Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Sensing Brentford's Good Vibrations


Forward Lasse Vibe scored his first goal for Brentford during their 3-1 defeat to Reading. Here he talks to Bees Review about joining fellow Dane Andreas Bjelland at the West London club. 

“My family always had a great interest in sport,” said Vibe. “My mum and dad played football and at one point all five of us were playing handball, which is very popular in Denmark.”

While the 28-year-old and his two sporty siblings played football and handball to a good standard, for Lasse, football came out on top.

“When you see handball on TV the smallest guy is almost two metres,” said Lasse.

“You have to be big to make it to the highest level, but really I’ve always liked football more and that’s just how it was.”

Fortunately for Lasse, football has always liked him back. The forward attracted a number of suitors after netting 29 goals for Swedish club Goteborg last season. However, it was Brentford who got their guy.

“It’s not often that you get to choose,” said Lasse. “You have to go with your guts but with this club, in this league, and in this country, it was an easy decision. Definitely the easiest one I have made over the last few years. There wasn’t much to think about.”

The Dane considers England the home of football.

“When I grew up there was one game on TV each week and that was a Premier League match,” said Lasse.

“For me, football comes from here. I grew up watching Peter Schmeichel at Manchester United and that triggered an interest in English football. Watching the partnership between Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole was a big thing for me, and the relationship they had with Giggs and Beckham.”

Leaving Goteborg part way through Europa League qualification was tough, says Vibe, but it was time for him to go.

“To arrive at Brentford personally feels great,” said Lasse. “This is the next step – a new country, new league. My priority is to settle down here and relax so that I can show the best part of myself on the pitch and adapt to a new style.” 

Sporting a medium build, Vibe is confident he will succeed in the Sky Bet Championship and that his other skills compensate for any lack of strength.

“The last couple of years have seen more technical players arrive in England, like Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas,” said Lasse. 

“People said it wouldn’t work, he’s too small, thin. But it has worked, and that has made a big impression on me. I understand the physical aspect of this league but I want to play my own style of fast, technical football. Players like Jota came through last year and did very well. The Championship is changing and I’m quite fast so that’s an advantage I can use.” 

With a host of new signings arriving at Jersey Road, Vibe has fitted in well despite being one of the later arrivals.

“I am enjoying it,” said Lasse. “There’s a good mix, couple of Germans, an Austrian, some French players, Andreas Bjelland and I from Denmark. Obviously it helps having somebody you know from the national team – and we played each other in the Danish league.

"Andreas is a great guy and it’s good to have someone to talk to about your country and things that are going on back there. That’s been helping me a lot to settle in.”

Vibe is also impressed at how the British players have reacted to numerous changes over the summer.

“The British players are really open-minded,” said Lasse. “It is not like we have a separation between the Brits and the foreigners. That’s not how I feel – it’s been easy.”

Another European arrival has been Head Coach Marinus Dijkhuizen. How has Vibe found life so far under the Dutchman?

“Marinus is open to new ideas and likes to involve us as a group,” said Lasse. “I believe this is not that common in England where you usually have a manager to tell you to do that and you do it. I like him and think he’s a good coach. Hopefully we will have a lot of success.”

A lot of success is just what Bees fans are after, and the Dane is looking forward to experiencing the Brentford faithful.

“Goteburg had a great fan base,” said Lasse. “The Swedish culture is good but it is different to the one in Britain. In Sweden they sing through the whole game, whereas the English fans pay attention to what actually happens in the game.

“If we get a throw in at Griffin Park the Brentford fans will cheer whereas in Goteburg they won’t see it as they were too busy trying to get people in different corners to sing. Both are good in their own ways but English fans can turn a game around at any second. We can get a corner and the fans will go crazy, this builds our confidence and helps turn it into a goal.” 

Currently studying a Master thesis in Finance and Accounting at Copenhagen Business School, and with perfect English, Lasse has a brain to match his boot skills.

“My studies have taken me eight years because I have been playing football,” said Lasse. “It is good to be able to do something on the side.”

Whether playing as an attacking winger or out-and-out striker, Vibe’s current focus is becoming a key member of an evolving Brentford side and to score goals.

“The number of goals I score will depend on my position,” said Lasse. 

