Sunday, 31 October 2010

Power Snooker: Cue the revolution?

Yesterday, buried in the mirky broadcasting depths of ITV4, Power Snooker made its first appearance. Having watched it briefly, it appears that some joker who goes by the name of Rod Gunner broke into a darts event and replaced the board with a snooker table.

This was Gunner's attempt to drag snooker, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century. He has revamped the sport by giving it an edgy new name and rule changes that will have traditionalist snooker fans breaking out into a quiet tut.

Power snooker, with its accelerated game play and additional scoring rules, could not be further removed from the gentleman's game we are use to seeing on the BBC. Hell, the players did even wear bow-ties!

To be fair, the players and crowd alike seemed to embrace snooker's makeover. The players entered the stage, accompanied by the conveniently attractive 'Power Girls', to their own entrance music, high-fiving fans along the way. Ali Carter even made his way to the commentary box to offer his eloquent and insightful thoughts about the event. The whole thing was as bizarre as it was comical.

 'Ding Junhui My Lord, Ding Junhui' (to the tune of Kum-ba-ya)

The 2,000 strong audience drunkenly chanted in the final as the Chinese player lost to Ronnie O'Sullivan by a score of 572 to 258. O'Sullivan, winner of the inaugural Power Snooker tournament last night in London's o2 Arena, is perfectly suited to the new game and pocketed a cheeky £35,000 for his days work - no wonder he spoke so favourably about Power Snooker after the event.

Whether Power Snooker can come close to replicating the success of Twenty20 cricket, clearly its influence, is hard to say. I doubt it though.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The 2010 Ballon d'Or Shortlist: The latest indication of the demise of English football

X. Alonso, I. Casillas, M. Ozil, C. Ronaldo (R Madrid)
D. Alves, A. Iniesta, C. Puyol, L. Messi, D. Villa, Xavi (Barca)
D. Forlan (A Madrid)
S. Eto'o, J. Cesar, Maicon, W. Sneijder (Inter)
M. Klose, P. Lahm, T. Müller, A. Robben, B. Schweinsteiger (B Munich)
D. Drogba (Chelsea)
C. Fabregas (Arsenal)
A. Gyan (Sunderland)

This is the 23-man shortlist for the 2010 Ballon d'Or. The reaction of the English press to it has been predictably glum. Rightly so. For the first time since 1995, there is not one English player nominated for the award. Furthermore, the Premiership's claims to be the best league in World Football is looking more and more suspect as only three players from the English top flight have made the exclusive list – in reality it should only be two as Asamoah Gyan only moved to Sunderland over Summer.

The announcement of this shortlist serves as a useful means for me to conclude my bleak insight into the state of English football, a theme that has dominated the blog since England's woeful World Cup.

The most prestigious footballing accolade illustrates the trouble that English football finds itself in. This is not to say that the absence of England's finest from the award ought to be met with all-out doom and gloom. Nevertheless, Fifa's shortlist is the latest condemnation of English football.

Quite simply, the vast majority of the world's best players apply their trade in elsewhere. Financially, the Premiership can no longer assert its dominance over other divisions. England's big stars are dwindling while the intensifying search for a new generation of world-class players has proven relatively fruitless.

This is not to say that the Premiership is not still the most entertaining league in world football. It probably is. This is not, however, a result of the quality of the football but rather the style and perhaps the lack in quality that is cohesive with entertaining matches. England's dismal performances in South Africa were certainly, in part, a result of the declining quality of Premiership football.

A crumbling economy, off-the-field distractions for players, a lack of emphasis on nurturing home-grown talent by clubs and declining numbers of English players, managers and owners in the Premiership have, as I have commented on various occasions in the past three months, played a fundamental role in the recent demise of English football.

The time, not so long ago, of English teams dominating the latter stages of the Champions League has past. The lure of the Premiership for foreign players has waned - the transfer activity over the past few years has seen the big names flying out of England while, with the exception of Manchester City's signings, few are coming in.

