Friday, 22 August 2014

Match of the Day at 50

A STAPLE of Saturday night television and a national institution, BBC flagship football programme Match of the Day celebrates its 50th birthday today.

First broadcast on 22 August 1964, it featured - as its title suggests - only one match as defending champions Liverpool won 3-2 against Arsenal.

The transmission, shown on BBC Two, was actually originally intended only as part of a one-off series ahead of the 1966 World Cup.

BBC Two was also only available in London at the time - and it attracted an audience which was about half of the attendance in Anfield.

Nevertheless, commissioners decided that Match of the Day was here to stay - and, despite resistance from several clubs fearing an effect on their gates, a deal was reached with the Football League in 1965.

In the same year, the programme moved to a much wider audience on BBC One and, in 1969, it was broadcast in colour for the first time with Liverpool again the featured winners, 2-0 against West Ham United.

The 1980s saw a boom as a first live transmission in 1983 showed Manchester United beating Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 at Old Trafford.

However, this was quickly followed by a bust as the increasingly-competitive ITV gained sole rights in 1988, leaving the BBC with just the FA Cup.

The arrival of the Premier League in 1992 sent the live rights to Sky where, of course, they have stayed ever since.

But the BBC at least regained highlights of the top division, featuring extended coverage of three matches - and, for the first time, all the goals from the other games played that day.

That arrangement remained until 2001 when ITV outbid the BBC again. However, its ill-fated highlights programme, The Premiership, lasted just three years before the BBC regained the contract in 2004.

With Gary Lineker presenting, the BBC has since been able to show longer highlights from all of the games in what is now sometimes a 90-minute broadcast on Saturday night.

Match of the Day 2 shows the Sunday games while another spin-off - Match of the Day 2 Extra - discusses the main talking points of the previous day's action on Sunday at around midday.

As a package then, Match of the Day is in rude health. It now attracts more than seven million viewers across the weekend, bucking the trend of declining audience figures for major shows.

Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement.

For, although Lineker suggests Match of the Day is "predominately an action programme", even now there is far too much waffle from the pundits. 

Is there really any need for the likes of Alan Shearer to indulge in faux-outrage just because the producers have suggested it?

And yet, the voices which matter more - those of the commentators - have arguably declined over the last few years.

Lead commentator Guy Mowbray lacks the distinctive tone of some of the late greats like David Coleman and Tony Gubba, and so just fades into the background.

By contrast, the intensely-annoying Jonathan Pearce still uses the microphone to wallow in what seems to be his favourite past-time - that is, listening to the sound of his own screeching voice.

John Motson was actually a brilliant commentator back in his heyday - but now comes across as a bit of a parody of himself, parroting pointless statistics without much genuine analysis.

And, while it is high time the sheepskin coat was retired, this is not in any way an ageist rant.

After all, the BBC could do worse than bring back the still-excellent Barry Davies - something which the corporation has indeed done for its golden anniversary.

But, despite its faults, Match of the Day - and its iconic theme tune - still serves its purpose well, and has long since entered the automatic thought-process of the English football fan.

It does not happen that commonly at the moment - but, if a Newcastle United player scores a pearler, one of my first thoughts is of tuning into Match of the Day to see the goal repeated.

And, for a football programme on the telly, there can surely be no higher praise than that.

1964-1969 Kenneth Wolstenholme
1968-1973 David Coleman 
1973-1988 Jimmy Hill 
1988-1999 Des Lynam 
1999-present Gary Lineker 

Documentary Match of the Day at 50 is on BBC One tonight at 10.35pm. Match of the Day is on BBC One tomorrow at 10.30pm.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Cook sees through tumultuous summer

ENGLAND captain Alastair Cook came through a near-disastrous summer unscathed after three successive thrashings completely turned around the series against India.

Set with the wreckage of an Ashes whitewash still looming large in the background, England first contrived to lose 1-0 to Sri Lanka for their first early summer series since their introduction in 2000.

The decisive match at Headingley was very nearly saved by a last-wicket partnership between Moeen Ali and James Anderson.

But, having performed several great escapes in the recent past, this England team was unable to complete the job, and Anderson fell to the penultimate ball of the match for a 55-ball duck.

Worse was yet to come. Following a terribly dull draw at Trent Bridge in which barely three innings were completed, England invited the touring Indians to play on a made-to-order green-top at Lord's.

It was indeed the greenest Test pitch seen in England for years, and everything seemed to be going to plan when the hosts won the toss and chose to field.

Middle-order batsman Ajinkya Rahane then surprised everyone however, racking up a century as India posted a first innings total of 295.

England still took a narrow innings lead of 24, thanks to a Gary Ballance ton - but India batted well in their second innings too, and the hosts were set a tricky target of 319 to win.

By the end of day four, it already looked unlikely. Cook had failed again and England had stumbled to 105-4.

And, though a quiet morning session on day five offered hope, Ali was bounced out by Ishant Sharma in the last ball before the interval.

It was a frightening taste of things to come as, after lunch, England collectively engaged in surely some of most truly brainless cricket ever seen at Lord's.

Matt Prior, Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Stuart Broad all fell to a stock short delivery from Sharma as the Indian quickie collected his Test best figures of 7-74.

SkySports pundit and legendary fast bowler Bob Willis later commented: "I've seen fewer hookers on a Saturday evening."

And it was indeed a case of having to laugh, or else you would cry - and, as often is the case in these situations, the innings ended with an appropriately comical run out.

Rock-bottom had finally been reached. Yes, the Ashes whitewash had been spectacular and a big surprise, given the 3-0 home win immediately beforehand.

But it also happened in the dead of the night and, in Mitchell Johnson, the Aussies had a ghoulish paceman who is still liable to give English batsmen nightmares even now.

By contrast, the defeats to Sri Lanka and India had been suffered at home, the green, green grass of home in the case of Lord's. Conditions could not have been more favourable.

Of course, not everything could be laid at captain Cook's door - and Prior's withdrawal in the wake of defeat in the second Test meant, in space of 12 months, almost half of the England team had been replaced.

For various reasons, the team's number three Jonathan Trott, their best batsman Kevin Pietersen, spinner Graeme Swann and wicket-keeper Prior were all now absent from the first XI.

However, the blame on Cook came largely from his continual use of negative fields which meant the plentiful lower order opposition runs of the winter had carried on into the summer.

Worse, his own form with the bat had been woeful over an extended period of time and, frankly, it just looked as if he badly needed a break from the game.

Yet, in the face of calls for his resignation from former captains Alec Stewart and Michael Vaughan, Cook vowed to continue in the lead role.

And, as he did so, the luck at last began to turn for the Essex man.

The crazy schedule of five back-to-back Test matches had claimed another victim, and this time it was on the side of the Indians as England's destroyer Sharma was ruled out for the next two matches.

In the third Test at the Rose Bowl in Southampton, England won the toss again and this time elected to bat.

Cook survived a drop on 15 and capitalised to make 95, falling just short of extending his England record for Test centuries to 26.

Nevertheless, Ian Bell - who had suffered a similarly lean spell to his skipper - hit 167 for his 21st Test century, and Ballance hit 156 as England were able to declare on 569-7.

A fired-up Anderson then tore into India, taking 5-53 - and, though the tourists fell short of the follow-on, England elected to bat again anyway.

This time, Cook anchored the innings, his 70 not out off 114 balls allowing likes of Ballance, Bell and Root to score quickly around him.

England declared a second time on 205-4 and Ali then proceeding to demolish the Indian line-up, finishing with 6-67.

The series was only just back level at 1-1 - but already it felt as if the tables had already been fully turned.

A campaign which had begun with an Indian fast-bowler bouncing England out at Lord's was now seeing a hitherto unheralded spinner in Ali completely flummox India.

In the fourth Test at Old Trafford, India skipper MS Dhoni won the toss and elected to bat under leaden skies in Manchester.

Half an hour later, the tourists were 8-4 with Anderson and Broad swinging the ball magnificently.

Anderson eventually took 3-46 and Broad 6-25 as India were bundled out for 152 on the stroke of tea on the first day. Six of their batsmen were out for a duck.

England were not at their most convincing in reply but half centuries from Bell, Root and new wicket-keeper Jos Buttler contributed to a total of 367.

Broad had his nose busted by a bouncer and so was unable to bowl in the second innings.

But Ali was again the star of the show, taking 4-39 as India fell to 161 all out after losing nine wickets in a single session after tea on Saturday.

England had won by an innings and suddenly the questions were instead being asked of the India regime with Dhoni and his men appearing to lack the ability or foresight to bat for time.

Sunday would have been a complete washout and better batting would have therefore taken the game into a final day which would have also been interrupted by rain.

