Thursday, 28 May 2009

Hapless Footballers Number 2 – Dimitar Berbatov

When it comes to judging the innate talent of a footballer, I would not claim to be anywhere as insightful as Alex Ferguson. Also, I acknowledge that he probably watches a bit more of Manchester United than I do – even though they are top choice on every week’s Match of the Day, he probably picks up the odd thing I miss.

But even taking all of that into consideration, I have to ask what the hell he was thinking, first to pay over £30m for Dimitar Berbatov, and then to continue to pick him despite all the visible evidence pointing to the fact he is completely rubbish.

In last night’s Champions’ League Came on in the second half and proceeded to spray passes in every direction, over the shoulders of his team mates and into touch.

I know that, in this post-Emile Heskey world, it is no longer necessary for a striker to actually score goals in order to “make a contribution.” There is much talk these days of what a player does “off the ball,” of “telling runs,” and of their “bringing something extra to the camp.”

However, in Berbatov’s case, not only is he rubbish at actually kicking a football but he has the work rate of a student with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It is unfortunate for him that he is in direct comparison with Carlos Tevez, a man who makes the Tasmanian Devil look laid back, but even if you look at him with independent eyes, Berbatov is a lazy bastard.

I don’t know if looking like Ray Reardon and wearing a shoelace round your head really cuts it as “bringing something extra to the camp,” but I suspect he will be quietly sold at some point in the next twelve months and forgotten about along with Kleberson, Quinton Fortune and William Prunier – other players who the High Priest of Old Trafford bought and regretted, and yet never gets criticised. It’s almost as if the media are intimidated by him…

A hero in Bulgaria, Berbatov signed for German club Bayer Leverkusen in 2001 where he established himself, appearing in a Champions League final. He then made what has often proved to be a suicidal career move and entered the Tottenham Talent Vacuum. As he was rotated with Robbie Keane, Jermaine Defoe and, believe it or not, Darren Bent, he scored some spectacular goals, but always gave this impression of just going through the motions.

In the Summer of 2008, a nation gasped as it emerged that the mighty Manchester United wanted to sign him, despite him being almost the polar opposite of the typical Ferguson player. Tottenham spent the entire Summer coyly horse-trading before securing a deadline-day deal worth a jaw-dropping £30.75m. It was too late for Spurs to buy a replacement, and their rotten start to the season cost the hapless Juande Ramos his job, but I can’t believe that United have got value for money there either. He is just one of those players I have never ever seen have a good game – I know there must be something there, but I just don’t see it.

It’s not Dimitar Berbatov’s fault that Manchester United lost the Champions’ League final last night. Actually, it was Andres Iniesta’s fault as he was amazing in the middle of the field for Barcelona, but that does not detract from the fact that Berbatov must be the ludicrously overpriced buy of the season.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Monaco Grand Prix

The BBC were always going to milk Monte Carlo for all it was worth and, sure enough, the coverage began with a package in which they had put Jake Humphrey in front of a green screen and superimposed him onto some archive footage of great drivers being interviewed. It was a quirky little sequence that made good use of the BBC archive, but in his efforts to make it look realistic, poor old Jake ended up nodding like a dashboard ornament.

We quickly moved onto images of Monte Carlo wealth and opulence juxtaposed with scrabbling fans fighting for a portion of mountainside from which to gawp at the race from a distance. Inadvertent social comment from the BBC – good to see.

There was an all too brief Max Mosley interview where he dropped a very broad hint that the budget cap would be in place by 2011, rather than the original plan of next year. Jake said apologetically that there wasn’t time to cover the potential breakup of the sport, so they cut quickly to a bleating interview with Nigel Mansell.

Brundle was in his element on his grid walk. Because the grid is actually a Monte Carlo street with very little room on either side, the usual engineers and hangers-on were all crushed into a smaller space. Add to that the fact that Monaco brings out the celebrities in their droves, and Brundle doorstepped the most unlikely sequence of people you are ever likely to see in a five minute timespan.

Firstly, he chatted to former driver Jacques Villeneuve, looking as happy as a kid who’d won the lottery; then he grabbed Prince Michael of Kent, a man who has won the lottery of life. Apparently the Prince’s status as patron of the RAC is enough to earn him the chance to strut around the grid – I’ll bet he isn’t camping on the side of a mountain.