“But it is important to contribute plenty of goals and assists. I have very high expectations and put a lot of pressure on myself. Brentford is a club on an upwards curve and I wanted to jump on a curve – and follow it. I am very happy to be here.”

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Ready to duel for the Bees


The word duel pops up frequently when talking to Andreas Bjelland.

Joining Brentford on a three-year contract, the Danish international is looking forward to the physical challenge of the Sky Bet Championship.

And the good news for Brentford fans is that when it comes to a duel, Bjelland is used to winning.  

At former Dutch club FC Twente, the centre-back had the best tackle success rate of defenders with more than 25 games in the Eredivisie (91%).  Dominating aerial challenges too – it is understandable why Brentford brought the Dane to Griffin Park.

“I did see some statistics on myself from Brentford: duels, passes forward, technical ability - and they looked okay,” says Bjelland modestly after a pre-season training session.

“You cannot build everything on statistics because that’s not how the world works but you can definitely use them as part of scouting and getting the right players in.”

While Brentford were impressed by the 26-year old with 21 caps for Denmark, Bjelland was equally impressed by the Premier League ambitions of the West London side.

“I didn’t know much about the Championship but I spoke to Head Coach Marinus Dijkhuizen and owner Matthew Benham about the project and what they wanted to do with the Club,” said Andreas. “I wanted to be part of this project and hopefully have a big role.”

The lure of playing in England - and one day the Premier League - certainly had a big effect on the player who began his career in his homeland with Lyngby.

“England is the best place in the world to play football; the Premier League is the best league in the world, and for me to achieve that level would be amazing,” said Bjelland.

“With the new staff, coach and stadium – Brentford is moving forward. Of course things can take time with a new group but we have the talent to reach our goal - getting into the Premier League, whether it is this year or next year.” 

For Bjelland, and Brentford’s other signings, the first month is usually a time to work out where they fit in.

“The first thing I need to do is to find my role and develop from there,” said Andreas. “I have age on some, so I hope I can share experience with the younger players. I love playing football and I take my duels.”

The Dane is looking to add more accolades to his already impressive national and Club achievements.

"There are two moments in my career that stand out for me so far," says Andreas. "Firstly, when FC Nordsjaelland won the Championship in Denmark three years ago. It was a massive thing for the small club that I was playing with at the time. And just before that qualifying for the European Championship. We played against Portugal in the home arena in Copenhagen which was full. We won 2-1 and it was unbelievable."

Bjelland met his Brentford team mates for the first time during pre-season in Portugal – however, it was a special day for another reason. 

“My first day with everyone was my birthday,” said Andreas. “I didn’t tell anyone. It was our day off and we went go-karting and out of dinner. I was third place in the go-karting so was happy with that.”  

“Then the next day I had to sing; it is a tradition that the new players sing a song. I told everybody then and they started singing happy birthday. I sang the Danish national anthem as that was easy as nobody understood it.”

It is almost a given that Bjelland will prefer playing in front of the Griffin Park faithful to singing for his teammates.

“I spoke to some Danish guys about going to the Championship and Griffin Park,” said Andreas. “You come from a brand new stadium in Holland and then you walk into Griffin Park. The Danish players I spoke to said the atmosphere was amazing as the crowd are so close to the pitch.”

“It sounded really special so I am looking forward to my first game to feel this.

“There is more passion over here – it is more important to more people than it is in Holland – that is nothing against Dutch fans, there are just more English football fans.”

With a host of summer signings joining the core players from the 2014/15 season, Brentford have strength and depth in all areas of the pitch. So have any players in particular stood out for Bjelland?

“I like the aggression and speed of full-back Moses [Odubajo],” said Andreas. “It is always impressive. I saw that in games I watched last season. The technical skills of Jota are really, really good.”

“Josh McEachran is a good technical player and I know him a bit from Holland. It is always interesting to get new players in.”

With two Brits, two Danes, two Germans, one French and an Austrian joining The Bees there is certainly a European-friendly culture being established. Does Bjelland think this can add something to the side?

“It could do,” said Andreas. “Every country has their own style and if we combine the best of them hopefully we can all benefit from it.”

“Marinus wants to do things a little bit the Dutch way but combine the technical aspect in Holland with the more physical duels over here. It’s interesting to mix these two playing arts.”