Instead, it was 2-1 with England clearly holding the whip hand.

This was confirmed in the fifth Test over the weekend as the hosts won inside three days for a second time.

Asking India to bat first, Cook's attack immediately applied pressure to the tourists' increasingly brittle batting order and India duly collapsed to 90-9, and eventually 148 all out.

Encouragingly, the wickets were shared between four bowlers as Chris Jordan (3-32) and Chris Woakes (3-30) joined Anderson and the black-eyed Broad who took two apiece.

England then made a mockery of the India total, Cook and Ballance hitting 79 and 64 respectively to give a great platform to man of the match Root who made an unbeaten 149.

The scoring, on the third morning in particular, was lightening quick - almost 10-an-over - although this had more to do with a reprehensible Indian bowling performance and some shocking captaincy in the field by Dhoni.

If the bowling, fielding and captaincy had been poor, the batting once again was even worse.

Reduced to 9-2 following Gautam Gambhir's run out on the stroke of a rain break at lunch, India failed to make it to tea.

All out for 94 inside 30 overs, this was the first time that India had failed to make 200 in five successive innings since 1977.

Indeed, considering the bright start and the subsequent collapse of confidence, this has arguably been a worse tour than the 4-0 whitewash in 2011 when England were crowned the best in the world.

Unfortunately, this woeful India effort has also made it difficult to assess exactly how far this inexperienced England team is in terms of its development.

Nevertheless, things have certainly got better since earlier in the summer and a few certainties are emerging to fill some of the gaping holes which had been left.

Cook has restored confidence in his ability to lead the side and Ballance has looked a solid number three ever since his introduction to this level.

Bell and Root join Ballance in the middle-order while Buttler has done enough at the moment to be considered a replacement for Prior. 
Ali made the biggest impact of a player this summer, going from being a part-time spin option to leading the attack on a couple of occasions.

However, there remain doubts over the second-line seam attack behind Broad and Anderson, as well as the capability of Australia-born opener Sam Robson.

For now, though, England can put a tumultuous summer of Test cricket to bed with no more five-day action in the schedule until a tour of the West Indies next April.

In the meantime, England play five One-Day Internationals against India, and seven in Sri Lanka, before a triangular series Down Under against Australia and India.

It is all in preparation for the next Cricket World Cup which takes place next February and March in Australia and New Zealand.

L0-5 v Australia (A) + L0-1 v Sri Lanka (H) + W3-1 v India (H)

21-24 Nov 2013v Australia (A)BrisbaneL Australia 295 & 401-7d bt England 136 & 179 by 381 runs
5-9 Dec 2013v Australia (A)AdelaideL Australia 570-9d & 132-3d bt England 172 & 312 by 218 runs
13-17 Dec 2013v Australia (A)PerthL Australia 385 & 369-6d bt England 251 & 353 by 150 runs
26-29 Dec 2013v Australia (A)MelbourneL Australia 204 & 231-2 bt England 255 & 179 by eight wickets
3-5 Jan 2014v Australia (A)SydneyL Australia 326 & 276 bt England 155 & 166 by 281 runs
12-16 Jun 2014v Sri Lanka (H)Lord'sD England 575-9d 267-8d drew with Sri Lanka 453 & 201-9
20-24 Jun 2014v Sri Lanka (H)HeadingleyL Sri Lanka 257 & 457 bt England 365 & 249 by 100 runs
9-13 Jul 2014v India (H)Trent BridgeD India 457 & 391-9 drew with England 496
17-21 Jul 2014v India (H)Lord'sL India 295 & 342 bt England 319 & 223 by 95 runs
27-31 Jul 2014v India (H)Rose BowlW England 569-7d & 205-4d bt India 330 & 178 by 266 runs
7-9 Aug 2014v India (H)Old TraffordW England 367 bt India 152 & 161 by an inns and 54 runs
15-17 Aug 2014v India (H)The OvalW England 486 bt India 148 & 94 by an inns and 244 runs

Friday, 15 August 2014

Premier League 2014-15 preview: Man City seek total dominance

ARSENAL The Gunners - Emirates Stadium - @Arsenal
Last season 4th + FA Cup Winners + League Cup 4th round + Champions League Last 16
Last major trophy FA Cup 2014
Manager: Arsene Wenger (since October 1996)
Players In: Alexis Sanchez, Calum Chambers, Mathieu Debuchy, David Ospina
Players Out: Thomas Vermaelen, Bacary Sagna, Lukasz Fabianski, Nicklas Bendtner, Park Chu-young, Thomas Eisfeld, Chuks Aneke, Daniel Boateng, Wellington Silva*, Carl Jenkinson*, Benik Afobe*
Pre-season results:
W2-0 v Boreham Wood (A)
L0-1 v New York Red Bulls (A)
W5-1 v Benfica (H)
L0-1 v Monaco (H)
W3-0 v Manchester City (N) [FA Community Shield]
Prediction: 2nd
At the Emirates, all the talk is about Alexis Sanchez -  and that really is no wonder, given the Chilean possesses the quality to take Arsene Wenger's men to the next level. Sanchez, a £30m signing from Barcelona, has moved to north London at an exciting time - as, having shrugged off their nine-year trophy drought with a fine comeback win in the FA Cup Final against Hull City in May, the Gunners have now firmly reset their sights on success back in the Premier League.
Of course, Sanchez will be a huge part of that, easing some of the weight off the shoulders of Olivier Giroud who, nevertheless, is still a genuine match-winner on his day. On top of that, there should also be plenty of goals from midfield from the likes of Aaron Ramsey, who picked up where he left off last season in the Community Shield, as well as Santi Cazorla and World Cup winner Mesut Ozil. The key for this trio - and also England pair Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott - is staying fit, the sheer number of injuries having undermined Arsenal's challenge in previous years.
In fact, last season, Wenger's men - in leading the Premier League for 128 days - were at the top for longer than any other team. The problem was the Gunners' spell at the top began in September and ended in February (before the customary dash for fourth place). Progress in this campaign would be represented by a sustained title challenge and, having also spent wisely beyond Sanchez this summer, it looks very much on.

ASTON VILLA The Villains - Villa Park - @AVFCOfficial
Last season 15th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 3rd round + Last major trophy League Cup 1996
Manager: Paul Lambert (since June 2012)
Players In: Phillippe Senderos, Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson, Aly Cissokho, Tom Leggett, Isaac Nehemie
Players Out: Marc Albrighton, Nathan Delfouneso, Jordan Bowery, Samir Carruthers, Nicklas Helenius*, Yacouba Sylla*, Jed Steer*, Antonio Luna*, Aleksandar Tonev*
Pre-season results:
W3-1 v Mansfield Town (A)
W2-0 v FC Dallas (A)
W1-0 v Houston Dynamo (A)
L1-3 v Chesterfield (A)
L1-4 v Groningen (A)
W1-0 v Walsall (A)
D0-0 v Parma (H)
Prediction: 16th
Aston Villa is a club which has badly lost its way over the past few years. Replacing spend-thrift Martin O'Neill with dour former Birmingham City boss Alex McLeish was always going to finish in failure - but Paul Lambert has done no better in either of his two seasons at Villa Park. Now, American owner Randy Lerner has had enough and put the club up for sale - but, with no buyers in sight, the Midlanders have been left treading water and the fans to fear the worst.
Normally a time for all football fans to find something to optimistic about their club, even the four incoming signings - Phillippe Senderos, Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Aly Cissokho - have generated little excitement in the second city and a fourth successive bottom-half finish looks like it is on the cards. Surely, though, Villa will be better at home than in those three previous seasons which, combined, have produced an eye-watering 27 defeats in front of the Holte End. If somehow it does get worse, it would be difficult to see Villa staying up. 

BURNLEY The Clarets - Turf Moor - @BurnleyOfficial 
Last season 2nd (promoted) + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 4th round + Last major trophy First Division 1959-60
Manager: Sean Dyche (since October 2012)
Players In: Lukas Jutkiewicz, Michael Kightly, Marvin Sordell, Matt Gilks, Matt Taylor, Steven Reid
Players Out: Chris Baird, Junior Stanislas, David Edgar, Keith Treacy, Brian Stock, Nick Liversedge
Pre-season results:
W8-0 v Grossklein (A)
W1-0 v Accrington Stanley (A)
L1-2 v Preston North End (A)
W1-0 v Blackpool (A)
D2-2 v Celta Vigo (H)
Prediction: 17th
Burnley achieved a second promotion to the Premier League in five years in April - and it would be fair to say the Clarets' difficult season in the top flight last time has rather tempered optimism in this part of east Lancashire. Nevertheless, the Turf Moor faithful should expect a decent run for their season ticket money this time around with Burnley possessing all the attributes to punch above their historical weight.
In Danny Ings, they have a striker who scored 21 league goals last season. His injured strike-partner Sam Vokes got 20 - and, once the latter recovers, it seems simply infeasible that neither of them will make the step up. Finally, in gravel-voiced manager Sean Dyche, Burnley appear to have a talented coach more than capable of holding his own tactically. The smallest budget in the division will mean Burnley face an inevitable battle against the drop - but Dyche and his charges have enough talent to suggest they will be able to make it a close-run thing.

