Why Hamilton Hitting The Skids Is Good For F1

Lewis Hamilton can’t win.  Not on the racetrack, where archrival Nico Rosberg is on a roll with six consecutive race wins in a row.  Not off the racetrack, where Hamilton’s wannabe rapper lifestyle is endlessly criticised, and his ragged start to the new F1 motor racing season has seen him practically written off less than a quarter of the way through the racing calendar.  Hamilton’s travails, though, are presently the only source of entertainment in yet another F1 season Mercedes are threatening to dominate.  Had Lewis started his races from the front of the grid in the same imperious manner as most of last season the World Drivers’ Championship might already be over.  The fans may as well have tuned out after the opening lap and tuned back in for the chequered flag and champagne wasting podium celebrations.

Still, unless you are a fan of either of the two Mercedes drivers, an internecine rivalry will hold little attraction in the absence of a realistic challenge from rival teams such as Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull and Williams.  With the sport struggling to conjure up any kind of competitive drama, it is not surprising F1 has been haemorrhaging fans and receiving deserved criticism for becoming diluted from its thrilling (albeit extremely dangerous) heyday of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.  As I wrote in an earlier blog post, sport needs rivalries to generate excitement and thrive.  Unfortunately for F1, its power brokers have not so far discovered an adequate solution to its waning appeal – despite numerous fruitless attempts – and unless something is done soon to make the teams more competitive and challenge each other for both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships, then the most kamikaze mishaps of Lewis may not be enough to save the sport.

That would be a shame as motor racing is one of the few sports that Britain excels at and dominates the production of, with many of the major teams – including Mercedes – being based in Britain and making a vital contribution to the British economy.  Britain needs F1 to be successful, and it doesn’t help that the sport is run by an egotistical despotic dinosaur in Bernie Ecclestone, who seems more interested in cynically extracting ever more money from obscure oil rich freedom poor autocratic regimes – Azerbaijan anyone? – and devising ever more contrived crackpot gimmicks to liven up race days.  Poor leadership equals poor stewardship equals poor decision-making equals weak product.  Add to that equation the short sighted decision to accept Sky’s money and take half the races off terrestrial TV, meaning those without deep pockets can’t follow the whole season, which makes it easier to lose interest, especially if the race outcome is a procession.

In a sport where money will always make the difference and single team domination is near inevitable, perhaps the only solution to achieving parity between teams is to introduce some kind of handicap system.  One option that has been suggested is to reverse grid positions from one race to the next, but such a system would disincentivise drivers from winning if they had to start the following race in last place, so would probably only work if each race was split into two rounds with one normal and one reverse grid.  An alternative might be to assign a time handicap to the top 10 finishing drivers in decreasing order, which they would take into the next qualifying round.  The winner would carry the biggest time handicap, which would be added to his qualifying time and reduce his chances of starting first on the grid for the next race.  Rival cars would thus get a precious opportunity to start the following race from the front, enabling them to get a vital head start over the faster car, which would be forced to start further down the grid.  This would engender not only greater equitability, but also provide some much needed spectacle as it would necessitate plenty of overtaking from the quicker cars lower down the order.  Indeed, any kind of handicap system would help prevent the single team domination that has been the blight of F1 (and many other sports), and threatens its position as an exhilarating spectator sport.

However, until (and unless) such a scheme is implemented, currently, interest in F1 depends on the reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton giving us his own version of a handicap system by allowing his teammate to get a massive head start in the Driver’s Championship (and in the process, hopefully, bringing other drivers into contention), and then slowly clawing back the deficit by pitting his boy racer instincts against his more cerebral, but also possibly more brittle, opponent and winning in a dramatic head-to-head charge at the death.  Apparently no driver who has won the first 3 races of the season has failed to go on and win the Drivers’ Championship.  Nico Rosberg has won the first 3 races of this season.  It seems only fair that it should require the surmounting of a monumental challenge from the champion to stop F1 fans switching off completely and sending the sport into the pits.



Ta-Ta Tyson

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu.

The sexist, misogynist homophobic gobsh**te, Tyson Fury, says he is going to leave the UK for the United States after his re-match with Wladimir Klitschko in July because we are a bunch of meanie weenies.  Apparently, we don’t take kindly to sexist, misogynist homophobic gobsh**tes in this country.  Aw diddums.

