Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

Christmas history says Sunderland 95% doomed but Baggies escape gives hope

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

By Brian Sears

24 December 2013

Famously the club at the bottom of the Premier League on Christmas Day has always ended up relegated with the sole and notable exception of West Brom in 2004-05.

Sunderland are bottom for Christmas 2013, which statistically makes them 95 per cent doomed to the drop.

But as the Baggies showed in that Great Escape season, there are ways of getting out of the mire. In that fateful season, West Brom lost 0-5 at home to Liverpool on Boxing Day yet went on to gather 24 points from their remaining 19 games, and stayed up as Crystal Palace, Norwich and Southampton went down.

Of the other 20 teams at the bottom of the table at Christmas in past seasons, 14 were still at the bottom at the end, four had moved up one place but went down, and two had moved up two places but were still relegated.

Here’s the complete record:

Premier League bottom clubs at Christmas and what happened next

Bottom at Christmas


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Takeovers, triumphs and Hansen’s first column: why the end of a Liverpool institution is a dark day for journalism

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

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HerbieBy Ian Herbert

22 December 2013

The sign on the exterior wall of the building where I started out in this business, on a September morning 24 years ago, has not kept up with the sad diminution of the paper which became a rich part of my life for a decade. “Liverpool Daily Post and Echo,” the words read.

During the rapid cycle of reduced resources and falling circulation – which saw the Liverpool Daily Post become a weekly title a year ago and publish for the last time last week – no-one got around to putting up a ladder and taking the sign down. It looked like a defiant last testament to better days when I saw it last week.

I picked up a copy of the last issue of the Post, (below), and later read the comments of one of the Trinity Mirror bosses who, you assume, has helped take this decision to close the title down.

The Post is “a wonderful and much-loved old lady who has simply come to the end of her natural life,” he said. “The Liverpool city region no longer creates the demand.”

Last PostAs if the decline of the paper were an inexorable and inevitable fact, unrelated to the whittling away of investment. And as if the people of Liverpool – inquisitive, curious, enterprising and proud of their place – do not care much about news any more.

You’ll probably think that this is shaping up to be an elegiac, sentimental, self-interested ramble but I don’t think so. It’s hard to let this landmark pass without recalling some of the work which was a source of such awe to me when I arrived as a 21-year-old in Old Hall Street offices and first saw that sign on the wall.

The memory of Hillsborough was still fresh that autumn which, as we now know all too well, was precisely the time when the South Yorkshire Police’s attempts at misinformation about the Disaster were cranking into top gear.

The city’s Liverpool Echo was producing some great work on this subject, but the Post surpassed it. Reporters like Susan Lee, Michelle Worthington, Michael Johnston, Sue Critchley and Steve Brauner were delivering work of incredible detail and exclusivity, day after day.

There is a delicate balance to be struck in local newspaper journalism between the spirit of inquiry and the sense of respect to that place you are reporting on.

My friend Jason Burt, the Sunday Telegraph football correspondent, whom I met and worked with in those days, reminded me last week of the mantra instilled by the legendary news editor of the time – Alf Green. “Don’t be a cheerleader for this place. But celebrate it when you can. Don’t dump on your doorstep,” were his words.

No-one could ever accuse the Daily Post’s great sports editor of that time, Len Capeling, of veering from that mantra. A proud Liverpudlian and huge Evertonian, his immense weekly sports column was wise, unflinching and would be guaranteed to get his football writers banned, in these days of control and media management, when the clubs have far more staff producing ‘content’ than the paper have to report news.

I was deputy editor when Capeling’s battles with Joe Royle, then Everton manager, reached their peak, and some of the fallout would be delegated my way.

“Where’s Rasputin?” I remember Royle demanding to know down the phone one day. Royle was invited into the boardroom, as I recall, and things were smoothed over.

Capeling had an incredible charm, too. An expectation that his reporters prosecute sport with the same forensic zeal made for some extremely fine chief football correspondents: in my day Phil McNulty, Peter Jardine and Paul Joyce.

The memory of Burt ruffling some feathers has also stayed with me and, since we sat at opposite desks for a while, I fielded a call about him too. It was from Bill Kenwright, extremely unhappy and questioning the veracity of the piece he had been alerted to. It claimed that he wanted to take over the ownership of Everton.Herbs post 1

Reporters were not the only ones who owed their start on the ladder to the Daily Post. Capeling gave Alan Hansen his first column. ‘The Professional View’ we called it.

Mark Lawrenson, likewise. He has been writing weekly for the paper ever since.

A box of yellowing cuttings under my desk yielded up more memories, this week. The hitherto untold story of Peter Johnson taking over at Everton, for example. (Right)

And some of the brilliant old ink-black Daily Post football supplements of the 1980s which, for us growing up in North Wales, were a window on the incredible football being played in the big city 50 miles away. ‘Champions ’83,’ (left) one of those in the box is entitled.

Herbs Post 3 championsAnd then there is the Daily Post issue of March 22, 1993, (below right) 24 hours after the IRA’s bombing of Warrington, delivering more proof that local journalism, more than simply being there, is about discovering the previously undiscovered.

My friend Richard Williams, who started as a trainee on the same day as me, reports the story of Wilf Ball – father on one of the two children who died that day in Warrington town centre. “He had waited 30 years for a son and had taken nearly retirement at 56 to spend more time with him…”

The demand for work like this exists now, as much as it did then. But with no-one to produce it, the vacuum is filled with the vast repository of material washing around websites and recycled, from to another. Flat Earth News, as The Guardian’s Nick Davies described it in his brilliant exposition of vanishing journalism. It’s why I think the website you are reading from, which recycles nothing and generates everything, is so important.Herbs Post 2 Warrington

There are occasional compensations to this process of diminution. When a Guardian reporter and I recently covered a court case relating to football practices in the 1980s, we were expecting news agencies and local paper to hoover up the coverage before we could so much as open a laptop.

But only we two and another national journalist were there. Good news for us. Not so great for those who believe that when newspapers are gradually stripped away and journalists vanish, the spirit of analysis, accountability and intelligent inquiry disappears down the same road.

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Ian Herbert, who was shortlisted as Sports Journalist of the Year in the prestigious Press Awards, and highly commended in the SJA Sports News Reporter of 2012 category,  is The Independent’s Northern Football Correspondent (see archive of his work here). Follow Herbie on Twitter here.

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THE ASHES: “Australia haven’t suddenly turned into a great team. They aren’t.”

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Legside LizzyBy Lizzy Ammon

12 December 2013

If you were to read the UK newspapers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that England have already handed the urn back to Australia.

It’s not quite that bad as England prepare for the Third Test in Perth that starts tomorrow (Thursday night, UK time). Two down with three to play isn’t time to wave the white flag, and if this England side have shown anything in the last few years, it’s that they are not to be written off.

(Ok, so no England side has ever come back from two-nil down in the Ashes but this side like the challenge of re-writing history. They re-wrote it in India last year, as some of the sager pundits predicted they might).

