Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Dragons roar as roses wither

Bucket loads of bacon butties and copious cups of tea (or something stronger) were the choice of rugby fans last Saturday morning.

But while Welsh supporters were savouring the refreshments and the rugby on offer, those to the east of the Severn estuary were left with a bad taste in their mouths.

Wales’ win over an experienced Ireland side took them to their first World Cup semi-finals since the inaugural tournament 24 years ago. Former champions England looked a shadow of their former selves against a well-organised French team.

The contrast in the desire, dedication and discipline between the English and the Welsh squads couldn’t have been greater. It’s a timely reminder that in sport – indeed in all realms of life – success doesn’t just happen; it requires hard graft and the right attitude. To quote wise Solomon: ‘If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success’. (Ecclesiastes 10: 10)

If only England’s axe had been sharpened for battle. Instead it’s been a month to forget. It kicked-off with alcohol-fuelled celebrations involving a number of players including Mike Tindall, who was caught on CCTV kissing a local woman.

Two players were banned for dangerous on-field play, whilst two management team members were suspended for illegally switching balls against Romania. Even since Saturday, there has been more negative publicity: Manu Tuilagi received a police warning after jumping from a ferry in Auckland.

As for Wales, its passion for the national sport has never been in question. But now, with a pool of focused and talented young players captained by Sam Warburton and coached by the wise Warren Gatland, the Dragons might just reward that enthusiasm. The days of heavy drinking and bad behaviour (and that’s just Gavin Henson) have been traded for 4am starts for summer training, a refreshing team spirit and an alcohol ban.

James Corrigan wrote in The Independent on Sunday: ‘Only one in five in Wales speaks Welsh. So many more speak rugby. They will talk it all week, about the parties they will hold if the dream comes true’.

As the fried breakfasts are served for the match against France this coming Saturday morning, Welsh rugby fans will be hoping they don’t end up with egg on their face, but rather that they’ll be on a roll all the way to the World Cup Final.

This article was written for The Baptist Times Sportsweek column

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Tennis’ next rising star

We’ve had Henman Hill and Murray Mound but is James Ward about to reach the peak of his tennis career in London SW19 in the next fortnight?

You may well be asking who James Ward is. Well, so were most sports fans until last weekend. That was until the 24-year-old, ranked 216 in the world, beat the odds to reach the semi-finals of the Queen’s Club Championships. (Photo: Dave Sandford)

Ward’s dogged performances at Queen’s – including victories against the defending champion and the world number 14 – have propelled him into the spotlight and raised hopes of British success at Wimbledon beyond solely the magic of Andy Murray.

Our nation loves a sporting underdog and Ward will no doubt feel both tremendous support and unbearable pressure next week. But will he be mentally and physically strong enough to cope and not crumble, especially if he grabs a few victories.

His coaches certainly believe so. Curiously, it was revealed that Ward has been helped by a former cage-fighter who has been putting him through his paces in recent weeks, rapidly improving both Ward’s physique and psyche in recent weeks.

Kevin Mitchell, tennis correspondent of The Guardian, fears for Ward at Wimbledon, however, pointing to disappointments of the past. ‘History, sadly, suggests the journey will be pot-holed,’ writes Mitchell. ‘Behind him on that road lie such briefly illustrious names as Jamie Delgado, Arvind Parmar, Barry Cowan, Martin Lee and Luke Milligan.’ A quick web search of these names reveals some near-misses; ten years ago, Cowan took Pete Sampras to five sets whilst Delgado snatched a set off Andre Agassi.

We’ve seen many times how fans’ enthusiasm and the media’s hunger for a hero (or celebrity) can be a major factor in British sportsmen and women failing on the biggest stage. Just look at any England football team in the recent past. If only we learned to lower our expectations, cherish small successes and understand that there’s more to sport than only winning, then perhaps we might enjoy watching sport again. Our footballers, cricketers and tennis players may just play with a smile on their faces as well. Even Andy Murray.

I hope that James Ward doesn’t enter the ‘if-only’ annals of British sporting history and that he rises admirably to Wimbledon’s challenge. It could be a steep slide from the summit if he doesn’t.

