Manchester – united or in chaos?

Manchester United are in a strange position. A new manager, substantial financial backing and the largest fan-base in the world bear all the hallmarks of success but something is missing – such is the strangeness of life at Manchester United at the moment. This an existence where colossal spending and second-rate outings form an incongruous double act.

Perhaps it is as well for them that Angel di Maria seems certain to join. mu2Yet if he was watching, this should have provided a reality check for the Real Madrid player.

Farewell magnificence and hello mediocrity: he is leaving the European champions for the club who limped to seventh place in last season’s English Premier League and who, while procuring a first point under Louis van Gaal, were fortunate to avoid defeat against Sunderland, who were almost relegated in May.

And so, a poor performance will precede a demonstration of United’s riches. With United purportedly paying £63.9m for Di Maria, both the club, and the British, transfer records have been obliterated. It is an extortionate amount considering the Argentine, wonderful player as he is, cannot get into the Madrid side.

If retail therapy is the designated solution, actual therapy may be required for some of their fanbase. Few could have imagined life after Alex Ferguson would be quite so depressing.

Once again, they are looking to outsimu1ders for answers. Van Gaal deserves sympathy because none of his three signings were available. With Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera both injured and Marcos Rojo ineligible as he waits for his work permit, the Dutchman is currently overseeing a United side that, man-for-man, is weaker than David Moyes’ teams.

Di Maria can improve United. Then again, so could dozens of other players, many of them infinitely cheaper. The harder task is curing all their ills.

If Di Maria can teach the wing-backs to defend, or the centre-backs to pass forward with accuracy and pace, or the midfield to control games and play at pace and with purpose or the entire side to resemble the United teams of the past, then he will be a bargain.

Yet, he is a creative player and the foundations of this side are not strong enough. Like Juan Mata before him, he has the potential to be an expensive sticking plaster. And not even on a gaping wound as much as near it.

Arturo Vidal, the all-action Juventus’ all-action central midfielder Van Gaal namechecked afterwards, would have been a more logical addition than a winger or a No 10.

United should worry least about the final third, where Mata, Rooney and Van Persie operate. It is in the rest of the pitch where their shortcomings are clearest. They have a trio of attacking talents and a terrific goalkeeper, in David de Gea. Yet, how many of the seven defenders and midfielders separating them would even get in the Sunderland side?

The slow start that Van Gaal had warned about could be attributed to their teething troubles in a new shape, but there are deep-rooted problems, given the undistinguished nature of his squad.

The defensive deficiencies of the United wing-backs were exposed, Will Buckley targeting Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia losing Jack Rodwell for Sunderland’s goal, scored by a Manchester City cast-off. In the middle of the defence, Chris Smalling was first awful and then injured.

There was a void at the heart of midfield.mu3

The estimable Darren Fletcher struggled and Van Gaal ended up pairing Tom Cleverley with Adnan Januzaj: brought on at wing-back last week and as midfielder this, he is neither. Collectively, they looked lacklustre and laboured, insipid and ineffective.

Nevertheless, United led against the run of play. Mata is at his most prolific in a central role; this 3-4-1-2 system might havebeen designed with the Spaniard in mind.

Yet, Di Maria could be an alternative and still more expensive flair player who covets the role behind the strikers, raising the question of what happens to the man who – if only for a day or two – remains United’s most expensive signing.

Off the field, things are changing. They must on it, too.

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Rose Bowl review

Alistair Cook must have felt blessed, sweet relief when Moeen Ali took the wicket of Pankaj rb3Singh (who, incidentally, must rank as one of the unluckiest bowlers in his first test ever) on Thursday morning in Southampton to tie up a spectacular, wonderful Test match victory for his beleaguered England side.

