Sunday 23 December 2012

Arsene Wenger time out?

It seems that even with Arsenal's progression in the Champions League the lack of progress and trophies is starting to make some Arsenal fans wrestless and asking if time if up for Wenger at Arsenal.

Wenger has been the most consistent manager of modern times, overseeing 16 consecutive top 4 finishes and progress to the Champions League knock-out stages for 15 seasons in a row. While there is no doubting Sir Alex Ferguson has been more successful he doesn't have the same consistency as Wenger.

But now Arsenal seem to have become a selling club, losing some of their best players year after year. Nasri, Clichy, Fabregas, Van Persie and Song having all departed in the past 2 years have left Gunners fans thinking what might have been as expectation levels are kept in check and the club flirts with mid table mediocrity.

While that is possible I think it is fair to say that Wenger is the best person to try and keep Arsenal in the top 4, allbeit it seems likely that silverware is a distant prospect, this season at least.

If Arsenal were to replace Wenger, who could they bring in that would definately be better than him? High profile candidates such as Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho may not want to risk moving to a club that is seen as being in decline. Arsenal may be left to find a young, inexperienced manager to continue the Wenger philosophy (Thierry Henry?) but clearly that is a high risk strategy. Surely a higher risk than sticking with one of the best managers of the modern era.

A change in manager may work, but it could also have distasterous consequences and Arsenal could end up like Liverpool. Once a top 4 side with Benitez in charge, they are now a genuine mid table team with much rebuilding and many millions being required before they can hope to get back to the top 4.

Arsenal announced recently that 5 young British players (Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jenkinson, Gibbs and Ramsey) had all signed long term deals, commiting their future to Arsenal. Theo Walcott was the noteable exception and his will he / won't he saga seems all too familiar with Fabregas and RVP having played out similar discussions before their eventual departures.

While keeping the 5 players, it will be all for nothing if Walcott becomes the latest high profile departure at the Emirates. No manager could keep a club at the top when they seem to lose their best player every year. Arsenal's finances are the most secure of most top clubs and it is likely that sure footing will have to be put at risk if the club don't want to be lost in the mid table dog fight for Europa League spots.

Spending and spending big is the only way Arsenal can build a team that can compete, and also convince top players that there is mileage in signing for a club that is on the way back. Looking back to the invincibles season; Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Ljundberg and Campbell were the nucleus of that team. I know this was a special time, with special players but having guys like Gervinho and Chamakh kicking about the squad is just an embarrassment and Wenger must know it.

Arsenal recently signed two big sponsorship deals with Emirates and Adidas, which may free up some cash for Wenger in the transfer market. Wenger still is unlikely to spend for the sake of it, but he must know that the current tactic is not working and he has to loosen the purse strings if he wants to see some progression .

Arsenal must also tighten up their signing policy, and get rid of the dead wood from the current squad. Replacing Gervinho, Chamakh and Arshavin with one good player, will surely be cost neutral AND improve the squad. Similarly bit part midfielders like Rosicky, Coqelin and Diaby could be let go and one solid holding midfielder purchased. I know players have contracts and will sit them out if they know they won't get a better deal elsewhere, but hopefully over the next couple of windows dead wood can be removed with one or two decent repalcements brought in. While this may improve the squad, only big signings can really restate the clubs ambitions.

Let's hope, with a change of tact, Arsenal fans can now look forward to transfer windows, rather than dread them!

Wednesday 3 October 2012

The Spirit of Seve

Well, the Ryder Cup of 2012 has already been dubbed the 'Miracle at Medinah'. Despite looking down and out on Saturday afternoon, the Europeans roared back from 10-4 down to win 7 points on the trot before Martin Kaymer edged out the 14th point to ensure the Ryder Cup was retained. Franceso Molinari's half vs Tiger in the final match was the icing on the cake as Europe finished the series 14.5 - 13.5.