Let’s hope when he departs he isn’t encumbered with too much carry on baggage – like a big, shiny, gold belt.

The FA Cup: Elixir or Poisoned Chalice?

They say history goes in cycles, and there were some intriguing similarities between Manchester United’s dramatic FA Cup semi-final win over Everton on Saturday and a couple of memorable semis of yesteryear.  Just like Saturday, the fabled semi-final replay of 1999 against Arsenal was won by the same scoreline, 2-1, and involved a miraculous penalty save by a talismanic goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, and a wonderful late goal (in this case in extra time) from an exciting talent by the name of Ryan Giggs (I wonder what happened to him?).  Saturday’s win also evoked fascinating parallels with the semi-final of 1990, which United won 2-1, defeating Oldham (in a replay) with a late (extra time) winning goal, and went on to play Crystal Palace in the final, just as this year’s team will do.  At the time, the manager – a certain Alex Ferguson – was under immense pressure from fans and the media alike as United faced the prospect of finishing another season trophy-less, and many considered him a goner should United not go on to win the Cup (anyone getting deja vu yet?).  In the event, United did win the FA Cup, which saved United’s season, possibly Fergie’s job, gave him his first trophy, and the rest, as they say…

It’s been a while since United won the FA Cup; 12 years to be precise, and 17 years since their last Wembley win.  Since their infamous pull-out in 2000 (a big mistake, as Fergie would admit retrospectively), the Cup appeared to have lost its allure for the club, and in the twilight years of his reign, Fergie didn’t seem particularly bothered about winning it.  But with Saturday’s enthralling win, United are, once again, in the Cup Final at Wembley, and winning the Cup could, once again, save our season, give manager Louis Van Gaal a much needed first trophy and possibly save his job…(Anyone getting deja vu yet again?  If not, did I mention we are playing the same team in the final that we played in 1990?)

Alas, that is where the similitude ends, if current newspaper reports are to be believed.  Apparently Jose Mourinho is on his way to Old Trafford next season, so it appears winning the FA Cup will not save LVG’s job.  Shame, as I rather enjoy deja vu-ing.  Shame, as I rather enjoy deja vu-ing.  (See what I did there?  You thought it was a typo, didn’t you?)  Of course, irrespective of the managerial musical chairs, winning the Cup could still herald the dawn of a new era of domination (United fans can only dream and pray).  Or, it could create uncertainty and doubt about the wisdom of appointing a new – and divisive – manager just when it looked like Van Gaal was starting to make things happen, and could, potentially, undermine the commencement of Mourinho’s tenure at the club.  If United win the Cup, King Louis’ ghost might come back to haunt Jose Mourinho’s reign.  If Jose doesn’t succeed straightaway, how soon before people start speculating what might have been had we kept faith with Louis?  Mourinho is a factious figure, with many detractors who are adamant he is not the right fit for United.  His short-termism, his penchant for parking the bus and his reluctance to take a chance on youth are all understandable concerns for United fans who demand that success be achieved ‘the United way’.  Jose, though, is used to a remit of success at any cost, so how will he cope with a caveat from United that success be obtained ‘the United way’?

Most importantly, what will he do with the current team?  Will the kids be alright?  LVG may have played the kids only because of mounting injuries, but at least he played them.   Would Mourinho have done the same in the circumstances, or would he have reverted to his default option of the checkbook?  Thanks to LVG’s boldness (or desperation, depending on your point of view), the United team is brimming with youthful pace and pizzazz once more, and should we win the Cup, there will be a greater sense of satisfaction in the achievement because we will have won it with the kids, reminiscent of the glory, glory days of the Busby Babes and Fergie’s Fledglings.  And once we have returned to winning with kids (™Manchester United), fans will expect the tradition to continue under the new manager, and if he doesn’t play ball (so to speak) how long before the fans become disgruntled and start wistfully mentioning LVG’s name, conveniently forgetting that it was their dissatisfaction that got him sacked prematurely in the first place?

