Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Leicester City's triumph: Not tomorrow's fish and chip paper

I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to get excited about something if everyone else is getting excited about it. Contrary bastard some may say. I am also one of those people who will cringe at the terms fairy-tale and miracle and then use every cell of grey matter in my bonce to discredit these exaggerations (other than the Miracle of Medinah, that really was a frickin' miracle). 

So when Leicester City won the Premier League last night, I waited on Twitter for the overreaction of the sporting family I hear from more than my own. Once more, there was a deluge of ‘one of the greatest sporting stories of our time' 'the biggest upset in football’ and once again, my mind raced away – really is it such a big deal, I mean Leicester are owned by billionaires for goodness sake, there are other teams like Nottingham Forest who upset the odds, wasn't it just a dud year in the Premier League?

But this morning, even as I awoke from a dream where Harry Kane invited me to the Tottenham end of season awards night (thanks Hazza), it was Leicester City on my mind.

And I felt confused... I have been working in football for the last decade and this is the first time I have felt so strange. As I looked up at my ceiling I wondered if there were really limitations on anything, reality had shifted a little bit, and at that moment I felt compelled to get out of bed, because maybe I could win the Premier League too. 

Talk about tearing up the form book, Leicester City have **** all over it. I have not heard from one journalist, or person, who thought they could win the league – and most people predicted they would be in the relegation dog fight. Although I am perplexed why people doubted Claudio Ranieri, if anything I think his pedigree might have been too good for Leicester, I can totally understand why so few people took a £1 bet which would have made them £5,000 richer. This was never meant to happen, it never has happened in the Premier League, it has never even remotely happened, the same teams have been going into the Champions League for as long as I can remember. (Yes, I know football existed before the Premier League, but I don't care)

Next year Ranieri and his band of brothers could be facing the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, however, it isn’t Leicester City in the Champions League that excites me, it is next year’s Premier League. 

For one, Leicester will be reigning champions and if anything should get stronger rather than weaker, for another, one hopes that seeing the jubilant faces of the Leicester City players celebrating in Vardy's crib will encourage small teams to dream big. And 'big' clubs to think small - look more at keeping their players united and humble, rather than self-interested and flash. That we will welcome more personable and cultured managers like Ranieri, Pochettino and Klopp into the Premier League. Pep, you are a great start! 

During moments like this, I often find myself thinking about the people in this country who do not like football and how the domination of stories like this must frustrate them. But on this occasion, when I think of these people I believe there must also be a small voice inside their head whispering ‘Leicester City, really?’.

Monday, 28 March 2016

DJ Dean's beats of the season

Action Images/Adam Holt

Featured in Bees Review (5th March 2016)

Most fans will know that if you cut Harlee Dean he bleeds red, Brentford red.

Recently extending his contract with the Club until the end of the 2017/2018 season and becoming Vice-Captain, Harlee has been instrumental in the success of The Bees over the last few years.

However, what less fans will know is that Dean has a crucial role which is less talked about. And with this position comes great responsibility.

“I’ve been in and out for years but this season with a few people leaving it was time for someone to step up,” said Harlee Dean, aka DJ Harlee Dean.

“In the past it rotated around with Clayton, Mo and Dougie getting involved. But now I have taken up the challenge.”

With footballers being a fairly superstitious bunch, it’s not surprising that during their promotion winning season music became very important.

“The year we went up we had one mix we listened to for the whole season,” said DJ Dean. “Everyone knew it off by heart and which song was coming next. Actually Bob (the Kit Logistics Manager) was one of the DJs and he put on a Colin Francis mix – and that was it for the whole season. There was even one song that had to be played when we were walking out to the tunnel.”

Now Dean is king of the beats, I asked him to name the songs which have been rocking the Griffin Park changing room this season.

Impossible – Jax Jones Remix
This is a high tempo club tune and one that the boys like. It’s a bit clubby and gets people in the right mood before kick-off. No, we don’t dance, we take matches seriously but it’s just a good track to get people’s energy up.

Can’t Tell Me Nothing – Kanye West
This is from the movie, The Hangover. I chucked it in the playlist because it’s a good song and seems to do the job. Actually it was probably our hangover song when we went to Vegas after getting promoted to the Championship. Vegas was unbelievable, everyone was there and I think only Adam Forshaw missed out. It was amazing celebrating together and it was the first time many of the boys had been there. It was special. I think socialising as a team is important, this season we had the Christmas do but that was cut short because there was a development game. We haven’t had as many socials as you would have hoped for but they are tied in with good results and we haven’t had as many of them as we would have hoped for either.

679 - Fetty Wap
This is one of Alan Judge’s favourites, and if you know the song you wouldn’t really think it would be. But whenever he is in there he always asks for that to go on. He sings along and gives everyone a laugh. To be honest, without him this season we would be up against it. It is unfair recently how much pressure there is on him, he is the only one consistently producing at the minute. Hopefully he gets to the Euros because I think he deserves to be there. He has been one of the best players in the Championship this season, if not the best.

Chunky - Format: B
This is another club tune that the boys like. Judgey says that I have the biggest head in the league which could be a link to this track, as long as it is not a reference to my waist! I personally think that there are a few bigger heads in the league – it just looks big to Judgey because he is so little. I’ve made a living from heading the ball – so I’m glad I’ve got a big head really. When I was at Dagenham and Redbridge – I was just a head on a stick. You can ask Sam Saunders who was also there. I am still trying to grow into my head now. Heading is going out the game a bit but the Rotherham game proved that you still need to be prepared for a physical battle.

Digital Dash - Drake
Sam Saunders is a fan of Drake, he pretends he knows the words and just mumbles, but he does the little shuffle in Digital Dash. I was 16 when I first met Sam at Dagenham and Redbridge and when I came to Brentford he put me straight under his wing and now we live down the same road. He is one of my best friends and I think we will always be best friends, even if he is A LOT older than me.

