Sunday, 17 July 2016

Sam Allardyce on Pole Shows that International Football's Stock is Falling

Did it really feel like a surprise?

As Wayne Rooney held his head in his hands and another England manager jumped before he was pushed, it really shouldn't have felt like a surprise.

If you're looking at statistics, England are not a very good tournament nation, and in France they simply regressed to the mean. 1966 aside, their tournament record really isn't that impressive, and getting out of the group stages before falling at one of the first knockout hurdles has become the norm. There's no reason other than pre-tournament hype to expect anything better.

However, in terms of humiliating tournament outings, the English football team have never failed to find new ways of outdoing themselves, and Euro 2016 certainly takes its place on the mantelpiece alongside the 1950 defeat to USA and the picture of Ray Houghton nodding home Republic of Ireland's winner in Stuttgart.

You can picture the FA hierarchy watching Roy Hodgson's resignation, eyes widening in horror before fumbling around their headquarters and trawling the filing cabinets for the list of current England managers that they ripped up four years ago.

"So, Gareth Southgate? Alan Pardew, maybe? Steve Bruce, then?"

"No thanks, what's Arsène Wenger up to?"

To think there was once upon a time when Brian Clough was deemed not good enough for the England job, and given the current crop, it's no wonder that the first inclination was to look towards a foreign manager to fill the void.

Wenger was initially sounded out as a potential successor, but why would he want the role? The Frenchman would be under more scrutiny, earning less money, coaching players he doesn't want, and wouldn't be able to resort to the excuse of almost signing Messi for England when he was a teenager. 

Perhaps, however, there is finally a growing recognition from the top down that England aren't as good as they think they are, and nothing exemplifies this more than the fact that Sam Allardyce has emerged as the front runner to succeed Hodgson. He would be an average manager for an average job in what is turning into an average international stage.  

Don't mistake this as a campaign against Big Sam - he boasts a decent record, could yet turn out to be the perfect fit for England, and is subject of one of the best parody accounts on Twitter (@TheBig_Sam). However, Allardyce's managerial philosophy hasn't changed since the FA deemed him unsuitable for the role ten years ago, and there is a sense that he has emerged as the best of a handful who actually want the job.

Allardyce has made his name as an organiser and motivator of men, which in the wake of Euro 2016 is what a lot of supporters insist England need. Perhaps, however, it is more of a reflection of the current state of international football that the FA have turned their attentions to an imposing enforcer rather than a master tactician.

For many, Euro 2016 seems to have upset the apple-cartAnyone who watched the action will admit that barring a few moments of individual brilliance, it was a tournament low on quality. The Championship wasn't won by the team that played the best football, but by the side that was most effective at nullifying the opposition. Portugal didn't win over any neutrals in the same way as Wales or Iceland, but finished the tournament undefeated and found a way to win with a limited squad.

Indeed, Allardyce has made a career out of this very brand of football - his teams are well drilled and get the job done. However, that job has often entailed arriving safely in mid-table or fending off relegation, which might suggest that the FA is ready to equate a successful campaign to simply qualifying for a major tournament.

Allardyce has never been confronted with a team of top players, and his appointment would be a sign that the allure of international football is waning. This isn't just an issue confronting England. Club football now presents a far more appealing challenge for football managers, given that the quality is better, resources more plentiful, and the rewards are higher.

Just look at Antonio Conte, one of the top Italian managers, who managed his national team for only two years before jumping ship to double his salary at Chelsea. Teams like Brazil of the 70's and the Spanish crop that won three tournaments on the spin are few and far between, and top coaches are starting to realise that the risk of international football can do more harm to a reputation than good.

Spain now find themselves at a similar crossroad following the departure of Vicente del Bosque. Joaquín Caparrós, the favourite for the job, is regarded as somewhat of a journeyman in Spain, and his last two jobs with Granada and Levante suggest that he represents as much of a gamble for La Roja as Allardyce does for England. 

Ideally, Spain would turn to either Pep Guardiola or Unai Emery - two countrymen who happen to be two of the most highly sought after managers in football - but both view the opportunity to dominate Europe at club level a far more attractive challenge than taking on their national side.

