Sunday, 7 June 2009

Keep The Balls In The Game!

I type this as my fingers dodge the sparks that fly as my tears drench the motherboard of my laptop; for only the second yet the final time, I type the four words that have become synonymous with incredible journalism withstanding the tenure of my back-page dictatorship: Good Morning Sports Fans.
For this is the finale; the termination of my reign as Sports Editor cut so sorely short by the need to graduate. I have very much enjoyed writing articles for the Telegraph over the past year, and have taken great pleasure in printing stories of Strathclyde’s sporting successes.
Each issue, I have challenged myself to write about an aspect of sport both topical, yet debatable. This last issue is no different, and in a certain aspect embroils last issue’s question about the use of technology in sport. However, as this is the final minute of extra-time for my position as Sports Editor, I am more than happy to go in for a last-ditch tackle on a topic that has often sprung to mind over the past year - and I’m willing to take any penalty that comes along with it - as this is a biggie that has been annoying me for quite a while. It is a simple question, but some may consider it quite brash: but has sport gone all soft on us? Have the fun-Police jailed every word or phrase considered unfriendly or politically incorrect, that they have found it necessary to condemn every moan or outpour of emotion in our sporting world to some sort of insane punishment too?
If ever you hear the phrase “It’s a man’s game” in today’s world of metro-sexuality, political correctness and hair-gel, it would purely be in irony. For there is no butch aspect of any sport today. Fair play has gone frankly mad, and the unwritten rule of sportsmanship seems to have evolved into a book written in three-hundred different languages, with the minimum punishment standing at £5000 and any show of emotion condemned to an instant suspension on the elated/disappointed athlete’s behalf.
The rule book is a shrine, padlocked to a slab in a windowless room, making the thought of throwing such out through any glass frame an impossibility. Professional sport nowadays is an over-sensitive soiree of ridiculous rule and order, where characters like John McEnroe, Jocky Wilson and even Vinnie Jones have fallen to extinction in the wake of today’s media-trained robots.
There have been a number of incidents recently where, lets call it the ‘But That May Be Upsetting’ rule, has veered its padded head into play. Take the whole Ferguson-McGregor ‘Boozegate’ debacle. It is difficult not to understand both players being punished for a late-night drinking session between two international football matches, but the whole hype surrounding the subliminal messages to the press from the dug-out at Hampden is down-right pathetic. The press should not dictate our perspectives of the game, and we cannot fall into their trap under the decoy of offended victims! For the amount of time the nation spends slating our footballing press, we seem to feel pretty sorry for them as soon as the tables get turned and the players fight back. I don’t feel it was the most ideal of time or place to flick the cameras the Vicky, but it is in no way wrong of the players involved to vent their frustrations at a press who have persistently been on their backs for more than a single season. Plus, the two have hardly sprung-off on some Gordon Ramsay-style rant and we are acting as if they have announced plans to bomb the local orphanage. It is a bleak reminder of the state of an ever-increasing family-friendly society.
Then there is the other side of ridiculous ruling: punishment for emotion. This is ruining sport! Ruining it! Imagine for a second, that you had just scored against the Auld Enemy for Scotland in the last minute of the World Cup Final. You were on a booking, yet in your celebration taken over by complete jubilation, you either A) ran towards your loyal support, B) took off your shirt in celebration, or C) told John Terry to get it right round him! You would have just won the World Cup for Scotland, yet you would have been sent-off in the final. Absolutely ridiculous!
Wayne Rooney, in Manchester United’s 2-0 away defeat to Fulham two weeks ago, threw the ball back to the site of a free-kick after play had stopped. The referee deemed that the manner in which the ball was thrown was aggressive and unsporting, hence issued the striker his second yellow card of the match and had him sent-off. Is this worthy of a dismissal? If so, why is it deemed worthy of a red card today? I am more than sure the likes of Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen threw or kicked the odd ball away in disgust during their playing days, yet it went unpunished. FIFA must have crumbled under the weight of work-related grievances brought forward by referees.
Another similar instance came in this years Masters at Augusta. There was much ado about nothing after Rory McIlroy was considered to have cheated after “deliberately testing the surface of the bunker”, when in fact it was more than obvious to the seeing-eye that the Northern Irishman was more keen on snapping his sand-wedge over his knee than surveying the feel of the sand. The ruling body brought into question whether he had brushed his club against the surface of the hazard in a self-controlled swing of rage at his first failed attempt at escaping the sand, or as a test to see how the lie under his feet would play. Although the television pictures clearly showed the annoyance on McIlroy’s face, the fun-police had to have their way and examined the video evidence before sending the young hooligan on his way. Pathetic.
Then there is that English racing driver. He has started this season pretty badly, so everyone seems to have forgotten his name in favour of the magnificent Jenson Button. I think it is Lewis Hamilton, current F1 champion. He told a porky about Jarno Trulli overtaking whilst the safety car was on the track in Melbourne in the opening Grand Prix of the season. Since realizing the truth about Hamilton’s ‘misleading’ comments, the FIA have thrown him out of the race and restored Trulli’s third-place finish. Does this punishment fit the crime? Definitely not. Who cares if he told just a little lie, he wanted to win - good on him! Why admit defeat when you can lie your way to success? This world…
So on a day when Roy Keane finds a way back into football as new manager of Ipswich Town, here’s hoping the Irishman takes whatever punishment may come his way for maintaining a strong personality and core set of beliefs in 2009’s sports context. In a world where everything is either politically correct or jail-time, it is essential that there are still characters in sport who lie if it will enhance their chance of success; take off their top and start a Conga in the stand if they score a goal for the team they love; throw a putter like a javelin after a missed two-footer; or grab the media by the neck and tell them where to go if they start to do their head in! Technology may start to dehumanise the officiating aspect of sport, but to make it great we still need actual human people to play it! Punishing emotion and the urge to win is plain wrong!
So here’s a toast: to those who love their sport, and give two-fingers to the fun-police. Barry, where did u get that keg?