So, ironically, not winning the FA Cup might make life easier for United as LVG’s departure would then be unequivocal and prompt little opposition, even accounting for the polarising effect of the incoming manager.  Either way, Jose Mourinho is never going to enjoy universal approbation again in the aftermath of his contemptible behaviour towards his own staff.  In appointing him United will have picked a proven winner, but will they have also sacrificed long term prosperity based on stability for a short term trophy hoard?

As a die hard United fan long enough in the tooth to remember with rose-tinted fondness (ageing is depressing but the memories are great) those bleak years when our annual suffering at seeing the Scousers stroll to yet another league title was briefly assuaged by the magic of a Cup win, I desperately want United to win the FA Cup on 23 May.  Just because I love the FA Cup, if nothing else.  But winning this FA Cup will not bring the same unadulterated joy as in the good old days.  It’s just going to make things more complicated with our managerial situation.  Winning the FA Cup next month will result more in questions and conundrums than champagne and glory.

[An edited version of this post was published at http://www.boxtoboxfootball.ukThe FA Cup: Elixir or Poisoned Chalice?]


Who’d be a football referee?

Do footballers harbour a secret longing to be thespians?  Modern footballers give such convincing Oscar-worthy performances in surreptitiously manhandling their opponents and theatrically conning referees into giving them decisions, they put real actors to shame.  Is it any surprise then that their mendacious antics should result in frustratingly inconsistent refereeing, as occurred in Sunday’s controversial encounter between Leicester and West Ham at the King Power Stadium, where the hapless referee Jon Moss was slated for his performance.

First, he incurred the wrath of the home supporters by sending off star striker Jamie Vardy for diving; then he infuriated them by awarding West Ham a penalty, and finally he compounded their rage by denying Robert Huth a penalty when the Leicester defender seemed to become the meat in a West Ham sandwich (geddit?).  Perhaps fearing he might not get out of the stadium alive and in one piece, the referee duly succumbed and granted Leicester a reprieve penalty at the death, which Leicester’s Leonardo Ulloa bravely converted – with extraordinary nerve – to salvage a precious point in the title race.  Cue delirious scenes from Leicester supporters, but subsequently, self-righteous indignation from West Ham and scathing criticism from the pundits – those leviathans of intellectual debate otherwise known as ex-footballers – who castigated the referee for inconsistent officiating.

Every decision he made, or didn’t make, was minutely scrutinised and peremptorily condemned as either too lenient or too harsh.  However, no reference was made in mitigation of the players pushing, pulling and grappling each other like WWF wrestlers and diving around like Tom Daley wannabees, making the referee’s job a complete nightmare.  No, it was all the referee’s fault, and the players were mere innocent victims of poor officiating.

To add to the scapegoating, yesterday the England manager Roy Hodgson waded in by defending the blatant dive by Vardy which saw him sent off, suggesting he was ‘unbalanced’ and fell.  Really?  So unbalanced that as fell he also managed to raise both hands in the air in a lame appeal for a penalty?  Even worse, Hodgson then inexplicably chose to excuse Vardy’s consequent, frankly disgraceful, berating of the referee.  Apparently, the striker’s reaction was understandable.  So, verbally abusing the referee and disrespectfully jabbing his finger in his face is ‘understandable’?  Roy Hodgson seems to think so.  According to Hodgson: “He has reacted like human beings sometimes react….He has called him a few names. But he is a human being and that can happen.”  So as far as the England manager is concerned, it’s ok for a footballer to harangue a referee because he’s only human.  But it’s not ok for the referee to get perhaps a few marginal decisions wrong because he’s human as well?  Then he deserves all the opprobrium he receives?

If footballers didn’t cheat, dive, push, grab, yank, strangle and otherwise assault one another and actually played to the spirit of the game, perhaps they wouldn’t get so many decisions going against them.  If managers admonished players instead of defending them for egregious behaviour, perhaps players would be better behaved and the referee’s job would be made easier.  If the footballing powers that be relinquished their antediluvian mentality and belatedly entered the 21st century, and joined the rest of the sporting world by bringing in video replays to help beleaguered referees, then perhaps we might have less refereeing controversies and fairer results.

But then what would the football community have to moan about?   Where would they hang their grievances?  Who would fans and managers blame for their team’s bad results, who would the players take out their frustrations on, and what would the pundits have to argue about?  Sadly, it would seem everyone in football prefers to play the blame game rather than the beautiful game.