Yes, Adelaide was as weak a performance from an England side during the Flower regime as there has been. There have been some grim displays before – most notably the horror in the desert at the beginning of 2012.  But that was against a mystery spinner in alien conditions. This Adelaide defeat was against a good but not great team on a very good batting wicket. It was a surrender of an embarrassing nature.

But it mustn’t be underestimated how much the situation with Jonathan Trott will have upset many of the team in Brisbane. Trott is an incredibly well liked and well respected member of the team and it stands to reason that seeing your mate having a rough time will have an effect.

The signs were there before this tour even started that the side was in a precarious situation.  They have paid the price for not nailing down someone at number six having tried everyone bar my grandma in that position.  They’re also guilty for over-estimating the strength in depth in England’s bowling stocks. Eighteen months ago we were talking about how exciting it was that we had so many seam bowlers vying for the slots but in fact England were always over-reliant on Anderson with the others peaking and troughing with alarming regularity.

There are plenty of other factors at play here too. England haven’t suddenly become a bad team – they’re a good team. In 2012 when they became number one, they were a very good team but they’ve never been a great team and there’s legitimacy in the theory that the things that were once their greatest strengths are now their greatest weaknesses. The insular nature of the camp, the meticulous but often joyless planning, the intense nature of being in the England camp – some of this might now be coming back to bite.

Every player interview since Adelaide has been refreshingly honest and forthright.  They have discarded the usual media training nonsense. There’s been no taking the positives. It’s just a shame it’s taken two heavy defeats to get this bunch of players speaking in normal English.

That’s not to take away from what have been very good Australian performances.

But in the same way England haven’t suddenly turned into a bad team, Australia haven’t suddenly turned into a great team. They aren’t. They’re getting good performances out of their players.  They’re looking a settled side full of belief and confidence. But their weaknesses are still there.

Darren Lehmann isn’t suddenly a genius. He’s just taken a very different approach to management from Flower. Perhaps England could do with a bit more levity in their dressing room and a bit of the “F**k  it – it’s only cricket” can release the pressure.  It never seems like the England camp is a very relaxed place to be.

Cricket-ballToo much cricket?

I’ve never bought into the notion that cricketers play too much. It’s their job.  But even I must admit that the administrators desire to bleed every last penny out of their international cricketers is starting to have a very clear effect.

It doesn’t take a cricketing genius to see that many of this England team are simply frazzled. They are battle scarred and war-weary

Across all three formats (excluding tour and warm-up matches) England have been in action on a staggering 84 days so far this year.  This is all the more pertinent given that more of England’s players play across all three formats than the Australian players who have a very different limited overs squad.

It’s been a packed year, going straight from a home Test series into an International tournament in which they got to the final and then straight into the draining environment of an Ashes series. Add in the media and corporate requirements placed on the players and you get the sum total of some knackered blokes.

Of course, sympathy may be in limited supply – they are remunerated very well and they get to live a fairly glamorous life but there’s no getting away from the fact that it will and is taking its toll.

Cricket-ballRest and rotation 

Given the hectic schedules mentioned above, the selectors have taken a very sensible decision to rest Anderson, Swann and Pietersen from the one-day series at the end of the Ashes. It didn’t take long for the usual criticisms of cheating the paying public to come out but what can the selectors do?

They’re trying to prolong the careers of some of England’s senior players for as long as they can. They’re also trying to plan for the World Cup in 2015.  There’s no guarantee at all that these players will still be around in 2015 – they may be hurtling towards the end of their careers (Swann in particular).  It makes sense to give an opportunity to some of the more fringe players.

Cricket-ballWhat do umpires actually do?

Yes – what exactly do they do these days?. It seems they no longer call front foot no balls, they refer even the most straightforward of run out decision to the TV umpire and they don’t give clear direction to the players on when the on-field aggression (or “banter” if you can bear to use that word) is going too far.

As Mike Atherton wrote in his column, they are little more than hat-stands these days.  They do make very good hat-stands though as shown by Umpire Erasmus’s wearing of Nathan Lyons baggy green on the top of his own white hat at a pleasingly jaunty angle that Stella McCartney would approve of.

Still, Billy “look at me” Bowden is back for the third Test so that’ll be fun won’t it?

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Lizzy Ammon writes for SPIN cricket magazine  (here and on Twitter @spincricket), and for The Sunday People (columns here and on Twitter @peoplesport) and you can follow Lizzy on Twitter at @legsidelizzy

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‘The problem for football is that it is up to its neck in gambling’

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

HerbieBy Ian Herbert

12 December 2013

There won’t be any great sentiment for footballers who are banned for illegal betting but the small details of the case of what we might call the “Accrington Five” does reveal why one of the root causes of match fixing – the players need for some ready cash – is staring us in the face.

The five players who received bans for betting thousands of pounds on what turned out to be the correct outcome of the Accrington Stanley v Bury match in May 2008 were on a weekly wage of about £800.

One of the five, Andy Mangan, told me a few years ago that the desire of young players for the kind of lifestyle enjoyed by players higher up the football ladder was leading them to disregard rules forbidding gambling on the competitions they are playing in and place a stake.

“I know for a fact [players] are gambling on their [own] league, when you are not allowed,” Mangan said. “I know that – and I know some players know that – but everyone’s got to know because there are consequences if they get caught.”

Consider how that inadequate that £800 will be to the player who has a gambling addiction. The extent of football’s gambling problem – and the number of occasions on which players are compromised when they own money – remains one of the sport’s more unpleasant secrets: never entirely quantified.

But Michael Chopra’s admission in Newcastle Crown Court last month that he would gamble up to £30,000 in cash with other players on the team bus en route to matches, while still a teenager with the club, gives us an idea.

We knew before that trial that Chopra once hid behind a pile of snow when the loan sharks came knocking. During his time with Ipswich Town, both his club and Professional Footballers’ Association organised a £250,000 loan for him while his own father sold his house to pay his son’s gambling debts.

These stories materialise from time to time, as if they are just casual by-products of footballers being footballers and as if Chopra, who would go to the bank before getting on the team bus at Newcastle so could bet “as part of team bonding,” is a freak case. He’s not, of course.

Matthew Etherington’s interview with Radio 5Live this autumn did not get the follow-up it should have done, obliterated as some of these stories can often be by the football soap opera.Fix Indie 4.4.8

The Sporting Chance organisation says 70 per cent of its referrals now relate to problem gambling, with the latest development being players’ use of payday loans to fund it.

Peter Kay, the late co-founder of Sporting Chance, confirmed back in 2008 that he knew of a case, revealed on the front page of The Independent (right), involving an indebted footballer who had deliberately been sent off at the request of a bookmaker to whom the player owed money.

The problem for football is that it is up to its neck in gambling. Gambling firms dominate the shirt sponsorship business. Many clubs have official betting partners. Some have multiple, regional betting partners. The FA is in bed with one. The Football League is named after one. And yet we’re told that football is taking the problem seriously.

The former FA chairman Lord Triesman declared during his tenure that he wanted a blanket ban on betting on football – by players, managers and officials – in an attempt to preserve the integrity of English football – though that notion is evidently long gone, as the sport hitches its carriage to this industry.

The FA imposes its bans – Andros Townsend was barred from all football activity for four months, in June – and the game moves on.

