Sunday, 24 August 2014

Hereford United: The drama of their downfall (and my walk-on part in it)

Source: BBC Sport website
North London. A Friday the 13th (seriously!) in the closing weeks of the 2011/12 football season. I spent the day revising Advanced Macroeconomic Theory (search & matching employment models, for those interested!) and then, in the evening twilight, hopped onto the Tube to the end of the Northern Line (High Barnet branch!) to watch Barnet play Hereford United in a tense League Two relegation six-pointer. Both had had their heads above the water earlier in the season, but had undergone bad runs of form (in Barnet's case at least, losing matches even when playing pretty well); cut adrift of the teams above them, these two, plus the even more horribly out-of-form Macclesfield Town, would fight over one survival position in the Football League.

The match that took place was high on endeavour, but arguably low on true moments of quality. However, this was perhaps unexpected given the tangible feeling of tension prevalent around all corners of the ground; there was a lot riding on this game (there were only three after it) for both sides, and fans of both persuasions were desperate for the three points. As it happened, Delroy Facey (a journeyman who had played for Bolton & West Brom in years gone by but now looked about a stone or two too big for the professional game) used his physicality to good purpose by heading home Ben Purkiss's cross to give Hereford an initially deserved lead. Barnet regrouped, and replied when substitute striker Ben May (on loan from Stevenage) fired home later in the 1st Half. Both teams, at different stages, threatened to take all three points; Barnet had a very good handball shout (visible to us behind the Hereford goal but not to the referee, who was the other side) turned down, while at the other end The Bulls' Yoann Arquin had a great chance cleared brilliantly off the line by The Bees' Clovis Kamdjo. Alas, the game ended in a 1-1 draw, an overall fair reflection on the game but one which pleased neither side entirely, though Barnet (who were three points clear of Hereford - with a less favourable goal difference - and occupying the safe 22nd position) left the slightly more satisfied of the two.

As it happened, the result was not enough to save their manager, Lawrie Sanchez, who was sacked a few days later. However, the team claimed two wins from their remaining three games, seeing them narrowly escape Hereford's clutches (who managed seven points from nine against arguably tougher opposition) to safety on the final day of the league season (Macclesfield went down with a game left) - the third season in a row that they had secured safety on the final day. At the time, I was delighted by the news. During my year in North London, I'd taken the little club to my heart somewhat, following their progress closely and attending matches wherever possible (not often during a gruelling Masters degree year admittedly). I therefore saw the looming prospect of relegation from their shoes. Loss of Football League status meant loss of youth funding, which was crucial to Barnet, who had invested quite heavily (certainly for a club of their size) in The Hive, an impressive sporting facility where youth teams and junior sides trained and developed. Moreover, the club had for years sought a move away from Underhill - their home ground between 1907 and 2013 - where they had to pay a lease to Barnet Borough Council to use the ground and the land around it, and therefore to keep some money for a potential move to a new ground (particularly if the terms of any (renewed) lease became too prohibitive and made the need for a move more urgent, as was becoming the case around this time). Relegation would have constrained their ability to do this and would potentially have left them them facing an uphill challenge of finding a venue for home games, while remaining financially sustainable.

In the end, Barnet's luck ran out when they were relegated on the final day of the following season! However, that extra year in the Football League helped them make contingency plans for their home games (they expanded their facility at The Hive to host games as a medium-term option); and it seems that their financial position is not too precarious at this stage (touch wood!). Yet fast-forward two full seasons on from 2011/12 and the perils of loss of Football League status have bit very hard at both Hereford and Macclesfield. The Moss Rose side from Cheshire flirted with danger often behind the scenes last season, and were only cleared to start the 2014/15 season in the Conference Premier when major shareholder Amar Alkhadi found the money late in the day to pay an outstanding tax bill, as well as outstanding staff wages (including playing staff). At Hereford, the situation has been even worse. They thought they had pulled off a rescue of Jimmy Glass & Carlisle-esque proportions on the final day of last season, when they clambered above Chester FC to the safe position of 20th in the table. However, long-running financial problems failed to go away and, despite much leniency from the Conference, they were eventually expelled from the league in early June after failing to secure their financial future (Chester were reprieved as a consequence). Since being accepted in the Southern League (two divisions below the Conference Premier), their new owner has failed an FA 'fit-and-proper persons' test and they have continued to battle separate winding-up orders from former manager Martin Foyle and HM Revenue & Customs over unpaid debts. The orders have been repeatedly adjourned, most recently until September 1st. Until then, attempts to secure a Company Voluntary Arrangement for payment of the outstanding debts have been unsuccessful.

Hereford United fans protest against those they hold
responsible for the club's troubles. (C) Hereford Times 
What I find really staggering is the sheer amount of debt at the club. £225,000 (possibly much more) is huge for a club in non-league football, particularly when you consider the generous fundraising efforts that have already gone into keeping the club afloat (which total almost £100,000 themselves, and include one-off performances from comedian Omid Djalili - a Chelsea fan!). The first thought is that there must have been some serious financial mismanagement going on at Edgar Street, even taking into account the loss of funding and lower attendances associated with loss of Football League status. On further reflection though, perhaps it is an indication of the financial sustainability of football in England. The Conference is nominally a non-professional league, yet most the teams in it are now professional; it is effectively a League Three in all but name. Not only does this make promotion difficult, it also means relegated clubs with falling incomes have to keep splashing the cash to keep attracting players. One thing that I perhaps did not fully consider in my support for The Bees is that Barnet, despite their undoubted challenges, are perhaps helped by their catchment area; like most of England's big cities, the London area is a hub for both semi-pro and pro clubs and hence they are able to pick up players who maybe showed promise at youth level, but are now plying their trade semi-professionally while looking for a route into the pro game. The Barnet side on show that day in April 2012 featured several such players, including Ricky Holmes, Sam Deering and Kamdjo. In 2008, the club picked up Albert Adomah from nearby Harrow Borough FC; the winger now plays for Middlesbrough in the Championship and has even been capped by Ghana. West Midlanders Hereford, by contrast, are quite far from any major hub of football (even the West Midlands hub, which is more centred around Birmingham). Thus it is harder, I'd imagine, for them to find the players they want locally and, hence, they probably have to pay a premium to get these players in from other parts of the country. They have actually flirted with financial apocalypse before in recent years, so it leaves me wondering about the financial sustainability of a club in the area in which they're located. Having said that, you could make the alternative argument that the club should compensate for this by ensuring they have a sleeker (i.e. more cost-effective), smarter scouting system in place.

There are over 100 professional clubs in England today. That is a truly staggering achievement and one that is a real testament to the passion that the sport arouses in so many fans across the country. However, it is also far more than any other comparable league in Europe (most of whom tend to have 2, at most 3, professional divisions rather than almost five!). Although the news would be hugely sad for its loyal supporters, and provide a sad epilogue to the club's finest hour - a 2-1 FA Cup 3rd Round Replay victory over Newcastle United in the 1971/72 season, footage of which is still shown on TV every year as the ultimate FA Cup upset (it inspired Djalili's fundraising gigs), maybe a club like Hereford United is truly unsustainable, at least in its current form. After the summer it has had, the many months of problems it has had, maybe the only way for a club in its location to be truly sustainable at a professional level is to be reborn completely from the ashes of the current club, with a new ownership reforming its practices completely as a result, to ensure it is able to cope with the unique challenges that it faces.

BARNET (Manager: Lawrie Sanchez): Dean Brill; Sead Hajrovic (Ben May 25), Paul Downing, Michael Hector, Jordan Mustoe; Mark Hughes (c), Mark Byrne, Clovis Kamdjo, Sam Deering, Ricky Holmes; Izale McLeod

HEREFORD UNITED (Manager: Richard O'Donnell): Adam Bartlett; Ben Purkiss, Byron Anthony, Michael Townsend, James Chambers (James Baxendale 77); Nicky Featherstone, Kenny Lunt, Will Evans (Yoann Arquin 57), Sam Clucas; Tom Barkhuizen, Delroy Facey (c) (Nathan Elder 90)

GOALS: Facey 11; May 31

REFEREE: Christopher Sarginson

Sunday, 10 August 2014

In-depth look: Canadian tennis' history-making generation

Milos Raonic (l) and Vasek Pospisil (r) after their history-making final at
Washington's Citi Open, which Raonic won. (C) 2014 Getty Images
The Citi Open, Washington D.C. The old Legg Mason Classic bolstered by the change to twin event status (both men and women play there at the same time) that came with the sponsorship change in 2012. It is one of the flagships of the North American hard court summer; a key for players' preparations for the US Open and an important event on the ATP and WTA tours. In the men's final last Sunday (August 3rd), history was made as this capital of the US of A was turned red and white and overgrown with maple leaves as two Canadians - Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ontario and Vasek Pospisil of Vernon, British Columbia - faced off in the final for the first time in an ATP event, with Raonic coming out on top 6-1 6-4. Coming just before Canada's own flagship event - the Canadian Open, better known as the Rogers Cup, a Masters event - the timing was (almost[1]) perfect. Moreover, it serves to highlight the giant strides the Canadian professional game has taken in the last few years and, in particular, the last few months. This blog will attempt to chart the rise of Canadian tennis; try to look for the reasons behind it; and analyse future prospects.

