Sunday, 31 March 2013

Forget the Premier League, ‘the fizzy pop league’ still has all the surprises in store...

The Championship table as it stands (31/3/13)

With Manchester United destined to lift the Premier League title for the 20th time in their history in the next coming weeks, football fans should turn their attention to the spoils of the Championship.

Sir Alex Ferguson is waiting for the formalities which will see Nemanja Vidic hold the trophy aloft, wrapped-up and sealed with crisply cut red ribbons tied around it. However, more important battles still need to be won in a tighter race just one division away – the £100 million race to reach football’s greatest league.

With just four points separating the play-off chasing pack from the automatic places, and at least nine teams still in with a chance of reaching the promised land, there is still everything to play for. And in a league which boasts world class players, expectant owners and results-driven managers, this can only be a recipe for fantastic football.

As Nottingham Forest boss Billy Davies stated last weekend after his side’s dramatic encounter with fellow play-off rivals Brighton - in this league ‘a coat of paint’ barely separates top from bottom.

Davies said: “The competition is fierce, it’s the most difficult league in the world to get out of – no doubt about it.

“Anyone can beat anybody and there is that great determination to get promoted from all the teams in the league.”

While the Scot’s team currently sit in 5th position in the table and comfortably inside the top six, that comfort is never assured. Because just a point outside the play-off positions with seven games still left to play lie rivals Leicester, who they meet on the final day of the season.

Elsewhere, Cardiff City and Hull look to be gunning for the automatic spots in hope of acquiring their own war chests to splash out on new recruits to keep them in the Premier League – IF they meet their ambitions to get there.

And there is still time for third place Watford to make up the four point gap between themselves and second place Hull. The Hornets come armed with the prowess of Championship Player of the Year Matej Vydra as they face both the league’s top two sides in their next outings.

And how can anyone forget Ian Holloway’s Crystal Palace side, who go head-to-head with Leicester at Selhurst Park in April. Holloway has done it before with Blackpool and has talented players to call on like soon-to-be Manchester United winger Wilfried Zaha.

Whatever the final month of Championship action may bring, one thing can be sure, it will provide something the Premier League title race will not – twists and turns until the VERY end.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Underhanded tactics from Montenegrins will not work

Patchwork in Podgorica for England.

Ahead of England’s vital World Cup qualifier with Montenegro it seems there has been no love lost, with the frightened Montenegrins preparing to douse their makeshift pitch with sprinklers in a lacking attempt to ruin England’s hopes.

It was revealed this week that the Podgorica men will drench their own field in the hope of recreating a similar playing surface to the one England struggled on against Poland last October, managing just a 1-1 draw.

A similar result for Montenegro in their capital tomorrow evening would ensure that Branko Brnovic’s side maintain their place as Group H leaders. They currently sit just two points clear of England.

When tactics are coming down to such lows as ruining the surface of play it is time to admit you are worried about the opposition’s strengths – but instead Brnovic passed the buck.

He told the BBC this week: “We have [Fiorentina striker] Stevan Jovetic and [Juventus forward] Mirko Vucinic. Maybe England are more scared of this game than we are.”

The Montenegro coach also accused the England players of using the conditions of the pitch as a potential excuse in case they are defeated in the game. Although most fans of the national team would usually frown upon the players using the pitch as an excuse, this time they may have a valid point.

But despite the conditions, the Three Lions have enough quality in the squad to easily see off the challenge of Montenegro – especially on the back of a confidence-boosting 8-0 drumming of minnows San Marino.

The England central defensive partnership of Joleon Lescott and Chris Smalling may not have had regular places in their respective teams this season, but they have shown individually that they are both talented defenders, and will relish the chance to prove their abilities to boss Roy Hodgson.

England have moved on since the draw against Poland last year – the most important of these advancements has seen more young talent emerging through the squad – including the likes of Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge, Tom Cleverley and Kyle Walker.

With this in mind the future for English football is looking brighter than ever - and a drizzly pitch in Southeast Europe is going to be very hard pressed to stop that. Prediction? England win.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Cheltenham: Make horse racing safer, but don’t ban it!
The carnage at Becher's Brook, Aintree in 1989

Following the deaths of five horses at last year’s Cheltenham Festival and further concerns from animal rights protestors ahead of the meeting this time around, the time has come to make horse racing safer.

“Football has Wembley, tennis has Wimbledon, jump racing has Cheltenham.”

Those were the words of Cheltenham Festival aficionado Chris Flavell this week as horse racing fans flocked to the South West for a packed four days of atmosphere, anticipation and action in one of racing’s biggest calendar events.

Last year jockey Tony McCoy won the Gold Cup on the final day aboard champion gelding ‘Synchronised’ – but just months later the horse was led to his death in the Grand National after unseating McCoy at the infamous Becher’s Brook fence.

Obviously such events are a rare and tragic circumstance of National Hunt racing, but they serve to highlight that measures must be put in place to make racing safer and ensure the true sporting spectacle can continue to be enjoyed for many years to come.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claim that more than 400 horses die racing in the UK each year. Many of these fatalities can be avoided and occur because the courses are too testing on the animals and landing areas are not secure.

Both the courses at Cheltenham and at Aintree, which is used for the Grand National, have been slowly altered over time to increase safety - but these modifications are always too little, too late. It is time for the steeplechase bigwigs to realise we are not living in 1989 anymore and make safety a top priority!

Whipping rules have recently been brought into place, but again these are insufficient. Horses can still be fiercely whipped eight times during flat racing and nine times on the jumps. Horse racing does not need whipping and some jockeys refuse to use whips and still win convincingly. They should be banned altogether.

70,000 spectators will be cheering on the Gold Cup winner this Friday in Cheltenham’s grand finale - let us all hope that horse racing can soon become safer, before it risks facing its own final curtain call.