From his Highness, Brundle moved onto Michael Johnson, a man who has an air of expertise when talking about anything at all. You get the impression you could ask him about the impact of the Wars of The Roses on Britain’s sixteenth century internationalism, and he would have an opinion, which he would deliver with all the authority of an Emeritus Professor of History. Next was Geri Halliwell, who was predictably chatting to the richest man in the city, Bernie Ecclestone. She seemed to phase even Brundle with her relentless banality.

The race started well for Brawn with Button holding his first position, and Barrichello overtaking Raikkonen going into the first bend. After that, it seemed to be a formality. In a great phrase from Brundle, he was toying with them like a cat with a ball of string. Barrichello lived a little more dangerously, with Raikkonen nibbling at him throughout, but another Brawn one-two was almost inevitable.

This might have been the race where Ferrari rescued their reputation. From Raikkonen’s front row qualification, they showed they were in the race and, aside from the Brawns, Raikkonen and Massa were by far the best on the track.

Another title contender Sebastian Vettel was running well until he went into the barrier in an almost identical slide to Hamilton’s in qualifying. Oddly, it wasn’t quite as funny when he did it.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Giro d'Italia

For anyone who is not particularly a fan of cycling, you probably think that Chris Hoy spinning around a velodrome is the pinnacle of the sport. You would, of course, be wrong. The professional road racing circuit are where the world’s best cyclists do battle over hundreds of miles, Europe’s highest mountains, and in front of hundreds of thousands of fans every week.

It’s quite a mess – there is no unified series to compare to the Formula One World Championship, or even the Athletics Grand Prix series – as the various race organisers and teams argue among themselves. And then there is the constant spectre of drugs, hanging over cycling more than any other sport like a cloak of doubt.

There is a very real sense of generational change in the sport at the moment. With dozens of old stars failing tests and being banned, it has been a very painful process, but there are many younger stars coming through the ranks, winning races, and taking a very public and very vocal stand against drugs – a direct contradiction to the conspiracy of silence which characterised previous generations.

Everyone has heard of the Tour de France, but that is only one of three grand tours. The other two are the Vuelta a Espana and the one which is running right now, the Giro d’Italia. It’s a three week race of 21 stages which takes in two mountain ranges.

The old guard are represented by a resurgent Lance Armstrong. Racing in a supporting role for his team-mate Levi Leipheimer, there is no chance of him winning the tour, but he had stated he would like a stage or two. So far, he hasn’t made the impact we are so used to seeing but, in the last week, we will see whether his legendary stamina has survived the two years of retirement.

But it’s the new generation’s finest prospect that is catching my eye. Mark Cavendish is the best sprint cyclist in the world, and, in my opinion, the most exciting young sportsman in Britain.

By way of comparison, Chris Hoy got a knighthood for being the best in the world at riding three laps of a track, Cavendish does that after a hundred and fifty miles. I am being a little unfair to Hoy, who is very good at what he does, and seems to be a thoroughly likeable man, but it frustrates me that he is hailed for what he does at the Olympics live on the BBC, whereas Cav’s achievements are hidden away in the North of Italy, and on Eurosport.

Last year, he won four stages of the Tour de France – no other British cyclist has ever won more than two. This season, he won the prestigious Milan-San Remo one-day classic, and now he has won three stages of the Giro.

He was the only member of Britain’s glorious Beijing cycling team to return without a medal so, for the BBC, he’s a failure. He should be in the House of Lords.

Monaco GP Qualifying

The blue riband event of the season is always Monte Carlo. Most of the drivers live there, so there tend to be a lot of hangers-on, and it is the race which, more than any other, attracts the wealth and glamour that has always adhered itself to Formula One.

The most iconic of courses, but also one of the narrowest, it is an incredibly difficult track on which to overtake, meaning that qualification and tactics are more important than ever.

Because of the lack of space around the tight pit lane, the BBC team were exiled to the gilded cage of a yacht in the harbour. We were shown footage of Flavio Briatore’s enormous yacht but Jake and the boys appeared to be on one of those cheap boats that takes people on half day tours. This is the BBC after all, and they have to account for every penny. Although I bet Steve Cram and Steve Redgrave, who were shown sipping champagne on deck, hadn’t paid for their flights.