So with all those nationalities mixing during training, which accent stands out from the crowd?

“The Irish - definitely the Irish,” said Andreas. “The Irish guys are the loudest and I like that. There has to be people who make jokes. I haven’t been here that long but the Irish are the loud ones.”

Bjelland says he is known for cracking a joke or two in the changing room, but when the Dane takes to the pitch for his first Brentford match – the focus will be on his next duel.

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 and some women are insulted to be considered a certain way because of our sex. 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. Perhaps the only thing they’ve done in the kitchen is taken a whizz in the sink.

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 and men are treated equally – we need to be vigilant.

In sport, where women particularly struggle to be taken seriously – we must add an extra coat of vigilance.

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.

Friday, 15 May 2015

O’Connell returns to find Brentford buzzing


May 8th 2015 - published in Bees Review 

Jack O’Connell could not have been recalled into the Brentford squad at a more exciting time.

After a loan spell at Rochdale following his move to Griffin Park from Blackburn Rovers, Mark Warburton has brought the defender back into the fold to boost a side pushing for a Wembley Play-Off Final.

O'Connell has not made a First Team appearance for the Bees yet but he is happy to be part of the final act of the season.

"Since the Wigan match, it has been unbelievable and there is a great feeling around the place," Jack told me.

"Everyone is really sharp and fit. It is a hard one because you want to celebrate but there is nothing to celebrate yet; we haven’t achieved what we want to achieve. But hopefully we will be celebrating in a couple of weeks."

The dream of being in the Premier League has certainly lost its blurry edges for Brentford and its fans.

Brilliant performances over the season and a Play-Off place means a Premier League spot is now grounded in reality. And Brentford may gain the advantage of having a slightly lighter step on the pitch – one not weighed down by expectation or demand.

"We are a threat because we do not have too much to lose," said Jack. "I was in a similar situation with Rochdale when we weren’t expected to go up and had less pressure on us; I think it is the same here.

"We got promoted last season so no one is demanding us to go up - except ourselves."

Jack is very clear on the reason why Warbuton’s team has done so well.

"It is definitely the team spirit. It is the spirit which has got us into this position. Every time we are at training we are sharp and everyone wants to win. It is very competitive."

"I noticed it straight away when I arrived. There is usually a good team spirit at clubs but I think it is different here – there’s a lot. And you can tell by the way we’ve been performing on Saturdays.

"The players are all different but at Brentford we are in it together and want to play as a team, not just for ourselves," said O'Connell, who celebrated his 21st birthday in March.

His youth does not make him special amongst Warburton’s young guns.

Spaniard Jon Toral is 20, Moses Odubajo is 21 and Jake Bidwell, Alex Pritchard and James Tarkowski are a year older than O’Connell at 22. In fact, the majority of the Brentford starting line-up are under the age of 25.

"I think the young squad may be a factor to our success. We are all hungry."

"It is not full of old experienced players who want to stay around the game. We do have a few experienced lads in there and they help us along. Whatever the age we are all fit – the staff have got us all at a very good fitness level."

Although O’Connell’s age is not unusual – the age of his discovery is.

"I didn’t actually get picked up until I was 17. I went to sixth-form in Liverpool, and Blackburn Rovers saw me when I was playing in my sixth-form team.

"I only joined Blackburn when I was 17 which was pretty late because players usually start their scholarship when they are 16.

"I always thought I was good enough. I lived in Spain when I was a kid for four years so when I came back I was trying to catch up with everyone because in Spain it’s not as physical as over here."

During four years at Blackburn, O’Connell had loan spells at Rotherham United, York City and Rochdale before signing for The Bees.

"I wasn’t really getting the opportunity there so thought it was time to move on," said Jack.

"When Brentford said they were interested I thought it was the right thing to do. I didn’t know the gaffer was going to leave but he was a big factor too."

When Blackburn hosted Ipswich Town in the last game of the season, it was time to call upon old friends.

"I know a young lad Darragh Lenihan and the Spanish keeper David Raya - so I text them before the match asking if they could do us a favour and they did in the end as well.

"Although we got through due to the Derby County result, they did text me back saying they did what I asked."

