Friday 20 July 2012

Crucial weekend ahead in the AFL

As the AFL regular season slowly draws towards its conclusion, this weekend is looming as perhaps the most crucial in the 23-week season. The season has been eventful throughout, with numerous teams still in contention both for the top 4, and the top 8. However with a number of tantalising clashes this week, we should finally give get a real insight into where teams will finish this season, so let’s look at some of the crucial encounters.

Geelong vs Essendon, Friday 7:50, Etihad Stadium

Before the start of the season you’d have a hard time convincing people that the reigning Premiers might miss the finals this season, but a loss on Friday will leave their hopes dangling by a thread, with an extremely tough run-in lying ahead. On the other hand, Essendon have been one of the surprise packets of the season, and although they have a difficult run-in themselves, will still be hopeful of a top 4 finish. I think the Bombers will be too strong for the Cats in the middle of the park, and will be able to run out comfortable winners on a ground they play well.

Bombers by 30

Collingwood vs Hawthorn, Saturday 1:45, MCG

The two Permiership favourites meet on Saturday afternoon in a real blockbuster at the home of football. Both teams have been in formidable form, with Collingwood winning 11 of their last 12 games, and Hawthorn winning 9 of their last 10. The Hawks won their previous encounter in the first round of the season, but for my money the Pies still remain the team to beat this season. Their key players are starting to look sharp, and their pressure on the opposition team is probably the best in the competition.

Pies by 15

Adelaide vs West Coast, Saturday 2:10, AAMI Stadium

Adelaide go into this match knowing that a win will not only set themselves up for a top 4 finish, but also put them in pole position for a top 2 finish & a home final. On the other hand, West Coast will feel that a top four spot that has looked theirs for so long will be starting to fall from their grasp if they can’t get the win in Adelaide. The Eagles are still missing a number of key players, but are welcoming three players back from injury, and I have a feeling they may may do something special to keep their top 4 hopes alive.

Eagles by 2

Sydney vs St Kilda, Sunday 1:10, SCG

At the start of the season I was one of those who doubted Sydney’s ability to take the next step up, but they’ve proved me & many others wrong, by performing consistently throughout the season and looking strong in every position. Sydney are a fiercely competitive team around the ball, and win the majority of their games by doing the little things right. They’re also a dangerous team from the middle, with their midfield contributing a large proportion of their goals. The Saints are a transformed side this year, but I think they’re struggle to get a grip on the game against a well drilled Sydney side, who will start well & won’t let up.

Swans by 20

Richmond vs North Melbourne, Sunday 3:15, MCG

The Kangaroos have been in scintillating form in recent weeks, winning their past 4 of their past 5 games, and only narrowly losing the other to the Eagles. On the other hand, Richmond appear to be stumbling just when their first finals spot since 2001. However the loss of Jack Ziebell to suspension for the Roos, and the return of Dustin Martin for the Tigers, might just swing things in Richmond’s way. I think it’ll be a close game all afternoon, but wouldn’t be surprised to see the Tigers claim the spoils and banish their demons from last week’s shock lost to the Suns.

Tigers by 8

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Premier League season review

1st - Manchester City, 89 pts
In retrospect it's easy to say that City should've won the league with their squad, although one should remember that not too many predicted them to do so back in August. A blistering start got them on the way, and they got home in style by winning their last 7 games to pip their inner-city rivals.
Season rating - A+

2nd - Manchester United, 89 pts
When reflecting on their season many Manchester United fans will have mixed feelings. This isn't a vintage United team, but they still managed to pick up a record number of points for 2nd and were 1 minute away from claiming a 20th title. They fought admirably, although they never managed to cover the injury to Vidic.
Season rating - B+

3rd - Arsenal, 70 pts
A strange season for Arsenal, who struggled for form at times, but also had periods of sustained excellence. Their challengers for 3rd gave them the opportunity to get the spot near the end of the season, but they still had to win it & did so in style. However a 7th trophyless season for the England's 3rd best supported team will leave mixed feelings.
Season rating - B

4th - Tottenham Hotspur, 69 pts
If offered 4th spot at the start of the season, almost every Spurs fan would've been delighted, however there's a sense of 'what if...' about their season. Frustration must also sit around their late season capitulation, allowing bitter rivals Arsenal to finish above them once again.
Season rating - B

5th - Newcastle United, 65 pts
Considering expectations at the start of the season, Newcastle were arguably the biggest overachievers this season. A series of astute signings didn't stop the team from gelling, and they got over a bad patch to finish relatively strongly. Doubts must remain over whether a repeat season is possible, but for now there's joy on Tyneside.
Season rating - A+

