Debate

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Can’t Manchester United win anything with kids any more?

 

‘If they’re good enough, they’re old enough’ was the motto of former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby. An idiom which led him to great success in conquering both England and Europe with his famous ‘Busby Babes’ and has remained a precedent at Old Trafford for the forty or so years after his departure as manager.

Sir Alex Ferguson certainly held a similar veneration for the focus on youth. He was said to double the number of scouts in his first few months in charge of the club and oversaw the introduction of famous academy graduates into the first team such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Darren Fletcher to name a few.

Ferguson’s emphasis on youth went further than just focussing on the youth team however. The Scotsman rarely bought a player that was over the age of 25 and when he did, he was usually of the sort of league-winning quality that Robin van Persie later demonstrated after his arrival from Arsenal in 2012.

However, after the departures of the likes of Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley (albeit only on-loan to Aston Villa) this summer with other youth team prospects such as Tom Lawrence also being shown the exit door; many have come to question not only the club’s youth credentials but also their new managers.

I wrote an article only a few months ago for this very paper detailing how Louis van Gaal, with his previous track record of developing young players at Ajax and Bayern Munich, seemed like a perfect fit for the Manchester club and it has to be said, I’m still very much of this opinion.

He gave young players a chance during pre-season, with the likes of Reece James and Jesse Lingard both impressing on the tour of America, and has followed this up by starting 20 year-old defender Tyler Blackett in every league game so far this season. He also gave youth their chance in the recent disastrous League Cup game against MK Dons but was unfortunately left extremely disappointed.

However with the arrivals of Angel di Maria (26), Radamel Falcao (28), Ander Herrera (25), Markus Rojo (24), Daley Blind (24) and Luke Shaw (19); Alex Ferguson’s previous policy of buying players in the early years of their career seems to have been reversed somewhat (obviously with the exception of Shaw).

This is not all together a bad thing. United are desperately in need of a quick-fix after their disastrous start to the season and the introduction of proven performers of world-class quality will certainly help get their campaign back on track. Di Maria’s impact against Burnley last Saturday was clear for all to see. His willingness to run at defenders, his ability to pick a pass and his trickery was a stark contrast to the one-dimensional football United have been guilty of playing for the previous two games this season prior to his arrival.

Similarly, a viewing of Falcao’s ‘Top 20 Goals’ will leave any football fan drooling into their Golden Grahams and the competition for places his entrance has created between Rooney and van Persie will undoubtedly help to drive up standards.

One of Alex Ferguson’s greatest assets was his ability to build consistently successful teams and he did this by continually organising a cohort of promising youngsters behind his first team stars, ready to take their place when the time had come.

With the likes of Januzaj, Blackett, Jones, Smalling and young James Wilson (a player that particularly excites me and one that Louis van Gaal should certainly be keeping a close eye on in the next few years); United clearly possess such a cohort but with the introduction of the club’s new signings, their chances to shine and progress in the first team will be distinctly limited. Welbeck and Cleverley both realised this and subsequently decided to look elsewhere for this chance; a crying shame for any United fan who should enjoy nothing more than ‘one of their own’ succeeding at the highest level at Old Trafford.

The worrying thing is however; I’m not sure whether this is the case anymore. A lot of United fans like to talk the talk when it comes to young players. They, like me in this article, describe United as a club committed to the development of young players; bandying round sayings such as ‘it’s in our DNA’ and harking back to the good old days of the ‘Busby Babes’ and ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’.

In practice however, they are as guilty as anybody of stunting the club’s great tradition. Phil Neville, Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans, Tom Cleverley and John O’Shea are all products of the club’s youth system and have all, at different points in their careers, been made figures of ridicule by United fans who have cast them as scape goat’s for some of their team’s on-the-field tribulations.

As much as none of these players have the style and finesse of a Cantona or the world class quality of a Ronaldo; they are all undoubtedly players of a good standard who have, and will, forge good careers in the Premier League. Not only that, they cost United nothing in transfer fees, are usually impeccably behaved off the field and most importantly, get what it means to be a player of Manchester United. This is something that, unfortunately, no £59.7m transfer fee can buy.

