Thursday, 2 December 2010

FIFA: New Frontiers or Same Old Story?

(PIC: Stephen McCaskill)

The day had started with a genuine sense of optimism within the England camp. The bid team felt that they had weathered the storm resulting from the BBC’s Panorama investigation into corruption within FIFA and after a perfect presentation fronted by David Beckham, David Cameron and Prince William, spirits were high. However by the time the FIFA Executive Committee had exited their conclave, news was filtering through on twitter and media outlets that England had been eliminated from the first round of voting. After FIFA’s trademark pomp and ceremony delayed the announcement, we were finally put out of our misery as Sepp Blatter announced that Russia and Qatar had won the race to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively. While there are genuine reasons for selecting Russia as hosts, the selection of Qatar and the bidding process itself have highlighted fundamental problems within FIFA.

Russia has never hosted the World Cup before and the tournament offers the country a chance to improve the nation’s infrastructure and repair its image tarnished by decades of communist rule. A genuine legacy is possible in the world’s biggest country, something that was arguably not as true of the three other competing bids, Despite the desire of FIFA to bring the World Cup to new countries, many have questioned the wisdom of awarding the World Cup to the two countries ranked worst in FIFA’s technical report. England, who were ranked the highest in the same report, did not have a divine right to host the competition but for the bid to finish behind the rank outsiders Netherlands & Belgium in last place is nothing short of astonishing. For two years, the bid team had been campaigning around the world in an attempt to secure the votes of the members of the Executive Committee. The bid cost £15m and its return yielded just two votes, one of which is expected to be England’s sole member on the committee, Geoff Thompson. Following FIFA’s decision, many were quick to point to the effects of the Sunday Times investigation that revealed two members offered their votes for cash and of the BBC Panorama programme that aired allegations of corruption by another three members. The timing of the broadcast of Panorama was criticised by those who felt that showing it just three days before the vote would sabotage England’s bid.  FIFA did not welcome the intrusions and although they suspended Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii after the Sunday Times investigation, they made it clear that they were not grateful for the exposure of the corruption. The BBC’s Panorama programme largely consisted of old material and although it was not the most enthralling pieces of investigative journalism, the British media should not be forced to censor itself. FIFA stated that they are against any breach of their code of ethics, but rather than attempt to clean up their organisation, FIFA felt that it was necessary to hold this against the England bid. 

Qatar’s selection as host for the 2022 World Cup is difficult to justify. The Emirate has a population of just over 1.6 million people, summer temperatures of anything between 40 to 50 degrees and six of its proposed stadia are in the capital, Doha. These are genuine practical problems that must be considered, and the heat was noted by the FIFA technical report as a possible risk to spectators and competitors’ health. Qatar’s solution for the heat is to regulate the climate of the stadia to a more manageable temperature but problems such as the country’s human rights record will be more difficult to overcome. The case for giving Qatar the world cup rests almost solely on the basis that they have never hosted it before, but Australia, a country with a growing appetite for football that has never hosted the World Cup either, were eliminated in the first round of voting after receiving just one vote. Qatar does have some experience in hosting major sporting events as Doha successfully hosted the 2006 Asian Games and the country will host the 2011 Asian Cup in January. However both of these tournaments take place in the winter, when the heat will be far more bearable than June and July.

FIFA’s lack of transparency and reform has left it open to accusations of corruption and greed while some decisions appear to be improvised and at the whim of Sepp Blatter. Allegations have been raised intermittently of members of the executive committee, yet FIFA has done nothing about them. The whole bidding process is designed for its members to gain favours from countries who daren’t offend them for risk of losing the chance to host the World Cup. Jack Warner was courted by the English bid and he managed to have England play a friendly in Trinidad in 2008 and David Beckham open a soccer school in the Caribbean country as the bid team massaged his immeasurable ego only for him not to give them his support. Governments were required to agree to a set of FIFA demands that promised them to waive visa regulations, strengthen laws that protected FIFA’s commercial partners and to gift FIFA tax exemptions. The governments were instructed not to publish these extortionate demands but when the Dutch government objected to them and did so, it damaged the Netherlands’ joint bid with Belgium. The bidding process itself is secretive and the room where the Executive Committee made their decision looked like something that a James Bond villain would have designed for his secret lair. The vote was only given a degree of transparency when in the dying moments of the campaign FIFA revealed that they would make the detailed results public.

Until the structure of FIFA and its host selection process is overhauled and made more transparent then allegations of corruption will persist. The IOC has managed to reform itself and would provide an ideal model for FIFA. Following the Salt Lake City scandal, members of the IOC are forbidden from having private meetings with bidding candidates while members are not permitted to vote if their country is a candidate. Executive Committee members had long decided who they would vote for and offered empty promises of their support to rival bidders. England’s bid was rated the best by the technical report and on profitability, yet lost to the country that rated the worst. The same was true in the bid for the 2022 World Cup where the United States and Australia were thwarted by Qatar whose bid was the worst technically and deemed ‘high risk’. If England’s bid was indeed derailed by the efforts of our free press then perhaps the World Cup is a price worth paying for bringing these allegations to light and for not jumping when FIFA clap.

Monday, 8 November 2010

FA Cup R1: Gillingham 0-2 Dover

The Sun sets on the 2,300 Dover fans, and on Gillingham's FA Cup run (PIC: Stephen McCaskill)
There have been many low points in the recent history of Gillingham Football Club but few have been as humiliating as what occurred at Priestfield on Saturday. Gillingham were outplayed by their Kent rivals to the extent that a casual observer would be unable to determine which team played in the Football League and the other the Conference South. The result heaps further pressure on under- pressure manager Andy Hessenthaler who quit Dover to rejoin Gillingham in the summer. Many Dover fans understood that the lure of a return to the club where he was a legend as both a manager and player was too strong to turn down but the departure became acrimonious following Hessenthaler’s recruitment of his former coaching staff. Ian Hendon had been appointed the new manager at the club, but their former manager returned to recruit Hendon as his assistant and Nicky Southall as player-coach. These actions angered the Dover faithful and believed that it tarnished Hessenthaler’s legacy at the Kent coast club where he had secured two promotions in three years and narrowly missed out on a third.