Whilst Canada's Rogers Cup had always been a popular event, and whilst the odd player had always done pretty well (e.g. Daniel Nestor's success - eight men's and four mixed Grand Slam titles - in the doubles, and a young Aleksandra Wozniak - arguably the first of this 'golden generation' before injury slowed her progress - getting far in several Slams during 2009), for me the Year Zero was Raonic's breakthrough run at the 2011 Australian Open (even more than Wozniak's precocious breakthrough a few years earlier). With his booming serve and direct, attacking style of play, Raonic caught the eyes of many as he reached the 4th Round, beating two seeds (Mickael Llodra and Mikhail Youzhny) en route. He quickly followed that up by winning the SAP Open in San Jose, his maiden ATP title and the first by a Canadian since 1995[2]. Although injuries took their toll in the second half of 2011, stalling his progress, he still won the 2011 ATP Newcomer of the Year award. Elsewhere, in the women's game Eugenie Bouchard showed promise in the juniors and in due course won the 2012 Wimbledon Girls' Singles title, marking herself as a player for the future. Whilst Bouchard was winning the Wimbledon Girls' title, compatriot Filip Peliwo was winning the Boys' Singles title; like proverbial buses, Canada had waited years for Grand Slam singles success (it had never happened at junior or professional level), only for two to come along at more or less the same time!

The boom, however, really started around 18 months ago. At the core of this, in the men's game, was a dream run by the country in the Davis Cup team event. In February, they shocked a powerful Spanish outfit to win their 1st Round tie, before beating Italy to set up a Semi-Final against a strong Serbian side. Although rank outsiders, Raonic dug deep to beat Janko Tipsarevic and Nestor & Pospisil teamed up to administer a shock five set win over Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac in the doubles to put Canada 2-1 up. Alas Serbia fought back to win 3-2, but the Canadian run caught the imagination of tennis 'mavens' (very knowledgeable fans, in this context; I put a definition in because I had no idea what the word meant until last week!) back home; hundreds of them made the trip to Serbia for the Semi, which was their best result in the Open era (i.e. since 1968). It was a testament, too, to the captaincy of Martin Laurendeau, in fostering a team spirit and confidence within the players.

Pospisil and Nestor celebrate the doubles win that put them
2-1 in the 2013 Davis Cup Semi-Final. (C) Tennis Canada
As this run was developing, Raonic won two further events during 2013, and became the first Canadian man to reach the Rogers Cup final since Bob Bedard in 1958, finishing the year just outside the Top 10 at 11 in the world. However, his incremental improvements were if anything superseded by the rise of Pospisil. Vasek hadn't really registered on most tennis fans' radar before 2013, but rocketed up the rankings during 2013 to move from 125 in the world to just outside the Top 30. Underpinning this run was a fine week of his own in Montreal (where the men's Rogers Cup was held in 2013; it alternates annually with Toronto, and the women's event goes the other way round - i.e. they played Toronto in 2013, but are playing Montreal in 2014), beating Tomas Berdych en route to the Semi-Finals, where he very nearly beat compatriot Raonic to reach the final! In the women's game, Bouchard reached the 3rd round at Wimbledon, the final at a WTA event in Japan, and rose up to 32 in the year-end rankings (from 144 at the end of 2012). It all earned her the accolade of 2013 WTA Newcomer of the Year. Here, too, was a player going places.

In 2014, the rise of Bouchard has been the big story. She has had a brilliant season, reaching the Semi-Finals of the Australian Open & French Open (only the second Canadian to ever achieve this in the women's professional game - after Carling Bassett-Seguso in 1984), and the Final at Wimbledon (where she was the pre-event favourite). She has caught the imagination of fans across the world (the so-called "Genie Army"); alerted talent spotters with her ambition; and risen to number 7 in the world. In the men's, Raonic reached the Semi-Finals at Wimbledon too (the first Canadian to do it in the men's singles since Robert Powell in 1908!), and has frequently reached the Quarter-Finals of Masters events and even the French Open, which is played on his weakest surface of clay. Pospisil reached the 3rd round of the Australian Open, and the final last week in Washington. Additionally, teaming up with USA's Jack Sock in the doubles, he triumphed where Bouchard and Raonic narrowly missed out by winning a Wimbledon trophy - beating the legendary Bryan brothers in the final of the men's doubles in five sets in front of a packed Centre Court crowd [3]. In the manner of 18 months, Canada has had a successful Rogers Cup run (in addition to Raonic & Pospisil, young Peliwo and journeymen pros Frank Dancevic & Jesse Levine all made the 2nd round), a brilliant Davis Cup run, and has now reached multiple Grand Slam Semi-Finals; even a couple of finals (one of which they won). This has been an incredible surge in recent times.

Inevitably, as Canadian players start to feature ever more prominently, questions will be asked as to how this has happened. Was it because of structures and work put in place by Tennis Canada, or was it simply coincidental - a group of talented, committed players who happened to come through at the same age? It is a pertinent question, in particular, for the UK - who hired Michael Downey in 2013 to head up their tennis federation, the LTA, having done the same job at Tennis Canada for a decade as these guys rose up.

To start with, it must be said that there is little credit Downey and his team can get for introducing the likes of Bouchard, Raonic, Pospisil and Wozniak to the sport. Moreover, between the ages of 12 and 15 Bouchard went to train at Nick Saviano's academy in Florida, so therefore her development at this stage was exogenous of the Canadian system. Raonic and Pospisil, by contrast, continued to grow up in Canada, benefiting from local coaches and honing their games at the country's National Tennis Centre in Montreal during their teenage years. However, even then Raonic's breakthrough came after a stint spent training in Spain (where he now has a training base in Barcelona, when he's not in Canada). In particular, Raonic was taken in by the competition, winning mentality and limitless ambitions of the players there; whilst he had honed his big serve on the courts of his local club, his stint in Spain seemed to encourage him to be more clinical when using it, and more clinical in his attacking game more generally.

However, tennis federation did still play its part in the successes. Downey, a man with a sports marketing background, used his strength to extract more revenues from the Rogers Cup (helped, of course, by this being something of a golden era for particularly men's tennis). He then re-invested this back into elite development with the brand new National Training Centre facility in Montreal (announced in 2007, delivered by 2009) the focal point. This influenced the decision to move Bouchard back to Canada after three or four years in Florida, in a collaborative approach which blended Saviano's coaching guidance with the Centre's new state-of-the-art facilities. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and Bouchard's junior development seemed to richly endorse this approach.

Bouchard's junior career included a Girls' Singles triumph
at Wimbledon 2012. Photo: Adam Davy/Associated Press (C)
The more sophisticated facilities of the new Training Centre, and the more integrated approach (a 'partnership' approach that Downey is believed to be very keen on), came on stream at the end of Raonic and Pospisil's junior careers (both are born in 1990 - Pospisil is six months older - so both came through the ranks at pretty much the same time), admittedly. However, the facilities are there for the players today, and the corresponding structures and personnel put in place to exploit the new facility have proved helpful. In particular, Downey was involved in hiring Louis Borfiga - Team Canada's Vice-President and Head of High Performance Athlete Development - from the French Federation. Borfiga, in turn, was responsible in helping Pospisil make contact with Frederic Fontang, at the end of 2012. And, according to veteran Canadian tennis journalist Tom Tebbutt last summer: "Rarely has a player mentioned his coach and given him 'props' (kudos) as consistently and often as Pospisil this season." In an interview with the ATP website around the same time, Pospisil pinpointed where he had been improving under Fontang's tutelage: "We have worked really hard to take my game to opponents. That means not getting bogged down in long rallies and striking the ball early...even adding an extra 10% of aggression can make a big difference. You can't hang back, wait against the top players and expect to win." For fans of Andy Murray - like Pospisil, a player with a strong all-court game and solid stamina (tour debut notwithstanding), the challenge sounds familiar. With the support of Tennis Canada, Pospisil - generally a higher performer than Raonic at junior level - has found a coach who has helped him take great strides in overcoming it, just like Murray did.

