Monday, 21 January 2008

Sports Picks of 2007 - 17th November

European Championship, Qualifying Group B : Scotland 1 Italy 2

Italy ended Scotland's Euro 2008 dream and ensured their own qualification for next summer's finals thanks to a Christian Panucci stoppage-time goal. Luca Toni had stunned the Scots by stabbing the ball home from five yards with less than two minutes gone.

But Ferguson forced the ball home when Lee McCulloch's effort was saved after 65 minutes only for Panucci to head home from a disputed Pirlo free kick. The Scots believed that Alan Hutton had been fouled and the resulting goal meant that Italy qualify along with France, with the Scots in third, before both have to play their final Group B games in midweek.
The campaign to qualify for the European Championships has seen one of the most unlikely comebacks. The Scotland national team looked to be going the way that the Wales and Northern Ireland teams had gone not so long ago. Yet just as Wales enjoyed a renascence, getting to a playoff of qualifying for a major championship 4 years ago, Scotland began its journey back from the wilderness at about the same time. Bizarrely I think that being in “the group of death” helped.

Lets be honest, we didn’t think that we would qualify. France, Italy and Ukraine were the top seeds in our group, which was hard enough before the three of them made the World Cup quarter finals (with France and Italy contesting the final). Below them was a list of teams, for whom playing against was no a pleasant experience for Scotland sides of the recent past. Lithuania (lost to them away in 2003) & the Faroes (Drew twice away from home, in 1999 and in 2002). Georgia were the only unknowns. What happened next was the roller-coaster ride of all roller-coaster rides. And it ended here, at Hampden, with a game against the World Champions, with a win for either team meaning qualification.

The hype was just incredible.

The game itself just went past in a blur. Thinking about it now, Scotland really have themselves to blame, and not just for losing to Georgia in October. A win there would have seen us home and dry. In the Italy game though, we controlled about 75% of the game. We fell asleep in the first couple of minutes, and let Toni in to score. Italy came back into the game after we equalised. We fell asleep at the end when defending the free kick, which Pannucci scored from (top picture).

The campaign was a return to the old Scottish way of doing things, glorious failure. We really should have qualified, especially after the 1-0 win in Paris. Its one thing to have a backs to the wall defeat against one of the worlds best sides at home, like we did last year. Its another thing to eclipse that with a win in the back yard of one of the best sides of the world, and to make them look impotent up front into the bargain. After about an hour I thought to myself that this will probably turn out to be a 0-0 draw, reached for a paper to skim through, and missed McFadden’s goal (pictured).
But fail to qualify we did. We failed not because we had the two world cup finalists in our group, but because we failed to beat Georgia in Georgia, and made defensive errors against Italy. Typical Scotland.

So where do we go from here? Alex McLeish resigned 10 days after the Italy game to manage Birmingham City, which leaves a vacuum at the top of the Scotland game. Of the supposed shortlisted candidates, Tommy Burns and George Burley would be my own preferred candidates, Burns having bossed Celtic a decade ago creating an excellent passing side, but one which crumbled under pressure. Burley took Ipswich from 1st Division to Europe in 3 seasons, and also put together the Hearts side which was top of the league when Romanov fell out with him and dismissed him. That Hearts side went on to lift the Scottish Cup and split the Old Firm.

Of the other two, Mark McGee has had a chequered past managing in the English lower divisions. However this season, his Motherwell side have been playing some excellent football, pushing for a place in the UEFA Cup next season. The dignified way that the Motherwell, and their manager dealt with the untimely death of their captain, Phil O’Donnell, has also brought praise McGee’s way. But McGee’s Motherwell side is still something of a work in progress. Which brings us to Souness. On paper Souness would be, of the four, the ideal candidate. Over 50 Scotland caps, a hatful of trophies as a player. Managed Rangers and Liverpool, then in Italy, Turkey (where the chairman of his bitter rivals described him as “a cripple” – which is why he planted the flag at the end of the Turkish Cup final in 1996), Portugal and back here with Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle. Yet there are doubts over his management skills. Hmmm, I know what you think.

