Ian Holling’s Sports Diary (scroll down for three years’ highlights)

 

2009 Top Ten Sporting Moments

Though the range of sporting highs we witnessed in 2008, there were still plenty of moments to remember.  Here are the top ten:

10. On The Button

After a decade of trying, 2009 was the year when Jenson Button finally shook off his playboy image, and fulfilled his talent by winning Formula One’s World Championship. He became the tenth Briton to do so, and the second in succession after Lewis Hamilton’s 2008 triumph. His hopes looked in tatters in December 2008 when his Honda team withdrew from the sport, but following Ross Brawn’s buy-out and the creation of Brawn GP, Button found himself behind the wheel of a Mercedes-powered car, the best he had driven in his life. The 29-year-old from Somerset rocketed to victory in six of the season’s first seven races, a feat previously achieved by Michael Schumacher and Jim Clark. Going into the penultimate race of the year, in Brazil, the Championship was still in the balance. Button started down in 14th place on the grid, but a series of brilliant over-taking manoeuvres saw him finish in fifth place and collect enough points to clinch the title.

9. A Wise Decision

Excitement mounted at US Cellular Field, home of baseball team the Chicago White Sox, as pitcher Mark Buehrle closed in on a rare perfect game during a match against Tampa Bay. But midway through the ninth and final inning, Gape Kapler met his pitch with a solid smack of the bat, sending the ball high into left-centre field. A home run, which would have ruined Buehrle’s bid for perfection, seemed certain . . . until Chicago’s DeWayne Wise loomed into view. The outfielder launched himself at the wall, stretched out his gloved hand to block the ball, then juggled it into his grasp as he stumbled to the ground. Buehrle went on to complete his perfect game, and President Obama congratulated Wise in a public speech. The White Sox paid tribute by putting up a plaque, reading simply ‘The Catch’.

8. Ireland’s Joy Of Six

After winning their first Grand Slam in 1948, Ireland’s rugby union team had to wait 61 years to repeat that achievement, and they did so in some style in 2009’s Six Nations Championship. After opening with impressive victories over France and Italy, the Irish scored a crucial 14-13 defeat of England, then came from 9-0 down to beat Scotland 22-15. That set up a final show-down with 2008 champions Wales in Cardiff. Two tries in quick succession early in the second half, from Brian O’Driscoll and Tommy Bowe, gave Ireland hope, but with two minutes to go, they trailed 15-14. Then up stepped Ronan O’Gara, to fire in a superb drop goal and put them 17-15 up. Wales still had a chance to snatch it, but Stephen Jones’ long range penalty missed its target, and all of Ireland celebrated. Some 20,000 fans, including Taoiseach Brian Cowen, attended a homecoming reception in Dublin. O’Driscoll was named the outstanding player of the series, while captain Paul O’Connell went on to skipper the British Lions in South Africa.

7. Every Second Counts

Anyone who has played sport at any level has day-dreamed of moments like this. Basketball’s NCAA East Regional final saw Villanova face Pittsburgh. Two evenly-matched teams were expected to produce a close contest – but no one could have predicted how close. In the dying moments, Pittsburgh’s Levance Fields bravely converted two free-throws to leave the score tied at 76-76. Just 5.5 seconds were left on the clock . . . but Villanova were not finished yet. Reggie Redding threw to Dante Cunningham, who cleverly spun the ball into the hands of the onrushing Scottie Reynolds as he crossed into the opposition half. Driving forward and dribbling past one Pittsburgh player, Reynolds collided with two others, but still somehow managed to get his shot away. All eyes looked up as the ball dropped through the basket, just as the clock, as it would in a barely-believable Hollywood flick, ticked to zero. “I think every kid in the playground dreams about doing something like that,” said Reynolds after the wild celebrations had died down.

6. Chelsea Denied

Ever since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, his biggest ambition has been to win the Champions League. He came within the width of a post in 2008, John Terry missing a decisive penalty in the final against Manchester United, and in 2009 the Blues suffered more agony as they lost in the semi-finals to Barcelona in club football’s most controversial match of the year. After a 0-0 draw in the Nou Camp, Chelsea took the advantage at Stamford Bridge with a fantastic volley from Michael Essien. But the game remained on a knife edge, as one goal from Barca would put them ahead under the away goals rule. Chelsea were denied the comfort of a second goal by Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo who turned down four appeals for a penalty, two of which looked like stone-wall spot kicks. Finally, in the third minute of injury time, Barca, whose creative skills had been stifled by Chelsea’s disciplined defensive work, found the space to strike a fatal blow, as Andres Iniesta fired a bullet of a shot into the top corner. The enduring image of the match is Didier Drogba’s furious rant into the lens of live TV cameras after the final whistle, labelling the referee “a fucking disgrace”, which earned the striker a lengthy ban from the competition.

5. Monty and Jimmy Frustrate Aussies

Andrew Flintoff inevitably stole the headlines when England beat Australia 2-1 to win back the Ashes. And ‘Freddy’ deserved every accolade for his five-wicket haul at Lord’s, as did Stuart Broad for his inspired bowling in the fifth and decisive test, not to mention Jonathan Trott for his maiden century. But the most gripping drama of the series came in the first test in Cardiff. Australia piled on 674 runs in their first innings, declaring with six wickets down to give themselves four sessions to get England out. At lunch on the final day, England were five men down and looked dead and buried. A heroic 74 from Paul Collingwood gave them hope, but when the ninth wicket fell nearly an hour of play remained, and the two men at the crease, Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar, are not known for their batting skills. Amazingly, their last stand was just as brave as Custer’s – and proved more successful. Panesar and Anderson survived for 69 balls, Aussie captain Ricky Ponting becoming increasingly frustrated as his bowlers failed to make the final breakthrough. At 6.41pm, with England 13 runs ahead and not enough time remaining for Australia to bat again, a draw was declared. It was a blow from which Ponting’s men would not recover.

4. Triumph on Tip-Toes

Super Bowl XLIII saw one of the most dramatic finishes in the history of American Football’s showpiece contest. With 41 seconds to go, Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the Arizona Cardinals 23-20. They had a promising position, second down and six yards from the Cardinals’ goal line, but when the ball was thrown to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, he dithered for what seemed an eternity, with no obvious pass available. Then, he spotted receiver Santonio Holmes charging to the corner of the end-zone, and though Holmes was covered by three defenders, Roethlisberger decided it was time for death or glory. His zipped pass was literally inch perfect, barely clearing a defender’s grasp, to be caught by a leaping Holmes at full stretch. Still it looked like he might land outside the zone, but he just touched the tips of his toes in bounds to score the winning touchdown. “Oh, man,” said Holmes. “It was just a special moment.”

3. Watson’s Agony

What better way to follow Holmes than with Watson – but, for Tom, success was not quite ‘elementary’. If his 8-foot putt on the 72nd green of golf’s 2009 Open Championship had dropped into the hole, Tom Watson’s story would have topped this list, and probably any list of sporting moments of the decade. For four days at windy Turnberry, Watson looked like he might just be the last man standing, as the best golfers in the world fell away. Tiger Woods missed the cut, Ernie Els’ putter failed, and Lee Westwood blew his chance with three late bogeys. Coming down the last, 59-year-old Watson needed only a par to complete an incredible victory, in a sport where physical power is crucial and players over 40, let alone 50, rarely win. To put his attempt into perspective, the oldest major winner in the history of golf is Julius Boros, who won the 1968 USPGA at the age of 48; 11 years younger than Watson. A well-struck eight iron looked perfect, until it took a springy bounce and rolled to the back of the green. Watson’s first putt was hit too hard, and nerves gripped him on the second, which trickled tamely wide. Worn out physically and mentally, Watson was soundly beaten in a play-off by Stewart Cink. The American retained his good humour, telling downbeat journalists in a press conference: “Come on guys, this isn’t a funeral.” But the veteran later admitted that his failure to make history “hurt like hell.”

2. Federer’s 15th

The 2008 Wimbledon final topped this list a year ago, but that match had nothing but bad memories for Roger Federer as he lost to Rafael Nadal. This year’s epic was almost as dramatic, and, for Federer, had a happy ending, as he lifted the most coveted trophy in tennis, and landed his 15th Grand Slam title, eclipsing the all-time record set by Pete Sampras. This time he faced Andy Roddick, who had knocked out home favourite Andy Murray in the semi-finals. Roddick was determination personified as he matched Federer stroke for stroke throughout a grueling four-hour, five-set battle. Eventually, the Swiss legend broke serve in the 30th game of the last set to secure victory 5-7 7-6 (8-6) 7-6 (7-5) 3-6 16-14. If Federer never wins another tournament, he can retire a happy man. One suspects, however, that the 28-year-old is not done yet.