There was a time when managing your national team would be seen as the pinnacle, but there is a sense that the likes of Mourinho, Ancelotti, and Guardiola now look at it as one last paycheck before retirement. The top managers simply no longer want to compete in an international arena where teams prefer to cancel each other out than play expansive football, and strangely, that might be just why the FA sees it as the perfect environment for Sam Allardyce's England to thrive in.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Currywurst and Steins... Travel Blog: Berlin Edition

When one of your cool mates from home tells you that he's never felt as uncool as he did in Berlin, you start to imagine a world where you're not accepted unless you've either got a man bun, multiple piercings, or spend at least two hours everyday talking about how you found yourself on your gap year. Having heard so many great things about the German capital in the past few years, I thought now was a good time to test how uncool I could feel and finally tick Berlin off the to-do list with a dissertation to avoid and time to kill before uni.

On recommendation, we opted to stay in Friedrichshain, a small district in the east of Berlin just over the Oberbaum Bridge from Kreuzberg. It didn't take long for me to realise why my pal felt so uncool staying in this part of the city. As soon as we stepped out of Warschauer Straße station and onto the bridge, it was a bit like walking through Shoreditch x10. Each individual seemed to have mastered a street style which appeared effortless, attractive, and far more comfortable than my trademark rolled up skinnys and Gazelle combo - not one high-street clothing brand in sight - prompting me to do my best to cover up the Jack Wills logo on my jumper. 

Conveniently, the hostel was a five minute walk from the East Side Gallery, making this famous section of the Berlin Wall our first port of call. The initial thing that strikes you about the gallery is the abundance of bright and exuberant colour that makes it stand out from an otherwise pretty bland backdrop. 

Some of the art really is thought-provoking and completely redefines what you'd associate with graffiti. As you make your way along the 1.3km stretch of concrete, you get a uniquely presented sense of Germany's troubled history which makes the gallery a suitably unified symbol of the political divide that the nation has overcome in the past few decades.

The Berliner Mauer, as the Germans call it, serves as somewhat of a microcosm for East Berlin, as the whole area was absorbed by a colourful culture of street art that I haven't personally seen anywhere else in Europe. Almost every street we walked down was covered in graffiti, but it was a lot more like decoration than desecration, making it feel like a free neighbourhood sized art gallery where you didn't even have to pretend to appreciate the paintings. 

The street art culture that is so concentrated in the east certainly became more sparse the further west we moved into the city. The narrow side streets and buzzing neighbourhoods were soon replaced by big shopping centres and modern buildings. 

Everywhere in the city is easily accessible and we opted to use the S-Bahn to reach the so called tourist hotspots, but I'd imagine that a walk from Karl-Marx-Allee all the way over to Victory Column would be a lot more pleasant in the summer. The subzero temperatures really did make it a survival of the fittest style mission to be outside for a sustained period of more than an hour - especially because being English and naive we'd packed for Spring. The snow did make for some pretty pictures though, and should serve me well for a few #tbt likes on Instagram. 

As you'd expect, things got a little more pricey when we hit up the districts boasting the main attractions. Indeed, by the time we'd arrived in Alexanderplatz, €2.20 pints had become a thing of the past so we tried to get the western part of the city centre done in a day. Like all good tourists, we did our best to get lost on the way only to walk round a corner and realise we'd been circling the Reichstag Building for about an hour. 

While the German Parliament and Brandenburg Gate lived up to expectations as impressive architectural structures, the Topography of Terror just down the road stood out most. Documenting Nazi atrocities on the foundations of Gestapo and SS headquarters, the exhibition does an accomplished job of packing a lot of intense information into a confined space without making you want to claw your eyes out. 

Like I said, the main attractions were great, Museum Island and the Cathedral were beautifully picturesque, but the best thing about Berlin is the absence of an obvious centre, and we couldn't help but be drawn back to the atmospheric neighbourhoods in the eastern part of the city. When you have a row of six dudes each claiming to have 'good shit', trying to sell you 'the best weed in Berlin' it's hard to know who to trust, but this somewhat typified the laid back nature of the area. 

Densely packed with cafes and bars, it was nice to find a place where if you order a pint before noon you can bank on someone having one with you. We'd be wandering round a bookshop and all of a sudden one of the employees would ask if you fancied an ice cold brewski while doing some browsing, making me wonder why no bookseller has propositioned me with this juicy offer before.