Published: April 2009, Strathclyde Telegraph

Video Killed The Kauto Star

There are many things in this world that should not be trusted. Hitler and the Nazi party were one, a late-night kebab is another. Between these two lies a fair spectrum of distrust, whether it is the single iota of trust you can put in your iPod working for more than three hours, the trust given to a single pen to last an exam, or anything at all to do with low-cost airlines.
Alan Partridge, Steve Coogan’s mortifying comic masterpiece, provides the following anecdote. The hapless hero, wooing his hotel manager Susan, flaunts his skills in flattery, interrupting her singing voice to gush over the miraculous ability of her magnificent smile:
“Don’t sing, Susan! It sounds bad. Just stick to your smile. It’s a lovely smile. You know, you could work on the Titanic. You could say, ‘I’m terribly sorry, we’ve run out of lifejackets.’ And people wouldn’t mind. They’d say, ‘Thank you for the information, I’ll take my chances.’
“You’d make a very good Judas. Betray me and then kiss me.”
One thing you should never trust: a smile. I learned this the hard way…
It was this time last year, the week of the Cheltenham Festival, and in the process of making my weekly donation to William Hill before the Saturday’s football, I noticed that the shop was unusually, and overwhelmingly, busy. Behind the desk, sat a simply ravishing brunette with a smile that would make Cheryl Cole look distinctly average, so as I handed over my fiver bet on seven home wins, I felt compelled to act upon my most natural of urges: lust.
“Busy in here”, I stated with nonchalant rhetoric, leaning against the counter as if it were a jukebox and I was the Fonz.
“Yeah, they’re lining-up for the Gold Cup”, came her gorgeous response, which, to me - virtually a horse-racing virgin - could just as easily have meant a global response organized for this particular William Hill shop, to drink from the Holy Grail and behold the second coming of Christ, rather than a race of horses.
“Oh, of course!”, came my lied response, “Who’s the favourite?”.
“All the money is going on Kauto Star - he’s at evens - that’s where my money would go! Second favourite is Denman at nine to four.”
“Good odds”, I replied, knowing that even if she had just spoken Japanese to me that I would have given a similar answer with the same feigned nod of understanding. Doing the maths in my head, I knew that if I put £10 on the Kauto Star, not only would I have put my football coupon on for free, but I would also leave the place a fiver up! Plus, flashing the cash in front of this young filly was sure to seal the deal; the odds were getting better by the second!
I pulled a tener out of my wallet, and, taking our relationship to second base - not even considering the chance that the horse might not win - wrote ‘Kauto Star to win’ on the nearest slip, and presented it as if I was Romeo, she was Juliet, and the play went by a completely different format to Shakespeare’s original.
“Good luck!” she smiled back to me.
I’ve never trusted a smile since. Lazy horse.

A year on, and the pain is still ripe. I had put a lot on the line; placed my trust where I felt it was safe, and, three miles and two-and-a-half furlongs later, felt, in the same vein as Vince McMahon in the hey-day of the World Wrestling Federation, “screwed over”. It was an experience that left me with great sympathy for those players and teams done over by a poor refereeing decision, a bad call from an umpire, an outrageous goal-line decision, when evidence clearly shows otherwise.
Frequently in football, the call for the introduction of a video-referee is near brutal from the losing side on the back of a poor decision by match officials. The argument is, that with the incredible advances in technology over the past decade - advances which in themselves continue to develop - should all sports not have the biggest, most important, game-changing calls and decisions made either with the help of technology, or purely by technology alone? It is easy to say that the introduction of, for example, compulsory video referees in sport would absolutely change everything for the better. However, in removing the human element of officiating, do we de-humanise sport at its core, make it a different game today than that which has been played for the last hundred or so years, and essentially destroy the records of the past as the game changes to something unarguably different? It is unfair to say that sport, if we were to introduce essential technologies to our most loved games now, would be played on the same ‘field’ today than it was even ten years ago. The perfect example: would England have captured the football World Cup in 1966 had Goal Line Technology (GLT) correctly disallowed Geoff Hurst’s extra-time strike?
Although many of sport’s governing bodies are still fickle about bringing their games into the twenty-first century, sports such as rugby, cricket and tennis have to be praised for their acceptance of the benefits of new technology to their game, and the resulting integration of video referees and ‘Hawk-Eye’ technologies.
It is now commonplace within both codes of rugby, to find the match referee signal for the use of the video referee to analyse any play that may or may not have resulted in a try; a decision that is not entirely clear to the official himself. With television cameras dotted all around the stadium, the video referee will analyse replays of the debated try-scoring move, and, by studying all available angles, decide for the uncertain match referee whether or not the ball was, for example, touched down, held-up, knocked-on, or if the player was in or out of touch as the try was scored. Communicating through microphone and ear-piece, the video-referee will then confirm to the match referee if a try should or should not be awarded. A simple, effective and reliable way of refereeing that ensures that there can be no argument or ambiguity.
Cricket has progressed along the same lines, using a ‘third-umpire’ to study video replays and decide whether or not a batsman has been run-out, stumped, caught, or has managed to reach the boundary for a four or a six, whenever either of the two on-field umpires find the decision difficult to reach. Again, it is a simple method that eliminates ambiguity from the game and ensures a level playing field for all.
A technology that is a little more advanced yet incredibly accurate, is the ‘Hawk-Eye’. Developed in 2001, ‘Hawk-Eye’ is a computer system that is able to generate a three-dimensional image of a ball’s flight path, which in turn predicts the ball’s exact point of impact or continued line. It was initially used for the purpose of television (perhaps to provide fans and pundits something to argue over - a past-time that could easily fall near extinction if technology is available to exam and correct every aspect of each decision of any game…), but became integrated into the game of cricket soon after. The third-umpire can use ‘Hawk-Eye’ - with an umpire’s authority - to follow the path of the ball to examine whether it strikes the batsman’s leg before wicket, thus rendering him out.
The same ‘Hawk-Eye’ technology is used in tennis, where again it follows the line of the ball to decipher the validity of an in or out call, when the ball bounces near to or on the line. After years of negotiating, in March of last year it was decided that ‘Hawk-Eye’ could be used by players for a maximum of three unsuccessful challenges per set.
So why does football, our country’s biggest sport, not enlist the help of video referees and computerized systems like ‘Hawk-Eye’? The governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA, have never been overly enthusiastic about the prospect of introducing the video referee, arguing that it derives from the history of the game, slows the game down, and just purely is not football.
There are, of course, logical reasons against the introduction of video refereeing in football: when does it stop being used (i.e. can it be used to claim for a penalty, a corner, even a throw-in?); would it mean that every club would have to splash out, fitting their home grounds with X amount of cameras, a big screen and a booth for a video referee?
As good and as welcome the idea of introducing video refereeing to football is to irate supporters, at this stage it seems unlikely to happen soon. But what about other technologies, such as the ball-chip development that was introduced at the Club World Cup two years ago? Fitting each pair of goal-mouths throughout the whole country with the required sensors/laser beams would surely cost a few quid, so why not just consider it for the SPL and English Premiership alone? Surely the correctness and validity of decisions in the top tier of each Football Association would add strength and worth to the top leagues? Remember when we didn’t have under-soil heating…?
I suppose the final question to ask is simple: do we want every decision to be 100% correct, every time? Obviously, yes, but if we lose the indefiniteness of decisions made by the man in the middle, then what else goes with it? There will be no referee to shout at, no unsavory chants to heckle at the SFA, a disappearance of the injustice which fuels rivalry and the want for revenge, a lack of post-match debate in the pub, the feeling of what could have or should have been, and definitely no Real Radio Football Phone-In - everything the true essence of being a supporter is about!
Again though, when it is all done and dusted, we plead for honesty and faultlessness from he who is in charge. With rugby, every decision is now near on 100% correct every time, yet the passion is burning stronger than perhaps ever before.
For what it is worth - my £15 back from William Hill would be nice - I feel the trust we, as supporters, and athletes as professionals, instill in those who guide us through the game should be rewarded with undeterred accuracy. With so much hanging in the balance, especially with the money available in sport nowadays, it is a pure miscarriage of justice to award that which is not or deny that which is, when the knock-on effect could be massive.
So embrace the technology, I say! It could screw England at the next World Cup!
Published: March 2009, Strathclyde Telegraph