In the fortnight since Barcelona, the political powers behind Formula One have been facing off like rutting stags. In response to Max Mosley’s proposed budget cap for next season, Ferrari said they would not compete under those conditions and would withdraw from the competition. Despite the fact that Kimi Raikonnen seems to have withdrawn from competition a year early, this was seen as a very real threat, with other teams following Ferrari’s lead.

Despite Ferrari’s sixty year unbroken relationship with F1, stretching back to the very first Championship Grand Prix, Mosley said that he was quite happy for the sport to continue without the presence of the prancing horse. Bringing in new teams is his priority, and Ferrari are not bigger than the sport. He’s right, of course – F1 without Ferrari would be like Police Academy without Steve Guttenberg, it would survive but it would stink. But the competition is currently in such a mess that it resembles Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow.

It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Mosley has said there is no hurry to get resolution, and the whole saga feels like it has a long way to go.

Eddie Jordan’s sycophantic interview of the week involved him lobbing underarm questions at Prince Albert of Monaco. Even when he asked an awkward question about the potential of a breakaway from F1, he couched it in such apologetic terms that you would have thought he was asking where the lavvy was.

When the qualifying started, it was Lewis Hamilton who was the star of the show. In the first session, he lost control of his car going into a corner and put it into the barrier, wiping out his rear suspension, losing his chance to qualify any higher than sixteenth, and ruining any realistic chance he had of scoring any points this weekend. I don’t know why but, I just find it very difficult to warm to the young Swiss-resident tax-exile.

It’s starting to get a bit old now, but Jenson Button again won pole, but the unexpected success came from Ferrari – Raikkonen woke up long enough to take second place, and Massa grabbed fifth. Maybe they are worried this might be their last Monaco Grand Prix so they’d better make it count. Whatever the outcome of the behind-the-scenes negotiations, I am hoping for a good race tomorrow and, if we are really lucky, another no-pressure crash from Lewis Hamilton.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

All Change For Florent

Live football today was Chelsea and Blackburn at Stamford Bridge. A strong performance and a 2-0 victory for Chelsea, albeit too late in the season for it to actually mean anything.

Florent Malouda, apparently stung by my criticism of his fruit-based hairstyle last week, seems to have had it redone. The braids remain, but, instead of one little stalk, he has got the braids at the front and back of his bonce, and pulled them together so there is a sort of furry line across the back of his head where they meet.

It looks like a cross between some kind of hairy bivalve – a whelk, perhaps – and the talking plant from Little Shop of Horrors. He must have a go-to guy for braiding who’s on call twenty-four hours a day. “That pomegranate look was okay, but I’ve a big match coming up, can you make me look like I’m wearing a hairy lop-sided tiara, please.”

He scored Chelsea’s first today with a clinical header though, so perhaps the new do is paying for itself.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Spanish Grand Prix

As the circus moves to Spain, there was much talk of Alonso mania in Barcelona, and we were duly shown pictures of autograph hunters and flag-waving supporters. I’m not sure how big an influence this really is on a Formula One driver. Nigel Mansell always used to say the crowd at the British Grand Prix gave him an extra second per lap, but it’s hardly the same as the Gallowgate End when you are in a deafening car and your ears are securely plugged.

A realistic Fernando Alonso wasn’t playing the game. “Will you give your fans something to cheer today?”

“Well, we’ll do our best, but it’s going to be very difficult.”

Some of the Spanish fans were too busy poking fun once more at Lewis Hamilton. This is an interesting cultural difference between Spain and Britain. There are very few black people in Spain, so they still see it as a bit of wacky knockabout fun to black up and pretend to be Lewis Hamilton, whereas in Britain, we prefer our racism to be a little more subtle.

Following up on the Ferrari team’s travails, the BBC had a filmed interview with Kimi Raikonnen which had been recorded earlier in the week. Raikonnen is never overflowing with charisma, but I thought he was about to lapse into a coma during one answer. He seems to have applied the same level of enthusiasm to yesterday’s qualifying, finishing in sixteenth place.

Eddie Jordan was incandescent, advocating his immediate suspension. Michael Schumacher should take his place, apparently.

Martin Brundle, sick of being blanked by the top drivers on his pit walk, decided to go to the back of the grid where he presumed the also-rans would be delighted with the publicity. So who did he interview? Lewis Hamilton’s girlfriend.

He moved on to Sebastian Bourdais and led with, “anything you can do from back here?” He might as well say, “You’re a bit crap really aren’t you?” Incidentally, whenever I hear Sebastian’s surname, I start singing “On a Ragga Tip” by SL2. That’s a pretty obscure reference unless you are almost precisely the same age as me.

