Friday, 3 April 2015

The Neverending Story (Or the emotional rollercoaster of being an English sports fan)

An inspiring tale of adversity
and ultimately, Redemption
We all want a good movie to have a few ups and downs, plot twists and to put the us through a range of emotions. We want to be engaged and affected by the characters, to feel disconsolate and despairing because of their troubles, inspired and encouraged by their fortitude, and ultimately uplifted and contented by their triumphs. We want to feel like they've earned the happy ending, they've demonstrated enough vivacity and vigour to warrant our affections. We want to see them grow and develop as time progresses, overcome frailties and conquer obstacles. We accept their mistakes and lapses in judgement, we endure the frustrations and we retain a glimmer of hope regardless of the dire circumstance. Overall, we want some kind of satisfactory conclusion, ideally a famous and emphatic victory.

Beckham's England career - the ultimate
footballing redemption story
Is it not the same with the saga of supporting a national sports team? The players and managers, wins and losses, injuries and suspensions, qualification and seemingly inevitable elimination, the undying hope of ultimate success? Teams show growth and development, promise and aspirations, they suffer disappointments and under-achievements, they demonstrate great skill and physicality before lapsing into old habits and insipid performances. Forever our teams seem to be showing encouraging signs, in a period of rebuilding and looking to the future. 

How can it be with a constant turnover of personnel involved there is no significant change in the relentless cycle each of our major international teams follow? It's like a Bond movie, the characters are different each time and the events vary slightly but ultimately the same basic things happen. The only difference is Bond always come out winning. 
We've all known a bit too
much of this in the last 25  years

Let's look at the football team and our endless pattern of:
a) promising major tournament qualification campaign with new players involved and a building sense of hope and expectation
b) a few poor performances & results in friendlies against major nations to keep our feet on the ground
c) some kind of drama / media storm in the months before the tournament itself
d) an ultimately disappointing tournament with "wholesale changes needed"
e) back to the start, rebuilding, getting rid of dead wood and bringing in new faces to refresh the whole cycle

The truth is that our young players, initially showing so much promise and excitement, rarely become anything spectacular. Over the last 20 years there has been 13 English winners of the Young Player of the Year award but just 7 Player of the Year awards. Only Gerrard and Rooney have won the Young Player and gone onto win the main one. Even worse, the Football Writers award has gone to just 5 Englishmen in 20 years. The issue of an increasing influx of foreigners is for another time, but the lack of development from promising youngster to world-class talent is sadly reflected by our national team never quite making the step up. 

The table shows our
FIFA world ranking since 1992. I nearly used the word "progress" but evidently that's not really suitable. What it does show is that with all the ups and downs in rankings, we should have done better than one semi-final in the last 25 years.

Following the cricket or rugby teams is hardly much better. The rugby team have of course known some recent success with the World Cup in 2003 and some 6 Nations wins but when you see the coach describe your team as "courageous" you know there's something wrong. Similar to how Scotland are repeatedly described as brave without ever improving, we have now come runner up 4 years in a row and are apparently still a young team maturing and building towards the world cup. Rarely do you hear a blunt opinion such as that of the RFU Chief Exec who is demanding higher standards. With less range of teams to compete against there is more consistency in terms of rankings but the same cycle of hope and disappointment goes on here.

I can't bring myself to write about the cricket team at the moment, and I don't think series against New Zealand and Australia this summer are going to help much.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

NFL Week 3

Week 3 saw the last round of fixtures with all 32 teams playing. This coming week there are 6 teams (Bengals, Broncos, Browns, Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks) with a week off. It happens to include 4 of the strongest teams in the entire league (sorry Rams & Browns, I didn't mean you) so the rest need to make the most of the chance to get wins on the board and add pressure to the big guns. 