Having put myself through 5 years of GCSE German at school, I thought it was only fair to sample the currywurst that was my eternal nemesis in my vocab tests. I think the general rule with this local cuisine is that the cheaper it is the better. Curry and sausage is a combo that sounds less likely to work than Gerrard and Lampard, but the flavours strangely complimented each other, and it's one of those street foods which definitely tastes better if you eat it standing up.

Currywurst and schnitzel aside, the best place we ate was a place called Burgeramt that we discovered in a small square near the hostel. Ceilings coated with movie posters and playing 80s Rock classics on repeat, it perfectly blended what you'd want from an American burger bar with a distinct German feel to the place. Advertised as 'the best burger in Berlin', it was definitely one of the best burgers I've had in Europe, and you don't have to invite me to the party twice when chili cheese fries are on offer.

Lots of people make the trip to Berlin for one reason only: to experience the techno dance scene that the city's nightlife has become famous for. Given that we arrived just after New Years and had folk in the hostel telling us about the three day benders they'd just woken up from at the world famous Berghain, we probably hadn't come at the prime time for a binge (Either that or no one wanted to invite us on theirs). 

Even though we weren't always clubbing, Berlin bars were busy and didn't close until the last customer said so. Every bar we went to was a different experience, whether it meant feeling intimidated by a punk rock vibe, nonchalant in a retro 70s lounge, or confused by a barman who looked like he'd been plucked from a black and white French movie, every drink was made interesting by the surroundings. 

So yeah, it's safe to say that Berlin lived up to the hype in every regard. The people were cool, the landmarks majestic, the neighbourhoods trendy and the beer was strong. You get a sense that Berliners totally embrace their city and it's hard not to get caught up in a place that has such a rich culture and so much history. I'd like to think that I'll go back when the weather's slightly warmer, the nightlife a bit busier, and my hair's finally long enough to tie in the treasured man bun. Until then...


Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Premier League is Changing, but Arsène Wenger Isn't

Every football manager has a buzzword. Jose Mourinho likes to talk about 'stability', while his one time apprentice Brendan Rodgers has an almost comical infatuation with 'character'. Alex Ferguson used to underline the importance of 'consistency', and more recently Arsène Wenger has persistently eluded to the need to maintain the 'cohesion' in his Arsenal squad.

However, as Mauro Zárate's tame shot caught out Petr Cech for the second time in a nightmare home debut, Arsenal fans might have had the harrowing realisation that Wenger's 'cohesion' chat has simply masked the weaknesses exposed by a West Ham side recently knocked out of the Europa League by an unknown Romanian outfit. 

Indeed, the Frenchman has merely employed the term 'cohesion' to disguise Arsenal's failure to significantly improve the squad this summer. It was almost as if Wenger had blindfolded his supporters and led them into a dark room, only for the big surprise to be a flying Cheikhou Kouyaté beating Arsenal's big summer signing to the ball and head into an empty net. 

The only cohesion that the current crop of Arsenal players have achieved in recent years is the ability to consistently finish just inside the top four while limping out in the last sixteen of the Champions League. A couple of FA Cup triumphs have momentarily silenced Wenger's critics but he knows as well as anyone that he won't be out of hot water until he delivers the Premier League trophy to the front door of the Emirates. 

Oliver Holt was spot on in today's Mail, referring to Petr Cech as the first piece of Arsenal's jigsaw rather than the last. When Cech signed for the Gunners back in June there was certainly cause for optimism, and not just because Arsenal had lured a club legend from one of their biggest rivals. Wenger had got a big piece of business done and he had got it done early. Arsenal fans had every reason to believe that more was to follow and that this might be remembered as the summer when Wenger finally left his mark on a transfer window.    

Since then, however, the 65-year-old has continued to harp on about not wanting to disrupt the 'cohesion' in his squad. In the meantime, Manchester United have signed Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, the latter of whom would have been perfect for an Arsenal midfield that is crying out for an enforcer. Karim Benzema has been linked, as he seems to be every window, but Wenger has almost seemed insulted every time the Real Madrid man's name is mentioned to him. 

The Arsenal manager must realise that summer is a time for change. Every June, flocks of university students pledge that this will be the summer when they finally get that well oiled beach bod. Similarly, Arsenal fans always convince themselves that the imminent summer will be the one when they assemble their new breed of 'Invincibles'. However, the Gunners have been chasing the perfect summer body for far too long now, and have simply been going to the gym and taking selfies in the mirror without actually putting on any muscle. 