This post may seem overtly negative. English football is far from being in a state of complete disarray. There are, however, underlying problems that need to be addressed. The World Cup made that much abundantly clear and Fifa's Ballon d'Or shortlist has emphasised it. Our view of England's position within world football must be re-evaluated.

It appears to be abundantly clear that England is falling behind their European rivals. The passion for the sport remains unfaltering but the way the game is run is a far more serious concern, though. Their approach to grass-roots level coaching, whether it be young players or new coaches, falls short of the standards of the likes of Germany, Spain and Holland. The infrastructure of English football needs to be reassessed. Our over-reliance on a very slow stream of stand-out players, of which Jack Wilshere promises to be the latest (hence the huge amount of hype surrounding him), has left England evidently short on genuine world-class talent and sufficient strength in depth.

The clubs have a tendency to be too short-minded to invest in youth. Too many top players seem to be lacking a functioning moral compass (the likes of Giggs and Scholes being the exceptions that prove the rule) which hinders their ability to maintain progress on-the-field. It is, to an extent, a cultural issue. The huge wages and celebrity status that now comes with being a professional footballer in England can easily diminish a love for the game and a hunger to succeed. The FA, meanwhile, spends more money on failing managers rather than attempting to find solutions to problems at the grass-roots level.

We know the Ballon d'Or will not be won by and Englishman this year. What remains unknown is when an English player will win one again. Michael Owen was the last Englishman to do so in 2001. He ended the 22-year wait since Kevin Keegan had picked up the award back in 1979. It seems likely that, unless the faltering foundations of English football are corrected, England may be facing an even longer wait this time around.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Nurturing Young Players: There is no substitute for competitive football

My blogging, for various reasons, has slowed dramatically of late and when this week I was ready to revive Polly's Pause for Sport I was spoilt for choice of things to write about. The Rooney contract saga was one of the most interesting stories British football has seen in a long time. Portsmouth escaped administration, just. Liverpool's troubles continued on and off the pitch and Gareth Bale announced himself to the world with a stunning hat-trick at the San Siro.

Such is the volume of articles and blogs written on these stories, however, I have refrained from commenting on them. Instead I thought I would continue what has become, not through any particular agenda, a theme of looking at young footballing talent. I suppose I have been influenced by the current trend in England of desperately looking at where the next generation of footballers in this country is going to come from and how we can begin to get the most out of young players.

My argument this time is simply that young footballers need to play. Often managers are overly cautious when attempting to nurture their young players but the examples of some of the Premiership's current crop of stars show that time on the pitch is the most important part of a growing footballer's development.

One problem is certainly that big clubs buy young players and leave them to fester in the reserve or youth teams. Highly rated teenagers are snapped up by the big clubs when their career would often benefit from playing regularly, even if it is at a lower standard, rather than merely featuring in the League Cup.

The likes of Michael Owen, Cesc Fabregas and Rio Ferdinand, to name just three players that spring to mind, all illustrate the rewards of playing regularly at a young age. Now it is, of course, easier for extraordinary talent to break into a team at a younger age but each of these players reaped the rewards of gaining valuable match-day experience. Their talent was noted within their respective youth teams and they were thrust into their club's first team before they were even adults.

Each of these example began playing week-in-week-out at the age of 16 or 17 and although they each showed immense potential they were all still raw talents. Yet all three quickly developed into world class players by their early twenties as they able to progress their individual talents by learning in an uncompromising arena.

There is no substitute for this kind of experience. Reserve or youth team matches can never replicate what will be learnt in competitive matches. Jack Wilshere, after a loan spell at Bolton last season, is now showing the value of playing top level football every Saturday afternoon. It allows players to discover their own strengths and weaknesses. It enables a young player to adapt to the strains - mental, technical and physical - of top flight football.