There is no suggestion that Chopra or Etherington have been involved in match fixing, but the point is that football ignores a prime motivation for that crime, at a time when new headlines and revelations cause politicians to gasp and stage impromptu summits at Westminster.

You only had to read Chopra’s evidence to know that other like him must fall prey for match fixers. “I had loan sharks turning up at the training ground when I was at Ipswich,” he said. “They came up to me and asked me for my autograph – and then said I better get myself into the club and get that money now.

“They said they knew what car I was driving and they would follow me until I paid them. They said they knew what school my little boy went to. They said they knew where my parents lived and where I lived.”

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Ian Herbert, who was shortlisted as Sports Journalist of the Year in the prestigious Press Awards, and highly commended in the SJA Sports News Reporter of 2012 category,  is The Independent’s Northern Football Correspondent (see archive of his work here). Follow Herbie on Twitter here.

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World Cup prediction special: ‘The BBC will flood the airwaves with Gangnam Style and fat men everywhere will pretend to lasso women’

Friday, December 6th, 2013

 

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Jonnie BakerBy Jonnie Baker

6 December 2013

Anticipation is obviously reaching fever pitch over the unspeakably complicated group-stage draw for the 2014 Fifa World Cup (TM), which hasn’t been obsessing too many people at all.

Certainly not to the extent that anyone would come up with a draw simulator, like the one linked here, that essentially obliges you to spend the best part of whole days pressing a button to see where the flags fly.

Now I’m not saying that the draw will end up like this (although I very much expect it):

Article continues below

 

Simulated WC draw on 6.12.13

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But I do believe it gives us a solid basis on which we can assess each nations chances. So without further ado….

Group A

Brazil: There doesn’t really seem like much point in the other teams turning up for this one. They’re going to win the whole thing and Fred will score the winner in the final. Because he’s called Fred. Young midfielder Nigel will come to the fore while defensive powerhouse Stewart will disappoint. Neymar’s hair will finally migrate in the semi-finals to join the remainder of its flock up a tree near West Bromwich.

Italy: Will someone how limp through the group stages despite playing like strangers and being rubbish. Will make it to the semis despite being rubbish. Will play one blinding half and look set for the final before reverting to type and being rubbish. Pretty much like always really.

Costa Rica: Paulo Wanchope, your nation needs you. I’ve just noticed he’s younger than me. Well that’s a sobering thought. First-round exit assured.

Russia: You can never tell with the Russians can you? Will they wilt in the South American heat or will they prosper? No, they’ll wilt in the South American heat – like a Flake 99 in a Dyson Airblade. Carnage.

Group B

Argentina: Messi and Aguero. Good lord alive that’s a worry. Fortunately they don’t also have Pastore, Ever Banega, di Maria, Higuain, Lavezzi, Garay and Mascherano as well. They do you say? Oh. Bugger. They could win the thing too then. With Erik Lamela to bang in a brace in the final. And be sold to PSG.

Cameroon: Football strip innovators Cameroon will surely be trying out some manner of bikini or spacesuit-based uniform for this tournament. Samuel Eto’o seems to be coming into some sort of form, or at the very least is lurking behind goalkeepers and nicking the ball out of their hands, so you can’t write them off. Unless you’re me, because I’m writing them off.

Honduras: The Honduran team in the Panini Espana ’82 sticker album were all pictured performing a sort of sideways karate chop to their own chests. If this is not repeated they shouldn’t even be allowed to kick-off. Get on this Michel Platini and save the tournament.

Croatia: As a Tottenham fan, one can only hope Luka Modric makes an arse of himself. The orcish Judas. They used to be such a lovely side, ruined now forever because of the actions of one tiny ingrate. They’ll probably do alright though. But by heavens I shall swear at them.

Group C

Spain: I really, really want to see Spain get smashed into the middle of next week. Anyone who claims this tiki-taka nonsense is a basis for a proper game of football is a liar or a communist. Or both. Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass…….sent home for boring the trousers off everyone.

Ecuador: Your guess is as good as mine. Anything could happen really. Though it probably won’t. In summary: drizzle, brightening later with a well-directed header at the back stick.

Japan: Drew with Holland recently playing a delicious brand of football. And Keisuke Honda has one of the best names in world soccer. Complex anime-inspired dance routines on the terraces will drive them onto the quarter finals where they’ll be robbed, ROBBED, by someone far less deserving. Let’s hope it’s England.

England: Finally, the jewel in the crown of the tournament. The side everyone wants to test themselves against. The inventors of the game that spans the world. The Three Lions. The national embarrassment we all hope pulls off a miracle and don’t start the group stage like an arthritic antelope and depart with their tails surgically removed and inserted up their fundaments. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be watching from behind the sofa. Where I’ve hidden the gin.

Group D

Germany: The poor man’s Austria. Out before the tournament even begins. Or potential finalists. You never know with Germany, do you? Well you do, they’ll be really good.

Nigeria: Has Kanu jacked it in yet? He must be pushing 70 by now, so there’s no reason to believe he won’t appear. And Victor Moses has played at least once for Liverpool. Peter Odemwingie will turn up at the doors of the Chicago Cubs and demand a transfer to the World Series.

Mexico: Somehow qualified for the tournament despite winning only 0.25 of a game in qualifying and shipping somewhere in the region of 481 goals a game. Commentators will insist on referring to Hernandez as the Little Pea, presumably in relief at no longer having to repress their hilarity when Alan Hansen tries to say Cuauhtemoc Blanco for the 19th time.

Portugal: The one man team of the tournament. If you count Cristiano Ronaldo as a man, to me he’s always resembled an android made of gravy. This is unlikely to stop him carrying all before him though.

Group E

Switzerland: They’re seeded aren’t they? Which seems odd. Especially when Philippe Senderos still gets a game. They’re the side everyone wants to draw in the group stages, except for England who have presumably given up all hope already.

Chile: Made England look foolish at Wembley by patently knowing how to play football. Unfortunately, they will soon discover that many other nations also have a passing familiarity with the game. Lovely kit though and that’s the main thing.

Australia: Despite triumphing in the Ashes, Australia will disappoint when it comes to the World Cup. I say ‘disappoint’, they’ll disappoint Australians, everyone else will be delighted. Stuart Broad will somehow conspire to bundle them out in the first round. Cue LOLs.

Greece: Admit it, we all wanted Romania to make it through from the play-offs. Our hearts broken by Iceland’s capitulation to Croatia, the Greeks stepped up to boot us in the knackers once more. That chap Karagounis is still turning out for them at the tender age of 53 so I’d expect a high energy tilt at a first-round exit. Possibly involving a goal. But just one. By accident.

Group F

Belgium: Very much the dark horse choice of simpletons who know nothing of the World Cup. So, brace yourselves, very much my dark horse for the World Cup. Vertonghen, Kompany, Lukaku, Hazard, Chadli, Dembele – plainly very many Belgians have sold their souls and their waffles to the forces of darkness to bring through that kind of generation. But then Colombia were the idiots’ dark horse for USA 94 and look what happened there. Ugly scenes.

