A Good News Story (At Last)

January 26, 2011

Simon Jones (Courtesy of Getty)

Of course, it’s perfectly understandable.

Keys and Gray have obviously been the big story for the last few days, it natural that you may well have missed one of the most intriguing comebacks in English sport.

Cast your mind back my friend to the balmy summer of 2005 and “The Greatest Ashes Series Ever”, while we all cooed over the performances of Andrew Flintoff, it was actually the then Glamorgan swinger, Simon Jones, who was impressing the cricket aficionados with his exquisite brand of reverse swing bowling.  What’s often forgotten in the aftermath of that series and the “Freddie-Mania” that ensued is that Jones could well have ended the series as England’s leading wicket taker if he hadn’t missed the final test at the Oval.

And then what?

Well, Jones found himself injured; it started with his ankle which he damaged in the second innings at Trent Bridge. He injured his ankle again in the nets just before the first test on the India tour in 2006. He had surgery on his knees in Colorado that ruled him out of the Ashes tour in 2006/7 (a result of the horrific cruciate ligament injury he sustained in Brisbane in 2002) and just as he seemed to be getting himself back together he suffered another knee injury. Indeed, it seemed like there was no cricketer more cursed than Simon Jones.

Of course, time has moved on, the much vaunted English bowling attack of 2005 eventually retired, lost form or dropped out of favour. Ashley Giles (The Spinner) became Director of Coaching at Warwickshire. Andrew Flintoff left the sport after the Ashes series of 2009 to become a celebrity. Matthew Hoggard quietly dropped out of favour and hasn’t played for England since 2008 and Steve Harmison has flirted with the England squad, making cameo appearances here and there, but has surely played his last test for England.

This leaves Simon Jones, well, let me inform you that Jones is still playing and playing phenomenally well for Hampshire. Indeed, in one recent 20/20 match for Hampshire he took four for 10 in four overs. This bodes well for the England team, Jones was easily as good a swinger of the ball as a prime Waqar Younis and he could have been one of England’s great quicks, if it hadn’t been for his rotten injury luck.

It’s doubtful that the now 32 years old Jones would last a full test match, it doesn’t even seem that the England team need him, with an established bowling attack of Swann, Bresnan, Tremlett, Broad and Anderson, but with the punishing schedule ahead (The World Cup looms large), could we see Jones making a dramatic comeback by filling one of the one day slots?

Maybe…I hope so!

Well, Andy Gray eh? Sacked! Richard Keys, resigned!

Where do we stand? Either the “Sky Sports 2” are irredeemably sexist dinosaurs who have no place in our thrusting, dynamic society or they’re simply hapless victims of carefully orchestrated media outrage and hysterical public opinion.

Let’s look at the facts, Andy Gray, and Richard Keys made off colour comments regarding the officiating capability of Sian Massey, the referee’s assistant for the match at Wolves last Saturday. Also, videotape of Richard Keys making what could only be described as unfortunate comments about Jamie Redknapps’ former girlfriend to a work colleague has emerged.While it could be argued that their utterances aren’t in the best possible taste and have no place in the dynamic, thrusting society we live in today. I ask, is it in proportion to sack Gray and pressurise Keys into resigning?

Well, my answer is “No, no it isn’t”.

What we have here is a re-hashing of Gordon Brown’s “That Woman” incident. Old G.B referred to one of his supporters as a “bigoted woman”, during the middle of an election campaign. Now we know that Brown lead his party to electoral defeat, but he still has employment as an MP in Westminster. Where’s the difference? Why are Gray and Keys being hauled over the coals of public opinion while Brown is still able to represent his constituents?

Who knows? But what I find most disturbing about all this is the lack of people who are willing to defend Gray and Keys. Are people not concerned that two men have lost their jobs over privately held views, accidentally made public? If a corporation like Sky are prepared to take this sort of step with two of their most highly paid and identifiable front men, what would stop another corporation doing the same thing to their employees?  Can you imagine? Being disciplined or even sacked, for merely holding an unpalatable opinion, that way tyranny lies.