In terms of prospects, the shining star from this group appears to be Bouchard. She is a big talent - with an attacking game - fiercely ambitious and has ostensibly seemed unfazed by her staggering achievements already this year. Tebbutt again [4]: "The mantra all through her progress since making the Australian Open semi-finals is January has been a variation of 'this is what I've expected, this is what I've worked for, and I'm not satisfied with what I've achieved so far'." Although she was beaten 6-3 6-0 in the Wimbledon final by Petra Kvitova, this could be put down to the Czech playing an absolutely brilliant match; sometimes a really good player has a really great day and you have to doff your cap to them and Bouchard herself seemed to acknowledge this afterwards. However, her return to action post-Wimbledon, in this week's WTA Rogers Cup event at Montreal, was less successful as she suffered a shock 6-0 2-6 6-0 defeat to USA's Shelby Rogers in front of her home fans. Afterwards Bouchard, now 20, admitted to not dealing with the pressure of the event too well, perhaps a bit of a surprise given how well she had handled the pressure of her rise so far this season, and how she has taken the adulation of the Genie Army in her stride. It will be interesting to see if this is an aberration or the start of a pattern but, for now, her Grand Slam prospects remain the highest in the group. Incidentally, her compatriot Wozniak's prospects are no longer as bright as they once were, due to a couple of serious injuries. However, she will be hoping that an injury-free run will enable her to return to the Top 100 in the rankings and potentially make serious inroads into the Top 50; at 26, time is still on her side.

In the men's game, Raonic remains the strongest prospect. However, for me, he falls into a similar trap to the one John Isner falls into. His style, and comparative advantage, is in playing a big-serving, direct, attacking game. So he must play to those strengths. However, at the same time, it is quite difficult these days to achieve Grand Slam success with this approach, because the greatest players are such great returners and perhaps therefore aren't as intimidated by that approach as was the case in the 1990s, where big-serving attackers tended to dominate; in their Wimbledon semi-final, Roger Federer dealt with Raonic's approach quite easily in a 6-4 6-4 6-4 win. Overall, Raonic is stronger as an all-round player (both attacking and defensive) than Isner, and is stronger outside North America than the man from North Carolina, so his prospects are stronger. This, therefore, may bring him the odd Masters title and appearances at the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals (which only the Top 8 players in the year rankings attend). However, I still can't see him winning a Grand Slam, though he may prove me wrong. Pospisil's weakness is perhaps the opposite; although his all-court game is very good, his lack of weapons (in relative terms) may see him struggle relative to his peers - again at the highest level. He is probably someone who can reach the Top 20, win ATP events, but maybe struggle to get too far in Grand Slam or Masters events at this stage. However, as his game develops, injury niggles fade and confidence grows, there is still plenty of time for him to prove people wrong and surpass that, maybe even asking questions at the sharper end of Grand Slams at singles level on top of his doubles success.

17 year-old Francoise Abanda reached the Semi-Finals in
Paris and is one to watch. Photo: Stephanie Myles/
Another intriguing element for Tennis Canada is the younger generation coming through, who will have benefited more from the new National Training Centre (and related investment) more than this generation. In particular, eyes will need to be kept out for Peliwo, 20, (whose career has stalled somewhat since turning pro but, in fairness, this is not uncommon in tennis these days) and Francoise Abanda, a 17 year-old who has overcome a serious shoulder injury and reached the Semi-Finals of both Junior Wimbledon (pre-injury, in 2012) and the Junior French Open (post-injury, in 2014). Although she lost in three sets to Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova at this week's Rogers Cup (6-1 3-6 6-0), she did enough to mark out her potential. And, with tennis participation levels up in Canada during Downey's tenure, more may still be added to this next list of young hopefuls in the next couple of years

Make no bones about it, the rise of Canadian tennis has been rapid over the past 18 months, and evident going even further back than that. The talent, hard work and drive of the pros and youngsters, combined with investment and integration by Tennis Canada, is driving standards ever higher. It is an exciting time to be part of the tennis scene in Canada and, even more tantalisingly, all the protagonists mentioned here seem to be getting better and better and better. Whisper it quietly, because the competition is fierce but maybe, just maybe, this will be one golden generation whose success will truly be 'golden'. After all, they're already making history.

[1] - Why 'almost'? Because the Citi Open was directly before the Rogers Cup. Hence, it was inevitable that Raonic and Pospisil were not going to be in 'tip-top' shape for the Rogers Cup. Alas, Pospisil was beaten in Round 1 by Richard Gasquet (a reverse of the Citi Open Semi-Final, where Pospisil had beaten Gasquet). Raonic fared better, reaching the Quarter-Finals, but lost in three sets to Feliciano Lopez.

[2] - The previous winner, in 1995, was Greg Rusedski. Having grown up in Canada, Rusedski competed for them in his early days before switching allegiance to Great Britain, where his mother was from and where he now lives, later in 1995.

[3] - It was unfortunate that Nestor does not get more of a mention in this article. He is nearly 42, still playing on the pro tour, and was giving advice to Pospisil before Vasek's men's doubles final at Wimbledon. He has been an important standard-bearer for a long time now and his experience of the tennis tour as a whole will no doubt be useful for younger players to tap into. He is also known to be a bit of a chatterbox in the changing rooms ("He never shuts up. But when he goes on court and doesn't say a word!" quipped Andy Murray in this interview)!

[4] - Tom Tebbutt's blog was hugely invaluable in helping with the research of this article, and is really the "go-to" source if you want to learn more about how Canada's players are getting on, and indeed to pick up useful snippets about the professional game (and players) as a whole. It can be found here. He is a big tennis enthusiast and, in the 1990s, famously discovered that Pete Sampras suffered from thalassemia, a blood condition which can cause mild anaemia.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The 2014 Tour de France conundrum

The final 2014 Tour de France general classification podium: Vincenzo Nibali
(centre), JC Peraud (left) and Thibaut Pinot (right). Photo: Fotoreporter Sirotti
What to make, ladies and gentlemen, of sporting excellence? In particular, the type whereby one competitor completely destroys the opposition to take a dominant victory. The 2014 Tour de France, which concluded on Sunday (July 27th) on Paris' Champs Elysees (as it has done every year since 1975 - a fact I try to get into every Tour de France review I do!), saw one such exhibition of sporting excellence. Team Astana's Italian rider Vincenzo Nibali completely obliterated the opposition to win by almost a full eight minutes (7min37secs if we're being exact) over his nearest rival.

It was, of course, a superb achievement and virtuoso performance by Nibali throughout the three weeks, right from his breakaway attack at the end of Stage 2 in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, which saw him claim victory and his first stint in the overall leader's yellow jersey. Three more stage wins (his total of four is the most successful by a Tour general classification winner since the great Eddy Merckx in 1974) followed as Nibali entered the history books as one of only six riders to have won all three of road cycling's Grand Tours (the Giro d'Italia - which Nibali won in 2013 - and the Vuelta a Espana - which 'The Shark' won in 2010 - are the other two). Moreover, Nibali's dominance cemented his status as one of the best - maybe even the best - rider out there today. Whilst perhaps before the Tour we saw him as being one notch behind his rivals Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Christopher Froome (Team Sky), this triumph - in my view - has forced a re-evaluation which puts Nibali half a notch ahead of those guys on current performance. 

Despite this fine exhibition of sporting excellence, one senses however that this will not go down as a vintage Tour de France. Part of this was the enforced retirements of Froome (on Stage 5) and Contador (on Stage 10). Personally, given Nibali's scorching form even early in the race (e.g. Stage 2 and during his attack on the cobbles on Stage 5), I still think the Sicilian would have beaten his main rivals. However, had they continued (and I know Froome was carrying some knocks from his falls during the Criterium du Dauphine in June), it would have provided that potential for suspense and some rivalry. The 2013 Tour provided this to an extent, with Froome having to overcome Contador, Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez to win; whilst in 2012 Sir Bradley Wiggins had to overcome Froome and Nibali. However, both those also ultimately ended in a comfortable victory for the overall winner; if this writer is being honest, the last Tour that can be considered 'vintage' (or close thereto) was the 2011 edition - where the destiny of the yellow jersey was only settled on the penultimate day's time trial. After all, the presence of big names doesn't have such a big impact on the event if, either through form, preparation or topography, one guy still ends up dominating. The combination of sporting excellence and a close-run general classification (hence providing drama) - preferably with each competitor pushing the others and themselves to greater heights, like we have seen recently in men's tennis - is arguably necessary for an edition of the Tour to be considered 'vintage'. 

Having said all that, the 2014 Tour - just like the 2012 & 2013 Tours - did have its fair share of stories and impressive performances (even beyond Nibali); the world's most prestigious cycling will be forever thus. And the big story alongside Nibali's dominance this year was the continued resurgence of French cycling. For a few years now we have seen French riders win stages, occasionally win jerseys (think Pierre Rolland winning the white jersey for Best Young (U25) Rider in GC in 2011, and Thomas Voeckler winning the polka-dot, King of the Mountains jersey in 2012), and make waves. However, with the possible exception of Voeckler's GC heroics in 2004 and 2011, the dream of a first French triumph in the General Classification since Bernard Hinault in 1985 (another fact I try to include every year!) still appeared distant. Yet, slowly but surely, that appears to be changing. For this year there were no fewer than four Frenchmen in the Top 11 of the GC. Moreover, two of them joined Nibali on the podium; veteran Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R-La Mondiale) and youngster Thibaut Pinot ( coming 2nd and 3rd respectively in a closely fought battle for the final podium slots (which also included Movistar's Alejandro Valverde - 4th overall). Fighting all those guys hard throughout was Peraud's team-mate Romain Bardet (6th overall in the end, while their French team AG2R won the Overall Team Classification), while Rolland (Team Europcar) had his moments en route to 11th. Further down, it was also good to see Brice Feillu (Bretagne-Seche Environnement) back in breakaways and high up in the GC (16th) for the first time since his impressive 2009 Tour performance with the old Agritubel team; while Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Bellisol) deserves an Honourable Mention for claiming the yellow jersey on Bastille Day (July 14th) thanks to his breakaway efforts (he also won on Stage 11 two days later).