Ivory Coast: I’m not sure what to make of Ivory Coast. A brace of Toures and a Bony. Anything could happen really couldn’t it. Expect that then.

United States: Same as always. A brief surge of interest as they start well, national outrage for a nano-second when they crash out and back to Kim Kardashian’s many thrilling adventures. Brad Friedel will become the oldest Doctor Who monster to appear in an international match and Tim Howard’s beard will finally consume his head.

France: They look quite good the old French. Pacey, free-scoring and seemingly quite happy. It’s going to be a hell of a job for them to instigate their traditional in-fighting and utter collapse. Imagine a Bugatti Veyron transforming into a clown car and imploding in the Maracana. With a shrug.

Group G

Uruguay: Luis Suarez, what can we say about that mercurial talent? Only this, it is impossible to look at his little face and not think: twat. Out in the first round if there’s any justice in the world.

Algeria: For some reason I’m always keen to see a North African country do well. Morocco, Egypt, Libya any of them would do. So it’s Algeria all the way for me.

Iran: I’ve never seen a wild card, neither in the wild nor in captivity. But, if you were to be lucky enough to encounter such a rare beast, it may look a little like Iran. Ashkan Dejagah should be turning out for them and, as we all know, he scored his first Premier League goal for Fulham in their foolish attempt to best Tottenham last night. For that delicious impertinence alone, I shall be wagering £1 on an Iranian victory in Brazil.

Bosnia-Hercegovina: The choice of the soccer romantic, very like Slovenia in 2002. Who were rubbish. Kevin Kampl plays in their midfield. You find a lot of Kevins in and around that area – I’m told it’s because Home Alone was enormously popular in central Europe. This is the kind of analysis that can save a career.

Group H

Colombia: Much will be made of Colombia playing an expansive, fast-breaking game of incisive passing and outrageous skill. Their opening game will be a welter of snapped legs, lateral passes and screaming mayhem. Hopefully no fatalities.

Ghana: When Ghana lost to Uruguay last time round, Marcel Desailly declared: ‘We are all Ghana now’. That’s Marcel Desailly who played for France. For that reason alone, I hope they go out.

South Korea: The neutral’s choice. The BBC will flood the airwaves with Gangnam Style and fat men everywhere will pretend to lasso women. One fat man will get carried away and actually lasso a woman before being sent home in disgrace. Poor Adrian Chiles.

Netherlands: The reliable comedy team of many a tournament. Total football descending into total acrimony in the blink of an eye. Like the French but with a greater emphasis on mayonnaise. And Wesley Sneijder is a lot smaller than you would at first imagine.

 

So, you can pretty much take those predictions to the bank right now.

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THE ASHES: Adelaide notebook … on sledging, selection and non-stories

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Legside LizzyBy Lizzy Ammon

4 December 2013

So sledging raised its head again, as it does with boring regularity, following Michael Clarke’s audible “get ready for a fucking broken arm” jibe to Jimmy Anderson.

The consensus is seems to be that sledging is fine as long as it doesn’t “cross a line” but where’s the line? Who drew it?

The truth is nobody has drawn it and no-one seems prepared to define clearly what they mean by it.

For his ‘GRFAFBA’ line, Michael Clarke was fined under the ICC code of conduct for a “level 1” breach.

A “level 1” breach is defined in the ICC code of conduct thus:

2.1.4 Using language or a gesture that is obscene, offensive or insulting during an International Match.  

[Note: Article 2.1.4 includes: (a) excessively audible or repetitious swearing; and (b) obscene gestures which are not directed at another person, such as swearing in frustration at one’s own poor play or fortune. In addition, this offence is not intended to penalise trivial behaviour.  

When assessing the seriousness of the breach, the Umpire shall be required to take into account the context of the particular situation and whether the words or gesture are likely to: (a) be regarded as obscene; (b) give offence; or (c) insult another person.  

This offence is not intended to cover any use of language or gestures that are likely to offend another person on the basis of their race, religion, gender, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin. Such conduct is prohibited under the ICC’s Anti-Racism Code and must be dealt with according to the procedures set out therein.]

 

Cricket-ballReading that definition, it’s clear this is not enforced with regularity or consistency.

“Swearing in frustration at one’s own poor play or fortune” – this must happen several times during the course of a day’s Test play. Rarely do we hear of players being charged for it.

Clarke’s only crime was that he was unfortunate enough to be near a microphone that was turned on when it shouldn’t have been.

The ICC document then goes on to say “This offence is not intended to penalise trivial behaviour.”

What is trivial?  What is not? When it comes to what’s offensive, that’s about as subjective as it gets.

Offence can be defined by either how it’s perceived or how it’s intended or a combination of both.

The code of conduct asks umpires to be moral arbiters without giving them clear enough guidance on what that means. It’s hardly surprising that it is enforced inconsistently.

If you progress through the code of conduct document and go on to look at level 2 and level 3 breaches, on another day Michael Clarke could have charged with one of them for the “broken arm” statement or he could have charged with nothing – such is the opaque nature of both the ICC code of conduct and the spirit of cricket pre-amble set out in the laws of the game.

It’s important to note that neither side have made any complaint at all about any of the sledging that has occurred on the pitch either during the summer in England or from the Gabba Test. It’s only comments within the media and certain sections of supporters who think that Clarke crossed this mysterious undefined line that is so often mentioned.

Sledging is what it is. It’s been around for as long as cricket itself. Cricket is a game that’s as much about mental toughness as it is about skill and trying to get inside your opponent’s head is an key part of your armoury.

Rarely are any of the sledges witty, erudite or amusing. Mostly it’s just instinctive aggression in the heat of the battle and some of it is macho laden willy-waving trying to show you’re harder than the other guy. That’s OK – cricketers aren’t employed for their erudite musings or their sharp wit.

Never underestimate cricket’s ability to be sanctimonious about itself though.

Cricket likes to moralise about its infamous “spirit” but when you ask the difficult questions about what that means in practice the answers come back to you in the same language as politicians use when they don’t want to answer your question.

 

Cricket-ballSelection speculation

One of the hallmarks of Andy Flower’s England reign has been stability of selection, a seismic shift from the bad old days of revolving door selection. From a purely selfish journalistic perspective, such relentless consistency of line-up has become dull. What’s left to speculate on? Rarely for the last few years has more than one place in the Test side been up for discussion and invariably that place has been six, and who should bat there.

But since Andrew Strauss’s retirement, England have been faced with more instability, trying to find a suitable opener to partner Alastair Cook; they’re now on their third choice in 13 months with Michael Carberry.

They’re still trying to find someone to stake a permanent claim on the number six slot. The first change seamer position has mostly been held by Tim Bresnan apart from the odd dalliance with Steven Finn, Chris Woakes and Chris Tremlett.

Not so long ago England were being praised for their strength in depth in the bowling department. That was a bit of a myth. Based on performances in the tour matches, Steven Finn and Boyd Rankin are some way off getting into the side – neither took their chance to impress at Alice Springs and Chris Tremlett has turned into the epitome of military medium.

England will be highly relived that Tim Bresnan has returned to fitness because the stock in the cupboard was looking a bit ropey.