1. Lighting Bolt Strikes Twice More

Photo credit: http://www.usainbolt.com/

The greatest sprinter in history could only manage second place in this list a year ago, but this time there is no doubt that the most exhilarating and extraordinary sporting moments of the past 12 months were provided by Usain Bolt. At the World Championship in Berlin in August, the Jamaican ran an incredible 9.58 seconds in the 100m, smashing the mark of 9.69 he set at the Beijing Olympics. That gap of 0.11 was the biggest drop since records began. Bolt then predicted that he would not break his own record in the 200m . . . but no one believed him. He flew the course in 19.19, again blowing away his previous mark of 19.30. He was presented with a section of the Berlin Wall by the city’s mayor, who said Bolt had shown that, in sport as in politics: “One can tear down walls that had been considered insurmountable.” And all of this despite a car accident in April which forced Bolt to miss several weeks of training, leading to his claim that he was only 85% fit going into Berlin. “I don’t consider myself a legend yet,” said the 23-year-old athlete nicknamed ‘Superman’. Which begs the question: how much faster can he get in 2010

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ARCHIVES Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary: May 2009

Snooker Golf Athletics

Snooker

After Ronnie O’Sullivan’s surprise early exit from snooker’s World Championship, Simon Hatterstone wrote in the Guardian, ‘The one possible reason for watching the dullest sport on earth has gone . . . Snooker – if Ronnie’s not there, you might as well turn off the telly.’ This is nonsense.

If Hatterstone, who ghost-wrote O’Sullivan’s autobiography, won’t devote time to watching any other player, how will he ever establish affinity with snooker’s supporting cast? It’s equivalent to whinging that he won’t watch a soap opera any more because his favourite character is being killed off.

There were similar ramblings from hacks looking for an easy story when Alex Higgins neared retirement, or when Jimmy White slipped down the rankings. No man is bigger than the sport, in snooker or any other. O’Sullivan may be the most gifted player of his generation, and the only one who has made the crossover from snooker star to celebrity, but there are others coming up behind him who, given time, will replace him in terms of his achievements on the table and notoriety off it.

O’Sullivan was knocked out by Mark Allen, a hugely promising 23-year-old from Northern Ireland who is at the spearhead of a group of emerging young talents ready to take up the mantle. Allen’s fiery temperament has seen him banned from junior teams, warned by referees and embroiled in feuds with senior players, while his passion for the game often leads to emotional outbursts in the arena. This all suggests that as well as the titles that he is sure to win, he has the potential to generate the off-table controversy upon which media thrive.

Allen is not the only one: flamboyant Australian Neil Robertson, wise-cracking Mark Selby and boy wonder Judd Trump will all play their part in bringing snooker to the next generation.

This World Championship has been one of the best ever – a record number of century breaks including a maximum 147 from Stephen Hendry and a succession of thrilling matches, with O’Sullivan playing only a cameo role.

TV audiences may be dropping in the UK (as they are for many sports) but snooker is thriving in Europe and Asia, with an estimated 100 million tuning in to an all-Chinese first round clash. Hatterstone may not have been one of them – but no one within the sport will care.

Golf

The 2009 Masters was the most exciting in recent years, and for a very simple reason: the USGA set up the Augusta National course in a way which allowed players to attack.

Since the emergence of Tiger Woods, and the development of technology which has allowed players to hit the ball further and straighter, golf’s authorities have reacted by making courses – particularly for the majors – tougher and tougher.

Irked by seeing Tiger and co shoot well below par on the world’s greatest courses, officials insisted that par needed to be protected, so they grew the rough, made the courses longer and made the greens faster. Then they put the pins in positions that made trying to stop the ball close like trying to stop a billiard ball on an ice rink.

In 2007, Zach Johnson won the Masters with a score of +1, the joint-worst winning score ever and the first time since 1956 that no player had finished the tournament under par. Johnson didn’t once attempt to hit the 13th and 15th holes, the risk-reward par fives, in two shots, playing conservative lay-ups which are sensible but not much fun for an expectant audience. In 2006 and 2007, the US Open winning score was +5, the worst since 1963.

The trend has been matched this side of the Atlantic: Padraig Harrington won last year’s Open at +3, only the second time since 1985 that the best total had been over par.

There is a misconception that watching the world’s best players battling near-impossible conditions improves the spectacle. It doesn’t. What fans want to see, particularly in the final round, is chargers coming from well down the field, making runs of birdies and eagles to challenge the leaders. When the courses are so tough, this is not possible, and those at the head are able to play cautious golf and wait for their rivals to fall away.

At this year’s Masters, we saw Woods and Phil Mickelson coming from way behind on Sunday to give the leaders a scare. In the end, three players finished at –12, and Angel Cabrera won the play-off. It was enthralling viewing, and hopefully a lesson learned for the powers that be.

Athletics

A sad day for sport in Bahrain this month as Rashid Ramzi, their only ever Olympic medallist, was one of six athletes to fail a drugs test after the re-testing of Beijing samples.

Ramzi, who was born in Morocco, won gold in the 1500m but seems likely to be stripped of his medal after testing positive for Cera, which enhances endurance. A statement from The International Association of Athletics Federations said, “The IAAF must wait for further details from the IOC before considering any provisional suspension . . . This step shows that athletes who cheat can never be comfortable that they will avoid detection and sends a strong message of deterrence.”

Bahrain, where there is money to invest but little tradition of staging major sporting events or producing international-class competitors, is desperate to establish itself as a player on the global sporting scene, paying many millions to stage a Formula One Grand Prix as well as a ranking event on the World Snooker tour. Ramzi’s disgrace, then, is a massive blow. He has damaged not only his own credibility but that of the Kingdom he represents.
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Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary: March-April 2009

Football Cricket Olympics Golf

Football

No doubt about football’s own goal of the month – that was scored by Better Bet, ?an online gaming firm, when they signed up Paul Merson for an advertising campaign.

During his playing career, former England and Arsenal star Merson had an addiction to gambling so severe that it cost him an estimated £7million and led him to contemplate suicide. In 1995 he broke down in tears during a press conference as he revealed his affliction to the world. Excessive gambling is a problem among footballers. Premier League players earn vast sums of money, but as they only train for a few hours each day, they also have a lot of time on their hands, leading to boredom and temptation; a classic case of the devil finding work for idle hands. Merson said: “I used to sit at home, with no paper, no nothing, and I used to put on the Teletext and I’d put £5,000 on a greyhound, and he could have three legs. I spent days doing that.”

He is by no means alone, high profile players such as Matthew Etherington have also been treated for serious addictions, while leaked news from the England World Cup camp in 2002 revealed that one player had lost £30,000 in a card school. Such sums might be laughed off by multi-millionaire footballers, but sit uneasily with fans who pay a high percentage of their wages to watch their heroes in action, and must get the feeling that their hard-earned cash is being siphoned into a fund for rich mens’ pastimes.

Better Bet features a link on its website to ‘Gamble Aware’ and proclaims that it is ‘committed to supporting responsible gaming’. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that Merson was chosen to front a promotional campaign.

After a media outcry, the firm quickly reversed its decision and dropped Merson. Ian Hogg, managing director of Better, admitted: “We’ve obviously caused some offence to people and we are pulling the campaign. We have no wish to cause any offence or inflame gambling as an issue. We’ve received lots of complaints.”

Cricket

It’s been a turbulent few months for cricket, with the shameful fall from grace of promoter Allen Stanford, the shocking terrorist attacks on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore, and now the decision to move the second season of the Indian Premier League to South Africa.

Next month’s IPL was due to take place at the same time as India’s general elections, which meant that the country’s military and police security forces would be focussed on the elections, potentially leaving cricket vulnerable to another terrorist attack. No doubt political pressure played its part; a high profile incident could be extremely damaging for India’s image at home and abroad, and could even cost the government its place in power.

This casts further doubts on India’s capacity to stage major sporting events, with the Commonwealth Games scheduled to take place there next year, as well as the 2011 Cricket World Cup. India now faces the massive challenge of stepping up to the crease to prove that it can successfully – and safely – host such events.

Credit must go to IPL boss Lalit Modi for acting swiftly to find a new location for the tournament, which enjoyed great success in its first season and has attracted a ten-year television deal worth $1.5 billion. England looked set to take on the event until concerns were raised about the uncertain weather, and a potential clash of dates with England’s test series against the West Indies. Modi jetted off to South Africa, and the following day appeared at Wanderers Cricket Ground in Johannesburg to announce the new deal.

Olympics

Fears of security breaches were also behind the International Olympic Committee’s decision to scrap international torch relays. Athens 2004 was the first Games to send the torch around the world during the build up. Beijing 2008 followed suit, but the torch, which is supposed to be a symbol of unity and inspiration, instead attracted several violent protests against China’s human rights record.

The IOC has decided that for London 2012 and beyond, the relay will remain within the host nation. Executive director Gilbert Felli said: “Beijing had planned an international torch relay and we accepted it. We saw in the debrief that the risk was there and the IOC decided not to do it again. When the torch relay is inside the host country there is more control.”

Golf

April 9th will be the most exciting day of the year so far for golf fans as The Masters gets underway at Augusta in the USA. Tiger Woods will be contesting a major for the first time since damaging his left knee in winning the US Open last June. Woods has played two smaller tournaments since returning to the fairways, with solid if unspectacular results; his best finish tied ninth at the CA Championship.

Almost as many eyes, at least on this side of the Atlantic, will be on Rory McIlroy, the 19-year-old Ulsterman who is perhaps the most exciting talent to emerge in British golf in the past decade. McIlroy has talent, technique and nerve, as he proved in winning his maiden title at the Dubai Desert Classic. He lacks the experience to win a major and must be given time to fulfill his potential.