No summer Euro jaunt for Rashford, please Roy

Another United match, another delectable goal from young, gifted and Red Marcus Rashford.  After helping United reach the FA Cup semi final on Wednesday night at Upton Park, with a mazy run and classy finish reminiscent of a young Ryan Giggs, the precocious Rashford was at it again on Saturday, scoring his 7th goal in 12 appearances with a peachy flick, to earn United the 3 points and relegate an indifferent Aston Villa to the Championship.  In a turgid season, Rashford has been one of the few bright points, together with goalkeeper David De Gea’s best human impression of a brick wall (surely the sole contender for our player of the season) and Anthony Martial’s authoritative presence in front of goal.

Should Rashford continue to sparkle to the end of the season, and even more, help United win the FA Cup for the first time in 12 years, the quiet murmur for Rashford to be included in Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the Euros in France will, I fear, grow into a deafening clamour.  There is a danger that Hodgson may be influenced into heeding the public clarion call and giving Rashford a last minute call up.  If the England manager should acquiesce, he would be wrong to do so, for playing Rashford too early could ruin him.

Marcus Rashford is 18 years old.  He has never played international football.  He hasn’t even played a full season for Man Utd, for goodness sake.  How can he possibly be expected to carry the (probably deluded) hopes of a nation into a major international tournament?  Yes, the burden of unrealistic expectation will be inevitably placed on his youthful shoulders, irrespective of his inexperience, because unrealistic expectations are always put on England players, no matter what.  The media and Joe Public will expect Rashford to come off the bench and produce the same match defining performance for England that he has been doing for United.  Worse, there may even be a call for him to start should England struggle early on or pick up a few injuries.

There is no valid reason to risk plunging Rashford into the maelstrom of international football on the cusp of his nascent career.  Hodgson has plenty of young up and coming players at his disposal whom he has tested in international waters and who can be relied on to do a job for England.  Rashford needs to spend the summer recovering from his Premiership exertions, enjoy some important down time relaxing with family and friends, and then prepare for pre-season in readiness to play a first full season with United, probably under a new manager.

Once the new season is under way and a new England qualifying campaign begins, by all means introduce Rashford, gradually, into the team at a time when there is less pressure and he is free to play unburdened, so he can demonstrate his abilities and develop new skills.  This way, there is less danger of burn out or picking up injuries.

Ultimately, as a United fan, I don’t want Rashford’s glittering potential to be tarnished by being rushed prematurely into the hurly burly of international football by desperate England fans.  England can wait.  Rashford’s well-being and United come first.

You cannot be serious, Hawk-Eye

There are very plausible reasons why Hawk-Eye technology is not utilised on clay courts to make line calls.  The margin for error is presently too great, plus clay leaves a visible ball mark to enable umpires to jump down from their high chairs and verify questionable calls.  Allegedly – since there have been plenty of hotly disputed line calls, many concerning whether, with so many potential ball marks visible, the umpire has even been checking the correct mark.

So, if you are someone who misses the good ole days of irate players taking out their frustrations on well meaning but fallible umpires and linespeople, then clay is your surface.  If, however, you would prefer the drama to emanate from the tennis, then watching contentious line call disputes at clay court tournaments must seem depressingly regressive.

Now, interestingly, Hawk-Eye is not foolproof.  It has an error margin of +/- 2.6mm.  But, of course, it’s nigh on impossible to argue with a computer, especially an invisible one (though somehow, John McEnroe would, undoubtedly, have found a way).  The most heartening aspect of Hawk-Eye’s presence in tennis has been the greatly reduced potential for line call disputes, which must be a blessed relief for anyone who used to be embarrassed, rather than enthralled, by the querulous antics of Messrs. McEnroe, Nastase, Connors, and their ilk.  With Hawk-Eye it is psychologically easier for players and the public to accept its call, even with a margin for error, because it is perceived as consistent and unbiased.  It offers no scope for argument.  The outcome is accepted and everyone moves on.

Except for clay court tournaments.  Unfortunately, the presence of visible ball marks on clay will always serve to undermine any technology with an error margin, no matter how fractional.  Possibly the most viable alternative may be to discover suitable technology for correctly identifying ball marks to help umpires resolve at least one obvious area of dispute on clay.