The pattern was set in the first innings, when Ian Bell, Gary Ballance and, best of all, Cook himself, all made big runs to give England a commanding total of 569-7. Bell was in imperious form, making a beautiful 167. It was an innings full of
deft stroke play and commanding drives, as well as some power play at the end as the various bowlers tired. Ballance continued his remarkable run of form since the start of the summer, his innings of 156 ending prematurely when he was wrongly given caught behind-the ball clearly came off his thigh pad. Most encouraging of all though were the respective innings of Cook and young Jos Buttler, coming in at No. 7 in his first Test innings and playing the sort of fearless cricket that will get crowds back on Englands side, and will bring the public flooding back to Test matches.

Cook started a little edgily (literally), with a nibble outside off when he was only on 15 dropped byrb1 Jadeja at third slip. It was to be a costly error by the Indian fielder (and not the only one that was made in the field by the tourists), as Cook seemed to use the drop to galvanise him. Suddenly he became much more authoritative, with several crisp drives indicating he might just, finally, be returning to some sort of form. Moving with ease past 50 and past the 70’s then 80’s, all of those inside the gladiatorial Rose Bowl just outside Southampton dared to dream. Was this the day he would finally record a 26th Test century? Unfortunately it was not, as he fell agonisingly on 95 to a fairly innocuous Ravi Jadeja delivery. Buttler was also in good form, making a brisk and breezy 85 at more than a run a ball, just upping the tempo of the innings when it was needed to make create a well-timed declaration.

The bowling was also excellent, with Anderson back to his best form in at least a year, Stuart Broad pacy and threatening as usual, and Chris Woakes and Chris Jordan providing excellent backup. Although the pitch was a good one, the bowling unsettled and roughed up the Indian batsmen, never letting them get comfortable or get easy runs. Another massive plus point was in the spinning department, with Moeen Ali coming to the wicket-taking party in spectacular fashion by taking 6 wickets in the Indian second innings. Bearing in mind that Cook’s captaincy was also much better than previously this summer (no doubt helped by his two 50+ scores in the game), and that the catching was also vastly improved from against Sri Lanka and during the Ashes, this was a performance of quality, skill and a whole lot of determination from a side without a win in almost a year.rb2

The last word must of course be reserved for Cook, the captain who has taken so much flak in the last few months and now enjoys a few days of huge professional pride, as well as just a little bit of relief before they back into battle at Old Trafford.

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An Englishman’s take on the Essendon scandal

Having spent a fair whack of my summer in Australia and more specifically Perth, I got quite into ‘footy’ which to an Englishman is Aussie Rules. During my time the ‘Essendon scandal’ started to boil over I thought it would be interesting to visit the situation and see where the AFL (Australian Football League) stood with three or four months having passed. To give you a bit of background, Essendon who are from Melbourne have always been a reasonably consistent performer in the AFL with their best years undoubtedly occurring at the turn of the millennium. However, the 2013 season saw controversy. On the pitch the Bombers were in finals contention but off the field they became embroiled in an illegal supplements scandal which eventually saw them kicked out of the finals series and disgraced as a club. Below I hope to take a brief look at what the current situation is at the struggling Melbourne club.

The arguments between the Hird camp and the AFL over whether the investigation intoessendon   the Essendon supplements scandal has been compromised, and whether the processes and tactics employed by the league and its chief executive were fair to the Essendon hierarchy are intriguing, but pale in comparison when you look at the reality of what happened at Essendon last year.

ASADA is close to completing its investigation into the NRL’s Cronulla Sharks with suspensions purportedly being announced in February next year. Furthermore, recent reports have also stated that ”ASADA now have enough evidence on Essendon to decide whether or not to press charges against the club.

Between Essendon and Cronulla, a common factor emerges, that of Stephen Dank – a former biochemist involved in the contentious supplements programs at each club. Dank has publicly maintained he won’t submit to ASADA’s new powers compelling him to be interviewed, but it is believed his stand may be softening. It should also be noted that Cronulla’s program lasted only two to three weeks and charges brought seem a formality. Essendon’s program ran from late 2011 through to August in 2012.