Let's have a quick review of some of the big games from Week 3:

Russell Wilson destroyed Denver
with his feet in overtime
Seattle Seahawks 26-20 Denver Broncos (overtime)
Another dominant defensive display from Seattle looked to be leading them to a convincing win in the Superbowl rematch until a late rally from Denver took the game into overtime. A safety (when a team is tackled in their own endzone), followed by a first Russell Wilson interception in about 3 million attempts and suddenly momentum was with the Broncos. An incredible drive led by Peyton Manning resulted in a touchdown, two point conversion and overtime. The Seahawks then won the toss, drove all the way down the field and scored the "golden goal" touchdown to extinguish the Broncos' hopes of revenge. That might have to wait until 1st February 2015.

Carolina Panthers 19-37 Pittsburgh Steelers
A big away win for the impressive Pittsburgh Steelers. Carolina are widely accepted as having one of the best defenses in the league but the combined running of Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount trampled all over them. After a very disappointing loss against the Ravens in Week 2, suddenly you have to consider the Steelers as genuine AFC contenders. 

Bortles vs Luck could be a rivalry
for years to come
Jacksonville Jaguars 17-44 Indianapolis Colts
A thumping win for the Colts to get them off the mark this season, after defeats in their first two matches. London's adopted team Jacksonville are in all sorts of trouble this year. Already 0-3, it isn't going to get any better this Sunday away at the Chargers (who beat Seattle last week). The one bright spot is the introduction of Blake Bortles who will now be the starting quarterback, and a positive step towards the future of the franchise. 

Arizona Cardinals 23-14 San Francisco 49ers
The ultra-high quality NFC West took another interesting turn as the less fancied Cardinals moved to 3-0. The 49ers have been to the NFC Championship game for the last 3 seasons but face a real challenge to even reach the playoffs in such a competitive division. Going on the assumption that Seattle pull through to win the division, it's not going to be possible for both Arizona and SF to take a wildcard. 

High scoring clash in the NFC East
Philadelphia Eagles 37-34 Washington Redskins
The Eagles are definitely the team to watch for entertainment value if nothing else. Nick Foles certainly knows how to throw a pass and with McCoy and Sproles running the ball, they basically aim to simply outscore their opponents however many points that means. The Redskins put up a great show, with DeSean Jackson unable to get the win against his old team, but Philly just have too many weapons. Could be a very dangerous team come playoff time. 

The rest of the results from Week 3:

The Bengals may be a team to watch
Chicago Bears 27-17 New York Jets
Buffalo Bills 10-22 San Diego Chargers
Cincinnati Bengals 33-7 Tennessee Titans
Cleveland Browns 21-23 Baltimore Ravens
Detroit Lions 19-7 Green Bay Packers
Miami Dolphins 15-34 Kansas City Chiefs
New England Patriots 16-9 Oakland Raiders
New Orleans Saints 20-9 Minnesota Vikings
New York Giants 30-17 Houston Texans
St Louis Rams 31-34 Dallas Cowboys

Atlanta Falcons 56-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Looking at Week 4, there are obviously less matches but a few tasty clashes in store still. The Eagles have a chance to show they're genuine contenders when they travel to San Francisco; the Packers and the Bears came into the season with high hopes but have both been somewhat underwhelming - they clash in Chicago. The Bucs were slaughtered in Atlanta (trailing 56-0 at one point) and next travel to a reinvigorated Pittsburgh, that could get messy.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

NFL Week 2 Review

Another week completed and another mixture of comebacks, upsets and massive performances in the NFL. However early it is, there are worrying signs for expected playoff contenders New Orleans, Indianapolis and San Francisco. The Patriots, Bears and Packers returned to form after disappointing performances in the opening weekend, and will hope to get some real form going in Week 3. And the likes of Jacksonville and Oakland are living up to the dismal pre-season expectations. 

Here are a few big match reviews, along with the rest of the scores (home team listed first):

San Diego Chargers 30-21 Seattle Seahawks
A big upset with the mighty Seahawks defense unable to shut down the Philip Rivers / Antonio Gates combination, which hooked up for 3 touchdowns. Marshawn Lynch was strangely underused and Russell Wilson couldn't quite get enough going to pull the Superbowl champions through. A glimmer of hope for the NFC West rivals Arizona (2-0) and San Francisco (1-1). 

