Thursday, 30 April 2009

Controversy…McLaren…Again…Really? Part Two

Today it was announced that Formula One giants McLaren will be suspended for three races after they were found guilty of misleading stewards at the Australian Grand Prix.

Motor sport’s governing body, the FIA, found the British team guilty of five charges of breaching Formula 1 rules at the special inquiry based in Paris.

The new racing season as already turned out to be a disaster so far for Lewis Hamilton and co, with McLaren a huge 37 points behind current leaders Brawn.

Despite McLaren admitting to the charges they faced, they may still act against the decision and appeal.

This must surely put world champion Hamilton out of the running for the defence of his title this early in the racing season.

The incident occurred in the opening race in Melbourne, where Hamilton finished fourth behind Jarno Trulli’s Toyota.

The two McLaren’s are current in 7th and 10th position in the drivers standings.

Jenson Button’s season s been a success from the start and this surely gives the Brit the chance to extend his lead at the top of the table.

Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen will have to wait until the British Grand Prix in June till they can next hit the track.

Since Hamilton’s introduction onto the racing circuit in 2007 it as never been an easy ride for the young Brit, with this incident being yet another hammer in the young star’s works.

Hamilton is a strong character and despite lacking the car technology this season, he has already showed improvement having started the Australian Grand Prix in 20th to starting the Bahrain circuit in 5th, but surely this must end the youngsters season.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Controversy…McLaren…Again…Really? Part One

Only three races into the new Formula One season and already it looks as though it will become one of the most memorable season in a long time.

The new campaign has already had controversy, with Lewis Hamilton disqualified in the first race and the diffuser’s used by Williams, Toyota and Brawn GP being passed by the sport’s governing body, the FIA, after complaints from Ferrari, Red Bull and Renault.

The 2009 season has also seen a fairytale start for the new Brawn GP team and their drivers, Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button. It was only a couple months ago the team formed after Honda pulled out of Formula One, and they have made a dream start with two wins for Jenson Button and the team top of the constructors championship.

Brawn GP and Jenson Button look set to be the main challengers for the constructors and drivers, but who will be their main rivals? The three big teams from last year, McClaren, Ferrari and BMW have all struggled so far in a topsy-turvy start to the campaign.

Sebastian Vettel could make a big challenge for the title this year. The 21 year old Red Bull driver won his second ever Grand Prix in China and he definitely has the potential to become a future world champion. Mark Webber will also be amongst the front this year. In the summer of the Ashes series in cricket, Formula One could also see a big Australian – English rivalry with Webber and Button battling for the driver’s title.

Toyota have also made a good start to the new season, and in Jarno Trulli, Toyota have a driver with years of experience and experience of driving with Renault when they were the quickest team on the grid.

Current Renault driver and two times world champion, Fernando Alonso, could be an outside bet for the title. The Spanish driver drove brilliantly in a poor car for Renault last year, and with improvements to the car and the big teams struggling, Alonso could see 2009 as a great chance of securing his third title.

Lewis Hamilton will not be giving up his title easily though, and despite having a poor car so far this year, he has still managed to pick up four points from three races, and with signs of improvement from McClaren, the British driver could still be in the running at the end of the season.

2009 promises to be an exciting season, and with so many drivers in with a chance of winning the title, the race at Abu Dhabi on November 1st has the potential to be a title decider, with a great chance of a second British Champion in two years with Jenson Button.

Now for a bit of the Red Stuff

The ATP and WTA tours make their way from across the pond to start the long arduous clay court season as the top players in the world prepare for Grand Slam number two in Paris.

We’ve had the blistering heat of down under, and we’ve had the desert and the beaches of Indian Wells and Miami, with a small dose of Dubai and the Middle East added to the mix, but it’s now time for the part of the season where everything slows down a notch, and we are entertained by the clay court masters.

If your just starting to get into tennis or are thinking of getting into it, I wouldn’t suggest tuning in for at least a couple more months, because clay court tennis is all about patience, endurance, and most importantly of all, how to slide.