The Iconic Man Of Our Time

A fortnight ago, I had the pleasure of rendezvousing with a friend whom, and I apoligised to him for this, I have somewhat neglected over the past few years, due to the hectic schedule weighted on my shoulders courtesy of an Honours degree. With all the deadlines, all the studying, all the research, I have barely had time to even sleep, never mind meet him online for a game of Call Of Duty. If you are reading this, for the last time, I WILL PLAY WHEN I HAVE THE TIME!
He says that I don’t have the time for him anymore, and I suppose, regrettably, that on some level he is right. However, he needs to shoulder some of the blame for the deterioration of our friendship. For it is not I who is always on the move; I never leave this place! If he is not in Manchester, then he is in Madrid; if he is not in Madrid, then he is in London; if he is not in London, then he is in L.A; if he is not in L.A, then he is in Milan! It is unbelievable (Jeff)! His work takes him everywhere! He won’t even poke me back on Facebook! He is a changed man - a family man and a public hero. To me though, as far apart as we have grown, he will always be plain old Dave!
However, the cheek of him to turn-up unannounced at Glasgow Airport two weeks ago was the last straw. Fair enough, he came with quite a few mates, and there would have been no way that I could have possibly accommodated them all, but come on, at least give me a text to say your in town! I could have easily got a decent group together for a night in the Garage!
But no, it seems like Dave has now grown-up into Mr. Beckham; the adult - the global superstar and the most famous man in the world. He is the man who men want to be, women want to see, and kids all around the world idolise as a sporting great.
He has what many would debate is still the finest right-foot in the game, millions upon millions in the bank, endorsement deals with, to name but a few of the world’s most recognised brands, Pepsi, Gillette, Adidas, Police and Vodafone, and, coming on thirty-four - stone-age in football - is still one of the hottest properties in the sport.
However, ask anyone the simple question “Why?”, and the answer that you are sure to get will be no more than a mumbled clothesline of simple Beckham-trivia - “Good at football…Married to Posh Spice…erm…England Captain…Attractive…”.
Sure, an amalgamation of these factors in any sports icon is bound to make him or her the big name for a period of time, take Gavin Henson as a prime example, but what is it in David Beckham and the Beckham ‘franchise’ that has made the midfield maestro such a sustainable force within the football world for well over ten years? It is agreed that he has certainly never been the single best footballer in the world, so on what grounds were the blocks of Beckham’s career built upon, as a sportsmen, to have grown the former Manchester United player into, the slightly enviable, “iconic man of our time”, as declared by men’s magazine GQ?
I ask this question after witnessing the most extraordinary scenes outside A.C. Milan’s hotel a fortnight ago. A crowd of around fifty fans had gathered to meet the Rossoneri. Carlo Ancelotti, the A.C Milan manager, emerged first, puffing on a cigarette and signing a few autographs for those who didn’t think he was a security guard. Then, a minute or so later, the tracksuit-clad squad appeared, led by none other than Becks’ himself!
The crowd turned to fever pitch. There was pushing, shoving, velvet safety rope discarding; it was chaos! But the mayhem that ensued was in no part down to the seven-time Champions League winners, but purely ignited by the presence of David Beckham alone. He was mobbed by literally everyone who was there. At a time when Manchester City were offering the world’s best midfielder Kaka £500,000 per week, for a transfer fee of £108Million, he seemed rather unimpressed with former World Player of The Year Ronaldinho by his side, as together they asked uninterested autograph hunters if they could squeeze by to get onto the bus! It was an unbelievable scene!
So why is David Beckham still the main man? Throughout his career, Beckham’s public status has been a pendulum long dictated by his actions both on and off the park, magnified by our ever-growing tabloid culture. There have been months between Beckham firing his country into the World Cup finals with a free-kick from thirty yards, and finding burning effigies in an England shirt with ‘Beckham 7’ on the back on his return to Old Trafford after the demise of the Three Lions. It is the combination of these extreme highs and extreme lows that Beckham has constantly bounced back from or topped even further that make his success satisfying to the public, as the people feel that he has the right to do well and enjoy success due to our inexplicable enjoyment when he hits extreme lows: a perfect example - the player who singled handedly destroyed England’s World Cup dream in 1998 after his petty kick at Argentine Diego Simone.
As a footballer, he is hardly short of talent. Twice the runner up for FIFA World Player of the Year, he has enjoyed success at the two biggest clubs in global football, Manchester United and Real Madrid, winning twelve major competitions, helped market Major League Soccer in the USA after his ‘£128Million’ move to L.A Galaxy from Madrid, and is now plying his trade, for the time-being, with the talent-shy A.C Milan.
However, it is his off-the-pitch lifestyle that makes him the envy of men, and even women, all over the world! He is a fashion icon, the sex-god, the bad-boy, the good-guy, the guy who all the girls want - heck - he is the guy that every man would love to be! On top of all this though, he is the charitable David Beckham, David Beckham OBE, and even “Britain’s Greatest Ambassador”, according to a poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
So is it wrong of us to not only depict the superstar that is David Beckham as the “iconic man of our time”, but also as the iconic footballer of our time? Well, I think it is safe to say that the latter falls under the umbrella of the iconic man of our time, and in no way is it wrong to describe Beckham as both. As children, we dream of being sports heroes, of riches and fame, and as we grow older, aim to achieve happiness, the best possible version of ourselves and honour. David Beckham has all of this, so is justifiably the main attraction, even if sharing the stage with the finest players in the world. He truly is an icon.
And, yes, we are friends. He signed me an autograph outside the Marriot hotel around thirteen years ago!