See BBC Sport's article on a similar subject.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Fifa all at sea

As Sepp Blatter was controversially re-elected as president of football’s world governing body Fifa last week, he used marine metaphors, claiming that he was ‘the captain weathering the storm’ and that ‘our ship has drawn some water’.

Many in world football have been left seasick by recent corruption allegations – so much so that it’s difficult to see how Fifa can steer itself to dry land again.

After claims of bribery linked to awarding the 2022 World Cup finals to Qatar, two key figures in Fifa were made to walk the plank: suspended just days before the Zurich congress. One of these men, Mohamed Bin Hammam, was due to stand against Blatter for the Fifa presidency.

With Blatter the sole candidate, the English and Scottish Football Associations called for an election postponement but, with only 17 member associations supporting this motion, Blatter sailed back into the president’s chair for an unprecedented fourth term.

Worse still for English football – still reeling from failing to land the 2018 World Cup finals and with enough internal troubles of its own – several other member bodies publicly criticised their opposition. The head of Argentina’s FA said, ‘It looks like England is always complaining… leave the Fifa family alone, and when you speak, speak with truth’.

Blatter’s supporters say that, during his reign so far, he has been a driving force in increasing revenue, protecting players’ welfare, organising excellent tournaments, improving game rules and, most notably, recognising Palestine (when the UN hasn’t) and supporting projects in poorer countries (to the tune of £600 million).

So, was David Bernstein, England FA’s chair, right to try and break up Fifa’s family home? For an organisation claiming to be democratic and transparent, Fifa appears to now have lost its way. Blatter appears untouchable; surely fresh blood is now needed after his 13 years in charge? Credibility is compromised yet Fifa won’t appoint an independent external party to improve accountability. So often it seems decisions are not truly made ‘for the good of the game’ (a Fifa motto), but rather to boost the coffers.

Forget the big business and the bribery: at the heart of football are people like those in Aberdeen who recently played a remarkable 24-hour football match to raise £12,500 for a Christian education trust working in Malawi.

Perhaps Captain Blatter should climb down from his crow's nest and spy out what's happening at sea level for once.

This article originally appeared in The Baptist Times

Photo credits: Duncan C & Josephi

Monday, 24 January 2011

Prehistoric presenters

You've got to be very careful what you say (or write) these days. Hardly a week goes by without some famous figure getting in bother for making controversial comments in an interview or on social networking medium such as Twitter. Everything is scrutinised and, once the media, gets a whiff of it, it snowballs.

This week's Kings of the Gaffe are former footballer-turned-analyst Andy Gray and former bland breakfast telly anchorman-turned-number-one-footy-presenter Richard Keys.

The pair were at Molineux on Saturday lunchtime for Sky Sports' coverage of the Wolves v Liverpool game and, before kick-off, talking off air but still being recorded, made sexist comments about women officials in football.

The main target was Sian Massey, who was one of the female assistant referees on Saturday, but another official, Wendy Toms (who was the first female Premier League referee) and West Ham's vice chairman Karren Brady, also got honourable mentions!

Some insider got hold of the recordings and made them public - and Gray and Keys have ended up with faces the same colour as the Liverpool shirts. The duo have been widely criticised by a variety of people in the game and were relieved of their duties for this evening's Sky match.

In truth, the broadcasters' views are nothing new for football; women have had a rough time for a while. In 1999, Gordon Strachan was outraged about Toms' decisions for a match involving his team (and mine - and Richard Keys'!) Coventry City, saying that the FA was being politicially correct for the sake of it and that she simply wasn't good enough.

Luton manager Mike Newell said something similar about Amy Rayner four years ago (calling it 'tokenism') and got hit with a £6,000 fine. Off the pitch Jacqui Oatley, received a very mixed reaction when she became BBC's Match of the Day's first commentator in 2007.

But, it's a real shame that, in 2011, we've not moved on from the negative, unhelpful and even spiteful comments from the past. More and more girls and women are enjoying football - it's no longer solely a man's domain. A third of all new Premier League football fans in the last five years are of the female variety.

Now, I'm not saying female referees and assistants should be spared the criticism that their male counterparts regularly get (no matter how bitter and unsporting this actually is) but the thoughts of people like Keys and Gray do nothing to help promote equality not just in sport but in society in general. It's like they are stuck in a timewarp.