Chicago Bears 28-20 San Francisco 49ers
Another surprising result, another hat-trick of touchdowns for the home team (this time Brandon Marshall) and another big comeback. The 49ers led 17-0 and 20-7 but fell apart in the 4th quarter, with Colin Kaepernick in particular putting in a dismal performance. Jay Cutler and the Bears have a strong offensive unit but any team hoping to make it to the latter stages of January will have to avoid such frailty.

Minnesota Vikings 7-30 New England Patriots
The Pats had suffered a surprise loss in Miami last week so a trip to Minnesota presented a genuine danger of falling 0-2 for the first time since 2001. The Vikings had thrashed the Rams away from home on the opening weekend but went into this fixture in turmoil with Adrian Peterson (the NFL's best running back) arrested for child abuse. The added pressure on quarterback Matt Cassell led to 4 interceptions and a thumping win for Tom Brady and his team.

Denver Broncos 24-17 Kansas City Chiefs
The new top-ranked team in the league (with the Seahawks slipping) would have expected to maul their AFC West rivals but in the end had to resist a late rally just to secure a one score win. Despite the absence of Jamaal Charles, Kansas City threatened the Broncos all the way to the death but just couldn't get it done.

Other notable matches included the Colts throwing away a golden position against a fearsome Eagles offense, the league's best defensive player, JJ Watt, scoring a touchdown on offense for Houston and a crushing win for the Redskins potentially signalling the beginning of the end for iconic but injured RG3

Here is a list of the remaining results:

Indianapolis Colts 27-30 Philadelphia Eagles
Buffalo Bills 29-10 Miami Dolphins
Carolina Panthers 24-7 Detroit Lions
Cincinnati Bengals 24-10 Atlanta Falcons
Cleveland Browns 26-24 New Orleans Saints
Green Bay Packers 31-24 New York Jets
New York Giants 14-25 Arizona Cardinals
Oakland Raiders 14-30 Houston Texans
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17-19 St Louis Rams
Tennessee Titans 10-26 Dallas Cowboys
Washington Redskins 41-10 Jacksonville Jaguars
Baltimore Ravens 26-6 Pittsburgh Steelers

Heading into week 3, the last week before bye weeks begin (6 teams don't play a match in week 4), the big match ups are Broncos-Seahawks in a Superbowl rematch in Seattle, the Patriots likely to decimate the utterly dreadful Raiders and 0-2 Colts going to divisional rivals (and also 0-2) Jaguars, who are surely only a loss or two away from starting Blake Bortles.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

NFL Week 1 Summary

Could Megatron break his own
single season receiving yards record?
With Week 1 of the NFL 2014 season coming to an end, we can a have quick review of the opening round of fixtures. There were standout and expected performances from big names such as Calvin Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, AJ Green and Peyton Manning. The teams expected to challenge for the Superbowl generally looked strong, particularly the Seahawks and Broncos. And there were a lot of last year's troubles being seen again by the likes of the Tony Romo (Cowboys), Eli Manning (Giants) and Robert Griffin III (Redskins). A run down of some of the biggest games:

Rodgers didn't attempt a single pass
even remotely near Richard Sherman
Seattle Seahawks 36-16 Green Bay Packers
Last year's Superbowl champions made a massive statement, thumping a potential challenger for this year's title. Like Man City crushing Liverpool in the Premiership a couple of weeks ago it was very much a case of asserting who is boss. Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson as well as the defense looking even better than last year. Aaron Rodgers couldn't perform his magic on the toughest stage.

How Tom Brady spent most
of Sunday afternoon
Miami Dolphins 33-20 New England Patriots
Last year's AFC Championship finalists (like losing semi-finalists) New England hadn't lost an opening day fixture for 11 years until they were comprehensively beaten by divisional rivals Miami. Tom Brady looked a shadow of the superstar he has been and the Dolphins dominated in every aspect in the second half. 