6th - Chelsea, 64 pts
A horror season for Chelsea in the league, who were strongly expected to challenge for the title, but finished a whopping 25 points behind the Manchester clubs. A late season revival under Di Matteo still wasn't enough to claim a Champions League spot, and in a league where other the teams in contention for the top 4 failed to find any consistency they'll be mightily disappointed to finish 6th.
Season rating - D

7th - Everton, 56 pts
A familiar season for Everton, who started slowly, but gradually built up a head of steam to claim another top-7 finish. Finishing above Liverpool will provide some satisfaction to their fans, however the feeling of stagnation rather than progress lingers about.
Season rating - B-

8th - Liverpool, 52 pts
Liverpool's American owners clearly wanted a position in Europe's elite competition next year, so finishing 17 points off 4th will be causing major concern. The struggle for any sort of consistency, coupled with an abysmal 2nd half to their season, caused their lowest finish in Premier League history. Clouds must be hanging over Dalgleish, and several members of his squad.
Season rating - D

9th - Fulham, 52 pts
Fulham were the quiet underachievers of the Premier League, staying away from the relegation scrap at the start of the season, before a strong second half took them to their highest finish in the Premier League. Their place in English football's elite looks safe for the foreseeable future, but whether they can move upwards with limited resources looks doubtful.
Season rating - A

10th - West Bromwich Albion, 47 pts
The Baggies will be very happy with a top half finish to their season. On a few occasions they genuinely sparkled with incisive attacking football, whilst they regularly did enough to claim points when their guns weren't firing. How they perform without Hodgson remains to be seen, but it looks as though they can forget worrying about the Championship & look forwards.
Season rating - B

11th - Swansea, 47 pts
The fact that Swansea recorded the 2nd highest possession statistic in the league is truly remarkable. Crucially, this allowed the Swans to keep the ball away from their own area, and look to routinely upset more illustrious opponents. Full credit must go to Brendan Rodgers & his players, who proved that lesser names can thrive when given the opportunity at the highest level.
Season rating - A+

12th - Norwich City, 47 pts
Paul Lambert seems to have a remarkable ability to judge each of his players abilities, and organise his team accordingly. Norwich play to their strengths, and won most of the matches they needed to, particularly at home. The second season blues might be a concern, but as long as Lambert stays I'll be backing Norwich to thrive.
Season rating - A

13th - Sunderland, 45 pts
Sunderland's season can be neatly split into two halves, with a remarkable improvement shown after Martin O'Neill took over the reigns in the north East. Although they slipped down the table after safety was assured, Sunderland will be content with their finishing position. Next year they'll be hoping to press onwards and claim a top 10 position.
Season rating - C+

14th - Stoke City, 45 pts
Stoke's first season in Europe may have slightly affected their league form this year, when they appeared to take a step backwards after several seasons of progress. Their unique blend of long balls & aggression continues to gather them enough points to remain competitive, but an improvement on 14th will be expected next year.
Season rating - C

15th - Wigan Athletic, 43 pts
A remarkable late season surge meant Wigan were safe from relegation going into their last game of the season, as they became only the second in Premier League history to survive after being bottom at Christmas. Late season forms often plays too much of a part in judging how a team performed, however it should also be remembered that Wigan were widely expected to struggle at the start of the season, and Martinez yet again proved himself as a competent top-level manager.
Season rating - B-

16th - Aston Villa, 38 pts
Appointing a manager with a proven track record of failure was a bizarre move to say the least, and unsurprisingly it backfired on Villa as the midlands club played some of the most turgid football of the season. Put simply, if they want to improve next season the first step they need to take is removing McLeish at the earliest available opportunity.
Season rating - D

17th - Queens Park Rangers, 37 pts
Replacing Warnock with Hughes seemed a big gamble in the middle of the season, but it finally paid off as good home form at the end of the season ensured they just stayed up. Their survival can probably be traced back to the crazy evening in London where they came back from 2-0 down to beat Liverpool 3-2 in the final stages of the march. Rangers rarely sparkled, but they achieved their primary objective of staying up.
Season rating - C

18th - Bolton Wanderers, 36th
Why Owen Coyle is still rated in some corners baffles me, as he managed to take Bolton from a position of relatively safety to the Championship within a couple of years, whilst playing some of the least attractive football in the division. Although their fans will feel aggrieved with Stoke's first goal on the final day, it's very difficult to argue that they didn't deserve to go down.
Season rating - D-