The problem Wenger faces is that only a proven star signing will comprehensively improve his squad, and those kind of players aren't available very often. However, the need for a defensive midfield general has arguably been obvious since the departure of Patrick Viera, and one can't help but assume that Wenger is aware of that glaring void among his wide selection of play makers. 

Thierry Henry's former teammates might have struggled to hold back the giggles when the Frenchman pinpointed Francis Coquelin as the answer to Arsenal's midfield problem, even going as far to compare the 24-year-old to Gilberto Silva. 

Safe to say that Thierry might have received a few 'see no evil' monkey emojis in 'The Invincibles' group chat after that comment. Coquelin is merely a short term fix, and if you offered every Premier League manager the choice of Matic, Schneiderlin, Yaya Touré or Coquelin, the Arsenal man would be propping up that list nineteen times out of twenty. 

It was particularly apparent when West Ham went in front today that no Arsenal player stood up to the situation to rally those around them. It's all well and good playing attractive football and thrashing teams that come to the Emirates to roll over and have their tummy tickled, but when a physical side like West Ham turn up with the intention of disrupting Arsenal's rhythm, the Gunners still lack leaders with the mental toughness to grind out a result.    

Think back to Jose Mourinho's first season back at Chelsea. The Blues suffered a trophyless campaign, and 'The Special One' wasted no time in identifying the weak points in his squad before signing Nemanja Matić, Cesc Fàbregas and Diego Costa. 

The following year Chelsea won the title with all three of Mourinho's summer signings playing a key role. Being open to change is what Champions do, and it's exactly what Wenger's stubbornness is preventing Arsenal from doing. The longer it goes on, the less likely it seems that the Frenchman will change his ways.

This summer provided the perfect opportunity for Arsenal to steal a lead in the title race with none of their nearest rivals considerably strengthening. Chelsea have taken a gamble on Radamel Falcao, Manchester City have placed a lot of faith in Raheem Sterling to reverse their fortunes, and Manchester United have made some decent acquisitions but are still yet to find their identity under Louis Van Gaal. 

Arsenal's inability to capitalise and bring in a top holding midfielder coupled with a clinical centre forward may be a mistake that costs them the league. With the season now underway, one wouldn't bet against the other components of the top four adding some new faces before the transfer window slams shut.

You can't help but wonder exactly how signing a couple of proven pros would disrupt the 'cohesion' of Arsenal's already talented squad. If anything, the club's ambition would galvanise the players in the same way that signing Özil and Sanchez did. 

Mourinho recently claimed that the increasing strength of sides outside the top four will render the Premier League harder to win than ever this year. It is the unpredictability of the English top flight that makes it the best for the watching world, and it simply wouldn't be entertaining to watch Chelsea beat bottom ten teams 8-0 every weekend. 

Like a good movie, a viewer isn't going to sit down and watch something which has a predictable plot twist, they want the mystery murderer to be the farmer's wife who we haven't seen since the second scene of the film when she was running from a dark figure which turns out to be a metaphor for her conscience. 

In the same roundabout way, it's far more interesting to see Leicester come back from 3-1 down against Manchester United than accept defeat and implement defensive measures to avoid any more damage to their goal difference.

Indeed, the TV money being pumped into the English top flight means that sides in the bottom half of the table can attract players from some of Europe's top clubs. Crystal Palace have signed Yohan Cabaye from PSG, West Ham have brought in Dimitri Payet, and Stoke have acquired Ibrahim Afellay from Barcelona. The extent to which teams outside the top four are improving means that the ones currently residing within it can't afford to neglect the transfer market like Arsenal have. 

Today's result just goes to show what a bit of preseason hype and winning the Community Shield can do to expectations. There was an undoubted air of optimism surrounding Arsenal this summer, a sense that with the signing of Cech something in North London has changed. In reality however, nothing really has.  

Arsenal might yet go on to enjoy success this season. The last time they lost their opening fixture they went on to win eight of their next nine league games. However, you get the impression that unless they strengthen before the transfer window closes it will be another season of near misses and disappointments. Wenger needs to change his approach and move with the constantly evolving Premier League monster or it may end up leaving him behind.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Yohan Cabaye Is More Than Just a Signing for Crystal Palace

Five years ago Crystal Palace were staring into the abyss. Wallowing in the pity of administration for a second time, The Eagles were relying on Alan Lee as they desperately clung to a 2-2 draw against Sheffield Wednesday which probably secured the club's existence as well as its Championship status.

