Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Andy Murray banishes 76 years of hurt with US Open triumph

In the end, after 76 years of increasingly desperate hope, despairing hope that had begun to border on the hysterical, only the most hardy few of Brits were still watching, praying, keeping up with the sport in New York as the clock passed 2am GMT and the 2012 US Open final threatened to roll into a sixth hour. In the end, the final's four hours and fifty-four minutes, which will have felt like a lifetime to Andy Murray, his team, his family and supporters, were nothing compared to the decades of history that had weighed ever heavier on the Scotsman's shoulders as he progressed surely but achingly slowly on his trajectory to become the first British Grand Slam winner in three quarters of a century. 

For that yawning chasm of time, the record books simply noted the lack of a British male taking home any of tennis's biggest prizes. But though the five-set final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic was long, epic even, the result instantly swatted away the many years of nagging doubts, the false hopes, the also-rans, the just falling short, all of that was gone at a stroke. By becoming Britain's first major winner since Fred Perry in 1936, Andy Murray banished the past and erased the need for that statistic to ever matter for the future of his career.

Before the final had even begun, Great Britain had enjoyed an incredible, opulent summer of sport, dominated quite rightly by the achievements of the GB Olympic and Paralympic athletes, with victories and success stories of sporting ability and determination that have led many to laud 2012 as the best year for British sport since 1966 (it is, quite arguably, far greater). The London 2012 heroics overshadow astonishing achievements such as a British Tour-de-France winner and Rory McIlroy's second career major, while there may still be a British Formula One champion before the year is over.

And yet. Has any British sportsperson had quite the 2012 that Andy Murray has?* He reached two Grand Slam finals, winning one, a got to a semi final and a quarter final in the other two Slams. He responded to the gut-wrenching Wimbledon final defeat against Roger Federer by winning an Olympic gold medal just weeks later, against the same opponent upon the very same grass. That medal gave him the confidence to suggest that he could beat the best when it mattered, something which had been hinted at when he had break points to serve for the match in a gladiatorial Australian Open semi-final with Novak Djokovic in January, and again when he took a set off Federer at Wimbledon in June. 

But despite the positives, both of those tournaments still ended in heartbreak, a by now familiar sight of the Brit failing just short (Murray having made the semi finals or final of eight of his previous 11 majors). Indeed, this year's Wimbledon showed how close he was to winning a Grand Slam, but as cruel as it was hopeful, with four defeats in four Slam finals, it also gave rise to more doubts: was it simply beyond him, in a time of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, to break the duck, to lay the ghost of Fred Perry to rest, to go where Tim Henman had occasionally threatened to tread, and win a major? 

There is no doubt that Federer is one of the greatest three players of all time, and yet in the same era, Nadal and Djokovic are two players who can go toe to toe with him. Murray's increasingly competitive matches against these three titans over the last two years has shown he too was able to win against the highest calibre of opponent - but his performances, while pointing towards potential Grand Slam success, simply added to a weight of expectation so great it was matched only by the sheer awesome magnitude of the obstacles in the way. 

But at the US Open, the final Slam of 2012, nurtured carefully and skilfully by Ivan Lendl, and having learned the toughest and most valuable of lessons from his career highs and lows, Andy Murray, the best returner in the game and perhaps, with Nadal's injury problems, the fittest too, finally delivered the result his whole career had been building up to, the result many had predicted but had begun to doubt, something British supporters had dared to dream about, then dared to hope for without belief: a result that makes 1936 an almost meaningless year for British tennis, now that 2012 is the year Andy Murray won his first Grand Slam.

And it is his first - when he broke into the top 10, years ago, the question was: can Murray win a Grand Slam? After reaching his first Slam final in 2010, the question was: when would Murray win a Grand Slam? After losing his fourth Slam final in 2012, the question was: will Murray ever win a Grand Slam? Now, only one question remains. Not if, not when, but: how many? 

*Murray, as you've probably guessed by now, would be my choice for BBC Sports Personality of the Year

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Eighteen extraordinary months on Tyneside

As Newcastle occupy fifth place in the Premier League after an astonishingly accomplished season, with European football a very likely possibility next year, I thought I would revisit a blog I wrote for football website Two Footed Tackle in December 2010, on Alan Pardew's appointment as Newcastle manager. While all around were decrying Mike Ashley the Newcastle chairman, and mourning the loss of Chris Hughton from the Premier League, I instead wrote - why not give Pardew a chance?

(Originally posted here)

All we're saying is give Pards a chance 
(15 December 2010)
On the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, two days after the untimely sacking of Chris Hughton to vehement disapproval across English football, Alan Pardew became the favourite in a short race to the Newcastle United manager post. A day later, the ink on Pardew’s gargantuan contract was dry. Seen as a poisoned chalice by many, Pardew admitted in his opening press conference that some of his peers had labelled him ‘mad’ to take a position vacated eight times in six years, under the shadow of one of the most ignominious managerial dismissals in recent seasons.

Eventually, of course, someone had to dance on Hughton’s grave, and many people were confused that it was Pardew who has been given the opportunity.

