Friday, 4 May 2012

Finals Ain't What They Used To Be

So, tomorrow will see Liverpool and Chelsea facing off against each other in the 131st FA Cup Final – the premier showpiece occasion at the end of the English football season. Or rather, not. You see, The FA Cup Final ain’t what it used to be. Let me take you back....

The time was when the FA Cup Final was the only club match that you could be guaranteed of seeing live on TV. You might also get to see the finals of the European Cup or UEFA Cup if a British team were involved, but that was about it. Even England international games weren’t shown live as a matter of course, as was gloriously illustrated in the famous episode of “Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads”, where they spent the whole day trying to avoid an England result before they watch the highlights in the evening. So the fact that a game was being shown live was an occasion of itself.

Cup Final day was one of the most exciting days of the year in a young boy’s life. It was just about the only Saturday of the year when you would willingly get out of bed early. The TV would go on at about 9:00 a.m., and there you would sit for the next 9 hours. First off would be such treats as “Cup Final It’s A Knockout”, “Cup Final A Question of Sport”, “Cup Final Mastermind” or ...well, you get the idea. There would be regular reports from the two hotels where the teams were staying, and about  late morning Frank Bough or Dickie Davies (depending on whether you were watching BBC or ITV) would interview a couple of the players and the managers. This was mind-blowing stuff back then. Further interviews at Wembley with the likes of Tarby or Brucie or some other 70’s comedian would follow.

Early afternoon and we would have the joy of watching live as the two team coaches left their respective hotels on their way to Wembley. More discussion with the likes of Saint & Greavsie, Bob Wilson, Jack Charlton, etc would precede the arrival of the teams at the stadium amidst much talk of “going down Wembley Way” or “remember the White Horse Final” or “the Matthews Final”.  Then Tony Gubba or Tony Francis would buttonhole the players as they took a look at the Cup Final playing surface. Excitement on the sofa was pretty much at fever pitch by this point. The living room would be steadily increasing its population as kick-off time now approached. And then the moment would arrive – the Cup Final itself. What a way to end the season, and to bid farewell to all things football for another three months. Those matches are seared onto my mind, as they are to every football fan who lived through that time. True spectacle, and a real feel of occasion permeated the whole day. The FA Cup truly was the greatest cup competition in the world, and the final was the biggest day in the football calendar.

But now? Well, now the Cup Final isn’t even the last match of the season. The Premier League carries on for another week afterwards and there are even league matches being played on the same day as the final. The match has now been elbowed to a tea-time kick-off with the TV coverage starting a mere two hours before kick-off. The teams competing during the season have often fielded weakened teams for their FA cup matches as the priority now is very much the Premiership or the Champions League. There is even a possibility that Chelsea won’t be putting out their very strongest team tomorrow as they rest players ahead of their Champions League Final appearance in a couple of weeks time.

The Final is now just one of dozens (if not hundreds) of matches shown live each season and fans are wearily familiar with every team and every player. The competition no longer holds the place in the football season that it used to – both literally and figuratively. The world has moved on I guess, but progress doesn’t always mean improvement.

Monday, 16 April 2012

There's Nothing New in Sport

It's obviously been a long time since my last post here, and a lot of sporting water has passed under the bridge. However, looking back at the last few posts here it is, perhaps, surprising that many of the issues I talked about then are still very relevant right now.

In particular, almost a year ago I was talking about the Swindon Town "rollercoaster" and bemoaning the fact that the Town had been relegated with barely a whimper. The chairman had just stood down and I was imploring the new man at the helm to give Paul Hart the boot, and replace him with "a new, enthusiastic and inspirational manager to revive the team and get us moving back up the league". Well, Jeremy Wray is obviously an avid reader of this blog, because that was exactly what he did and now, one year on, Swindon Town are just 1 point away from promotion back to League One. The team will almost certainly be crowned champions of League Two over the next week, thanks to the superb debut managerial season of Paolo Di Canio - a man for whom the terms "enthusiastic" and "inspirational" were coined! Promotion assured, championship almost certain to follow, and with a Wembley trip already under his belt, this season has been a sensational start to PDC's coaching career. The Town is buzzing again, and that old rollercoaster has to crank back into gear once more.