Palace started that day with a midfield partnership of Johannes Ertl and Shaun Derry. Yesterday, the South Londoners announced the signing of French international Yohan Cabaye - quite the upgrade on Andy Dorman and David Wright who were Steve Parish's first signings as Palace chairman.

When Parish took control of his boyhood club, not even he could have planned it as sweetly as this. The Eagles have been transformed from habitual Championship strugglers to a top ten Premier League side, and in five years with CPFC 2010 at the helm, Palace have consistently bettered their finish from the preceding season.

Given the club's recent history, Palace fans have a tendency to fear the worst is always round the corner and err on the side of caution when it comes to excessive spending. Parish, however, wants to take the club to the next level and isn't one to shy away from flexing the financial muscle that a prolonged stay in the English top flight rewards.

Indeed, breaking the club's transfer record has become a regular pastime for Parish, who marked Palace's return to the Premier League with the signing of Dwight Gayle, before spending £7 million on bringing James McArthur to Selhurst Park. The £10 million coup of Cabaye, however, is completely new territory for a club that is accustomed to looking over its shoulder.

The idea that a player as accomplished as the Frenchman would readily trade the romantically lit streets of Paris and Champions League football for the bright lights of South Norwood seems just as absurd to Palace fans as it does to the outside world.

However, Selhurst Park is slowly becoming an attractive destination to play football, and not just because of the shiny new plastic seats or the tasty jerk chicken shop on Norwood high street. Alan Pardew is putting together a youthful, attack-minded squad that thrives off some of the more vociferous supporters in the league.

For years Palace have been a selling club. The likes of Nathaniel Clyne, Andy Johnson and Victor Moses all made a name for themselves in South London before moving on to better things. However, the signing of Cabaye coupled with Scott Dann's equally significant new contract shows that Selhurst Park is now the place to be.

Still, that doesn't make any of this easier to rationalise.

Perhaps the most frightening thing is that Cabaye needs Palace just as much as they need him. Cast aside at PSG, this is the last roll of the dice for a man desperate to play at the European Championships in his home country. Cabaye needs games, and the chance to reunite with Pardew proved more appealing than working under Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid.

No doubt more than a few would have been rubbing their eyes in disbelief when wages of £100,000 a week were being quoted for Cabaye's services. Such outrageous sums of money are simply unheard of for a club that just six years ago was looking down the back of the sofa for the £80,000 to bring in Calvin Andrew from Luton.

However, Palace fans are going to have to get used to mixing it with the big boys if The Eagles are to build on the first top ten finish in the club's Premier League history. Cabaye is now the calibre of player the club can and must attract if they are to continue the theme of progress and become a regular top ten side.

It's hard to believe that this isn't the biggest signing in the club's history (no, it's not Edgar Davids). Back in 1997, Palace celebrated their return to the top flight by somehow plucking Italian international Attilio Lombardo from Juventus. Back then, Lombardo was a diamond in the rough, gifted with the unenviable task of leading The Eagles to Premier League survival.

There is a sense that the signing of Cabaye is different. 'The Bald Eagle' Lombardo joined a side tipped for relegation, while Cabaye links up with a group of players that have already made waves in the Premier League. The Frenchman may now be the prettiest, shiniest diamond at the Palace, but he's certainly not the only one.

Cabaye is simply another piece of the Palace jigsaw, and it is a clear statement of intent from a club that wants to push its limits. Indeed, sometimes you have to look to the past to realise just how good the present is. Gone are the days of chopping and changing managers, gone are the days of selling prize assets, and gone are the days of staving off relegation.

Whether the fans are comfortable with it or not, this is a new dawn for the Eagles, and a thoroughly exciting one at that.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

England Will Have to Bury Their Demons if They Want to Regain the Ashes

Cast your mind back to November 2013 and you might remember Australia captain Michael Clarke warning Jimmy Anderson to 'get ready for a broken fucken arm'. Clarke may not have delivered on that promise, but at the end of the last Ashes series Anderson and his England teammates were certainly left broken in every other sense of the word.

England weren't just beaten in that series, they were thrashed, outplayed and humiliated. There was a devastating routine of David Warner flashing the early warning blades before Mitchell Johnson essentially paraded around Australian cricket grounds with the heads of England's hapless batsmen on a pitchfork.