 George Orwell wrote in “1984”, “You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”. It turns out that Orwell, was closer to describing modern day living then even he would have imagined.

And that, Dear Reader, should concern you more than any of Gray and Key’s ramblings.

To many, the display of the Mexican national side was a real surprise in the last World Cup. They were grouped with the host nation South Africa, the finalists of the previous tournament France, and Uruguay, a side containing two of the most lethal front men in European football. Let’s be honest, we didn’t expect much. Indeed, I naively expected the French to just turn up and beat them as any side containing the likes of Ribery, Govou, Anelka et al should be good enough to beat almost anybody, shouldn’t they?

How pleased I was then when Domenech’s dour, boring side was put to the sword by a display of wide open attacking football, led from the front by the Manchester United-bound ‘Chicarto’ Javier Hernandez. As somebody who now watches a LOT of Mexican football, I’m delighted to say the domestic league is full of players with bags of natural ability, and the attacking flair the national side displayed so well that night in Polokwane resonates throughout.

For those who don’t know, South and Central American leagues run rather differently to those in Europe. There are two championships consisting of one game against each side contested every year, the ‘Apertura’ (roughly translated as ‘opening’) championship in the first half of the season, and the ‘Clasura’ (closing) in the second. This is an idea that has many flaws (can you imagine having two champions a year in England or Scotland? Nor me) but it is done for the purposes of continental football. Mexico enters club sides into the CONCACAF Champions League from one championship, and the much more prestigious Copa Libertadores in the other, and because of this, the two championships per year system works really well. However, it also includes a play off system to decide the league champions- something which fans of Cruz Azul would berate bitterly.

Over the course of the season, ‘Los Cementeros’ were far and away the best side in the country. In 17 games they lost just twice, once to bitter city rivals Club Universidad Nacional (otherwise known as the Pumas) and surprisingly against strugglers Necaxa. However, they put closest challengers Monterrey to the sword away from home, as well as securing a comprehensive victory over Santos Laguna, the side who would ultimately finish third in the league. At the same time they progressed through the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions League with consummate ease, even having the comfort of fielding reserve sides along the way.

The next line may not help my argument with the more cynical amongst you, but I was greatly impressed with the front line, largely led by former Derby County flop Emmanuel Villa. (Yes, I know, bring on the abuse. It can easily be countered with two words: Diego Forlan. He didn’t really enjoy his time in England either, but he’s now one of the most respected strikers in the game. But I digress…)

While the Argentine was not prolific (seven goals in 22 appearances) he was very much the focal point of their attack, bringing the likes of winger Christian Gimenez, and fellow forward Javier Orcozo into the game. Gimenez in particular was very impressive, the former Boca Juniors man scored 10 goals and made countless others, but the battling qualities of Villa were there for all to see.  They were also solid at the back, conceding just 13 goals in the 17 games, and with former Sevilla and Racing Santander midfielder Gerardo Torrardo sitting in the midfield, they looked every inch like champions.

However, if there’s one thing that this Cruz Azul team struggle with it is definitely knock out football. This is the side who has lost both of the last two CONCACAF Champions League finals, the last one to a goal three minutes into injury time against fellow Mexican side Pachuca. It was perhaps inevitable then that they would fail when the play offs came about, but defeat to their city rivals must really have stung. Pumas finished 7 places and 14 points adrift of ‘El Azul‘, and despite securing a 2-1 win away from home, they were beaten 2-0 on their own patch, making the league form ultimately for nought.

Second placed Monterrey would eventually benefit in the play off final, inspired by reported Manchester United and Liverpool target Humberto Suazo to a 5-3 aggregate victory over third placed Santos Laguna. In my opinion, Chilean striker Suazo would be an inspirational signing for a top European side, and the amount of times I witnessed him turn games on their head with a piece of brilliance was truly incredible. The 29 year old would finish the campaign with 15 goals, one behind former Birmingham striker Christian Benitez, who scored 16 for Laguna.