It was good to see Peraud bounce back superbly from a sad end to the 2013 Tour, when he crashed in the final week (from being in the Top 10) and had to pull out, with some impressive climbing and a solid performance in the individual time-trial. A mountain biker who came to road cycling quite late, his 2nd place - at 37 years of age - is likely to prove a career high water-mark, even if he may well remain competitive for a couple of seasons yet. However, Pinot, 24, (this year's white jersey winner as well), 23 year-old Bardet, Rolland (27) and 2013 Vuelta a Espana stage winner Warren Barguil (Giant Shimano and only 22) are all part of the future of French cycling. As they continue to get better (Pinot shot to prominence in 2012, had a difficult 2013 Tour but has bounced back commendably well to hit his best form to date), their watching compatriots might finally find their dreams of French GC glory turning to reality. 

Elsewhere, special mentions for this Grand Tour must firstly go to the breakaways as a whole. While Marcel Kittel (Giant Shimano) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) had their moments in sprints with six stage wins between them, several breakaways were able to make their attacks stick (three of Kittel's four wins came in the opening four stages). Part of this was because the stages had tricky elements to them; for example, Stage 2 had a tricky hilly section right at the end, and Stages 15 & 19 were both affected by very wet weather. However, I also wonder if the sprint trains aren't quite as sophisticated as they once were. During Stage 15 (a near-miss, as the breakaway riders got caught in the last 500m), it struck me that the old HTC-Columbia team, in their 2009-11 pomp, would never have cut it this fine; they were often ruthless in ensuring Mark Cavendish got a chance to get another stage win and I don't think any team has replicated that sort of sprint preparation since. In addition to Stages 2 & 19, time-trial master Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) managed to make a breakaway stick on Stage 9 (ending in Mulhouse); and Gallopin triumphed on Stage 11 into Oyannax. However, as a work colleague pointed out to me, this may not be a bad thing; it is sometimes nice to see breakaways and late attacks worse, rather than seeing every flat or mostly flat stage conclude in a bunch sprint. A second special mention must go to Rafal Majka (Saxo-Tinkoff), who rescued his team after Contador's retirement with two stage victories (Stages 14 & 17) and success in the King of the Mountains classification.

Finally, although a run of record-breaking British performances came to an end this year (only Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) made it to the end, in a commendable 22nd overall), the Brits still deserve a special mention with the Grand Depart taking place in Yorkshire (plus Stage 3 from Cambridge-London). The White Rose county turned up en masse to cheer the peloton on; the riders enjoyed the challenges of the Cote de Buttertubs (Stage 1) and the Cote de Jenkin Road (Stage 2); and, suicidal selfies aside, the Grand Depart was universally well received.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Rishi's Retrospective: Hiroshi Aoyama's 250cc title win

Hiroshi Aoyama celebrates his 2009 250cc
title success in Valencia. Photo: Honda
A glance at the roll call of champions in all three of the series in Grand Prix Motorcycling (125cc/Moto3, 250cc/Moto2, 500cc/MotoGP) over the last twenty or so years, perhaps beyond, will reveal a certain dominance of Italians and Spaniards. I think this, to an extent, is a cultural thing; scooter-ownership and riding is common amongst mid-teen Italians far more than it is in the UK, for example. In Spain, meanwhile, there are some very high quality junior formulae for young aspiring riders to get their teeth into before they join international series. However, with its proud recent history of bike manufacturing, not to mention established racing series on its own, it must have seemed - in the 1990s (before I was into MotoGP admittedly) and early-2000s - that Japan was also about to join the party in a big way.

During this period, a generation of talent (mostly) raised in the high-growth boom years of the Japanese economy started taking on, and beating, the world's best. Step forward the likes of Haruchika Aoki (1995 and '96 125cc champion); Tetsuya Harada (250cc champion in 1993 and runner-up in '98, when he arguably was only denied by some very underhand tactics from his main title rival); and the late Daijiro Kato (250cc champion in 2001, tragically killed in an accident at Suzuka in 2003 after a promising start to his MotoGP career). Plenty of others also challenged for titles in the Grand Prix categories during this period, including Tadayuki "Taddy" Okada, Tohru Ukawa and Youichi Ui (whom a friend of mine used to support in 125cc). However, as the 2000s progressed, Japanese talent has started to drift away from the upper echelons of motorcycle racing and stories have success have been fewer and far between. For the most part, one has had to look beyond Grand Prix motorcycling to its cousin Superbike racing, where Akira Yanagawa had had his moments in the 'glory days' (late 1990s-early 2000s), and where Noriyuki Haga agonised fans worldwide throughout the 2000s with a few near-misses in his quest to finally win the World Superbike title (he never did in the end). Beyond that, Ryuichi Kiyonari* - a man who sometimes seems to embody Winston Churchill's description of Russia ("a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma") - has mixed introspective confidence crises with three superbly taken British Superbike titles (in 2006, '07 and 2010). But otherwise, the only notable success in recent times for Japanese riders was Hiroshi Aoyama's 250cc title success in 2009.

It is a success whose story does bear repeating, in my view, in this edition of the Retrospective, because it was in many ways a surprising success. This is because of two main reasons. The first of these was the depth of competition in the field. Aoyama had been racing permanently in 250cc since 2004 and during that period had established himself as an extremely consistent racer in the series; his championship finishing positions were 6th, 4th, 4th, 6th and 7th respectively. He'd always been a rider others had had to watch out for, and he had stacked up favourably against some series big names in the past (e.g. former champion Manuel Poggiali) but he was rarely the out-and-out "man to beat" in the series himself. Going into 2009, the impression was that several riders were on paper stronger than he was, including reigning series champion Marco Simoncelli, Alvaro Bautista, and possibly also Hector Barbera and the quick-but-inconsistent Mattia Pasini (2 Spaniards and 2 Italians, for those still counting!). The second was the bike "Hiro" was on - Scot Honda. 2009 was the final year of the 250cc world championship before its replacement by 600cc "Moto2" bikes in 2010. While Aprilia (who ran Bautista, Barbera and Pasini) and Gilera (Simoncelli's team) continued to develop their 250 GP bikes until fairly close to this time, Honda had stopped development on their bike for some years previous to 2009 and thus Hiro was faced with an older, on-paper less developed machine relative to his rivals.

The Scot Honda bike was one Aoyama felt comfortable riding
and pushing to the limit. Photo: Scott Jones (turn2photography)
However, the apparent negative of having an older bike, and moreover not one tailored to him, actually proved a positive for Aoyama. Explaining what had marked his most successful periods in 250cc, he opined that "I think it's a combination with the bike. Sometimes good combination, sometimes not". In the same interview, with, he also said: "this Honda bike is fit [built] for everybody, not just fit for you [like a factory bike might be]. But somehow I feel comfortable with this bike, and I can push a little bit more in the corner, and this is a good point of the bike." Clearly, despite age and non-bespoke qualities, the Aoyama-Scot Honda combination was working well, inspiring the rider with confidence to push the limits, and leading to a string of positive results which catapulted him to the title battle right from the start of the season. On top of that, Aoyama's consistency, intact as ever, stood him in good stead as mistakes crept into his rivals' efforts. Hiro finished every race (though he did have a scary excursion at the final round in Valencia!), never lower than 8th, and recorded four wins, three second places and five 4th places en route to the championship. Meanwhile, Simoncelli - who in 2011 was Aoyama's team-mate at Gresini Honda in MotoGP, and remains sorely missed after being killed in an accident in Sepang, Malaysia that year - missed the opening round through injury and was not fully fit until Round 3; although he shone thereafter, taking six victories, he was always playing catch-up and thus couldn't ever quite make up the difference to his Japanese rival. He eventually fell at the final round too when needing a win (plus results to go his way elsewhere) to claw back the points deficit. Bautista started the season more on the front foot, and was the man to beat for a while, but two DNFs in the closing rounds of the season ultimately cost the former 125cc champion a chance to win the 250cc crown. Pasini was quick but never a title threat after a season hit by a staggering eight DNFs, while Barbera lost too many points early in the season but ended up pipping Simoncelli to 2nd in the standings after a strong ending.