The shock sad news that Jonathan Trott has had to leave the tour with a stress-elated illness means England are forced to have another re-think about their batting order.  They seem, understandably, loathe to move Ian Bell from the position he’s been so successful in and are more inclined to move Joe Root back up the order.

This still leaves the everlasting question of who’s batting at six. Jonny Bairstow, Gary Ballance or even perhaps Ben Stokes. With Matt Prior’s terrible form at the moment, the performance of the number six has become even more important than it has been in previous series and Ballance is the batsmen who they think probably has the most patience and determination at the crease.

England have gone from the epitome of stability to full of weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Australia have gone from the madness of the Ashton Agar selection at Trent Bridge to a side who, whilst still with areas of weakness, are settled and together.

 

Cricket-ballNon-Stories

The problem with Test matches that aren’t back-to-back is  that the absence of actual cricket leads to a plethora of stories that are not actually stories.

This week we’ve had a PA announcer at Alice Springs be accused of a racial slur against Monty Panesar when he merely announced his name as “It’s Montyyyyy” in the same way a darts announcer would say “180”.

We’ve had a brouhaha about three grown ups going for a drink in a bar and we’ve had Graham Gooch tell us what we already knew that Root or Bell will bat at three.

 

Cricket-ballThe pitch

Staring intently at 22 yards of cut grass is one the great pastimes for cricket broadcasters and journalists. Trying to analyse what it might or might not do in the course a five-day match and what that might mean for who plays. The cricket media are a knowledgeable bunch and they mostly get it almost right but this particular 22 yards is anyone’s guess.

It’s a drop-in pitch and whilst they might be making some educated guesses based on its appearance, the previous couple of Sheffield Shield matches and what the Adelaide Oval curator says, no-one actually knows.

The word seems to be that it might be very dry and may turn or may just be a slow, low dull one.

I’m sure we’ll know more when Beefy sticks his bic biro in it before the toss on Thursday (that’s Wednesday night, in English).

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Lizzy Ammon writes for SPIN cricket magazine  (here and on Twitter @spincricket), and for The Sunday People (columns here and on Twitter @peoplesport) and you can follow Lizzy on Twitter at @legsidelizzy

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‘Maybe the forces of darkness will force out AVB, but hell’s bells it would be a disaster for Spurs’

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

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Jonnie BakerBy Jonnie Baker

28 November 2013

Andre Villas-Boas is fighting to keep his job. I know this is the case because everyone says so. It’s everywhere you look, and, according to the DM, failed Roma manager Luis Enrique is already in the box seat to replace him.

And replace him Tottenham surely must. After last season’s shameful highest-ever Premier League points total and the shambolic start to this season that has seen the club enjoy their best start for many a year, it can only be a matter of time before the clueless youngster sends the Lilywhites to the bottom of the league.

I’m employing sarcasm here, heavily and with the kind of devil-may-care abandon rarely seen outside London’s most fashionable night spots. And why am I stooping so low? Because it’s all nonsense and tummy-rubbish of the poorest water.AVB1

To tell the truth, I’m not even entirely sure what’s going on here.

But let’s look at the bare facts. Spurs lost at home to Newcastle in a rather unfortunate manner – hit early on the break by Loic Remy they proceeded to whale the tar out of the Toon but failed to score with any of their 431 chances.

Then an interminable international break, then off to the Etihad – and the Oil Baron’s XI pulled their branded pants down in a comical fashion to the delight of billions. As the final whistle blew on that particular humiliation the nation’s soccer halfwits immediately began cranking out the clichés: underfire boss, hapless former Chelsea manager, big-spending crisis club, crouching Portuguese cheesewhistle flapbag.

I may have made one of those up.

There seems to be a genuine problem developing in the wide world of soccerdom and the anti-AVB tissue of mind-dribble is a perfect example of this growing plague. For the sake of brevity, we’ll call it ‘the paradox of perceived wisdom’.

Bear with me here, because I’m making it up as I go along, but I respectfully suggest that if the media comes to believe something is the case eventually reality, or at least that perceived by the consumer of the aforesaid media, will come to reflect the narrative created by it.

AVB2Look at Tottenham. Bale was sold for £80m-odd million in the summer along with various other members of the playing staff – Clint Dempsey and so on. That money, and only that money give or take, was then reinvested to bring in seven new players with the club’s transfer record being broken on three separate occasions. Now, despite the fact the club only spent what it had recouped from sales (and the whopping supposed wage rise is not what whopping when you look at how many went, who, and who came in, on what), Tottenham are said to have stretched their finances in a bid to challenge for the title.

Everywhere you look, this is taken as read.

Elsewhere, in the wake of Spurs’ tonking at the hands of the Manchester lottery winners, AVB is reported to have said the players should be ashamed of themselves. He’s widely reported to have ‘crossed a line’ and ‘lost the dressing room’.

Discounting the fact that even had he said such a thing, it’s hardly a hanging offence, what he actually said after the match was: “We have to be ashamed of ourselves, and react to a defeat like this.”

Note the use of the first person plural pronoun there, denoting a shared responsibility for a poor performance. And rightly so, since I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the manager who shanked a clearance and opened the floodgates within the first 15 seconds. But, since the football mouthpieces and the internet say so, he’s blaming anyone but himself.

I’ve whined about it before, but the proliferation of football media with the advent of the internet is creating a terrifying trap into which we can all too easily stumble. If enough people say something enough times, it will become true or, at the very least, it will be perceived to be true.AVB

I’d make more hilarious jokes, but this is a genuine concern. I, for instance, know a bit about the old soccering, but I certainly have no idea how to manage a football team. I wouldn’t presume to know and I wouldn’t presume to offer advice to athletes with many more impressive tattoos than my own. Why then do we accept the opinions of particular commentators on these things as gospel? Especially when, and it does happen, those views will cost professionals their livelihoods?

Football is, at its basest level, an entertainment. A diversion. Granted one that can evoke the most ridiculous swings of emotion in even the most level-headed. But when we’re driving perfectly competent individuals out of their jobs on the back of the scantiest of evidence, isn’t it time to just calm down a bit and let them get on with it.

Maybe the forces of darkness will succeed in driving AVB out of Tottenham but hell’s bells it would be a disaster for the club.

But it would make Alan Sugar happy. And if we can’t put a smile on the face of a multi-millionaire football empty vessel during this most festive of seasons, why bother even getting up in the morning?

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“Poyet’s dark hint that Riley wouldn’t apologise because he’s foreign is irresponsible and insulting”

Monday, November 25th, 2013

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CHRISTOPHER DAVIES is a veteran football writer who paid 17 shillings and sixpence to be at Wembley for the 1966 World Cup final. A former chairman of the Football Writers’ Association, he is the current editor of FootballWriters.co.uk and the author of  ’Behind the Back Page: The Adventures of a Sports Writer.‘ Here he explains how it is indeed the case that facts don’t always get in the way of a good story, in this case on the subject of referee “apologies”.

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Chris-DaviesBy Christopher Davies

25 November 2013

IT IS golden rule of journalism / a joke / a cliché  – maybe all three, delete as your prejudices deem applicable – never to let the facts interfere with a good story. Don’t tell ‘em the truth … don’t knock the story down … just print the juicy bits.