Its not just the SFA board who need to think of their next step, there are players in Scotland who are good enough to play in the biggest leagues in the world, for the biggest teams. I hope that their next moves are for the betterment of their game, and not for the betterment of their bank balances.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Sports Picks of 2007 - 7th September

World Cup: Group D, St Denis : France 12 Argentina 17

Argentina rocked tournament hosts France with a sensational 17-12 victory in the opening match of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in Paris. The inspired Pumas outplayed an error-ridden and nervous-looking France and took control with a first-half try from full-back Ignacio Corleto.

Centre Felipe Contepomi chipped in with 12 points to leave the 80,000-strong Stade de France crowd stunned. France could only muster four penalties from struggling fly-half David Skrela

This may come as some sort of heresy to some of my compatriots, who have a chip on their shoulder regarding the oval ball game, but this years Rugby World Cup was as well as being the most successful staging of the event, was also the best, most exciting sporting tournament since Euro 2000. On most of the match days, there was something exciting, interesting and challenging to watch. There were lots of games that I could have picked as moments. Standout moments include Wales last gasp 34-38 loss to Fiji, England being swept aside by South Africa in their pool game, England demolishing the Australia pack in their quarter final win, France’s quarter final win against New Zealand and the progress of Argentina.

Argentina’s run to the semi final started here, which is one of the reasons why I picked this game. To a non-union audience, this was something of an upset. To those in the know, the upset was more the poor form of the French in this match. France had previously lost 4 out of 5 tests against Argentina so this was expected to be a tight game. This game also set the tone for this tournament with games not entirely going the way that you would expect. Ireland might still have qualified from this group had they not have to beat Argentina and score 4 tries for the bonus point, which they had to do after failing to get a bonus point against Georgia. In the end, Ireland were flat and struggled to find their form, so deserved to go out. Argentina also did for Scotland, who should see it as an opportunity spurned to reach our first semi-final since 1991.
Argentina’s tactics here also started a mini renascence of the old style kicking game, which England went back to in the wake of their pool defeat to South Africa. This change of tactics was a key element in England’s run to the final. They had some tricky, but not insurmountable opposition in the shape of Tonga & Samoa before they got to play their quarter final against Australia.
France also built up momentum, from this particular game, and upset New Zealand. Perenial favourites for World Cups, but to throw George Gregans quote from 2003 at them – “Four more years boys!”. By which time it will have been 24 years since their triumph in the inaugural tournament. By sharp contrast, South Africa looked good from the off, even before the tornament began with a heavy defeat of Scotland at Murrayfield. South Africa (left) were worthy champions, even though they did have a scare against Fiji in the quarter Final.

In the final, South Africa were worthy winners, and overall they were worthy World Champions, but had the Cueto try been given it would have been a much more interesting game. It would have been interesting to see South Africa come under pressure. As it was, the Final was a poor match. Come to think of it, has there been a good World Cup final?

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Sports Picks of 2007 - 29th August

Womans 400m Final : Ohuruogu claims gold for Britain

Christine Ohuruogu claimed Britain's first gold medal at the World Championships in Japan with a stunning victory in the women's 400m. Fellow Briton Nicola Sanders won silver while Jamaican Novlene Williams, who led for most of the race, came third. Ohuruogu, whose one-year ban for missing three out-of-competition tests expired earlier this month, looked out of contention on the back straight. But the 23-year-old timed her run to perfection to win in 49.61 seconds

First of all, can I say that it is disappointing that Scotland’s most prominent athlete, Lee McConnell (who participates in this event), has not pushed on and got herself into finals and possibly medal positions. Thanks.

This column though is about Christine Ohuruogu, and in a way the humbug that her win has uncovered. Firstly, I don’t know if she takes performance enhancing drugs, therefore im not going to accuse her of doing so. Suspicions are raised though if an athlete misses not just one or two, but three out of competition tests. The only other sportsperson I can think of that missed drug testing was the England defender Rio Ferdenand. In that case football got a hard time for banning him for only 6 months. Sure he missed the last European Championships, but still six months! Ohuruogu’s original punishment was a year ban from the athletics authorities, and the mandatory life ban from representing Britain at the Olympics, this ban is the same sentence as those found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs.