The clay court season is a weird and wonderful animal because it never seems to actually end and there are players who play in the lower reaches of the game, who will play on the red stuff all year round and you’ll be sure to find plenty of tournaments still to come once the dust has settled, literally, and we have crowned the Men’s and Women’s French Open Champions.

That though is another topic for another day.

Looking ahead to the French Open, the main man to watch on the men’s side is without a doubt the world number one Rafael Nadal.

Now I know it’s the easy way out, to back the number one, but the man from Manacor gives a whole new meaning to word dominance when it comes to matches on clay.

In 173 clay court tour level matches, Nadal has lost just 14, picking up 22 titles, four straight French Opens and going on an open era record run of 81 straight wins on a single surface, beating the record of the great John McEnroe, who won 75 straight matches in a row on indoor hard courts.

As for the others to watch out for, Federer is always there or there about’s but has certainly not been at his imperial best so far this season and clay is by far his weakest surface. Nadal though is literally worlds apart from anyone else on clay and it would have to be considered a massive upset if anyone but Nadal was to pick up the trophy at Roland Garros next month.

As for the women, it’s the same answer as to who are Nadal’s closest challengers, the answer being anyone’s guess.

Since the retirement of Justine Henin, there has not been one dominant woman at the top of the women’s game.

Last year’s finalist Dinara Safina would, in my opinion, is the favourite in Paris. The Russian has only improved since losing her first grand slam final at the French Open last year, the opposite that could be said of the victor in that match Ana Ivanovic.

Safina, who became world number one herself earlier this month, will be closely watched by the Williams sisters who have always performed well on the clay, which is something that you cannot say for their male counterparts, who always struggle at this time of year.

The only thing that is for certain is that the player’s socks are going to get awfully dirty, and Nadal will win in Paris for the 5th time in a row. The rest is up to you to find out over this long, demanding clay court season.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Wolves Promoted to the Cash League

Six years ago Wolves had to battle through the gruelling playoff elimination process, which saw them enter the Premiership after 19 years of lower league action, but this year they do it in style.

No nervous times lay ahead for Mick McCarthy and co, as Wolves sealed their Premiership place with just two matches remaining. Although fans may be excited at the prospect of regular clash’s with the Premiership ‘big dogs’, reality may be hit home when the results struggle to come in.

Back in 2003/04 when Wolves were in England’s top flight, results were very hard to come by. Their season started off bad, not winning a single match in their opening seven games and ended up worse, being relegated back to the Championship finishing bottom.

Their time in the Premier League did have its ups, they overcome a heavy armoured Manchester United with a one nil victory, but it did have its downs as well, they failed to win a single away fixture throughout the season. Dave Jones, the manager at the time, had a difficult season from the start as the Black Country side looked destined to return from where they came. No funds were made available for Jones, not a great start when Roman Abramovich spent over £100million on players that season, never a fair contest.

This year it seems Wolves are prepared for the 2009-10 Premiership season. An impressive Championship campaign has meant McCarthy’s Wolves have been the leader of the pack the majority of the season. It helps when inform strikers Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Chris Iwelumo can score 39 goals between them, more than any other strike force in that league.

Funds have never been a problem at the Molineux, despite others opinions, as come match day a full house is guaranteed, today’s attendance was a sell-out…no real shock to be fair. Profit from the sale of players such as Seyi Olofinjana, Jay Bothroyd and Freddy Eastwood has made the figure in the Wolves kitty more healthier.

McCarthy has had the added bonus of players wanting to stay at a club and in other cases has managed to hold on to certain players. Despite Michael Kightly’s injury being the only real downer in what will be seen by many as a very successful year for Wolverhampton Wanderers.

From the top three clubs that safely secure promotion into the Premiership, they are immediately ranked as the favourites to go back down, but one thing is for sure, Wolves will be looking to do better than their neighbours West Bromwich Albion…maybe that’s not much of a target after all!