Dallas Cowboys 17-28 San Francisco 49ers
There was a lot of optimism going into this season for Dallas, with a refocused Tony Romo at quarterback and wide receiver Dez Bryant ready for a truly great season. With the 49ers defense expected to struggle compared to the last few years the opening 15 minutes couldn't have been more of a surprise. Fumble returns, interceptions, incomplete passes, it all went wrong for the Cowboys and in reality the score could have been a lot worse. Bryant also had to go off for dehydration which scuppered any realistic chance of a comeback. 

Denver Broncos 31-24 Indianapolis Colts
Peyton Manning led the Broncos to a 24-0 lead with three touchdown passes to tight end Julius Thomas. With Andrew Luck throwing two interceptions before finding his groove in the second half, it was too little too late. The Colts were unable to take advantage of multiple chances to make a real game of it and showed the same frailties on the offensive line and rush defense as last year.

JJ Watt celebrating a sack on RG3
Other headlines included a couple of overtime wins for the Falcons (against the Saints led by Drew Brees) and the Bills (a surprise win at the Bears with Jay Cutler misfiring and Alshon Jeffrey going off injured). Last year the Kansas City Chiefs started with a 9-0 record but started this season with a tame loss at home to the pretty weak Titans. Robert Griffin III struggled again, although admittedly up against the mighty JJ Watt coming for him. It could have been worse as well if top draft pick Jadeveon Clowney hadn't gone off injured.

This coming week, look out for Broncos slaughtering the Chiefs, Rodgers finding his mojo at home to the Jets and the Colts Eagles game on Monday night racking up 70-80 points. 

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The NFL is back

The last couple of years has seen a significant rise in the popularity of the NFL in the UK, particularly as a result of the Wembley games and decent media coverage (intentional pun for the serious followers). As the new season punts off this week, there are a whole range of stories to pique the curiosity of the even the most occasional fan. The first openly gay player was drafted but didn't make the final cut for St Louis Rams; the Seahawks are aiming to become the first team to retain the title since the '04-'05 Patriots; London's adopted team Jacksonville Jaguars have signed exciting prospect Blake Bortles and there are a record 3 matches at Wembley this year for the UK fanbase to follow.

My bet for this season's MVP
This Thursday night sees a blockbuster beginning to the 2014 NFL season with the reigning Superbowl champions Seattle hosting many people's outside pick for the title, the Green Bay Packers. Much like the championship game in February, this year's opener will be a clash of the best defense (Seattle) against one of the league's best offences. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is perhaps the best player in the NFL and is back after missing a lot of last season due to injury. The match is also the first clash of these two since one of the most controversial moments in recent NFL history, the so-called Fail Mary, when the Seahawks won on a last minute touchdown which should have been disallowed.

The greatest team in the history of American Football, or indeed any sport, the Indianapolis Colts, start their season with a huge match up against the Broncos. Colts legend now in Denver, Peyton Manning, set records for passing yards and touchdowns last year, before defeat in the Superbowl and will be looking to go one better this time around. 
This time last year Indy were coming off their dramatic 2012 season and looking to build on Andrew Luck's rookie year. They ultimately lost to the Patriots in the playoffs (something Colts fans are familiar with) but did record impressive regular season victories over the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos as well as beating the Chiefs in the second highest comeback victory in NFL history. With a stronger group of wide receivers there could be more success ahead but the reality is that weak options at running back mean that a Superbowl run is unlikely this time around.

For those who haven't got a clue when it comes to the gridiron, have a browse here. Some of the best players to look out for are Calvin 'Megatron' Johnson for Detroit Lions (Wide Receiver), Richard Sherman Seattle Seahawks (Cornerback), Adrian Peterson for Minnesota Vikings (Running Back), JJ Watt for Houston Texans (Defensive End). As the season develops over the next 17 weeks we'll see who else can distinguish themselves, and ultimately who is going to be competing in Superbowl XLIX.