While this was harsh, I felt that this was maybe fair, though I can’t say for certain given that we don’t know of the circumstances surrounding the missed tests. What I don’t think should have happened is that the BOA punishment should be dropped, which is what happened at the end of November. I think that this sends out mixed messages to athletes, taking performance enhancing drugs, who are actively trying to evade detection. The BOA, have been shown to be not so hard-line on drug-taking as the may think that they are. If there are mitigating circumstances, this should have had an effect on the sentence, not meant the removal of it. I feel that this tarnishes the British reputation for being hard-line on substance abuse.

Unfortunately, those drugs tests will mean that there will be an element of suspicion surrounding her. This is a great pity because Christine Ohuruogu quite clearly is (at the moment) the only cast iron medal prospect that we have in British athletics. This 400 metres win, as well as giving some hope for the future of British athletics, was one of the athletics highlights of the decade, and there aren’t very many of those.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Sporting Picks of 2007 - 17th March

World Cup Group D, Jamaica: Ireland 133-7 beat Pakistan 132 by three wickets

Ireland produced one of the greatest victories in cricket's rich history by beating Pakistan on St Patrick's Day amid unbelievable tension in Jamaica.
Led by their brilliant wicket-keeper batsman Niall O'Brien, they reached a rain-adjusted target of 128 with three wickets remaining in near darkness. Ireland's fans, who had been there to witness the tie against Zimbabwe, could barely contain themselves afterwards.
The result means Pakistan, ranked fourth in the world, are already out.

The Cricket World Cup was not a good event. There were several reasons for this, it was too long and the format was too convoluted, the big teams were off form, and the stadiums were empty and devoid of local Caribbean atmosphere. This match however, became the biggest story of the World Cup, and not just because it was a big upset. No, a huge upset. Bigger than the defeat of India by Bangladesh on the same day in Trinidad.

I can’t really stress how much Ireland were expected to be the whipping boys of this group, but to bowl Pakistan out for a low total, and chase it down successfully makes this one of the performances of the year (even if this was not one of Pakistan’s greater incarnations).

However, this result was put into the shade by the death later on/the following day of the Pakistan coach, Bob Woolmer. This event was made worse by the suggestion that there was foul play involved, with hints and rumours of betting syndicates seeking revenge for a result gone wrong. Bob Woolmer’s death was a great loss to the game. He was a talented coach, setting up the South Africa side to challenge Australia at the best Test side. There was talk, albeit unfounded ones, that he would replace Duncan Fletcher in the summer (of 2007).

Whatever happened, the events in Kingston on the night of 17th March put a shadow over this event, from which it never really recovered. It’s a pity because there were some really good performances during this world cup, which sadly will be forgotten.

Monday, 7 January 2008

TV Pick of 2007 2 - Mock the Week

In the third of my blogs looking back to 2007, the last of my television picks is the BBC’s near the knuckle satirical quiz show…

Mock The Week could have made it into my list last year. Thankfuly it didn’t because this year it has been funnier, and nearer the bone, that last years episodes ever were. There are 3 reasons why it is so funny…
1) It’s combines the best attributes of the panel show, spontaneity, quick wittedness, and an environment which breeds humour. The format itself is not entirely unlike “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” , not suprising as the same team who brought it to Channel 4 are behind Mock The Week.

2) It has overtaken “Have I Got News For You” as the funniest satirical show on television. There is a certain chemistry between the 5 regulars (the host Dara O’Briain included). NB to the producers of Have I Got News For You: You lost it when you bagged Deayton.

3) Frankie Boyle

Kinda sums it up really…

Happy New Year!

Hi there, just wishing you all a happy new year, and may 2008 be a better year than 2007.

Look, flying pigs....