Posts filed under 'sport'

Winners and losers

Add comment May 23rd, 2012

The last couple of weeks has been pretty interesting in the football world. Manchester City beat Manchester United to the English Premier title by goal difference. Chelsea won the misnamed European Champions League in a year they were least expected to. The two Edinburgh clubs contested the Scottish Cup final, while Rangers stagger from crisis to crisis. And Liverpool sacked Kenny Dalglish.

While most people seem to think the most important of these for football is Manchester City, and it could be argued that the eventual fate of Rangers could have major repercussions for the Scottish game, I feel the most significant change lies at Liverpool.

Dalglish has been a legend there for longer than most of their supporters have been alive, not only for his exceptional contributions as a player and manager on the field, and not only for his loyalty when he could have gone to any club in Europe, but even more so because he has earned the respect and love of everyone in the city for his exceptional conduct through the most traumatic and tragic times. Attending countless funerals and being the personal face of the club to bereaved families. It was a task that eventually took a great toll on him and caused him to leave football for a while.

But it’s not just that the American owners have sacked a legend – they’ve also severed the old “bootroom” connection, probably forever. It was from Shankly’s time and through Bob Paisley’s golden period the embodiment of the continuity and support that created stability and an orderly transition through managers and eras . It was that loss during the Gillett and Hicks era that many believe caused Liverpool’s decline and it seemed that Dalglish, with his old school sense of values and tradition might be able to bring it back.

Without it, and without the sense of connection to the fans that Dalglish also embodied, it seems likely that Liverpool will join the trend towards football as simply a TV commodity and business opportunity, with no loyalties amongst either players, managers or owners, and the fans taken for granted or for a financial ride. For a club and a community like Liverpool that would be a tragedy.

End of an Awful Season – and Goodbye to a Legend

Add comment March 17th, 2012

Scotland’s rugby season has just ended with an appallingly inept performance against Italy which consigned us to a whitewash and left the overall structure of the team even less certain than it was at the beginning. The lineout, which had been a strength even in defeat earlier in the season, was a shambles with Ford overthrowing horribly and the preparation seemingly confused and giving Italy easy targets. Generally there was a lack of urgency and a lack of leadership and awareness – in the second half with an Italian down injured why was Denton not told to spread the ball from his mark rather than passing it back for a kick?

Yet we’ve had two of the standout forwards of the season in Ritchie Gray and David Denton, the back-row in general has been a good-looking unit, Mike Blair has looked much more like his old self and we have an exciting new full-back in Hogg. So what has gone wrong? Admittedly the match against England was a horror story for Dan Parks and caused his retirement – we should have won that easily but couldn’t cross the line. With Jackson still recovering his form after injury that pitched in Laidlaw, who has done quite well but his small stature has been occasionally exposed in tackle situations. The bad injury to Rory Lamont both removed a strong player and disrupted the momentum in the game it occurred and evoked bad memories of the injury which finished Thom Evan’s career – we do seem to have been unlucky with injury in this way.

Given the platform that the forwards produced early in the season we should have had a better functioning back division. There seems to be a lack of direction and pace about the backs in set-piece attacks which suggests lack of belief – the defence always seems to have the command of the situation and is never under pressure, while the attackers always seem to be looking to see what to do instead of running fast first and then reacting to the gaps that open because of it. There also seems to be a reluctance to engage in broken play attacks which we used to be so good at exploiting. To me the responsibility for this has to rest with the backs coach Gregor Townsend – never a favourite of mine during his playing career – though Andy Robinson will undoubtedly come under pressure too given his 3/11 record. If the rumours of Townsend going to Glasgow to replace Sean Lineen are true then we may see some difference there next year depending on who is appointed.

Mervyn Davies

Sad to see the death from cancer of Mervyn Davies. Watching rugby as a youngster he was one of those player you couldn’t help but admire even when he was hammering your own country. A big man for his time he was a fine link between forwards and backs, and his ability to poach ball from the back of the lineout with a seemingly telescopic reach remains in the mind’s eye. But not just as a wonderful player but as a leader, who led by example and a quiet word here and there, is how he will be remembered. His presence had much to do with the two most successful Lions tours ever. In an era of incomparable stars – Barry John, Gerald Davies, Gareth Edwards, JPR, Phil Bennett, JJ Williams, most of them glamorous backs, he was a forward who everyone knew and everyone respected. He will be much missed.