In footballing terms, the May bank holiday weekend was a great success for O’Connell and those close to him.

The day after Brentford’s victory, his girlfriend [England Ladies International Alex Greenwood] reached the FA Cup Final with Notts County.

"It is the first time the Women’s FA Cup Final is being held at Wembley so I guess there is a chance that we will both be playing there. But we have to beat Middlesbrough first."

O’Connell is also confident that Alex will play a role in the England team that Mark Sampson takes to the Summer World Cup in Canada.

"I am sure she will make the squad. She has been training with England all season so it is more than likely.

"We didn’t meet each other through football; we met when we were at sixth-form.

"She played for Everton before Notts County and she was part-time so studying as well. Now she is full-time with Notts County."

What is a relationship like when both partners play professional football - is it balls, balls and more balls?

"No - we talk about each other’s football but we don’t talk about football in general much. She still loves girly stuff. We do go to the gym a lot though."

Jack has also experienced playing for England in the Under-18 and Under-19 sides.

"Being part of the England setup has definitely helped my development, especially considering the way that Brentford play football now."

"It is a lot more keep the ball, play off the back and that’s how they play at international level too so it has kept me in good stead."

Playing with England has meant O’Connell has played alongside some of the country’s top talent.

"John Stones is one of the best players I have ever played with – he has done well. So has Callum Chambers of Arsenal. But Stonesy is up there – he has done really well to get a place on the England first team at 20."

But when it comes to his favourite player of all time – there is only one man for the man from Liverpool.

"Steven Gerrard. I loved him as a kid and I still love him now. I will probably buy an LA Galaxy shirt when he goes there."

O’Connell also has a lot of admiration for Rochdale manager Keith Hill and has fond things to say about his three spells at the club.

"The highlight of my career so far was gaining promotion with Rochdale. I scored my first goal for Rochdale this season and made 100 appearances for the club.

"Hill is one of the best coaches I have worked with but from what I have seen Warbuton is a great coach too. And if Brentford can achieve promotion it will be because the players are playing for the manager as well as themselves.

"Rochdale finished eighth in the end which was a big achievement as they have a small budget so they did well just to stay up."

A club that has a much larger budget than Rochdale is Middlesbrough.

On the receiving end of a 4-0 drubbing at the Riverside, and a 1-0 loss at Griffin Park, it is unlikely to be easy for The Bees against Aitor Karanka’s men.

"Middlesbrough are a good team and they have good players. I’ve played against some of their players before, Patrick Bamford when he was at Chelsea playing for the Under-21s."

"It should be a tough game but I think we can do it."



Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Jota and a case of Déjà vu


April 6th 2015 - published in Bees Review 

It has been an interesting couple of seasons for Jose Ignacio Peleteiro Ramallo, more formally known as Jota to Brentford fans. Before moving to Brentford in the summer on a three-year contract, the Spaniard was a crucial part of the Eibar team who were promoted to La Liga.

On loan from Celta de Vigo, Jota scored 13 goals in all competitions for the Spanish side and the goal that sent Eibar into the top flight for the first time in their history. A season later, Jota finds himself in a similar position with Brentford who are still in a good position to reach the top flight for the first time in 68 years.

However, the similarities between the clubs do not end there.

“There are loads of similarities between last season and this season. Both teams had got promoted from the league below and at the beginning of the season no one thought they would be fighting for promotion,” Jota told me.

“Last season Eibar finished winning the league and no one expected it and we are fighting for a play-off place and no one predicted that either.”

Although it is tempting to get carried away with the thought that maybe it could happen again to Jota with Brentford, there is still a lengthy battle ahead for the Bees with eight teams fighting for those precious three places. Despite the top clubs regularly dropping points throughout the season, Brentford have been in and out of the playoff zone and nothing is being taken for granted.

What Brentford fans can get excited about is the way Jota’s performances have been improving and the fact that the Spaniard is settling down very well into Championship football. It has been a gradual integration process and not one that clicked straight away. In November, Jota said that fans had only seen him at 60% of his best, however, after scoring important goals against Fulham, Norwich and Blackburn, it is likely he would reassess this percentage now.