There was a sense of inevitability that surrounded the FA Cup 1st Round Draw and even the Dover chairman himself believed that his side would face Gillingham. Admittedly, he predicted a home draw but Dover’s 2,300 travelling fans comprised a third of the total attendance and created a genuine cup atmosphere at Priestfield. As Hessenthaler came onto the pitch he was greeted by jeers from the Dover end and applause from the Gillingham fans while Nicky Southall was subjected to cries of ‘Judas’ from the visitors.

A minute’s applause in the memory of Gillingham and Kent football legend Buster Collins was held before the game and was respected by every member of the 7,457 in attendance, the largest at Gillingham this season. Collins joined the club in 1949 as a player and remained at the club for 60 years in various roles such as chief scout, reserve team manager and youth team coach before sadly passing away earlier this week.

Following the tribute to a club legend, the game got underway and Dover started the brighter of the two. The Whites went ahead thanks to Adam Birchall’s sensational long range effort.  Birchall had been in good form for Dover and his stunning strike proved why Andy Hessenthaler had thought about bringing him to the club in the summer.

While they were impotent going forward, Gillingham were also calamitous at the back with Dover outmuscling the opposition defenders and forcing errors. The Whites capitalised on poor defending from John Nutter as Luke I’Anson made it 2-0 with a tap in. Gillingham had reverted to long ball tactics in the hope that first half substitute Adebayo Akinfenwa would be able to produce something from often aimless passes. Boos echoed around Priestfield at the end of the first half as Gillingham went to the dressing room to face the wrath of their manager.

Gillingham improved markedly in the second half as they forced a series of saves from Dover goalkeeper Ross Flitney. Danny Spiller and Stefan Payne were both denied by Flitney who protected his team’s lead. Dover withstood the pressure and their victory was all but assured when John Nutter was sent off with twenty minutes to go. Baker found himself clear of the Gillingham defence but was tackled by Nutter, who was the last man.

The crowd was noticeably deflated after the red card and their attentions turned to Hessenthaler and Chairman Paul Scally who had defended his record at the club earlier this week after the stadium had been vandalised. Scally bought the club in the mid 1990s, saving it from bankruptcy and redeveloping the stadium. Despite this The Rainham End of the ground made their feelings known, chanting “We Want Scally Out”, to which the Dover fans humorously responded “We Want Hessy Out”. The Whites were revelling in the disarray that their opponents found themselves in and even optimistically sang “Que Sera, Sera”, hoping that this would be the start of an unlikely road to Wembley.

At the final whistle, the Dover fans celebrated wildly while another chorus of boos rang around the stadium. The Gills players looked dejected; especially Jack Payne and many were wondering whether this was Hessenthaler’s last game in charge. Hessenthaler has said that he will not walk away from the club despite the team’s poor form. He will hope to turn things around at a club where he is held in high regard, but yesterday was definitely a new low in an increasingly disappointing season.

In the other ties involving Kent clubs, Dartford were a whisker away from securing a place in the Second Round. The Darts led for much of the game but League Two high-flyers Port Vale equalised in the 84th minute to send the tie into a replay. Ebbsfleet United and AFC Wimbledon played out a goalless draw after both teams were reduced to ten men. The Dons will be fired up for the replay as the winner will face either Stevenage Borough or MK Dons, whose move from London to Milton Keynes resulted in the creation of AFC Wimbledon. Hythe Town were the lowest ranked club in the first round and they were defeated 5-1 by Hereford United.

Friday, 5 November 2010

From Kent to Wembley: FA Cup 1st Round

(PIC: Stephen McCaskill)
The FA Cup starts this weekend and there are five Kent teams in the first round of this illustrious competition, the largest representation the county has had in the competition since the 1963/64 season. Once the most important competition in English football, the FA Cup has seen its stock decrease in recent years as Europe, promotion or survival has been the top priority for many clubs, but there is no danger of that happening this weekend.

The tie of the round from a Kent perspective is without a doubt the clash between League Two Gillingham and Blue Square South Dover Athletic. This Kent derby would be tasty enough but will be even more intriguing as Gills manager Andy Hessenthaler is facing the club he left in the summer along with coaching staff Ian Hendon and Nicky Southall. Dover will be bringing 2,000 fans to Priestfield who hope that their side can cause an upset and heap further pressure on the struggling Gills and their former manager.

Hythe Town are the lowest ranked team remaining in the competition and the first Kent League side to reach this stage of the competition since the 1950s. Gills boss Hessenthaler had offered Hythe as many DVDs as they wanted in order to prepare for their clash with Hereford as they seek to cause a massive upset.  With Hereford currently rock bottom of League Two, the Kent club feel that there is a genuine chance of an upset on Saturday.

Dartford also face League Two opposition in the form of Port Vale, but the team from Stoke are doing considerably better than Hythe’s opponents. Dartford haven’t been in the first round for twenty years and this will be the first time that they compete in the FA Cup at their new Princes Park.

Ebbsfleet Town won the FA Trophy in 2008 and will be hoping for similar success in the cup as they take on non-league darlings AFC Wimbledon away from home. Wimbledon pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the competitions illustrious history in 1988, defeating Liverpool 1-0 in the final but their main focus this season will be a return to the league. With Ebbsfleet relegated last season from the Blue Square Premier, they will be hoping that the cup will provide a welcome distraction.