CHELSEA The Blues - Stamford Bridge - @chelseafc
Last season 3th + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup Quarter finals + Champions League Semi finals
Last major trophy Europa League 2013
Manager: Jose Mourinho (since June 2013)
Players In: Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas, Filipe Luis, Mario Pasalic, Didier Drogba
Players Out: David Luiz, Romelu Lukaku, Samuel Eto'o, Demba Ba, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Patrick Van Aanholt, Sam Hutchinson, Mark Schwarzer, Henrique Hilario, Mario Pasalic*, Ryan Bertrand*, Bertrand Traore*, Wallace*, Thorgan Hazard*, Gael Kakuta*, John Swift*, Oriol Romeu*, Christian Atsu*
Pre-season results:
W5-0 v Wycombe Wanderers (A)
W3-2 v AFC Wimbledon (A)
D1-1 v Wolfsberger AC (A)
W2-1 v Olimpija (A)
W3-1 v Vitesse Arnhem (A)
L0-3 v Werder Bremen (A)
W2-0 v Fenerbahce (A)
L0-1 v Besiktas (A)
W2-1 v Ferencvaros (A)
W2-0 v Real Sociedad (H)
Prediction: 3rd
Pre-season favourites Chelsea had a solid if unspectacular first season back under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho as a strong defensive record sustained a title challenge until the closing weeks of the campaign. The reason for the ultimate failure of the Blues to add to their three Premier League titles was as obvious as the day is long, though. They simply did not score enough goals, their final total of 71 comparing badly with the tons hit by the two teams to finish above them, Manchester City and Liverpool. 
Consequently, it has come as no surprise to see strikers Demba Ba and Samuel Eto'o ditched in favour of Diego Costa, signed from Atletico Madrid for £32m. Costa did not have a great World Cup - not many Spain players did - but he is closer to the mould of Didier Drogba than Ba or Eto'o will ever be - and that is something which Mourinho loves, principally for the way it complements his strategy of leaving one battler up front and packing the midfield. Of course, Costa's back-up this season is Drogba himself, the 36-year-old Ivorian making an emotional return to Stamford Bridge on a one-year contract. Drogba's last kick in a blue shirt was the winning penalty in the 2012 Champions League final and he will no doubt find a way to make the headlines again.
But it is actually head coach Mourinho who must do much more if Chelsea are to live up to their status as favourites. Four draws and five defeats on the road last season suggested the Blues struggle when asked to break their opponents down. And that means a more attacking approach will be needed from the self-proclaimed Special One if he is not to go personally trophyless for a third year in a row - at which point he could even start to be considered "a specialist in failure".

CRYSTAL PALACE The Eagles - Selhurst Park - @CPFC
Last season 11th + FA Cup 4th round + League Cup 2nd round + Last major trophy None
Caretaker Manager: Keith Millen (since August 2014)
Players In: Fraizer Campbell, Brede Hangeland, Martin Kelly, Chris Kettings
Players Out: Jonathan Parr, Dean Moxey, Aaron Wilbraham, Kagisho Dikgacoi, Danny Gabbidon, Neil Alexander, Ibra Sekajja, Jose Campana, Alex Wynter*, Kwesi Appiah*, Jack Hunt*, Stephen Dobbie*
Pre-season results:
W13-1 v Grazer (N)
D2-2 v Columbus Crew (A)
W1-0 v Philadelphia Union (A)
W3-0 v Richmond Kickers (A)
L2-3 v Brentford (A)
D0-0 v Augsburg (A)
Prediction: 19th
Just what is Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish playing at? The Eagles are only featuring in back-to-back Premier League campaigns for the first time ever because of a remarkable resurgence under Tony Pulis in the second half of last season. Indeed, so good was the Eagles' form following the arrival of the Welshman in November that, extrapolated over a whole season, it would have put the south Londoners in eighth. 
Now, on the eve of the new season, Pulis has departed Selhurst Park with the tensions over transfer policy between him and his chairman Parish considered to be irreconcilable. It perhaps explains why incomings at Selhurst Park have so far been restricted to Fraizer Campbell and Brede Hangeland from relegated Cardiff City and Fulham, Martin Kelly from Liverpool and reserve goalkeeper Chris Kettings. Nevertheless, on the strength of last season, you would have backed just about any squad under Pulis to be kept in the top flight. Now that Palace are without him, the picture rather changes and it is not looking so good at all.

EVERTON The Toffees - Goodison Park - @Everton
Last season 5th  + FA Cup Quarter finals + League Cup 3rd round + Last major trophy FA Cup 1995
Manager: Roberto Martinez (since July 2013)
Players In: Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, Muhamed Besic, Brendan Galloway, Christian Atsu*
Players Out: Apostolos Vellios, Magaye Gueye, Mason Springthorpe
Pre-season results:
D2-2 v Tranmere Rovers (A)
L0-1 v Leicester City (N)
D1-1 v Porto (H)
L1-3 v Celta Vigo (H)
L1-3 v SC Paderborn (A)
Prediction: 6th
Everton were dangerously close to a top-four finish last season, even moving into the final Champions League spot after beating principal rivals Arsenal 3-0 at Goodison in early April. A much tougher run-in ultimately left them seven points adrift of the Gunners - but the Toffees' tally of 72 was still their highest since the likes of Kevin Ratcliffe and Kevin Sheedy spearheaded the 1986-87 title-winning side. 
Roberto Martinez thus heads into his second season on Merseyside having won over the few doubters after building on the solid defensive foundations left by David Moyes and adding a bit of panache. His decision over the summer to sign a five-year deal shows admirable commitment to a long-term plan - while Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry have also both demonstrated a bit of loyalty by signing on permanently. Finally, young playmaker Ross Barkley has already shown more than enough to suggest he will be a mainstay in the Premier League for years to come - though, in terms of tangible success, the feeling remains that Everton's best chance is in the cups.

HULL CITY The Tigers - KC Stadium - @hullcityteam
Last season 16th + FA Cup Runners-up + League Cup 4th round + Last major trophy None
Manager: Steve Bruce (since June 2012)
Players In: Robert Snodgrass, Jake Livermore, Tom Ince, Harry Maguire, Andrew Robertson
Players Out: Shane Long, Matty Fryatt, Cameron Stewart, Nick Proschwitz, Conor Henderson, Robert Koren, Dougie Wilson, Abdoulaye Faye, Conor Townsend*, Joe Dudgeon*
Pre-season results:
W5-0 v Harrogate Town (A)
D1-1 v North Ferriby United (A)
W2-0 v York City (A)
D1-1 v Barnsley (A)
D0-0 v FK Trencin (A) [Europa League qualifier]
W2-1 v FK Trencin (H) [Europa League qualifier], won 2-1 on agg
W2-1 v VfB Stuttgart (A)
Prediction: 15th
Promotion one year, a Wembley Cup final the next - what comes next on Humberside? Well, provided the Tigers can get the better of Belgian side Lokeren, an exciting, extended adventure in the Europa League will follow. Of course, perhaps the biggest issue with the Europa League is the amount of games and travelling, and manager Steve Bruce will no doubt be wary over how these additional exertions affect Premier League form. 
After all, there is already evidence to suggest it might with Hull tailing off badly following their Cup semi final win. The situation there was slightly different as, by then, top flight survival had all but been confirmed - but, ultimately, Hull still failed to reach 40 points and dropped to 16th in the final reckoning. At least the area requiring improvement is obvious: Bruce will demand far more goals from Nikica Jelavic and others with City having averaged just one per game last season.