Everyone and anyone, no matter their gender (or race or background for that matter), should have the opportunity to reach the level they desire in life. And if they are good enough - and Sian Massey is proving how competent she is - they should be supported, encouraged and treated in the same manner as anyone else.

Given the negative comments and prehistoric opinions in certain quarters, perhaps football is in need of a anti-sexism drive in the same vein as the successful 'Kick racism out of football' campaign?

Just as people hopefully now don't think twice about separating skin colour when it comes to footballers, so those in the game of football need to stop treating women as second class citizens.

I think the best outcome for this would be to stick a few female presenters in front of the camera for Sky Sports' next coverage - while Mssrs Keys and Gray 'run the line' for the match... assuming they're fit enough to keep up!

(Image credit: Zawtowers)

Monday, 10 January 2011


The shooting in Arizona on Saturday which left six people dead and the congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords seriously injured (plus 13 others injured) was a deplorable act of violence from a crazed individual.

Today, the whole of the USA has been mourning those killed in Tucson , who include a nine year-old girl born on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Giffords remains in a critical condition after being shot in the head. (Photo credit: SearchNetMedia)

Although at the time of my writing, nothing has been confirmed, it seems safe to assume though that the actions of Jared Loughner had some sort of political motivation - why else would Giffords be targeted, particularly as she hosted an open-invitation meeting with constituents? Evidence has been found to support this in Loughner's home.

It's the most serious incident so far in a country which hypes its politics to the maximum. As soon as the shootings happened, people on both sides (Republican and Democrat) started viciously pointing fingers at each other; the internet has been alive with a frenzy of opinion. Sarah Palin is being blamed by many after her infamous 'cross-hairs target list' image last November, which 'targeted' Giffords' district.

As unwise and inflammatory as Palin's war-style imagery was she really is not the only guilty party. No one party or group is blameless, but anyone who is fuelling the political fire in America at the moment (and that's an awful number of people) needs to use Saturday's terrible incident as a warning.

People need to stop, take stock and see that the style and content of 21st century politics in the West's most powerful country is doing far greater harm than good. The majority of this politics is, I believe, for self-gain rather than for the good of the public, and for the good of the nation.

The County Sheriff of Pima, Clarence Dupnik, put it simply but powerfully (but still managed to make enemies) when he said, "The anger, the hatred, the bigotry, that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous." I just hope what we've witnessed on Saturday is not the beginning of a growing trend and a increasingly intense political tit-for-tat. I fear it might be.

One last thing about what happened on Saturday. As terrible as it was, the media hype that has followed has been incredible and, I believe, ridiculously over-the-top. It's been yet another example of unequal news agendas: of how such an incident in the West warrants pages of newspaper inches, hours of TV news coverage and oodles of web space... whilst, in my opinion, much more serious events (in terms of numbers killed and the national ramifications) in places such as Tunisia and Mexico have barely been mentioned in the media.

I'm certainly not belittling the shootings in Tuscan in making this statement, and I pray for the victims' families and Gabrielle Giffords' recovery - but we must understand, again, that this world is not only about the fortunes of one nation.

(Blog title taken from a track by the US rock band Extreme)

Monday, 3 January 2011

Stage presence

"You should blog more!" a good friend said recently. He's right; after all, my last musings were over six months ago. It's just as well I don't do this for a day job...

And so, in classic new year's resolution fashion, I'm going to try and be a little more consistent at this blogging lark. And the way to be regular, as I see it, is to be concise and punchy...

My new year was spent at the in-laws in Kent. They live in a hamlet just outside the village of Crockham Hill, a stunning setting in the Garden of England, with Churchill's home of Chartwell on the doorstep.

The village is close-knit and caring, and the epitome of an old-fashioned English community - a true rarity these days. In many ways, visiting Crockham Hill is like a step back in time.

And they certainly know how to put on a show! Every year they present either a pantomime or a play and, in the week after Christmas, the Crockham Hill Infant PlayerS (CHIPS) performed 'The Legend of Froghole' on five occasions to a total of over 500 people.

I was thoroughly entertained at the Saturday matinee by some comic acting, cute kids, awful puns and generally fine spirits by performers and audience alike. I was totally 'booed' and 'hissed' out at the end. The months of practising and preparing paid off.