19th - Blackburn Rovers, 31 pts
There was a brief period in March when it looked as though Blackburn might escape the drop, but a terrible run of form ultimately condemned the Lancashire club to the second tier after a very disappointing campaign. It's hard to quantify how much blame should be put at Steve Kean's door, but the continual protests against him can't have helped the club. A fresh start for both parties is probably needed, otherwise Rovers could be dragged further down by the poisonous atmosphere at Ewood Park.
Season Rating - E

20th - Wolverhampton Wanderers, 25 pts
Were it not for their early season form, which saw them pick up 10 points in their first 4 games, Wolves might've challenged Sunderland's record for least points achieved in a Premiership season. As it was, it's difficult to find any bright spots in Wolves annus horribilis. The farce surrounding Macarthy's sacking and the appointment of Connor definitely stands out a low point.
Season rating - E-

Monday 30 April 2012

Z is for… Zinedine Zidane

One of the most graceful players ever to step on to a pitch, Zidane marvelled football crowds for many years. His grace and skill on the ball, along with his effortless style, were memorably captured in a documentary that bears his name. His resume is also as impressive as almost anyone else in football: a World Cup, a European Championship, a Champions League, 3 league titles, 3 times World Player of the Year, and numerous other trophies and individual awards. Let’s take a moment to look at the career of one of the greats.

The early years

Zidane playing for AS Cannes
Zidane’s professional career began at AS Cannes, making his debut at the age of 17 against Nantes. Despite this early promise it took him two years to establish himself in the first team, but when this happened he helped Cannes to their highest finish in over 40 years, taking the club into Europe for the first (and only) time in their history. 

At the age of 20 he moved to Bordeaux, quickly settling into a position in the heart of their team. Within two years he had picked up the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award and had made his debut for the French national team, scoring two goals as a substitute on his International debut. After winning the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award in his 4th season with Bordeaux, European champions Juventus signed Zidane for £3.2 million.

Stepping into the limelight

Zidane with the World Cup
Zidane starred for Juventus straight away, being named Serie A Foreign Footballer of the Year in his first season for the club. Heading into the 1998 World Cup Zidane had cemented his place in the heart of the French midfield as their playmaker, with the nation’s hopes riding on his shoulders. France won all their group games, before Zidane saw red in their first knock-out game against Saudi Arabia. Returning for the quarter finals, Zidane helped France squeeze past Italy, before producing a fine performance to help the home nation get past Croatia 2-1 in the semi-final and into their first World Cup final.

Heading into the World Cup final much of the world’s attention was focused on two players; Zidane and Brazil’s star striker, Ronaldo. However Ronaldo was strangely off-key in the match, while Zidane shone in the middle of the pitch with perhaps the finest performance of his career to date, scoring the first 2 goals on the way to a 3-0 victory. Zidane became a national hero in France, a status he reaffirmed after he led them to their second major tournament at Euro 2000, being voted the player of the tournament as France beat Italy with a golden goal in the final.

The Real Madrid years

A magnificent strike to win the Champions League
In 2001 Real Madrid signed Zidane for a world record fee of £53 million. He was undoubtedly the star of the Galacticos, leading the team to Champions League glory in 2002 with a stunning winner in the final. He won 5 trophies in 5 years at Madrid, and his influence is still felt at the club, with many fans believing him to be the greatest player in the club’s illustrious history.

Before the 2006 World Cup Zidane had signaled that he was going to retire after the tournament. France had a slow start to the World Cup, although as the tournament progressed so did their superstar, with Zidane proving himself as the outstanding player in Germany. Zidane was man of the match in France's games against Spain & Brazil, and scored the only goal of the game in the semi-final against Portugal. Before the final he was awarded the Golden Ball as player of the tournament, and went on to score the first goal in the final, his third on the biggest stage of all. His career unfortunately ended in disgrace, as he was sent off in the 110th minute of the final for headbutting Marco Materazzi, after which Italy went on to beat France on penalties.

Zidane was a unique footballer, who approached the game in a different manner to any other player in history. He always seemed to have more time than the opposition, and rarely made a poor decision on the pitch, his temper excluded. Whilst his statistics may not rank up there with some other greats, his influence on the game can’t be underestimated, and his ability to perform at his best on the biggest stages is almost unparalleled. I’d rank him in the second tier of greatest ever footballers, just behind Messi, Pele & Maradona.

Sunday 29 April 2012

Y is for... the Yips

The yips is an apparent loss of fine motor skills that affects certain athletes. It's most commonly known for affecting golfers, but can also affect athletes in a number of other sports. Some sports people affected by the yips can recover their ability, whereas for others it continues to affect them for the rest of their sporting life.