LEICESTER CITY The Foxes - King Power Stadium - @OfficialFOXES
Last season 1st (promoted) + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup Quarter finals + Last major trophy League Cup 2000
Manager: Nigel Pearson (since November 2011)
Players In: Matthew Upson, Marc Albrighton, Leonardo Ulloa, Ben Hamer, Jack Barmby, Louis Rowley
Players Out: Lloyd Dyer, Neil Danns, Sean St Ledger, Zak Whitbread, Marko Futacs, George Taft, Paul Gallagher*
Pre-season results:
W6-1 v Ilkeston (A)
W1-0 v Everton (N)
W3-2 v Walsall (A)
D1-1 v Preston North End (A)
W2-0 v Milton Keynes Dons (A)
W3-1 v Rotherham United (A)
W1-0 v Werder Bremen (H)
Prediction: 20th
Leicester City charged to the Championship title last season, racking up 31 wins and 102 points on their way to ending a 10-year top-flight absence. The Foxes will do well to be aware, though, that even title-winning sides have no guarantee of survival with the two most recent winners - Reading and Cardiff City - lasting just one season at the higher level. 
Moreover, Nigel Pearson's youthful squad, while hungry for more success, is badly lacking in Premier League experience - and that could prove to be a vital weakness in the closer matches which will ultimately decide their fate. As well as this, it is worth pointing out that Leicester's opening five fixtures are against Everton, Chelsea, Arsenal, Stoke City away and Manchester United - and this really tough start is one which could easily leave them playing a frustrating game of catch up straight away. 

LIVERPOOL The Reds - Anfield - @LFC
Last season Runners-up + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup 3rd round + Last major trophy League Cup 2012
Manager: Brendan Rodgers (since June 2012)
Players In: Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren, Emre Can, Divock Origi, Javier Manquillo, Lazar Markovic
Players Out: Luis Suarez, Pepe Reina, Martin Kelly, Conor Coady, Luis Alberto*, Iago Aspas*, Andre Wisdom*, Divock Origi*, Brad Smith*
Pre-season results:
L1-2 v Brondby (A)
W2-1 v Preston North End (A)
L0-1 v Roma (N)
W1-0 v Olympiakos (N)
D2-2 v Manchester City (N), won 3-1 on pens
W2-0 v Milan (N)
L1-3 v Manchester United (N)
W4-0 v Borussia Dortmund (H)
Prediction: 5th
Life at Anfield after Luis Suarez begins with a freshened-up squad, the £75m received from Barcelona for the controversial Uruguayan having been used to sign a trio of players from Southampton - Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren - as well as German youngster Emre Can from Bayer Leverkusen, Serbian winger Lazar Markovic from Benfica and Belgium's Divock Origi from Lille. 
Out of that sextet, though, only Lovren provides the much-needed defensive cover, Liverpool having effectively lost the title by conceding a round 50 goals last season. That compared poorly with eventual winners Manchester City (37) and title rivals Chelsea (27) with even Crystal Palace (48) tighter at the back. But, even with the other signings, it will not be easy for Brendan Rodgers to replace Suarez's 31 league goals and it will be interesting to see how Daniel Sturridge will fair without his lethal strike partner. 
Raheem Sterling will still surely be a livewire regardless - but, despite finishing runners-up last season, it should be recalled Liverpool have had false dawns before. In 2009, the Reds also finished second but, by 2010, they had fallen to seventh. And, while it is difficult to envisage anything quite as drastic as that, just staying in the Champions League places this season would be a half-decent achievement.

MANCHESTER CITY The Citizens - Etihad Stadium - @MCFC
Last season Champions + FA Cup Quarter finals + League Cup Winners + Champions League Last 16
Last major trophy Premier League 2013-14
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini (since June 2013)
Players In: Eliaquim Mangala, Fernando, Willy Caballero, Bruno Zuculini, Bacary Sagna, Frank Lampard*
Players Out: Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell, Costel Pantilimon, Joleon Lescott, Gareth Barry, Alex Nimely, Reece Wabara, Rony Lopes*, Emyr Huws*, Jason Denayer*
Pre-season results:
L0-2 v Dundee (A)
W2-1 v Hearts (A)
W4-1 v Sporting Kansas City (A)
W5-1 v Milan (N)
D2-2 v Liverpool (N), lost 1-3 on pens
D2-2 v Olympiakos (N), lost 4-5 on pens
L0-3 v Arsenal (N) [FA Community Shield]
Prediction: Champions
Manchester City have made the case for the defence this summer in the hope that this will enable them to achieve something previously only done by Manchester United and Chelsea - that is, retaining the Premier League title. Club captain Vincent Kompany has signed a new five-year deal, joining the likes of Sergio Aguero, Aleksandar Kolarov, David Silva and Samir Nasri in committing his future to the Etihad. 
And Kompany did this having gained a new centre-back partner in Eliaquim Mangala, signed for £32m from Porto in City's biggest bit of business in the off-season. Right-back Bacary Sagna and goalkeeper Willy Caballero have also arrived to provide competition to Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart respectively - but, so far, Manuel Pellegrini has declined to make changes up front following a bounteous campaign last time which brought 156 goals in all competitions, a record for the Premier League era. 
That does not mean there are not concerns in this area, though - main striker Aguero suffered three separate muscular injuries last season and also missed part of the World Cup. Nevertheless, Alvaro Negredo has already shown himself to be an able deputy while this could be the season Stevan Jovetic really bursts onto the season. 
With Edin Dzeko also contributing, City will often have simply too much for many of their opponents as they seek a third title in four years - and perhaps the beginning of the sort of domestic dominance their city rivals have enjoyed for most of the previous 20 years.    

MANCHESTER UNITED The Red Devils - Old Trafford - @ManUtd
Last season 7th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup Semi finals + Champions League Quarter finals
Last major trophy Premier League 2012-13
Manager: Louis Van Gaal (since July 2014)
Players In: Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Vanja Milinkovic
Players Out: Alexander Buttner, Patrice Evra, Bebe, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Federico Macheda, Jack Barmby, Louis Rowley, Ryan Giggs, Angelo Henriquez*
Pre-season results:
W7-0 v Los Angeles Galaxy (A)
W3-2 v Roma (N)
D0-0 v Internazionale (N), won 5-3 on pens
W3-1 v Real Madrid (N)
W3-1 v Liverpool (N)
W2-1 v Valencia (H)
Prediction: 4th
Ultimately, last season, the results told their own story. There were home and away defeats to Liverpool, Manchester City and Everton, regular reverses to several other teams at Old Trafford, and failures at home in the domestic cups to Swansea City and Sunderland. Many long-standing records over opponents fell and it all pointed to David Moyes simply not being up to the job. Enter Louis Van Gaal - a coach who has won just about everything - and someone who, on the face of it, looks a much better fit, having most recently impressed in leading the Dutch to third at the World Cup over the summer. 
In its current state, though, the Manchester United job is not easy - the ageing Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have now all left or retired - and, in the centre of defence and central midfield, there remain questions over whether the current players can ever step up to their level. This may prove even more vital if Van Gaal opts to use his favoured 3-5-2 formation, although at least he should be able to rely on the two up front getting enough goals to make the Red Devils far more competitive this year. 
Yes, Robin Van Persie's injury troubles came back to haunt him again as he made just 21 league appearances in 2013-14 - yet he still scored 12 goals and provided three assists. Meanwhile, new club captain Wayne Rooney - despite being frustrated on the wing in the World Cup - will not be short of motivation, standing just 34 goals short of beating Sir Bobby Charlton's all-time United record.
Regardless of the personnel, though, the most important job for Van Gaal is to restore a winning mentality at Old Trafford, something which was sorely lacking from Moyes when things began to go wrong. Indeed, such was the mess that was left, it would be unrealistic to expect United to challenge for the title again straight away. Nevertheless, this squad under Van Gaal - aided by the lack of a European distraction - should have enough to return the Red Devils to a top-four placing.     

NEWCASTLE UNITED The Magpies - St James Park - @NUFC
Last season 10th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 4th round + Last major trophy UEFA (Fairs) Cup 1969
Manager: Alan Pardew (since December 2010)
Players In: Remy Cabella, Emmanuel Riviere, Siem De Jong, Daryl Janmaat, Ayoze Perez, Jack Colback, Jamaal Lascelles, Karl Darlow, Facundo Ferreyra*
Players Out: Mathieu Debuchy, James Tavernier, Dan Gosling, Shola Ameobi, Conor Newton, Michael Richardson, Sylvain Marveaux*, Jamaal Lascelles*, Karl Darlow*, Adam Campbell*
Pre-season results:
L1-2 v Oldham Athletic (A)
W4-0 v Sydney (N)
W1-0 v Wellington Phoenix (A)
W1-0 v Sheffield Wednesday (A)
L1-3 v Malaga (N)
W3-1 v Schalke 04 (A)
D2-2 v Huddersfield Town (A)
W1-0 v Real Sociedad (H)
Prediction: 9th
Likely to lurch from the sublime to the ridiculous on a week-to-week basis, Newcastle United should nevertheless be able to hold a position in the middle of the table for most of the season. Widespread discontent with owner Mike Ashley spread to manager Alan Pardew towards the end of the last campaign to the extent that he had to cower away in the dugout from the ear-splitting boos in the 3-0 home win over Cardiff City. Despite being assured of a top-half finish, the reception was not a surprise with the Magpies' form having completely deserted them following the sale of Yohan Cabaye in January. Even then, it was the nature of some of the defeats which was most damning, four of them at home coming by three goals or more - including, for the second year running, a 3-0 derby reverse to Sunderland. 
Fortunately for Pardew, Ashley has seen fit to spend the Cabaye money, bringing in Remy Cabella, Emmanuel Riviere, Siem de Jong and Ayoze Perez - and, following Manchester City's visit to St James Park on the opening day, the early fixture list is actually rather kindly. But, without last year's loanee Loic Remy, the squad still looks short on goals and this, combined with a leaky defence, means there will be yet more difficult days ahead for the Toon Army over the course of the next 10 months.