And what about, say, the Spice Girls?
Another teammate Harlee had a close relationship with was James Tarkowski – who, rumour has it, risked his credibility to play Spice Girls on the team bus.

“I don’t think I was there then but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Harlee. “Tarky was quite a weird character and just did what he wanted to do and played what he fancied. We saw each other last Saturday and we are still very good friends.”

“Tarkowski saw his future somewhere else but I know Brentford is for me. Although it feels like we have taken a step back this season we are a Club with ambition and that is why I wanted to stay. I believe we will get to the Premier League and when the stadium is built I will enjoy playing in it. Since I’ve come here the fans have taken to me and I love playing for them – that’s also been vital in my decision to stay.”

So to the disappointment of aspiring Bees DJs, it doesn’t look like Dean is going to leave a space in the Brentford Music Department for a little while yet.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Sergi Canos: Surging into the Championship

3rd November 2015 - Bees Review - Joanna Tilley 

Sixty seconds is all it took for Sergi Canos to make an impression during his home debut for Brentford. The 18-year-old winger, on loan from Liverpool, exploded off the bench to provide the assist for Lasse Vibe’s equaliser against Preston North End.

If his cross didn’t catch the eye of the fans, the attacking energy he brought to the team certainly did. 

“Before the match against Preston, I was nervous,” Sergi told me. “I didn’t know if I was ready for the Championship, or even to be on the bench."But it was nice to get an assist in my first moments on the pitch. It made me feel that I’m ready to play at this level."

The Griffin Park faithful immediately responded to the player who changed the tide of the game with some cheeky flicks and a fearless attitude.

"The reception I’ve got from the fans so far has been incredible and to get the fans’ man of the match for my home debut was unbelievable. I don’t know if the fans expected something from me but I was really happy with that.”

It is possible Bees fans were expecting something special from a youngster with a notable footballing CV. Canos is the product of FC Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy and signed for Liverpool much to the frustration of the Catalan giant.

Championship Player of the Month for October, Alan Judge, has been impressed with the Spaniard's attacking style but it is clear to anyone who watches him for more than a few minutes that Canos is not afraid of taking on opponents, or using an audacious piece of skill when required.

“I’ve always played like that. Since I started playing football at the age of five, we would play on concrete in my hometown of Nules; we always had cuts and grazes. Now you see the boys playing on grass, whereas I played on rock.”

The quality of the pitches improved somewhat for Canos when he joined Barca’s Academy at the age of 13.

“I think the most important thing I learned from La Masia was how to be more responsible and independent. I was living alone there, although surrounded by other boys, but there was more responsibility playing for Barca.”  

Although Sergi wasn’t sure how seriously to take Bees Review’s claim that Brentford were the Barcelona of West London, he recognised that the clubs do have their similarities, as well as differences.

“Of course there are some – we play football. Not long balls or anything like that. We are not like Barcelona because we do not have Messi! But we are playing attractive football and that’s why I came here, because I knew this was the style I wanted to play.”

Currently on loan until January, Sergi says he would like to be at Griffin Park a little longer. 

“I want to stay until the end of the season. That’s my objective – to stay. I’m really happy here. I enjoy each day and am learning new things: the intensity at training and the type of football, plus playing with men like Judgey and Alan McCormack. I can learn a lot from them." 

Ultimately, he will be looking to get a place in the Liverpool first team. The city is not just home to his football club but also his family, who moved with him to the UK.

“Moving over here in 2013 was a difficult transition. But it was the best decision of my life because my family came with me and my sister is at school and speaks English like an English girl.”

“We are going to open a restaurant in Liverpool. It should be open any day now. All our lives have changed. They live in Liverpool and come to watch me play. They give me a lot of confidence and when I warm up and see them – it gives me strength.”

The Canos family are working in collaboration with renowned Spanish chef Miguel Barrera, whose restaurant Cal Paradis in Castellón has a Michelin Star.

“For me he is the best chef in Spain, that’s why he’s at our restaurant," says Sergi with a laugh. "It is a Spanish restaurant and his speciality is in rice, although there is a tapas section.”

Despite leaving Liverpool for London, Sergi was excited about the news Jurgen Klopp was to become manager of the Reds.

"It is amazing. Klopp and Liverpool is the perfect match – there is so much passion amongst the fans. And he seems very passionate. Hopefully in the future I will have a chance to talk to him.”
When he is not playing for Brentford, or keeping an eye on Liverpool, Sergi is cheering on Valencia.

“I am a big fan,” said Sergi. “When I was five-years-old I was going to the Mestalla Stadium regularly. My dad supports Valencia, although my sister supports Barcelona. When I went to Barcelona she was so excited, it was a dream for her.”

There is no doubt Sergi’s talent has already brought plenty of excitement, and changes, to the lives of his family and others around him.

But his career in England is just beginning, and if his first minute on the Griffin Park turf is anything to go by, it could be quite a ride.  

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Alan Judge: Brentford's secret weapon

30th October 2015 - Bees Review

One word which might spring to mind when you think of Alan Judge is energy. The Brentford midfielder never seems to run out of it and this quality would have served him well over a busy October.

After being called-up for the Republic of Ireland squad, Judge burst onto the Griffin Park turf against Rotherham United with an exquisite second-minute volley and his first header for The Bees. Judge was named man of the match and the performance perfectly encapsulated the energy he has brought to the club since his arrival on loan at the start of 2014.

“It was brilliant to be called up to the Republic of Ireland squad and a good experience,” said Alan. “I must be close to making the team if they called me in and I think I have shown in training that I am a decent player. The manager more or less said he needs a friendly to come around to see me on the pitch which I understand because the lads are playing very well at the moment.”

Straight after returning from duty, Alan’s next mission was moving into a new home with his wife Emma and daughter Emily. At the time of speaking to him, he was also awaiting an addition to the family.

“He or she is due on 29 October [yesterday],” said Alan. “Let’s hope it is either before or after the game as there is no way I want to be missing that match. But if she goes into labour during the game I would be running off and going straight to the hospital.”