Therefore, as much as I am sure there is method behind van Gaal’s transfer policy and his youth development credentials are still intact; United need to think very hard about where their priorities lie and the ingredients that has propelled the club to one of the biggest in the world. It would be a monumental shame for these ingredients to go awash in the face of immediate gain.

 

Angel di Maria
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Di Maria: the latest proof of Madrid’s transfer mastery

 

After another ‘riveting’ transfer saga the Red Devils have finally got their Angel.

No doubt Di Maria is a great player; the Argentine was the Man of the Match in last year’s Champions’ League Final and, according to Diego Simeone, Real Madrid’s best player. However, for most the reported fee of £59.7 is baffling. For one thing, it smacks of desperation; that’s obvious enough. After losing 4-0 to MK Dons, it’s clear United need all the quality they can get. But more than that, the sky-high transfer fee exacted on United is a testament to the success of Real’s transfer policy.

Madrid are football’s most luxurious club. They are football’s version of the suave city slicker who only drinks Dom Perignon and eats 100% Wagyu beef. Real have consistently held the record for the most expensive transfer for 14 years and during that time have broken their own record 3 times with the signings of Zidane, Ronaldo and Bale. Their lavish spending begs the question of how they can afford it. The reason they can is that Madrid, alongside Barcelona benefit hugely from the Spanish system. In particular the money from broadcasting rights is split less equally among the clubs in La Liga than in other leagues, with Real and Barca taking around 50% of La Liga’s total television revenue. Because of this 39% of Madrid’s income comes from broadcasting compared to just 32% of Man United’s. Madrid also benefit from tax breaks since they are treated as a not-for-profit organisation. As a result they earn by far the most of any football club. In 2011/12 Madrid had a revenue of €512 million closely followed by Barcelona with €483 million. Man United, the third highest earners, received around €100 million less than their Spanish rivals.

So it’s clear why Madrid can afford to splash hundreds of millions on a few Galacticos. But it’s not just that Real spend but that they are more than willing to overspend on players. Bale is good, but is he really worthy of the title of most expensive in the world? We’ve also all seen that Rodriguez is fantastic and has a way with large insects, but do his 5 games at the World Cup really make him €20million more valuable than he was last year? Madrid’s overspending seems so blatant and purposeful that you can’t help but think there’s reason behind the madness.

In fact there is a reason and the reason seem pretty good. By spending figures like £80 Million on Bale, or £60 Million on Rodriguez, Madrid are constantly inflating the transfer market. The £60 Million that Manchester United spent on Di Maria is far less baffling if compared to the £80 Million that Real spent on Bale. Inflation of the market obviously happens naturally, but no doubt Madrid speed it up as much possible; they are the ones who break the transfer record every time. In doing so they make it harder and harder for its rivals to compete on financial level. The latest outlay of £60 million for Rodriguez is not just the price of one player but the cost of keeping football a financial game where Madrid are top dogs. Last summer Brendan Rodgers rejected Arsenal’s £40 million offer for Suarez, arguing that the fee would have valued Bale at “100% more than Suarez”. The £75 million fee payed for Suarez this year, alongside the £60 million for Di Maria and £50 Million for David Luiz are proof that other clubs are being made to spend more and more to follow Real’s example. The issue is that very few clubs can afford to do so. It’s no wonder then, that la Liga is draining the world’s footballing talent, and as long as Spanish clubs get the broadcasting and tax benefits they currently receive, it will long continue.

 

Joel+Glazer+Manchester+United+Executives+Ring+Yzk1ZUL5Sujl
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United fan protests against the Glazers are hypocrisy

 

 

The news that the Glazers have ruled out selling Manchester United for at least another five years does not bode well for the most successful club of the Premier League era. Player after player snubs Ed Woodward’s advances. £16m Marcos Rojo and untried Luke Shaw are unenviably tasked with filling the boots of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. The crevasse in midfield looks deeper by the game — and still the Glazers sit pretty at the head of a club still £295m in debt to their takeover.