Last season 4th (promoted via playoffs) + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 2nd round
Last major trophy League Cup 1967
Manager: Harry Redknapp (since November 2012)
Players In: Rio Ferdinand, Steven Caulker, Jordon Mutch, Mauricio Isla*
Players Out: Yossi Benayoun, Esteban Granero, Tom Hitchcock, Aaron Hughes, Stephane Mbia, Andrew Johnson, Gary O'Neil, Luke Young, Hogan Ephraim, Angelo Balanta
Pre-season results:
W1-0 v Rot-Weiss Erfurt (A)
L0-2 v RB Leipzig (A)
D2-2 v Leyton Orient (A)
D0-0 v Southend United (A)
W4-0 v Shamrock Rovers (A)
W2-0 Athlone Town (A)
L0-1 PAOK (H)
Prediction: 12th
Despite boasting the strongest squad in the Championship last season, Queens Park Rangers dropped disappointingly away from automatic promotion contention and then got lucky with a last-gasp goal in a playoff final which had been dominated by Derby County. Manager Harry Redknapp has admitted he would have left Loftus Road in the summer if he had lost at Wembley - but, yet, here he is back in the top flight once again. 
Of course, Rangers' most recent Premier League experience was effectively a two-year struggle, in which a bloated squad - beset by disciplinary problems - finished bottom in 2013. This time, Redknapp - determined not to make the same mistakes - has drafted in the coaching nous of Glenn Hoddle and the signings of Rio Ferdinand and Steven Caulker will add depth to the defence. A lack of goals outside of the efforts of Charlie Austin and the prodigal Loic Remy means it will not be pretty at times - but, having done the hard part in getting back up, the west Londoners should easily have enough about them to stay there.  

SOUTHAMPTON The Saints - St Mary's Stadium - @SouthamptonFC
Last season 8th + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup 4th round + Last major trophy FA Cup 1976
Manager: Ronald Koeman (since June 2014)
Players In: Dusan Tadic, Fraser Forster, Graziano Pelle, Shane Long, Florin Gardos, Ryan Bertrand*, Saphir Taider*
Players Out: Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers, Rickie Lambert, Billy Sharp, Tom Leggett, Isaac Nehemie, Guly do Prado, Lee Barnard, Jonathan Forte, Danny Fox, Andy Robinson, Dani Osvaldo*
Pre-season results:
W4-0 v EHC Hoensbroek (A)
W6-0 v Hasselt (A)
W1-0 v Swindon Town (A)
W1-0 v Bournemouth (A)
W3-1 v Brighton & Hove Albion (A)
L0-1 v Bayer Leverkusen (H)
Prediction: 14th
It has been a chastening summer on the south coast where no less than £96m of talent has departed, mainly bound for the north west. Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren joined Rickie Lambert at Liverpool - while Manchester United made Luke Shaw the most expensive teenager in history. Another starlet, Calum Chambers, has gone to Arsenal, and the man who oversaw last season's impressive eighth-placed finish - Mauricio Pochettino - is now at Tottenham Hotspur. 
It all leaves new boss Ronald Koeman with a significant rebuilding job to undertake under an owner, Katharina Liebherr, who rather reluctantly fell into role on the death of her father. Koeman at least brings with him plenty of experience, having previously taken charge of each of the traditional Dutch big three, as well as Benfica and Valencia. But, conversely, their two main bits of business - strikers Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle - have only really done well in the Dutch Eredivisie, a league whose previous talents have enjoyed mixed success in England.

STOKE CITY The Potters - Britannia Stadium - @stokecity
Last season 9th + FA Cup 4th round + League Cup Quarter finals + Last major trophy League Cup 1972
Manager: Mark Hughes (since May 2013)
Players In: Mame Biram Diouf, Dionatan Teixeira, Phil Bardsley, Steve Sidwell, Bojan Krkic
Players Out: Michael Kightly, Matthew Etherington, Juan Aguledo, Jamie Ness*
D1-1 v Borussia Moenchengladbach (A)
L0-2 v TSV 1860 Munich (A)
L1-2 v Schalke 04 (A)
D0-0 v Burton Albion (A)
D1-1 v Blackburn Rovers (A)
W2-0 v Real Betis (H)
D1-1 v SC Freiburg (A)
Prediction: 8th
Last season, Stoke City earned a first top-10 finish in the top flight since 1975 as manager Mark Hughes achieved something in his first attempt that predecessor Tony Pulis had failed to do in five. Initially given a chilly reception on his appointment in May 2013, Potters fans have now warmed to the former Manchester United striker after he turned around a worrying run of one point out of 18 at the close of the year with a convincing run of form in the springtime. 
The Welshman must now cope with some relatively increased expectations at the Britannia - but, with the highly-rated Bojan Krkic arriving from Barcelona, Stoke have the look of a team heading in the right direction. An improved showing on the road, where only relegated Norwich City and Cardiff City lost more often, and a few more goals from the strikers would not go amiss, though. 

SUNDERLAND The Black Cats - Stadium of Light - @SAFCofficial 
Last season 14th + FA Cup Quarter finals + League Cup Runners-up + Last major trophy FA Cup 1973
Manager: Gus Poyet (since October 2013)
Players In: Jack Rodwell, Will Buckley, Patrick Van Aanholt, Billy Jones, Jordi Gomez, Costel Pantilimon, Santiago Vergini*
Players Out: Ignacio Scocco, Jack Colback, Craig Gardner, Phil Bardsley, Billy Knott, Keiren Westwood, Carlos Cuellar, Andrea Dossena, Louis Laing, Oscar Ustari, David Vaughan, John Egan, El Hadji Ba*
Pre-season results:
W5-1 v Darlington 1883 (A)
W1-0 v Carlisle United (A)
W3-0 v Hartlepool United (A)
W1-0 v Recreativo Huelva (N)
L0-1 v Nacional (A)
D0-0 v Vitoria Setabul (A)
W2-0 v Real Betis (H)
W2-0 v Udinese (H)
Prediction: 13th
Sunderland begin their eighth successive season in the top flight this year, historically their best sequence since the 1950s - however, the previous seven years have brought only one top-half finish, under Steve Bruce in 2011. Last season was an even scarier ride than usual as a dreadful start spelt the end for Paulo di Canio before a resurgence under Gus Poyet - including a first Wembley Cup final in 22 years - fell flat in the spring. Bottom with six games to go, the Black Cats looked to have too much to do, especially with Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United away on the fixture list. But, thanks to a hitherto unseen run of form from Connor Wickham, the Mackems drew 2-2 at the Etihad and then won at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge to end up staying up with a game to spare. 
It must now be Poyet's priority to put his own stamp on this team - but, beyond Steven Fletcher, the Uruguayan's options up front look limited and that will be something exacerbated even further if the unsettled Wickham has departed by the end of August.
SWANSEA CITY The Swans - Liberty Stadium - @SwansOfficial
Last season 12th + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup 3rd round + Europa League Last 32 
Last major trophy League Cup 2013
Manager: Garry Monk (since February 2014)
Players In: Marvin Emnes, Bafetimbi Gomis, Lukasz Fabianski, Jefferson Montero, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Stephen Kingsley
Players Out: Ben Davies, Michel Vorm, Leroy Lita, David Ngog, Jernade Meade, Darnel Situ, Alejandro Pozuelo, Chico Flores, Daniel Alfei*, Michu*
Pre-season results:
D1-1 v Guadalajara (N)
L0-2 v Minnesota United (A)
W4-0 v Plymouth Argyle (A)
W2-0 v Exeter City (A)
L1-3 v Bournemouth (A)
W3-1 v Reading (A)
L0-3 v Villareal (H)
Prediction: 10th
By replacing League Cup-winning Michael Laudrup with club cult hero Garry Monk in February, Swansea showed sometimes change really is for the best. Even coming on the back of a wretched run of one win in 10, the move by chairman Huw Jenkins was nevertheless considered to be a risk and, following a thrilling 3-0 success over South Wales rivals Cardiff City in his first game, Monk also found victory difficult to come by at the beginning of his tenure.
But three wins in the last four games lifted the Swans up to 12th and their tally of 54 league goals, the eighth best in the division, was always going to keep them out of trouble. Still purveyors of attractive, possession football, Monk's men should also have plenty up front to prevent a repeat of last year's struggles with Wilfried Bony enjoying a decent World Cup for Ivory Coast and Bafetimbi Gomis joining from Lyon. A return to a solid mid-table placing beckons at the Liberty.