Family comes first, but Judge understands the importance of a local derby after the fixtures against Fulham last year.

“I didn’t think too much about it in the lead up. I knew Fulham were rivals but when I played in the game at Griffin Park I started to realise how the fans felt about it."

"I remember when Jota scored right at the end and I fell to the floor because I was so exhausted. Everyone put everything into that game – it was for the fans.”

Judge also has fond memories of the match at Craven Cottage as it was an important time in his career.

“That game was brilliant. I was just returning from injury and I wasn’t at full fitness. There were niggles and I wasn’t getting into the team at the time. It was great to score in front of 6,000 away fans. It was an unbelievable atmosphere and we blew them away.”

If Judge ever forgets the importance of tonight’s clash with QPR, he has player liaison manager and match-day announcer Peter Gilham to remind him.

“I have Peter continuously telling me that we have to beat them. We have to! Peter is a die-hard Brentford fan and has become a good friend to me. I want to do well for the club and especially for people as nice as him.”

Although footballers are recognised for their competitive spirit and physicality, Judge’s doggedness often shines out – partly, perhaps, because it contrasts with his small stature.

“I hate losing,” said Alan. “Just hate it. I got used to winning last year and I like being the best at what I can do. You can accept having a bad day but I can’t accept people giving in. So I make sure I work hard. I put in the effort on the training pitch too.

“Through that hard work you reap rewards. People think you are small so you can’t tackle. If you go in and give everything most people will be surprised by your strength. The worse thing that can happen is that you get injured.”

Judge’s father played football in Ireland, is that where his determination came from?

“Well he used to go around kicking people so I’m not at his level. It does help when your father played football; it has had a massive impact on the way I play, definitely. He played for Fulham when he was younger."

“That’s not going to win me any friends around here, is it?! But he moved back home because his mother was unwell. He made a good career in Ireland.”

While Judge has many good qualities, it is probably only fair some attention is given to his faults. 

Teammate Andreas Bjelland told Bees Review at the start of the season the Irish players are the loudest in the squad, but Judge is quick to start a rebuttal.

“Andreas is the moaniest person I have ever met in my whole life," he says with affection. "Every morning he is grumbling about something or the other. If the grass is green, he moans.”

At this point in the interview, Brentford defender Alan McCormack walks by and Judge asks him who the moaniest person in the team is. McCormack points at Judge.

“Before Andreas, it would have definitely been Judge,” says McCormack. “Now he has a bit of competition.”  

When he is not busy moaning, Alan has been impressed with the new members of the team.

“Maxime Colin, I like him,” said Alan. “He’s good on the ball, knows how to tackle. Sergio is so direct and we need that."

"The new players are settling in well but it will take time. In some cases they’ve come from a country where you can barely touch a player to one when you can boot them six feet into the air. They will get stronger.”

When it comes to toughening up, chances are Judge’s presence has already sped up the process.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Talking kitchen? Why a splash of sexism is too much in sport

I forget which wave of feminism we are currently riding but there is no denying that sexism is one hot little potato at the minute.

One area where the potato is particularly scalding is in the sports world.

This was best shown at the end of the Women’s World Cup when the team were welcomed back with a Tweet from the FA which read “Our lionesses go back to being mothers, partners and daughters today – but they have taken on another title – heroes.”

There are numerous reasons why this Tweet created a media storm: Do we get the choice to put family roles on hold? Are they not coming back to being professional WSL footballers? Would the men's team ever be referred to in the same way?

Today the BBC have apologised for a comment Peter Alliss made during the Open golf tournament.  While Zach Johnson was lining up a shot the camera panned to his wife and Alliss said “She is probably thinking if this goes in I get a new kitchen.”

Now I understand why the FA Tweet is contestable but guys 'n gals, hasn't this sexism court-marshalling got a little out of hand? Is that comment really sexist? Do the BBC need to apologies for a commentator joking about a woman planning to buy herself a lovely new kitchen. If you see a woman and think “preemptive kitchen buying” that surely doesn’t mean you are sexist.

But then again, you are a little bit aren’t you? And a little bit sexist is too sexist - because when women are fighting so hard to be taken seriously in sport, old-fashioned gender stereotypes do not help at all.

Would the same comment have been delivered to a man watching his wife taking a putt? Say the man in question was Gordon Ramsey, same comment? No – I don’t think anyone would suggest culinary supremo Gordon Ramsey would have any interest in buying a new kitchen because we all know the essence of Alliss’ comment stems from a patriarchal viewpoint. One that for many years kept women in the range of the kitchen and off the driving range.

After collecting the Claret Jug, Zach Johnson praised his wife (or in his words “CEO”) and said his success was very much theirs. If he had whispered to her “you get that new kitchen now love!” I doubt it would have gone down particularly well.

Of course, if we had a level playing field between the sexes, none of these remarks would be an issue. Alliss could replace “kitchen” with “boob job”, and the BBC would be all ‘hurrah for boob jobs!’.

But we don’t have equality, do we? And gender assumptions are not conducive to bringing it. Anyway, who is to say we are good mothers and daughters either, who is to say we don’t prefer cheating on boyfriends or online gambling to shopping and pedicures. I have played football for the last five years and if I had a pound for every time a man raised a questioning eyebrow at me, I would be able to afford that new kitchen I’ve had my eye on. (it's so beautiful, peach and cream)

Another thing which can often be overlooked – is that women are different. Some are more strongly aligned to traditional feminine traits and that is lovely, and good for them. Others combine both, which is also nice, and then there are those women who actually have much stronger masculine energy and wouldn't recognise a frying pan if it hit them over the butch head.

Many ‘feminists’ are not jumping on these comments from men because they hate men and want them to be punished for centuries of suppression. I would much rather look at the comments from Alliss and John Inverdale (vis-a-vis Marion Bartoli) and just think ‘nothing to get your knickers in a twist over, let’s worry about more important affairs’. But the thing is – until women's sport is taken more seriously – we need to be vigilant.