Published: February 2009, Strathclyde Telegraph

Colourful Dreams in Black & White

It was an emotional day in Paisley on Saturday 3rd January, as the spiritual home of world soccer hosted its final ever showdown: St. Mirren against Motherwell. The Love Street turnstiles rolled for the final time, as 10,000 proud Buddies prepared to say their final farewells to what was, inevitably, the breeding ground of the majority of Scotland’s, if not the world’s, finest footballing offspring.
Over its 115 year history, time spent at Love Street was pivotal in the careers of some the our country’s greats: Frank McAvennie, Tony Fitzpatrick, Frank McGarvey, Billy Stark and Archie Gemmill to name but a few, with Sir Alex Ferguson obviously the most glowing reputation amongst the Saints managerial alumni. In 1983, Love Street welcomed Feyenoord in the UEFA Cup, where Johan Cruyff and Ruud Gullit were taught a thing-or-two about the game of football, albeit escaping with a 1-0 victory, before seeing the tie through with a 2-0 win in Holland.
It is the ground where the Saints whipped Celtic 6-3, coming from 2-0 down in 1958; became the Anglo Scottish Cup holders, a crown which the club still wears to this day, perhaps in some-part down to the axing of the competition, after defeating Bristol City 3-1 in 1980; thumped Slavia Prague 3-0 in the first-round of the UEFA Cup in 1985; and, a bit more recently, in what many have described as the game of the season, annihilated Rangers 1-0, thanks to a wonder-goal from young Buddie Stephen McGinn! In recent times, Saints lifted the First Division title at Love Street in both 2000 and 2006, and, back in 1987, returned from Hampden to Paisley with the Scottish Cup.
With such an incredible history, the final game at the old stadium was always going to be emotional. And so it was. Perhaps too emotional however, to produce the really good game of football befitting for the old bird’s last hoorah. It was obvious and unfortunate that the incredible pressure to win the final game, albeit unspoken from the loyal support, had got to the Saints players, and against a good Motherwell side, the prerogative shifted slightly as the game progressed, with most fans and players alike accepting the assumption that as long as we did not lose, then that would be an acceptable enough goodbye to Love Street. And so the match finished 0-0, with the relevance of the fixture bearing on a couple of referee Alan Muir’s decisions, Mr. McGhee and the ’Well support may rightly argue.
So the seats clapped back for the last time, as the Saints fans rose to applaud the result. We hadn’t lost the final game, after four-wins on the trot, against a good outfit in McGhee’s Motherwell, so we had done Love Street and the ghosts of 115 years proud!
I got a text: “How’s Love Street?”. A bit general, but I took a second to absorb the mood around the terracing, and the only word that kept springing to mind was eerie. It genuinely was very eerie; a deathly silence around the stands as the fire marshal’s prepared a fireworks display that was sure to rival New Year at Sydney Harbour Bridge. Without wanting to sound pretentious or overly-deep down the phone, I text back saying: “Yeah, its alright! Game wasn’t much, hopefully the fireworks will be better.”. They weren’t. Well, I say this, but fireworks are usually better when you can see them, which was unfortunately impossible under the corrugated iron roof of the main stand. For sound quality though, it was a sure 10/10!
In all honesty however, quite a large part of me felt very teary-eyed for some reason. I don’t cry easily, and I have only been braving Love Street regularly for the past four years, but the sense of the occasion was really starting to get to me. The still, solemn faces of the old who have seen the best of Love Street for sixty, seventy years easily, were now saying goodbye to the loyal friend who has never once let them down every second Saturday, as others close to them have moved on. The men half their age, who now bring their own children, looked down to the half-way line, remembering when they packed this stadium with their own fathers and enjoyed some incredible games of football. And then the younger ones like myself, who have never been told a thing, but know that the responsibility lies with us to continue the traditionally faithful support that follows St. Mirren. The club that our father’s, father’s father brought into our family, just by living in Paisley, is a torch that should be, nay needs to be carried on. Saints Chairman Stewart Gilmour used the match programme to recite an old saying that he described as “never so relevant than it is today” : ‘St. Mirren is Paisley and Paisley is St. Mirren’. The silence of ten-thousand memories come full-time brought fruition to the saying in a way no-one could ever describe.
The weekend will have past come the time you read this, but what an exciting Saturday its going to be for Paisley and the club itself especially, when the new St. Mirren Park opens its doors to a sell-out 8,000 Buddies against Kilmarnock on the last day of January. The atmosphere will be electric, and the whole town buzzing, as the fans quite aptly march together from Love Street to Greenhill Road, the site of the new ground in Ferguslie Park, in a display of incredible support, loyalty and re-birth. “We’ll go wherever Saint Mirren go, we are the North-bank agro!”
With tickets sold-out a fortnight in advance, it will be interesting to see how difficult it is to buy a ticket for the following week at home to struggling Falkirk. With Love Street averaging between 4,000 and 4,500 supporters each week, it would be fantastic to see the new dawn at Greenhill Road catalyse the sale of season tickets for the rest of this season and the next.
With a new start for a local club, the old traditions will stay the same, but with a relocation should hopefully spark a desire within locals to start following the local side - their side. I am a strong believer of supporting your local side, and feel that it is a practice that should be followed worldwide. For residents of Paisley, now is the prime-time to start following your local side, especially if it is a past-time you have considered for a while. Trust me, I am sure that you will not be alone amongst what will hopefully be, and I say this with fingers crossed, a growing St. Mirren support!
This is a fantastic time for St. Mirren to really grow as a club, but for those outside the Cart, where is the attraction to start following a local side?
Well, in a season where the Old Firm are criticized for the football they play on a near weekly basis, or, if you look at it in a different light, a season where the ten other SPL sides are playing a better class of football and closing the gap on the ‘weaker’ Old Firm, you will be granted a good quality of football and contest wherever you go. If the Saints, Hamilton, Falkirk, Motherwell or Kilmarnock - all from the west of Scotland - are your side, then you are offered a different serving of football pie each weekend this season: one week your pushing top six, then next you have got a six-point relegation decider! Each of these sides have run at least one set of the Old Firm close this season, and defeated the third-place contenders on several occasions: Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen and Dundee United. There is nothing more satisfying than a hard-fought three-points!
In times when money is scarce yet ticket prices continue to soar, there is no better time to part with, on average, £13 of your loan for a student ticket for a St. Mirren, Hamilton, Falkirk, Motherwell or Kilmarnock fixture, against the £23.50 adult price you would have to pay if you went to see Rangers versus Dundee United or Kilmarnock over the next few weeks, or the jaw-dropping £24.50 for Celtic v St. Mirren on February 28th.
If you want to stay even truer to your roots, then head back home at the weekend to watch your beloved Elgin, Montrose, East Fife or even Annan Athletic! What’s the point I here you say? Well…
Once upon a time, in a land just off the M62, played a football club by the name of Hull City. In 2004, Hull gained promotion from the English Third Division (League Two), into the dizzy heights of League One.
The Coca-Cola League One acted as a conveyer belt for the club, taking them in from League Two and carrying them straight to the English Championship in a single season over 2004/05. Once in the Championship - England’s second top-tier of football, yet the fourth richest league in the world - it took the Tigers two years to find their feet, before hiring manager Phil Brown who led the side to the English Premiership, less than five years since they played part-time in the fourth tier of English football. Surely a one off in present day football?
Well, no actually! Head west from Glasgow to Prestwick Airport, and jump on board Ryanair heading to Frankfurt (Hahn - so not really Frankfurt). Then, motor south on the autobahn at 200kmp in your rented BMW to the village of Hoffenheim, population 3000. Park wherever you can, but try and avoid Saturday’s in the future: 1899 Hoffenheim, the area’s local football team, are in the process of relocating to a 30,000 (yes, thirty-thousand) seater stadium. Why? Because the team you have never heard of are top of the Bundesliga, after a true modern day footballing fairytale.
Bankrolled by a former youth player turned multi-millionaire, Dietmar Hopp amassed a fortune in the computer software market, co-founding the largest computing software company in Europe, SAP, before ploughing his cash into the club. Forget Chelsea; forget Manchester City; even try and remember Gretna to forget them again - Hopp had different ideas for his club, knowing that money could not, and perhaps should not, buy immediate success.
Instead of offering Kaka £500,000 a week to join an amateur village team playing in Germany’s eighth tier of Fußball, Hopp has carefully invested £120Million into the club since his bank-rolling began eighteen years ago - his aim for long-term success for 1899 Hoffenheim outlined by his first purchase for the club shortly after his takeover: state-of-the-art training facilities. The youth academies spawned from these training facilities are considered the key to Hoffenheim’s success, as the club has teams for all age groups, starting from under-12s.
It was this development and investment in youth that carried Hoffenheim through the lower leagues of German football to the third tier of soccer, which is when Hopp decided, in 2006, that he should invest in experienced players and an experienced manager with the aim of climbing through the third tier and Bundesliga 2 to reach the peak of German football, the Bundesliga, within three years.
The mix of youth and experience was, and still proves to be, a deadly combination for Hopp and Hoffenheim. This coalesce saw the club reach Bundesliga 2 in their first attempt under new manager Ralf Rangnick, and in this present day currently occupy top-spot with long-term German juggernauts Bayern Munich. So I pose the question: could this be the future East Fife?
Well, probably not. But, with both of these clubs, it just goes to show that anything is possible in football, no matter what side, however big or small they may be, can in fact achieve the ‘impossible’. In days where football clubs, especially in England, are no longer in the hands of the supporters but on the strings of puppeteer billionaires, the dreams and fairytales of smaller sides are as gripping and as unbelievable as ever! Who outside the big-two wouldn’t want to see St. Mirren, Hamilton, Ross County, East Fife or East Stirling beat the Old Firm, or go onto bring a national trophy home to the town? I for one would absolutely love it.
The new St. Mirren Park will no doubt create as many fantastic memories as Love Street did over its 115 years; how incredible to think that I will have been there where it all began. 115 years from now, my son’s, son’s, son might sit in that very stadium as the saints return by rocket-ship from the moon, where the Champions League Final was held, and think back down the line to the days when the stadium only held 8,000, in contrast to the 80,000 it will jam in then!
So now is the time! Screw the monotony of the Old Firm, and banish the thought of the quality of football in Scotland being poor. Get the cash out your wallet and fund your local side en route to whatever may come - you will get so much out of it! Plus, you never know, you may just enjoy it…
Published: January 2009, Strathclyde Telegraph