Hopefully the tendency of the British media to place huge expectation on the shoulders of emerging sports stars – and knock them down if they fail to reach the highest peaks – will not prove too much of a burden for this young prodigy.

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Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary: January-February 2009

Football Olympics Tennis Golf

Football

Rafa Benitez has been the target of a steady stream of criticism in the media this month, as his Liverpool side have fallen away in the Premier League title race, leaving Manchester United to pull away at the top of the table and, as now seems likely, finish top of the pile for the third consecutive season.

The Spanish coach has been condemned for his negative tactics, substitutions and poor management of his players, as well as the timing and content of an ill-conceived diatribe against United boss Sir Alex Ferguson. Many of the shots aimed at Benitez have been justified; he is currently an easy target for journalists short of fresh news.

More worthy of censure, however, was Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano, who disgracefully tried to get opponent Mikel Arteta sent off by brandishing an imaginary yellow card to the referee after being fouled by Everton’s Arteta in the recent Merseyside derby.

This is by no means an isolated incident – the unpleasant habit has crept gradually into the Premier League in recent years. Had Benitez publicly denounced his own player for this act of bad sportsmanship, and warned his other players against such behaviour, he would have turned press and public opinion in his favour in a stroke. Other managers would be forced to follow suit, and very quickly this practice of attempting to get opponents booked or sent off would disappear. It just needs one high-profile manager to show the courage and honesty to set an example.

Olympics

It’s sad to read this month that funding has been slashed for eight Team Great Britain Olympic sports because of a budget shortfall. Shooting is the worst affected, as it is forced to cut the number of funded athletes from 46 to 10. Water polo has had its allocation halved to £1.45m, despite warnings from performance director Nick Hume that the minimum amount required to fund the sport would be £2.5m. Fencing, handball, table tennis, volleyball, weightlifting and wrestling will also lose out and there are fears that the host nation will not be able to compete in certain events in the 2012 London Games. Table tennis performance manager Steen Kyst Hansen said: “Our funding has been up and down like an elevator and that is no way to build for Olympic success.”

The cuts are a consequence of a £50m budget shortfall, following the failure of a government campaign to attract investment from the private sector. In mitigation, they are not alone in being unable to find backers. The sports sponsorship market has been hit particularly hard by the credit crunch, as companies slash their brand-building budgets and focus on short-term returns. For example, Five Premiership football clubs are looking for replacement shirt sponsors at the end of this season including Manchester United. General Motors has ceased its long term sponsorship of Tiger Woods, and Vodafone has ended its 12 year relationship with the England Cricket Team. It’s a great shame that preparations for 2012 will be severely hindered by the recession, and the government faces some very tough questions as to what resources can be allocated.

Tennis

It’s not often that fine weather stops play in any sport, but glaring sunshine has been the scourge of Australian Open tennis. Defending champion Novak Djokovic was forced to retire from his quarter-final against Andy Roddick during the fourth set, suffering from a lack of energy. With on-court temperatures topping 50 degrees centigrade at the Rod Laver Arena, the Serb was dangerously close to heat exhaustion.

The father of British 16-year-old Heather Watson criticised organisers for allowing the junior event to go ahead under such conditions. “I was a bit disturbed to hear that she saw black spots in front of her eyes during one match,” he said. “She was totally exhausted. They had to stop for a ten minute break and she could feel the heat coming through the soles of her shoes.”

After years of Wimbledon being interrupted by rain, the LTA finally relented and built a sliding roof over centre court. Now perhaps their antipodean counterparts will have to follow suit to offer athletes a place in the shade.

Golf

On the subject of adverse weather at sporting events, Nick Faldo’s parting shot at the end of the 2008 Ryder Cup, derisively advising anyone planning a trip to the 2010 event at Celtic Manor in South Wales to “bring your waterproofs”, has proved to be his final act as captain. Colin Montgomerie has been given the task of bringing the trophy back into European hands.

In this diary last September, I argued that although Faldo had been unfairly blamed for Europe’s defeat, the chief reason for the USA’s success had been their unity and team ethic. Montgomerie is far more popular than Faldo among his playing peers and will do a better job of galvanizing the team into a cohesive unit.

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ARCHIVE
Sporting overview for 2008
More than any year in recent memory, 2008 produced a succession of spectacular sporting moments.
To sum up the last 12 months, Ian Hollings selects the top ten

10. New Zealand stun Australia to win Rugby League World Cup

After an emphatic 30-6 defeat of New Zealand in the group stages of November’s World Cup, the Sydney Telegraph declared “the engraver can start writing Australia 2008 on the giant silver trophy.” Few could have disagreed, so apparent was the superiority of the host nation. But by the time the final came around, New Zealand had found their own momentum and belief, and they went on to record the greatest shock in the history of rugby league with a 34-20 victory in the final in Brisbane. The dramatic match hinged on an unthinkable error from Kangaroo full back Billy Slater, the best player in the world, who gifted Kiwi stand-off Benji Marshall a score with a misplaced pass.

9. Ronnie O’Sullivan makes his third Crucible 147

Until 1997, there had been only three maximum 147 breaks made in the 20-year history of snooker’s World Championship at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Since then, Ronnie O’Sullivan has made three of his own. He completed his hat-trick in the final frame of a 13-7 defeat of Mark Williams in the second round of the tournament in April 2008. O’Sullivan, frequently referred to as the most naturally talented player snooker has produced (although the word ‘naturally’ is superfluous, as what other type of talent is there?), cleared the table with an exhilarating display of rapid potting.  It was obvious from his fist-clenching celebration that this single frame of perfection gave him a greater thrill than the title itself.

8. Manchester United beat Chelsea in the Champions League final

Such is the dominance of English teams in football’s most important club competition that it was only a matter of time before two of them met in the final. All of the ‘big four’ made the quarter-finals in 2008 (as they could well do again in 2009) and only Arsenal missed out on the semis, having been beaten by Liverpool. The final in Moscow in May seemed a dream setting for Chelsea’s oligarch owner Roman Abramovich, hoping that his invested millions would reap the glorious reward of his club’s first ever Champions League success. The Blues had the better of a gripping encounter after equalising at 1-1, but could not find a winning goal, and squandered their chance when John Terry slipped and hit the post in the penalty shoot out. Edwin van der Sar then saved from Nicolas Anelka to make United champions of Europe for the third time.

7. Chris Hoy wins three Olympic golds

Britain’s fantastic team at August’s Beijing Olympics had many heroes, including swimmer Rebecca Adlington and 400m runner Christine Ohuruogu. But at the spearhead of the team was track cyclist Chris Hoy, who contributed three times to Britain’s haul of 19 gold medals, in the keirin, sprint and team sprint categories. Embodying the Olympic spirit through his dedication, resilience and sense of fair play, Hoy became the first cyclist to win gold in all three disciplines. The Scot also proved an inspiration to his peers. “Whenever there’s a wobble in our team people stop and you can see all the heads look at Chris,” said coach David Brailsford. “Like a pack of wolves, when something spooks them, they all stop and turn and look at the leader. That’s Chris Hoy.”

6. Lewis Hamilton wins Formula One World Championship

Lewis Hamilton will go down in history as the first black driver to win motor racing’s most prestigious title, as well as the youngest (so far) at the age of 23. But it was the sensational drama of the conclusion to the 2008 season that made the Briton’s victory truly memorable. Going into November’s final race in Sao Paolo, Brazil, Hamilton had to finish in the top five if home favourite Felipe Massa took the chequered flag first. Sure enough, Massa won the race, and his team began celebrating, with Hamilton lying in sixth spot going into the last section of the final lap. But with the entire championship hinging on a few seconds of action, Hamilton overtook Germany’s Timo Glock to move into fifth place and clinch the crown. The decision of McLaren-Mercedes to change Hamilton to wet tyres proved pivotal, as Glock had kept his dry tyres and was unable to hold his position when rain fell in the closing stages.

5. Catch of the century helps Giants win Superbowl

Going into American Football’s Superbowl XLII, the New England Patriots had won all 18 games during the season, and were aiming to become the first team since the Miami Dolphins in 1972 to go through the whole campaign undefeated. In February’s showpiece finale in Arizona, in their path stood the New York Giants, whom the Patriots had beaten 38–35 in the last game of the regular season. This time, the game was a more cautious and defensive affair, as the Patriots struggled to find their offensive fluency. Still, with 1 minute 15 seconds of the game remaining, they led 14-10 and had the winning line in their sights. Then came the most extraordinary play of the game, the season, and perhaps the history of the Superbowl. On third down with five yards needed, on his own 44-yard line, Giants quarterback Eli Manning somehow avoided being sacked despite hands clinging to his jersey, then launched a spiralling 32-yard pass to David Tyree, a fourth-string wide receiver who overcame drink and drug addictions earlier in his career. Under pressure from the Patriot defence, Tyree plucked the ball from the air and clamped it against his helmet to ensure it did not slip from his grasp as he was bundled to the ground. Four plays later and with 35 seconds on the clock, Manning tossed to Plaxico Burress for the winning touchdown to complete a shock 17-14 scoreline in the Giants’ favour.