It showed to me what a community, working together, can do. It may seem old-fashioned and uncool, but togetherness is something many parts of the UK needs now more than ever. And it can work as well in a block of flats as in a chocolate box village. (Image credit:

One man who never needed to turn to pantomimes for a living was the great British actor Pete Postlethwaite, whose life was cut short yesterday. He was aged just 64.

Tributes have rightly flooded in. Steve Spielberg once described him as "the best actor in the world" whilst Julie Walters called him "the most exciting, exhilarating actor of his generation".

I found that Postlethwaite could turn his hand to any and every sort of character - and he always kept appearing in quality films. In fact, it seemed like he was in almost every great British film (and television drama) of the last few decades! He was great at being equally intense and humorous and, in particular, I thought he was fantastic in Brassed Off, The Usual Suspects and The Constant Gardener.

Had illness not got him, I'm sure we could've seen Pete starring in fine films for another decade or more - and perhaps getting the Oscar which eluded him. (Image credit: Spanner Films)

Finally, from an understated actor to an over-the-top sporting exhibition in a nation we've heard quite a lot about recently. The sight of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, practising on a specially constructed court, floating on water in Qatar, really made me cringe.

The top two male tennis players in the world were promoting a forthcoming tournament in Doha and follows on from a similar display on the top of the world's tallest hotel five years ago. It was typical of the money-grabbing behaviour of the big-hitters in the Middle East - and we all know about Qatar's pulling power after their success in be crowning hosts of the football World Cup in 2022.

I'm sure Nadal and Federer were paid well for getting their trainers wet - but it was all rather silly and demeaning to be honest from a sport that should know better. I just hope neither players pulled a muscle in the wet conditions. Let's get the covers on and get on a proper court! (Image credit:

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Bangkok ablaze

Almost exactly a year ago I was in Thailand on a fortnight’s filming trip with work, experiencing stunning scenery, meeting really friendly people and enjoying all that you get from a different culture.

Now, that country – and Bangkok in particular – is an ugly place, bereft of the beauty I witnessed. It’s a place of anger, symbolised by the countless fires across the city and black smoke billowing out of the high-rise landscape.

I’ve been saddened to see the protests by the anti-government Red Shirts group escalate over the last few weeks.

The last few days has seen violence, bloodshed (including the killing of a renegade general who backed the protests) and swift action by the Thai authorities, who have hit back to try and bring Bangkok under some sort of control again.

On Wednesday, a night-time curfew was put in place in the city, and across 23 Thai provinces, and that has been extended to three more nights.

And it’s that ‘control’ which the Red Shirts are so opposed to – they want to bring the government down, claiming there should be fresh elections. Their ‘leader’ is the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006.

The majority of Red Shirt protestors hail from the north of Thailand and they benefitted from Thaksin’s populist policies when he was in power.

The Red Shirts desires for deep-rooted change led them to literally camp on the streets of Bangkok and, when skirmishes with the army increased, so did their acts of lawlessness. Someone I met whilst in Bangkok e-mailed yesterday saying it is ‘not unarmed civilians peacefully protesting but rather guerrilla warfare that has got out of control’.

I fear what has happened in Bangkok over the last few days is just the start; it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Violence is already spreading to other part of Thailand, including the popular, and serene, tourist destination of Chiang Mai (where I stayed last year).

The damage being done is immeasurable – to social structures, to the infrastructure and to the tourist industry which the country so relies upon.

The situation in Thailand is just one place in the world of where ‘the masses’ are publicly showing their feelings against the establishment – where people want radical change and justice. We see it in Greece too at the moment and with the global economic crisis, especially in Europe, expect more of the same in other places too.

The feelings of anger, injustice, hatred, bitterness so openly expressed in Thailand and elsewhere originate, I believe, from people’s self-centredness – from our greediness, from our desire to be better than our neighbours, willing to do anything to be in a better place, with a higher status.

For example, although the Red Shirts are a group, it’s being reported that there are factions between members leading to ‘in-party fighting’ – it seems that individuals there are more in it for themselves than for the good of the community and the group.

I hope and pray that some sort of reconciliation between the Red Shirts and the government (and their support group) might be found in Thailand – but fear this is some way off yet. Before the talking begins, the action must stop – otherwise this beautiful country may never fully recover.

(Photo credit: Timo Kozlowsk)