Straight Talking with Hugh Keevins

Notorious amongst football fans as the pundit who supports every side bar your own, Sports Editor Euan McLelland talks criticism, realism, Boyd and Burley with the Daily Record’s Hugh Keevins in the second of our two big interviews!

Already this season seems to be shaping up to be a thriller. Although we are so early in the campaign, what side do you think will win the title, and who will face the drop this season?

The problem is, that we (as sports journalists) are always asked before the season starts, to give a prediction, and then you find Celtic with ten, eleven injuries: it’s what you don’t know that’s the worry when you make your predictions, not what you know! I tipped Celtic at the start of the season, and at the moment they are doing really well - ten games undefeated with ten players out. So if that prediction holds up, then fine. Rangers, I am convinced, will be chasing them all the way to the last day of the season. As for who goes down, Hamilton Accies have got to be favorites, even though they play good football. Inverness do not pick up enough points, and I would not rule out St. Mirren either - if you don’t score goals, you cannot win games.

You were very critical of Rangers early-season defeat to Kaunas. How much do you think the side has improved since then, and how much of this would you attribute to the new faces brought into Ibrox by Walter Smith?

The side that has been improved, has come as a direct result from what happened in Kaunas, because it came as such a shock to the club that they then went out and got Bougherra, Mendes and Steve Davis on a permanent basis. Now, they wouldn’t have done that had they beaten Kaunas, so that tells you that those who were critical of the result were correct, because Rangers knew that it was about a seven on the Richter scale, and totally unacceptable. We’re not great in this country at international or club level, but we are better than that, and that result was the one that caused them to say ‘What we have isn’t good enough, and we better do something about it quickly’. For that reason, if they do eventually win the league, Kaunas will turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to Rangers.

Not since Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen side of the 1980’s has a team other than the Old Firm won the Scottish title. In the current Scottish football environment, is this virtually impossible now?

I would say it is absolutely impossible nowadays, for as long as the game is as we know it. We were on a level playing field back then, and it was possible for other sides to become as good as the Old Firm, as long as you were winning. But everything has changed now. Celtic and Rangers just simply have the money to keep on buying a naturally better class of players than the rest of the clubs get, and you only have to see the margin between the Old Firm and third and fourth every year to know that it is a gap that is too big to be bridged. Unless something totally unforeseen comes along, that I can’t think of, Rangers and Celtic will win the title until the end of time.

If there is one player who will end up swinging the title to either side of the Old Firm this season, who will he be?