I don’t think over-hyping women’s sporting event that few people watch is necessarily the solution but neither is ignoring old-fashioned gender views which look to keep women aligned with domestic duties.

We are just so much more interesting than that.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

It should not be painful to talk periods

"Girl things."

They were just two little words that came out of Heather Watson’s mouth after her disappointing first round loss at the Australian Open.

It was clear that the promising young Brit was not at the races against Tsvetana Pironkova despite winning her second WTA title the week before.

Before the mention of the 'girl thing' thing, the media had struggled to make sense of what was wrong. Low energy, a virus, a return of glandular fever - everyone was guessing what the problem was.

Not for one moment did anyone think that Heather Watson may be suffering because she was simply on her period.

And to me, that is absurd.

That period pains do not seem to exist when it comes to sportswomen. With the profile of women’s sport on the up, I still can’t think of a single instance when a competitor has pointed at her ovaries when asked what went wrong out there.

‘Talk to this troublesome duo, they know!’

But now two words from Watson – and we are finally talking about the dreaded P word - PERIODS.

In this article the BBC talks to a selection of sportswomen about the effect periods had on their careers. The article is hastily put together but never-matter because it is the comment section at the bottom which is far more interesting. Once again it provides an opportunity for some men to say women are making a fuss about nothing and questioning whether the subject is worth talking about at all.

Why not? If we dedicate reams of online space to mental health problems, why can’t we have an open chat about period pains? Because they only affect women?

If you are woman, have friends who are women, are married to a woman - you are probably well accustomed to hot-water bottles, strained faces and quiet mumblings ‘I am on my period.’ Just Google 'period pains' and you will be left in no doubt about the extent to which many women suffer.

And there is no reason to suggest sportswomen are any different.

So if there are women on the pitch, court or track struggling due to period pains, shouldn't we want to know about it? Isn't it weird that we don't? Hey women folk, why aren't you speaking out?

It's a complicated matter - but I believe lots of women don’t like talking about periods because they are not sexy, attractive, womanly or anything else that reminds us of a Disney princess (unless I missed the Disney which features Arial turned upside down).

But I don’t think this is why sportswomen never (and it really does seem to be never) mention period pains. If Paula Radcliffe can poo in the street, I’m pretty sure she would happily wave her bloody tampon at you. No, these sweaty women who contort their faces, grunt and pant are worried about something far more important than looks: using an excuse.

These tough women who have dedicated their lives to being the cream of the crop want to be taken seriously. By men just as much as by women. The mere mention of period pains (as has been shown from the reaction to the BBC article) leads to men cramping up. (So I suppose at least in some way they know how we feel.)

Imagine sitting in a press conference of predominantly men and telling them the reason you didn’t win Wimbledon, an Olympic gold, the marathon was because Aunty Flow came to visit. It would sound weak, it would be uncomfortable for everyone – better just tell them that the cat died… inside your uterus.

Or to smile and say it wasn’t your day. Or to not blame anything at all.

After all, these women are tough… but we must question whether they are being too tough?

The main reason I think this issue deserves attention boils down to honesty. Aren’t we all so much happier when we are honest? A burden is lifted off our shoulders, others can relate to our difficulties, nobody feels alone, there are less taboos, people can live freely.

A bit more honesty might help. Less pressure to pretend, more empathy from others – it could be just what our ovaries ordered.

Sportswomen’s silence could be putting unreal expectations into the minds of young girls who want to reach for the stars but their ovaries aren’t letting them.

I am so grateful to Heather Watson for uttering those two words ‘girl things’ – this conversation is thoroughly overdue.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

London Live Sport round up

A Significant Friendly

England take to Wembley turf for the first time against tough opposition

Published in the Evening Standard

It takes Alex Scott a moment to remember when England last lost a competitive match. Under Head Coach Mark Sampson, England breezed through qualifying for the 2015 World Cup in Canada with 10 wins out of 10. Away from World Cup qualification, England recorded an impressive 4-0 victory over Sweden, a team ranked above Sampson’s side in the FIFA rankings.

“The last time we lost a competitive match must have been at the Euros last year. It’s something I haven’t really thought about,” the England and Arsenal defender told Standard Sport.

“I think we knew as players we should be beating the teams in our qualifying group but to score so many goals, and concede only one, we couldn’t do much better than that.”

While 2014 has been full of victories and goals, England’s women still have plenty to prove against Germany on Sunday after crashing out of the 2013 European Championships in the group stages. The early exit led to the departure of Hope Powell who had been in charge for 15 years.

Scott seems happy under the reign of Sampson, who has brought a fresh look to a team that often featured a familiar group of players.

“Mark has come in and changed the philosophy, the buzz around the team. We are going into games a lot more positive. He has freshened things up and there are some really exciting and young players coming through.”

One particularly young and exciting player is 21-year-old Fran Kirby, a striker for WSL 2 side Reading who scored 29 goals last season. Sampson’s bold decision to integrate a player from the second tier of the WSL looks to have paid off and Kirby was named Women of the Match on her debut against Sweden.

“If she keeps going the way she’s going, Fran has a big future in the women’s game. That’s the good thing about Mark, if you play well you are going to get a chance.,” says Scott.

Kirby and company will have to be in fine fettle if they are to upset the European Champions Germany – a team who also recorded the perfect World Cup qualifying campaign and are ranked World Number 2, five places above England.

Not only will the record crowd spur them on but also their poor record against their European rivals. England have never beaten Germany and the last time the teams met Germany denied England the 2009 European Championships title.

When asked to name Germany’s danger players, Scott is not sure where to start: “They are a force. There are so many dangerous players and they keep coming at you, they are relentless. Alexandra Pop is an amazing midfielder, she is so strong and technically gifted . They will be a real challenge.”

A victory on the pitch is important, but arguably a more important victory has already been achieved. The match against Germany marks the first time the England women’s team have played at Wembley and the capped 55,000 crowd is well above what anyone predicted.