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The NFL Draft

On April 25th, the National Football League hosts it's annual college draft. Over two hundred of the finest college athletes from around America will be up for grabs as professional American Football teams search for the next generation of superstars.

The whole event is a carnival, a two day festival with all the melodrama and ceremony you expect from American sport.

The build-up is a key part of the draft experience, with teams visiting various college "Pro Days", where prospective draftees show their skills in a variety of drills. This, coupled with interviews and "private workouts", give each team ample opportunity to pick the right player.

The team who finished last season with the worst record - Detroit Lions - will get the first pick in the first round of the draft. After they make their pick, the team with the second worst record - this year it's St. Louis - will choose their player to sign, and so on until all 32 teams have had a chance to pick.

That concludes the first round out of seven. Now you begin to understand why it needs jazzing up. Essentially, it is the same thing we all used to do when picking teams for playground football or tag rugby, only on a much grander scale.

There is a whole industry that centres around the selection of draft picks. The system is a bit more complicated than just picking the best player who is left.

Most teams who have the first pick will go for a "playmaker", someone who is going to be a focal point for their team. Eight out of the last ten Number One picks have been Quarterbacks, but for many teams, the need is in the less glamorous positions along the offensive line.

With this in mind, Detroit will probably Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has long been predicted as the first pick. There are a couple of offensive linemen - Jason Smith and Eugene Monroe - who are good enough to be first overall pick, but the Lions are now likely to go with a Franchise Quarterback in Stafford.

There are some freakish athletes in this year’s crop. BJ Raji, a defensive tackle from Boston College, can run the 40-yard dash (a staple of the Pro Day) in a shade over seconds, despite weighing in at nearly 340 lbs. If you avoid him, you have Brian Orakpo, a pass rushing defensive end, who is built like a Greek god and tackles like a sledgehammer. These are not gentlemen who you would like on top of your prize quarterback!

The draft is, all told, an entertaining experience. Once it is out of the way, the NFL cools down for the summer training camps. But for now, interest in American Football is red hot.

Tom Snee's Mock Draft - How I believe the top 10 picks will pan out

1 Detroit Lions - Matthew Stafford (QB)

2 St Louis Rams - Jason Smith (OT)

3 Kansas City Chiefs - Brian Orakpo (DE)

4 Seattle Seahawks - Eugene Monroe (OT)

5 Cleveland Browns - Aaron Curry (OLB/DE)

6 Cincinnati Bengals - Andre Smith (OT)

7 Oakland Raiders - Michael Crabtree (WR)

8 Jacksonville Jaguars - Jeremy Maclin (WR)

9 Green Bay Packers – Everette Brown (DE/OLB)

10 San Francisco 49rs – Mark Sanchez (QB)

"Schalke, Schalke, Schalke"

"Schalke, Schalke, Schalke" the chant rings out in the Gewerkenstrasse as the successful Schalke team celebrate their fourth German championship in 5 years with a parade through the city of Gelsenkirchen.

The crowd turned out in their thousands but the names on everybody`s lips was those of Fritz Szepan and brother-in-law Ernst Kuzorra. The two hometown boys had not only changed the way German football was played but revolutionised the game on a much larger scale.

Beckenbauer, Muller, Klinsman, Matthaeus, all names who roll off the tongue when thinking of the greats of German football, but before these four were even born, it was Szepan and Kuzorra who were establishing Germany as one of the footballing giants of the world.

The duo were natives of Gelsenkirchen and were part of the team that dominated German football throughout the nineteen thirties (with the help of their most famous fan who was in a position of some power throughout that time).

Despite the dominance of that decade, it started late for "Gelsenkirchen-Schalke 04" who were still under a ban from breaching a payment rule 1929, and saw them suspended from playing for over a year and a half. It didn`t put the fans off however, and the first game back drew a crowd of over 70,000 people to Glückauf-Kampfbahn.

The ban followed a number of the team receiving 10 Marks instead of the allowed 5 as compensation for playing in away games throughout the 1928/29 season.