Kris Boyd, because he keeps scoring goals. It has never mattered to me how ‘ugly’ a player he may be; if you score like Boyd scores, you need to be the prime influence. For Celtic, it is harder to pinpoint one single player. Their goals this season have been spread around the entire squad, and I would argue that for Celtic, after going ten games without dropping a point, it is a more collective effort on their part. But Kris Boyd is a phenomenon, so he would be the one to swing it Rangers way, if it was to go theirs.

Since the Martin O’Neill days of Hartson, Sutton and Larsson, Celtic have never seemed to have that sort of defence-terrifying partnership. In McDonald, Samaras and Vennegoor of Hesselink, do you think that Strachan will be able to find this deadly duo?

No, because you get what you pay for. Henrik Larsson, although he cost only £650,000, which was a freak, is arguably the best player Celtic have had in the post-War era, including the Lisbon Lions. The millions they spent on Sutton and Hartson, they won’t spend again! So on the basis of getting what you pay for, no, he won’t get what O’Neill had. They will need to get by on hard work.

After a shaky start to our World Cup Qualifiers, is it fair to see South Africa further off in the horizon just now than it was when the groups were initially drawn?

This is a purely personal opinion: we won’t get to South Africa; George Burley won’t last the campaign as manager; and eventually there will be a revolt because the fans don’t like the style of football that they are seeing. I suspect that we will lose when we are in Holland, the margin of which is unimportant, and that will be us three points further away. I don’t think he (Burley) has the charisma for the job, and I do not think the fans are responding to him. I have absolutely nothing against him, but if it isn’t working - it isn’t working: you have to look somewhere else.

Do you think the SFA were correct in the appointment of George Burley? Was he the best option?

For a variety of reasons, he was the safe option. Graeme Souness, I don’t think could work with the SFA in general, and Gordon Smith in particular. I think there would be a clash of personalities there. Mark McGhee, at that point, was flavour of the month, and I do believe that he’s got the ‘smarts’ to do the job. Craig Levein would have to be a contender if it came up again, but at that particular point, I think the SFA thought of George Burley: ‘This is a man we can work with’. It is important the people you work with, but I think in the national team, you need a more forceful personality.

The Scotland squad named for the recent friendly with Argentina featured nine players from the English Championship. Is this a strong enough stomping-ground for our internationalists?

It was strong enough for Celtic to go there and get Kenny Miller. It was strong enough for Rangers to take Kenny Miller back again. We are in a place where we have to go wherever we can. The Premiership is not full of Scottish players, like the way it was when I grew-up, when you could almost pick an entire team of Scots playing in England. We’ve also got so many foreign players within Celtic and Rangers that your choice has been restricted there, so it is not a case of ‘is it strong enough?’, it is a case of having to go there to fill out our squad.

The majority of Old Firm fans at the start of the season say: “Our goal this year is both the league title and a place in the knock-out stages of the Champions League”. As football supporters, should they not seek glory rather than money for their club, and brace the UEFA Cup as an exciting, realistic target?

They all live in a fantasy world. The talk about them being ‘the biggest clubs in the world’ - no they’re not. They’re big, but not that big. They believe that the Champions League last sixteen, last eight, is practically an entitlement. They have had great moments: Seville for Celtic, Manchester for Rangers - both terrific achievements based on what they had and how far they made it go - but, in terms of Europe, they are as far behind the cream as Inverness and Hamilton Accies are behind Celtic and Rangers in the domestic championship.

What is your opinion on the quality of the current SPL?

It is as good as it can be because there is no money, and there is no need to expect that it can get any better. In the current financial meltdown, the crowds are dropping off; football will become a luxury item for people. Ordinary people cannot afford to go to two or three matches a week - it is financially impossible! This means that Celtic and Rangers cannot go out and buy exotic players, and the lower clubs certainly cannot, so the league is all it possibly can be.

Already this season there has been outcry over some of the refereeing decisions that have affected results in big matches, bringing up the never-ending debate about the introduction of video referees. Surely it’s a good thing?

It’s a good thing, but FIFA don’t want it. We can shout and ball all we like, but we cannot introduce it off our own back, it has to be a rule of world football. Football doesn’t follow the laws of natural progression; it takes forever! I can however, understand the argument that it is difficult to have monitors in every football ground. The Premier League should not get celebrity justice over the lower leagues in that aspect.

In the race for third place, what side excites you most?

I saw Dundee United on Saturday, who were rumored to be ‘that’ side, and they were well beaten by Kilmarnock, who had lost five games on the bounce. Now, that tells you that everybody can beat everybody else. At a certain period of the season, a team will impress you, but in other periods it will be other teams, because nobody has the consistency to be impressive all the time. I give Hamilton great credit. They might be at the bottom of the league, but they play football as attractive, on its day, as Dundee United, who are third top.