The Aussies were relentless and the 5-0 whitewash delivered a blow that English cricket is just about recovering from. Since the last time these two foes went head to head, England have had to reshuffle their management and playing staff, and have mustered just one Test series win in contrast to Australia's three.

In international sport when two sides are closely matched, a team is not expected to lose in the manner that England did one and a half years ago, especially having beaten the same opponents just a few months earlier.

To win the Ashes, however, requires more than simply having a better team, and the Australians drove England into the ground both physically and mentally. The Aussies bullied Alastair Cook's team into a position where it was as if they no longer had the right to win a game of cricket, and the margins of defeat speak volumes for how psychologically spent England were.

That's why if England are to have any hope of regaining the Ashes this summer, they have to wrestle back the mental edge that currently resides firmly in the Australian corner.

The psychological side of professional sport is often underestimated, and playing the perfect cover drive isn't so easy on a nippy surface at Lords with eleven Australians crowded round the bat persistently chirping away about your shoddy technique.

When captain Cook first comes to the crease for England next week, you can be sure that the Aussies won't be shy of reminding him about the last series down under, and might even find a way to wriggle the touchy subject of Kevin Pietersen into their sledges.

It's easy to forget that just a couple of years ago England were asserting the kind of ascendancy that is now being associated with the tourists. Indeed, it wasn't long ago that Jimmy Anderson was bringing his finger to his mouth to silence a chirpy Mitchell Johnson after comprehensively bowling Ryan Harris.

However, perhaps Johnson's personal revival is a microcosm of the shift in fortunes between England and Australia. Contrary to the Barmy Army's chant, Johnson no longer bowls many to the left or the right and his bowling is far from shite.  

The Aussies appear to enjoy each other's company and are an extremely cohesive unit. They come across a bit like the cool kids at school, the jocks who everyone else is afraid to stand up to, and at the moment England are the vulnerable students who always get their lunch money stolen off them. Johnson is the intimidating ring leader who always gets his own way, taking wicket after wicket while his chums whoop and high five around him. 

Johnson was certainly pivotal to the series whitewash in Australia. He dominated English batsmen with a speed and hostility which lifted his teammates. However, if England can silence Johnson, they will go some way to silencing the Australians. The 33-year-old is not in the form he was in 2013, and if England can get on top of him early we may not see the same snarling Johnson who haunted English nightmares two Christmases ago.          

The Australian's have already begun to try and exert some form of mental advantage over their Pommy counterparts. Number one media cheerleader Shane Warne has warned Jimmy Anderson that he will 'cop it' from the Aussies, while the Cricket Australia Twitter account recently tweeted a simple message: 'See you soon, @englandcricket... #Ashes', accompanied by an image of Steve Smith doing his best to stare into English souls.

The baby faced Smith doesn't strike the same fear as the brutish Matthew Hayden or menacing Brett Lee of old, but the 26-year-old's recent record is certainly cause for alarm. He endured a torrid time during his first tour of England, but since then has become the number one ranked Test batsman in the world and has averaged  102 in the last year.

England do, however, have an answer to Smith in the equally gifted Joe Root. Since being dropped for the Sydney Test in 2014, Root has averaged over 100 with the bat and established himself as the obvious successor to Cook as captain. With so many parallels being drawn between the two young talents, it would be surprising if the form of Root and Smith doesn't have a big impact on the
destination of the urn.

According to form, Australia have earned their position as favourites for the series, but they shouldn't be made overwhelmingly so. The Aussies have had a tendency to rely on Smith and their bowlers digging them out of holes which is a department where they may have the edge. England might have flattered to deceive since last facing the old enemy, but are coming dangerously close to figuring out what their best team is.

Think back to the first morning of the 2005 series. England's bowlers peppered the Australian's with an aggression which let their opponents know they were in a battle. Whether it's Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, or one of England's top order batsmen ambushing the Aussies in Cardiff, England have to make sure they do just that.

I don't agree with the idea that England have to adapt to the 'brand' of all out attacking Test cricket to win the Ashes, as New Zealand showed that it can reap its benefits one week but fail spectacularly the next. However, if England don't allow the Aussies to bog them down it will give the new breed of Root, Stokes and Butler the freedom to express the flair they have in abundance by taking the game to Australia.