He then interviewed the two Force India drivers who had qualified in the last two positions on the grid and actually led into Adrian Sutil with this question: “How do you cope with waking up in the morning, brushing your teeth, and knowing you don’t have a prayer?” I’m surprised he didn’t get a punch in the teeth.

The start of the race was one of those belters that I enjoy where there is complete mayhem as Jarno Trulli’s Toyota went off the road, then speared back across the field, taking out both Torro Rosso cars and Adrian Sutil. Looks like Brundle was right about his chances.

The race was again dominated by Brawn with Button eventually coming out ahead of Barrichello, but their lead over the rest of the field is now huge – they have 68 points in the constructors’ championship, with Red Bull trailing in second on 38.5

Felipe Massa was having a good race in fourth place with five laps to go but rather farcically ran out of fuel, and had to allow Vettel and Alonso past him so he could coast home. Coupled with the fact that Raikonnen failed to finish once again, Ferrari are becoming a laughing stock. Eddie Jordan is probably hiring hitmen as we speak.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Spanish GP Qualifying

It’s a fortnight since the Bahrain Grand Prix, and in that period, McLaren have been up before the authorities again – I’m getting bored of this now so I won’t go on about it. Especially as the biggest off-track news was the proposed changes to next year’s championship.

In a beautiful piece of Formula One backroom politics, FIA president Max Mosley took the ball-gag out of his mouth and announced a £40m budget cap from 2010*. A sensible idea designed to allow teams to budget in these straitened times, encourage new teams onto the grid, and level the playing field. This being the FIA, however, they managed to take a good idea and turn it into a complicated mess.

The £40m budget will cover all expenditure except one or two exceptional costs:
1. Marketing and Hospitality – okay, that’s fair enough. No sense punishing a team for putting on a good spread.
2. Fines imposed by the FIA – erm, okay. But I would have thought any disciplinary wrongdoing should be included as a punishment.
3. Drivers’ Salaries – what? Surely the driver is an integral part of the team’s performance. That should be number one on the budget process surely.
4. “Any expenditure that has no influence on performance in the championship.” – Oh you’re just taking the piss now.

I haven’t got to the best bit yet – the budget cap will be entirely optional. This makes it beautiful in its redundancy. It’s like taking the government’s ID Cards, saying that you don’t need a picture on it, and that your date of birth is optional, and it doesn’t really matter if you carry someone else’s instead.

* There was no ball-gag, and any suggestion that there was a ball-gag would be a filthy lie.

Before qualifying, the BBC boys continued their habit of conducting interviews in front of the team garages, despite the fact that the engines are being revved in readiness, making it the loudest place in Spain. Ross Brawn and Williams’ Patrick Head were both interviewed about the proposed budget cap, and both seemed to dismiss the idea as unlikely to happen, but this didn’t stop Eddie Jordan working himself into a lather.

I think perhaps I am being unfair on Jordan, but he just seems so angry. Mind you, the Dalai Lama would look pissed off standing next to David Coulthard, soaking up the sun with his air of benign contentedness.

There was also a short film on the British Grand Prix featuring an interview with Simon Gillett, who runs the Donington circuit that will host the British GP from 2010. The back-story here is that Bernie Ecclestone fell out with Silverstone over their inability to expensively upgrade the circuit and, amid threats to remove the British GP from the calendar, Donington stepped in and secured the contract.

The problem is that Donington is not much more than a building site, they are being sued for £2.5m in unpaid rent, and the bank has withdrawn their credit. This chap Gillett was trying to sound reassuring about securing funding and having the place ready in time, but he came across as something of snake oil salesman, and I reckon Silverstone might yet have to step in.

Jake summarised the piece by saying, “I’m sure British fans wouldn’t want to lose the British Grand Prix.” Well, that’s probably a safe assumption for the tens of thousands of fans who pay their £250 to attend each year, but for the rest of us, it wouldn’t make that much difference – Barcelona or even Singapore is just as close as Donington for me because I’m watching them all in my front room. The British GP only gets more media coverage than, say, the Spanish, because all the papers’ top sports editors fancy a day out.

In the actual qualifying, Jenson Button pulled out the final lap of the day to secure pole position alongside Sebastian Vettel – they say Barcelona is not a great course for overtaking, so this might shape up to be yet another victory, but that’s for tomorrow.