Published: December 2008, Strathclyde Telegraph

It's The Scottish Way - Being Scottish Isn’t Just About A Passport

Over the last few months, the topic of national pride and sporting identity has been thrown around the back pages as if it were mother Novo’s paella on the streets of Govan, Spain, as she raised local-lad Nacho. Called to question has been the right to play for an adopted country of your choosing, after gaining a qualified passport, if selected, and whether or not this would be welcomed by the common football fanatic and professional alike. The big talking point: should George Burley select Rangers forward Nacho Novo, now that he qualifies as a British citizen?
For this to even be considered is ridiculous and insane! How could anyone argue that a Spaniard, a German, an Italian, never mind how good the player may be, would have the have the same blood pumping through the veins that William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and James McFadden all share?! It is bad enough that our Assistant Manager is England-hero Terry Butcher!
To add to this growing disintegration of our national pride and belief, was a broadsheet response to Scotland’s Autumn Test defeat last weekend to New Zealand at Murrayfield, where the sub-heading read: ‘Scots fans acceptance of defeat shows the depths the sport has sunk’. Fair enough, we were playing the almighty All-Blacks, but for a crowd, and you could also argue a starting XV, to accept defeat before the kick-off, which the writer’s sub-heading is referring to, is not that same never-say-die, Scotland the Brave attitude that we used to be renowned for, is it?!
I think I’m starting to feel that amongst the celebrity lifestyle, the sponsorship deals and the big-money contracts that all our professionals enjoy nowadays, there doesn’t seem too much space or time to squeeze in the thought of: “Wait a second. I am representing Scotland here. My country! These people rely on me to defend our pride! I am going to go out and put my body on the line destroying this enemy!” - or something along those lines - followed by some sort of roar or gorilla-esque chest-punch!
If I was good at something, like properly good at something, and not just average at a lot of things (which seems to be my sorry state of affairs), then representing my country would be the ultimate achievement, during which I would happily put my body on the line and greet my way through Flower of Scotland. Why? Because I am Scottish ,and proud of that fact!
So if Frank Hadden came up to me in early-March and said: “Look, I know you love this country, and it is people like you that I need to win this Calcutta Cup! Can you play?”.
“Frank,” I’d say, “it would be the greatest honour! However, you must leave, and take the team with you. If they don’t have that Bannockburn spirit, then to this cause, they are of no use. Leave this to me.” And with a turn of my cape, and the thought of ‘When did I turn into Darth Vader?’ running through my head, I would head off into the night, to recruit fifteen of Scotland’s finest sporting Scots!
For a mean front-row, and a fine hooker, I would recruit our Winter-Olympic hero Rhona Martin. With the infamous autocratic roar which made her a household name and the nation’s favourite curler, a forward pack would dare not step out of line on her watch. She would bond the front-row tightly together, much akin to her captaincy of her curling-team, and brush opponents aside in the scrum, ensuring that our forward play ran smooth as ice. She is notably proud to be Scottish, and looks as though she could pack a punch if Martin Corry decided to push his luck.
On either-side of Martin, would come Colin Montgomerie, and legendary darts come Top of the Pops hero, Jocky Wilson. Monty, not only a Scottish icon but a European God, has been a Ryder Cup stalwart on eight occasions, never losing a singles match when his nationality, albeit European, has been on the line! Perhaps a little miserable looking on the golf-course, there is no doubt that this downbeat approach would turn to sheer anger and resulting aggression on the rugby pitch. Matched with a heavy frame, his power and ability to drive literally hundreds of yards would give any team a massive bonus. Having failed to capture a major throughout his fantastic career, and having a notoriously bad relationship with the American public, what better-way to crown a career than defeating America’s greatest ally: England.
As for tight-head prop, the position goes to Jocky Wilson. Initially a coal delivery man before his rise to fame in the world of darts, the Fife-born champion is sure to have a bit of muscle about him: bags of coal are sure to be one of the heaviest bag-fulls on the planet! With the notorious Scottish talent of enjoying the odd regular tipple, he fits the bill for hard Scottish b*****d so perfectly, that he practically wrote the bill! His alleged punch at an official in 1982 proves he isn’t prepared to stand for any tomfoolery in the line-out, and is certainly a prized asset with his weight and bulls-eye aim.
Behind the front-three are locks Scott Murray and Sam Torrance. Both Scotland through and through, Murray has won almost ninety caps representing us for over ten years, in a career that has seen him been twice voted Scottish player of the year, and represent the British Lions on 2001. Re-asserting his proud Scottish roots in 2006, he became the second ever Scottish player to be sent off whilst wearing the navy blue, after kicking Welsh forward Ian Gough in the face. Never one to shy from a ruck or maul, combined with his massive size and ability to take matters into his own hands, as well as years of experience, he would be a dead-cert for starting.
Torrance, although not exactly an aggressor, is so proud of his Scottish heritage, that he currently resides in England. Similar to Monty in both career and achievements, he represented Europe eight times in the Ryder Cup, in a career that has lasted over thirty years, and captained Europe to success over the Yanks in 2002. Always the charmer, his level-headedness and leadership would provide that extra stability to our scrum, which would definitely cancel out his poor height in the line-out. He has always carried that extra tyre, which may prove invaluable in the ruck.
As far as flankers go, the positions are filled by the finest defensive partnership in Scottish footballing history: Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen and Scotland pairing of Willie Miller and Alex McLeish. Both hard as nails, the pairing that took Aberdeen to the Scottish League title, the Scottish Cup and the UEFA Cup Winners Cup, and Scotland to the World Cup, practically tackled in their sleep. Sir Alex may argue that they were the finest defensive partnership that he ever created, until Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister at Manchester United. With these two at open-side and blindside, we would have fast flankers to breakaway, neither of whom would miss a tackle and would naturally assert themselves at the breakdown. Their love of the fifty-fifty is the essence of Scottish sporting identity!
At number eight is the powerhouse, the hard-hitting current Scottish Rugby Captain that is Jason White. Renowned for his crunching tackles, players have openly admitted to avoiding being his training partner! With him at the helm, he has already captained us to victory over the Auld Enemy, and adds so much power and strength to the scrum no matter where he plays.
Now we go to the backs. At scrum-half is where I’d play. Here, I can avoid the majority of contact during the game, as long as I get the ball out of the scrum quickly. So, for safety reasons, I’d be here!
At fly-half is the cheeky-boy himself, the Scottish hero who is more than used to the number ten on the back of his shirt, James McFadden. Faddy would excel at number ten due to his skill and quick thinking. He epitomizes Scottish belief and pride, and would never offer anything less than one hundred percent internationally. He is the ‘have-a-go’ hero, who has had a knock-on effect nationwide; John Smeaton being the perfect inspired example! He is a great passer and everyone knows the consummate ease with which he can send the ball between the posts from thirty - nah, let’s say forty - yards! The perfect number ten!
Speeding up the wings would be the late Colin McRae, and Olympic cyclist Chris Hoy. Colin McRae undoubtedly made rally-driving the global sport that it is here and now. Not only through the video game franchise, McRae’s aggressive, full-throttle racing style was what made him so unique and exhilarating on the track, and so well appreciated by fans worldwide. He was a much-loved and well-respected Scot, and without a doubt deserves a place in any true Scottish side.
Chris Hoy, the fastest man on two wheels, flies up and down the wing at number thirteen. Not only arguably Scotland’s greatest ever athlete, but the triple Gold winning cyclist seems to have the same build as The Hulk! His thighs are sixty-six centimeters in circumference, and, like McRae, is every bit the gentleman! It looks like the old saying of brains in the backs and brawn in the forwards is proving correct again!
My first centre would be Andy Murray. I have put him here as he is very used to playing off the back-line, and can easily serve up a massive hit! Like Colin Montgomerie, Murray too has that ole’ Scottish trait of never appearing to be best pleased! However, there are glimpses of controlled aggression in the star’s game which could prove pivotal if we are lined-up on our defensive twenty-two. Murray also holds fantastic concentration throughout his matches, and has the speed and power to break through the back-line with a cool back-hand (-off)!
Joining Murray as his outside-centre is 100m Gold medalist Allan Wells. It is hard to imagine that the last white athlete to win Gold in the 100m sprint is a Scotsman from Edinburgh! Wells, who was born, raised and trained in Scotland, won Gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, with a personal best that remains the Scottish record to this day (send someone from Edinburgh down to parts of Glasgow on a Saturday night and I’m sure that record would disappear in nine seconds flat!). Retired now, Wells still coaches sprinting for the Scottish national side.
Making up the side is Scotland’s finest rugby player at full-back: Gavin Hastings. Not only a truly patriotic Scottish captain, Hastings also captained the British and Irish Lions, and is the Lions’ all time top points scorer. Leading from the back, Hastings was a fine player and captain, who was a kick away from taking Scotland to the World Cup Final back in 1991, scored the try that granted Scotland victory in France against the hosts for almost thirty years, and was a member of the Grand Slam winning Scottish side of 1990. Truly inspirational.
Looking at all these Scottish heroes, it is simply impossible to accept the thought of someone like Nacho Novo playing for our national side! Scotland has a rich history of teams and success spawned by incredible athletes, national identity, and national pride. All of the sportsmen and women above have attributes that make up the true Scottish identity and sporting fibre - fair enough, all different key features, some more integral to playing rugby -that I think you’d struggle to find anywhere else but inside true Scots! What they do all have in common though is the Scottish aggression and pride that comes from being Scottish! So, as far as I am concerned, that is the kind of passport you need to represent us Scots: that true Scottish blood!