And “Mike Riley phones West Bromwich Albion to apologise for referee cock-up” is a much better story than “Mike Riley didn’t really phone West Bromwich Albion to apologise for referee cock-up.”

The head of the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd telephoning Steve Clarke to say sorry for Andre Marriner’s decision to award Chelsea a last-minute penalty that saw the Blues draw 2-2 rather than lose 1-2.

As we say in the trade, a good yarn and one that had legs (we also say that).

The story saw Barclays Premier League managers, led by Sunderland’s Gus Poyet, demanding Riley apologies for every refereeing mistake against their club, too. A can of worms had been well and truly opened with the contents spilling everywhere. If Riley apologised to Clarke, he must apologise to every manager.

I am sorry to pour cold water over it and if you prefer to believe the story that has been on the back pages, then look away now. You won’t like the reality.

Riley phones Premier League managers regularly as part of an agreement with the League Managers Association to discuss refereeing issues. It can be to explain why certain decisions were made, or points of law, trying to make a manager appreciate that in real time with one view from one angle and without the benefit of a dozen slo-mo replays how a referee could have made an error … or occasionally to just say: “He got it wrong, sorry.”

When Riley spoke to Clarke he did not try to defend the indefensible. The coming together of Ramires and Steven Reid was not a foul, it was not a penalty.

Marriner made a human error, just as Petr Cech and Liam Ridgewell had earlier in the match which cost their teams goals. Sometimes Riley may say to a manager: “It was a soft penalty” but a soft penalty is still a penalty. With Marriner there were no excuses and Riley uttered the S-word.

Clubs usually acknowledge that conversations between Riley and their manager should remain private, but West Bromwich – for whatever reason – decided to put it on their web site. A back-page lead was handed on a plate to football writers.

Of course, no club has ever put on its site “our manager was wrong to slag off ref.” Life, well football life, doesn’t work like that of course. Such apologies are a one-way street.

Poyet’s dark hint that Riley would not apologise to him because he is foreign is irresponsible and insulting. Two weeks earlier Riley had spoken to Swansea manager Michael Laudrup about a penalty awarded against his club. To the best of my knowledge, Señor Poyet, Laudrup is still foreign.

Poyet was angry – and some – at Wes Brown’s dismissal by Kevin Friend at Stoke. Robbie Savage, who no doubt has an extensive knowledge and appreciation of the laws otherwise he would not make such a statement, said it was “the worst sending-off ever in football.”

All opinions formed after watching the usual replays in slow-motion from various angles, of course. Interestingly, the reaction of the commentator for Match of the Day was: “Wes Brown went flying in there…” so he obviously thought the Sunderland defender could be in trouble.

If and when Riley phones Poyet their conversation may go something like this.

Riley: Gus, it’s Mike Riley…

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: About West Brown’s red card…

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: You thought it was harsh…

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: First of all, Gus, the fact that a player gets the ball is irrelevant in law…

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: Commentators keep saying ‘he got the ball so how can it be foul?’ but they are wrong. Unfortunately, the public now believe if a player touches the ball as he makes a tackle it can’t be a foul…

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: If a player lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball…using one leg or both with excessive force and endangers the safety of an opponent he is guilty of serious foul play and must be sent-off.

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: Brown did lunge in at Charlie Adam with studs of one boot showing and for a second it looked like both his legs were off the ground so he would have had no control over the outcome of the tackle…

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: Adam wasn’t hurt, but the referee decided Brown was guilty of serious foul play. I’m sorry you were so upset but in law the referee was correct…his decision certainly justifiable.

Poyet: [censored].

The Sunderland manager later tells friends Riley said “sorry” to him, too.

 

If you liked this piece, you might also enjoy: ‘It would help the credibility of those who criticise refs if they actually knew the laws’

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‘Fluke or finance, the title processions in Europe in 2012-13 should be a serious concern’

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

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EUROPE’S major leagues delivered a string of titles by procession in Spring 2013 as a group of the biggest, richest clubs across the continent romped to runaway victories. Most leagues have always had one or two dominant clubs but is there something else afoot now? And what if anything does that say about the state of European football? This piece first appeared in the debut – and current – issue of Eight by Eight (cover below), available on order now.

 

8by8 debut issue coverBy Nick Harris

5 November 2013

Last season, the wealthiest clubs romped to runaway victories in Europe’s major leagues. In Germany, Bayern Munich became Bundesliga champions with six games to spare and finished the season with a 25-point final margin over their nearest challengers, Borussia Dortmund. In England, Manchester United triumphed with four games left and finished 11 points clear. In Spain and Italy, the corresponding games to spare and points margins for Barcelona and Juventus respectively were four games, 15 points and two games, eight points.

Bayern claimed their title in the first week of April, the earliest in German history. They lost one league game (equaling the German record), amassed 91 points (a record) and finished with a mind-boggling goal difference of +80 (a record). Seventeen Bayern players scored at least one league goal and four reached double figures: Mario Mandžukic, Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez and Franck Ribéry. Bayern kept 21 clean sheets of 34 (a record), had a winning streak of 14 games (yes, yet another record), and amassed 15 away wins (another—yawn—record). This was dominance on an epic scale, but it wasn’t unique.

Manchester United sealed the Premier League title on April 22 with a 3-0 win against Aston Villa. Their $39 million Dutch striker, Robin van Persie—who finished top scorer in the league with 26 goals—scored all three goals inside 31 minutes. The win left United 16 points clear of archrivals, Manchester City, who eventually trundled home in second place, 11 points off United’s pace.

In Italy, Juventus sealed the Serie A title on May 5 after a 1-0 win against Palermo gave them an unassailable 14-point lead over chasers Napoli, and they coasted home to finish the season nine points clear.

Barcelona in Spain and Paris Saint-Germain in France both clinched their titles on the same May weekend. Barça were atop the Spanish table from the first match of the 2012–13 season and never left that summit. They bagged the La Liga title when rivals Real Madrid failed to beat Espanyol on May 11. Barça eventually finished with 100 points, 15 points clear of Real. PSG won their first title in 19 years after a 1-0 win at Lyon on May 12, although they had been at the top of the table in France since January 21. A sign of how far PSG have come so quickly—thanks in large part to a flood of Qatari petrodollars—is that two of their stars on title night were the world’s wealthiest footballers, David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

We can debate whether Manchester United benefitted from internal upheaval and transitional seasons at rivals Manchester City and Chelsea (they did); whether Barcelona’s only significant rivals, Real Madrid, were hampered by civil strife (they were); and whether Juventus benefitted from being by far the biggest net spenders in Italy in the transfer market over the past two years (they did).

But the underlying message is clear: Winning is now a rich club’s game. Bayern, United, Barcelona, and Juventus are all among the world’s 10 richest clubs by earnings, and PSG is owned by Qatar Sports Investments, a subsidiary of a Qatari sovereign wealth fund with tens of billions of dollars at its disposal.