Chris Paterson MBE

Add comment December 31st, 2011

One of Scotland’s longest serving and best rugby stars announced his retirement from international play a few days ago and in today’s New Year Honours list was awarded a much deserved MBE.

After the World Cup I said I hoped that he would carry on playing for another year but it seems he’s decided that he wants to go out at the top, and maybe the current hip injury that is preventing him from performing his usual kicking duties for Edinburgh has been a contributory factor.

Always an exciting runner in whatever position he appeared, he also became probably the best kicker in the world for a substantial part of his career. The big question has always been what his best position was. His early career seemed to suggest he would be a natural running stand-off of a type that we haven’t had since John Rutherford, but a number of coaches seemed to disagree and since he wasn’t being played there regularly it was always going to be difficult to capture that spot in the national side. As a result he mostly appeared at either full back or wing and while he was often deadly in broken play there are many who will always wonder if he could have controlled games from the number 10 shirt and encouraged the sort of running rugby that we aspire to.

He’ll be missed, both for his jinking running and his faultless kicking; particularly as Rory Lamont seems to keep getting injured. Thanks for some great memories Chris  – enjoy your remaining time club career.

Who will replace Shane?

Add comment December 3rd, 2011

I’m just about to watch the Wales v Australia rugby international at which Shane Williams will end a glorious career. The worry is that we might never see another like him.

Earlier this week no less a legend than Barry John praised Williams as a player who would get into the best ever Wales team – high praise indeed when you consider the wonderful wingers that Wales have had over the years – the immortal Gerald Davies with a side-step to die for, and the electric-paced JJ Williams to name only two of the obvious candidates. But John was also concerned that we may have seen the last of the small, fast, balanced wingers who run round people instead of the man-mountains who run through them. A few years ago I voiced the same concerns in a post here Rugby’s problem in the professional era – big strong men.

Somehow rugby has turned into American Football – everyone except the scrum-halfs seems to be built bigger than the lock forwards I remember from my youth. Only in sevens do we still regularly see the value of the smaller men. Remember the wonderful Scottish three-quarters from a couple of decades ago? If Chris Paterson is criticised for being too small for full back what chance would Andy Irvine have? What of that lovely pairing of Jim Renwick and David Johnston. Would even as magnificent a player as Philippe Sella the magnificent French centre get into a modern international team?

If there is no room for player like these to flourish in the game then the glorious entertainment of rugby played with flair and imagination may become a thing of the past and it will descend into a wrestling match with the occasional kick. And that would be a tragedy. lets hope the coaches that watch todays’s match recognise the value and excitement that Shane has brought back into rugby during his career.

Rugby World Cup Lessons and Prospects

Add comment October 9th, 2011

We’re now at the semi final stages of the Rugby World Cup. It’s been a strange tournament; engrossing at times but seldom spectacular. The weather may have played a large part in that – I’ve seldom seen so many kicks missed – but there seems to be something a bit apprehensive about much of the play, as if the worries of the home fans that everything could go wrong again have spread to the other teams too.

Some of the results have been a bit odd too. All of the teams that were in Scotland’s group, including England, are out. Ireland, who started so well with a victory against Australia and who have been playing some lovely stuff, are out. South Africa, who beat Wales in their group, are out.

France, who have looked disjointed and disinterested, who were hammered by New Zealand in their group, whose coach couldn’t even give away free beer to his players, are in. Australia, who seem to have lost their character, lost to Ireland, and were largely dominated by South Africa, are in. If you are a fan of either New Zealand or Wales then you’ll be feeling optimistic right now. Except that for the Kiwis there is the worry of whether any of their stand-in stand-offs can replace the injured Dan Carter.

What of Scotland?