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR Spurs - White Hart Lane - @SpursOfficial
Last season 6th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup Quarter finals + Europa League Last 16
Last major trophy League Cup 2008
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino (since May 2014)
Players In: Ben Davies, Michel Vorm, Eric Dier, DeAndre Yedlin
Players Out: Jake Livermore, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Iago Falque, Heurelho Gomes, Cameron Lancaster, Alex Pritchard*, Shaquile Coulthirst*
Pre-season results:
D3-3 v Seattle Sounders (A)
W3-2 v Toronto FC (A)
W2-0 v Chicago Fire (A)
W6-1 v Celtic (N)
W2-1 v Schalke 04 (H)
Prediction: 7th
Fourth in 2012, fifth in 2013 and sixth in 2014. Tottenham Hotspur fans can hardly say they did not see it coming if indeed they do finish seventh this season. A slow decline can trace its roots as far back as the spring of 2012 when Harry Redknapp was distracted by the possibility of becoming England manager and hit a bad run of form, ending up being dismissed at the end of the season. In Mauricio Pochettino, who has impressed at Southampton over the last year, Spurs are now on their third boss since Redknapp - and their slide away from the top four positions was accelerated last season by the sale of Gareth Bale and the failure of a boatload of signings to adapt, Roberto Soldado in particular. 
This was amply demonstrated in the results against the top four itself, Spurs scoring just once and conceding 24 goals in five games against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea across various times of the season. They also lost three times to Arsenal, and even three times to West Ham. Despite this, the North London club's record against the rest of the division is generally decent enough - again, though, this simply reflects their standing stuck between the top sides and the mid-table buffer zone.     

WEST BROMWICH ALBION The Baggies - The Hawthorns - @WBAFCofficial
Last season 17th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 3rd round + Last major trophy FA Cup 1968
Manager: Alan Irvine (since June 2014)
Players In: Brown Ideye, Jason Davidson, Cristian Gamboa, Craig Gardner, Joleon Lescott, Chris Baird, Sebastien Pocognoli, Andre Wisdom*
Players Out: Liam Ridgewell, Billy Jones, Steven Reid, Cameron Gayle, Diego Lugano, Zoltan Gera, Scott Allan, Nicolas Anelka, George Thorne
Pre-season results:
W2-0 v Bury (H)
W2-1 v Shrewsbury Town (A)
W1-0 v Sacramento Republic (A)
W3-1 v Sacramento Republic (A)
L0-1 v Nottingham Forest (A)
L2-3 v Port Vale (A)
L1-3 v Porto (H)
Prediction: 18th
After a spell as a yo-yo club throughout the whole of the last decade, West Brom appear to have stabilised in this one - and this is, in fact, a fifth successive season of top flight football for the Hawthorns club. Last season though was, by some distance, the Baggies' toughest since their latest promotion featuring two managers - Steve Clarke and Pepe Mel - and just seven wins. Indeed, in the end, it could be said West Brom only actually stayed up by finding three teams worse than themselves and chairman Jeremy Peace was swift to dispense of the services of the unconvincing Spaniard Mel. 
No one, least of all the Baggies' fans, expected his replacement would be the unheralded Alan Irvine, however - and the Scot, last seen being sacked by Sheffield Wednesday, already has much to prove. With a frightening run-in which includes Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal in the last five games, West Brom will need a bright start if they are to avoiding boing-ing back down to the Championship again. 

WEST HAM UNITED The Hammers - Boleyn Ground - @whufc_official
Last season 13th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup Semi finals + Last major trophy League Cup 1981
Manager: Sam Allardyce (since June 2011)
Players In: Enner Valencia, Cheikhou Kouyate, Mauro Zarate, Aaron Cresswell, Diego Poyet, Diafra Sakho, Carl Jenkinson*
Players Out: Joe Cole, Matt Taylor, Stephen Henderson, Jack Collison, George McCartney, Callum Driver, Jordan Spence, George Moncur
Pre-season results:
D2-2 v Stevenage (A)
D0-0 v Ipswich Town (A)
D0-0 v Shakhtar Donetsk (N)
W4-2 v Espanyol (N)
L1-2 v Wellington Phoenix (N)
L1-3 v Sydney (N)
D0-0 v Schalke 04 (A), won 7-6 on pens
L0-2 v Malaga (N)
W3-2 v Sampdoria (H)
Prediction: 11th
All is not well at the Boleyn Ground again - with manager Sam Allardyce having to deal with the familiar refrain of shaping up or shipping out. Allardyce, who is always his own best publicist, defended his record last season by pointing to the 15 clean sheets which the Hammers kept - and, in fairness, this was ultimately what kept them up. However, six of those 15 games finished 0-0 - and it is exactly this dull, one-dimensional approach which is the source of the discontent in east London. Indeed, following the end of the season, the West Ham board even held showdown talks with Allardyce who subsequently promised a more attacking style of play. 
This was in little evidence in pre-season despite the signing of two small, pacy strikers in Enner Valencia and Mauro Zarate - and the jury remains out on whether Allardyce can adapt his tactics sufficiently to play to his new squad's strengths. Easily possessing enough quality to trundle to a mid-table finish, it may well be that West Ham reach the line next May without Allardyce in tow.

*Loan signing

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Irresponsible reporting on suicide

THE NEWS of the suicide of much-loved actor and comedian Robin Williams has unsurprisingly generated a huge response from the media over the past couple of days.

A lot of it has been a genuinely heart-warming remembrance of a hugely talented man who played a big part in my childhood for his roles in Mrs Doubtfire, Jumanji, Aladdin and Flubber.

And there were, of course, many, many others.

Williams' greatest success came in his portrayal of a psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar in 1997 as Best Supporting Actor.

But, while there is much to eulogise about the fine catalogue of work which he has left behind, it is massively disappointing to see the front pages of several of the tabloids this morning have instead focused heavily on the nature of his death.

Worse still, the biggest culprits have shown scant regard for the well-thought-out general advice provided by the Samaritans on the reporting of this sensitive topic.

"Tortured" is the prominent, one-word headline on the front of the Mirror - while the sub-heads carry speculation that money troubles were the trigger for the suicide.

The Daily Mail has reserved the whole of its front page for Williams - but again concerns itself solely with unconfirmed speculation surrounding his passing.

Meanwhile, the Sun and the Daily Star - as well as, surprisingly, the normally more reserved Metro free-sheet - all use dramatic language and describe in some detail exactly how he took his own life.

Even though it really should not matter how he did it - or why he did it.

Indeed, it simply does not matter. For, while journalists are admittedly usually there to explain how or why events have occurred, in this case and other similar ones, reporting the fact that he did it and that it is newsworthy because of his talent really should be enough.

Moreover, beyond the fact that Williams had depression, trying to guess at a trigger at this stage - even if it is a so-called 'educated' guess - is truly nonsensical, and actually not at all classy.

After all, ultimately only he knows exactly what thought processes he was going through.
Thankfully, some of the broadsheet newspapers produced some more thoughtful coverage.

The Guardian still dedicates a significant proportion of its front page to Williams - but simply reflects, in classy pictorial form, on his comedic versatility. A tribute from Russell Brand sits neatly below.

A further tribute is posted in the Times pull-out, the T2, a small mention of which is made in the strap-line at the top of the front page just below the masthead.

Credit where it is due, then, to those sensible editors who have perhaps taken a bit of thought before laying out the front of their newspaper.

Now, if only the tabloids would follow suit and end their rather grisly attempts at one-upmanship, determined by sensationalism and nothing more.

From today's evidence, though, there is fat chance of it happening any time soon - and so I'm off to watch Williams as the unforgettable Euphegenia Doubtfire.

You never know, it might just cheer me up.

RIP Robin McLaurin Williams (1951-2014), aged 63. May you never lose your little spark of madness.

Available 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year to provide confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress, despair or suicidal thoughts.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Darling stymies Salmond in referendum debate

SCOTLAND First Minister Alec Salmond failed to make any headway against former Chancellor Alistair Darling in the first debate on the independence referendum last night.

