These two have been left behind by Tottenham and Liverpool, who will be contesting those very positions this campaign and may even jump ahead of Arsenal for Champions League football. It's unlikely anyone else will be involved in the hunt, although if you want a tip for dark horses this year, Owen Coyle's Bolton are your men. Very quiet, very unassuming, but potentially deadly. Keep an eye out!

Avoiding the drop: Blackburn, despite their laugha...i mean...commendable attempts to sign Spanish legend Raul, are my hot favourites for the drop. Steve Kean hasn't been allowed to spend a flapping thing by the club's Poultry firm owners. They were a poor outfit last time out and don't look to be ready to fare any better this time around.

Struggling with Blackburn will be new boys Swansea, who could be masters of their own downfall, due to Brendan Rogers' insistence on playing pretty football. It's good for the spectators and you have to admire the principle, but trying to play the big boys at their own game is unlikely to get them far. We all know what happened to Blackpool last season. In fact, I'm still not truly over it...

My third tip for the drop may surprise one or two of you, and may earn me the wrath of Joey Barton, but I'm going to put Newcastle out there. They've lost key players Andy Carroll, Jose Enrique and Kevin Nolan since January and the actions (or Tweets) of Enrique and Barton have advertised the turmoil within St James' Park...as if we needed telling. The money gained from the sales of Carroll and Enrique have helped bring in the formidable forces of Demba Ba and Gabriel Obertan, but despite these ground-breaking acquisitions, the Toon look an unhappy and unstable camp right now. Can Alan Pardew, the man sacked from both West Ham and Charlton for running both clubs into the ground, keep Newcastle's head above water this year? Don't count on it.

Other clubs in and around the drop zone are likely to be newly promoted Norwich and QPR, for lacking the strength in depth much like Blackpool did last season and Wolves and Wigan may spend most of the campaign looking over their shoulders too.

So there you have it, my Premier League Almost-Preview 2011/12. Feel free to come back in May and lambast me for my appalling predictions, but until then, Happy Football Season everyone (Tottenham fans excluded)!