But what choice did he have? Pardew is a manager, like Newcastle are a team, with ambitions that reside with best of them. He does not doubt his own ability to manage at this level and, it appears, from the length of his new contract (or his ability to negotiate such a strong deal at least) neither does Mike Ashley.
Pardew does have previous here: after taking West Ham back to football’s top table in 2005, he led them to a respectable ninth and FA Cup final the following season. It is a situation not altogether unfamiliar to that in which Newcastle find themselves – though with respect to the Hammers, the opportunity for greater things is richer this time around.

Furthermore, he has something to prove. He left West Ham under a cloud, although his legacy has ultimately been enough to see the Hammers maintain their Premier League status since. However, Pardew is earning a reputation as a difficult character, and commentators point to his record of sackings – three out of his last three positions.

Pardew has, though, shown considerable dignity and honesty since joining the club. “Chris Hughton is very, very unfortunate not to be sitting here discussing this win,” he said, following Newcastle’s fine 3-1 defeat of Liverpool. After all, he of all out-of-work managers prior to last weekend will have empathised most with Hughton, having been dismissed three league games into Southampton’s 2010/11 season, a day after a 4-0 win and off the back of a promising league campaign and trophy-winning season.

It is Pardew’s frankness, a tendency not to pull any punches, that lends him a hint of arrogance, which too often seems to rub people up the wrong way – players, colleagues and superiors alike. Alternatively, having seen Pardew manage my club first hand and do several media appearances, it is becoming of a man simply not prepared to mince words, a man who cuts through the crap and evaluates himself and his charges as honestly and clearly as possible.

That might be a tough transition for a club who are used to the more considered opinions of Hughton and, further back, Alan Shearer, Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson, and might cross Pardew off the Christmas card lists of one or two players. But for others reeling from the loss of a perfectly good manager – particularly the English spine of the side, from Steven Taylor through Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton to Andy Carroll – Pardew’s no-nonsense style and disregard for sentimentality might be just the tonic for a side capable of both winning and losing 5-1.

For all the headline-grabbing results Newcastle have pulled off so far this season – and there have been many – it probably doesn’t hurt to point out home defeats to Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City, too. Pardew may be the man to ensure the rest of the season passes smoothly, putting on hold for the moment the conveyor belt of sensational events at St. James’s Park since Ashley took over.

By beating Liverpool, Pardew delivered the perfect start, ensuring that the fans’ immediate disgust stays trained on the board. They do not have any particular animosity towards Pardew, of course – he can hardly apologise for stepping into Hughton’s shoes – and if he can keep a low profile without undoing much of his predecessor’s good work, he shouldn’t be in any immediate danger. It wouldn’t take long for that to change, however.

But for all the pros and cons that can be made for Pardew’s appointment, for neutrals and for football it would be great to see a manager stuck by, a lengthy contract adhered to (by both sides), and patience, support and stability reign over a football club.

Too often now, managers go like resigning MPs, surface wounds for deeper illnesses. Roy Hodgson and Gerard Houllier have already experienced early feelings of discontent in their respective fledgling Liverpool and Aston Villa careers, and with bookies slashing odds on Pardew being the next managerial sacking, his extended stay in the Newcastle hotseat as they develop into a top six club once again would be the light at the end of a long tunnel. You might say I’m a dreamer. All I’m saying is, give Pardew a chance.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Los Campesinos! live @ Electric Ballrooms, Camden

Los Campesinos! @ Electric Ballrooms, Camden
22 March 2012

Despite having existed for the best part of six years, Los Campesinos! have become something of a rarity in these times. They were one of the original ‘internet hype’ bands in 2006-07, back when online buzz around a band really felt genuine – not now, when any old song can go viral in a day via Facebook and YouTube – back when ‘You! Me! Dancing!’ on MySpace made you dizzy with the promise in its exuberant, bouncy pop sound with fuzzy guitar scrawls all over it. They’re rare because if they were unsigned now, you’d wager the chances of people caring in six months would be slim, never mind six years. They’re rare because since they formed they’ve amassed some 45+ songs across four brilliant albums*, yet they’re still something of an insider band, a band you have to seek out, rather than a band that come to you via seemingly omnipotent media messages.

(*To me, We Are Beautiful We Are Doomed must be a second album, since it is 10 songs long and contains surely their best opening track to date).

They’re rare, too, because they realise this and appear to have wry and pragmatic self-deprecation in spades: I can think of no other band around today who, after writing four LPs in six years, would introduce their breakthrough track from the previous decade by all cheerfully clinking bottles of Budweiser – the beer ‘You! Me! Dancing!’ helped advertise in a commercial at the end of 2010 and into 2011. Yes, of course that sort of deal is great news for a band that spent their first years gigging in between writing dissertations and taking exams, but there’s a certain irony in that their breakthrough song is only recently standing up on its own merit, years later.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Capello leaves England post with reputation intact, but the FA have done too much, too late

As Rafa Benitez once said, 'I want to talk about facts'.