None of the wrangling between the Hird camp and the AFL changes the accepted scenario that several young, fit players were injected multiple times with a selection of questionable substances. ASADA’s damning interim report and Essendon’s internal report by Ziggy Switkowski – which many of Hird’s supporters seem to have forgotten – suggest the players Essendon players will struggle to escape penalty, despite the AFL’s confidence that they will.

Essendon+Bombers+Training+Session+SxkOhwlGQ4KlThe fall-out from player suspensions will be great. Essendon, once a great club, will be irrevocably tainted for the next season at least and more importantly devastate the club. One player agent has also claimed he has a group of players ready to take legal action against Essendon, and possibly Hird, should charges from ASADA be pressed. If such circumstances so occur for Hird’s deal with the club to return to a senior role late next year would surely become untenable – surely he couldn’t possibly return under such circumstances.

As such, the game the Hird camp are now playing is dangerous. If Essendon are paying Hird $1 million a season for essentially doing nothing, that’s their decision but the fact this has been allowed to go on is ridiculous and more embarrassing on the AFL’s part. And as a result of the lack of AFL intervention, Herd has grabbed this with both hands portraying an injustice he feels that has gone on and a belief he was forced into accepting a suspension that was completely unwarranted. Interesting.

This saga has already claimed the Bomber’s former chairman David Evans and chief executive Ian Robson, so it’s quite unbelievable that Hird hasn’t shown one bit of remorse for the supplements program that has rocked his club. This has hardly helped the Essendon board as they attempt to justify Hird’s return to a senior role as well as his two-year contract extension!

andrewInterestingly, the Essendon saga saw a joint AFL-ASADA investigation for the first time and whilst much maligned AFL chief Andrew Demetriou has said the joint AFL-ASADA investigation would the first of many, it’s understood WADA will never endorse another joint investigation with a sport and no major sporting code would ever compromise itself by agreeing to a shared inquiry with ASADA. How both parties can be singing of such different hymn sheets is quite farcical.

In the meantime, the final word must go to those that will undoubtedly be affected by the whole situation and who are probably more frustrated than any fans – the players. Whilst this goes on in the background the players are still expected to concentrate on preparing for the 2014 campaign under coach Mark Thompson, a monumental task in itself given the circumstances!

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Kenya: An inevitability?

Generally I blog about sport and the issues surrounding  it, but with Kenya being in the news alot recently I thought it would be a good one off place to put down a few thoughts.

Kenya has long been an African success story, a place that’s been relatively stable, peaceful and prosperous despite being in a neighbourhood rocked by major disasters for decades. There has been endless civil war in Somalia, genocide in Rwanda and famine in Ethiopia. Yet these calamities have, by and large, not spilled over to Kenya, which has been the crossroads of East Africa, serving as a business, transportation and tourist hub.

This also explains why an up-scale mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, was an ideal target forkenya2 al-Shabab, the Somali militia with ties to al-Qaida.

“Kenya is full of Western interests and if Al-Qaida wants to target America, which is obviously its reason for being, Kenya is the place to be,” Bronwyn Burton of the Atlantic Council commented.

“They would much rather be operating in Nairobi, where they can hurt more people and they can make more progress in their jihad than they could ever hope to accomplish in Mogadishu,” Burton says.

Kenya has always been one of the most outward-looking African countries with its wide-ranging links to the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Asia. International companies and aid groups operating in Africa are likely to have a base in Nairobi. Western countries maintain large embassies in Nairobi. And the country swarms with well-heeled Western tourists headed on safaris to Kenya’s spectacular game parks.

For these reasons, Kenya depends heavily on its reputation as an island of stability. And that reputation can be easily damaged by terrorist attacks, which can instantly drive away potential visitors.

Kenya’s Vulnerabilitieskenya3

Counter terrorism experts have been  sounding warnings about Kenya’s vulnerabilities for years. The country shares a long, unguarded border with Somalia, which smugglers use to ferry weapons and other contraband. Kenya has absorbed many Somalis, with a large concentration in the “Little Mogadishu” neighbourhood of Nairobi – and some parts of this Somali diaspora support Al-Shabab.