From Ronaldo in 2009 to the three defenders lost this summer, the club has consistently failed to replace its star men, freewheeling on even as the engine is dismantled piece by piece. Meanwhile, the expensively-assembled squads of Chelsea and Manchester City pull further and further ahead domestically and in Europe.

United’s demise is a good advertisement for the Bundesliga’s model of fan-owned clubs. This system would never have allowed United to take on the colossal debt inflicted on it by the Glazers’ takeover in 2005. The laissez-faire approach to football economics, the argument goes, is responsible for the demise of English football’s greatest club.

 

[caption id="attachment_59037" align="aligncenter" width="604"]The Manchester United team that lined up for the 2008 Champions league final (left) and the Manchester United team that lost to Swansea at the weekend (right) - the teams decline could hardly be clearer The Manchester United team that lined up for the 2008 Champions league final (left) and the Manchester United team that lost to Swansea at the weekend (right) – the teams decline could hardly be clearer[/caption]

 

But for United fans to cry foul is pure hypocrisy. United might be the most decorated club in England, but that’s largely thanks to English football’s willing embrace of free-market economics. In 1991, the Premier League was founded, allowing the top 22 clubs to negotiate their own TV deal with Sky and reap untold rewards – without it, last season’s seventh place would have been par for the course for a United unenhanced by the exponential financial rewards of Premier League success.

Imagine an alternative universe in which the Premier League’s inaugural season was a few years earlier than 1992-93. Let’s opt for 1984-5. Everton won the First Division that season, and in the following four seasons twice repeated the feat.

Now imagine how that success might have been rewarded in the Premier League era. Sure, the TV rights aren’t as skewed in favour of the top clubs as they are in Spain – Everton wouldn’t have become prize-money billionaires overnight. But with every year of Premier League predominance, they would creep further ahead of the pack, benefiting a little more each year from the skyrocketing global commercialisation of English football.

In this scenario, Everton would by the early Noughties be one of the biggest clubs in the world. They’d financially outmuscle their domestic rivals more each year, racking up title after title. Perhaps they’d even get lucky in the Champions League, and swell the ranks of their global following further. Success would breed success, and it would become harder and harder to compete with the Merseyside juggernaut.

 

[caption id="attachment_59032" align="aligncenter" width="615"]Everton celebrate winning the 1985 First Division title. If the Premier League gravy train had come to town 8 years earlier would we talk about their class of '85 the way we do about United's class of '92? Everton celebrate winning the 1985 First Division title. If the Premier League gravy train had come to town 8 years earlier would we talk about their class of ’85 the way we do about United’s class of ’92?[/caption]

 

But it was Manchester United who were the first winners of the Premier League, and Manchester United who, for their sustained success in the division’s early years, were rewarded with financial power unrivalled until Roman Abramovich arrived at Chelsea in 2003. In the first ten years of the competition, United broke the British transfer record three times, and only missed out on Alan Shearer because of the lure of his hometown club. The £28.1m they spent on Juan Sebastián Verón in 2001 seems extravagant even now, but was absolutely colossal in comparison to pre-1992 record fees.

 

It’s also worth noting the contrasting fortunes of Liverpool and United before and after the Premier League kicked off. Prior to 1992-3, Liverpool had won the title 18 times, Manchester United seven. Since then, the score is 13-0 to United. 1992-3 was a watershed.

There are important factors besides wealth. United had a good-sized fanbase already thanks to Sir Matt Busby’s swashbuckling success decades earlier. And Sir Alex Ferguson’s genius becomes more apparent by the week as his team falls away without him: nobody else could have traded punches with the astronomical wealth of Chelsea and Manchester City for so long. There were Fergie’s Fledglings, of course, an unprecedentedly talented crop of youngsters who were important figures in United’s hegemony in the 1990s and beyond. But if United could reap the benefits of Everton’s academy when they paid £27m for Wayne Rooney in 2004, who’s to say that David Beckham and Ryan Giggs would have remained at a United that wasn’t the best and richest club?