Trailing in the polls, Scottish Nationalist leader Mr Salmond had hoped to use his well-known charisma in front of the cameras to turn the tide towards the Yes campaign.

But the immediate assessment afterwards actually suggested a victory for the usually mild-mannered Scottish Labour MP, Mr Darling.

A snap poll by ICM found only 37% thought that Mr Salmond had won against 47% for Mr Darling.

Now, this is largely in line with current polling on independence - but, in fact, even 16% of pre-debate Yes voters gave the win to Mr Salmond's opponent.

The reason behind that surely must be the failure of the SNP leader to address majors concerns over which currency Scotland would use if it failed to secure a currency union.

To boos ringing from the audience, Mr Salmond insisted an independent Scotland would be able to keep Sterling, stating "It is our pound as well as England's pound."

But, in a clever line, Mr Darling countered that Scotland leaving the UK and keeping the pound would be "a bit like getting a divorce and keeping the same joint bank account".

Moving on, Mr Salmond asked Mr Darling again and again if he would accept that Scotland could be a prosperous independent country, posing the question on no fewer than 21 occasions.

And, in his opening statement, the First Minister had correctly pointed to the fact that 49 of the 71 countries which took part in the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow were either the same size or smaller than Scotland.

He also said: "No one - absolutely no one - will do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in Scotland."

Now, Mr Darling did not exactly entirely refute the claim that Scotland could be a self-sufficient country on its own.

Nevertheless, the main the crux of his argument was that going independent is simply too much of a risk, particularly as there would be no going back.

"There are times that, for the love of our family and the love of our country, it's sometimes best to say 'No' - not because we can't, but simply because it is not the best thing to do," he said.

"And, remember this, if we decide to leave, there is no going back - there's no second chance." 

Overall then, this was a difficult night for Mr Salmond who is fast running out of time to convince his electorate of the benefits of independence

In fact, there are now only six weeks until Scotland decides on 18 September.

It was an even worse night, though, for STV - the Scottish broadcaster whose only platform for viewers south of the border was an online stream.

Facing unprecedented demand, the stream unsurprisingly crashed, leading to many jokes on Twitter that its failure indicated Scotland was better off staying in the Union.

Certainly, though, a matter which actually concerns the whole of the UK should have been made available throughout the country - even if it is only those living north of the border who have the vote.

Thankfully, the rematch between Mr Salmond and Mr Darling - penned in for 25 August - will be shown live across the UK on the BBC.

And, if that date is confirmed, it means the debate will come just over three weeks before the referendum itself.

By then, Mr Salmond simply must have eaten into the lead which the Better Together campaign has comfortably held since the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012 set up the vote.

Indeed, on the evidence of last night, it already looks be the case that Mr Salmond has left his push for victory too late.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Dulce et Decorum Est: the old Lie

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), war poet and soldier
AT THIS exact hour, on this day, 100 years ago, Britain declared war on Germany. The decision would change the world forever.

The declaration came after Germany failed to respond to an ultimatum following its invasion of neutral Belgium on its way to France.

Britain had vowed to protect the neutrality of Belgium in the Treaty of London in 1839 - and the German non-response ended the concept of Britain's so-called "splendid isolation" in a wider Concert of Europe.

The Concert had kept the European major powers largely peaceful for almost 100 years after Napoleon was defeated.

But, from the late 19th century onwards, several treaties resulted in two major alliances being formed.

In 1879, the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary effectively attempted to protect the two Central Powers from invasion by Russia.

And, in 1882, Italy signed a similar deal with Germany and Austria-Hungary called the Triple Alliance.

On the other side, Russia formed an alliance with France in 1894 to protect herself against Germany and Austria-Hungary - before Britain then made agreements with both of its imperial rivals.

Yet, despite the growing tensions, the greatest tragedy of World War One is the fact that Europe very nearly came to peace in the build-up.

After all, there was nothing new about trouble in the Balkans, where the assassination of Austria-Hungary heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist had sparked the July Crisis.

Successive Balkan wars had taken place in 1912 and 1913 without the involvement of any of the five Great Powers. 

And, while a bloody skirmish between Austria-Hungary and Serbia was perhaps inevitable, a wider war was not.

That only became the case when Germany offered Austria-Hungary unconditional support in its decision to attack the Serbians who were then quickly supported by the Russian Tsar. 

Russia's alliance to France left Germany hemmed in - and so it made a pre-emptive move west through Belgium which, of course, brought in Britain. 

But, rather than mobilising troops under the principle of protecting Belgium, the war in Britain was 'marketed' as a patriotic duty and even as a grand adventure. 

War poet Wilfred Owen enlisted in 1915 and, after training in Essex, he was sent to war the following year. 

On the continent, however, Owen suffered a number of traumatic experiences.

He fell into a shell hole and became concussed, and was later blown high into the air by a trench mortar, spending several days lying out on an embankment among the remains of a fellow officer.

Soon afterwards, he was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock and was sent back to Britain for hospital treatment in Edinburgh, where he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon.
By then, the horror of the war had become apparent to Owen - and he wrote several poems denouncing the futility of the conflict. 

These included Dulce et Decorum Est (pro patria mori) - a Latin phrase taken from the Roman lyrical poet Horace and his work Odes

The line can be roughly translated into English as "it is sweet and fitting to die for your country", something described as "the old Lie" by Owen. The full text of the poem is below:

Dulce et Decorum Est (1917)
Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Owen, nevertheless, rejoined the front-line in 1918, seeing it as his duty to ensure the horrific realities of trench and gas warfare continued to be told.

He was killed in action, aged 25, on 4 November 1918, exactly one week before the Armistice was signed.

Indeed, the news of his death reached his mother by telegram on Armistice Day as church bells rang out in celebration of the end of the war.

But, for her, and millions of others, there was nothing to celebrate.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Halcyon days of Sir Bobby

19-Sep-1999 + Premier League + Attendance 36,619
Newcastle United 8 Hughes 11, Shearer 30, 33(p), 42, 81, 84(p), Dyer 46, Speed 78
Sheffield Wednesday 0

SIR BOBBY ROBSON ushered in his reign with an eight-goal haul in a remarkable first home game at St James Park - and thus began the transformation which would ultimately take United from the depths of the relegation zone to the last 16 of the Champions League.
Taking place the day before my 16th birthday, I listened to the radio in amazement as a team of apparent no-hopers had the game won by half time. Alan Shearer, of course, was vital to the resurgence and, on this afternoon, he scored five goals for a Premier League record which he still jointly holds with Andy Cole, Jermain Defoe and Dimitar Berbatov.
The rout actually began with a header from Aaron Hughes on 11 minutes before Shearer then added a 12-minute hat-trick. Normally, that would be it - but Kieron Dyer ensured the goalscoring continued straight after the break and, while Sheffield Wednesday were able to stem the tide for over half an hour, they were powerless to stop a final wave of attacking, the late Gary Speed scoring a trademark header before Shearer added two more.
What a turnaround! Heading into the match, Shearer was out of the team and United had picked up just one point from 21 to sit second bottom. The only team below them was Wednesday who went down at the end of the season, and have yet to return to the top flight. By contrast, Newcastle finished their campaign in 11th place, 19 points clear of the drop on 52, having scored 63 goals, more than anyone outside the top two of Manchester United and Arsenal.   

18-Dec-2001 + Premier League + Attendance 38,012
Arsenal 1 Pires 20
Newcastle United 3 O'Brien 60, Shearer 86(p), Robert 90

NEWCASTLE arrived at Highbury having failed to win in London since 1997 - a 30-match streak which included three defeats in three seasons at Wembley in two FA Cup Finals and an FA Cup semi. It therefore came as no surprise when United went 1-0 down to Arsenal in the opening 20 minutes. Here we go again, we all thought - but United's comeback in their previous home game against Blackburn Rovers was a sign of things to come and Robson's men were handed a lifeline when Ray Parlour was sent off for a second booking on the stroke of half-time.
Invigorated, the Magpies were like a different team after the break and scored a well-deserved equaliser through the unlikely source of Andy O'Brien as the big defender flicked in a near-post header. In a testy match, however, referee Graham Poll then evened up the sides by giving a straight red card to Craig Bellamy for catching Ashley Cole in the face on the turn - even though television replays showed the contact to be accidental. With the fastest outlet in Bellamy now off the pitch, hopes of ending the London hoodoo appeared to go with him.
Not so. Instead, with time running out, Sol Campbell was harshly adjudged to have brought down Laurent Robert and Alan Shearer scored the resulting spot-kick. Then, with Arsene Wenger's men chasing an equaliser, it got even better as Robert himself cracked in a third. The two-goal victory was enough to take Newcastle to the top of the Premier League on goal difference and Robson's side stayed there for Christmas Day after beating Leeds United 4-3 at Elland Road in another thrilling comeback win.
Indeed, Newcastle maintained a title challenge until early March when a side, weakened by injury, lost successive games to Arsenal at St James Park and Liverpool at Anfield - and, even then, the Magpies still recovered to finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League...