This Ashes series should be a lot closer than many are anticipating. England may not regain the urn, but they shouldn't crash as miserably as they did in Australia. They are not coming up against an invincible team - there is no McGrath, no Gilchrist and no Warne for them to fear.

This English side must bury its demons and learn the lessons from one and a half years ago, and the only way they will let themselves down in this series is if they allow this Australian side to look as good as they think they are.  

Monday, 15 June 2015

The Burden of Expectation is Nothing New for Wayne Rooney

Had he not scored the dramatic late winner in Ljubljana last night, Monday morning probably would have greeted Wayne Rooney with the hostile but familiar headlines that have so often been associated with his international career, criticising an inability to regularly transfer his club form to an England shirt.

There was an apparent sense of relief as Rooney darted towards the travelling supporters in the Stožice stadium before sliding onto his knees and pointing to the heavens. Indeed, the England captain would have been fully aware that he had already missed two gilt edged chances in the second half. First he ballooned Raheem Sterling's through ball over the bar, and before he had a chance to cleanse his mind of that moment, he was skying the same provider's cutback into the netting behind the goal.

Rooney celebrates his late winner in Slovenia
It would have been easy for a lesser player to retreat into his shell and stop seeking out the opportune moments, but that is not in the nature of a world class talent like Rooney. When it mattered most, the centre-forward rediscovered his composure to score the goal that gave Roy Hodgson's side a sixth win from six qualifiers, and with it Rooney moved to within one of Sir Bobby Charlton's goal scoring record.

Without a goal since April, it could be argued that the infatuation with Rooney and the record has inhibited the England striker's performances, but having represented his country for over ten years, Rooney is no stranger to the expectation for him to prolifically lead the national team's front line. However, during what is a period of transition for England, the burden on Rooney to find the back of the net is now greater than ever.

The 29-year-old is the final remnant of the so called 'golden generation' of English footballers that were tipped to deliver the nation's first major trophy since 1966. The retirement of Rio Ferdinand coupled with Steven Gerrard's move to the MLS draws a symbolic curtain on the golden era of English talent leaving Rooney to pick up the pieces. With no Gerrard or Lampard to provide goals from midfield, the added responsibility for Rooney to lead by example as well as provide game winning moments is the most unenviable of tasks.

Rooney is the last of England's 'golden generation'.
However, Rooney has never been given an easy ride in his England career, and there is no doubt that the Manchester United striker is one of few individuals who will be relishing such a monumental challenge. Ever since he burst onto the international scene at Euro 2004, Rooney has been the most scrutinised of any player in an England shirt. The fact is, Rooney's performances will always be closely dissected because he is England's best player.  

With the hopes of a nation so often placed on his shoulders, Rooney was made a scapegoat after disappointing World Cups in South Africa and Brazil. Despite this, he has quietly accumulated what will soon be the record number of England goals and will rightly be remembered as one of the finest players this country has ever produced. 

There is no doubt that Rooney can have a frustrating tendency to pull on an England shirt and suddenly sink to the level of a Sunday League player. However, that could have easily been said about every individual who played in the dire friendly against Ireland last week. Rooney is set apart by his ability to grasp the game winning moments, just as he did in Slovenia last night, and just as he did with his free kick against Estonia back in October. 
Rooney is integral to Hodgson's new England era. 

The sporadic calls in the past for the striker to be dropped from the national team have always been rash and impulsive. The idea that this England side would prosper without him is a myth, and as long as he is fit, Rooney will always be the first name on Hodgson's team sheet. 

No individual is determined to succeed with England as much as Rooney. He knows that international accolades set the great players apart from the good ones, and it is that determination, that passion that he must communicate to an England team with lots to learn.   

Rooney has had to deal with the burden of expectation throughout his career, and his experiences of international football have moulded him into the captain Roy Hodgson needs to lead his new generation of England footballers.

Until now, his role within the national side has so often been undervalued, but England have become more reliant on Rooney than ever, and when he does finally eclipse Bobby Charlton's record, perhaps he'll be in danger of receiving the recognition such rare talent deserves.   

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Leave Him to His Charity Work, but Don't Give Lance Armstrong the Attention He Craves

"Yes or no, in all seven of your Tour de France victories, did you ever take banned substances or blood dope?"