Ferguson’s achievements should not be underestimated. But nobody at Old Trafford complained when, with dollar signs in their eyes, the top clubs unshackled themselves from their impoverished Football League cousins. And there was not even a splutter from the famous hairdryer when United benefited so disproportionately from these laissez-faire economics that they had knocked Liverpool off their perch within 20 years.

It was this success that made the club such an attractive proposition (if not really an investment) to Malcolm Glazer. The club’s current woes are a direct consequence of the lucky break of having had the upper hand just when revenues began to rise exponentially. United have had years of rich harvest from the free market, and there should be little sympathy for their feasting turning to famine.

 

Who is to blame for the current mess at United? Can the Glazers be held accountable or are other parties to blame? Do the United fans even have a right to be complaining? Have your say in the comments:

134609
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Could this finally be Arsenal’s year?

 

What the Emirates Stadium means to Arsenal fans has been something of a enigma since the move from Highbury in 2006. Before the club left the famous old ground the fans were told that the new ground was a necessity, that to compete with the very best teams in Europe the club needed a more lucrative source of revenue than their 36,000 seater stadium could provide. The move was certainly needed. In this new age of football, awash with riches untold and unimaginable even in the early 2000s, when Arsenal, along with Manchester United, stood unmatched as a giant of the English game, the Gunners had no choice but to seek to cement their place amongst the game’s elite with a new stadium that matched their stature. But the dream of standing toe to toe with Europe’s giants never materialised. Talk of new riches, new opportunities and new growth was replaced with talk of debt repayments, sustainable finances and austerity. Caviar, in the words of Arsene Wenger, had been replaced with sausage. In an age where the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City were spending £100 million in a single window in the pursuit of glory, Arsenal began selling their crown jewels at an alarming rate. Out went Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie. In came the likes of Andre Santos, Gervinho and Sebastian Squillaci. The team that had, a few short years ago, gone a whole season unbeaten and lost a Champions League final to Barcelona in the cruellest of circumstances had sunk to scrapping grimly for fourth place with eternal rivals Spurs, relying on luck on more than one occasion to pip them to the post. Arsenal’s critics pointed ad nauseum to their 9 year trophy drought between the FA Cup wins in 2005 and 2014 as a sign of the Gunners’ decline but the real symbol was the contrast between the majestic side of Robert Pires, Patrick Viera, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp which swept all before them in the final Highbury years and the pale imitation that marked the early years at the Emirates.

 

The signing of Mesut Ozil last summer, a £40 million deal carried out in the dying minutes of the transfer window was seen by many to be a turning point. The financial shackles finally coming off after 8 long lean years of austerity. But expensive signings do not a winning team make, and so it proved last season. Despite a flying start that saw them spend 15 of the first 23 weeks of the season at the top of the league ,the same fragilities exposed themselves. The question remained whether Arsenal were capable of beating the biggest sides in the league. It was a test they failed emphatically, with a 5-1 defeat to Liverpool, a 6-0 defeat to Chelsea and even a 3-0 defeat at Goodison Park against 5th placed Everton punctuating their collapse from title hopefuls to the familiar scrap for 4th place. Of the 41 goals Arsenal conceded last season, 27 came in just 8 games against the rest of the top 5. New financial muscle, same old Arsenal.

 

[caption id="attachment_58779" align="aligncenter" width="628"]Arsenal goals conceded breakdown 2013/2014 - the problems they had away against the rest of the top 5 could not be cleared - (c) 7amkickoff Arsenal goals conceded breakdown 2013/2014 – the problems they had away against the rest of the top 5 could not be clearer – (c) 7amkickoff[/caption]

 