“Yes, it is higher. I am happy with my first season at the club because I have been playing a lot and I am enjoying my football. It was hard to adapt at the beginning to everything and a new language but now I have scored a few goals and I am happy with my season so far.”

Considering Jota had the opportunity of playing alongside players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in La Liga, it is worth asking about his decision to move to Championship side Brentford.

“I moved here because I like English football a lot. One day I want to play in the Premier League and hopefully in the next few years I will be there. I very much see my future playing in England.”

“I support Manchester United in the Premier League. When I was little I used to watch United with the David Beckham team, which included Sebastian Veron, Paul Scholes, Ruud van Nistelrooy.  I liked these players a lot when I was young and they inspired me.”

With ten goals already this season and an ability to keep the ball seemingly stuck to his feet at all times, Jota is proving an inspirational figure in West London and becoming one of the most popular players amongst the fans.

Before the Benham era, Brentford had not always been known for its foreign acquisitions but promotion to the Championship is making the club more attractive to top talent from overseas.

This was shown when Mark Warburton signed three Spaniards over the last summer break with Jota joining Jon Toral (on loan from Arsenal) and Marcos Tebar (signed from Almeria). It is fair to say a rich Spanish vein now runs through the club and that since the summer the Spanish players have integrated well with the squad.

With an extensive overseas scouting network, it is possible Brentford owner Matthew Benham (a keen follower of La Liga), will be seeking more inspiration from Spanish talent in the future.

“In the Championship, Brentford is the team which has the most Spanish style of play. We want to play the ball whereas other teams have a more traditional English style of play – long balls and fighting for it.”

Whereas the style of play may not be totally different, the attacking midfielder has noticed that the fans are different from the ones back in Spain.

“Spanish fans are not always that patient, especially when their team is not doing very well. But it is the opposite here.”

“Even if we lose or are not playing well, the fans here are always supportive and help you to get better and fight back into the game. There have been many examples when we have got late goals and the fans can take some credit."

It has not been easy for Jota to leave Spain especially as his girlfriend, and her child, still live there. However, he has been greatly comforted by the friendship of his two Spanish amigos Tebar and Toral.

When asked if he spends a lot of time with the other Spanish players, he says, “We spend a lot of time together. Maybe too much! We are like a little family.”

Jota has clearly bonded with his teammates but how does he find it playing in an English system under Mark Warbuton and his coaching team.

“I have been helped a lot by all the staff and Mark. The manager has done very well in the past by getting promotion to the Championship but the team are now focused on the next step. I think Mark and his team are doing a very good job.”

In close proximity to London Premier League sides Chelsea and QPR, Brentford’s leap to the Championship means the Bees are slowly buzzing out of the big shadows cast by their neighbours. Benham is building a club recognised for its football ability and grand ambitions for the future – especially with a new stadium on the way. But when Brentford first expressed an interest in the Spaniard, it is understandable that he didn’t know too much about the team.

“No I did not know about Brentford. Obviously in Spain people know more about the big Premier League teams so Brentford was not that well known. I didn’t know too much but when I came to talk about signing I found out a lot more information and got my homework done.”

It was a leap of faith for the player – a leap that was helped by that fact Jota was looking for an adventure and was reassured by the words of Warbuton and Benham on the type of football the team would be playing.

“It was not easy to come out in December and January to train every morning and I found that very hard… and cold. But it is easier to deal with now. I also played for Eibar and another similarity between the clubs is that the weather is not too sunny, so it’s not so different.”

Jota will use the Eibar story to help inspire him over the last few weeks of the season. It is still possible he can achieve back-to-back promotions with teams who were not given a chance before the first fixture of the season.

It is an exciting time to be Jota, and a Brentford fan, although all should probably prepare for a bumpy ride.

At least we have the Spaniard on board to steady the ship, and hopefully provide us with one of those trademark long-range finishes at just the right moment.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Alex Pritchard: Is the best yet to come?


March 21st 2015 - published in Bees Review 

Brentford FC have made some great loan signings over the years. The Bees promotion to League One following the 2008/2009 season was boosted by nine goals scored by Jordan Rhodes, on loan from Ipswich Town. Rhodes was only 18 at the time but he isn’t the only youngster to make an impression at Griffin Park.