Bernhard Langer using a belly putter

Golfers who suffer from the yips usually find their putting stroke affected. Putting require a smooth, gentle stroke in golf, while the yips causes a golfer to flinch or twitch during this stroke. It can affect between a quarter and half of all serious golfers, although golfers with more than 25 years of playing experience are considerably more likely to experience it.

Hall of fame golfers such as Bernhard Langer, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan all experienced the yips during their careers. The yips isn't something that usually affects golfers all of the time, but rather on select occasions, often when the pressure is high. To try and overcome the yips some golfers have changed from using a traditional putter to a belly putter.

Other sports

The yips can also affect bowlers in cricket, with in particular left-arm spinners having trouble in release the ball at the end of their action. In a couple of instances this has led to a bowler retiring from cricket (Keith Medlycott), or concentrating on batting instead of bowling (Gavin Hamilton).

Releasing the ball at the right moment has also affected pitchers in baseball, with Pittsburg Pirates pitcher Steve Blass going from an all-star pitcher to the minor leagues within 2 years of suffering the yips. Tennis players such as Guillermo Coria and Elena Dementieva have also had troubles with the yips, which severely affected their serving action, as they found it difficult to throw the ball up correctly.

The cause of the yips has yet to be determined, although it's believed that it may result from biochemical changes in the brain. It's certainly difficult to see athletes suffer from the yips, as there often seems to be little they can do to overcome it. Being confident in your ability and blocking away any doubt certainly seems to help, although concentrating too much can also make the problem worse. Hopefully in time more research is put into the problems the yips can cause, and the best possible way to counteract them.

X is for… the X Games

The X Games consists of two annual sporting events, showcasing the best in extreme winter and summer sports. The first Summer X Games took place in June 1995, with the first Winter X Games following in January 1997. The X Games currently consists of 7 different sports: moto, rally, skateboarding & bmx in the summer; skiing, snowboarding & snowmobile in the winter.

X Games highlights

The X Games are seen by the competitors as the ideal platform to attempt new tricks and break new ground in their sports. Although the ultimate objective is to compete for the medals on offer, there is also a strong emphasis on entertaining and thrilling the crowd. Music forms a big part of the X Games too, with a number of rock bands and DJs performing at the Games.

Some of the most spectacular feats at the X Games include Tony Hawk achieving the first 900 on a skateboard, Heath Frisby perfoming the first ever snowmobile front flip, Torsten Horgmo achieving the first first landed triple flip in a snowboard competition, and Anthony Napolitan landing the first ever double front flip on a bicycle.

X Games superstars
Shaun White on his snowboard

Shaun White is arguably the biggest superstar in the X Games, winning medals at every Winter X Games from 2003 to the present (12 golds), as well as 2 gold medals at the Summer X Games. The American snowboarder and skateboarder has also won consecutive gold medals at the Winter Olympics in the snowboard halfpipe event.

Tony Hawk is one of the most successful skateboarders of all time, with "The Birdman" claiming 9 gold medals over the first 8 Summer X Games. When Hawk landed the first 900 at the 1999 Summer X Games, he failed to complete the trick on his first 10 attempts. Regulation time had finished, but the announced stated "We make up the rules as we go along. Let's give him another try." In the spirit of the X Games none of the other competitors protested, and when Hawk landed the trick he won the gold medal in the "Best Trick" event.

The X Games is perhaps the most fun and entertaining major sporting event. Despite the increased popularity and attention the event has received since the first games in 1995, the spirit of the game still remains strong, with the event sure to provide many more highlights in the future.

Friday 27 April 2012

W is for… Willpower

The unwavering strength of will to carry out one’s wishes

Every single person reading this post has struggled with their willpower at times. We’ve all let short-term satisfaction get the better of long-term benefit, but why do we do it to ourselves? Why do so many people slip up when they’re on a diet, or find themselves watching tv when they should be studying? The simple answer is that we all have a limited amount of willpower. We’d all like to believe we could achieve anything we want to if we really put our mind to, but human beings just aren’t built to act that way. 

Thankfully, there are ways to increase our willpower. By training any act of self-control we can actually increase our capacity to self-control. This act of self-control can be relatively simple – make sure you get some regular exercise each day, or limit the amount of television you watch – as long as you manage to consistently control one thing, it has been shown that you become more capable of controlling other things in your life.

However, in spite of how much training we do, we all still have a finite amount of willpower at the end of the day – that fact has been proven in numerous scientific studies. So it makes sense to save your willpower for the things you really want to achieve. Plan your regular exercise so you get in a routine and don’t use all your reserves willing yourself to the gym. Make sure you have a healthy meal planned before you go to work, so when you get home tired and hungry you don’t have to use your willpower making yourself cook a healthy meal off-the-cuff.