“This is a special occasion and a great time for women’s football. When Great Britain played Brazil everyone thought it was Olympic fever but this match shows the interest is there and we need to put on a good show to keep fans coming back.”

Scott says playing at Wembley for England is a childhood dream but she will not be a bundle of nerves on the big occasion. The unofficial team DJ is more likely to be found dancing or making sure nerves don’t get the better of less experienced players. Scott believes the match is the ideal test before playing in front of big crowds in Canada next summer.  

Whether the players like it or not - the future of women’s football is tied to the results England achieve on the pitch.

“In order to capitalise on this support, we must do well in the World Cup next year. The media are now covering our matches and putting women’s football in people’s faces. We need to achieve results that keep us in the media so people can connect with us and follow the story and our progress.”

With clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester City investing more into their women’s sides, the top flight of women’s football finally has the competitive edge it has been lacking. An exciting climax to the 2014 season, which saw reigning Champions Liverpool edge to victory over Chelsea, has no doubt wetted the appetite for the fixture at Wembley. Unfortunately for Scott, all this competition means Arsenal no longer run away with the title year after year.

“Crowd figures are up across the board. Man City get good crowd averages and Arsenal do at Boreham Wood. But we need to make sure these 55,000 fans filter down into the women’s game.”

“We are role models and seeing us play makes young players realise they can make a career out of playing football. Many never looked at women’s football like this before, but now girls are believing they can become professional and make a salary out of the sport.”

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Balotelli: The Gamble Liverpool could ill afford

The power is now in Balotelli's hands, which could spell trouble for Rodgers

At a time when Liverpool looked to be maturing into a team that could challenge for the Premier League, Brendan Rodgers took a gamble.   

Rodgers gambled on a footballer who has proved difficult to handle at the biggest clubs in the world. A player with a petulant and irrational streak, one who sees an aggressor lurking around every corner.

Why always me? Hmmm... Maybe because you want it to be Mario? For it seems Balotelli never gets tired of attention, and scarcely cares whether this is positive or negative. 

This is a player who wore an AC Milan shirt on television as an Internationale player and a month later threw his Inter Milan shirt on the floor after being criticised by a fan.

This is the player who recorded four red cards in the 2011/2012 season for Man City, when he wasn't busy setting off fireworks or throwing darts at people.

And this is the player Brendan Rodgers signed before the 2014 season.

Perhaps this wasn't a gamble at all, perhaps it was a mistake. A hasty decision made in the panic to replace Luis Suarez. 

If I was a Liverpool fan I would be livid, not just because livid works well alongside the word Liverpool. At the end of last season, Liverpool went agonisingly close to winning the league. They were a club on the up - the out of form players such as Jordan Henderson were improving, the rise of Raheem Sterling was imminent, and Steven Gerrard was the perfect captain to guide this promising side. The team was undoubtedly boosted by Suarez but also showed plenty of promise without him.

Rodgers had managed to do the hardest thing in football – create a team.  A team which doesn't rely on one player. Where players play for each other and their manager, where egos don’t have a place on or off the pitch, and where defeat hurts.

All seemed so well and Champions League football beckoned, and then… a perhaps unforgivable decision was made for the club.

Super Mario - mushroom splatterer, shell dodger, chum of Toad - arrived at Merseyside at the price of a biscuit, but at the threat of risking it. An unsettling character was to be integrated into a team which didn’t need it, which was too young to handle it.  

Apparently the price was too good – which begs the question how much should it cost to set back your football club?

Or in the words of Jamie Redknapp, "There’s a reason when you go to the supermarket and things are half price."

Rodgers should have stuck with his gut which initially told him NO! He should have realised there is no reason Balotelli would behave himself for Liverpool when he has struggled in his native Italy. That a player too difficult for Mourinho is probably too difficult for him. And anyway, why would Balotelli be loyal to Liverpool – what connection does Balotelli have, did he even know what Liverpool was? 

People said it was Balotelli’s last chance at top league football and that he was desperate to prove himself. Come on now, let's not be silly and pretend that every player cares so much about football. There are plenty of clubs which will pay for his name, failing that there is the promise of a financially fruitful future in Russia or Asia.

Rodgers has now got to face up to something even more destructive than Balotelli - his ego. It got him into this position, and only saying 'tally-ho ego' which will get him out of it. He simply stands no chance against the irrational whimsy of football's Peter Pan. 

Balotelli has got to go. It is not fair on the other players to have such a provocative influence around, especially one who is not performing on the pitch. Even if Balotelli’s form dramatically improves, it will only be achieved by the whole team rotating the earth so it revolves around Planet Balotelli.

Mario needs time, resources and babying which Liverpool don't owe him. They need stability and calm if they are to rekindle the form they showed last season. That brought them so desperately close to winning the league.

I really wanted to see what happened to that team.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Mo Farah brings Olympic legacy to Hounslow

This article featured on Brentford FC CST website

"What is really emotional for me is the involvement of Mo and Tania. To come back and put this much into the Hounslow community is something I am incredibly proud of. This is what Olympic legacy is about."

These were the words of former PE teacher Alan Watkinson, the man who helped runner Mo Farah grow into one of Britain’s most decorated athletes.

On August 27th, both men returned to the place the journey had started – Feltham Community College – to launch a new local sports programme called Motivate Hounslow.  This initiative aims to motivate young people in Hounslow aged between 14 and 25 to take up sport, or take their talents to the next level.

"I thank Sport England for giving us these funds so we can help kids," said the Olympic, World and European 5,000 and 10,000m champion Mo Farah at the launch.

"To be able to support young people is amazing and I want to spot the next Mo. I want to give them a chance and say look this is where I started, I was just like you at that age."

A generous cheque for £250,000 was handed over by Jon Horne, Government Relationship Manager for Sport England’s Community Sports Activation Fund.