Away from Kent, there are a number of First Round ties that capture the imagination, especially FC United v Rochdale. FC United was formed in 2005 by former Manchester United fans disillusioned with club following the Glazer’s takeover. Since then the club has been rising steadily up the non-league pyramid and qualifying for the First Round represents a real milestone in the fledgling club’s history. The contest will also be their first appearance on television as ESPN will be covering the game on Friday night. Other plum ties include Southport v Sheffield Wednesday, Corby v Luton Town and Cambridge United v Huddersfield Town.

To have this many clubs at this stage of the competition is great for Kent football and a real good news story following the problems that have affected many clubs in the last few years. For Gillingham, anything but a win would be a disaster but for the other four teams it would exceed all expectations. Hopefully the weekend will end with four teams in the Second Round and challenge the statisticians to find out the last time that happened.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The astroturf is always greener on the other side

Following last months takeover at Maidstone United, plans for the club’s long awaited return to the county town have gathered speed, with the new £1m stadium at James Whatman Way earmarked to open in time for Christmas 2011. New owners Oliver Ash and Terry Casey are adamant that any return to Maidstone is dependent on a new state of the art 3G artificial pitch being installed at the new ground. Ash claims that such a surface is the only way that the new stadium could fulfil its role as a facility for all of the club’s teams as it could be used seven days a week, something that would not be possible on a traditional pitch. The 3G artificial pitches proposed by Maidstone United, and those used by a number of clubs across Europe, are vastly different to the ‘plastic’ pitches used by QPR and Luton Town in the 1980s that were so maligned, but scepticism of synthetic turf remains widespread within football. Clubs and supporters have long rejected the idea that football could be played on anything but natural grass, but has the technology advanced enough for critics to reassess their view and recognise the benefits of artificial pitches?

In 1981, Queens Park Rangers believed that they were changing football for the better when they installed an artificial pitch at Loftus Road and three other clubs, Oldham Athletic, Preston North End and Luton Town followed their lead. The pitches however, were hated by opposition players and managers who believed that they were unsafe and gave the home team an unfair advantage as they were used to the oddities of the surface. Jim Smith, the QPR manager between 1985 and 1988, acknowledged as much when he recalled his memories of the pitch, "It was a false game, I knew exactly when we were going to score. It was like robots playing. You got carpet burns and very bad backs if you played on them long enough. The likes of ourselves who played on it regularly had a big advantage”. The pitches were banned in 1988 and the hostilities towards them have been sustained since then.

The advantages that those ‘pioneering’ clubs saw in artificial pitches are still recognised today and FIFA has been active in researching and testing the new generation of synthetic surfaces. In 2001, they launched a licensing programme for artificial pitches and in 2004 they ruled that any FIFA approved pitch could be used for competition. This programme, entitled the FIFA Quality Concept, tests pitches for durability, joint strength, climatic resistance, player-to-surface interaction and ball-to-surface interaction. Tests are also carried out to see if the pitch causes any irritations to the players, such as the carpet burns that affected those who played on the pitches in the 1980s. Pitches that pass these tests are awarded a one or two star recommendation; the first is mainly for community and municipal pitches while the second is awarded to pitches that are suitable for professional football.

The benefits of these pitches are clear; lower maintenance costs, a longer lifespan and an increased resistance to adverse weather conditions. This may appeal to chairmen, but fans, players and managers remain hostile, believing that despite the improvements, teams that play on artificial pitches still hold a crucial advantage. The first competitive international on artificial turf in Europe was the Euro 2008 qualifier between Russia and England and the Luzhniki stadium. The pitch was manufactured by Fieldturf, a company whose surfaces David Beckham criticised after playing on one when he joined Los Angeles Galaxy. Before the game, many were alarmed at the possibility of England not playing on grass, believing it definitely gave the home team an advantage. It was also suggested that the watering of the pitch increased the England players’ unfamiliarity with the pitch and contributed to the 2-1 defeat.

As in Russia, the Swiss winter can be cold and the weather damaging to pitches and as such, some Swiss Super League Clubs have installed artificial surfaces in order to reap the benefits that their advocates stress.  Young Boys Bern and Neuchatel Xamax are two of the Super League clubs who have done this when they reconstructed their grounds. YB’s pitch at the Stade de Suisse (sadly no longer the Wankdorf) came under particular scrutiny after their Champions League qualifier with Tottenham earlier this season. Manager Harry Redknapp had just watched his team come back from 3-0 down to salvage a respectable 3-2 first leg defeat and declared "I played on Astroturf myself and hated every minute of it. We don't have it in England anymore and I don't think it should be used in a competition like this”. UEFA rejected these claims, arguing that a thorough pitch inspection had taken place and that UEFA regulations permitted the use of FIFA 2 star rated artificial pitches at all levels of European competition except for the Champions League final. Supporters are also against artificial pitches as demonstrated when FC Luzern, another Swiss Super League side, announced that they were going to install an artificial pitch at their brand new swissporarena. Fans were outraged, believing that grass was to be the new victim of modern football, following in the steps of standing areas although, fortunately for the fans of FCL, the decision was reversed a few months later.

Football is notoriously resistant to change and in the current era of corporate boxes, all-seater stadia and high ticket prices perhaps many fans believe that artificial pitches are one step too far. At the highest level, grass should always remain the first option as clubs have the resources to relay the pitch and have other facilities that the community could use. However, at lower league and non league level this is not always the case and therefore artificial pitches are an attractive option. In the winter of 2009, Maidstone United did not have a home game in six weeks, something that caused extreme financial pressure on the club and could be prevented again if the plans for the 3G pitch go ahead. The community aspect of the stadium has been integral to the plans for the new ground and if it is necessary to have an artificial surface, then I’m sure that the fans would rather have it than not return in Maidstone. The jury is still out on artificial pitches, but research should be received with an open mind rather than a Luddite refusal to hear any argument in their favour. Grass will always be the ideal situation but not even that guarantees a perfect surface as the problems with Wembley have proved.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Up All Night

One of the most attractive aspects of sport is the fact that every event is unique and unpredictable. While other forms of entertainment are pre-determined, it is sports unscripted nature that attracts spectators, viewers and fans in their millions. While there is always a place in the sporting landscape for highlights programmes such as Match of the Day or trips down memory lane on ESPN Classic, the live element of sport is so important to it that if it is removed it can diminish the enjoyment that fans take from it. It was always possible to record games using  a video recorder, but the advent of Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) and Video On Demand services such as BBC iPlayer now mean that watching sport “as live” is easier than ever but it leaves you at the mercy of technology.