With one word, Lance Armstrong let down the millions of people that believed in him. Over two years have passed since the shamed cyclist confessed to spearheading one of the biggest doping scandals in sporting history. It was an admission that many hoped would never come, as the fairy tale of a cancer survivor returning to win seven Tour de France titles was too romantic to relinquish.

In contrast, for those who had fallen victim to the American's merciless pursuit of personal gain, the sight of the once adored cyclist slumped and exposed as a cheat next to Oprah Winfrey would have been the ultimate cathartic experience. Armstrong's confession, however, has done little to clear the doping clouds that continue to cast a shadow over the sport of cycling.

As the International Cycling Union continues work on shedding the sport's tainted reputation, Armstrong persists like a parasite that refuses to go away. It was never going to be an easy mess to clean up, but the abundance of lawsuits and settlements regarding the Texan's scandalous past are unfortunately just as intriguing as the competitive cycling on the road. Indeed, Armstrong's latest contribution to the fallout is his decision to accept an invitation from Geoff Thomas to return to France and cycle a stage of the Tour for the Cure Leukaemia charity.
Armstrong poses with Thomas ahead of their charity bike ride.

Armstrong's inclusion in the charity ride has inevitably been met with opposition by some who believe he should never be allowed near the bike again. During each of his Tour de France victories, Armstrong was a deceitful, ruthless and self-indulgent bully who brutally cast aside anyone who threatened to reveal the secret behind his success.

The former cyclist is still all of those things, and you'd be kidding yourself if you believe his confession wasn't a result of circumstance. The sincerity of his apology was about as believable as a strawberry flavoured kangaroo doing the butterfly across the Thames. He lied to journalists, fellow cyclists, presidents, and most shamefully, fellow cancer survivors. Armstrong clung to his elaborate lie until it was no longer possible. His admission was a classic case of jumping before being pushed.    

Ultimately, Lance Armstrong craves attention. After being stripped of his Tour titles the 43-year-old tweeted a picture lying under his collection of yellow jerseys in an act of defiance which illuminated his obvious lack of contrition. If Armstrong could dope and win again without being caught, he would.
"Just layin' around" - Armstrong was defiant after being stripped of his Tour titles.

More recently, the Texan compared himself to the Harry Potter villain Voldemort, complaining that "I'm the one everyone wants to pretend never lived". Indeed, Armstrong doesn't enjoy not being talked about, and his imminent return to the roads of France has profitably propelled him to the peak of the cycling headlines.

Perhaps just this once, however, Armstrong shouldn't be lapping up all the attention. The cause for which he is riding is far more deserving of our time. Like Armstrong, Geoff Thomas was a successful sportsman. Unlike Armstrong, Thomas didn't achieve his success through doping, but the two men are united by their personal victories over cancer. Livestrong rightly cut all ties with its founder when Armstrong admitted to cheating, but Thomas is providing the American a route back into cancer charity work.

Armstrong presents us with the most complex of moral dilemmas. Despite his checkered past, the Texan's remarkable comeback story provided the platform for a charity that raised millions of dollars for cancer patients and inspired many of them, including Thomas.
Armstrong will return to the scene of his tainted Tour victories.

The former Crystal Palace captain claims that 'Lance was the person who really dragged me out of what was a very dark place', and for this reason he is willing to offer Armstrong a path to redemption. One thing's for certain, that Thomas shouldn't be vilified for trying to help the man who offered him inspiration in his personal hopeless situation. 

Does this mean that we too can simply forgive one of the biggest cheats in sporting history? Probably not.

One would be forgiven for thinking that Armstrong has an agenda returning to France, an agenda to provoke or prove that he can still do as he pleases. In this case, however, perhaps the best punishment for Armstrong is to treat him like the Voldemort he fears he is and deprive him of the headlines his ego craves. This shouldn't be about the individual Lance going back to France, but rather a group of riders being led through the gruelling route of the Tour de France by cancer survivor Geoff Thomas. 

Despite what his Twitter bio tells you, Armstrong should no longer be acknowledged as the winner of seven Tour titles. It's time to separate Lance the cyclist from Lance the charity worker, and realise that Armstrong is now one among many in the fight against cancer.

If Geoff Thomas believes giving a second chance to a man who once offered him hope will help him reach his fundraising target of £1million, then who are we to condemn him? This is purely about raising money for cancer, and the sooner the fixation with Lance Armstrong stops, the sooner both he and cycling will be able to move on from each other.