The awkward timing of the "middle race" of the MotoGP race weekend (too late for breakfast, too early for lunch!) means that I ended up supporting Aoyama's title win by following race results closely, but not actually watching many races. However, a few memories do stand out. Firstly, a race at the Sachsenring, where Simoncelli and Alex Debon had broken free early in the race. At the end, the chasing pack were catching them quite quickly, and Bautista was the fastest of the lot. Time and again he slid down the inside of Aoyama (defending 3rd) but, in the pressure of a title battle, Hiro never once missed his braking point, or tried to turn into Bautista. Rather he let Bautista come through, and then overtook straight back past by 'undercutting' him when Alvaro ran even a fraction wide. In the end, truth be told, Alvaro took 3rd and Hiro 4th on the last lap (Marco and Debon were just out of reach), but an important marker of maturity had been lain down. My second memory is of qualifying at Misano, where Aoyama pulled a stonking lap out of the bag late in the day to steal an unlikely pole. The usually reserved Hiro celebrated quite freely as well, showing how much it meant to him. My final memory, though I've only seen footage of the incident, came from the Dutch TT in Assen (a 'classic' race held traditionally on the last Saturday of June). At this point (Round 7/16), Bautista had held the upper hand in the title race, and on race day he and Aoyama had diced fiercely for victory. On the penultimate lap, Aoyama (leading) ran slightly wide at the entry to the final corner. Bautista, seeing his opportunity, tried to take the racing line for the second part of this chicane, hoping to take advantage. However, in the split second it took him to do that, Aoyama had already recovered his mistake. The result was that Bautista smashed into the back of Aoyama; a pure racing incident. The Spaniard fell and, though thankfully unhurt, was out on the spot. However, Hiro managed to stay upright and he held on to win. This was a crucial moment, as he took the lead in the championship, and it was a lead he would hold until season's end.

Since 2009, Aoyama has had a mixed time of things in MotoGP (plus one year in World Superbikes in 2012) since graduating from 250cc after his title win. That 2011 year with Simoncelli was probably his most competitive season (the comparison with Marco, who was clearly quicker, is not quite fair as the bikes they had were slightly different, despite being run by the same team). Other seasons have been more disappointing. After the initial relief and happiness I felt when he won in 2009, I didn't really think about his achievement very much. However, as time has gone on, I have found myself remembering it again. More than ever, I'm happy that Hiro won in 2009 and am impressed by what he achieved that year. It might not have been smooth going since then but, if "Hiroshi Aoyama, 2009 (and last ever) 250cc World Champion" is to be his magnum opus, then it's certainly not a bad one to have!

*=Since writing this piece Ryuichi Kiyonari has won Race 1 of the British Superbikes race at Knockhill, Scotland. It is his first win in the series for three years. From small acorns...?

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Thoughts on England's World Cup campaign

England trudge off after an ultimately crucial defeat
to Uruguay in Sao Paolo. Photo: Shaun Botterill - FIFA
2014. Another World Cup year, and another England campaign that - with it - ended in disappointment after their elimination from the competition was confirmed on Friday - when Costa Rica's surprise but richly deserved defeat of Italy made progression a mathematical impossibility for England. Expectations were lower this time, to be sure; there was not a repeat of the belief in 2006 and 2010 in particular that the Three Lions could win the thing. The group, additionally, was not an easy one (though depictions of it as a Group of Death are, in my view, equally misplaced; Group B and Group G - England are in Group D - are both harder). However, there was optimism that the team may at least reach the Second Round, and that the Quarter-Finals (England's traditional stumbling block in the Sven Goran Eriksson era (2001-06)) would be a realistic target to shoot for. So a group stage elimination is still a disappointment. Here are some of my thoughts about England's performance during the tournament (with one game still to play, a 'dead rubber' against already-qualified Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday - June 24th).

The awkward thing about a World Cup group stage elimination is that you don't have a lot of matches to go on. As opposed to a league campaign at club football, where one invariably has around 40-50 games to judge a team's performance, a World Cup group-stage elimination judgement must be made on only two or three games. As such, furthermore, I think there is a broad consensus over the two matches England played. Against Italy, to whom they lost 2-1 in Manaus a week ago on Saturday (June 14th), they played with verve and attacking intent. This was very positive, as they created many chances, scored a very well worked goal through Daniel Sturridge, and were a lot closer to Italy than they were when they were beaten by the Italians at Euro 2012 (despite that match going to penalties). There were some defensive weaknesses, to be sure, but mostly these came from England's left flank. Leighton Baines had a poor game as Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva continually got in behind Baines to put the ball into the penalty area or pull it back to create Italian chances. In mitigation, Baines was not helped by the lack of support further up the pitch; manager Roy Hodgson had played Wayne Rooney on England's left side, but the Manchester United striker no longer has the engine to do the full extent of the defensive duties that his position demanded. This gaping hole, combined with Italy's general ability and experience (particularly that of Andrea Pirlo), saw the Azzurri win the day but left England still buoyed.

Against Uruguay, in the second game which England also lost 2-1 (this time in Sao Paolo on Thursday June 19th), it must be said that England did not reach the same heights. Credit must go to the experienced Uruguayans, and their manager Oscar Washington Tabarez (who guided them to 4th place in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa) for this. They showed good intensity, closed down spaces, were physical when they needed to be (they probably got a little bit of refereeing benefit-of-the-doubt in that area) and didn't allow England the opportunity to create the chances or show the attacking verve they did against Italy. On top of that, it must be said that England had a weaker game defensively; Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka have proven themselves in the Premier League for a few seasons now but there was always a feeling that they didn't quite compare with defenders of England sides past (e.g. John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and Jamie Carragher). This was shown up in Sao Paolo in an underwhelming defensive effort underlined by a very softly-conceded second goal (where Luis Suarez was allowed to run unopposed onto a flick-on to score). Another who played a part, unwittingly, in Uruguay's winner, was England's captain Steven Gerrard (who flicked the ball on when competing for a header!). Having played 'in the hole' (the space between the central defenders and the more attacking midfielders) brilliantly for Liverpool during the Premier League season, Gerrard struggled to get near those heights in Brazil with a couple of disappointing performances. This was because teams sought to explicitly restrict the space he was offered, which constrained his game. In the aftermath of England's exit, with him being unable to adapt to this approach after a long season, one is left wondering whether a Liverpool great and tremendous England servant has seen his international career come to the end of the road.

It has become fashionable in the aftermath of the Uruguay game to make a more widespread criticism of the England defence. To an extent, this too is justified; they looked pretty disorganised at points in the match (particularly early in the 2nd Half). However, for Uruguay's (and Suarez's) first goal, whilst the defence made mistakes, I think you have to give credit to the attackers. For me, Edinson Cavani made the goal with two moments of skill and intelligence. Firstly, he delayed the cross for just a fraction of a second, which caught Jagielka out, as he was ball-watching (still anticipating the cross) and was thus caught out by Suarez's accompanying run. Secondly, Cavani's ball was perfectly flighted to evade Jagielka's jump but meet Suarez, who in turn delivered a clinical finish. So chapeau to the attackers, more than kicking the defenders, though admittedly they could have done better. Moreover, as a wider point, it has become fashionable to criticise the whole defence together for not being good enough. However, I thought Baines played better against Uruguay and was a good attacking threat in the 2nd Half. Glen Johnson isn't a great player but he had his moments going forward in particular and set up the equaliser for Rooney against Uruguay; yet he seems to be one of those England players who attracts criticism for the sake of it, a sort of modern-day Owen Hargeaves or Emile Heskey (Emile did sometimes deserve it to be fair!).

The other thing, which I noticed but didn't seem to be picked up elsewhere, was how tired England looked when they got back to 1-1 on Thursday. Rather than building on their forward momentum and seeking a winner, immediately it was Uruguay back on the attack and England on the back foot and struggling a little. For Uruguay's winner, the poor positioning of the defenders was not only a technical deficiency, in my view, but a symptom of tiredness (the same analysis could be extended to include Gerrard's flick-on). Had England fought back from an early 3-0 deficit, say, this would have been understandable. However, they were only behind for just over half-an-hour, and by one goal at that. Moreover, England enjoyed the lion's share of the possession (around 66%) and there is a counter-argument which says that it is usually the team without the possession which gets tired, because they're always chasing the ball.

It all got me thinking about whether the time has come for a winter break in the English game, if only to break the season up a little rather than make it a 40-50 game sprint-marathon as it is currently. In the past I have always been against this idea, but as I've got older I've thought more and more that it can work, particularly if scheduled outside the much-loved festive (Christmas-New Year) period of fixtures (e.g. just after the FA Cup 3rd Round). It's true that the underlying issues around the England team are factors like grassroots coaching, facilities and methods; as well as opportunities for young English players at Premier League clubs and, yes, these are important issues to be resolved. However, I also think the "Finlay Calder principle" (a Scottish Rugby flanker from the 1980s and early-90s who once suggested that, for the national team, it doesn't matter how many players are playing the game at the end of the day because you only need to put out your best 15 - in rugby - players) does have some weight too; it's not just quantity but quality too and, even in these supposedly meagre times for young English players in the Premier League, we have seen some promising young talent come through recently (e.g. Wilshere, Barkley, Sterling, Shaw, Oxlade-Chamberlain, John Stones, Andros Townsend). Thus not only long-term solutions are required but short-term improvements too and a winter break, even on a trial basis to begin with, might just help with this.