The live aspect of sport is so important to me that if I know the result or a major incident in a match, my interest wanes. It is the unpredictability that gives me the strength to sit through sometimes excruciatingly boring passages of play in the hope that something exciting is just around the corner. The live aspect is also important to me because I cannot cope with just seeing a result afterwards. Watching a football match for ninety minutes gives you time to accept the 5-0 thrashing, something that looking up the score on the internet does not afford you.

Formula One and American Football are but two sports that can take place at unsociable hours for British fans and watching them live requires serious discipline or being nocturnal. Before I acquired a PVR I would either have to watch a repeat, which would leave me in danger of finding out the result before I viewed the event. Although video recorders were an apt solution, I found it a complicated and occasionally fruitless procedure whereas now I can push a button and watch the match at my leisure without fear of finding out the result.

I did this last weekend for the inaugural Korean GP which was broadcast on the BBC and woke up eager to view the latest instalment in a thrilling climax to the 2010 Formula One season. Sky+ has the useful feature of being able to detect when a programme has been extended and adjusts the recording accordingly. Sadly, as good as Sky+ is, it is unable to account for torrential rain and the decision of the BBC to switch channels as the race overran its original timeslot. As it became apparent that the recording was too short, I was furious and I was not alone. I checked BBC iPlayer and although Part 1 of the race had been uploaded (the part that had been shown on BBC One), but part 2 (the part shown on BBC Two) had not been. In the end, since I am incapable of insulating myself from the internet and sporting media for longer than a few hours, I blinked and checked the result and discovered that I had missed out an eventful end to the race.

Another example of my new found dependence on technology thwarting me was when I recorded Monday Night Football on ESPN a few weeks ago. Green Bay travelled to Soldier Field to take on Chicago and a tense game was approaching a crescendo. Almost exactly at the two minute warning, my recording ended. This time there was no other way to view the final two minutes so I looked up the score and saw that the Packers had lost 20-17. The time invested in watching an event only to miss the end feels all the more wasted when the ending does not have a happy outcome.

The spread of PVR technology now means that sports fans can enjoy far more of the action ‘as live’ and has certainly changed the way we consume sport. The technology means that the live and spontaneous nature of sport isn’t removed and results in much of the attraction is retained. I can imagine that many baseball fans are grateful for that this week, given that much of the World Series will be broadcast while they are asleep.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Sport for all... for a price

(PIC: Metro)

Following the removal of Sky Sports News from Freeview, there is no dedicated sports channel on Free to Air television in the UK. Since Sky arrived on the British broadcasting scene over twenty years ago, sport on television has experienced unprecedented expansion through the arrival of satellite television and dedicated sports networks. While sports that had never had much air time previously have benefited from this trend, more and more sporting events have been removed from FTA and placed behind a pay wall.

While Premier League football is the classic example of sport being used to attract subscribers, most sports and leagues have deals with Sky, ESPN or Eurosport. England home tests, which were broadcast on the BBC and later Channel Four, were removed from FTA in 2006 as part of a new broadcast deal between Sky and the ECB. This is but one recent example of a governing body seeking to maximise revenue from broadcasters eager to pay more for sports to strengthen the lure of their subscriptions. Premiership Rugby and Super League had already been on pay TV for many years and it is possible that the only major sport that it is possible to view comprehensively on FTA is Formula One, which is now one of the pillars of the BBC’s ever dwindling portfolio.

The movement of these mainstream sports to subscription television has been followed by many niche sports. Only two years ago, Channel Five’s late night schedule offered the insomniac viewer a variety of American sports including American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey. Coverage of these sports was cut as five sought to reduce expenditure in the current media climate. While the cost of the rights was relatively low, the studio production costs were unjustifiable given the limited audience and advertising revenue available in the small hours. While Channel Four and ESPN have picked up the NFL games that were on five, the NHL and MLB are now exclusive to ESPN America, who provide no studio production to accompany the American feed.

While the BBC continue to show many of the ‘crown jewel’ sporting events such as Wimbledon, The Open and the Olympics, it has recently lost exclusive rights to the US Masters to Sky Sports and the World Athletics Championships to Channel Four. The BBC does provide a substantial amount of sporting programming and its coverage is second to none but the loss of such important events is worrying. ITV 1’s sports strategy has shifted in recent years with its resources allocated to showing blue chip events such as the UEFA Champions League, the FA Cup and England internationals. It infers that ITV believe that football is the only sport that merits the increased cost of securing television rights, although it has extended its deal with the IRB to show the Rugby World Cup.

The UK is seen as one of the biggest pay TV markets in the world and broadcasters are keen to exploit that as viewers are willing to pay for premium content, chiefly sport. In the US, the market is different as most premium sports channels cater for a specific audience such as local sports teams or niche sports such as football or cricket. While ESPN isn’t strictly free as it does require a basic cable subscription, the cost is minimal and the main networks such as ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX all show a variety of NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA action. In many countries across Europe, Eurosport is part of basic packages, while in Germany it is joined by Sport 1 which shows a variety of sport such as Moto GP, Bundesliga programming and even Premier League highlights.

The closest example that the UK has is ITV4 which has steadily built up a substantial portfolio of sporting rights. It broadcasts live UEFA Europa League football as well as programming from ITV’s other football properties, live coverage of the Tour de France and the British Touring Car Championships. In addition to this it provided the first FTA cricket coverage in five years when it showed the 2010 Indian Premier League and gave rugby union a Match of the Day style round up with its Premiership highlights which were joined this season by highlights from the Heineken and Challenge Cups. While many have criticised ITV’s sports coverage in the past, most notably when their HD channel missed England’s goal against the USA in the World Cup, its commitment to FTA sports should be commended.