This really was the greatest sporting come back of living memory. The American's were in imperious form all week winning games on the 15th and 16th greens, while it seems that all of Europe's opening 6 points were squeezed out clinging on down the last with pressure putts.

While the American's came back from 10-6 down to win the Cup at Brookline in 1999, this European victory was all the more impressive given they were away from home. Indeed all week it seems the American's had the pace of the greens, holing many more putts than the Europeans and using home advantage to build their, seemingly, unassailable lead.

However should the Miracle at Medinah be renamed the Spirit of Seve? This was the 1st Ryder Cup since Seve's death last year and the team, led by Seve's friend & countryman Jose Maria Olazabal, honoured Seve with his image on their bags and by wearing his familiar navy blue and white for Sunday's singles. It seemed that all European players had mentioned Seve's name in the run up to the event and it was certain he was never far from European thoughts.

But could the improbable come back be down to Seve's spirit actually helping Europe overcome the deficit and win the cup? When you think of the chain of events that had to happen for Europe to win from 10-4 down, it seems likely that a higher power must have been at work;
  •  Poulter making 5 birdies in the final 5 holes to ensure he and McIrloy won the final match on Saturday and cut the defecit to 10-6. 
  • Poulter then again turning his match round from 2 down on Sunday to win his point in the singles. 
  • Rory McIlroy confusing his Sunday tee time and only making it to the course with 10 minutes to spare, yet still winning his match against Keegan Bradley. 
  • Justin Rose, 1 down with 2 to play, holing 'that' putt on 17 to square the match, then beating in form Mickelson down the last to win a point from his match that seemed most improbable. 
  • Sergio Garcia turning his match around winning holes 17 & 18 against Jim Furyk to gain yet another European point. 
  • America's top 5 players losing their singles. Both teams were front loaded, but US form players, Bradley, Mickelson, Simpson, Watson and Snedeker were all out 1st to seemingly 'ensure' victory and all lost!
  • Out of form Kaymer winning his match to retain the cup. While his oppononet Steve Stricker wasn't in the best of form either, Kaymer almost considered pulling out of the event so worried was he about his form. He then only played 1 match in the 1st two days as he and Rose lost a fourball on Friday evening. But the big German found some inspiration to win his match down the last and ensure the cup was retained. 
  • Tiger playing that badly. I know the Ryder Cup is hardly his favourite event, but for Tiger to get only half a point from 4 matches seems poor even for him. At one stage, his match looked to be crucial, but by the time he teed off on 18, Kaymer had already gained Europe's 14th point. Tiger then admitted he didn't give the 18th hiw full attention as it didn't matter by then. 
While there were obviously a host of other close matches and points won on the final day, any of these on their own are possible, and a combination of any two, no more than 'improbable'. But when you put all of the events together, such a chain reaction was surely close to impossible. This brings me to the question again, was the Spirit of Seve responsible for the turnaround?

Now, even though I don't really believe in ghosts, I have to say YES! The Spirit of the late Spanish golfer, Seve Ballesteros, was responsible for Europe's Ryder Cup victory. Of course, no one can prove of disprove this and people will have their own theories as to whether spirits exist, but the fact that Captain Olazabal convinced 12 guys playing golf in Chigago on the final Sunday of September,  2012 that Seve was really there watching over them, well this was enough to make his spirit real and guide Europe to victory.

Whatever was the cause, it was pure theatre and sporting drama at its best. In short, it was the reason we watch sport!

Thursday 21 June 2012

Will this be a British year in France?

With all eyes on London for the 2012 Olympics, British sports fans could be forgiven for thinking that they should look no further than their own shores for the chance to cheer on British sporting success this summer. However, just before the Olympics gets underway there is the small matter of Cyclings greatest priza; the Tour de France.

It is only very recently that this was even of interest in Britain. Usually cycling was reserved for continental Europe, however Greg leMonde & Lance Armstrong made sure that American's took note of 'le Tour', and last year Cadel Evans became the 1st Australian to wear the Yellow Jersey into Paris. However in the last few years British success on the track has finally transferred to success on the roads.