I'll keep this bit brief but my first thoughts, as some others have argued, was no. My basic reasoning was, firstly, England lost both games in the World Cup and, most importantly, international managers tend to be hired on "World Cup-to-World Cup" cycles. However, on further reflection it's worth noting that this young side of Roy Hodgson's has come together quite late in the day, and in reality needs time to gel and grow as a unit. Roy, surely, deserves time until Euro 2016 to further this process? Moreover, I'm not sure how much appetite there is for the FA to rip everything up and start searching again for a management utopia that has always proven elusive (ultimately) in the past. Thus, on that basis, I think he should stay - for now at least!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Analysis: What ingredients make up an underdog F1 victory?

Panis' victory lap at Monaco in 1996. Photo: Jack Nicholls blog

Eighteen years ago last month, a flying Olivier Panis charged through from 14th on the grid to take victory in the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix. Panis' victory was the first (and only) win of his F1 career, and was his Ligier team's first win since they were title contenders back in 1981, when Panis' compatriot Jacques Laffite was at the wheel. It was the sort of unlikely success in the sort of strange race (only three drivers completed the final running lap, and only seven were classified, in a wet-dry affair) that is a small but equally crucial part of sport's compelling narrative. Developments in technology, sports science, psychology and, in some cases, timetabling make such events even more rare these days (though they have never been, and never should be, a common occurrence). However, as the anniversary of Panis' incredible feat came and passed, it focused my mind on some of the elements which help bring out "underdog victories" in Formula 1 particularly - and some other examples of underdog victories within the sport.

This is the big one on this list. Wet weather, or wet-dry weather, is very good, relative to other factors, at shaking up the world order in F1. In my view, there are three key components to this:
  • The first is random variability. Wet weather, or wet-dry weather, invariably introduces an element of randomness to the event which can catch out anybody. At the 1972 Monaco GP, Jean-Pierre Beltoise was the surprise winner, dominating for the uncompetitive BRM team in what were truly atrocious conditions. More recently, even some of the best wet-weather drivers of all time have sometimes been caught out, sometimes through no fault of their own, by the sheer randomness related to aquaplaning and very low visibility. Thierry Boutsen won in Australia in 1989 when leader Ayrton Senna crashed, unsighted, into Martin Brundle's Brabham (fortunately no-one was hurt). And Damon Hill won for Jordan at Spa 1998 after leader Michael Schumacher crashed into the back of David Coulthard's McLaren after the Scot, struggling with his car, unexpectedly slowed.
  • The second is set-up. Weather forecasting is inherently uncertain (though huge developments have been made in this field by technological developments which allow meteorologists to precisely simulate  and evaluate a range of possible outcomes). So should you set the car up for a wet race, or a dry race? Sometimes, going against the grain in this respect can work wonders for a team. Panis' win at Monaco was bolstered by his Ligier team's decision to go for a dry set up. Having pitted for dry tyres at the right time, he leapt up the field and, on the dry tyres, was absolutely flying - often being the fastest on the track.
  • The final component is strategy. One example is switching from wets to dries (or vice versa). At the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix, James Hunt and the Hesketh team changed from wet to dry tyres at precisely the right moment; Hunt then held off Niki Lauda's Ferrari to score a famous win for a small and somewhat rebellious outfit. There is also the need to factor in likely Safety Car interventions and whether or not the race will run its full allocation of laps, or be terminated at the two hour time limit. At Brazil in 2003, both Giancarlo Fisichella (driving a Jordan) and Jos Verstappen (Minardi) filled the fuel tanks heavy and ran an ambitious one-stop strategy, which their respective teams hoped would yield big points in a chaotic race packed with incident. Verstappen crashed in the atrocious conditions but Giancarlo executed Jordan's plan to perfection - taking the victory, albeit on videotape after he was initially declared 2nd in error. The Irish outfit in particular revelled in the opportunities wet weather offered; they did a similar thing (heavy-fuelled one-stopper) in 1999 to win the French Grand Prix with Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
Jordan liked the wet. Here's Eddie
with HH Frentzen after winning in
France in 1999. Photo: Getty Images


Although there will always be an element of different circuits favouring different cars, this general trend tends to be exacerbated by tyre performance. It is always a huge challenge for the teams, who are unable to control this variable as well as their aerodynamic solutions, for example. However, it must be said that tyre variability has caused a lot more "near-misses" than genuine underdog victory successes.
  • The first set of examples are when there is a tyre war; that is, two or more different tyre suppliers competing against each other. One may be bigger than the other but, usually, the law of comparative advantages can allow the tables to turn. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, Goodyear were generally the team to beat. However, that did not stop Pirelli from having their days in the sun (usually by being gentler on their tyres in extreme conditions I believe). Five of the Top 10 on the grid of the season-opening 1990 US Grand Prix, and Pirelli-clad Tyrrell driver Jean Alesi nearly won the race the following day. Tyrrell were the biggest threat during this period (at least until Benetton became Pirelli-shod in 1991), with Alesi also bagging a podium in Monaco '90 and Stefano Modena having his moments in 1991.
  • More recently, under a single supplier, Pirelli have been given an explicit remit to spice up the racing by making the tyres as awkward to understand as possible. This has tapered a bit this year, after the approach raised genuine safety concerns during 2013. However, the halcyon days of this era was 2012, when seven different winners won the first seven different races of the season. The pick of the bunch? Often inconsistent Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado driving a race of brilliant control and speed to win the Spanish GP; a first win for his Williams team since 2004!
Williams team celebrates Maldonado getting to the end of
a Grand Prix. And winning it! Photo: Sky Sports

This is correlated with wet weather, it must be said. The inherently random element of wet races, as mentioned earlier, tends to increase attrition rates. Moreover, attrition rates are generally much lower these days than they have been for most of F1's history. These days, it is common that three-quarters of the starters finish the race; even with the huge upheaval of the new-for-2014 rules, one has tended to get around 13 finishers minimum for all races. Thus even events which are hard on engines (e.g. Monza, Sepang, Spa) don't tend to lead to a flurry of retirements, or an underdog victory. Neither do season-openers (traditionally high attrition - particularly in the 1970s but even before and since - due to new cars being debuted).
  • However, there is still an example when this can give us an underdog victory (outside of wet races). This happens when one team is particularly dominant. Thus, if that team hits problems (e.g. one mechanical failure and one accident), it opens the door for others. We saw this during the domination of McLaren in the late 1980s - for example when Gerhard Berger won the 1988 Italian GP, or when Alessandro Nannini won the hugely controversial 1989 Japanese Grand Prix. Moreover, during a dominant 2004 for Ferrari, Schumacher's retirement and an off weekend for team-mate Rubens Barrichello helped Jarno Trulli deliver an immaculate maiden (and sole) victory at Monaco. The question is, with Mercedes dominant thus far, will we see a repeat in 2014? 
Berger leads home Alboreto for an emotional Ferrari 1-2 at
Monza in '88, a year McLaren dominated. Photo: LAT Archive

Developments within F1 have helped teams try to control some of the variables which have helped give us underdog victories in the past. Additionally, I sometimes feel that, because the teams can now simulate situations so accurately so as to quantify, with a certain degree of confidence, what the 'best' outcome is, they are more likely to follow that path. Thus, maybe this engenders an environment where one is less likely to see a relative minnow like Jordan 'lean against the wind' to pull off an unlikely success.

Having said that, though, you only need to watch the pack shuffle during a wet race (or even a wet qualifying session), or to remember the huge variability we saw in many teams' performances during the early part of 2012, to remember that the teams still can't control everything. In such a context, I am therefore optimistic that - as illustrated by Maldonado two years ago - underdog victories are still with us and that we will continue to see them in the future. And if they are becoming more rare, then maybe we will appreciate them just that little bit more when they come around.

Here's a little bit more about some of the underdog victories I've mentioned earlier in this post - including links to highlights of the races (where applicable). I've tightened up my definition a bit here to focus on cases where both driver and team are (or were) considered underdogs, rather than just one or the other.

-2012 Spanish Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton secured a runaway pole but was sent to the back of the grid for running out of fuel on his in-lap (his team hadn't put enough in). This left Pastor Maldonado of Williams as the surprise poleman, with Ferrari's Fernando Alonso alongside him. When Alonso led off the line it looked like the more experienced driver would win out. But Pastor stuck with him, ran an 'undercut' at the second stint, overtook Alonso, and then held him off, under pressure, on older rubber at the end. A super victory.