The two began life as miners in Gelsenkirchen, even after Kuzorra was signed by his home town club at the age of just 14. It was three years before he would eventually begin to play a key role in the future of the club.

The story of Schalke`s success was put down to a number of factors including the incredible support, the fuhrer`s influence, but nobody could argue that the reason for the blue and white success was down to the two inspirational home grown talents. Szepan would go on to make a bigger name for himself on the international scene getting 34 caps for Germany and captaining the side for 30 of those games. Kuzorra amassed just 12 caps but scored 7 goals in these appearances.

It was the idea of playing short quick passes on the floor that led to the success of the team, a system that became known as the Schalker Kreisel. Whilst it may seem obvious to the modern day footballing fan, following the great Liverpool teams of the seventies and Arsenal`s Invincible`s at the turn of the century in the days of Szepan and Kuzorra it was almost unheard of. The defenders of the time had no way to deal with the concept which promoted the two to legendary status throughout the country. When the Schalker Kreisel was first seen abroad it was known as the "Scottish" as that was the origin of such style.

When the two retired in 1950 it brought an end to the great Die Knappen (The Miner`s, a nickname given to the club because of their industrial roots) side which had been the Manchester United of their generation. Die Königsblauen (The Royal Blues) won just one more German title from 1950 onwards (1958) further enhancing the significance that the two brought to the team.

There was no escaping the conditions that surrounded everything at this time, and whilst Schalke were crushing the opposition, the Nazi movement was gathering pace as the Second World War approached. Both men would benefit differently from the movement however, Kuzorra was often approached personally by the Fuhrer on numerous occasions to promote Aryanistic values, which were expressed by Kuzorra`s success and athleticism. Much to Hitler`s dismay, the Schalke striker refused to get involved in politics. It was a personality trait by Kuzorra that was blamed for his limited appearances for the national team after a reported bust up with the German coach Otto Nerz.

Kuzorra`s legend has lived on long after his death in 1990 and he was voted in Schalke`s all time greatest XI in 2004 and the majority consider him Schalke`s best player of all time. German president Johannes Rau was asked if a stadium in Germany should ever be named after a sportswoman rather than a man as was usually the case. A question to which the Bundespräsident replied: 'Und wie soll das denn dann heißen: 'Dem Ernst-Kuzorra-seine-Frau-ihr-Stadion'? ('And what name would that be: 'Ernst-Kuzorra's wife's stadium'?'

It was the willingness to stave away from National Socialist benefits which kept Kuzorra in such high regard. Szepan however was refused a street name after him close to the new Veltins-Arena due to the winger`s acceptance of a business from the Anti-Semitic government. Fritz paid just 7,000 marks for the company (previously owned by German Jews who had the business taken off them), which turned over six times the amount in the first year alone.

Political views aside Szepan was just as significant to the Schalke side as Kuzorra but it`s Kuzorra`s name which is held in higher regard as some of the Blues fans see a taboo of praising Szepan due to his post football alignment with Hitler. Had they had the same effect any other time in the last 100 years there names would have been placed firmly on the same pedestal as Maradona and Pele as greats who could work magic with the ball, whilst achieving great success at the same time.

By the time the two retired Schalke had won the Gauglia Westfalen every year it ran between 1934 and 1944 as well as six German Championship's and one cup.

Whether or not you find it acceptable to praise a team that was "supported" by the most notorious dictator of all time (due to the aryan routes of their most famous duo), there`s no doubting that Schalke`s team of the 1930`s changed the way football was to be played forever. Adolf Hitler may be remembered for his despicable foreign policy and infamous attitudes towards other races, but what he did indirectly for football was the basis for the great Carlos Alberto goal against Italy in 1970 and the Arsenal team`s footballing ideology which saw them go a whole season without defeat as a result of their quick short passing game.

Friday, 10 April 2009

The Divide

West Midlands outfit Wolverhampton Wanderers can almost taste Premier League action, despite four matches of the season remaining in football’s first tier, but has everyone over looked the situation forming at the bottom of the table.