Kenya has rarely intervened militarily with its troubled neighbours. But two years ago, Kenya sent troops into Somalia in an attempt to break down the chaos there. The Kenyan forces went after Al-Shabab and took territory held by the Islamist militia, including the southern Somali port city of Kismayo. In response, Al-Shabab warned it would target Kenya. The group made good on that threat with the strike on the Westgate Mall, a place frequented by well-off Kenyans and many foreigners living in Kenya.

kenya1“We went as a nation into Somalia to help stabilize the country and most importantly to fight terror that had been unleashed on Kenya and the world,” said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. For Kenyatta, the Nairobi mall attack was personal — his nephew and the nephew’s fiancée were killed.

The U.S. has been working with Kenya to develop its anti-terrorism efforts. But in general, Kenya’s security forces, and the police in particular, are seen as poorly trained and widely corrupt. It will be very interesting to see what lessons are learnt from this tragic set of events.

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Another body blow for the athletics world – Powell and Gay test positive

The athletic world is in mourning today after the depressing news that two of its poster dopingboys Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay are drug cheats. Following a highly successful weekend for GB athletics with the highlight being James Dasaolu running the second fastest British 100m time in history, we reflect on another painful incident which has provided another body blow to this troubled sport.

So what are the consequences of this pathetic news coming out of the states? Well for a start this means six of the 10 fastest 100m sprinters in history are now tainted with drugs. For a sport that struggles with its credibility at the best of times, this has done the world of athletics no favours at all and any fans it won over at the spectacular 2012 Olympics may well be lost once again. Why would you want a pumped up druggie as your role model?

For the record Gay is the second fastest 100m sprinter in history behind Usain Bolt and Powell the 30-year-old has run under 10 seconds for 100m on 90 occasions.

Powell-GayNow the careers of both are in tatters after positive tests were confirmed at the weekend. And on the eve of the World Championships it leaves athletics battling an image problem akin to cycling – although one should mention we are waiting on the all important B-sample to be returned which offers a glimpse of hope to the already disgraced athletes, although I have to say I would not be holding out much hope!

By extension the outing of Gay, 30,  and Powell also tarnishes Bolt, a runner who has never tested positive and who, refreshingly, the good judges in the industry regard as a freak of nature who relies solely on his God-given gifts.

Prior to Bolt’s emergence seven years ago Powell and Gay battled for the title of world’s fastest man, a tag that carries enormous financial rewards.

Then  Bolt started running unheard of times, perhaps prompting them to seek somethingGay-Powell-2007 extra to keep up with the giant Jamaican. Or maybe they were dirty, rotten drug cheats all along. Who knows!

Following such a good weekend for Great British athletics and no doubt countless numbers of kids wanting to be the new James Dasaolu or Dai Greene, we must hope that our leading athletes at least, can act as suitable and clean role models that future generations can look too.

Unfortunately, it appears all this latest episode has done is turned kids into cynics when they should be displaying wide-eyed wonderment towards their heroes. A very disappointing episode.

So to Gay and Powell, well done, you have just destroyed the dreams of many and ripped your sport apart in the process.

TOP 10 FASTEST MEN IN HISTORY
Name                          Country                   Time            Drug Use
Usain Bolt                   Jamaica                  9.58                No
Tyson Gay                USA                       9.69               Yes
Yohan Blake           Jamaica               9.69               Yes
Asafa Powell           Jamaica               9.72               Yes
Maurice Greene     USA                       9.78                 *

Nesta Carter              Jamaica                  9.78                 No
Justin Gatlin          USA                       9.79                Yes
Steve Mullings       Jamaica               9.80               Yes

Ben Johnson           Canada                9.83                Yes
Donovan Bailey          Canada                   9.84                 No

*Drugs usage suspected and alleged but never charged or convicted

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A Sporting Menace – Corruption

Whenever you are watching a magician perform or a blockbuster film in the cinema, youcc3 know that what you’re seeing is scripted. You know it’s a show; a performance; an act. Sometimes you know how it ends, but even if you don’t, you are know deep down that the outcome is already decided and for you to experience if not done so already.