-2003 Brazilian Grand Prix
Dreadful wet conditions and controversial tyre rules meant a somewhat chaotic but hugely dramatic race. Many drivers - including Michael Schumacher - crashed at Turn 3. The likes of Rubens Barrichello, David Coulthard, Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber all had their moments. But Jordan's decision to put Fisichella on a heavily-fuelled one-stopper paid dividends in a big way when the red flag came out just after he had come through the field to lead. A great strategy by the team, perfectly executed by Fisi.

-1996 Monaco Grand Prix
In some respects the inspiration behind this post. Panis qualified 14th, pitted earlier than his rivals for dry tyres (timing it to perfection), and set a series of fastest laps to move up to 4th. Next, he overtook the race's mobile chicane - Ferrari's Eddie Irvine - by literally muscling his way past at the Loews Hairpin. He then overcame a spin and benefited from mechanical retirements for Damon Hill and Jean Alesi in front. He then held off McLaren's David Coulthard in the closing laps to take an ultimately deserved win.

-1989 Japanese Grand Prix
Ah! The late 1980s! A time of great drivers and big rivalries - Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet. Anyone else? Well there was this bloke in a Benetton called Alessandro Nannini, who was taking on the big guns after years in an underfunded Minardi. This was a man who doggedly scored his first podium at the 1988 British Grand Prix despite spinning on three (three!) separate occasions, and who battled for wins at Hockenheim and the Hungaroring in 1990. Not for nothing did then-Autosport scribe Richard Asher write in 2007 that "no underdog came in a more attractive package as Alessandro Nannini...and the best thing was he kept giving us glimmers of hope!"[1] Alas Nannini did repay the hope and deliver - sort of! He inherited the win somewhat in Japan after Prost and Senna collided, before Senna was controversially disqualified for missing the chicane. But, hey, you had to be behind Senna when it happened and Sandro made sure he was best of the rest that day in Suzuka.

-1972 Monaco Grand Prix
In truly treacherous conditions, Beltoise scored the last win for the BRM marque by dominating in Monte Carlo. There were murmurings that he may have benefited on the day from having a V12 in the back of the car, but the scale of Beltoise's achievement is summarised most eloquently by Nigel Roebuck (see title link). As Roebuck added in 2012: "Jean-Pierre was never the most assertive of drivers, but it was as if he realised this was his one shot at winning a Grand Prix, and that no-one was going to take it from him."

[1] - Richard Asher's comments were taken from an article "Our Heroes", published in the Autosport 2007 Christmas Double Issue (13-20 December). Asher's hero was, of course, Nannini!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Team-by-team Premier League season review (Part 2)

Last week, I provided a review of the teams that finished in the bottom half of the 2013/14 Barclays Premier League table. This week, it's time for the top half.

10. NEWCASTLE UNITED (W:15 D:4 L:19 GD:-16 Pts:49)
I suspect, after the trials and tribulations Newcastle had balancing the league with a Europa League campaign in 2012/13, and after a tumultuous summer including few signings and the controversial appointment of Joe Kinnear as sporting director, that if you'd given Newcastle fans 10th place (including wins over Chelsea and Manchester United and a draw with a resurgent Liverpool) before the start of the season, many would have actually taken it. Yet as it happens the season ended in open revolt by the fanbase around St James' Park, ostensibly disillusioned with the whole club, and not for the first time! So why is this? Mostly it is the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde element of Newcastle's season, I suspect. Each of the victories described above were superbly taken, but there were also a lot of heavy defeats thrown into the mixer over the course of the season. At times they looked great, at others dreadful. Another reason is a perceived lack of ambition (as with West Ham), with the club cutting its cloth (as with Aston Villa, although Mike Ashley's strategy in this matter has often appeared far less coherent than Randy Lerner's) by barely buying any new players this season, whilst instead selling star player and club captain Yohan Cabaye to Paris Saint-Germain in the January transfer window. Alan Pardew seems to have survived Kinnear (who left in February), and the difficult season end, but will have his work cut out to keep things moving forward next season. Whilst Newcastle have a decent squad on paper, many of their players are mercurial and the Toon Army must shudder to think how their season would have panned out without Cabaye and Loic Remy; the French striker famously shunned the Magpies at the eleventh hour for the big bucks of QPR in January 2013, but Pardew bore no grudges in coming back for him in the summer for a loan deal and was rewarded with Remy scoring many important goals this season when he was fully fit.

9. STOKE CITY (W:13 D:11 L:14 GD:-7 Pts:50)
In pre-season question marks were there over both manager and team. Could Stoke survive in the Premier League without Tony Pulis? Could Mark Hughes be the man to engineer that survival and even, whisper it, take the team forward as Pulis has done in the first few seasons of their Premier League tenure (most notably 2010/11)? In the end it was a resounding success for both. Hughes inherited a squad of solid professionals like Asmir Begovic (a bit more than solid, one of the league's best goalkeepers), Ryan Shawcross and Peter Crouch. To that he added mercurial yet talented players like Stephen Ireland, Peter Odemwingie and Marko Arnautovic. Thus was borne a season which, like Hughes' season with Fulham in 2010/11, started slowly but quickened apace as time went on to finish with a flourish. The big catalyst for their final season finish was 13 points out of a possible 15 in March, when Hughes was nominated for Manager of the Month, during which they beat Arsenal to add to wins over Man United and Chelsea. His management of the notoriously difficult Arnautovic, who impressed even early on in the season when results didn't always match performances, has been highly commendable and Hughes, reputation restored after a bruising spell at QPR, can look back on a first season well done at the Britannia Stadium.

8. SOUTHAMPTON (W:15 D:11 L:12 GD:+8, Pts:56)
It's easy to forget now that, back when it happened, Nigel Adkins' sacking seemed scandalously unfair. In many ways, it still does; is that how back-to-back promotions is rewarded?! But credit must undoubtedly go to his replacement Mauricio Pochettino. This season Southampton have been a joy to watch, playing football with a poetic fluidity. What's more, he has done it on the back of long-running youth policy, as well as a core of players from their Championship days. It has therefore been a shot in the arm for the English national side too, to see the likes to Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez, Rickie Lambert and young full-back Luke Shaw thrive under Pochettino this season at St Mary's, with the likes of James Ward-Prowse waiting in the wings. Alas the cloud to this silver lining came from boardroom unrest and, correspondingly, reports that Pochettino's days in charge may be numbered. He stayed until the end of the season but, with his contract up for renewal, is strongly reported to be on his way to Tottenham Hotspur this summer. This could be a huge blow, and it will be important for the Saints to ensure they make the right choice as a replacement to hold onto as many of their best players as they can and, correspondingly, keep progressing within the division.

7. MANCHESTER UNITED (W:19 D:7 L:12 GD:+21 Pts:64)
It was always going to be difficult to replace the irreplaceable - Sir Alex Ferguson. Hand-picked by Sir Alex, David Moyes stepped up to the plate and gave it his best shot but no-one expected him to struggle quite as much as he did. The killer was ultimately United's form in the New Year; a series of underwhelming performances saw the club drop out of the battle for the Top 4, as well as exit the Capital One Cup on penalties in the Semi-Final. That's before we mention lacklustre defeats to Olympiakos in the Champions League (though United fought back to win the tie and, overall, the Champions' League was one of Moyes' successes, with the team reaching the Quarter-Finals); and Liverpool, Man City and Everton in the league. What was disappointing was not just the fact that United were getting beaten, but the nature of these defeats. Where earlier in the season talk had been about a rebuild, the questions as the season went on were: 'is Moyes the right man to oversee the re-build' and 'how quickly can a period of transition become a period of managed decline'? After defeat to Everton on the Easter weekend, the club concluded that the answer to both questions were 'no' and 'potentially very quickly' respectively; hence, Moyes was sacked. Personally, I would ideally have liked to have seen him given more time - possibly until the turn of the calendar year - because I thought there had been some indication of (necessary) improvement since the City defeat. However, I suspect it is easy in such cases to fall into a politician-esque trap of seeing 'green shoots' when in reality there are none. The Everton defeat again highlighted our deficiencies and, if the United board had come to the conclusion that he wasn't the right man, it was better to sack him at that point rather than go into the summer with a feeling of mistrust and potential factionalism pervasive around Old Trafford and Carrington. Louis van Gaal has recently been announced as Moyes' replacement; he has had big success and a history of working with big clubs, but also has his own way of doing things. It could combust, but hopefully won't and, although I think an assault on the league might be a step too far in 2014/15, his aim must be the Top 4.

6. TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR (W:21 D:6 L:11 GD:+4 Pts:69)
What I find quite sad about this is that Andre Villas-Boas' tenure in charge will ultimately be dubbed a failure. Yet he scored more points in 2012/13 than Harry Redknapp in 2011/12 despite, in my view, having a weaker squad than Harry had had that season. This season was a challenge, with a whole group of players being brought in to replace the outbound Gareth Bale. They started the season quite well but some of the new players integrated better than others and once the fixture list got busy (with Europa League and Capital One Cup to consider) the bandwagon came off the rails, with some heavy defeats to Liverpool and City precipitating AVB's departure. Tim Sherwood came in and, although his public outburst after the defeat to Chelsea in early March was a step too far in my view, he did do a pretty good job and his win percentage was very good. In that context, it was a job well done and his sacking was harsh - despite his inexperience coming up at times. More than any particular manager, I feel Tottenham's problems are structural; in particular, transfer policy must be more focused and feature greater collaboration between the Director of Football (currently Franco Baldini, previously Fabio Capello's assistant in the England team) and the manager. Additionally, I think at times a defeatist mentality relative to North London rivals Arsenal persists at White Hart Lane and this is proving a very hard nut to crack; they perhaps missed their best chances to beat The Gunners in the league in 2011/12 and 2012/13. A related point (regarding mentality) also regards their ability to balance Europa League with the Premier League. Granted, this is never easy but, for me, Tottenham should have the squad depth to weather it better than they have done. Some of their players seem to openly loathe playing in the Europa League and this is an attitude I find quite baffling; European competition is European competition, however you slice it.

5. EVERTON (W:21 D:9 L:8 GD:+22 Pts:72)
A really impressive season for The Toffees, at Goodison Park, who played their part in the Merseyside revival this season. Outgoing manager Moyes had left a stable base, but felt he had taken the team as far as they could go. Roberto Martinez came in as an FA Cup winner with Wigan, but with doubts over his underlying managerial ability; he was good, yes, but how good? Martinez answered the question resoundingly with a very impressive season; Everton played with freedom and fluidity throughout, in Martinez's preferred style, and consequently moved up the table, briefly looking likely to take the final Champions League position (4th) in April before they dropped points in the last few games. Players like Leighton Baines, Ross Barkley and Seamus Coleman have come on in leaps and bounds under Martinez, while shrewd loan signings Gareth Barry, Gerard Deulofeu and Romelu Lukaku played integral roles along with Kevin Mirallas. Without those loan signings next year, Martinez may expect a rougher ride unless a next batch of loan signings come in; however, flush with the confidence this season has given them, expect them to continue to be a thorn in the side of their bigger-spending peers when August rolls round again.

4. ARSENAL (W:24 D:7 L:7 GD:+27 Pts:79)
I think this has to go down as Arsenal's strongest season for a while. They hit the front very early and, while few people expected them to stay top of the league, I was impressed by the way they kept bouncing back from setbacks - some of them quite chastening (heavy defeats to Liverpool, Chelsea and, to a lesser extent, City). For a while a more dramatic slide in form in the early spring put their Top 4 position under threat, but Arsene Wenger kept faith in the players and they delivered after a charging Everton hit the buffers in the last few weeks. On top of that, Wenger finally ended his 9-year trophy hoodoo with victory in the FA Cup, beating Hull City 3-2 from 0-2 down in the final. The big-money signing of Mesut Ozil had fans salivating but, in all honesty, a good start faded into a challenging first season in the Premier League for the German international. Better developments came from Aaron Ramsey (a real revelation who repaid Wenger's faith in him), Mathieu Flamini (a shrewd free transfer), and the centre-backs Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker (neither are perfect and had the odd shocker but overall they were very consistent). Overall, I think the team is coming along nicely and the mental fortitude that perhaps was missing with the previous generation of 'kids' in the late-2000s appears to be more prominent with this group of players. Some acquisitions are still needed, most notably up front (despite Olivier Giroud's improvement and Yaya Sanogo's underrated impact on the Cup success), to sustain a league challenge throughout the season. However, this is a team moving the right direction for sure.

3. CHELSEA (W:25 D:7 L:6 GD:+44 Pts:82)
Self-styled 'Happy One' Jose Mourinho returned to the team he put firmly on the map with multiple trophies in his first spell in charge from 2004 to 2007. And at times, the master tactician reminded us all of his peak-level brilliance; witness several supreme performances over their rivals - particularly the free-scoring Liverpool and Man City. The Blues also had a good run in the Champions League, reaching the semi-finals and getting close to the final. With a new front line next season, it would take a brave man to write Mourinho's Chelsea off. However, I can't help but feel the flaws of the front line this season have been exacerbated by Chelsea's style. Fair enough to Jose that he likes his teams to be well-organised and well-drilled defensively but, Eden Hazard aside, does he stifle their attacking threat at the same time? Consider this: in the last 11 league games of Rafael Benitez' spell as interim manager last season, Chelsea took 26 points out of a possible 33 and scored 20 goals (they also won the Europa League in this period). The goals-per-game ratio is not dissimilar to Mourinho's this season, but it's worth mentioning that Chelsea seemed to be developing an exciting attacking game built around a midfield axis of Juan Mata, Oscar and Hazard. Mata and Fernando Torres both scored 20+ goals that season. Yet this season Mata was frozen out, while Torres barely scored a handful of goals. I couldn't envisage that end-of-season side struggling to score goals and consequently dropping points to the likes of Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Norwich City at home, like Mourinho's team did in their quest for the title this season. Fair enough, Mourinho's approach may yield goals as well as defensive solidity next season - a classic case of taking one step back to take two steps forward - and, in the long-run, his managerial credentials are impeccable. However, this is his second trophy-less season in a row and, in that context, he is probably facing his most difficult period as a manager to date. I repeat that it would take a brave, or arguably stupid, man to write Mourinho off. However, it's still worth pointing out that he is going through a relatively dry spell in his managerial career at the moment, and that Chelsea's spell back to the absolute summit may well be a bumpy one if Mourinho's re-orientation of their style struggles to yield dividends next season.

2. LIVERPOOL (W:26 D:6 L:6 GD:+51 Pts:84)
The surprise package of the season. There were whispers about a Top 4 challenge, but no-one could have realistically forecast that Liverpool would have gone into the final handful of games as title favourites, and finished a close second. Brendan Rodgers has done a fantastic job bringing some brilliant football to Anfield this season and, so nearly, a first league championship in 24 years to boot. To be sure, this Liverpool team had weaknesses; most notably, a weak defence if put under the right pressure. In the end, defensive errors (not captain and club icon Steven Gerrard's slip against Chelsea per se) over the whole campaign were the biggest factor to them falling short. However, Rodgers' great skill, to me, seemed to be an ability to ensure players focused on what they could do, rather than what they couldn't do, and to play to those strengths. By focusing on their direct attacking prowess, Liverpool had a tendancy to race out of the blocks and put a couple of goals on the board before teams knew what had hit them. With that in the bag, their defensive weaknesses tended to be protected. Within this framework Rodgers' man-management of Luis Suarez was successful, and the Uruguayan had a very strong and controversy-free season - winning both the PFA and Writers' Player of the Year awards. Additionally, Daniel Sturridge scored goals; Gerrard adapted impeccably to a deeper midfield role; Philippe Coutinho was a threat; and Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson were both revelations of the season. Sadly for Reds fans, the uncertainty over Suarez's future (an annual affair, it seems), combined with the need for defensive investment, has meant that it may get worse before it gets better. Yet this season showed they are a force to be reckoned with in English football again and, in time, we may well come to view 2013/14 as being to Liverpool what 1991/92 ended up being for Man United (at least in broadly similar terms); a near-miss which ushered in the successful years that followed.

1. MANCHESTER CITY (W:27 D:5 L:6 GD:+65 Pts:86)
For the second time in three seasons the trophy was wrapped in the light blue ribbons of Manchester City, only this time there was no repeat of the final day drama that prevailed in 2011/12. Like Liverpool, City's season challenge was built on the back off a powerful attacking unit, albeit one probably built on a mix of deft passes (think the likes of David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri) and sheer power (think Yaya Toure and Edin Dzeko), rather than Liverpool's tendency to attack directly and at pace with players running different lines. It was also built off the back of a brilliant home record at the Etihad Stadium, where they barely dropped any points all season. Manuel Pellegrini replaced Roberto Mancini in the close season and the calm Chilean, who trained as an engineer before committing full-time to football, impressed me with his demeanour and the way he dealt with the different challenges that came his way over the course of the season. Chief among these was his treatment of Joe Hart, the England goalkeeper who was dropped and then gradually and successfully re-integrated into the side after a drop in form. Additionally, he addressed their initial poor form away from home quite early on, so that this was nipped in the bud; when the crunch came, a second victory over Everton at Goodison Park in over twenty years was important in winning the title. Finally, he dealt with injuries to key players like Aguero, Alvaro Negredo and captain Vincent Kompany, though it must be stressed that their huge resources and squad depth also means they are able to weather such setbacks better than most if not all of their rivals. Nonetheless, whichever way you slice it, to end your first season in England with two pieces of silverware (City also won the Capital One Cup by beating Sunderland 3-1 in the final) is a highly commendable achievement for Pellegrini, and rivals must be in no doubt that Man City will be extremely tough to beat again next season.