We will probably never see Premier League football or even test cricket back on FTA television, but there remains the hope that one day we will be able to have a service similar to ESPN or Eurosport. The BBC have repeatedly rejected the possibility that they could create such a channel, arguing that the current red button service is effectively a sports channel while others believe that the boat has been missed.  Given that sport remains one of the few unifying events in an increasingly fragmented media market (programmes like the X Factor being another example), many sports could benefit from the increased exposure rather than the money that pay TV companies are willing to give them. Sports such as snooker increased in popularity because of coverage on television in the 70s and 80s and it is no coincidence that the organisers of Power Snooker, which aims to imitate the success of Twenty20 cricket and rejuvenate interest in the sport, have signed a deal with ITV4 to show the inaugural event this weekend.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

America's Game in the UK

Before the age of satellite television brought us wall to wall sporting coverage from every corner of the world, a new television channel called Channel Four brought American football to British screens on a Sunday evening. The game reached unprecedented levels of popularity during the 1980’s and developed a hardcore following. In 2007, the NFL brought a regular season game to the UK to the first time and the publicity that accompanied the match at Wembley introduced a whole new generation to America’s game. For a sport that has no significant domestic league in this country and remains at the periphery of Britain’s sporting mainstream, there is a wealth of coverage devoted to the NFL.

The NFL has four broadcasters in the UK. The main television broadcaster is Sky Sports who show games at 6:00pm and 9:00pm on Sunday. Coverage is presented by Kevin Cadle and Nick Halling who are joined by a guest pundit. Sky Sports also show the Thanksgiving games and then show the Thursday Night game which is aired in the US on NFL Network. This year, American football has returned to Channel Four as they have secured rights to Sunday Night Football. Gary Imlach, who had previously fronted American football for the channel, is joined by Mike Carlson, who was a pundit on five’s NFL coverage.  ESPN show Monday Night Football which is the flagship programme of their American counterparts and show the entire American production, including Monday Night Countdown. The BBC shows the Superbowl live with Sky Sports, who show the game exclusively in High Definition. While the coverage this year is an improvement on last year when Monday Night Football was absent from UK television, to watch every game shown you need two subscriptions and only one game a week is on free to air television and it is on late Sunday night. The quality of coverage is exceptional, especially in high definition and the studio programmes ensure that British viewers are not subject the frustrating number of advertising breaks that plague American viewers.

British fans can also listen to radio coverage which began last season. BBC 5 live sports extra provide coverage of a game at 9:00pm on Sunday nights. Commentary is taken from an American radio station or from the BBC’s own commentators in the states while the studio keeps the listener informed of the scores from around the league. The radio coverage is as good as the rest of Radio 5 live’s output and the inclusion of many of the best known NFL UK personalities such as Neil Reynolds means that it is as knowledgeable as anything the US can offer. For those seeking more audio coverage, the NFL UK ‘Inside the Huddle’ podcast provides both previews and reviews of the week’s action with Neil Reynolds and Mike Carlson.
Coverage of the NFL in the UK is as comprehensive as it can get, with at least four games a week shown live on television and another on the radio. It is covered as well in this country as football, rugby union, rugby league and cricket which means that following the league has never been easier for the American football fan.

Bringing The Stones Back Home

(PIC: Maidstone United)

On the 11th October, Oliver Ash and lifelong fan Terry Casey finally completed their takeover of Maidstone United following a protracted saga that has mirrored the team’s 22 year absence from the county town. After a tough year financially for the club, the takeover should provide the boost that the Stones need for their league campaign and the impetus for a return to Maidstone.

Ash had been on the club’s board since February 2008 when his company Richmond Developments, a French-based real estate company, secured 25% of the club. Lashings, who run an all-star cricket team and a restaurant in Maidstone, were also in the running, but Ash and Casey were seen as the ideal candidates for the takeover, especially with Ash’s background in construction. The deal sees an end to the tenure of Paul Bowden-Powell, who has worked tirelessly to ensure the survival of the reformed football club since its inception and the long-term ambition of bringing football back to Maidstone.

Maidstone United have not played in their hometown since 1988 when they sold their London Road ground and have played in Dartford, Sittingbourne and most recently Ashford. The current incarnation of the club was born in 1992 following the bankruptcy of Maidstone United’s previous iteration. After a steady rise through the non-league pyramid, The Stones were finally promoted to the Ryman Premier Division on 2007 and have remained there since. Recently however, the club’s fortunes have been on the wane. Financial problems were exacerbated by last year’s cold weather which resulted in just one home game played in six weeks meaning the players were not paid. The arrival of Ash and Casey should bring the club onto a more sound financial footing, but the question remains; when will the Stones come home?

Paul Bowden-Powell made it his mission to return football to Maidstone and in 2004 and a plan to open a new ground at James Whatman Way was unanimously approved by councillors. The initial plan was to open the stadium in 2006, but a series of setbacks has ensured that the ground has not progressed significantly beyond the planning process. In March 2006, the land needed to build the stadium was secured on a 99 year lease from the Ministry of Defence with a view to opening in time for the 2007/2008 season. The plans included a main stand with two covered terraces, a club house and parking. The club had leased the land with a ten year loan from the Borough Council but financial problems remained. Despite Ash’s investment in 2008, the club had applied for a £1.2m grant from the Football Association and the Football Foundation, but this was rejected. Bowden-Powell earmarked 2010 as the new date for a return to Maidstone, despite the latest setback. While Bowden-Powell acknowledged the role that the Borough Council played in the advances made, he lamented the lack of support for sport in the area. This does hold some truth, especially when Maidstone has not hosted league football for twenty years and county cricket for four years.