A year later, Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny showed his quality between the sticks with some phenomenal performances which helped Brentford finish 9th after tailing off at the end of the season. Last year, Marcello Trotta played his part in helping Brentford gain promotion as did Alan Judge who arrived with a bang from Blackburn. However, this season there is another young player who is challenging for the position of the best loanee in Brentford’s recent history – and that is Tottenham’s Alex Pritchard.

Since his arrival in West London, Pritchard has been one of the most important players in Mark Warbuton’s side. His statistics say it all with eight goals so far this season and the second highest number of assists, six to Judge’s eight. But those who have been watching Pritchard play will also respect the maturity and composure he has shown at the age of 21.

Warbuton is clearly a big fan of the youngster and said in a recent interview that Pritchard was ‘nailed on’ to be a Premier League player. Pritchard is taking one step at a time but understands his form at Brentford could see him follow in the footsteps of other young talent from Spurs academy such as Ryan Mason and Harry Kane.

“At the start of the season I was just working my way into playing Championship football but as the season has gone on – and with the team playing so well – my performances are getting better and better,” says Pritchard.

“A new challenge for me is to play Premier League football. Hopefully that will be the case next season.”

It is understandable that Pritchard has the Premier League on his mind, whether this is the thought of playing for Spurs or helping to achieve promotion to the top flight with Brentford.

“With eight games remaining, the main thing for the team is to get into the Premier League. At the beginning of the season everyone was writing us off but now you look at how we are playing and how good the team is together, and how everyone is involved, it’s brilliant. However, there is still a long way to go until the end.”

“The reason we have been so consistent is that there is a really good spirit in training. Everyone has bonded really well and on match days we stick together even when we are losing and not getting the right results.”

Pritchard is certainly enjoying playing under Warbuton and is happy with his decision to embark on a Championship journey with the Bees.

“It has been brilliant playing here. I feel no pressure and I feel free to express myself how I want. I do things that other managers wouldn’t necessarily let me do. You can run with the ball and dribble and if you lose it nobody is going to moan at you.”

It is hard to talk to a Brentford player without mentioning the Club’s decision to part with Warbuton at the end of the season. A clash of philosophies was the reason why it was no longer possible for Warbuton to continue his role under Brentford owner Matthew Benham.

“We went through a bit of a blip and it wasn’t the best time. But the boys know what has gone on now and that the main priority is to get into the Premier League.”

As one of the most regular players in the starting line-up, Pritchard has little complaints when it comes to time on the pitch. He is the third most utilised Brentford player after goalkeeper David Button and centre midfielder Jonathan Douglas. However, the influx of talent into the side has meant that there are players who are less happy about the status quo.

“It is always difficult when a team is doing so well and players are not getting into the team but us players have to stick together. It is not just about the starting 11, when players are not playing they are still around and helping us. It is about having a strong squad – and that’s why we have been so good.”

With the battle at the top of the Championship as tight as it has been for many years, Pritchard is confident Brentford will be in the mix at the end of the season. In fact, he thinks that the top spot is not out of reach – especially with all the top teams regularly dropping points. Brentford are still only seven points off automatic promotion although the battle for play-off places is fierce.

“Yes we can win it! But there are eight of us pushing for those top spots – and any eight of those teams are in with a chance. We have played some very good teams this season – the ones which stand out for me are Middlesborough, who are very well organized, and also Watford were very good.”

With only four losses at home this season, playing at Griffin Park has not been a problem for Pritchard and his team-mates.

“The support has been key and it is like we have an extra man at home. Our home form says it all – we have been excellent. And at away matches, our supporters’ numbers have been growing throughout the season. The fans have been great this year and have helped us fight until the very end.”

Pritchard is not just a breath of fresh air for Brentford, but also for the fact that he is an English talent who looks like he is going to make it to the very top.

Tottenham’s academy is on a roll at the moment, producing a number of homegrown players. We all know about Harry Kane – but Spurs also field academy players Ryan Mason and Andros Townsend. In a Premier League dominated by foreign acquisitions, Tottenham are making a bold move to distance themselves from the status quo and invest in talent a little nearer to their doorstep.  So why have they been so successful in doing this?

“They are giving English talent a chance. There is some very good English talent out there and I see the boys coming through now and they are there because they have been given a chance – and they are taking it! I think that is one of the main things – not holding them back.”