"This is a £47.5 million project across the country and this is one of 160 projects so far that have been funded," said Jon when presenting with the cheque.

"It is not just about people doing more sport but about the impact regular sport participation can have on wider local outcomes, whether this is educational achievement, health, diversity activities – whatever this may be in the local area."

Brentford FC Community Sports Trust, The Mo Farah Foundation and Sport Impact are working together to deliver the programme, which centres around three Motivator coaches who will be working in the most deprived areas of Hounslow to get more young people active.

"The age group we are targeting (14-25 year old) is set up for a reason, and it is a challenge. But we believe we have the credentials to do it, we all have different personalities and are enthusiastic about sport," said Senior Motivator Abdoullah Kheir.

During the launch, young people from the community took part in a variety of different sports activities including basketball, football, tennis, American flag football, boxing, trampolining and sprinting.

Motivator Martin Bradshaw said the diversity of sports on offer reflected the nature of the programme, which would use as many different sports as possible to engage the target age group.

“We will start with schools and colleges, then look to go to youth clubs and talk to young people about what they want and what will make them motivated to come to our project," said fellow Motivator Kojo Sedefia.

Chair of the Mo Farah Foundation, Tania Farah, also attended the event, as did Mo’s daughter Rhianna – who enjoyed taking part in the activities on offer, especially the tennis.

"We are excited to work with Sport Impact and Brentford FC CST, who have experience at ground level working with young people," said Tania.

"By using Mo’s influence hopefully we can develop this into something across the UK. We started in Hounslow because this is where we are from and this is where our heart still lies."

Aspiring Olympian, and Great Britain 100m sprinter Clieo Stephenson, has already benefitted from the work of The Mo Farah Foundation. The sprinter is studying psychology at Brunel University while perfecting her ground speeds.

"When I joined Brunel I applied for a scholarship and the Mo Farah Foundation selected me as one of the four people they support throughout the year," said Clieo, who can run 100m in 11.7 seconds.

"They give me financial help through the course of year, help with injuries and look after me in any way they can. Physio, travel and equipment, that sort of thing."

While Clieo was tearing it up on the mini sprint track, vigorous bouncing on the trampoline took place inside the sports hall, and Brentford FC Club Captain Kevin O’Connor turned up to see the skills on the football pitch.

The Major of Hounslow, Corinna Smart, said the launch was the biggest sporting event of the summer because of Mo Farah’s motivational story and how young people respond to it.

"I am from Feltham Community College and am doing tennis, trampolining and dodge-ball. Mo used to go to this school and I have heard a lot about him. He won lots of medals at the Olympics," said 15-year old Vishal, one of the participants on the day.

If their hard work was spotted by the Motivators, the most impressive performers were awarded prizes by Mo Farah on stage.  With a handy right hook in the boxing ring, 19-year old Dominika was awarded a goody bag with a signed T-shirt from Mo.

"In addition to Sport England, I want to thank our supporters, ISIS Waterside Regeneration, Carillion Parks Management, The Heathrow Community Fund, Brentford Football Club and the London Borough of Hounslow," said Project Manager Neil Young,

"It was through the Hounslow Community, Sport and Physical Activity network – managed by the Borough Council – that this partnership was formed, so I would like to say thank you for bringing us together."

Monday, 25 August 2014

Gutsy Kerber on the prowl for first major

Sharapova (L) and Kerber are two of the WTA's toughest fighters

Two competitors who would not be beaten.

Two and a half hours of gritty and aggressive tennis you couldn’t take your eyes off for a second.  

Arguably one of the greatest battles of Wimbledon 2014 was between Angelique Kerber and Maria Sharapova in the fourth round.

It was a match that showed that at its peak, women’s tennis has everything its male equivalent has to offer.

It was also a match Angelique Kerber can draw inspiration on ahead of the final major of the season.

“That victory means a lot to me,” recalls Kerber. 

“It meant mentally I could take over a Gram Slam Champion, that I was able to focus that long and not let myself get distracted by her saving so many match points."

Seven agonising match points to be precise, it took to outmuscle Sharapova - the 2014 French Open champion who fought from the depths of her soul to stay in the game.

“It was a big mental victory, a great step. This is one of the matches you try to remember to give yourself a boost when you might be down,” Kerber tells me.  

Ahead of the US Open, the sixth seed will take every boost she can find as she comes up against a strengthening crop of female talent which includes Romanian Simona Halep and Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard.

"One of the most interesting aspects of the US Open for me will be to see whether Eugenie Bouchard can find her confidence again in a Grand Slam setting because she looks so much less of a player on the WTA tour," says tennis writer and broadcaster, Richard Evans. 

“There are a whole gang of hugely talented women players seemingly on the brink of a breakthrough.

“But for intensity, Sharapova and Kerber would be right up there as the most focused and determined competitors in women's sport, let alone tennis.”

Kerber is excited to be returning to 'the city that never sleeps' - a place where she reached her first Grand Slam semi-final in 2011.

"Everything started there for me, that’s where I started to get a significant result and see my hard work finally pay off."

"It’s the last Grand Slam of the year and the atmosphere both on site and in the city is amazing. I like the energy that New York gives you and I enjoy playing on hard court."

Another competition on the German's mind is the Fed Cup final against the Czech Republic in November. Kerber and Germany have the chance to win the tournament for the first time since 1992.

"It has been such a long time since the German team have been in a Fed Cup final, which gives even more intensity to our feelings and maybe pressure also."

"We are all really proud. It’s been an amazing experience, fighting for your country, with your friends and getting good results. It is just unbelievable."

Williams warren 

Kerber could have to draw upon her memories of that battle against Sharapova, if she comes face-to-face with another tricky customer - World Number One Serena Williams.

The players have already met this month, with Serena defeating Kerber 7-6, 6-3 to win the Stanford Classic in California. Entering the competition as favourite and with the chance of claiming three home grand slams on the bounce, the unshakable Williams has put poor performances at the French Open and Wimbledon behind her.