Ash’s takeover should speed up the return to Maidstone and he is formalising a new business plan to present to investors. The new stadium is necessary for the club to avoid the fate that the original team suffered as a new ground would increase revenue and would reignite support in the team. Glenn Aitken, a former Stones player who was working with the Lashings bid to take over the club, believed that the level of support for Maidstone was the same as that of AFC Wimbledon, but it was more passive because the team did not play in the town.

While the first home game at James Whatman Way may not happen in the near future, the takeover is a step in the right direction for The Stones to finally end their exile.

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Thursday, 7 October 2010

A Sporting Niche

The 2010 Commonwealth Games are underway and competitors from the former colonies of the British Empire (as well as Mozambique and Rwanda) have arrived in Delhi for the quadrennial celebration of sport. The Delhi games have been plagued by a number of problems ranging from security issues to unhygienic living quarters while a number of the Commonwealth’s most prominent athletes including Olympic and World Champion Usain Bolt have stayed away. These issues have led many to question the credibility of the competition and its relevance in today’s sporting world. While it is true that the Commonwealth Games are not on a par with the Olympics in terms of scale and competitiveness, it retains importance as it provides an arena in which smaller countries can have influence, something that the Olympics cannot afford them.

It is important to see the Commonwealth Games in a historical context. First held in Hamilton, Canada in 1930, the British Empire Games, as they were then known, were a celebration of the common bond that cemented the Empire. Following the Second World War and decolonisation, the Commonwealth was established as “A voluntary association of those states which have experienced some form of British rule who wish to work together to further their individual and common interests”. For the British this represented a way of retaining a degree of informal control having relinquished their political rule over the colonies, while for the newly formed states it allowed them access to the world stage in a way that existing inter-governmental organisations such as the UN and IOC did not. The games were used as a diplomatic tool and played a vital role in the exile of South Africa from the global sporting arena in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Commonwealth Games presented a method of isolating South Africa without jeopardising individual countries’ participation in other diplomatic arenas. Sport was a way of demonstrating against apartheid especially through the use of boycotts which were both highly visible and inexpensive. Many African countries boycotted the 1976 Olympic Games after the New Zealand rugby team toured South Africa, but this boycott was overshadowed by the Two Chinas debate. The 1978 Commonwealth Games were due to be held in Edmonton and the threat of a boycott loomed. The Commonwealth Games were largely void of the Cold War tensions that the Olympics experienced and any potential boycott would have a far greater impact. The result was the Gleneagles agreement which allowed the Commonwealth Games Federation to exclude members while bringing to an end any previous conflicts. This demonstrated the benefits of the games to its members as they were able to exert more influence than they would do in the IOC.  After the New Zealand issue was resolved, Britain became the next target of the anti-apartheid movement, resulting from the British government’s failure to enforce stronger sanctions on South Africa. The consequence was an African-led boycott of the 1986 games in Edinburgh.

The issue of South Africa during the apartheid era gave the Commonwealth Games a political purpose but after the end of minority rule, questions were raised over the future of the event. There were moves to make the event more economically viable and the benefits were stressed to any potential hosts. The awarding of the games to Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and to Delhi in 2010 have given developing countries a chance to demonstrate their ability to host major sporting events, something that the Olympics has yet to do. 

While the 2010 Commonwealth Games have had many problems, they still matter. The Commonwealth allows smaller countries to have more influence, while permits countries such as Canada to differentiate itself from the United States. What started as a British attempt to employ a more informal method of control over its former colonies, turned into a forum which could eventually be used to direct criticism at Britain itself. The creation of the secretariat decreased the Anglo-centricity of the Commonwealth, while the changing of the name from the British Empire Games to the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1954 and to the present title in 1978 demonstrates the shifting influence of the games. Delhi 2010 may not be attracting the crowds, or even the athletes, but the games have formed a niche in the sporting world. In 2014 the games will be held in Glasgow and it is not optimistic to predict that they will be a success.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Taming of the Shrews

(PIC: Stephen McCaskill)

Gillingham 2-1 Shrewsbury
The last time the Gillingham played Shrewsbury, it was for a place in League One. That warm spring day at Wembley will live long in the memory as Simeon Jackson’s late winner catapulted The Gills back into the third tier of English football at the first attempt. Sixteen months later, they were back in League Two after a dismal 2009/10 which saw them relegated without a single away win to their name. Just one victory on the road would have secured their League One status for another season, and a lacklustre final day defeat to Wycombe, combined with other results going against them, sealed their fate. For a team that beat some of the bigger teams in the division at home, it was a depressing end for a season that promised so much.

This season has started the same way the last one ended. Gillingham hadn’t won in five league games and had crashed out of both the League Cup and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Shrewsbury came to Priestfield top of the league which meant that this wouldn’t be an easy task for the Kent club. The arrival of the Shrews was always going to evoke memories of two seasons ago and perhaps further entrench the disappointment of relegation in the Gill’s fans minds. Former manager Mark Stimson paid the price for failing to consolidate the club’s position in League One and was replaced by Gillingham legend Andy Hessenthaler. ‘Hess’ managed the club between 2000 and 2004, leading the club to their highest ever league position of 11th in what is now the Championship in 2003. Hessenthaler’s return has done much to lift the mood at Priestfield, despite the club’s poor start to the campaign.