4. Tiger Woods wins the US Open on one leg

“There were weird noises coming from his knee,” revealed Paul Casey after he played in June’s US Open with Tiger Woods who competed in the event against doctors’ advice, suffering from damage to the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee as well a double stress fracture of his tibia. So relentless is Woods’ pursuit of success – specifically his lifelong quest to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors – that he played despite the risk of doing long-term damage to his knee, and was often doubled up in pain after hitting his trademark cannonball tee shots. He led the tournament in San Diego going into the final round, but was almost beaten by Rocco Mediate, a 45-year-old journeyman who had never won a major title but led in the clubhouse by one stroke as Woods came to the 72nd hole. The extraordinary capacity of Woods to make things happen when he needs them most was in evidence once again as he pitched from the rough to within 12 feet of the hole, then rolled in the putt to force a tie. “I knew he would make it,” admitted a dejected Mediate, who battled gamely in the play-off but lost after driving into a bunker on the sudden-death 19th hole. As remarkable as Woods’ 14th major triumph was, it was a Pyhrric victory. He subsequently announced that he would take the rest of the year off, missing two other majors, to undergo reconstructive surgery. His road back to the top is sure to be arduous.

3. Swimmer Michael Phelps wins eight Olympic golds

As the New York Times joked after Michael Phelps completed his incredible series of performances in the Water Cube in Beijing, had he been a country in his own right, the People’s Republic of Michael would have finished in the top ten in the overall medal table, winning more golds than Canada, Brazil and India combined. The facts speak for themselves: eight events entered, eight gold medals and seven world records; he won the 100m butterfly with a mere Olympic record. Phelps became the first person to take an octet of gold at a single Olympics, and has the most golds overall having landed six in 2004. The only time the 23-year-old American truly feared defeat was in that 100m butterfly when he trailed Serbia’s Milorad Cavic for most of the race, but stormed back to win by 0.01 of a second in a dramatic finish. The following day, Phelps added the 4x100m relay to break the record of seven golds set by Mark Spitz in 1972. “Not only is this guy the greatest swimmer of all time and the greatest Olympian of all time, he’s maybe the greatest athlete of all time,” said a gracious Spitz.

2. Sprinter Usain Bolt wins the Olympic 100m

Bolt’s performances on the track at Beijing were phenomenal to behold. In particular, his breath-taking victory in the 100m was one of those rare sporting incidents which had spectators across the planet calling their friends to ask, “Did you see that?” Living up to his nickname, Lightning Bolt, the Jamaican flashed across the track and by the halfway mark was so far ahead of his rivals that he looked like a show-off father hijacking a school sports day race. Bolt crossed the line in 9.69 seconds, smashing his own world record despite starting his celebrations well before the finish and bizarrely, as slow motion replays revealed, running with one shoe lace untied. This generated speculation as to what Bolt’s time would have been if he had remained focused throughout, a debate which was settled when the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo got in on the act to state that he could have run an astonishing 9.55. Bolt went on to win the 200m and 4x100m with two more world records, becoming the first sprinter to win three gold medals since Carl Lewis in 1984, and the first ever to set three world records at the same Olympics.

1. Rafael Nadal beats Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final

Just as Bjorn Borg’s supremacy was eventually eclipsed, after five consecutive Wimbledon titles, by the emerging force of John McEnroe, so Roger Federer’s dominance of tennis’ most significant event ended, as he attempted a sixth straight crown, at the hands of the young pretender. As Rafael Nadal collapsed to the ground at the end of June’s epic final, a cry went up from the elated crowd in south London: “The King is dead, long live the King!” Anyone who witnessed the 2008 men’s singles final will never forget it. A true clash of the titans, it was also a clash of styles: Federer’s grace, elegance and technical brilliance, against the brutal power and athleticism of Nadal. It was the longest ever men’s final at 4 hours 48 minutes and the latest ever finish, concluding at 9.15pm, all eyes fixed on every ball despite the gathering dusk. What was truly astonishing about the match was the quality of play in the deciding set, after Federer had recovered from 2-0 down to 2-2. Both men must have been exhausted, yet they continued to hit outrageous serves and passing shots, both bravely aiming at the furthest corners of the court. Eventually, Nadal broke serve at 7-7, and although Federer saved three match points, he succumbed when a low forehand caught the net. James Lawton of the Independent summed up the contest by describing it as “simply the greatest sporting event I’ve ever seen.”
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ARCHIVE
Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary
November-December 2008
Football Cycling Golf

Football

Arsenal’s William Gallas committed one of the ultimate footballing sins this month – speaking out against his team mates in public. Gallas’ astonishing outburst, made during an interview with Associated Press, revealed that all is not well behind the scenes at the North London club.

“There was a problem at half-time of the draw with Tottenham,” he said. “The only thing that I could say at half-time was ‘Guys, we resolve these problems after the match, not at half-time’. When, as captain, some players come up to you and talk to you about a player, complaining about him, and then during the match you speak to this player and the player in question insults us. There comes a time where we can no longer comprehend how this can happen. I am trying to defend myself a bit without giving names. Otherwise I’m taking all the blame. I’m 31, the player is six years younger than me.”
There are three 25-year-old players at Arsenal – Robin van Persie, Bacary Sagna and Emmanuel Eboue – but further comments from Gallas suggested that the player had an attacking role, which would put Van Persie in the frame. Perhaps more damagingly, Gallas also criticised the team’s capacity to fight for major trophies. “We are not brave enough in battle. I think we need to be soldiers. To be champions, you have to play big matches every weekend and fight. We have to be warriors. That is how the team will forge their character and experience.”

Gallas has been widely condemned for his comments. It is an unwritten rule in football that, no matter what issues you have with your team mates, they are dealt with behind closed doors rather than in the press. Perhaps the most damning aspect of Gallas’ verbal assault was the timing – as it came in the same week that his autobiography went on sale. Was this a deliberate ploy to ensure that he was in the public eye in time for the release of his own tome – in which he also admits to conflicts on the pitch with Arsenal and France midfielder Sami Nasri? It seems too coincidental to be otherwise.
Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger reacted bluntly by stripping Gallas of the captaincy, and even dropping him from the team for the next game against Manchester City – which they lost 3-0 to fall ten points behind the Premier League leaders.

But before Wenger – usually an excellent manager – completely writes off Gallas, he should consider this: however damaging Gallas’ words were to team spirit, at least they were heartfelt. Gallas wears his heart on his sleeve. He loves football, he loves his club, and he is desperate to win a trophy this season – something Arsenal haven’t done since 2005. It’s obviously from his comments that he had tried to resolve the problems with his team mates privately, and that this hadn’t worked. Perhaps he felt that going public was the only way to give a jolt of urgency to a team which had grown lazy, made sluggish by players happy to pick up their huge pay packets each week without stretching every nerve and sinew to the limit in the quest for victory.

Towards the end of last season, Arsenal conceded a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Birmingham, a result which effectively ended their title chances. When the final whistle went, Gallas crouched on the ground and openly cried. This was described as a weak moment, a poor example for a captain to set to his team. Nonsense. Arsenal would be lucky to have 11 players who cared that much. His team mates should have looked at him and realised ‘that’s what it means to him, so that’s what it should mean to us’.
Gallas is a loose canon, a fantastic, inspirational player, subject to outbursts of temper and irrational behaviour. In that respect he is reminiscent of another enigmatic player of Gallic flair: Eric Cantona. Sir Alex Ferguson had to deal with Cantona in a unique way in order to get the best out of him for Manchester United. Ferguson has always been wary of players’ egos and will never allow a player to develop the notion that he is bigger than the club. When a sulking Cantona went into hiding in France, threatening never to play for United again, Ferguson would have let any other player go. But with Cantona, he realised that special nurturing was required, and he took the unprecedented step of going to France to seek him out, before putting an arm around his shoulder and convincing Cantona of his destiny.

Perhaps, in this instance, Wenger should take a leaf out of this book and allow Gallas the chance to be messiah, not pariah.

Golf

A special mention this month for Annika Sörenstam, the greatest ever female golfer, who announced her retirement in May this year and played her final LPGA tournament last week. Sweden’s Sörenstam was so shy as a junior that she deliberately squandered chances to win tournaments so that she didn’t have to give a victory speech. But she soon got over that habit and went on to win a record 90 tournaments, including 72 LPGA events and ten majors. She has won $22m in prize money, eight player of the year awards and is the only female golfer to shoot an official round of 59. Her greatest year was 2003, when she responded to arch-rival Karrie Webb’s offer to “eat her hat” if she repeated her eight victories in 2002, by winning 11 tournaments.

It was something of an anti-climax for Sörenstam as she missed the cut in her last LPGA event, the ADT Championship in Florida. All of a sudden, the time is here,” she said. “You’re standing there on the 18th fairway and it’s your last approach shot in an LPGA event.”

As I discussed in June’s diary item about Justine Henin who retired from tennis at the ridiculously early age of 25, it is difficult for us mere mortals to comprehend how great sports stars can suddenly call it quits when they have years of potential success still ahead of them. The intensity of competition must be so fierce, and the thrill of winning so extreme, and what can possibly replace that when it is voluntarily foregone? Sörenstam insists that she wishes to concentrate on her personal life – she gets married for a second time in January and as yet has no children – as well as on spending more time on course design and her golf academy. One hopes that these pursuits give her as much satisfaction as her extraordinary achievements on the course.