“She is a real complete athlete and not the World Number One for no reason,” says Kerber.

“Technically, physically and mentally, she is really, really strong. Playing against her is always a big challenge, you have to be ready and focus on yourself, trust your game and try to forget she is the one on the other side of the net.”

At her home Grand Slam, it may be easier said than done to forget the Williams presence. 

If the American legend does win another title at Flushing Meadows, she will draw level with compatriots Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert on an astonishing 18 Grand Slam titles.

“Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska (winner in Montreal) are well suited to playing on the hard court. I think Simona Halep will leave her mark at this tournament,” says Jason De La Pena, sport presenter and broadcaster at Fox Sports.

"But Serena's win in Cincinnati makes her very dangerous. For me she will win. She was personally wounded by abject performances in Paris and London - she'll win this slam." 

Once more Novak Djokovic and Williams go into a Grand Slam as familiar favourites, but Kerber is one of many who believe a major title could be just around the corner.

"I can always improve everything; my game, fitness, mental strength," said Kerber.

"But I believe in hard work and I will keep working hard every day to reach my personal goal, moving into the Top 5, winning a Grand Slam and then more titles."

Whether a Grand Slam is in Kerber's destiny remains unclear, but she is not a face any rival will want to see at the other side of that net.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Dawn of the super athlete

These days, the technique which enables Portuguese footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, to take the perfect free-kick is no longer solely dissected by football pundits but also by scientists, biomechanics and engineers. Every twitch of muscle, transference of energy and body posture is analysed by sensors and computers so that we can build a greater understanding of what it takes to make the ultimate athlete.

Designed By Jordan (JHecz) Crook For the Redbox Media Team

This article featured on the BBC World website. 

In the 1950s, the introduction of fiberglass poles saw pole-vaulters leap to new heights.

In the 1970s, the replacement of wood in tennis rackets with a combination of fibreglass and graphite saw tennis players smash former limits.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, swimmers wearing a new bodysuit sent world records tumbling.

Over the last few decades, technological advancements in sport have been moving the benchmark of human limitations. Some of them, like the examples above, are easy to understand: the poles became more flexible; the rackets helped accuracy; and the suits reduced drag – so much so that they were later banned.

But while these advances may have been game changing at the time, a new era of technology has arrived that seeks to lift the lid off the secrets to our biomechanics and help push both professional and amateur athletes to their limit.

In every sport, and at every level, companies are now supplying equipment, clothing and gadgets in a bid to revolutionise the way professionals and amateurs train, compete and recuperate.

If it wasn’t for 3D technologies, Australian skeleton racer, John Farrow, may never have competed in this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.

In 2011, whilst training, Farrow suffered a horrific knee injury which left him with a nerve paralysis condition called foot drop. After initially relying on a rigid carbon foot-brace made with friends, Farrow’s run-off times greatly improved after his doctor designed an ankle foot orthotic (ATO) based on a 3D model of his foot and leg.

“The ATO was more dynamic and gave me a fluid movement. It was comfortable and my performance improved greatly. It also allowed me to train better in sprints and at the gym in the lead up to the Games,” says Farrow, who finished 17th at his debut Games in Sochi.

Before Sochi, Farrow also underwent 3D body scanning to ensure his clothing was perfectly moulded to his body.

Although the difference clothing makes is minor, small margins increasingly matter in elite sport. And sports brands are doing everything to persuade customers that they can give them that winning edge.

One doesn't fit all

Professor of biomechanics at Brunel University, Bill Baltzopoulos, uses 3D technology specifically to map human motion and help athletes gain that split second advantage and at the same time protect them from injury. He has welcomed many sprinters, including Jamaican Olympic champion, Usain Bolt, to his lab.

“In the field of research, these 3D models tell us what factors contribute to Bolt’s performance. What makes him unique is his build and how it enables him to exert a huge force over a short period of time and maintain it.”

“Technology has advanced so much that you can measure whatever you want, but it is how you incorporate this into the athlete’s regime that’s important,” says Baltzopoulos.

Baltzopoulos and his team combine sensor technology with 3D software to measure movement in the athletes’ body against the forces that are applied to equipment, such as a treadmill.

When it comes to improving performance, Balzopoulos believes this kind of real-time feedback is vital as it allows coaches to alter a training session mid-way through to suit their athlete’s needs.

“Customisation is the key. Everyone has a different running style – from sprinters to long-distance runners. There are different stresses applied, so to be able to provide an optimal shoe [for example] you need to understand the way these people run,” he says.

David Epstein, author of the Sports Gene, agrees. “Every individual has completely inimitable biology and psychology so, for peak performance, they would need to have unique [requirements]. When we fail to understand the kind of training people with differing muscle types need, we lose them to injury.”

“There is no cookie cutter training that works for everyone, just as medical genetics has shown that there is no single medication that works the same for everyone,” says Epstein.

In recent years, a growing consumer appetite for customisation has seen sports brands embrace technology in order to creating the perfect footwear for individuals. While it is already possible to go online or into a shop to choose the colour and design of shoes, 3D modelling and printing technology is now being used to mould and shape trainers for customers to create the definitive bespoke design.

Although professional athletes have greater access to use and trial these kinds of technologies, Susan Olivier, vice president of consumer goods and retail at Dassault Systèmes, believes 3D modeling techniques will soon be readily available to the public.

“The cost and size of 3D scanning is going down dramatically. I can imagine in three to five years that before shopping we will visit a booth that scans our feet and other body parts. Then we can take the scan to our favourite sports outlet who will be able to design equipment, clothing and footwear to our specifications,” says Olivier.

Sensing change

This thirst for real-time feedback has propelled a rise in sensor technology which Olivier Ribet, vice president of the high tech industry at Dassault Systèmes, says has dramatically improved over the last two to three years and is accelerating.