Elsewhere this weekend saw both the FA Cup semi-finals and the Grand National take place amid some controversy. Two more horses having to be destroyed after possibly the closest National run ever made it a very bittersweet occasion, and reignited the calls for the race to be altered or even removed from the sporting calendar. And then we had yet another goalmouth incident in the 2nd FA Cup semi-final, which reopened the long-running debate on goal-line technology. A goal was given when the ball clearly, and I mean CLEARLY, didn't cross the goal-line and the course of FA Cup history may well have been altered. The debate has become tiresome now and it seems that it is only the FIFA bigwigs who remain reluctant to use the technology that is available to decide such situations. Methinks that the time has now come for them to see common sense and join the 21st century - as almost every other sport already has. It has to be done.

Oh, and the London Olympics are just 101 days away. Seems like there is still plenty to talk about!!

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Gary Speed 1969-2011

Hello everyone, just wanted to post a quick note to say how shocked and sad I was to hear of the news of the death of Wales manager Gary Speed. He always seemed to be one of the game's gentleman and he was ceratinly a very classy midfielder, and had progressed on to become a promising manager who has turned the fortunes of the Welsh team around. May you rest in peace, Gary. The thoughts of the football family are with your family and friends.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Wonderful Wimbledon

Apologies for the long absence - sometimes real life has to take priority :-) So, what have we missed in the meantime? Well, congratulations have to go to Manchester Utd (Premiership), Manchester City (FA Cup), Barcelona (Champions League), Porto (Europa League), Pour Moi (The Derby), John Higgins(Snooker World Champion), Rory McIlroy(US Open), Petra Kvitova(Wimbledon Ladies Singles Champion) and many others as the trophy season hits top gear.

I write this post as I am watching the Men’s Singles Final at Wimbledon. The match started off like it was going to be a walkover for Novak Djokovic but Rafa Nadal is not the champion he is for no reason, and after losing the first 2 sets he has pulled one back to make a real match of it. It is looking like it will be a fitting climax to another wonderful Wimbledon fortnight.

Dori and I were lucky to get tickets for No.1 court on the second Monday of The Championships, in the public ballot. It was just our second time attending the event after our visit there 3 years ago. I have to say that Wimbledon is one of those venues that absolutely lives up to your expectations when you get to visit in person. I love the event, and I love the place. I thought I would share just a few of the photos that Dori took whilst we were there this year.

For the record we saw Marion Bartoli defeat Serena Williams, Djokovich beat Michael Llodra and Roger Federer overcome Mikhail Youzhny in three very entertaining matches on what was a VERY hot ‘n’ humid summer’s day. We also wandered the grounds taking in small fragments of the games being played on the outside courts, whilst soaking up the atmosphere of this magnificent event. We will certainly be having another punt in the ballot again for next year!

PS Novak Djokovich has just secured his first Wimbledon victory. Many congratulations to him!

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

And the Rollercoaster Moves On Again

I should probably be talking today about the Champions League semi-finals, or the spat between Guardiola and Mourinho, or the Snooker World Championships nearing their end, or whatever. But, to me this last week has meant only one sporting story - the relegation of Swindon Town to the fourth tier of English football.
Just 11 short months ago, Swindon were facing Millwall in the final of the League One play-offs to determine who would claim the final promotion place to the (ridiculously named) Championship. I don't think anybody who was watching that day would have thought that we would be looking at relegation down to the basement of league football less than a year later.

There are a number of reasons why this has come about, all of which I know every Town fan is sick of hearing. Sold a number of the best players, never properly replaced, board dithered over changing manager, poor tactics, ..... I could go on for hours. The fact is we are where we are because the players that were put out onto the pitch did not perform to the expected level. A lot of them are now out of contract and a big rebuilding job is clearly needed. The current stop-gap manager, Paul Hart, is not in my opinion the man to carry out that rebuilding process. His reign has seen little change from that which went before at a time when a big change in attitude, if nothing else, was needed. Very negative tactics and some bizarre substitutions, together with an extremely haughty manner when dealing with the media (and through them the fans) has destroyed any semblance of credibility he had with the Town faithful. The team are not inspired and the fans are merely agitated. A change is needed.