You watch because you are entertained by the way the story or performance created or portrayed and by the abilities of the performers involved. You don’t feel duped because, for the most part, you knew exactly what you were getting beforehand; ie. you are viewing are actors playing a role, or some sort of sleight of hand.

It is not so with sport. There is an element of uncertainty, an element that is so compelling and the reason why millions and millions of us play sport in whatever guise. Uncertainty is at the centre of all sporting activity. When two teams are locked in combat or when sprinters line-up in their starting blocks, neither the viewers, nor the organisers, nor the participants themselves, know how the action will unfold, or who will triumph in the end.

cc4We often have clear ideas of how we think a game or a contest might turn out. The better team normally wins. But a mouthy Cassius Clay did stop the unbeatable Sonny Liston in 1964. In the 1996 cricket World Cup, the still mighty West Indies were beaten by a group of part-time cricketers from Kenya, many of whom the majority thought would struggle to make club teams in Jamaica or Barbados. An even more obvious example was at the 1980 winter Olympics which gave us the “Miracle On Ice” when a ramshackle collection of college players from the USA beat a well-oiled USSR ice-hockey machine that was supposed to be as one-sided as they get.

There are no guarantees in sport so we watch the battle unfold; revelling in the skills of the warriors, and for the most part, we accept the results, even if it’s not the one we hoped for or expected because we believed the contestants followed the rules of the game and competed fairly.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Any attempt to corrupt this process renders the whole exercise redundant and causes fans to doubt the integrity of sport. We held Lance Armstrong close to our hearts when his story was about a man who fought heroically to overcome the scourge of cancer to become a seven-time champion in sports’ most gruelling event – Le Tour de France. And it was a stab in the heart when we realised that he was a perennial cheater who was far from heroic.

The spot-fixing scandal of the sixth edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) hascc2 similarly shaken our faith. As it gets wider and more nefarious we are plunged deeper and deeper into despair. We know that match fixing especially in cricket is growing but there is no telling how widespread it is, and recent reports that the Bangladesh T20 league was also tainted has only heightened the uncertainty.

One of Bangladesh’s most famous cricketers, the mercurial Mohammad Ashraful, has reportedly apologised for his role in match and spot fixing and has asked his country to forgive him. And while he ought to have considered the ramifications of his awful actions, it is at least more than any other player has been willing to do so far.

It is a start. The hope is that he tells all he knows about the sinister combination of gambling and cricket, and that his cooperation will urge others to do likewise.

Deepening the crisis even further, Rajasthan Royal’s co-owner, Raj Kundra, has now been suspended by the BCCI with the authorities also confiscating his passport. It has now gotten to the point where fans are beginning to think that corruption is probably a part of cricket everywhere.

Who is to say that there aren’t shady bookies plotting to pounce on the Champions Trophy?

The fact that players could still be convinced to sell out the game despite instances of players being caught and penalised in the past shows that punishment, however harsh, might not be enough of a deterrent. There have been suggestions that legalising gambling on cricket in India might be the way to go. It is not.

The problem, as I see it, is not gambling per se. Punters betting on games without the involvement of players or umpires would be fine. The trouble comes when players or umpires are enlisted in an effort to fraudulently affect a result or arrange for a particular occurrence during the game. Legalising gambling on cricket will not prevent that.

cc1Yet the question remains: How is the sport to be washed clean?

That’s a difficult problem to resolve with any certainty. No one can tell that there will never be a player somewhere who will be lured by the promise of easy money. Cricket may never totally rise above suspicion but if it is to have a chance of doing so the players have to somehow be convinced to shun this kind of wrongdoing.

Ashraful has agreed to help with the investigation “for the sake of cricket.” This should be the stance of every cricketer who has ever been approached by anyone trying to bring down the great sport.