Now I don't claim to be the biggest cycling expert, but it seems Britain are slightly handicapped even before the Tour gets underway. The reason is that the two best hopes for success, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, are in the same team - Sky.

While Mark Cavendish will look to collect sprint points for the Green Jersery, Wiggins is interested in the main prize of winning the General Classification - i.e. quickest man round the whole 3,469.9 km route. Cavendish will be defending his Green Jersey from last year while Wiggins best result was a 4th place finish in 2009.

So they are going for the different prizes, why should them being in the same team be such a hindrance? Well this is simply down to how competitive and gruelling the average Tour de France is.

Sprinters win points on flat stages. Usually there is a breakaway during the stage and the main sprinters team will all push up the pace to catch the breakaway - allowing their man to go for glory in the bunch sprint. Cavendish is such a ruthless sprinter that most other teams don't even bother to help reel in the breakaway as they feel it is not worth the energy given that, barring a crash, Cavendish will win any sprints. This means Team Sky will have to expend quite a bit of energy putting Cav in position to win stages and points towards the Green jersey.

As far as Wiggins in the GC goes. A GC rider will need a good time trial to put themselves in position, then make sure no one takes any time out of them on any mountain stages - or that no other GC contenders get into a breakaway group to take time from the field. The main GC contender cannot expend any energy that he doesn't need to. i.e. for 99% of the time he is sitting in the pack behind a few of his buddy's and it's only on Time Trial stages or big mountain stages that he has to work for his money.

So will a team of 7 support riders and 2 main competitors manage to put Cav in position to win enough points for a Green jersey, while supporting Wiggins energy levels enough to give him a chance of the Yellow jersey?

My feeling is that if Wiggins gets into contention for the Yellow jersey, Cav's interests will be secondary and he and Bernie Eisel will be left to their own devices to scrap for what points they can. That still leaves 6 support riders for Wiggins. If Wiggins is good enough, there is a chance those guys can provide enough support - but it is still 2 fewer support riders than the other main contenders will have.

Whatever the case I'm sure Sky manager, Dave Brailsford, will have to field endless questions about how he is going to get two guys round in the same team without compromising either of their chances. The bottom line is that both Cav and Wiggins chances are compromised by being in the same team and the only way both of them can win is by being that much better than the rest of the field. Cav probably is, but only time will tell if Wiggins form can continue into July and he can become the 1st British Tour de France winner.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Royal Troon to host Open in 2016

Today, it was announced that Royal Troon will host the Open Championship in 2016. Not entirely unexpected, but nice to know the oldest professional golf tournament will be just a short hop down the Ayrshire coast in 4 years time.

The current schedule is as follows;
2012 - Royal Lytham and St Annes
2013 - Muirfield
2014 - Royal Liverpool
2015 - St Andrews
2016 - Royal Troon.

Other courses in the rota, with no Championships scheduled include; Royal St Georges (2011), Turnberry (2009), Birkdale (2008) and Carnoustie (2007). Year in bracket of last year it hosted Open.

This is not a terribly exciting blog, but just brining it up as I love links golf and am greatful that the RandA are so committed to hosting the Open on a Links course. The Open has always been hosted on such a course and it is written in the rules that this must be so.

Most Links venues are tucked away, miles from motorways or airports; they were designed 100 years ago and are not terribly long, or exactly suitable for 140 players, and 25,000 spectators to take part in a golf tournament. If it wasn't for the RandA being so committed to holding the Open at these venues - I'm sure there wouldn't be too much tournament golf played on the Links any more.

We now have the Scottish Open (held at Castle Stuart) and the Irish Open (held at Royal Portrush) as other big events held on Links courses in the summer months.. Also the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship is held over 3 courses in September each year (Carnoustie, Kings Barns and the Old Course). This is great for the traditions of the game.