So when we see our favourite sports stars, musicians, actors and writers and admire their willpower and work ethic, remember that they’ve also probably got their life in good order, so they’re able to concentrate their energies on where they need them most. Then try to make some small achievable changes in your life, don’t try to change everything at once. And don’t beat yourself up if you let yourself down, remind yourself that you’re only human and that it happens to all of us, however strong willed some people may appear.

Thursday 26 April 2012

V is for... Villains

Having discussed unlikely sporting heroes in yesterday’s post, today I’m going to look at those we love to hate; the villains in sport. Sporting villains can fall into many different categories:
  • Administrators who are trying to ruin our sports
  • Individuals who take bribes to influences results
  • Arrogant and big-headed athletes
  • Blatant cheats who revel in their underhand tactics
  • Thugs who perform despicable acts on or off the field
  • Athletes who use performing-enhancing drugs
  • Individuals who believe their celebrity allows them to express abhorrent views
I haven’t got the time (or space) to list all my sporting villains, so here are just a few of my personal ‘favourites’.

Mike Tyson

The "baddest man on the planet"
By the age of 13, Mike Tyson had already been arrested 38 times. Two years later in 1981 he won the boxing gold medal at the Junior Olympics by knocking out all his opponents; a feat he managed to repeat the next year. When Tyson moved into the professional ranks he already had a reputation, which rapidly grew as he won his first 19 fights by knockout, with 12 of those knockouts occurring in the first round. His fearsome punching power and intimidating reputation quickly earned him the nickname the "baddest man on the planet”.

Tyson’s aura in the ring was diminished slightly after his shock loss to James ‘Buster’ Douglas in 1990. Outside of the ring his life was also falling apart, and in July 1991 he was arrested for the rape of 18-year-old Desiree Washington. Tyson was convicted of the charge in February 1992, and was given a sentence of 10 years, six in prison and four on probation. However after 3 years he was released after good behavior, and resumed his boxing career in 1995. 

The resumption of his boxing career started well, with Tyson convincingly winning his first 4 fights, before surprisingly losing to Evander Holyfield in a blockbuster fight. A rematch with Holyfield was held on June 28, 1997, with Tyson again the favourite to win the contest. However the fight was stopped in the third round after Tyson bit Holyfield on the ear, and after the resumption Tyson bit Holyfield again, this time taking a chunk out of his ear. Tyson was disqualified and fined $3 million over the incident. 

Tyson resumed his career the next year and had several more good victories before his career petered out with a couple of shock victories. Despite a slight turn-around in Tyson’s public persona, for me he still remains one of sport’s all-time great villains. 

Spain’s Paralympic basketball team (2000)

Spain's Paralympic cheaters
Basketball ID is a form of basketball adapted for players with intellectual disabilities. In the tournament at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, Spain comfortably won all 5 of their matches, claiming the gold medals in the process. However scandal broke out afterwards, when one of the Spanish competitors, Carlos Ribagorda, revealed he was an undercover journalist, and that most of his teammates hadn’t undergone the tests to prove they had the disability. 

The claims were investigated by the IPC, and it was found that the Spanish Paralympic Committee hadn’t carried out the necessary tests, and 10 of the 12 competitors in the team weren't disabled. The scandal rocked the Paralympics, and the IPC suspended all official sporting activities involving an intellectual disability. Although this was later relaxed, these events are still not included in the Paralympic games.

Jason Akermanis

Akermanis - a thoroughly dislikable man
Jason Akermanis was a highly-skilled footballer for the Brisbane Lions, who was capable of miracles with the ball. On the oval he was a superstar, claiming the game’s highest individual honour, the Brownlow medal, and three Premierships with the Lions. However he carried an air of arrogance about him which meant he had few friends in football. After making disparaging remarks about his coach in 2005, AFL legend Leigh Matthews, he was unceremoniously dumped from the club in a 12-0 vote by the coaching panel and senior player group. Akermanis went on to join the Western Bulldogs in 2007, having three successful seasons with the club, before again falling out with the coaching staff and players and leaving his second club in 2010. 

Although Akermanis was never really loved as a footballer, it was in the final years of his career and post-career when he found himself as a hate figure in AFL circles. His often controversial views included telling gay footballers who were thinking about coming out in public to forget it, and that it “would cause discomfort in that environment should someone declare himself gay.” Also, following the death of much-loved AFL great Jim Stynes this year, Akermanis claimed that he was "a nasty man in his day", and questioned whether he should receive a state funeral.

Do you have any ‘favourite’ sporting villains? And do you genuinely hate these villains, or are they just part of the theatre and drama of sport?