Cycling

It was encouraging to see Spain’s Manuel Beltran banned from racing in France for two years after testing positive for the banned blood booster EPO at this year’s Tour de France. The verdict from France’s national anti-doping agency has effectively ended the competitive career of 37-year-old Beltran. There were seven positive drug results at this year’s Tour de France, an event which has had its credibility damaged in recent years by the prevalence of drug cheating. Hopefully this stern penalty against Beltran will act as a deterrent for other cyclists.
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ARCHIVE
Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary
October -November 2008
Formula One, Cricket, Golf

Formula One

Congratulations to Lewis Hamilton for winning the World Title after an incredible finish to the Brazilian Grand Prix, which made for the most exciting climax to a season in the history of the sport.

Hamilton, the 23-year-old from Stevenage who was cruelly denied the 2007 title after finishing seventh in the final race due to gearbox failure, needed to finish fifth this time, or for Brazil’s Felipe Massa not to win. Massa started in pole position and raced to victory, and looked a sure bet for the title with Hamilton in sixth position going into the last of 71 laps. But the drama was not over, as Hamilton managed to pass Germany’s Tino Glock on the final hill, to abruptly end the celebrations of Massa’s team and family, who had prematurely assumed that victory was theirs.

Hamilton became the youngest ever world champion and looks destined to become one of racing’s all-time greats.

However, the spectre of racism continues to haunt Hamilton’s success. As previously reported in this diary, Hamilton, whose father is from Grenada, admitted he was “saddened” by the sight of fans wearing wigs and dark make-up in Barcelona earlier this year. And before this season’s finale in Brazil, over 16,000 racist messages were posted on a Spanish website, the majority of them probably coming from fans of Spain’s Fernando Alonso. The word “nigger” was frequently used and one message read: “Half-breed, kill yourself in your car. I hope you run over your dad in the first pit stop.” A spokesman for the FIA said: “Discrimination and prejudice have no place in sport and society. Everybody in our sport will join us in condemning these abusive, hateful comments.”

The governing body’s stance is welcomed, but it’s clear that it will take much more to rid the sport of bigotry.

Cricket

The Stanford Super Series brought cricket into a new era, where millions of pounds are at stake in the outcome of a single match. Golfers, footballers, tennis players and Formula One drivers have experienced the kind of pressure which comes when life-changing sums of money can be won or squandered within moments.

Cricket’s top players were plunged into a cauldron of tension at this innovative series, the creation of America finance billionaire Sir Allen Stanford who has made hobby of diverting his huge cash reserves into sporting playthings.

The event in Antigua climaxed with a one-off Twenty20 match between England and an all-star Caribbean team, with the winners taking home $20milllion, and the losers not a penny. England collapsed under the strain, stumbling to their lowest ever Twenty20 total of 99 all out, before the Superstars easily picked off the runs to win by 10 wickets.

Former England captain Nasser Hussain, now a ubiquitous commentator on the sport, has welcomed the excitement created by the series, insisting that he would have relished the chance to compete for big money during his playing days.

“I played in big matches, but never experienced something like John Terry taking a penalty to win the Champions League final, or a golfer with a putt to win the Ryder Cup,” he said. “It makes great viewing when you know someone is standing over a putt for $1million: he’s either going to choke and miss it or be celebrating a nice windfall, which is what this is all about.”

The snooker world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, who actually prefers the solitude of long-distance running to the stress of competition, once expressed a contrasting view – that money ruins sport. He argued that the purity and joy of competition is tainted when such sums are at stake, as controversy, foul play and unbearable tension inevitably come into play.

Another cue-sports legend, six-time billiards world champion Geet Sethi, wrote a book called Success Versus Joy along similar lines. He drew on his experience that playing a sport for a living greatly diminished the enjoyment which caused him to take it up in the first place.

Cricket purists will certainly hope that the traditional test and one-day formats, with competitors’ salaries remaining modest, will continue to thrive and that the Super Series will prove no more than a golden flash in the pan.  ? ?Golf
The golfing world is united in wishing the best to Seve Ballesteros, who remains in intensive care in a hospital in Madrid after undergoing three operations to remove a brain tumour.

A legend of the sport, renowned in his hey-day for his good looks and suave demeanor as much as for his swash-buckling skill on the course, five-time major champion Ballesteros, 51, admitted that he is facing “the most difficult match” of his life after being diagnosed with an oligoastrocytoma.

Padraig Harrington took the opportunity to criticise the European Tour for not giving Ballesteros an ambassadorial role. “Hopefully, going forward, the Tour can build more of a relationship with Seve and have him at the forefront of our Tour,” said the Irishman. “Is it Harry Vardon we have on our new Tour logo? Why isn’t it Seve? He is the man when you think about it.”

These sentiments may have been heart-felt, but speaking out was an error of judgement. Harrington’s public mud-slinging had the effect of breaking the sense of unity.
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ARCHIVE
Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary
September 2008
Golf Tennis Boxing Football

Golf

Nick Faldo has never had a genial relationship with the media, so it was inevitable that his every move would be scrutinised during his captaincy of Europe’s Ryder Cup team. The biennial match against the USA went the way of the Americans for the first time since 1999, and by a convincing margin of 16.5 – 11.5. Faldo was roundly criticised and blamed for the defeat, but the widespread denigration from the media as well as players including Colin Montgomerie was, in my view, misplaced.

The first volley against Faldo came when he selected Ian Poulter as a wild card, ahead of more experienced competitors such as Montgomerie and Darren Clarke. But Poulter more than proved his worth by winning four matches out of five – the highest points scorer of the 24 players involved. Next, Faldo was slated for dropping two past Ryder Cups heroes, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia, from the foursomes session on the second day, even though this turned out to be the only session won by Europe throughout the event. The final attempt to make Faldo the scapegoat for defeat in Kentucky came when he left two of his supposedly strongest players, Westwood and Padraig Harrington, at the bottom of the order of the singles list on the final day, which meant that USA had already won the trophy while those two were still on the course.

Once again, the facts were conveniently ignored for this round of Faldo-bashing. Europe trailed by only two points going into the singles, so the captain was right to leave some strength at the bottom of the order as he believed that the match could be kept alive until then. Moreover, the most important reason for Europe’s defeat was the fact that Garcia, Westwood and Harrington, stalwarts of former campaigns, failed to register a single victory between them during the three days of action. Put simply, Europe’s big guns failed to fire. Far too much emphasis is put on the role of the captain in the Ryder Cup. He may choose which of his team to send on to the course and in which order, but it is the players who strike the shots and make the putts which mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Credit should also been given to the Americans, who played superior golf throughout to end a run of three consecutive defeats. With six rookies in their team and without the injured Tiger Woods, the USA were considered under-dogs, despite home advantage. Perhaps they were galvanised by the absence of Woods. Their team in recent years has lacked a group mentality, possibly because some of the junior members have been over-awed rather than inspired by having golf’s greatest player on their side. Rather like having the CEO at the office Christmas party, other members of the team were unable to relax and enjoy the occasion. And as for Woods himself, his Ryder Cup record is surprisingly weak. The relentless pursuit of individual glory, particularly his lifelong mission to eclipse Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles, is far more important to Woods than an event where the taste of victory is shared with a team. They may be better off without him.

Tennis

It is surprising that the Ryder Cup format, such a massive commercial success in golf, has not been adopted successfully by any other sport. Tennis has come closest with the Davis Cup but it lacks the same prestige or appeal. This month, Great Britain played its only home tie of the year against Austria, the only chance other than Wimbledon or Queens for home fans to see Andy Murray in action. But only 7,000 tickets were sold for Sunday’s play, with officials forced to cover the patches of empty seats with giant Union Jack flags.

Boxing

Joe Calzaghe has been a ubiquitous figure in the media in the last few weeks, promoting his November clash with Roy Jones. And rightly so, as it promises to be an almighty clash of the Titans, with both men considered among the best pound-for-pound fighters of modern times. There have been suggestions that Calzaghe has taken an easy option in agreeing to fight Jones, who is well past his best at 39, rather than taking on the younger, leaner Kelly Pavlik. But let’s not forget that Calzaghe is 36 himself and possibly one fight away from retirement – so what better way to go out than to beat Jones in boxing’s hall of legends: Madison Square Garden.

Football

There was a sense of bemusement and dismay when it was announced that FIFA had fined the Croatian FA just £15,000 for the racist abuse hurled at Emile Heskey by home fans during the recent World Cup qualifier between England and Croatia in Zagreb. This paltry penalty virtually gives carte blanche for bigoted fans to throw insults without fear of serious recrimination for their national association.  Maybe it’s time for such cases to be placed outside FIFA’s remit and to be dealt with by a higher body such as the United Nations, which could impose more serious sanctions and take stronger action in the quest to kick racism out of football.
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ARCHIVE
Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary
August – September 2008
The Olympics Football Snooker

The Olympics

After all the predictions of controversy, cover-ups and censorship in the run up to the Olympics (see the March edition of this diary), Beijing passed off without any real hullabaloo. Indeed, 2008 will go down as one of the greatest Games of all time. There were the inevitable Free Tibet protesters, but the only real flare-?up, at least as reported by the British media, came when ITN journalist John Ray was arrested while reporting on a Free Tibet demonstration near the National Stadium. Ray immediately called a colleague and said: “I’ve been roughed up. They dragged me, pulled me and knocked me to the ground. Now they are filming me.” He also claimed he had been asked his opinion about Tibet by a policeman. This was clear example of the heavy-handed attitude of the Chinese authorities and their intention to prevent media coverage of demonstrations. However, there was also a sense that Ray was looking for a story. As he leaned out of the window of a police van, repeating asking “Are you arresting me?” to a confused policeman who clearly didn’t understand him, Ray seemed desperate to get the answer “yes”. He was released within an hour after his producer showed police his papers.