Yet there were signs something was changing. The much maligned Aaron Ramsey, who had shown only glimpses of his true talent in a few barren years following his horrific leg break after a violent Ryan Shawcross tackle in 2010 started the season in sensational form as Arsenal racked up 8 wins in their first 10 games. Theo Walcott was finally starting to show why Arsenal decided to pay £12 million for him aged 17 in 2006. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker, the victim of so much lazy criticism based on his perceived lack of physical pace, began to solidify their central defensive partnership which would end up securing 17 clean sheets by the end of the season, the joint best in the league. However the clearest indication of Arsenal’s new found intent was in a majestic performance in a 2-0 win over Napoli in the Champions League in October. After a first half where Arsenal enjoyed 70% possession and scored two exquisite goals, including Ozil’s first in Arsenal colours, the Napoli fans, the most vocal, aggressive and on occasion the most mindlessly violent in Europe were stunned into silence. This was the kind of European night Arsenal fans had not seen since the run to the Champions League final in 2006. Change was afoot. Arsenal were, perhaps, beginning to rise from their slumber.

 

The Champions League dream was eventually snuffed out in the last 16, as per usual, by Bayern Munich – but not without a blistering first half of the home leg where Ozil missed a penalty and Arsenal could have been 3-0 up before Szczeny’s sending off for a reckless challenge on Thomas Muller. However another cup dream was just beginning. After an unexpectedly easy win over Tottenham in the 3rd round and a victory over a brave Coventry team in the 4th, Arsenal came up against Liverpool in the 5th round just 8 days after their 5-1 annihilation at Anfield. This was a shattered Arsenal side, shorn of three of their best players in Ramsey, Ozil and Walcott and shorn of self belief following their dismantling the week before, facing a Liverpool side just starting to dream that maybe, just maybe, they might be able to claim their first title in 24 years. However in perhaps their most gutsy performance of the season the Gunners dug deep, took their chances when they got them and saw off a late Liverpool fightback to win the game 2-1. The atmosphere throughout the game was intense, the response at the final whistle was electric. As the fans walked back across the Ken Friar bridge towards Arsenal tube station, and home, the traditional Arsenal FA Cup chant ‘she wore a yellow ribbon’, penned during Arsenal’s legendary 1971 double winning season struck up. ‘She wore, she wore, she wore a yellow ribbon’ sung the 1000 or so fans crossing the bridge; ‘and when, I asked, her why she wore that ribbon, she said it’s for the Arsenal and we’re going to Wembley’ and for the first time that season, for a number of seasons, they truly believed it.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POc9aBbNG6g]

 

And so, crucially did the team. A highly professional 4-1 quarter final victory over Everton led to a semi final meeting with holders Wigan. A nervous, disjointed performance, led to a 1-1 draw and Arsenal limping to a penalty shootout where they held their nerve. The previously despised and erratic Lukas Fabianski put in the performance of his Arsenal career to twice deny Wigan from the penalty spot and send Arsenal to their first FA Cup final since the start of their trophy drought 9 long years ago. In the final Arsenal started in traditional flaky fashion going 2-0 down inside 8 minutes from 2 set pieces against a Hull City side that could hardly believe their luck. Yet Arsenal came back. If these years in the wilderness have taught Arsenal anything it is tenacity, patience and the art of survival. They came back into the game through a Santi Carzorla free kick before half time before equalising through a scrappy header from Laurent Koscielny (so often Arsenal’s saviour when the chips are down) in the 71st minute before finally breaking Hull City hearts with an Aaron Ramsey goal in the second half of extra time. It was the culmination of a tale of redemption for Ramsey. Left broken on the Britannia Stadium pitch 4 years ago, he has recovered, regained his place in the team, suffered dog’s abuse from sections of the Arsenal support and has now emerged as one of the best midfielders on the planet. It was also a tale of redemption for Arsenal, 9 years of hurt, envy and anguish finally ended by a season that began in tears and was punctuated by tears but that ultimately ended in triumph.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7K5j4mMfBK0]

 

With the monkey of financial restrictions and crucially, of a trophyless run of almost a decade, lifted from their backs Arsenal have acted this summer like a club revitalised. Whereas last summer they had to wait until the last minute to land Ozil, an opportunistic masterstroke rather than a planned pursuit by Wenger, this summer they got on with their business without a hitch. The media and Arsenal fans lambasted Wenger for gallivanting on the beach in Rio during the World Cup, assuming that he was resting on his laurels and preparing for another summer of nervy inaction. In reality he was hard at work, and by the time Columbia’s David Ospina, France’s Matthieu Debuchy and most excitingly Chile’s Alexis Sanchez, signed from Barcelona for £35 million, had signed for the Gunners, his World Cup jaunt seemed like a masterstroke. Added to the signing of Southampton’s exciting young defender, Calum Chambers, for £16 million, Arsenal’s summer business has so far been efficient, exciting and most importantly, as un Arsenal-like as it has been possible to be.