The stats would suggest that Scotland had a bad tournament; after all this is the first time we’ve failed to make the quarter finals. We didn’t score heavily against either Romania or Georgia while our main rivals did. However it can be argued that we got them early when they were at their most determined and the weather was against high scoring or the game we wanted to play. Then there were the two games we lost. Argentina should have been beaten: only the referee seemed not to see one of the most blatant offsides at the crucial drop goal at the end of the game. We were in charge for most of the game and really should have put enough on the board to render their late try irrelevant but we failed to find that crucial finishing edge. Against England the final result was a travesty that was probably brought about by a failing optimism in the last few minutes that we could maintain enough of a winning margin to get the bonus point we needed. The fact was that despite bad luck in losing Jackson early and Evans at half time, and a couple of very dubious penalty awards that allowed England back within the magic margin, that we were again in control of the match for 70 minutes. Three times the excellent outside breaks of Ansbro were inches from escaping the last tackle (if only that had been Evans), Foden performed outstanding heroics in getting a hand to prevent Danielli scoring, and De Luca will still be having nightmares about the failed pickup with the line abegging.

So despite the results I’m optimistic about the forthcoming 6 nations and with England as the first game the players should be really fired up for it. I hope Paterson stays to provide both his experience and kicking ability for a little longer. I’d like to see Mike Blair back at his best as I think he’s still lacking a bit of his old sharpness, but Jackson is still developing very promisingly.

Semi final prospects

But back to the World Cup. Can New Zealand win without Carter? They’ve been the best team in the world for as long as I can remember yet they haven’t been World Cup winners for 24 years. It seem inconceivable that they can’t win on home turf. Yet their games against Australia often don’t go to form.

Can Wales re-emerge as a genuine world force and give their supporters some new legends to supplant the memories of the golden age of Barry John, Gareth Edwards, JPR, Gerald Davies et al. In Shane Williams they have a supreme finisher who would crown a fabulous career with a winner’s medal in what would probably be his last match. They seem to have come together as a team and have an inspirational captain. But you just never know what the French are likely to do next – they could be awful or they could be incredible.

I’d dearly like to see a New Zealand – Wales final full of running rugby instead of some of the boring finals decided by kicks that we’ve seen too often. And if that happens then the best team on the day will be worthy and popular winners.

Old Tom at the Open again

Add comment July 16th, 2011

Regular readers of this blog (two men and a dog in Kazakhstan) may be surprised to know that I don’t play golf, though I’ve written about it quite a few times. So much to do and so little time. I do enjoy watching it though. It one of the few sports that you can be certain is clean and where there’s no cheating. But what I really like about it is that it’s such a visible match of man against the elements and it exposes all the good and bad points in the players’ personality – the confidence or lack of it, the nerves, the determination, the composure, the imagination, the ability to accept the rub of the green or the bounce of the fairway. On the golf course under the cameras there’s no place to hide.

So here we are at the Open again, and what a privilege it is to watch the play and the demeanour of Tom Watson. Two years ago Tom did something that was by all reasonable measure quite simply impossible. At 59 and having recently had a hip operation he gave the youngsters a lesson in links golf and led for most of the tournament and was a stroke ahead going to the last hole. Forget the fact that he missed the putt that everyone in the watching world except maybe Stewart Cink’s mother wanted him to hole and then lost the play off – he finished joint first in the Open at 59. That was simply unimaginable.

Now here he is again at 61 and still competing, and we have the lovely story of him playing alongside the very promising young amateur Tom Lewis (40 years younger) – who was actually named after him! Surely only in golf could such a thing be imaginable let alone actually happen. To any golf historian the very words Old Tom and Young Tom have an immediate resonance of course. And here again we seem to have the youngster taking over from the revered older man with a tournament-leading first round score.

But Watson has outlasted not just his contemporaries (and of course we tragically lost his old rival Seve recently) but many of the stars that came after him, with a swing that is the purest you could ever hope to see and has stood up to everything that his favourite links winds have thrown at him. Indeed there is the suspicion that if the winds had blown more over these first two days he might have been nearer the leaders than he is. The crowds everywhere love him, though up here in Scotland I sense there is maybe even more affection, as he seems to have been adopted as one of us, a man who plays golf as we feel it should be played. He handles himself with dignity and modesty and clearly enjoyed his young namesake’s play.

You’d think that would be all you could expect, with maybe making the cut as a bonus when ex-champions all around, not to mention the top two players in the world, were failing to do so. But no, this legend had one more present for the crowds – a 4 iron clipped perfectly at the 6th hole that never left the line of the flag and took one bounce before diving in for a hole in one. You really couldn’t make this stuff up because no-one would believe you. And once again he handled it with grace and charm. A truly special player and man.

The forecast for tomorrow is for bad weather – we may not have seen the last of Tom even yet.

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