The contest took place in cool temperatures and in front of 4,815 spectators, a far cry from the sunshine of Wembley in front of over 50,000, but Gillingham started the stronger of the two sides. The cries from the Shrewsbury end of “League One and you fucked it up” were soon silenced by the Gills support. The fans were rewarded after Chris Palmer bundled the ball home after Jack Payne’s long throw wasn’t dealt with by the Shrewsbury defence. Gillingham were the better side throughout the first half, but failed to get the second goal that their play deserved and would settle the fans’ nerves. Shrewsbury were revitalised by the break and looked threatening at the start of the second half. Despite their opponent’s consistent pressure, Gillingham earned a penalty in the 50th minute after a handball decision. Adebayo Akinfenwa, a summer recruit from Northampton, saw his penalty saved and Gillingham hoped that it wouldn’t come back to haunt them. Fortunately, it didn’t as just nine minutes later, Gillingham were awarded another spot-kick after Danny Spiller was fouled in the area. Chris Palmer took this penalty and slotted home for his, and The Gills’, second of the afternoon. Shrewsbury almost pulled one back late on, but Lance Cronin, another summer signing, saved well from Mark Wright. Gillingham endured six minutes of injury time but Priestfield erupted when the final whistle was blown as it meant a first win of the season.

Despite the loss of Simeon Jackson to Norwich, there is reason for optimism at Gillingham this season. The Gills have a good squad and with Andy Hessenthaler they have a man who can inspire his players to an immediate return to League One. Eighteen year old Jack Payne looks like a prospect while Danny Spiller’s return is a real coup for the club. A former academy player, Spiller was linked with West Ham during his first spell at Gillingham before leaving for Millwall in 2007. Injuries plagued his time at the Den, while unsuccessful spells at Wycombe, Welling and Dagenham & Redbridge followed before he turned down a move to MLS side Chicago Fire to rejoin Gillingham (who wouldn’t). Spiller showed his class at times today and if he manages to recapture the form that made him a fan’s favourite in his first spell, then Gillingham have a potential matchwinner. Other positives included the lively Cody McDonald and possibly the world's least mobile striker, Adebayo Akinfenwa, who worked tirelessly throughout the game.

Gillingham should fear no one in this division and hopefully today’s victory will kickstart their promotion challenge. Now all they need is an away victory…

Friday, 10 September 2010

Fog on the Rhine

Switzerland 1 3 England

After Friday’s 4-0 demolition of Bulgaria, England travelled to Switzerland for what was on paper their toughest fixture in their European Championship Qualification campaign. The build-up to the game was dominated by tabloid allegations about Wayne Rooney’s private life and whether he was in the right state of mind to start the game in Basel. Capello selected Rooney, who scored and built on his good performance against Bulgaria, removing any doubts that some sections of the media held over his selection.

England’s 3-1 won was one of their most impressive away performances under Capello as they took command of Group G with two consecutive wins. There were a number of positives to take from the match, most notably the continuing upward trajectory of Adam Johnson’s fledgling England career. Johnson, who narrowly missed out on selection for South Africa, scored his second goal in as many games as he took the ball around Swiss goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and coolly finished from a tight angle. The Manchester City winger threatened from the right-hand side, cutting inside on numerous occasions. Capello has obviously been watching Manchester City a lot over the last few months, with the Italian manager adopting Roberto Mancini’s system of deploying left footed Johnson the right to allow such runs. Unfortunately for Theo Walcott, Johnson’s success was at the Arsenal winger’s expense after he was injured in the build-up to England’s first goal. Walcott has struggled to combine form with fitness since he moved to Arsenal four years ago and this latest injury setback, combined with Johnson’s rise, may hinder his efforts to making the right-midfield position his own.

The England goal which led to Walcott’s injury was scored by Wayne Rooney, the man at the centre of all the pre-match build up. Rooney scored from close range in the first half to set England on their way and in doing so scored his first competitive goal for England for twelve months. Rooney, who was out of sorts at the World Cup, has produced two performances that will give Fabio Capello great confidence for the rest of this qualification campaign. Whatever his problems may be off the pitch, Rooney left England in no doubt of his importance to the team.
Rio Ferdinand and John Terry’s absence from the squad created the chance for one of England’s central defenders to stake a claim for a starting place in the team. Phil Jagielka did his chances no harm with two competent performances which betrayed his inexperience at this level. Michael Dawson’s injury sustained in the match against Bulgaria and the poor recent form of Matthew Upson mean that Jagielka may well have established himself as England’s main understudy at central defence.
After all the uncertainty over the position in the lead up to the World Cup, the goalkeeping position is no longer a dilemma for Capello as Joe Hart is surely the undisputed number one for England. After a good season for Birmingham City last year, he has now displaced Shay Given as first choice at Manchester City. Hart has been in sensational form for club and country so far this season and although there were a few nervy moments against Switzerland, England could finally have some stability between the posts.
Switzerland were not at the top of their game and rarely posed a threat. While their defence has been their strength in recent years, most notably at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, their inability to score goals let them down in both tournaments. Veteran Alex Frei of FC Basel and Leverkusen striker Eren Derdiyok led the line, but never looked to threaten the resolute England defence. Stephane Lichtsteiner showed his indiscipline as he was sent off for two yellow cards. The first was avoidable, a yellow card for dissent while the second one was the result of a poor tackle. One positive for “Die Nati” was Xherdan Shaqiri, the 18 year old wonderkid from FC Basel. His goal from outside the area was spectacular and demonstrated why the Swiss are so excited about him.
England’s next game is a friendly against France which will be used as preparation for the game against second placed Montenegro, who have also won their first two games despite being deemed the weakest team in the group. England may not have banished the memories of South Africa, but there is reason for optimism after two impressive wins that leaves them in command of the group.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Friday Night Lights

Friday heralded the beginning of a brand new European Championship Qualifying campaign and England did their best to silence the critics who have been calling for the players’, and indeed the manager’s, heads since the disastrous campaign in South Africa. Jermain Defoe scored England’s only winner at the World Cup and he was in equally predatory form again at Wembley, scoring a hat-trick while Adam Johnson, who was left out of the final squad in June, scored his first goal for the Three Lions. The qualifiers for this tournament will take place on Fridays and Tuesdays, a break from the normal scheduling of Saturdays and Wednesdays, in the hope that it will give club managers more time to prepare for domestic fixtures when the players are released by their international sides. Inevitably, this has been criticised by fans who have complained that the timing of these matches means that their attendance is dependent on the ability to get time off work if they live outside of London. While this is a considerable oversight by those at UEFA, there has been one advantage of this decision in that for the first time in a long time there has been virtually no football over a weekend during the season.