Further back, Ferrari’s much vaunted upgrades seemed remote as Kimi Raikonnen managed to go out of the first qualifying session, and will start sixteenth on the grid. Although Felipe Massa made it to the second row of the grid, it seems that all is still not right at Ferrari.

Commentary of the day:
Martin Brundle, commenting on Kovalainen clunking onto the kerb, said he had, “an armful of opposite lock through seven and a tankslapper through eight.” I have no idea what any of that means.

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Friday, 8 May 2009

Hapless Footballers Number 1 – Nicklas Bendtner

After Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions’ League on Tuesday night, young Nicklas Bendtner decided to go out for a quiet drink to drown his sorrows. Approximately six hours later, he was photographed leaving a nightclub with his jeans round his ankles, that quiet drink presumably having turned into one or two louder ones, followed by the inevitable public display of underpantage.

“Reaching a Champions’ League final is one of my biggest dreams and getting knocked out was a massive blow,” Bendtner snivelled. “However, no matter how disappointed I was, it does not excuse my behaviour later in the evening. I want to apologise to the club and the fans for letting them and myself down.”

What is curious about this apology is that at no time yesterday, or indeed at any point throughout the season, did he see fit to apologise for the fact that he is completely hopeless as a footballer.

Bendtner joined Arsenal as a sixteen-year-old from Denmark and joined the Wenger dream-factory, scoring buckets of goals in the reserve team but not cracking the first team beyond the few mandatory League Cup games.

Honestly, there was one third round tie against Burnley a couple of years ago when Wenger played a team made up entirely of the schoolfriends of one of his grandkids just for a laugh. A lot of pundits grumble that Arsene brings the League Cup competition into repute every time he picks a team, whereas I believe the Cup was brought into repute long before that, when the Football League allowed it to be sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board – who ever got an open top bus parade for winning something called the Milk Cup?

And while I’m on the subject, why the hell did we ever need a Milk Marketing Board, and more importantly, why did they have a budget large enough to sponsor a national football competition? Were people sitting around drinking Tizer until they saw Ronnie Whelan’s extra time winner in 1983?

Anyway, Wenger loaned Bendtner out to Birmingham for an entire season, during which he helped them get promoted from the Championship. According to press reports, City manager Steve Bruce wanted to sign Bendtner on a permanent basis, but, extraordinarily, rather than taking Bruce’s hand off like a half-starved alligator Wenger instead gave Bendtner a five year contract.

This seriously calls into question Arsene Wenger’s reputation as a professorial polymath with an impeccable eye for a player. But if Steve Bruce also wanted him, then there must have been something there.

Why, then, has Nicklas Bendtner in the two seasons since then, degenerated into such an incompetent figure of fun. The main reason that Arsenal fans mourned the loss of Eduardo after that nasty leg break was that it meant Bendtner would be forced to have a lengthy run in the side. Apparently he and Emmanuel Adebayor don’t speak to each other any more, presumably because Bendtner thinks Adebayor’s goals make him look bad.

He’s wrong. It’s his own lack of pace, brick wall first touch and woeful eye for goal that make him look bad.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Champions' League

After two of the greatest football teams in the world clashed last week an stuttered to a boring nil-nil, I must confess that my hopes weren’t high for last night’s second leg of Chelsea vs Barcelona. However, having watched Barca destroy Real Madrid at the weekend, I confess I was hoping for some attacking flair and Chelsea being humbled in front of their own fans.

It turned out to be a controversial affair that ended with Didier Drogba swearing on live television and a roly-poly Norwegian referee being smuggled out of the country like a paedophile at The Old Bailey.

Michael Essien scored Chelsea’s goal after nine minutes with a one-in-a-thousand left-footed volley into the top corner – a goal that deserved to win any game, making the next hour and a half all the more amusing.

Throughout the game, Barcelona had the majority of possession but couldn’t get near the goal as Chelsea soaked it up and played on the break. Much to the dismay of their supporters and players, Chelsea had a total of four penalty appeals turned down by the ref and, just on the law of averages, at least one of those ought to have been given. But they weren’t.

In the 92nd minute, Andres Iniesta hit one of those rising shots that looks like it would kill a spectator if it goes wide. It tore into the top corner leaving Michael Ballack thumping the ground with his fist, and Didier Drogba, by now back on the bench in an apoplectic rage.