Published: November 2008, Strathclyde Telegraph

Viva Espana - Spain Back On Top After A Prolonged Siesta

There are many great stories of incredible achievement in this world. We, the humans, the owners of Earth, have conquered everything the ‘G-man’ upstairs has placed in our way, or, in some cases, placed far out of our way for health and safety reasons, only to sit (on a cloud) - annoyed presumably – and watch us find a miraculous way to conquer that which He deemed un-conquerable.
First, there were the world’s great seas and oceans. Then, before you could say “Where’s my jet-ski?”, those crazy Yanks the Wright brothers were flying a more reliable service than their Ryanair ancestors ever will, high above the grassy mounds of North Carolina.
Years later, we were atop the world’s highest peak in our first successful scale of Mount Everest, and then, before you knew it, those high-flying American’s were at it again, this time sending man to what appeared to be a slightly deserted looking moon.
Now, mankind, getting a bit cocky in my opinion, has begun to imitate the lesser species of this planet, starting with the bird, post-Yves Rossy’s successful jet-propelled Channel cross two weeks ago.
These have all been great achievements, which have been marked along the way with prizes, titles, awards, and, most significant perhaps, bank holidays. However, as this sphere of achievement that we call Earth continues to turn, we need to remember and accept those colossal under-achievers amongst us…name who you will.
Only a matter of months ago, from a sports point of view, the perennial under-achievers were the Spanish; a nation with a great sporting history, domestically widely recognised and respected, but competing on a national scale forever the underachievers. What a difference a summer can make.
It kicked-off for the Spanish with football, where they triumphed at Euro 2008, held jointly by Austria and Switzerland throughout June.
Widely regarded in the beautiful game as the ‘nearly-men’ of international football, the nation with the fantastic flair and skill yet unceasingly falling short of that allusive major triumph, Spain were tipped by many a pundit to meet Germany in the final of the competition, in a prediction that eventually became reality. Pitting their wits against the favourites, who were, somewhat ironically, captained by the perennial runner-up in world football Michael Ballack, it was widely believed that Spain might just have enough in the tank this time to make it across the finish line. And they did. Just.
Fifty-four years on from their last success, Spain overcame Europe due to an experienced, strong defence, a tireless, creative and exciting midfield, and a venomous strike partnership in David Villa and Fernando Torres.
The saying goes that “the key to a good team is a good defence”. This is expertly demonstrated in the Spanish side. With the long-term, first-team European experience of goalkeeper Iker Casillas and defensive rock Carles Puyol, the foundations to perhaps the best back-line in world football are set. Add the pace, stamina and skill of Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos on the right-hand side, and Spain have a defence that is as good soaking up pressure as it is in going forward down the flank.
Although sometimes criticized over his midfield selection in the Euro’s, Luis Aragonés, the former Spain coach, was not exactly short on choice. The names Cesc Fabregas, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Marcos Senna and Xabi Alonso speak for themselves.
In football, it is widely accepted that the age for a forward player is twenty-seven. However, with Villa and Torres aged 26 and 24 respectively, the extra flair and speed that their age provides them gave them the edge to run defences ragged in the tournament, and fire Spain to the trophy.
So what came next for Spain? Try those fourteen days in early July when we all start to think about taking up tennis: Wimbledon.
Rafael Nadal, the poster-boy of the men’s game, fought-out what is now argued to be the best men’s single final ever, with World Number One, Roger Federer. Nadal defeated the Swiss champ, to not only claim the Wimbledon title, but also to edge closer to usurping the World Number One ranking from his long-term foe.
He finally leapt Federer in August, after winning Gold at the Olympic Games, to be crowned World Number One. Nadal also started and ended the summer off brilliantly, by claiming his fourth consecutive French Open in June, and leading his Spanish team to David Cup victory in front of 20,000 fans in Madrid, from which they will go onto compete against Argentina in the final later this year.
As it stands currently, Nadal still sits in first place in the ATP rankings.
To climax a fantastic few weeks for Spanish sport, Carlos Sastre claimed victory in the Tour De France, giving the nation their third consecutive victory in the 3,500km race.
Sastre, who rides for Team CSC Saxo Bank, won the race by fifty-eight seconds over Aussie Cadel Evans, with two other Spanish riders, Samuel Sanchez and Alejandro Valverde, making up the top ten.
On top of all these successes, Spanish sport had several other reasons to be smiling over the summer, with Sergio Garcia and Miguel Angel Jiminez both representing Europe in the Ryder Cup, with the latter being recommended for the European captaincy in two years time. Spain also put on a very good display at the Olympics, finishing fourteenth overall, winning a total of eighteen medals, and equalling their second highest count of five golds in one Olympics – their joint best since the sixteen they claimed whilst hosts in 1992.
So I suppose it is now easy to see that the country once considered the ‘nearly men’, or ‘the great sporting nation that usually fail to win anything’, have turned their fortunes around over the past five or so months. Does that mean that there is maybe, just maybe, a chance of Scotland doing something similar? I doubt it. But hey, lets just enjoy it while it lasts! Whether the Spaniards are playing fantastic football, or Nadal is flexing the guns on the court, then watch it, as it will be entertaining, that is for sure! If not, just enjoy a San Miguel and use the recent Spanish success as a suitable toast for a night on the tiles!

Published: October 2008, Strathclyde Telegraph