As for the action inside the multitude of fantastic arenas, there were a plethora of captivating moments, many of which will go down in Olympic history. Chris Hoy’s exploits on the cycling track were inspirational. Michael Phelps defied belief with his performances in the swimming pool, particularly his astonishing comeback in the 100m butterfly, winning it by 0.01 second to take the seventh of a record eight gold medals. Anyone who wasn’t astounded by the electric displays of sprinter Usain Bolt simply doesn’t appreciate sport. Even in defeat there was great spectacle – BBC reporter John Inverdale’s interview with the British women’s coxless fours rowing team, exhausted and devastated  in equal measure after being denied gold by China, made for gripping TV.

One thing’s for sure: London 2012 has a lot to live up to.

Football

The Dimitar Berbatov saga has been an unpleasant reminder of the increasingly obscene power of players and agents in football. Berbatov joined Tottenham Hotspur two years ago and became an instant hit with his dazzling ball skills and goal-scoring prowess. He continued to impress last season, although it became obvious that he was keen to join a bigger club in order to compete for trophies and bump up his relatively meagre pay-packet of £44,000 a week. During the summer, the Bulgarian was expected to join Manchester United, but the two clubs have been unable to agree on a transfer fee. United have offered £25 million but Spurs are holding out for closer to £30 million for a player they purchased from Bayer Leverkusen for £11 million.  Berbatov and his agent Emil Dantchev have become frustrated that the deal has not been completed, and now the player has virtually gone on strike. The new season is two games old. Berbatov, who usually would be sure to play every minute of every game, made only a brief substitute appearance in Tottenham’s opening game against Middlesbrough, and was left out of the squad against Sunderland, manager Juande Ramos claiming that he was “not focussed enough.”

The real losers of the situation are, of course, the fans. They have had to endure their best player sitting on the bench, or somewhere else entirely, while their team loses their first two games. Some blame lies with the Tottenham board, who should have resolved the situation months ago by either selling Berbatov or agreeing an acceptable pay rise – their offer of £60,000 per week was rebuffed. But the behaviour of player and agent has been a disgrace. Berbatov signed a four year contract two years ago, the minimum requirement of which should be to give his best in every match and try to reward the fans who support him and the club which pays him vast sums of money, rather than to sulkily decide that those sums are not vast enough. Sadly, this is a recurring problem in football.

Frank Lampard courted interest from Inter Milan this summer until Chelsea relented by offering him a new contract worth £150,000 a week. Meanwhile, ticket prices continue to rise, so fans fork out an ever-higher proportion of their weekly wage to watch their heroes in action. Workers on modest wages can no longer afford to buy tickets for the top Premier League clubs, meaning that, more and more, crowds are made up by casual fans and the corporate contingent, those that Roy Keane famously described as the “prawn sandwich brigade”.

Atmospheres at the big grounds like Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford, and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium have suffered, mischievously compared to libraries by rival fans. Is there any end in sight to these troubled times? It’s hard to imagine, especially as European legislation prevents salary capping. We can only hope that, at some point, players will realise that the Beautiful Game itself means more than any amount of riches.

Snooker

We frequently hear complaints from snooker’s top players that there are not enough tournaments. But last week there were protests about quite the opposite with a clash of dates between two major events. World Snooker announced the first ever world ranking event in the Kingdom of Bahrain, only for Barry Hearn, the Matchroom Sport promoter, to insist that three of the top 16 players plus Steve Davis were contracted to play in his Premier League event in the same week. While it is certainly the case that the governing body should liase more closely with Hearn and other independent promoters to plan dates well in advance, such clashes are bound to become more regular as snooker’s popularity grows internationally and satellite tournaments are established. There was also a clash between the Shanghai Masters, a ranking event, and a World Series tournament promoted by John Higgins, as well as between the qualifying rounds of the Bahrain Championship and an open event in Austria. Leading players have repeatedly bemoaned the fact that snooker has fallen far behind golf and tennis in terms of prize money and the opportunity to pick and choose events from a full calendar. Well, now they can do just that.

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ARCHIVE
Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary
July – August 2008
Golf Tennis Athletics

Golf

Nostalgia swept through galleries at Royal Birkdale as Greg Norman, who spent 331 weeks as the world’s top-ranked golfer in the late 1980s and early 1990s, performed brilliantly at the Open Championship. Aged 53, he threatened to smash the record for the oldest player to win a major, currently held by Julius Boros who was 48 when he landed the 1968 PGA Championship. Norman disregarded the theory that the importance of brute force in modern golf has made it a young man’s game, launching drives of prodigious length down the tight fairways, often out-hitting his playing partners, some of whom were not even born when he won his first Open title in 1986. Norman has only two major titles to his name, and undoubtedly should have won more, and would have done but for a series of cruel slices of bad luck during the prime years of his career. In 1986 Bob Tway holed a bunker shot on the final hole when Norman seemed set for the PGA crown, and the following year Larry Mize sunk an even more improbable chip shot to deny the Australian glory at the Masters. His nickname ‘The Shark’ became painfully ironic as his adversaries repeatedly landed fatal wounds. To win the Claret Jug this year would have permanently laid those ghosts to rest, but Norman once again had to play second fiddle. Leading by a shot with nine holes to play, he was outplayed on the closing stretch by Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who became the first Euopean to retain the title since James Braid in 1906.

Tennis

James Lawton, writing in the Independent, called it ‘simply the greatest sporting event I have ever seen.’ Few who witnessed the epic Wimbledon men’s singles final between Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal, won 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 by Nadal, could rebuff that assessment. Certainly in recent years, only football’s 2005 Champions League final between AC Milan and Liverpool could come close for sheer drama, quality of play and the spectacle of titanic opponents at the very top of their game, giving every ounce of effort in pursuit of the ultimate prize. This was sporting history in the making. For decades to come, tennis fans and many more besides will ask ‘where were you’ for the 2008 final, and no doubt BBC’s VT department will dust the tape off even more often than the 1980 Borg-McEnroe final (the one with the marathon fourth set tie-break). Purists may have preferred to see Federer come out on top, and cement his reputation as the sport’s finest ever grass court exponent by superseding Borg’s record of five consecutive titles. But Nadal’s belligerent style of play and dashing looks have given him the mantle of People’s Champion and made him an immensely popular winner. One has the sense that there could be more, much more, to come between these two great rivals.

Athletics

Previously tracked in this diary’s January, February and May installments, the Oscar Pistorius saga seems to have finally drawn to a close, and it ended in disappointment for the South African athlete.?Despite running a personal best time for 400m of 46.25 seconds on his prosthetic blades at a meet in Switzerland, Pistorius fell short of the 45.55 mark required to qualify for the Olympic team. Having been left out of South Africa’s 4x 400m relay team, Pistorius will not be competing at the Beijing Olympics, which start on August 8th. The 21-year-old had recently been favoured in a landmark decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport which lifted a ban on the double-amputee sprinter competing in able-bodied events. But as his manager Peet Van Zyl explained: “From the beginning, we knew that he had to qualify. We didn’t expect him to be granted any special opportunity or anything. The rules are the rules.” Pistorius, who will now focus his attention on the Paralympic Games in the Chinese capital in September, had the consolation of some kind words from USA’s Paralympic coach Troy Engle. “There’s not another story that’s brought more attention to the Paralympic movement than Oscar Pistorius,” he said. “He’s been a wonderful ambassador.”
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ARCHIVE
Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary
June – July 2008
Football, Athletics, Tennis

Football

The UEFA Champions League final, which has certainly become football’s most important match other than the World Cup final, ended in what most neutral fans perceived as a just victory for Manchester United in Moscow. They were outplayed for long spells of the final by Chelsea, who hit the woodwork twice, but eventually won 6-5 on penalties after the 120 minutes finished with a 1-1 scoreline. United have played the more attractive and expansive football throughout the season, evident in the fact that during their triumphant Premier League campaign, they scored 80 goals to Chelsea’s 65. Moreover, Chelsea’s recent success has undeniably been founded on the funding of Roman Abramovich, and to see the oligarch land football’s biggest club title in his homeland would have been galling for those who abhor football’s increasing correlation between financial muscle and success.