Golf first started being played on the dry sandy grass between the beach and farming land - the links from the sea to the 'useful' land. This land could not be used for crops or animals and so the sport of golf developed as a past time on this 'spare land'. Lets be thankful that 340 years later - this is still the case.

Friday 15 June 2012

Will this be the best Euro's Ever?

After 7 days of Euro 2012, I think most football fans would agree it has been pretty bloody excellent. Lots of goals, close games, and not a 0-0 in sight (the closest was a couple of 1-0's in the group of death (B)).

However, with the tournament set to extend from 16 to 24 teams for the next championships (France 2016) is this likely to be the last group stage with so many entertaining games.

As a Scotland fan, I am obviously excited as this should give us a very good opportunity to qualify for a major tournament for the 1st time since 1998. However obviously most of the additional 8 teams who get in will be relatively minor nations (such as Scotland, Estonia, Bulgaria etc) that when faced with the task of playing any of the top nations will look to put two sturdy centre half's with a couple of combative midfeilders in front of them and maybe have a pacy striker playing up front who can latch onto the odd long ball / clearance.

While I'm sure the fans of these countries will be happy to give this a go - it seems unlikely that there will be as many attractive matches in France as their has been in Poland / Ukraine.

That said - both Greece and Denmark have won European Championships (2004 & 1992 respectively) and neither of these sides are what you would call 'elite' nations who qualify for every tournament. Indeed, Denmark didn't officially qualify for the 1992 tournament in Sweden, and were only entered when a civil war broke out in Yugoslavia (who had qualified ahead of them). Therefore - we can say that it is possible for a smaller nation, who may not otherwise have qualified, to compete and even be a factor in the larger tournament format.

I do think the extention is a good thing for football in Europe. Scotland used to qualify for tournaments more often than not. Indeed they qualified for 6 out of 7 World Cup's from 1974 to 1998 (incl. 5 in a row, 74-90) as well as both European Championships in the 1990's. Now France 98 remains the last major tournament where a saltire was waved in anger and a generation of children have grown up, not knowing the feeling of running home from school on a sunny June afternoon to watch with a sense of over inflated optimism as Scotland miss out on the group stages on goal difference.

I am looking forward to June 2016 and hopefully seeing Scotland take part in a major tournament once again!

Friday 18 May 2012

Too many Journeyman Pro's?

Journalist Graham Spiers has brought up this point in his blog for the Golf Show on BBC Radio Scotland. Namely; Are there too many 'Journeyman' Golf professionals, making a comfortable living without really competing at the business end of any tournaments?

Almost certainly the answer is yes. Spiers goes onto namecheck a couple of Scots who have been making a good living from golf without really winning too many events; Stephen Gallagher & Scott Jamieson, but you could add to that list probably another dozen or so names who play on tour but rarely compete.

However, forgive me for picking out Scots as guilty parties here, players from all nations are in the same boat and I'm sure most who were confronted would say the old sporting cliche 'Don't hate the player, hate the game' - i.e. why criticise someone for making good from a flawed system.

What solutions are there?

Well the 1st & most obvious answer that springs to mind would be to cut the number of players in  tournaments - say down to 50 or so, perhaps with another 5 or so invites to local players, or for sponsors. 55 guys, no cut. Most tournaments will have an entry list of 125 to 140 players at present.

Would that work? Well I'm sure dozens of 'journeyman pro's' would lose most of their income stream overnight as they would struggle even to get into tournaments. Many I'm sure would not stay on tour & probably all golfers would play fewer events. However, more than a few just might get a bit of a boot they need to pick up their game and get better results. I'm sure I remember English Golfer Paul Casey talking of the mentality of 'there's always next week' - meaning that quite early in a tournament, you may realise you won't be competing and immediately start thinking of making a better start in the next event.

However, probably having fields of only 50 would rob most younger players of a chance to gain much experience playing in the bigger tournaments as places would be at such a premium & they would inevitably take most of them years, rather than months to get half a dozen events under their belt.