Fact 1. Fabio Capello has the highest win percentage of any post-war England manager (66.7%).
Fact 2. Fabio Capello lost just one major tournament qualifier, in 18 games, leading England to World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, both times as group winners.
Fact 3. Fabio Capello has won a domestic league title at every club he has managed (Real Madrid, Roma, Juventus, Milan).

But today, the English Football Association concluded their bumbling and conceited handling of John Terry's racism allegations by forcing Capello into a position where he felt he had no choice but to resign.

Let's get that fact straight: the manager who has led England to qualify undefeated for this summer's European Championships has had to resign, four months before the tournament.

To discuss the Terry saga quickly: the FA were wrong to strip him of the England captaincy. Terry was accused of racist remarks in October 2011, and charged in December 2011. He pleaded not guilty last week, and the case was adjourned until July this year - after Euro 2012. This is when the FA decided to take matters into their own hands.

Why the FA were wrong to do so is simple. John Terry's racism accusations have never disappeared from view since the allegations were made, and they presented no more of a problem to England and the FA right now than at any point since allegedly taking place - and let's not forget that Terry has already captained England in that time - yet the FA decided that since the case would now be hanging over Terry during the tournament (if he was selected), he should be removed from the spotlight by having the captaincy taken from him.

This is the wrong decision, and Capello's frustration is more than reasonable.

He believed that John Terry should not be punished for something he is not currently guilty of. Yes, he faces criminal charges, but he is not, at this moment (and won't be come Euro 2012), a criminal. Steven Gerrard, for example, was charged with affray in 2008 after punching a man in a bar and played in four England games while still accused, before eventually being acquitted.

Compared to the other recent racism charge, John Terry's situation differs from the Suarez-Evra case because in that instance, the case was always a matter for the FA: it was reported by the game's referee to the association and they dealt with it as a football matter. The allegations against Terry were made by a member of the public to the police, have been dealt with by the Crown Prosecution Service, and have therefore never been a matter that the FA have needed to make a ruling on. Their decision over the England football team captaincy would have been acceptable in the immediate aftermath of the allegations, but they are not a legitimate excuse three and a half months on.

That Capello didn't agree with the FA is just one problem. As manager of the England team, for such a crucial decision affecting his squad and the dressing room to be taken out of his hands, without consultation, and to be done so publicly, undermines his position. It displays on the FA's part a complete lack of communication with Capello, or even the willingness to discuss the matter. And it shows their total misjudgement that by acting at the wrong time, and with too much force, they have ousted a manager from his position just 119 days before the biggest international tournament for two years.

Fabio Capello's resignation, therefore, is understandable; perhaps even admirable. He has never quite been at ease with the English media's disgustingly insatiable appetite for scandal and carnage: witness the deliberate trapping of Sven Goran Eriksson by the News of the World as an example of how this country likes to set up its own for a fall, and the relentless abuse Steve McLaren received (in some cases justifiably) throughout his tenure as manager. And Capello has never quite understood why results such as those he has delivered in tournament qualification - 14 wins out of 18 - doesn't appease the English press's criticisms.

(This is a sports press who have idolised a stray cat for running on to a football pitch.)

But the England manager's job is a poisoned chalice: it is the most revered position within the most hallowed sport in a country that still kids itself it should be winning major honours in international football, when the reality is that at least seven nations around the world are miles ahead of England, and the chasing pack are getting closer to us than we are to the top nations.

Against these unrealistic expectations, Capello's job had been compounded by England's pool of talent being incredibly thin: where Spain has a second XI that could compete with the world's top nations, England arguably has less than five world class players to call upon.

It is doubtful, then, that Capello would have been given a fair and respectful send off after the European Championships, even before this debacle. We'll never get a chance to find out, and success certainly won't happen now, no matter who is appointed.

With no captain, no manager, no star players and four months until the tournament begins, the Football Association might think they have done the right thing, but when Euro 2012 comes to an end, and John Terry heads to court, it will be Fabio Capello, not the FA, who will look back on today's events with relief.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2011 in 12 words; 2012 in 12 bands

This is one of those new year's blogs. One of my loose resolutions is to start writing for pleasure (clearly I'm going to have to do it more often if I'm going to get away with phrases like 'loose resolutions'), and while there's barely 150 words here, it's a start at least.

2011 in 12 words
January: Job
February: Flat
March: Elbow
April: Carpet
May: BBQs
June: Tour
July: Turkey
August: Bournemouth/(Cornwall)
September: Run
October: Twenty-six
November: Campervan
December: Parties

2012 in 12 bands:
The band everyone should love by now - Los Campesinos!
The band you always remember you love - The Shins
The band who said they'd never reform - At The Drive-in
The band you tell people at parties you're into - Django Django
The band you've never heard of - Pengillys
The band who are actually really good at folk music - The Civil Wars
The band whose song drops and you go crazy - Niki and the Dove
The band who are the newest (and best) 'we're a proper band' band - Dry the River
The band where you have to believe the hype (ok, solo artist) - Lana del Rey
The band you JUST WANT to be utterly brilliant again - Bloc Party
The band whose 'good song' really is - Friends
The band who I will properly discover this year - Real Estate

The Spotify playlist