It was a thoroughly entertaining campaign, with football played at a sky-high tempo and thunderous challenges in pretty much every game I saw. The Clasura is now underway, and it seems that Cruz Azul are still struggling to deal with the Apertura disappointment. Although they were to begin the new season with a comprehensive 4-1 victory, they were thrashed 3-0 by Atlante in their second match. (And trust me, NOBODY should lose by three goals against Atlante!)

This past weekend was my first opportunity to see Cruz Azul since they lost to Pumas, and it was perhaps inevitable they would face their city rivals again. Once again, Villa was instrumental up front, grabbing the opening goal and giving the Pumas backline a problem all evening long. Cruising 2-0 up at half time, it seemed that the ghost had been put to rest, normal service resumed. Indeed, 30-odd thousand ‘El Azul’ supporters certainly seemed to think so as they taunted their rivals.

However, 20 crazy second half minutes saw the game turned on it’s head, with a brace from Juan Carlos Cacho on his return to his old club, and a header from captain Dario Veron. Azul showed great character to equalise with less than ten minutes to go, but they will no doubt be left feeling frustrated by their inability to avenge their defeat.

I’m intrigued to see if they can pick themselves up, or whether they will endure a disappointing Clasura, but I’d suggest their priority may well switch from the league to the Champions League. They face fellow Mexican side Santos Laguna in the quarter finals next month, and the prospect of a semi final against Monterrey afterwards, so a record sixth Champions League trophy is well within their grasp.  If I was a betting man though, I’d suggest more disappointment beckons for Enrique Meza’s men in both fields.

Are you a fan of Mexican football? Who do you think will be the star of the Clasura? I’d love your feedback either here or follow me on Twitter.

Mercenary? Moi?

January 25, 2011

If there’s one word that’s used with gay abandon in the footballing world, it’s “Mercenary”, Mike uses it himself in his return to blogging.

In the footballing parlance, a mercenary is a player who “sells out” their current club, in order to join another; usually the new club will offer the player in question far more money than he is currently earning.  More than most other sports, football has a rich tradition of mercenaries from Winston Bogarde to Sol Campbell, Sven Goran Eriksson and Darren Bent. All held as traitors by the fans, all of them considered mercenaries.

Why though? Where a football fan sees a mercenary, why do I see a normal urge to maximise your earning potential? Do we not live in a society where one is entitled to take their skills and sell them to the highest bidder? Why should Darren Bent be forced to trudge along at The Stadium Of Light when he could be earning far more money at Villa Park? Darren Bent never professed a great love of Sunderland, he isn’t a Mackem, he comes from Tooting for God’s sakes. 

Basically, what happened to Darren Bent happens in companies and in the general working sphere all the time, he got head hunted. The money involved is astronomical, but Bent was essentially head hunted by Aston Villa and Sunderland couldn’t have done a thing about it. This is the way of the world; if you have a talent that people are prepared to pay for why shouldn’t you sell it?

Castigating a player for being a mercenary is childish at best and regressive at worst. It also reveals the strange doublethink that some people have about this subject. Money isn’t always a pleasant thing to discuss, but until we get over these outdated notions of loyalty that infect the beautiful game, I’m afraid that “Mercenary” will be a word we’ll see time and time again.

“Tikkaboo Son”

January 25, 2011

Gray and Keys - Yesterday

Mike’s back blogging, thank God! That’ll give me the kick up the backside I need.

So here’s my first entry for a while, and it’s about the biggest story in football at the moment. As I type, Richard Keys and Andy Gray are facing increasing pressure from their employer, Sky, regarding sexist comments made about Sian Massey, the referee’s assistant at Molyneux last weekend. Of course, there’s a delicious irony at play here that Keys and Gray would find themselves censured by, of all companies, News Corp. The same company that owns The Sun, which, as we all know, still proudly has its daily “Page Three” feature.