There was some sympathy immediately after the final for John Terry, the Chelsea captain, who hit the post with his penalty, with the title at his mercy. That sympathy was soon diluted the following day when video pictures on YouTube revealed Terry’s vile act of emptying the contents of his nose on to the neck of United striker Carlos Teves early in the game. The phenomenon of YouTube means that while such unpleasant acts can often be hidden from the referee, they rarely escape the attention of the sporting public. Far more compassion was reserved for Frank Lampard, who bravely played in Chelsea’s semi-final against Liverpool, scoring a vital goal, just days after his mother Pat died suddenly of pneumonia. Lampard also scored in the final in normal time and in the shoot-out, but was ultimately denied what would have been a fairy-tale ending to his season. “My team-mates have been fantastic and I wanted to win this for them,” said an emotional Lampard after the game. “John Terry is Mister Chelsea. He wanted it more than anyone at this club and not many centre-halves would stand up and take a penalty of that importance.”?Athletics?The Oscar Pistorius saga, which I began to track in my January-February London Grip diary entry, took a massive twist in the athlete’s favour at the end of May: the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) decided to lift the International Association of Athletics Federation’s ban on the double-amputee sprinter competing in able-bodied events.

The 21-year-old South African was born without a fibula in both legs, had a double amputation below the knee at the age of 11 months and grew up using artificial limbs. He now runs with carbon-fibre transtibial prostheses brand-named the Cheetah Flex-Foot. With these he dominates sprinting in his Paralympic categories. Pistorius has fought a long battle for the right to compete against able-bodied athletes, on the grounds that his synthetic legs do not give him an unfair advantage. That argument has now, controversially, been accepted. “On the basis of the evidence brought by the experts called by both parties, the panel was not persuaded that there was sufficient evidence of any metabolic advantage in favour of the double amputee using the Cheetah Flex-Foot,” said a statement from the CAS.
An overjoyed Pistorius said, “It is such a significant day in the sport. I’m so happy with the outcome. This is one of the best days of my life.” The man nicknamed Blade Runner, added, “I hope this silences the crazy theories circulating about my having an unfair advantage.” He still has the tough task of trimming his 400m personal best from 46.33s to 45.55s to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.

Tanni-Gray Thompson, the eleven times Paralympic gold medalist, rightly raised the issue of where the decision leaves the Paralympic 400m race. “If Oscar makes it to the Olympics then the rest of the guys who run in that event at the Paralympics might look like a B final,” she said. “I think a wider discussion should take place if he does qualify for the individual event to see what happens with his Paralympic event.”

The other key issue to spring from the CAS decision is whether a precedent has been set for other disabled athletes fighting for the right to compete in able-bodied events. Though the CAS statement specified that the verdict only applied to this specific set of circumstances, it seems likely that a raft of similar cases could emerge.?Tennis?Justine Henin dropped one of the great sporting bombshells this month when she brought the curtain down on her ephemeral career at the age of 25. She is the first woman ever to retire while ranked No 1 in the world. The timing of the announcement was also shocking, as it came just before the French Open, where Henin would have been aiming for a fourth consecutive title and fifth since 2003. The Belgian must rank as one of the all-time greats of the women’s game, having won seven major championships and an Olympic gold medal. Only Wimbledon eluded her – she lost in the final in 2001 and 2006. She won nearly $20m in prize money and was ranked No 1 for over 100 weeks. Henin had a magnificent all-round game, her style based on strategy, speed and finesse, her biggest weapon a devastating single-handed backhand. She bucked the current trend in women’s tennis of reliance on power over skill – typified by the brawny Williams sisters. Luminaries such as John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova have described her as the female equivalent of Roger Federer. All of which raises the inevitable question . . . why?

Henin is obviously a complex character, who in her short life has already had to deal with her mother’s death and divorce from her husband. Only she can know the true answer as to why she has quit tennis, apparently still in her prime. “I don’t need this adrenaline being in front of thousands of people to really be happy. I just need to be myself. I’m really happy and proud of what I did, and I don’t need to live these moments any more,” she tried to explain.

But Federer summed up the bewilderment of millions of fans when he said, “It’s a pity for tennis. She certainly has her own reasons. I hope she has good reasons, because it’s an extreme decision.”
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Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary
May 2008
Golf, Snooker, Football, Rugby Union, Formula One

Golf

Darren Clarke is not the most popular golfer among the media that follow the sport. Along with Sergio Garcia and Thomas Bjorn, he is often considered aloof in his attitude towards the fourth estate. But even Clarke’s staunchest critic would not have denied him victory in last week’ Asian Open – his first European Tour title for five years.

The Ulsterman lost his wife Heather to cancer in 2006 and showed an inevitable loss of form before and after her death. “It was always going to be a difficult hurdle for me to get back into the winner’s enclosure after Heather passed away – it’s a big mental hurdle that I have crossed today,” said an emotional Clarke after holing a long birdie putt to win by one shot in Shanghai.  “From the the 14th onwards I lost my concentration. I started thinking about Heather and (sons) Tyrone and Connor. On the last green I gathered myself and said ‘right, hit a good putt’. Sometimes they are just meant to go in.”

Meanwhile, it’s refreshing to hear that the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the sport’s governing body, has finally decided to introduce drug-testing ahead of next year’s Open Championship.  Casual observers might wonder why there has been a clamour for testing to be introduced. The answer is that golfers have become increasingly reliant on physical power to be successful, as championship courses are made longer, therefore drugs used to help improve strength could give an advantage.

Snooker

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s sublime genius on the green baize stole the headlines. His magnificent 147 maximum break earned him a cool £157,000 for nine minutes work. The sport’s administrators were relieved for the positive media coverage, after a row between players, the governing body and the BBC about logo rights threatened to over-shadow the World Championship. Top players are aggrieved that they are only allowed to wear two logos on their waistcoats – one of which must bear the brand of event sponsor 888.com – compared to four allowed to darts players and many more for Formula One drivers. The BBC insist that because of the way snooker is covered, with regular close-up shots of players, to allow more than two logos would contravene editorial guidelines. The players should now accept this explanation; their threat to go on strike if the rules are not changed is absurd. Given O’Sullivan’s handsome pay-day and the cheque for £250,000 on offer to the winner, Stephen Maguire’s claim that he needs more income from sponsor logos because he has a “family to feed” hardly rings true.

Football

There were disgraceful scenes at Stamford Bridge last week after Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Manchester United in the crucial Premier League clash.  After the match had ended, a fight broke out between United players who were warming down on the pitch and Chelsea ground-staff.   It is alleged that Chelsea groundsman Sam Bethell called United’s Patrice Evra a “f***ing immigrant” after blows had been exchanged. According to the Daily Mail’s ‘Chelsea source’, the insult thrown was “f***ing idiot.” Given that there were few witnesses and no hard evidence, United’s decision to take legal action for racist abuse seems unlikely to go far. United’s players are certainly not blameless – the brawl was sparked because they contravened Premier League rules by running across the penalty area. Groundstaff asked them to warm down in another area, but the United posse, lead by the notoriously arrogant Gary Neville, ignored the request.

Rugby Union

Purists will be aghast if the International Rugby Board succeeds this week in its ambition to introduce 32 changes to the laws of the game. If the requisite 75% majority vote in favour of the changes is achieved, a year-long trial of the experimental rule changes will go ahead. The perceived need for change derives from the notion that the rules of rugby need to be simplified in order to appeal to a wider television audience.

However, the bulk of opinion among players is that the changes are too far-reaching, too gimmicky, and run the risk of spoiling the game for traditional fans. There are even rumours of the threat of a breakaway from professional clubs if the law changes are ratified. So, for the sake of harmony, it is hoped that the motion for change fails.?Formula One?The vast sums of money spent on the development of racing cars can seem vulgar and unnecessary, but the value of the FIA’s strict safety regulations was underlined last Sunday.

McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen smashed into a tyre wall head-on at 140mph, leaving the front half of his car totally demolished, but, remarkably, leaving the Finn with nothing more than concussion.
”It’s a miracle he is alive. Heikki is a very lucky boy,” said former  F1 Champion Jackie Stewart.  “If that had happened in my day he would not have had a hope in hell of walking away from it. It shows just how much we have come on in terms of safety. The car protected him because he was in a survival cell made of bullet-proof Kevlar carbon fibre.”
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Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary from Beijing
March – April 2008
The Olympics Golf Boxing Cricket

The Olympics

Who’d be an official on the Beijing Olympic Committee? It must be a thankless task. Preparations for the event, which starts at 8 o’clock on the morning of the 8th of August 2008 (8, you may have guessed, is a lucky number in China) have been beset by problems.

Some perspective is required here. If Beijing was in a race to be the most controversial Olympics ever, it might not even finish on the medals podium. Berlin 1936 will only be remembered for Adolf Hitler’s snub of Jesse Owens and for Germany’s attempt to use the event as a showcase for Nazism. In Mexico City in ’68, Tommie Smith and John Carlos caused a storm by raising their fists for black power.

In Munich in ’72 came tragedy when Palestinian terrorists murdered eleven Israeli athletes and a German policeman. Moscow ’80 suffered a boycott from the USA and sixty other countries in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later in Los Angeles, the Soviets and thirteen of its allies retaliated in kind.

So, it’s nothing new for the Olympics to be clouded by political issues. But with over four months still to go before the starting gun is fired, the Beijing Games are already in danger of being over-shadowed by what happens off the track and field.