 

Arsenal have been acting, for the first time since they left Highbury, perhaps for the first time ever, like a truly big club during this window. Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers, being uncharacteristically sour, bemoaned the fact the Sanchez had plumped for Arsenal over them. The truth is they were never in the picture. As soon as the prospect of Suarez’s sale to Barcelona started to become a reality Wenger moved quickly, sweet talking Sanchez, in his native Spanish, into joining Arsenal. It was a similar story with Debuchy. As soon as Sagna made it clear that he was to let his contract run down and join Manchester City on a free transfer, he quickly and calmly identified the Frenchman as Sagna’s heir and replaced the outgoing right back with a man 4 years his junior and ahead of him in the pecking order in the French national team. A farther cry from the infamous ‘supermarket sweep’ of deadline day 2011 it is hard to imagine.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOVZ7c9oU6Q]

 

Arsenal took this new found bullishness onto the pitch with them when they faced league champions Manchester City in the Community Shield on Sunday. Lining up in an aggressive 4-1-4-1 formation, with Wilshere and Ramsey acting as dual box to box midfielders in front of Arteta sitting deep as schemer in the Pirlo role they took the game to the Champions, scoring 3 goals of real quality to run out 3-0 winners. It is true that the Community Shield is little more than a glorified friendly, the barely half full City end at Wembley and disappointing attendance of 71,000 confirmed that much but it is always better to win a game than to lose it, and there is no doubt that Arsenal will take huge heart from their performance. What is significant is that even as late as last season it was impossible to imagine a scenario where Arsenal could beat Manchester City 3-0 and do it as comfortably as they did on this occasion.

 

This is a new Arsenal, newly aggressive and confident in the transfer market and on the evidence of the Community Shield win, newly aggressive and confident on the pitch. Despite a season of anguish it is easy to forget that Arsenal were 7 points off winning the title last season. Whilst their rivals, and Chelsea in particular, have added just as well as they have in the transfer market this season should see a new Arsenal; an Arsenal with the air of winners restored and with a squad (a couple of defensive additions notwithstanding), not just a first XI, fully capable of matching any in the league. After almost a decade of famine, success could be about to return to Arsenal, finally fulfilling the promises that accompanied the move to the Emirates Stadium.

Will this be Arsenal’s year or will they suffer their usual collapse and fail to last the pace? Have your say in the comments:

 

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Athletics: What are we going to do about drug cheating?

 

Last summer, within a few days of each other, some of the biggest names in athletics tested positive for banned drugs. They included Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, respectively the joint-second and third fastest men ever, and double 200m Olympic champion Veronica Campbell-Brown. The news came as a big shock to the world of athletics. The addition of another high-profile Jamaican athlete, sprinter Sherone Simpson, who was found to have traces of the same stimulant as fellow Jamaican Powell – oxilofrine – to the tally, raised the question of how much Jamaica is doing to combat the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The United States also has much to answer for. The country, famous for its over-achievers in athletics, has a long history of drug cheating. The BALCO scandal revealed a shrewd scheme in which specialists, coaches and athletes had collaborated against the exactitude of drug testing by using so-called ‘undetectable drugs’.

Take Justin Gatlin, for example. The 32-year-old has twice been found to have banned substances in his system – amphetamines in 2001 and testosterone in 2006 – and has consequently been banned twice. The athlete’s second ban was expected to be eight years, but after an appeal and a pledge to act as a whistleblower to help WADA (the World Anti—Doping Agency) unveil other instances of doping, his sentence was reduced to four years. The shamed athlete has been allowed to return to competitive sport and now holds the fastest time over the 200m (19.68) this year.