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The Lions land in Hong Kong

Ever since Stuart Dickinson blew the whistle on the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa whichlions3 capped one of the best test match rugby series in modern times, rugby fans all round the world have been eagerly anticipating the return of the legendary touring side. And finally the time has come as the side have just jetted off to Hong Kong for the first leg of their epic tour of Australia!

The British and Irish Lions, a team of the best rugby players in the British Isles, landed in Hong Kong Tuesday to prepare for a match against the Barbarians, an all-star side featuring players from around the world. Saturday’s match will be the first time the Lions have ever played in Asia and will be great opportunity to spread firstly, the message of rugby but also secondly, the brand and warmth associated with The Lions touring party. Afterwards, the team travels to Australia for an eagerly anticipated tour that will include three Test matches against the Wallabies.

The Lions, who only tour once every four years, last played in Australia in 2001, losing the series by two matches to one in what will go down as a great missed opportunity especially having taken the first test 29-13 . Lions tours rotate between Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, currently ranked as the top three rugby nations in the world by the IRB and incredibly the 2013 tour marks the Lions’ 125-year anniversary – a traditional that is etched into the rugby calendar.

lions2The match in Hong Kong will certainly be treated as a warm up for Australia; an opportunity for the group of players made up from Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland to join forces for the first time in a competitive encounter. With the first test only 3 weeks away the team must gel right from the get go although team spirit has traditionally never been a problem as illustrated by the famous ‘Living with The Lions’ documentary from the 1997. The first Test is on June 22 in Brisbane, and competition for places in the starting team is fierce.

The 37-man Lions squad was unveiled on April 30. In it featured 15 players from Wales, including captain Sam Warburton, 10 from Ireland, nine from England and three from Scotland. The fact that The Lions last won a series was in 1997, against South Africa, will certainly increase the expectation on the current squad as they go into the tour as favourites against a poor Australian side for the first time in a long time.

As any rugby player will tell you, playing for the British and Irish Lions is the highest honour in the game, so spare a thought for Englishman Dylan Hartley, who has been ruled out of the squad after receiving an 11-week ban for allegedly calling a referee a cheat during a club final match in England over the weekend. What a muppet!! Whilst I havelions1 some sort of sympathy for the bloke I do feel this has been coming especially as his past record is hardly squeaky clean and generally acts like a thug around the pitch – although to be fair to him, many have commented he is more than a gentleman off the field.

“Rules are rules and they are there to be adhered to… it must be very disappointing for him to have picked up a ban with such an exciting tour in the offing,” said Lions centre Brian O’Driscoll, whose Irish teammate Rory Best has been chosen as Hartley’s replacement. Rules are rules, never a truer word has been spoken.

As mentioned, The Lions kick things off in Hong Kong where experienced players such as Sergio Parisse of Italy will reinforce the Barbarians after the invitational side took quite a beating against England in London on Sunday, the final score being 40-12. The Barbarians lions4squad is typically multicultural, featuring players from more than 10 countries, including Takudzwa Ngwenya and Samu Manoa of the U.S – it will be intersting to see how they fair.

Furthermore, Rowan Varty is the first player from Hong Kong to represent the Barbarians, a club formed in 1890. Varty is the captain of Hong Kong’s rugby sevens team, so he is a familiar face on the island, which hosts the incredibly popular and successful sevens tournament every year.

“Obviously we get a chance with the sevens to play in the [Hong Kong] stadium once a year, so any opportunity to get on that pitch again is welcomed, and the chance to do it with the bunch that we have here makes it even more of a privilege and an honour,” the winger said. “It’s nice to play in front of mum and dad and friends and people like that,” he added.

Rugby is thriving in Hong Kong and the decision to arrange a Lions fixture underscores efforts to promote the game in Asia. Looking forward, the first test is on 22nd June and if they are anything like what we witnessed in South Africa 4 years ago then we are in for a treat.

I can’t wait!

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