At the age of 16, Cesc Fabregas was playing regularly alongside Patrick Vieira in Premiership and Champions League matches and at that level you learn very quickly. Playing with and against great players will only aid the top talent to advance their games by leaps and bounds. Wrapping young players in cotton wool or using them sparingly can often waste their talent.

Ferguson's golden generation at Manchester United highlights the point perfectly. He integrated a host of young talent including, Giggs, Beckham, Scholes and the Neville's, amongst senior players. His faith was rewarded as their progression was accelerated and their potential was optimised. Had they been used as bit-part players until the age of 21 they may have never grown into the stars they became. Wenger takes a similar approach for bringing through his youngsters with similar success as too did Harry Redknapp with the likes of Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Jermaine Defoe and Michael Carrick at West Ham in the late nineties.

Players obviously develop at different rates and thus it would be foolish to claim that all players should be thrown in the deep end at a young age. However, as Wilshere and Bale continue to steal the plaudits this season, the evidence is there for all to see – young players will benefit from playing regular competitive football.

Thoughts, comments and opinions...

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Too Much Too Young: The dangers of money and fame for young footballers

First of all, apologies for the lack of blogging. It has been a rather hectic couple of weeks but normal service can now be resumed... hopefully.

There was an article about Ryan Giggs in The Guardian today from which there were some interesting ideas available for exploration. The interview offered a brief insight into how Giggs has managed to partner success on the pitch while keeping his private life out of the public eye. It is this unique talent, a talent lacked by so many footballers today, to maintain focus and ambition while not becoming preoccupied with the distraction of a huge wage and the media circus that surrounds the sport that is, for me at least, of particular importance.

Manchester United's 36-year old winger is the most successful player in British history and is estimated to be worth £24 million. Yet despite his nearly twenty years in the football limelight we barely know anything about Ryan Giggs the man.

The interview reveals, amongst various interesting facts, that Giggs was earninga mere £30 a week when he made his début for United. Needless to say he did not care. It is this point that was of most interest to me when I read the article. The Welshman is the antithesis to the mindset of so many modern footballers.

So often you will hear people comment that footballers earn too much money 'just to kick a ball'. This is only fair to an extent. There is masses of money in football. It makes sense that the salaries of the elite players reflect this. It is the same in any professions. That is the reward for being gifted with unique ability or for working tirelessly to reach of the upper echelons of your given trade.

It is not the top players earning big money that is the issue. It is the young players who also receive massive pay-cheques that is at the heart of the problem with modern day footballers.

The problem is that all this money has become a distraction that is too large for most up-and-coming players to avoid. The average wage of a Premiership player is (supposedly) £28,000 a week. The preoccupation that some players now appear to have with how much they are earning, especially in comparison with other players, can only harm their progress on the pitch.

The ludicrous sums of money being deposited into the banks of unproven young players by debt-ridden clubs can only be detrimental to their chances of fulfilling their footballing potential. A love for the sport can quickly be replaced by a love for money while their hunger to succeed diminishes in favour of larger pay-cheques and a thirst for the limelight. Young players can become complacent, their morals can become distorted and their sense of reality can be lost.

Despite all his accolades and silverware, Giggs' greatest achievement has been his ability to cope with the distractions and temptations available to the modern day footballer. He has refrained from a life of excess, he conducts himself impeccably at all times and his hunger for the game has not been filled by the money he has acquired along the way.

The article highlights how far removed he is from popular culture's image of a 'football star'. His face is not on billboards. His pictures are not in magazines. He plays football solely for a love of the game and a desire to succeed. It is an example that is rarely seen by most players at his level and it is one that ought to be followed.

The wider point that footballers in general earn too much money is a debate for another time. Yet the point remains, the amount of money on offer can only be dangerous for young footballers. Giggs' interview, and indeed his entire career, illustrates this point aptly. Attitudes and egos, which develop in accordance with the increased money on offer to them, hinder their on-the-field progression.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Previous posts