13-Nov-2002 + Champions League group phase + Attendance 45,000
Feyenoord 2 Bombarda 65, Lurling 71
Newcastle United 3 Bellamy 45, 90, Viana 49

NEWCASTLE made Champions League history - and in fact still hold the honour of being the only team in the competition to lose their first three group games and yet still progress to the next stage. Yes indeed, the early forays into that season's competition had not been a success as a 2-0 defeat away to Dynamo Kiev was followed up by a 1-0 home loss to Feyenoord and then a 2-0 reverse in the Stadio delle Alpi against Juventus.
The turnaround began against the Turin club at St James Park as full-back Andy Griffin scrambled home a second-half winner - before Kiev were also beaten at home thanks to Speed and Shearer. Somehow, Newcastle had survived until the final matchday - but still needed to win while hoping already-qualified Juventus accounted for Kiev.
The Italians held up their end of the deal, winning 2-1 in Ukraine - but Newcastle looked like blowing their chance of a place in the Last 16 despite taking a 2-0 lead with goals either side of half time from Bellamy and Hugo Viana. Deep into stoppage time, Newcastle launched one last attack as Shearer knocked down a Nikos Dabizas punt to Dyer who beat his man and shot towards goal. Goalkeeper Patrick Lodewijks saved but could not hold the stinging effort - instead, the ball rebounded to Bellamy - and the Welshman slammed home a winner in Rotterdam from close range. Glorious.

11-Mar-2003 + Champions League second group phase + Attendance 53,459
Internazionale 2 Vieri 47, Cordoba 60
Newcastle United 2 Shearer 42, 49

THE SECOND stage of that season's Champions League was also in a group format and, again Newcastle started badly, losing 4-1 to Internazionale at home and 3-1 to Barcelona in the Nou Camp before Christmas.
On the resumption, in February, things turned around somewhat with back-to-back wins against Bayer Leverkusen featuring an Alan Shearer hat-trick at St James before the Lion of Gosforth would take centre stage at the San Siro in the return match against Internazionale.
Ultimately, this was not a victory - but Shearer strained every sinew in attempting to make it so, converting a Bellamy cross to give United a half-time lead, and then restoring the advantage almost immediately after Christian Vieri had equalised early in the second half.
Inter scored a second equaliser from a dubious free-kick and Newcastle then officially went out of the competition in a 2-0 home defeat to Barcelona. But, while the outcome still tastes bittersweet, that night in the San Siro will generally be remembered as the peak of Robson's reign at Newcastle.
A month later, a decent title challenge collapsed in a 6-2 home defeat to Manchester United - and, though the Magpies went onto finish third, a reverse in the Champions League qualifiers to Partizan Belgrade at the start of the 2003-04 season sent Newcastle out of Europe's premier competition early. United have not played in it since...

22-Apr-2004 + UEFA Cup semi final, first leg + Attendance 52,004
Newcastle United 0
Olympique Marseille 0

INSTEAD, Newcastle were given the consolation that season of a place in the UEFA Cup, making serene progress in the knockout competition against the likes of NAC Breda, FC Basel, Valerenga and Real Mallorca. The 3-2 aggregate quarter final success over PSV Eindhoven was tougher - but victory in that tie had set up Newcastle's first major European semi final in 35 years.
Marseille lay in wait - and, spearheaded by a certain Didier Drogba, the French side would eventually prevail in the tie 2-0 on aggregate after winning by that score in the second leg on the south of France. Despite that ultimate outcome, though, I will never forget the tangible feeling of one last bit of hope when walking out of St James Park after a goalless first leg.
In fairness, this match only gets included for that context as Newcastle did not play all that well even at home. Marseille largely dominated proceedings and Drogba hit the inside of the post. Nevertheless, their lack of an away goal meant Newcastle would be favourites to go through if they could score the first goal at the Velodrome.
Of course, a Drogba double snuffed out that fairytale and then several others after he joined Chelsea that summer. Meanwhile, Robson never managed another European game again for Newcastle as he was sacked just four games into the new campaign.

It was a sad end for Robson - but these matches - among some others of the same era - are likely to stay my happiest, and certainly most raucous days as a Newcastle fan. As a student, I remember them as largely carefree days - and the fact that Robson provided a team which could challenge, if not quite succeed, at home and abroad, made the whole period feel extra special. Halcyon days, indeed.

Even now, five years after his death, Sir Bobby continues to contribute to the goodwill of the region, the charity founded by him and still bearing his name having raised £7.3m for cancer research. Truly, another brilliant achievement from an outstanding man.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

MH17: Transcending rivalry

THE NEEDLESS loss of the 298 lives on board the shot-down Malaysian Airlines plane on Thursday was, of course, tragedy enough in itself.

But hearing that two of the victims on flight MH17 were dedicated Newcastle United fans naturally meant the devastating incident in eastern Ukraine hit home harder still.

John Adler and Liam Sweeney were travelling from Amsterdam Schipol in Netherlands to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia on the way to their eventual destination in New Zealand.

There, the pair planned to take in two Newcastle pre-season friendlies - against Sydney FC in Dunedin on Tuesday, and against Wellington Phoenix on Saturday.

All this having seen a 2-1 defeat to Oldham Athletic last Tuesday, their final match.

It was true commitment to the Magpies' cause. John, in particular, had built up an incredible reputation as one of the loyalist football supporters in the land, having missed just one first-team match since 1973.

Indeed, he was so well-known among the away support that he was given the affectionate nickname of 'The Undertaker' for his propensity to wear a black suit with a white shirt, whatever fixture United happened to be playing.

Liam could not quite match the Undertaker's record, but then - how could that be expected at his age of 28?

Both were such tragic losses - and yet, predictably, nothing so far seems to have come from the powers-that-be other than another tiresome round of finger-pointing.

Somehow, though, there is still actually a positive story to be found here - and, remarkably, it involves the fans of Sunderland AFC and their tribute page to John and Liam.

On the site, the Mackems explain: "We may be Sunderland fans, who traditionally have deep rivalry with Newcastle, but there are things far more important than any football games.

"The incredibly sad news that has emerged this week about two Newcastle fans who have passed has left us all shocked and deeply saddened. Donating here will help pay for a floral tribute to those fans and to unity between the two clubs.

"Any extra money will be donated to a charity that has yet to be decided. Thank you for your time, effort and donations. RIP to John Alder and Liam Sweeney, who were both far too young."

One thing is for sure - there should be some money left over for the charity - as, in an incredible coming-together of the two rival fanbases, more than £16,000 has been raised so far.

It is a fantastic gesture by all - but especially by those from Sunderland whose generosity has transcended rivalry.

In other tributes, Newcastle United released this statement and allowed the Sir Bobby Robson statute on Gallowgate to be used for scarves, shirts, cards and flowers to be laid. 

The commemorations have now been moved to the main entrance of the Milburn Stand in expectation of inclement weather. 

Additionally, the club confirmed that black armbands will be worn in the two friendlies in New Zealand on Tuesday and Saturday, and an - as yet - unspecified tribute will be organised for the first match of the season against Manchester City on 17 August.

Elsewhere, Gateshead staged an impeccably-observed minute's silence ahead of Friday's friendly win against Newcastle U21s - and Berwick Rangers, Whitley Bay and Blyth Spartans all followed suit. 

Sunderland and Darlington paid their respects ahead of their friendly at Heritage Park in Bishop Auckland yesterday.

And, on Twitter, United youth team player Kyle Cameron dedicated a 6-2 friendly win in Sweden to John and Liam.

Finally, here is a bit of poetry, from an unknown source, in memory of John Adler and Liam Sweeney who both died too young:

Ground to ground, both day and night
To follow those in Black and White
Cheering loud and clapping hands
Among the nation’s loyalist fans

Friendlies, cup games, not a care
If the Toon were playing, you were there
Win or lose, through bad and good
Newcastle United was in your blood

Known by thousands all around
Familiar faces at our grand old ground
Loved by many, all the lads and lasses
Before the next Toon game we’ll raise our glasses

Two empty spaces in the crowd
Don’t worry though, we’ll cheer you loud
This tragic news is sad and dark
But you’ll be the light at St James’ Park

Sleep tight now lads with pride on your faces
And teach the angels the Blaydon Races
For this sad day and through the night
Let Heaven’s gates be Black and White