Four of the top ten sides in the Championship have gained promotion to Britain’s elite league once in the past ten seasons while the three bottom sides, all facing a real threat of relegation, have been regulars of the Premier League in the past.

Charlton Athletic are currently situated at the route of the table with League One football being all but guaranteed. Southampton and Brain Clough’s ex side Nottingham Forest are also in the danger zone facing the huge drop come May.

It was only five seasons ago that the Addicks were Champions League contenders but after a disappointing run in the last few games, Alan Curbishley’s side had to settle for a 7th place finish. A place even now many Premier League sides still compete for.

The Saints have faced problems all seasons both on and off the pitch, with poor results and financial difficulties becoming part of everyday life at St Mary‘s.

Having produced the likes of Matt Le Tissier, Alan Shearer, Theo Walcott and being known as having one of the best youth academies in the country ,Championship football could be the clubs aim come next season.

Nottingham Forest are the other side in the red zone that have could be playing the likes of Huddersfield Town and MK Dons next year.

It wasn’t that long ago, in fact it was the 1998-99 season, where all these three sides were playing each other in the Premiership. But this season will see the end of top flight football and the start of League football for the ex Premiership regulars.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Will Alan Shearer Make The Difference?

Local hero Alan Shearer returns to St James Park to become the club’s fourth manager this season. With Newcastle only managing one win this year, the Magpies have slipped into the relegation hotspot.

Shearer, whose contract is only temporary, has just eight matches in charge to save the Toon Army from Championship football next season.

Shearer has brought the expertise of Ian Dowie on board with him has his number two. The two played together at Southampton and have remained friends since.

The 38 year old has no previous managerial experience in football, which brings the question, if Mike Ashley is serious about staying up why recruit a rookie into the big time? Is it another publicity stunt maybe?

Shearer has remained a club favourite since hanging up his boots in 2006 at Tyne side and must know the task ahead is borderline impossible. Two points from safety and a first game against Chelsea on Saturday means Shearer has a lot of work to do in such little time.

Despite many critics hinting that the position could be permanent, Shearer insists that he will leave at the end of the season.

No one can expect miracles especially when the club have had an a dismal season, winning just six matches from the 30 League games played so far.

A defeat at home against the Blues could see Newcastle slip even lower in the League and leave the question open to just why did Ashley bring on board an inexperienced manager in a time of need?

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Au Revoir to English Rugby?

With England trio Riki Flutey, James Haskell and Tom Palmer all recently leaving London Wasps to join French clubs, it looks certain that more will follow, with England fly-half, Jonny Wilkinson, the latest to be rumoured with a move to a French club.

But what will it mean for the English game, and more importantly, the England national side?

Players who have moved to France fall outside an agreement made between the RFU and the Premiership, which allows players to be released early for England training camps and gives them a limit of 32 games a year.

Martin Johnson has already warned his elite players that moving abroad and not being part of the Elite Players Squad deal could damage their future International career. “Not being in that structure will, inevitably, affect individual players’ selection chances.”

One way to stop England Internationals moving abroad could be to adopt a similar method to Wales. The Wales national coach, Warren Gatland, prioritises players based in Wales, and with the exception of Sale’s scrum-half Dwayne Peel, his squad is home-based, with Welsh players moving back home to be in with a chance of selection.

But why have England Internationals started to move abroad?

The main reason seems to be money. The 12 Premiership clubs have a £4m salary cap for each club, whereas there are no restrictions for France’s Top 14 clubs who can offer wages, which the Premiership clubs can’t rival.

Another reason could be Martin Johnson recalling Brive fly-half Andy Goode for the two opening matches of the Six Nations. The former Leicester player moved to the French club last year, and his selection could have paved the way for the three England players to move abroad.

Danny Cipriani, who was another player linked to a move abroad, has just signed a new one year contract with Wasps, but unless the Premiership and RFU either reviews the salary cap or takes a firm stance on not picking English players based abroad, Cipriani and many other England stars could soon be making the move to France too.