“The leadership must by now be wondering whether staging the Games in Beijing will bring the regime more accolades than brickbats,” wrote Michael Portillo in the Sunday Times in an article which drew parallels between Beijing ’08 and Berlin ’36 – an article which was described as “an insult to the Chinese People” by Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

China’s human rights record is under intense scrutiny as the Games approaches. First there was the genocide in Darfur, and the perceived failure of the government to intervene. Now Tibet has landed on China’s plate as an even hotter potato, particularly since the outbreak of violence in Lhasa in March when, rights groups claim, 140 Tibetans were killed.

Many high profile figures have made their opposition to China very public, including the Prince of Wales who recently told a Tibet campaign group that he would not attend the opening of the Games. Last week’s ceremony in Athens to begin the journey of the Olympic Torch was marked by the interference of protestors on live television.

The sense that China will attempt to gag athletes speaking out about political issues has been heightened by the recent revelation that the British Olympic Association inserted a clause into competitors’ contracts “not to comment on politically sensitive issues”. Censorship is a part of life in Beijing. Many websites, including the BBC, are not accessible, and CNN TV channel incurs regular black-outs. This in itself is sure to become a sensitive issue when Western journalists arrive in force.

Then there’s the pollution. Several high profile athletes have already pulled out, including legendary marathon runner Haile Gebrsellasie, with tennis ace Roger Federer threatening to follow suit, fearing that the polluted atmosphere could be a health risk.

The Beijing Olympics will be nothing if not spectacular. The new airport terminal, designed by Norman Foster and bigger than the first four terminals at Heathrow put together, is a remarkable sight and an incredible feat of engineering. Likewise, the Olympic Stadium (the “Bird’s Nest”) and Aquatics Centre (the “Water Cube”, see photo) provide tremendous settings for the athletic action. The Chinese government can only hope that the headlines are made inside those arenas.

Golf

Despite a narrow defeat in last week’s WGC-CA Championship, finishing two strokes behind Geoff Ogilvy, Tiger Woods has said that he is in the best form of his career.

The American previously won seven consecutive tournaments, a superb achievement in a sport where many variables, such as the weather, playing conditions, and plain luck, make it difficult for one player to dominate.

“I’m 32 and I feel like I am just entering my prime,” said Woods. “Every sport is slightly different. In our sport your best years are generally in your 30s, some guys are able to sustain that into their early 40s.
“As you get older, your skills diminish, guys get better, they are more athletic. You have your time in the sun. I’ll retire when my best isn’t good enough any more. I could not live with myself going out and practising and preparing as hard as I do and knowing that if I go out and play my best, someone is just going to beat me.”

Undoubtedly Woods’ biggest motivation is beating Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of eighteen Major titles. Woods already has thirteen under his belt and seems sure to cross that mark before he turns forty.
His current hot streak has raised the debate of who is the greatest sportsman of all time. It’s an impossible question to answer, of course, as it’s also impossible to set fair criteria.

Muhammed Ali often tops such polls, though I would dispute this on the basis that the criteria should only include sporting attributes. Yes, Ali was one of the great human beings of the 20th century for his inspiration in political and social fields. But any boxing expert worth his salt would put Ali behind Sugar Ray Robinson on an all-time list.

In terms of raw talent, dedication, titles gained, and the rare ability to thrive when it matters most, Woods has no peer in the history of sport.

Boxing

On the subject of retiring in one’s prime, Ricky Hatton could do a lot worse than pay heed to Woods’ remarks. The popular fighter from Manchester was totally out-classed by Floyd Mayweather last December, emphatically ending any dispute about who is the world’s greatest Welterweight.
But now Hatton wants a re-match, and discussions have already begun about a possible clash at Wembley early next year. It would be another hugh pay-day for Hatton and, he may imagine, a chance for revenge. But much more likely, he would receive another hammering from Mayweather, and possibly an embarrassing ending to what has been an outstanding career.

Cricket

This diary cannot pass without a brief mention of Shane Warne, cricket’s best ever bowler and one of the sport’s greatest characters, who has thrown his last googly in first class cricket.
Warne has decided to leave Hampshire CC after eight years at the club. “The most effective and entertaining bowler of all time, Shane Warne was also a brilliant leader and strategist,” said Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove. “He enriched the game wherever he played.”
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Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary
February – March 2008
Football Cricket Tennis Golf Racing Athletics Snooker

Football

Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, used his State of the Nation address earlier this month to attempt to alleviate concerns about the Republic’s readiness to stage the FIFA World Cup in 2010.
Rumours have circulated in recent months that the tournament could be moved to another location, with Franz Beckenbauer among those expressing apprehension about the pace of preparation and the level of expertise in the planning and organisation of the first World Cup to be staged in Africa.

FIFA has repeatedly insisted that the tournament would only be moved in the case of natural catastrophe, as it was in 1986 when it shifted from Columbia to Mexico, and that Germany 2006 also had a contingency plan. “Plan A, Plan B and Plan C is that the 2010 World Cup will be staged in South Africa,” said FIFA President Sepp Blater.

South Africa’s Deputy Finance Minister Jabu Moleketi reacted angrily to the rumours about a switch of venue, suggesting that they were spread by parties wishing to damage South Africa’s global reputation.
President Mbeki linked delays in the building of the stadium to the electricity crisis, which it is being said could last until 2012. But he stressed that he had “absolutely no doubt” that South Africa has the capacity to “create all the necessary conditions for the holding of the best ever FIFA Soccer World Cup.”
“It’s business as usual and all hands on deck,” he added, intending to give the impression that preparations are on schedule. But Mbeki was later criticised for the sketchiness of many aspects of his address and for his unwillingness to set specific targets. Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille observed that the President had merely outlined a list of plans, without a clear indication of how they would be implemented.

Mbeki’s attempt to rally his audience by talking of the “heavy responsibility” on the football team itself and the thanks due to the Springboks for “showing the way” also fell flat.

Motor Racing

Formula One racer Fernando Alonso has won few friends by insisting that Spain is not a racist country following the abuse suffered by Lewis Hamilton.? Alonso admitted that he had not “seen any video or recording of the alleged insults” in reference to fans blacking their faces and wearing wigs at the recent Circuit de Catalunya, where Hamilton was racing.? Spaniard Alonso, twice World Champion, said: “I don’t think this is a racist country and the fans aren’t either. Whoever says there’s racism in Spain is talking about isolated cases. The less we talk about this the better, because that’s a completely isolated case from someone who was celebrating a carnival.”

Alonso’s desire for this incident to be buried in the sand is misplaced. Racism has been rife in Spanish sport for years, as was evident at the football friendly with England in Madrid in 2004 where some 2000 fans hurled abuse at black players every time they touched the ball. The following year, national coach Luis Aragones was fined by the Spanish Football Federation for calling Thierry Henry a “black shit”. The FIA, commendably, has dismissed Alonso’s argument and will launch an anti-racism campaign at April’s Spanish Grand Prix.

Athletics

There was embarrassment for Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Authority this month, concerning the confusion as to who exactly invited Linford Christie to carry the Olympic torch when it comes to London in April. Christie’s agent Sue Barrett insisted, “I have a letter in front of me signed by Ken Livingstone. It says: ‘I would be delighted if you would consider being one of our torch bearers, joining with us and up to 80 other well known personalities, who will each carry the torch for 250m’.”
Barrett added that Christie, a 100m gold medalist at the 1992 Olympics, would be unable to take up the invitation as he will be training overseas. But in any case, the International Olympic Committee condemned the move to extend a hand to an athlete whose career was ended by a ban for taking a performance-enhancing substance.  “The IOC has not been consulted about this and we wish we had been as we would have certainly strongly recommended not to give an invitation to an athlete who has an Olympic ban,” said spokesperson Emmanuelle Moreau. “We were surprised and disappointed and we wish we had been consulted.”

The GLA subsequently sought damage limitation by insisting that the decision to invite Christie was not taken by the Mayor. But such a glaring mistake is sure to dent Livingstone’s election campaign, with the London Olympics just four years away.
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Ian Hollings’ Sporting Diary
January – February 2008

Football

The Football Association has been widely criticised this week for denying Havant and Waterlooville full-back Justin Gregory the chance to play against Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round.
The Non-League team earned a dream tie at Anfield by reaching this stage of the world’s most famous cup competition for the first time in their history.

Gregory was due to serve a one-match ban after collecting five bookings this year, so Havant rearranged their game against Thurrock to allow Gregory to fulfill his suspension before Saturday’s trip to Merseyside. But the FA over-ruled this attempt to bend the rules by insisting that the ban had to be served against Liverpool.

Gregory said, “It’s a nightmare, but there’s not much I can do about it. The FA are pretty archaic if you ask me.”  And Havant secretary Trevor Brock added, “Why would they want to deny someone their dream to play at Anfield? It’s horrendous.”

The FA has been portrayed as a killer of the romance of the cup, but governing bodies of any sport must follow its own rules to the letter. Consider this unlikely possibility: Havant earn a draw or victory at Anfield, with Gregory scoring a goal. The odds against this are astronomical, but if it were to happen, the consequences for the FA would be disastrous.

Cricket
England’s women’s team has been dealt a blow by the decision that their Ashes defence against Australia in February will be decided by a single test.  “It’s frustrating – we’d have preferred a two or three-game series but it can’t be,” said captain Charlotte Edwards. “If it rains then it could be even more frustrating but we won’t go looking for