Competitive balance in the elite leagues of Europe is worsening. This is proved by data released in June by the academic team at the highly respected CIES Football Observatory in Switzerland. “At ‘Big 5’ league level, the spread in points in 2012–13 was higher than the average measured during the last decade,” it found. This is related to greater financial disparities: Revenues of top clubs rose more than those of middle- and bottom-ranked ones.

“Without new regulatory mechanisms to improve income distribution, competitive balance will be further jeopardised through the transformation of top level clubs into global brands, [through] their regular participation in the increasingly lucrative Champions League and investments made by wealthy owners.”

It is ironic that income from the Champions League is a reason for the growing disparity between the elite and the rest. The Champions League, of course, is the flagship club tournament of European football’s governing body, Uefa, which is simultaneously in the process of implementing its sensible new Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. One of the aims of FFP is “to encourage clubs to compete within their revenues.”Euro title romps 8by8

Yet Uefa has helped create a community of haves and have-nots, via the billions of euros of Champions League prize money over the past decade that has gone primarily to the same group of clubs who turn up in the Champions League more often than not. “Competing” and “within their revenues” are becoming mutually exclusive terms for many.

The ‘“big” clubs in the Champions League are not just United and Co. from the Big-5 leagues but dominant teams in every league. Among those winning entry to the 2013–14 tournament were clubs who made easy work of their home titles.

Celtic secured the SPL title in Scotland with four games to spare. Shakhtar Donetsk won the Ukrainian title with four games to spare. FC Copenhagen secured the Superliga title in Denmark with three games to spare. Galatasaray sealed the Turkish title after moving 10 points clear with two games remaining. Over in Amsterdam, Ajax thrashed Willem II Tilburg 5-0 to wrap up the Dutch title before the last round of games They had been on top since early March.

The only tight finish in any significant league was in Portugal, where Porto were not certain of pipping Benfica until the final day.

Whether Europe’s easy-street endings in 2012–13 were a fluke or a flexing of economic muscle should be of concern not just to the fans of clubs affected, for better or worse, but to the guardians of the game.

Sure, most leagues have one, two, or three clubs that have won a large chunk of all that league’s titles. Manchester United (20), Liverpool (18), and Arsenal (13) have won 51 of England’s 114 titles between them since 1888–89. Bayern Munich have won 23 of Germany’s 101 titles, with 22 of those titles coming in the 50 years of the Bundesliga era. Juventus (29), Milan, and Inter Milan (18 each) have won 65 of Italy’s 109 titles. Real Madrid (32) and Barcelona (22) have won 54 of Spain’s 82 titles. Rangers (54) and Celtic (44) have won 98 of Scotland’s 117 titles, with no interloper at all since Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen in 1985. In Portugal, Turkey, and the Netherlands, powerful triumvirates have won more than half the titles.

Even against this historical backdrop, the title winners across Europe’s major leagues in 2012–13 were particularly concentrated within this group. The English title went to the “biggest” club that has also won it most often, United. The same was true in Italy (Juventus), Germany (Bayern), Denmark (Copenhagen), Turkey (Galatasaray), and the Netherlands (Ajax).

In Spain it went to one of that nation’s duo-poly clubs (Barça), as it did in Scotland (Celtic) and Portugal (Porto). In Belgium, the club with the most all-time titles, Anderlecht, won again, as was the case in Greece (Olympiacos). In Switzerland, the club with the second most all-time titles, FC Basel, won for a fourth season in a row and for the seventh time in 10 years.

Christian Seifert, the chief executive of Germany’s Bundesliga, runs a league that produced both of the Champions League finalists of 2013—Bayern and Dortmund—and can revel in acclaim for a competition that is famously populated by fan-owned clubs offering cheap tickets to exciting games in big, full, energized stadiums.

When he talks about the future of the game, it’s worth listening, and when we met in May a few days before Bayern beat Dortmund in a Wembley thriller, he told me it is time for Uefa to start working toward greater redistribution of football’s riches. “I do believe the Champions League money should be spread more evenly across all the clubs in the leagues from which the competitors come, not just those clubs,” he said. “Unless that happens, the gap in wealth will only grow more.”

His point, he stressed, was not that of redistribution will change everything or that further domestic redistribution of finances should be planned—yet. Bayern have been huge for as long as they have existed. They had revenue of $498 million in the last financial year, almost double that of Dortmund. That means, naturally, they can buy better players, pay more salary. And win more—probably.

But with one eye on this season’s results and a cautious nod to what could come, Seifert says, “If Bayern win the league the next two seasons 20 points ahead, I would say, Yes, something should change.”

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The debut issue of Eight by Eight is available for pre-order nowRead another story from the issue here, and download a free preview here. (Cover illustration by Diego Patino). Follow Eight by Eight on Twitter: www.twitter.com/8by8mag

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POSTSCRIPT ….

We won’t know for some months yet whether it will again be all the usual suspects winning in 2013-14. But certainly the bookmakers in early August 2013 did not expect too many contenders in each of the major title races, as the graphic below shows. And yes, there is a surprise candidate or two doing much better than expected (take a bow, Roma), but come season’s end they will be the exceptions, not the rule.

Horse title races 13-14

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Is the idea of NFL finally taking off across the Atlantic?

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

WillisALEXANDRA WILLIS is a multimedia sports journalist who flits between WimbledonSportingIntelligence, the TennisSpace and a few other outlets, while tweeting copiously and trying to improve her (terrible) backhand in her spare time. Follow @alex_willis on twitter

On first viewing, American Football is pretty baffling. It looks very much like a lot of helmeted people running around crashing into each other. Each passage of play takes place at a hurtlingly-intense speed, but only for a few minutes at a time, stop-start, stop-start, the clock halting for injuries, timeouts, commercials, and cheerleaders at odd and inopportune moments.

Try figuring out what’s going on from the commentary, and you’ll almost be more confused. There’s endless terminology – snaps, downs, huddles, fumbles, rushing yards, sacks, punts, pick sixes, field goals, touchdowns. Then all the positions – quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive lineman, defensive lineman, linebacker, cornerback, kicker, punter.

Then add the fact that you can’t easily spot who’s who because they are covered up in helmets and pads to prepare for when they certifiably will crash into each other.

And just when you think you’ve found a player you think you know, you realise it can’t be him, because he is in fact off the field. The teams are divided into two armies who switch on and off depending on which of them is on the offensive, marshalled by another army of watchful coaching staff in headphones clutching sheets of tactics. And we haven’t even mentioned any of the rules (I wouldn’t dare). Or why they wear towels.

It’s as bizarre to Brits as cricket is to Americans. And yet, even without understanding a thing, it is a compelling spectacle.

One player hiking the ball from the ground in front of him to his team-mate behind him, who throws it to another team-mate, who will, in theory, catch it and run with it does not sound like the most difficult thing in the world.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Minnesota Vikings at Wembley, September 2013

But, firstly, (and the following simplification is more for my benefit than yours, I promise), the quarterback and the offensive line have to hold off the opposition trying to charge him down for long enough in order to make that pass. At the same time, the recipient of that pass has to break his cover and get free, then catch the ball, and then hang onto it as he tries to gain some yards. And that’s in the knowledge that players who are just as fit, fast and powerful as he is will be careering into him in a way that they say feels like being in a car crash 12 times in an hour. And all of that is just for a first down, a first step forwards. Then they start all over again.