Wada is the international committee formed to combat against drug abuse in sport and has set about trying to make the punishment for doping more comprehensive. The organisation settled last July to increase the suspension from doping in athletics from two to four years come 2015. This was welcomed by many big names in the sport, both those still competing and those who have retired from the sport.

But what has drawn negative attention is the leniency that is so often bestowed on doping athletes. Tyson Gay, despite returning a sample which tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid, has returned to athletics after a year. The athlete denied knowingly taken any banned substances, but conceded that he had “put his trust in someone” and had been “let down”. It seems the athlete’s co-operation with the U.S. anti-doping agency (Usada) has much to do with his moderate sentence after appealing. Similarly, former world record holder Asafa Powell had his sentence reduced from 18 months to only six months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and training partner Sherone Simpson’s initial ban, which like Powell’s, was handed out by the Jamaican anti-doping panel, was also reduced from eighteen months to half a year. Compatriot Veronica Campbell-Brown returned to athletics in February after an appeal.

Asafa-Powell

The impression that such rulings leave is not a positive one, judging from the backlash. The fastest man on the planet, Usain Bolt, has commented on the implications that such seemingly preferential treatment has on the sport as a whole: “It is sending a bad message into the sport that you can do it, but if you co-operate with us we’ll reduce the sentence.”

Marathon world-record holder Paula Radcliffe also protests. “One of the things people have been campaigning so hard for are four-year bans and for that to be made a mockery of is just wrong,” she said. “I’d personally rather see lifetime bans. We need to do more to ensure that clean athletes are protected.

“Athletics is an amazing sport and we want more and more people to take part in it. But what message does this send?”

There is no denying that the use of drugs has tainted athletics. Many innocent athletes are now suspected of cheating. Usain Bolt is still dogged by accusations of doping, despite never having failed a drug test and having shown star potential throughout his athletics career, beginning when he was only 15.

The consequences are even more widespread. There are several athletes recently who have had their medal positions unknowingly usurped by doping track or field competitors, only to discover months later that they were in fact cheated. This has been one of the heavily-felt results of Russia’s malady with substance abuse (the nation in 2013 had 33 athletes serving doping offences). This denies the rightful athletes their moment on the podium hearing their national anthem played, and their laps of victory around the stadium. Relay compatriots suffer in a different way. An entire team has been known to have their medal revoked because of the actions of one dishonest athlete.

The re-entry of those who have taken these rewards away from those who play by the rules back into the sport does seem unjust. People like Justin Gatlin, who return to glory after having cheated twice, appear to have triumphed over the system, as if to say, You can cheat as many times as you like – try not to get caught, but even if you do, it’s not the end of the world.

Many of the coaches are to blame too. Trevor Graham, who used to coach Justin Gatlin and also coached disgraced athlete Marion Jones – was also linked to several other doping athletes.

I don’t believe I’m the only athletics fan who’s despondent about the state of affairs. In a season which has besieged by revelations of positive drug tests by prominent athletes – Commonwealth Games testing revealed two Welshmen, Gareth Warburton and Rhys Williams to be doping, as well as once-unbeatable Amantle Montsho, the Botswanan 400m runner – I’m not afraid to call for lifetime bans. Isn’t it about time that the sport showed a real, no-nonsense approach to the sullying of this wonderful sport?

Englandcricket
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England cricket back from the Ashes?

354 days. The amount of time the English cricket team went without winning a test match. A painful period which saw them being completely blown away by Ashes rivals Australia in the winter, followed by a home series defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka at the start of this summer.

The beginning of the current series against India continued in a similar fashion to England’s disastrous winter, with underwhelming performances at both Trent Bridge and Lords; but it was as if a completely different team had ran out at The Ageas Bowl last week, convincingly beating the Indians by a resounding 266 runs.

For the first time since Chester-le-Street last summer, England bowled and batted as a unit. Throughout the order, batsmen got in and stayed in with Ballance and Bell both securing centuries along with Cook and debutant Joss Buttler scoring 95/70* and 85 respectively. Ian Bell was back to his magical best, once again showing he is the most technically proficient batsman England have.