It is now common for sensors to be placed in shoes and on bikes to track statistics such as distance, incline, speed and power. One recent breakthrough has seen French equipment company Babolat release a smart tennis racket, which uses sensors to give feedback on your game, including the power of shots, variety of shots and level of spin.

“The difference that sensors of this kind make to performance will probably be around 0.1%. But these margins can still be significant over a long match or race. It won’t turn a mediocre athlete into a world class one. It is more incremental than that,” says Ross Tucker, an exercise physiologist and high performance sports consultant.

Technological developments do not always originate from the sports industry itself.

Inventions created for the military, aerospace companies and Formula One are often adapted for the sports industry. When Formula One teams invent a new material, it is often used to design safer equipment and helmets for sportsmen and women.

Although technology has helped make helmets more durable, the last couple of years has seen the media highlight the dangers of playing high impact sports such as ice hockey and American Football.

In August 2013, the National Football League, paid a $765 million settlement deal to thousands of football players who claimed the league hid the truth about head injuries, such as concussion and long-term brain damage. In the hope of minimising damage, specialised helmets with real-time sensors have been developed that track knocks to the head and send alerts to a device such as a smart phone.

Nobody can predict just how much more technology will improve performance and safety.

“Some people think one day we will swallow a pill and this pill will be in our body forever and used to track health and movement," says Rimet.

“Then there are those who say we will put a patch over or even under the skin to track changes contextually and in real time. Then there is the less extreme idea that we will wear a necklace or band which will process information very quickly and tell us exactly what pressure the body is under.”

With technological developments occurring at such a rapid rate in the sports industry, it is unclear how much more they can improve our fundamental biomechanics. From the American runner, Thomas Burke’s 100 metres in 12 seconds in 1896 to Bolt’s record breaking 9.58 seconds in 2012, who knows how many more milliseconds sprinters will shave off that time another century on.

As both professional and everyday athletes race towards perfection, technology sprints alongside helping to develop devices that could push them a little bit further.

Those chasing Bolt, or on the road to recovery like Farrow, will take every advantage they can get.

Monday, 7 July 2014

How Andy Murray got us talking about women

This article featured on the Al Jazeera English website.

When Andy Murray and coach Ivan Lendl parted ways in March, the rumour mill churned into life.

Who could replace the man that had helped Murray become the first British male to win Wimbledon in 77 years.

The answer came in the form that many were not expecting: a woman.

Despite being a former Wimbledon champion herself, something Lendl never managed to achieve, Amelie Mauresmo's appointment raised a few eyebrows.

The reason was two-fold. Firstly, at the tender age of 34 Amelie had limited experience. Secondly, she was not the gender that many people expected to coach one of the world's finest tennis players.

In men's tennis women coaches are a rare breed. Other than Murray, there are only two men in the top 70 with female coaches.

Perhaps even stranger is that there is a noticeable lack of women coaches in the WTA with the top 20 women all coached by men.

While it would be easy to point the finger at a sexist attitude in tennis, the issue is far more complicated than that.

"It is hard for women to coach because there is a lot of travelling. Coaches have to be on the road for 20-40 weeks and for women with kids and family it is hard to be away," Israeli tennis player Shahar Pe'er told Al Jazeera at Wimbledon.

"When I was 12-14 I had a ladies coach but then she got pregnant and couldn't coach me anymore."

British Fed Cup coach and captain Judy Murray agrees that travelling and motherhood make it difficult for some women but believes there are other reasons for the lack of female guidance.

"There isn't a particular clear pathway for women to get to the top," Judy Murray said on the day her son Andy progressed to the third round.

"And there are financial considerations. Many players can only afford one person to travel with them so someone who can act as a hitting partner and coach suits men a lot better. Only the top players can afford big teams."

While the practicalities favour male coaches in the men's tournament Judy Murray rues the lack of women coaches on the WTA and says it would be good to have more women around.

Despite Judy and Andy blazing a new trail for women, there is little doubt the reigning Wimbledon champion wanted the best person for the job. That gender never was the issue.

This viewpoint is supported by another man who broke with tradition to appoint a woman.

"For me I just look if a coach can help," Mikhail Kukushin said after his first round victory over Dudi Sela at Wimbledon.

"I never look if that person is a man, woman, old or young. My wife has coached me for many years and we have good results together and that's why I continue it."

Can women do it?

There are those who question whether a woman can match up to a man.

Australian player Marinko Matosevic said he would never employ a female coach and did not think highly of the women's game, and former Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade mocked Murray's choice.

But Denis Istomin who is also coached by a woman, his mother, believes it can be an advantage.

"It is good being coached by my mother although she is not here for this Wimbledon. She watches on TV but even if she didn't see the match she still knows what I need to do!" Istomin said jokingly after his first round victory.

"It's not easy to say but women are smarter than men in some ways. Mauresmo could have some good advice and it may be a great decision. Andy was also coached by his mother so he knows how it works."

Judy Murray can find no reason why women cannot coach men.

"I've worked with girls and boys and most of my successes have been with boys, maybe because I had boys of my own. It is about dealing with who is in front of you and getting to know their personality."

After coaching Andy and Jamie Murray - who is competing in the doubles at Wimbledon - few would argue about her ability to coach boys. But what about men?

Gender bias

While travelling demands and maternal responsibilities are reasons for fewer female coaches reaching the top levels, it is unclear why former champions such as Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean-King aren't being snapped up.

Especially as there is a growing trend to bring former champions into the coaching set-up, as Roger Federer's appointment of Stefan Edberg and Novak Djokovic's recent partnership with Boris Becker has shown.

Is there still a conservative culture in tennis which would prefer the status quo?

"In tennis it is more difficult to put women in than other sports, even football," says Istomin.

"It is not easy to put a woman into a group of men because they cannot talk about some parts of their life with her. It is not that women cannot give advice to men - they can - but men feel like they cannot be the same team. I think this is the main point.

"In football the women coaches can coach women teams but in tennis it is not easy. Maybe one day when people change and everyone is closer to each other, it will be more equal."