Meanwhile, the other 19 people on the field aren’t just standing around watching. They are blocking, charging, diving, all in some way either trying to make the play possible, or prevent it.

All of which means that when all those moving parts come together, as these players and teams seem to manage every given Thursday or Sunday or Monday, they have achieved so much more than just kicking a ball to one another, as our kind of football players do.

Then there’s the players themselves, celebrities from high school to college to league. Some are as worshipped as Messi (see Adrian Peterson, Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson), some of them far more controversial than Joey Barton could ever dream of being (see Manti Te’o, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger). Even their names have character. D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Baccari Rambo. Barkevious Mingo. Captain Munnerlyn. And Chad Ochocinco. Although he made his up.

All of which is to say that the more you learn about football, and my knowledge is infantile to say the least, the easier it is to understand why it is the sport that dominates the American national consciousness.

“It all starts with game itself, the strategy, the power,” Roger Goodell, Commisioner of the National Football League told a group of curious English writers at a Sports’ Journalists Association event in London.

“But it transcends the game. When you add the fans’ passion, it just becomes explosive. It brings communities together in a way that I don’t think any other sport can. Part of it is that in our game every team has hope. The hope is a great thing for us.”

That appeal is also why, slowly but surely, it is making itself better known on this side of the Atlantic too, and, since 2007, there has been an annual NFL game played at Wembley, the nation’s most famous stadium.

“Initially, it was difficult to get teams to do it,” Goodell admitted. “There were risks involved. One, you were taking away a home game, which the fans didn’t like. And two, the coaches would worry about the possible disruption, because it is still a game that counts, and they only get 16 a season.”

Those teams also had to be compensated for loss of earnings, travel expenses, and such, figured to be “a seven-figure loss” on each game.

“But every team that has come over has had a great experience,” Goodell continued. “And the fans might not like losing a home game, but they understand that in some ways it’s very good for their communities. It’s building now to the point where we have far more teams who want to come.”

This year, that ‘NFL International Series’, as it is officially named, expanded to two – the Minnesota Vikings against the Pittsburgh Steelers a month ago, and last night’s encounter between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the San Francisco 49ers. This year too, for the first time, it wasn’t just the attendees of each game who got an NFL experience. This year, for the first time, a sort of tailgating came to Wembley, the tradition where fans arrive early and sit, drink and be merry outside the stadium in the hours before the game begins.

The success to date has been such that next year, Wembley will host three NFL games – the Jaguars back again to play the Dallas Cowboys, the Atlanta Falcons to play the Detroit Lions, and the Oakland Raiders to play the Miami Dolphins.

In fact, last night’s appearance by the Jaguars is the first of a once-a-year-four-year agreement brokered by their new owner, Shahid Khan, also the owner of Fulham Football Club, who has made no secret of the fact that he would like to see the Jaguars (or Jaguras, as they were embarrassingly mis-spelled on the field last night), play a game a year at Craven Cottage from 2016 onwards.

But current demand aside, there is the lingering wonder whether the novelty of this shiny new sporting toy will simply wear off. What if future games are not the high-scoring touchdown triumphs that this year’s pair have been? Will a matchup between two unknown teams garner the same interest as a blockbuster face-off?

photo

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in London

It is after all not the first time that the NFL has tried, and failed, in Europe. The American Bowl, a series of pre-season exhibition games held at sites outside the US, ceased in 2005, and NFL Europe, a developmental league that began in 1991, was discontinued in 2007. But those iterations were not the real deal.

The current International Series, by contrast, is part of the season proper, featuring some of the biggest and best players in the sport in games that matter. And that top-down approach is what is proving to be the draw. Just ask the 180,000 people who turned up to Wembley, many of them leaving with merchandise and a taste for more. Or Channel 4 and Sky, both of whom are broadcasting selected NFL games this season. Or one of my friends, who has not one, not two, but three fantasy NFL teams this year, and burns the 3am Sunday and sometimes Monday Night Football oil every week from London.

So it is that Goodell, regarded as one of the most powerful men in sport, is at present not saying never to the idea of an NFL team based in London, although there is a sense that he wants a team back in Los Angeles first.

“The great thing about our fans in the UK is they seem to want more and more, and we want to deliver that,” he said, when pushed for a timeline on the topic. “And as long as we continue to see that growth, I don’t know where it will go, but I don’t rule out there being a franchise here in the UK.”

The greatest impediment to a London team would not be money, the NFL has plenty of that, but more the toll that the travelling would take on the teams. Convincing a few teams to travel to London once a year is one thing, but requiring eight different teams to take on a long-haul flight and a time difference for the eight London home games, especially those based on the West coast, is quite another. Not to mention the London-based team travelling eight times the other way.

Logistics aside, the NFL’s international ambitions do not stop with a hop across the pond. ‘The London experiment,’ as Goodell calls it, is one part of a long-term view for the NFL, which is simply to grow awareness, fandom, commercial power, everywhere.

“We are trying to globalise our game,” he said matter-of-factly. “But we’re not trying to tackle the whole globe at once, we have do it differently from basketball, soccer. But if we create the success here [in London] to the extent that they want franchises in Frankfurt, Moscow, Shanghai, that’s a good problem to have.”

This is not to say that the NFL and the sport does not have its problems – the concussion controversies rumble on, drugs are always a fear factor, what players get up to when they are not on the field, the discussion around who pays for new stadiums. But those seem to be pinpricks in its popularity, to the extent that a New York Times opinion piece recently described baseball as “irrelevant compared to the leylandii-like growth of the NFL”. To the extent that 45% of the NFL fan-base is female. To the extent that Goodell maintains that 85% of American parents want their kids to play football. This very website, SportingIntelligence, reported it as the best-attended domestic sports league in the world.

The jewel in the NFL’s crown is that being a football fan is not just about watching and understanding what happens on the field itself. There are so many other things which revolve around and add to what those men on each game day’s ‘active’ list are up to which make it must-see TV, in a way that is so big and bold and refreshing when compared to our more genteel, traditional attitudes. The pre-gaming, the anthems, the cheer songs, the food, the beer, the jerseys, the fantasy leagues, the apps, – even the NFL RedZone countdown clock  – you are told it is the biggest and best thing out there. And guess what, it is.

“Everything is an event,” Goodell said. “And we want to make each of our events bigger and better, to capture that same attraction. The draft is now an event, it is now bigger than most sports’ play-offs.”

Next year’s SuperBowl in New York, for example, will see 14 blocks shut down around Times Square for the entire week preceding February 2nd to create what will be ‘SuperBowl Boulevard.’

“We can only put 76,000 people inside the stadium. We want another half a million to experience the SuperBowl. It goes beyond just a simple game,” Goodell said, asserting that “there’s never been a better time to be a fan.”

So, British sporting enthusiasts. Next Sunday evening from 6pm, why not turn on Channel 4 or Sky,  pick a game, pick a team, and see if he’s right.

You may not understand it, but hopefully you’ll enjoy it.

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