I missed a lot of the scenes after the final whistle, which featured Drogba almost tearing his clothes in horror at the injustice, because I was bent double with mirth. As a relative neutral, I have to say that the prospect of Manchester United playing Barcelona is a much more appealing final than yet another meeting with Chelsea.

As in previous rounds, I found my mind wandering during the action, and started assessing the Chelsea squad by haircut. I have had my suspicions about Drogba for a while now, but every time I see him, it becomes more and more apparent that the man is quite plainly going bald. He has it long at the back and wears that headband, but it does him no favours.

After he scored, I noticed exactly the same thing about Michael Essien – he has thick lustrous locks covering the rearmost 60-70% of his bonce, but there’s no mistaking that self-same receding hairline.

Surely this is a role for Ray Wilkins – brought in during the Scolari regime to instil some good old fashioned British grit and determination, he needs to pull these fancy-dan foreign boys aside and tell them to shave it all off. He is living proof that looking like Uncle Fester need not be an impediment to an international football career.

Looks like Nicolas Anelka got the tap on the shoulder some years ago.

While we’re on the subject, what on earth has Florent Malouda done to his hair? He has his hair braided (which sounds like agony to me), and then drawn into a point at the back, where there’s a little hair stem that makes him look like he has a freshly plucked piece of fruit on his shoulders.

We used to have a guinea pig before the boy was born who had hair growing in every different direction possible. The poor little sod looked like someone had dragged him backwards through a brush, covered him in glue, thrown a pile of straw at him, and then dried him off with an industrial strength fan. John Terry, ladies and gentlemen.

Petr Cech has got the right idea with his skull cap – designed specifically to match his big girl’s blouse. For all we know, he could look like Manuel Almunia under there.

Incidentally, there is a lot of hot air at the moment about whether or not Manuel Almunia should be allowed to play for England. Despite being 100% Spanish, he has now lived in Britain for long enough to claim citizenship, whereupon he will be entitled to play for any of the home nations (I would pick Northern Ireland just to annoy Capello). Although this is within the rules, there is much hand-wringing about whether we should allow a Spaniard to wear the three lions.

But this is totally missing the point – the real debate should be whether or not we want the England shirt to be worn by a 32 year old man who thinks it is appropriate to bleach his hair.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

We’re Going Down With The Mackems

It looks like Newcastle United are now in complete freefall. This month’s saviour couldn’t save his own pocket money and, unless there is a resounding victory against Middlesbrough next Monday, it will be almost impossible to stay in the division.

Alan Shearer has now had five games in charge of the team and has steered the club to just two points in that time. Worse, his 3-5-2 formation has served up just one goal. The experiment has failed – it was hoped that he would give the players an instant lift and motivate them to earn the handful of points needed for safety. Instead, he has fiddled with the formation, swapped players like they are on stickers, and, even with Iain Dowie beside him, displayed no evidence of any tactical acumen.

In just one month, the physical strain is starting to show. On Sunday, he looked so pained as Liverpool scored their third goal, that even Dowie looked calm and carefree in comparison.

I’m sure he’s lost some more hair too. The male pattern baldness that has been stalking him for several years had left him sporting a small patch of hair at the front of his head – a patch that has become known in our house as Shearer Island. After just five games as a Premiership manager, Shearer Island has disappeared, like that place in the Caribbean that sank under the waves after a particularly troublesome volcano went off.

After the Liverpool game, Shearer focused his anger on the increasingly farcical figure of Joey Barton. Having seen him sent off for a clumsy tackle on Xabi Alonso, Shearer decided to scapegoat him for the fact that the club is in 19th place in the league. He then took the morally courageous decision to suspend a player who was already suspended from playing due to the red card!

I’m no particular fan of Joey Barton, but it is unfair and just plain lazy to blame him for all Newcastle’s woes. The tackle wasn’t even all that reckless – it was a red card offence, but Shearer was so disgusted with it that he seemed to completely forget the time he tried to put one of his football boots inside Neil Lennon's head.

The real problem facing Shearer is that, as his status as Newcastle’s messiah slowly burnishes, his fallback day job may be looking just as precarious. In much the same way as I have never bought into the idea that he would be a great manager simply because he was a great striker, nor have I ever been convinced by Alan Shearer the pundit.