James Anderson returned to the cricketer of old as well, demonstrating why he is regarded by many as the best swing bowler in the world, arguably of all time. The variation of his bowling, an astute fusion of out-swingers and sudden in-swingers, is often impossible to bat against and a genuine pleasure to behold. His partnership with Stuart Broad once again flourished with the Nottinghamshire man also experiencing a return to form of sorts; taking a collection of important wickets in the first innings and displaying some excellent work in the field throughout the five days.

Both senior bowlers were backed up superbly by fellow seamers Chris Jordan and Chris Woakes who were desperately unlucky not to secure any wickets. The star of England’s bowling show was undoubtedly Moeen Ali however who has cemented his position as a genuine all-rounder and potentially England’s future spinner for years to come.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaXe9pOltEc]

 

Graeme Swann has talked a lot since retiring about the pressure a spin bowler is under to bowl a team out, on a turning pitch, on the final day of a test match. Bar the first few overs of his first spell on day five however, this pressure seemed immaterial to Ali who collected six wickets from a team that, theoretically at least, should be amongst the most equipped at dealing with good spin bowling in the world.

The win was orchestrated and largely built around Alastair Cook however. The much maligned captain answered his critics emphatically, with an impressive 95 in the first innings and an unbeaten 70 in the second. It was his captaincy that was possibly most impressive though. Every change of bowling he dictated and fielder he arranged seemed to catalyse a wicket and his decision to bat first on day one was later proven to be the correct one.

Is all this positivity sustainable however? Well in the short term, James Anderson’s acquittal from any possible match ban following his run-in with Ravindra Jadeja at Trent Bridge has certainly aided England’s chances for the remaining series.

Current weather forecasts for the Old Trafford test match this coming Thursday (unsurprisingly for cricket played in the City of Manchester) suggest that rain delays and cloudy overhead conditions will be a feature throughout. In other words, a platform for Anderson and co to give the Indian batsmen a lesson or two in what it’s really like to play in an English summer.

England’s batsmen were undoubtedly much improved in the Third Test but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still question marks over a few of them. Sam Robson appears to be the best option England have in partnering Cook at the top of the order, but he still needs to start turning his good starts into more 50s and 100s for him to achieve the heights his fellow test newcomers are reaching.

Although high scores of 59 and 127 in his nine test innings so far are impressive, he could certainly do with another century in Manchester this week to solidify his opening spot, especially when we compare the start to his test career with compatriot’s Gary Ballance who’s managed to accumulate three centuries and two half centuries in just eleven test match innings so far at a remarkable average of 63.

Ballance showed all his indisputable promise in Southampton, seamlessly switching from a strike rate of 54 in his first innings to 79 in the second when England were in need of fast runs. He has a vast array of shots in his arsenal whilst appearing to possess the sort of calm, unruffled temperament necessary to become one of the very best test batsmen.

Debutant Jos Buttler demonstrated similar potential with both bat and gloves at The Rose Bowl. A batsman who looks completely comfortable playing in all formats of the game, it was his glove work that impressed most on the south coast. With a very Australian-type approach to wicket-keeping (catching the ball high up at the side of his body), he managed to take six catches in two innings. This combined with his extremely exciting 85 off 103 balls with the bat meant that the Lancashire man has certainly experienced a worse five days cricket in his career to date.

So in answer to my initial question; yes, I believe during the third test match in Southampton, England did experience a resurrection of sorts with seasoned performers regaining their impetus once again and younger players showing why the future seems bright for English cricket.

India will undoubtedly come back stronger in Manchester however. Captain M. S. Dhoni will certainly not make the same mistake again of not including top-class spin bowler Ravichandran Ashwin whilst it can only be a matter of time before much acclaimed batsman Shikar Dhawan starts to make runs again.

If England play to the level they reached in Southampton however, I am certain that they have the ability to win the remaining two games and secure a much needed series victory.

 

The Oxford Student

Oxford's Newspaper since 1991