The notion that Sky would suddenly jump on the sexist bandwagon is utterly nauseating to me and it’s not just Sky, its Rio Ferdinand, who described their views as “Pre-historic”. This would be the same Rio Ferdinand who happily filmed a group sex session with Frank Lampard, Kieron Dyer and two other women. The next time Rio feels the need to sermonise from the gospel according to Harriet Harman, he should take a good long look at himself in the mirror and then decide to keep his mouth shut.

This is the problem though, women have been treated as little more than objects for so long by football, footballers and the general mainstream media, that when something like this happens, it all seems a little false to me. Is Sky genuinely angry about Keys and Gray? Of course it isn’t, it’s sorry they’ve been caught out, undoubtedly, but hardly sorry for what they said.

So please, Sky, spare us all the ridiculous posturing, you don’t really care about what Keys and Gray said. Just bring them back, and we’ll forget all about it.

Greetings all. Once again, I feel the need to apologise in the opening line of my blog, and there are certainly some metaphorical cobwebs to blow away. A little self loathing, and even more self doubt have kept me away from this place, but no more (there’s only so much Football Manager a man can play in a day after all!) I also need to hold my hands up and admit that my later blog entries had gone a little stale. I had lost my edge, largely because I was blogging about old news. Lesson learned, methinks.

So plenty has happened since I’ve been away. Celtic have got themselves right back into the title race, Notts have  had to sell their most influential play maker, and Darren Bent has proved beyond reasonable doubt that too many Premiership footballers are mercenaries. But that’s not fresh news, you can read about it anywhere you like. No, instead I’m going to talk about something a little more personal.

As some of you may know, I’m fortunate enough to do a job I adore for a living: I get to commentate on football from all around the world. I think it’s time I started to talk about those games here, so expect a post in an hour or so.

Until then, this might interest you. If you fancy a free ticket to a Football League match, keep your eye on this page.

Catch you all very soon.

Scottish Referees…Striking?

November 30, 2010

Lennon V Dougie McDonald - Which is better? FIGHTTTTTT!!! (Pic:BBC)

You’d have thought that getting a dog’s abuse from fans, managers, pundits and the presses was part and parcel of being a football ref nowadays. It seems that the average ref can’t fart nowadays without having some fan or player berating him.

It’s difficult to not have some sympathy for Hamish McWhistleblower, not only are you forced to watch some of the worst football in Europe (and pay attention), you’ve also got to put with the likes of Neil Lennon, everyone’s favourite ginger mental case, screaming abuse at you as well. No doubt about it, the lot of the Scottish referee is an intolerably poor one. Throw in some lunatic religious conspiracy theories, rampant nationalism and a McCains factory full of chips for the average fan’s shoulder, and you get an idea as to how unpleasant Scottish football actually is. No, scratch that, because that actually applies to Scotland as a whole, not just the footballing parts (I’ve seen “Trainspotting,” I know what it’s like up there).

On a serious note though, it’s worth thinking about and I suppose we are forced to ask the question why this hasn’t happened sooner. I’ve always been of the opinion that refs need to stand up for themselves and although I’m generally not in favour of strike action per se, I would support it in this instance. While various football leagues throughout Europe have been quick to trumpet the “respect” agenda, there seems to be precious little of that available to our officials. It seems that you can’t watch an episode of “MOTD” without seeing some poor sap being accosted by a 6 foot scouser the size of a wardrobe screaming abuse at him, inches from his face.

Respect, of course, is a two way street. I’m under no illusions that refs need to up their games a bit. How would they do this? Again, it’s difficult, refereeing is about making big decisions on the spot, without the benefit of video replay. Until FIFA approve the use of video replays, I’m afraid we’re going to see this kind of industrial action more often.

Rest assured, that isn’t a good thing, even in Scotland.