And a change did come today - the resignation of chairman Andrew Fitton. He is the man who, three years ago, led a consortium that saved the club from the brink of bankruptcy and liquidation and I will be forever grateful to him for that. But, whilst the club is now immeasurably better off away from the pitch, the same can obviously not be said for the playing side. Some poor decisions on managerial appointments, and a busy work schedule that took him away from the County Ground on a very regular basis, have contributed to the failure of the team this season. I feel that a change will be welcomed by most supporters, and I hope that new chairman Jeremy Wray's first decision will be to point Mr Hart in the direction of the exit and look to bring in a new, enthusiastic and inspirational manager to revive the team and get us moving back up the league.

Things are never boring at the County Ground. The rollercoaster moves on again.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

It's More Important Than That

One of my favourite sporting quotations is one attributed to the famous old manager of Liverpool, Bill Shankly. He said, or is alleged to have said that "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

Bill Shankly

It is a great line and succinctly sums up the feeling that a lot of sports fans have for their chosen game. But then, sometimes, real matters of life and death impinge on sport and you realize all over again that at the end of the day, sport is a leisure activity, a piece of entertainment, a release from the daily grind but that is all. Two events over the last week have reminded me of that very fact.

Firstly, last Friday was the 22nd anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster, where 96 people lost their lives whilst attending the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. I can still vividly remember that day. I was at the County Ground, watching Swindon take on Watford in a Division 2 game. I switched on my radio at half-time to see how the other games were going, only to hear that there had been “some disturbance” at the semi-final, and that a number of fans were injured and they believed that there was a possibility that 1 or maybe 2 people had even been killed. Obviously, that information just got worse and worse as the afternoon and evening wore on. It struck me to the core that these were fellow football fans, doing the exact same thing as I was on a Saturday afternoon, and they had lost their lives because of it. It was a seminal moment in English football, and years later resulted in the enforcement that every major football ground in the country should be an all-seater stadium. The ultimate sacrifice of The 96 will never be forgotten.

The other episode that brought the importance or otherwise of sport into proper focus was reported on the news bulletins last night. Neil Lennon, manager of Celtic, and 2 – possibly now 3 – other renowned Celtic supporters have apparently been sent parcel bombs in the post. Somebody has seemingly seen fit to try to take the lives of these people because of their football affiliations. I know that there is also a religious element to the rivalry between the 2 Glasgow clubs, but ultimately we are talking about sport here. People are dying all over the world because of real problems and real issues; let us not start killing each other because some are wearing a different replica top. Strikes me that some people need to grow up, open their eyes and see the world for how it really is.

Some people believe that football is a matter of life and death – it isn’t, and it never should be.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Tee and Sympathy

Congratulations to Charl Schwartzel for his victory on Sunday at Augusta National in the first major of the golfing year. It was an amazing climax to the competition with as many as 10 players having a very real chance of walking away with the green jacket as they played the final 9 holes. The lead swung from one player to another with alarming regularity and I would have defied anyone to pick the winner with any degree of certainty with just 45 minutes of play remaining. It was a nail-biting conclusion to the tournament, and as unpredictable as sport should always be.

Sadly, that last round on Sunday also saw the leader at the start of play, Rory McIlroy, explode in spectacular fashion on the back 9. Still leading as he entered those final 9 holes, despite a bit of a wobble on the opening 9, things just went from bad to worse to cataclysmic for Rory as he shot 43 coming home. That included a triple bogey 7 on the 10th hole, followed by 3 putts on the 11th green and an even worse 4 putts on the short 12th hole. The collapse of his game was painful to watch at times, and you had to feel for the lad who at just 21 years of age still has a wonderful future ahead of him. And, I believe, that future will also include major wins if he can harness the brutal experience of Sunday evening and turn it around to his advantage the next time that he finds himself at the sharp end of a Major Sunday. I have every confidence that he will do just that.

The other major event of the weekend was the Grand National, which was won by Ballabriggs on a glorious Saturday afternoon at Aintree. Sadly, his win meant that I lost in the family flutter as my mum somehow managed to pick him out as one of her two selections. I did manage to choose the fourth placed horse, but that’s little consolation when you are being fleeced by your own mum!! :-)

It’s back to the Champions League this week as the semi-final line-up is decided, and it’s looking like there will be 2 Spanish teams, 1 English and 1 German – but maybe an upset will still occur. As always, you never know until the final whistle.

Til next time!