International breaks have been seen by some fans, especially those who don’t see the value in international football, as a distraction from league football. Although there is far less football than usual it was still possible to make a weekend of it as fixtures for the Home Nations were staggered and if there was South American qualifying, there were games on in the small hours too. This was not possible with the new scheduling as most games kicked off around eight o’clock unless they were in Eastern Europe like the Republic of Ireland were. What resulted was a weekend void of Premier League, Championship or international football and while the media gave much time and space to analysis of the qualifiers, it was refreshing to see other sports and other levels of football in the spotlight.

The Aviva Premiership Rugby season kicked off on Saturday with the London double-header at Twickenham. ESPN are beginning their coverage of the competition and broadcast both games, devoting most of their Saturday afternoon to the clash between last years runner-up Saracens and London Irish and Wasps v Harlequins. Today, BBC Radio 5 live will broadcast commentary of Northampton v Leicester, something that would not happen during a weekend heaving with Premier League football.

Much attention was also paid to the conclusion of the county cricket season as both the Clydesdale Bank 40 and County Championship competitions enter their final stages. Sunday’s Twenty20 international between England and Pakistan would have been in the headlines regardless, owing to the current match-fixing scandal, but with no other sporting event aside from the aforementioned Premiership clash being able to rival it, the Cardiff contest becomes the main sporting event this afternoon.

Lower-league football and non-league football also received a boost from the Euro 2012 qualifiers. League One fixtures were live on Sky Sports and on BBC Radio 5 live, while the 3pm kick-offs did not have to contend with an England game which would have affected attendances at the grounds. Much attention was paid to the East London derby between Dagenham and Redbridge and Leyton Orient as well as Southampton v Rochdale. Saturday was declared ‘Non-League Day’ as fans were encouraged to use this day off to attend a non-league match. BBC Radio Kent received calls from many fans who had been attending non-league games for many years and from those who were attending their first match.

While American sports leagues have often been criticised on this side of the pond for their capitalist nature, their submission to television networks and their propensity to move cities, American sports culture allows for the domination of more than one sport, something that ours does not. While American football is perhaps the most dominant of the ‘big three’ sports which also includes baseball and basketball, they share air-time and column space. This is in stark contrast to the British sports media which predominantly consists of wall-to-wall football. While this results from many factors which cannot be explained here, it is refreshing to see.

Football is undisputedly the most popular sport in this country and there is no danger of that changing in the near future. The Premier League dominates every other league in this country in terms of revenue, attendance and influence meaning that other sports and other leagues barely get a look in. With the international games moving to Friday however, a window has opened for these sports as well as the lower leagues of the football pyramid to get some of the limelight.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Cup Match: A Bermudian Tradition

Cricket: Bermuda

Sport is often said to bring some countries to a standstill, but in Bermuda this is taken to another level as virtually the entire island shuts down to enjoy the annual cricketing contest between St. George’s and Somerset Cricket Clubs known as Cup Match. During this two-day public holiday, which takes place on the Thursday and Friday nearest August 1, Bermudians partake in camping, boating and swimming while thousands attend the match itself, the venue of  which alternates between the two competing team’s home grounds.

Cricket is incredibly popular in this former British colony and the Bermudian national team compete at ICC competitions, most notably the 2007 Cricket World Cup where they lost all three of their games. Notable players for the island include former Glamorgan captain David Hemp and spin bowler Dwayne Leverock, who played for Somerset in this year’s competition. Four streets in Bermuda are named in honour of cricket; Fielder’s Lane, Bat ‘n’ Ball Lane, Cricket Lane and Grandstand Lane, which gives an indication of the importance that locals place on cricket. The Cup Match is the centrepiece of the domestic season as a carnival atmosphere descends on the island. Fans of the rival teams display their colours (Red and navy for Somerset and blue and dark blue for St. George’s) in the lead up to the game which attracts attendances of around 7,000 and is broadcast on both TV and radio.

The Cup Match has its origins in the celebrations that took place to following the end of slavery in 1834. A key feature of these celebrations was a cricket game between the lodges from the opposing ends of Bermuda and in 1902 it turned into an annual competition between Somerset Cricket Club in the west and St George’s in the east. The game captivated the island and many didn’t go into work during the match which led to the government declaring the two days on which the game occurred as public holidays in 1947.

This year’s match was held at Somerset Cricket Club on the 29th and 30th of July as St. George’s looked to defend the title they had held since 2005. Despite a strong start by the holders, Somerset fought back with the help of Bermudian international Malachi Jones, who earned figures of 4-71. Any potential comeback was ended by persistent heavy rain and little was possible on the second day of play which meant that game ended in a draw and St. George’s retained the trophy.  The Royal Gazette declared it this year’s Cup Match as the “wettest in memory” and also argued that the game had been ruined by the rain and that this would only strengthen calls for a third day to be added to the match, or for a reserve day to be allocated. Despite this, many stayed to enjoy the festivities that are associated with Cup Match such as the concerts and local food. As the organisers are keen to stress the Cup Match is more than just a cricket match as it helps to mark the emancipation.

Another important event to note was the retirement of Dwayne Leverock from Cup Match cricket. The spinner, who achieved worldwide fame following his catch at the 2007 Cricket World Cup, made his debut in 1990 and took 44 wickets during his Cup Match career leaving him 16th in the all-time rankings. ‘Sluggo’, as he is known, won the “Safe Hands” award for the catch which ended the St. George’s innings, the second time that he was won this award.

The Cup Match represents a great tradition and one that is embraced by the people of Bermuda. It is also testament to the enduring popularity of cricket that continues to survive in this part of the world despite the threat of other sports.