Then we can all be free to focus on other areas of arbitrary umpiring, such as the time taken between points.  But that’s a whole new argument for a whole new post.


What’s wrong with being lucky?

There’s a well-known old proverb that it is better to be born lucky than rich.  But in sport, luck is a dirty word.  To dare suggest that someone might have got a tad lucky on their way to wining is tantamount to insulting both their ability and their work ethic.  Such temerity is brusquely dismissed with sarcastic ripostes such as the famous quote attributed to 9 time Major winning golfer Gary Player: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”  This defensiveness is understandable, of course.  Who likes to be told they didn’t deserve their hard-won success; after all, that’s what is being implied, isn’t it, when we say someone was lucky?

On Sunday, Danny Willett won the Masters because Jordan Spieth came to grief on the 12th hole with a quadruple bogey.  To put it bluntly: Willett won because Spieth blew it.  At least, that’s how the American papers saw it, though most British fans would take umbrage with such a seemingly facile perspective, citing Willett’s flawless, bogey-free five under par 67 final round versus Spieth’s inconsistent one over 73 score.  Obviously Willett deserved to win.  However, is it wrong to suggest that Willett only got the opportunity to win because Spieth faltered on the final few holes?  In other words: Willett got lucky that Spieth got wobbly?  And if he did, what’s wrong with being lucky?

A few years ago, ex-England cricketer Ed Smith, wrote a thought provoking book on the concept of luck and its often pivotal role in the outcome of success and failure in life and sport.  In ‘Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters’, Smith makes a compelling case for acknowledging, and even embracing, the role of luck in sport.  Nevertheless, Smith’s book is not a polemic.  It does not pit luck against hard work or talent, those two favoured designators of success, but simply accords luck its place alongside them in the sporting narrative.

For there is no doubt that luck – good and bad – plays its part in sport (as it does in life), and to dismiss it, particularly in relation to success – strange how it always tends to rear its head as a convenient means of explaining failure – is disingenuous, because sport is littered with remarkable tales of luck.  For instance, the Denmark football team winning the 1992 European Championships even though they failed to qualify for the tournament, and only got in as lucky losers because Yugoslavia were disqualified for fighting a civil war; or tennis player Goran Ivanisevic, having to beg for a wildcard from the Wimbledon committee so he could play in the 2001 tournament, and then memorably going on to win it, helped by a timely rain delay when he was losing in the semi final.  Perhaps, most extraordinarily, Australian speedskater Stephen Bradbury winning Olympic gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, having been 20 yards behind at the finish, simply by being the last man standing as all the contenders took each other out.  Danny Willett himself was lucky in the first instance even to be playing at the Masters because his wife had been due to give birth to their child on the final day, but the baby arrived prematurely, enabling Willett to compete at the last minute.

Such are the twists of fate, or fortune, or destiny, chance, luck, kismet, providence, or whatever you want to call it.  But whichever way you define it, you cannot deny its existence in sporting endeavour.  I have always believed there are four requisite components to achieving success in sport – talent, application, character, and luck.   Yet the first three are commonly taken for granted, while no one ever dares admit to luck being a contributing factor.  To acknowledge luck is not to denigrate the innate gifts of the talented athlete or to disparage their character and dedication to their vocation, nor to undermine their capacity to control their own destiny; it is to recognise and accept human susceptibility to the vicissitudes of life.

Ultimately, although luck can, and does, provide a gilded opportunity to attain success, it is the ability to take that propitious chance which separates the successful from the rest.  When Spieth lost the lead at the 12th, there were two other players besides Willett who were also in contention to win:  Lee Westwood and Dustin Johnson.  Yet, the moment the Masters was there for the taking, the two perennial bridesmaids faltered on the way to the altar.  In contrast, Willett grasped his chance with ruthless efficiency; coolly birdieing the 16th to reinforce his lead and then making a nerve jangling, par saving chip at the 17th, when a bogey seemed the most likely outcome, with the assured steeliness and steady composure of a champion.  It may have been luck that had provided Willett with his opportunity, but it was his character, determination, and endless hours of hard work preparing his game for just that moment, which won it for him.

So maybe that’s the secret to success:  you have to be ready to be lucky.  And that takes a lot of hard work, and not inconsiderable amount of talent and character.