Whilst he’s been away, a couple of young pretenders have been establishing a foothold and may prove difficult to dislodge. Lee “Alan” Dixon, in complete contrast to Shearer, is interesting and insightful; and I can’t be the only person to be surprised at Martin “Alan” Keown. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but who could possibly have looked at this marauding old-fashioned centre-half, a man who made Tony Adams look like David Beckham, and foreseen a glittering media career? He is articulate, well-spoken, and confident. Why should the fact that he looks like Mr Punch be an impediment to a television career?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Tyrannosaurus Ref

I feel as though I ought to write about the weekend’s Ricky Hatton Fight, although I am struggling for anything original to say. I love Ricky, but I think the boring and sad truth is that he has now found his level.

He has fought two of the best boxers of the last twenty years, and they have both beaten him – there’s no shame in that. On Saturday night, Manny Pacquiao used his superior hand speed and phenomenal power to put what I hope is an end to the career of one of the most charismatic and, let’s be honest here, one of the most extraordinarily talented British fighters of my generation.

But what could be my unique take on this? I can hardly bang on about what a great fighter Ricky has been – it’s been done. I could talk about other British boxers who have found success in America, although I don’t think anyone has ever taken twenty-five thousand fans across with them.

I could talk about the dramatic impact Pacquiao is having on the world of boxing, eclipsing Floyd Mayweather as the now-universally acknowledged best boxer on the planet. But that’s all been said.

No, the real story here is Kenny Bayless. He is the American referee who pulled out Ricky’s gumshield two minutes into the second round. He has taken charge of several world title fights now, has established a reputation as one of the best in the business but best of all, he runs unmistakeably like a T-Rex.

Seriously, you have to see some footage of him – he sort of bounces around the fighters on his hind legs, moving his head around as though he’s looking for food, and his gloved hands sit limply in front of him like the vestigial limbs of a flightless bird. I reckon the only reason he is so good at what he does is that his vision is based mainly on movement.

It’s an odd job, that of the boxing referee. Almost exclusively the preserve of former pros, the crucial skills appear to be the ability to fasten a bow tie, and the willingness to stand between two psychopaths. Back in the old days, the ref was on the payroll of the promoter and there are countless examples of “long counts,” where the knocked out fighter would be nudged with the boot and encouraged to rise and continue. “These people need to get their money’s worth.”

Nowadays, boxing likes to hold the fiction that the safety of the boxers is paramount. I’m not anti-boxing – far from it – but I am anti-hypocrisy and there is no way you can describe this as a safe sport. Nonetheless, the referee these days is much more likely to step in and save a struggling fighter rather than allow the fight to continue and a serious injury to occur.

You can hardly blame Bayless for not stopping the Hatton fight early – not a single person in the state of Nevada saw that left hook coming, much less Ricky.

I love the unwritten rule that appears to dictate that the physical size of the ref has to be in inverse proportion to the fighters. So whereas Bayless towers over the welterweights, tiny Mickey Vann – something of a personality with his own catchphrase, “no naughties with the heads…” – always gets put in with the monstrous heavyweights.

I hope Ricky decides the time is right to retire. He has been one of the all-time greats and will have a long and lucrative career of TV punditry and after-dinner stand-up. My only concern is that, if he lets himself go and puts on the pounds, we’ll not be able to find a referee small enough for him.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

El Clasico

It seems that every other week, particularly as we approach the end of the season, there is a “showdown” between two of the Premiership’s Big Four. Endlessly hyped by Sky, if it’s not a GRAND SLAM SUNDAY, then it’s yet another so-called European showpiece tie being played out to a boring stalemate by two of our ubiquitous top clubs. The fact that English clubs have provided three of the four Champions’ League semi-finalists in each of the last two years is not a source of joy to me. I also disagree that this is evidence that the Premier League is the best league in the world – it is evidence that our top four clubs are the best in the world, but where are the rest?

This season, the team attempting to stop the Premiership’s dominance of Europe is Barcelona. The fact that Sky have the rights to Spanish football means that a football fan can watch this amazing team every week, and yet they make a lot less fuss about this than they do over whichever Premiership match they happen to have.

This weekend saw the showdown between Barcelona and Real Madrid – the traditional rivals that make Manchester United and Liverpool look like childhood sweethearts. Going into the game, Barcelona were four points clear at the top of the league and knew that a draw in Madrid would probably secure the title.