“I played with Mason last year at Swindon – and he has just been given a chance and he is not going to let that go now. Tottenham have shown that if you stay with them, they will open the door.”

Pritchard is almost certain to leave Griffin Park at the end of the season but he realises this might be harder to do than he first imagined when he arrived at the start of the season.

With a new stadium on the horizon and an owner heavily investing in the future, isn’t Brentford a club that very few players want to leave?

“We are doing so well that nobody wants to leave Brentford at the moment but you never know what is going to happen. We don’t know what is going to happen over the summer but the way things are going there will be very few people wanting to leave this club.”

Brentford will be sorry to see him go but Pritchard has already become a loanee signing that fans will not forget. Whether he is to become our greatest of all time very much depends on the next few weeks.

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

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."

Friday, 20 June 2014

English players need to leave the country, for the country


Are there too many foreigners in the Premier League?

This is an argument we have heard for the last few years. How can our players develop when there are foreigners blocking their path at every turn. How can they learn to play with each other, when there’s always a Silva or Van Persie screaming for the ball next to them. When they are the only English player on the pitch.

Yes there are too many foreigners in the Premier League.

But there are also too few English players who dare to leave it.

Every single player in the England squad plies their trade in their home nation (this is, with only small doubt, the only nation in the World Cup where this is the case).

Maybe we need to question whether these homebodies should spread their wings and get out into the world – if our national side is to develop. To win.

England players don’t tend to play overseas, unless they are super good like Gareth Bale or super old like Beckham. They never leave home – or the comfort and fortune of the Premier League. And perhaps they are missing out on something – personal growth, knowledge of another country and their training techniques, youth system, learning a new language. But most important of all - being a little bit uncomfortable from time to time.

Travelling makes you grow, makes you stronger, opens your eyes – makes you realise that the English way is not the only way. And that you are not as good as you think you are. Gazza went to Lazio, Lineker went to Barcelona – two of our best English players dared to escape, to learn, to consider a different way.

Yes I know that the Premier League has its fair share of foreign influences now. Boy oh boy does it. It has foreign managers and coaches in abundance. But is this really the same as working in a different country, travelling out of your comfort zone and escaping the macho-anarchic institution of the Football Association.

Over this World Cup, we have seen as much criticism directed at the TV pundits than towards the players.

Quite rightly in my book, as I have been more impressed with the players. But is it any wonder that the pundits lack the insight or personality of foreigners like Thierry Henry – players that have, yes, left the country. Explored the world.

The problems for English football are complicated, but a major issue is we believe that if you played football once upon a time, you can do anything in football. You can manage, coach and commentate. The sad fact is this is not true.

Maybe if English football is to develop we must take a risk on coaches and pundits who have never kicked a darn ball in their life. Or on players who have at least escaped the clinical and outdated English system and can think outside the box.

Wayne Rooney go to PSG, Daniel Sturridge go to Milan, Joe Hart - taste the tapas – then come back and tell everyone all about it. Open your eyes to new coaching setups so you can return and refresh our tired coaching system. It will at least mean you can bounce onto the BBC couch with a few interesting tales to tell.

Immerse yourself into a different culture – so you can build the backbone of Luis Suarez. A player who has battled almost everyone in England and still managed to come out on top. A player who might not have developed into a football freak if he had never left Uruguay.

Yes there are too many foreign players in the Premier League.

But there are also too few English players who dare to leave it.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Marathon: Not always the final frontier

Regular folk are hot on heels of the pros when it comes to pushing limits

On Sunday 21st April 2013, Emma Caldicott and best friend Lucy watched and cheered exhausted runners around the London Marathon course.

Inspired by the occasion, Emma let the idea of competing race through her mind – despite the fact that, in her own words, ‘she couldn’t run.’

On the same day, a man born to run, Mo Farah bowed out at the half-way point – as part of his preparation for the 2014 race. Despite being advised to stick to track events, Farah, like Emma, could not resist the temptations of the London Marathon.

A year later, united as beginners, Emma and Mo were among 36,000 people competing in the 34th London Marathon.

Experts struggled to predict how Farah - the Olympic reigning champion at 5,000 and 10,000m - would deal with a 42,194m race around the streets of London.