I suppose another solution would be to keep tournaments in the same format, but only to dish out prize money to the top 25 or so (rather than all players who make the cut). Most players would still comfortably afford to play with sponsors generally covering their costs but it would make it much more important for lower ranked players who make the cut to score well in the weekend to try & get paid. Although you could also argue that guys giving up 4 whole days to play in an event, deserve to get some cash. It would be absurd if your boss asked you to give up 4 days of your time for a project with perhaps no money at the end even with limited success (no matter how well paid you were the rest of the year).

So it seems we are struggling with solutions to the curse of the Journeyman pro. I guess golf is just such a lucrative sport that even guys who are 200 or 300 in the world will still make good money. Probably thousands of footballers around the world make a good living despite playing at a modest level (some may not even play at all) and simply because there is no clear ranking - it goes relatively unnoted.

The format is also very inclusive as most tournaments will have local qualifying events, sponsors exemptions and dozens of other ways to qualify and it must give tremendous hope to guys on the fringes of the game who are only ever 3 or 4 good rounds away from a big pay day and entrance to other events.

It seems that as long as there is so much money in the sport, there will always be Journeyman pro's making a good living for anything from 2 to 20 years without really bothering too many engravers over the years.

Monday 14 May 2012

European Ryder Cup - Who will make the team?

If the Ryder Cup team was selected today, European Captain Jose Marie Olazabel would have a few big decisions to make. 

The automatic selections would be as follows; 
Rory McIlroy
Peter Hanson
Martin Kaymer
Justin Rose
Paul Lawrie
Luke Donald
Lee Westwood
Graeme McDowell
Sergio Garcia
& Gonzalez Fernandez-Castano.

That looks like a pretty strong side with only one rookie (Fernandez-Castano) and 6 of the 10 with either major wins or experience as World No 1 to their names (or both in the case of Kaymer & McIlroy). 

But who would be the two Captains picks? There are some big Ryder Cup names missing out - Ian Poulter, Padraig Harrington, Thomas Bjorn the Molinari's and Miguel Angel-Jiminez? As well as Open Champion Darren Clarke.

Not to mention other less experienced players, who probably have a bit more form - Robert Rock, Michael Hoey, Simon Dyson, Nicholas Colsearts & Alvaro Quiros (all winners in the last year).

My personal feeling is that the picks would be from the list of 'bigger names'. Poulter would be a shoe in given he is a match-play specialist and Olly would have to make a decision based on form of other experienced guys towards the end of the season.

Also - we have to consider that the 10 automatic places will change before selection is due. Guys will now really start to focus on selection and build their schedule around getting enough points - even if that means playing more often than they would like. Probably Fernandez-Castano will struggle to stay in contention and also Garcia got most of his points right at the start of qualifying and hasn't really been in contention much in 2012. Rose & Kaymer likewise.

I would expect Poulter to 'get it done' somewhere and get enough points and it is inevitable that someone will find a bit of form over the summer and get a win to seal the deal. 

However - whatever the outcome it seems likely that we will only have 1 or 2 Rookies and a real nucleus of the team who have big wins and play mainly in America (which will rob the opposition of one aspect of home advantage). 

So what of the American's? Well without going into too much detail, it seems almost certain that they will have a more experienced side than last time. In the summer last year, Darren Clarke had just become the 5th non-American major winner in succession and post moretm's were being written about American golf & 'life after Tiger' etc. They have now won 2 Major's in a row (Bradley at the PGA & Watson at the Masters) and Matt Kuchar has just wrestled the Players Championship from an international field who had won 5 in a row at Sawgrass. 

No doubt the big names like Tiger & Mickelson will feature (no matter their form) but they will still have a strong team - even if they have 3 or 4 rookies (as they usually do).

Roll on September and expect to now be bombarded with points updates and Ryder Cup slanted interviews during all Golf coverage for the next few months. Excellent!