I was a little worried that, with so much at stake, it might be an edgy game, but Gonzalo Higuain scored after fourteen minutes for Real, before Thierry Henry responded for Barcelona just a couple of minutes later. Interesting that Henry left our league to go and play in Spain.

Before twenty minutes were on the clock, Henry won a free kick near the penalty area on the left and Carles Puyol headed in Xavi’s cross to score his first of the season. After such a flurry of goals, I wondered how the game could possibly continue at such a pace, but it seemed that, having been stung by conceding an early goal, Barca just kept getting better.

For the next fifteen minutes, Real keeper Iker Casillas was playing like a psychic, improbably getting himself behind every Barcelona shot from any angle. Their front three of Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry and the great Lionel Messi were attacking like the Harlem Globetrotters. Their reputation is well earned – between the three of them, they have scored more goals this season than any other club in Europe. On Sky, Gerry Hamilton was reduced to endearing sighs and cries as he watched the action.

It couldn’t last of course, and Leo Messi scored after thirty minutes. After that, it became slightly embarrassing as Barcelona, with their Velcro touch, lightning runs and telepathic understanding, passed the ball around as if they were playing a youth team.

At the start of the second half, Real shook off their inferiority complex, presumably having been shown a copy of the table at half time, reminding themselves that they are second in the league, not in the fourth division. An attacking free kick was headed in by Sergio Ramos after a penalty area tussle.

Unfortunately, as in the first half, this just seemed to anger the beast and, barely a minute after Hamilton had cried “Game On!” Henry scored another. Messi then scored his second; a goal which left the Real defence watching in awe – his 36th goal of the season and the second time during the game that I had spontaneously risen to my feet and applauded.

By now, Real were utterly defeated and looked like they just wanted to start their summer holidays now. In the last ten minutes, one more sweeping move carried the ball from one end of the pitch to another before it was tapped in by, of all people, central defender Gerard Pique. Why did Manchester United let him go?

Next time you are bemoaning the state of the Premiership and the fact that our league has become boring, give the Spanish League a try. I can’t promise you eight goals every week, but I will assure you that you’ll see some great football and genuine talent.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Loneliness Of The Long Distance Snooker Player

The last two weeks have seen the World Snooker Championships in Sheffield. The Embassy, as it used to be known during my childhood has had to ditch its long term sponsor and is now known as the World Championships – gambling being a much more socially acceptable vice than smoking.

The annual event at The Crucible is ingrained into my childhood memories like steam pudding, grazed knees, and nits. I used to watch it avidly in the eighties, but I must confess I have lost touch with it in recent years (well, recent decades, actually). As a result, aside from the names such as Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins, whose fame has transcended the sport, I have no idea who the current players are, although I was pleased to see Stephen Hendry still going strong, and with better skin.

I settled down this morning to watch some semi-final action between Shaun Murphy and Neil Robertson, and I must confess, I really enjoyed it. For someone whose skill levels never went beyond playing pound-a-frame pool at college, I am full of admiration for their talent.

Shaun Murphy looks like a poorly inflated bouncy castle. I don’t want to rehearse the old argument as to what constitutes a sport, but even the biggest snooker fan would struggle to refer to Murphy as an athlete.

Neil Robertson is an Australian chap who has a ridiculous blonde Vernon Kay haircut that makes him look like he should be playing for Exeter City. I wonder what happened to him at school in Melbourne, when the lads were specialising in Rugby and Aussie Rules, to make him settle on snooker.

This is the thing about snooker players, especially Australian ones, but generally all of them. They are, basically, complete nerds. The skills are amazing and the dedication admirable, but there is a constant undercurrent of tragedy surrounding the entire venture. When I look into Shaun Murphy’s eyes, I don’t see happiness. Even when he is winning a frame, all I see is hopelessness and darkness.

What is interesting is how the TV coverage has changed in twenty years. Not just the inevitable technical advances – more camera angles, computer generated table shots showing the various angles – but also the human coverage is very different. For example, after he missed a crucial yellow, we were treated to a slow-motion replay of Neil Robertson’s disappointment-etched facial reaction. That owes much to the sports production of football where replays of goals are followed rapidly by reaction-shots of both managers.

I’ve been watching for about an hour now and, I admit it, I’m starting to get a bit bored. I reckon I will revisit this next year, even if it’s just for a random hour.