On Sunday, it was the Kenyans who dominated with marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang and Edna Kiplagat setting new course records under a cloudless sky. Crowd favourite Farah came home in eight position with a time of 2.08.2.

“For an athlete who is sixth fastest all time at 1500m to complete his first marathon in under 2 hours 10 minutes is quite astonishing," Alan Watkinson, the PE teacher who introduced Mo Farah to running while he was at school in West London, told me.

"With what he has achieved over the last few years there are some that will consider this a failure but it is far from it.”

Although Emma’s run did not generate the same level of coverage as Farah’s, her success was just as emphatic.

“A year ago I could only run for a few minutes on a treadmill," 25-year old Emma told Al Jazeera.

"But there were some people at work applying for the ballot and they told me to apply as nobody gets on… Well apparently people do get on.”

Running on time?

Crossing the finishing line over three hours after Mo, Emma finished the 26 mile marathon in 5 hours 11 minutes.

“I can’t put into words how amazing it was. I would recommend anyone to do it if they want a challenge – as long as you do the training,” says Emma, who has raised close to $2000 for the mental health awareness charity Mind.

There are many stories of triumph like Emma’s. But for others, crossing the finishing line does not always guarantee jubilation. Racing the clock is no longer the preserve of Mo and his fellow pros.

“I am happy I got through it but a bit disappointed I was 10 minutes behind the 4 hours 30 minutes goal,” says 31-year old Wesleigh Pancho, a keen tennis player and runner who has competed in half marathons. “I am already planning how I’ll go faster next time."

While the London Marathon is an occasion to celebrate human endurance, it can end in tragedy.

This year 42-year-old Robert Berry died after crossing the finishing line. His death - the 12th fatality in the race’s history – comes two years after Claire Squires died just a mile from the finishing line.

The risks (albeit small) are doing little to discourage runners from pushing themselves to the limit. In fact, the marathon is just a kick-off point for many.

“I’ve read ‘Born to Run’ three times and my goal will be to run an Ultra Marathon at some point. It is in our DNA to run long distances. There is a 62 mile run from London to Brighton I want to do next year,” says Wesleigh.

Having run the London marathon seven times and with a remarkable personable best of 2:33.50, Alex Gibbins has spent his running career getting the marathon distance perfect.

“I think a lot of ultra-marathon runners like the challenge of distance as opposed to the challenge of trying to run faster – in my view it’s a lot harder to run a 2.30 marathon than just jog round a 50/60/70 mile run,” says 37-year old Alex, who has represented England twice at Masters International Cross Country.

Neigh limit

With triathlons, ultra marathons, ice marathons, desert marathons in vogue, more and more normal beings are embarking on superhuman feats. Is there a danger some runners are pushing themselves too far?

“Ultra-marathons can be very damaging but some people thrive on them. The most important thing is to get a medical check-up, prepare as thoroughly as possible and to maintain a realistic intensity within your capabilities,” says Watkinson, Farah’s former mentor and close friend.

And when outrunning other humans loses its allure, there’s always the temptation to battle a horse.

The man versus horse marathon sees runners race against riders on horseback over 22 miles. It takes place annually in Wales and has been running since 1980 after a pub landlord overheard a discussion of whether a man or horse is faster across country.

“I did run the famous Man v Horse race in 2012 – I’d read about it over the years and always wanted to give it a go just for fun – it’s a very unique event,” Alex tells me.

For Emma, one marathon against humans is probably enough, but the buzz of achieving something she thought impossible a year ago, means she will not be intimidated to try another challenge.

“It is funny what your body can be resilient to – you hear these stories of people running six marathons in seven days. I don’t know how people do that.”

And for those who think they should have gone faster, longer, harder, Alan offers these words of advice. (Words Farah has probably heard once or twice before...)

“The twin imposters line from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ is often quoted in reference to sport. ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.’”

“I would say either take great satisfaction in your efforts or prepare as thoroughly as you can for another shot at it next year.”

There will be many already planning a strategy. To defeat their ultimate rival, themselves.

To donate to Robert Berry’s Just Giving page for the National Osteoporosis Society click here:http://www.justgiving.com/Rob-Berry-uk