All posts by Caleb Sage

Q&A with Fanfair co-founder Connor Reddy

In today’s footballing world, much of the real action is in debate and discussion across social media platforms. 

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, to name just a few, have become the home for fans’ views, opinions and knee-jerk reactions across the globe.

A new app, Fanfair, dedicated solely to football, hopes to join that list. Shortly before it went live, Fanfair’s co-founder Connor Reddy spoke to Elephant Sport about the app and what he hoped it would add to the existing market.

What is Fanfair?

fanfair2
©Fanfair

Fanfair is a new live-streaming platform that brings live football news and opinions together to spark discussions amongst fans. It seeks to be a live football community bringing fans from all around the world together to voice their opinions in a live environment with other like-minded fans.

How did the idea come about?

One evening watching the same old pundits rambling on Sky Sports, we began to wonder why it was only their opinion getting a platform and yet the average guy has to scramble together a 140-character message and hope not to get lost in the thick of it.

Surely the fan on the street had has much of a say as these guys being paid to churn out the same lines week in, week out?

What did you use as your inspiration for how Fanfair would work? 

©Wikimedia Commons

We looked at a company called Twitch that specialises in video game live-streaming, the reason being because they managed to build a community out of the passion of gaming, instead of just creating another social network or streaming application.

They really brought together a community, and that’s what we want to do with Fanfair.

They created a medium for true fans to interact with each other over a shared passion but also provide a stage for anyone and everyone to showcase their skill irrelevant of experience.

What makes Fanfair unique in this era of social media where football is already heavily discussed across multiple platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube?

In essence, Fanfair aims to be the sole social platform dedicated exclusively to football fans.

On a feature front, our unique audio commenting allows fans the chance to engage with one another like never before on a live-stream. We as football fans ourselves love to have ourselves heard when we’re raising our point to our mates, and this is what we are trying to recreate.

Traditionally, people have phoned into radio talk shows to have their say on the game, and we’re trying to simplify that process. We feel by using speech comments, we give passionate football fans the chance to really get across the emotion of what they’re feeling about the final score.

What do you aim to accomplish with Fanfair?

©Fanfair

Ultimately, we want to change the way fans interact with one another and make that a simpler and more emotive process for them to engage with one another.

Over the long-term, we want to develop Fanfair into a wider idea that transcends simply a football discussion app.

This has the potential to take form in an all-singing, all-dancing sports platform for fans of various sports and develop a fan-led content platform for the digital era that takes over traditional mediums such as radio.

With a younger, digital-savvy generation on the rise, our overall vision for Fanfair would be to see it become an innovative and interactive version of sports radio shows, where fans curate the content and have their say on the biggest talking points from the game.

Can you tell us more about a couple of Fanfair’s main features?

We decided to integrate live news into the app to help stimulate the conversation. A lot of live-streaming apps out there seem to be struggling to answer why to go live. We’re providing our community with a catalyst of live news to spark discussion.

Our audio comment feature gives fans the chance to voice their opinion so they can finally be heard. We noticed that all the other live-streaming apps out there focused heavily on the video aspect, whereas we want to place the emphasis on the actual engagement between fans and 140 characters just doesn’t constitute engagement in our opinion.

We’ve also implemented a ranking system that rates from: bronze, silver and gold with everyone starting from bronze irrelevant of their external background. The reason for this was because we wanted to allow validation for people’s opinions from other fans but also encourage those who want to build their own profile within the community.

What would you say is your favourite feature or aspect of Fanfair and why?

Definitely our audio feature, as we really want to be able to capture the real emotion that someone’s feeling when they’re talking about their team or a topic that resonates with them.

Why should football fans download Fanfair?

fanfair3
©Fanfair

Football fans should download Fanfair and join the community because they’ll finally have an interactive way to discuss with fellow fans about the game they love.

We’re taking the football discussions you have with your friends and connecting you to other people who share some of the same ideas! If you’re sick of hearing the same old pundits using the same old clichés, then Fanfair is for you!

Heated football discussions can sometimes provoke the wrong kind of passion. People can go from simply disagreeing with a point someone’s made to eventually insulting or even threatening them. How does Fanfair plan to combat this and, ultimately, keep the environment a civilised place?

We strongly believe that the platform needs to be real and authentic. For that to be the case, we have to allow people with differing views to interact with one another. We have our own moderation team who will block and delete content that we feel has crossed a line, and we are clear that we do not accept abuse and threats from one user to another.

Fanfair was born from the passion of football and we want to harness that to unite people and accept that you can disagree with someone else’s view, but that doesn’t mean you can’t respect them.

Much like with any social media platform, ultimately it comes with the territory that you are going to have to moderate the content. We allow users to block others and report inappropriate content and are looking at measures to put in place going forward, which will put the emphasis on users who are constantly engaged with the platform to moderate the community as well as the team in the back-end.

Where can those interested in trying out Fanfair download the app?

You can join the community via the iOS App Store and Google Play Store. We’re always looking to improve the app so it benefits our community, so feel free to send us feedback at team.ff@fanfair.co as we’re always willing to listen to new ideas and opinions!

Featured image: ©Fanfair

Games review – Snow

Ever thought of bracing the chill of the Alps to do some snowboarding or skiing?

Maybe the cost has put you off, or possibly the thought of breaking a leg.

In which case, Poppermost Productions’ Snow is a winter sports video game that takes the expense, cold weather and potential for injury out of the equation.

Initially released towards the end of 2016 on PlayStation 4, Snow gives players the opportunity to digitally snowboard and ski across various locations, game modes and events with their own customisable character.

Free Roam

One of Snow’s games modes, and arguably its most, enjoyable is its Free Roam, where players get to explore different mountains under no gaming conditions (e.g. time limit) in place.

Players have the option to choose between seven peaks, which differ in size and level of difficulty, to snowboard or ski on.

These mountains, mostly named after competitions, include: Sialia, Suzuki Nine Knights, B&E, S Games, Jon Olsson Invitational and Fochi 2014.

olsson
Jon Olsson Invitational

Out of the seven, Jon Olsson Invitational (JOI) is without a doubt the one for beginners.

With its map size classed as small and its difficulty ranked as easy, JOI will break you in gently.

Players only have the short distance between the top and bottom of a very small hill to travel, with just a couple of ramps put in place afterwards to allow the practice of tricks.

However, The unchallenging nature of  JOI it quite tedious and probably surplus to requirements once players have grown accustomed to the game.

In contrast, Sialia, the largest mountain on Snow, can keep players entertained for days with its numerous pipes, ramps, rails and expansive landscape, which can sometimes feel never-ending but in a satisfying way.

As for the rest of Snow’s mountains, they strike a balance between both Sialia and JOI, ultimately offering players a range of experiences across Free Roam.

Events

With no overall aim or compulsory challenges to complete, Free Roam can become boring, especially in an offline setting.

If so, then there is the option of trying out the Events mode instead.

There are seven event types to choose from: Time Trail, Descent, Slopestyle, Big Air, Freeride, Freestyle and Rail Jam.

event-type
Events

These events involves tasks ranging from reaching the bottom of the course as fast as possible, to performing a specific number of tricks, thus giving players the chance to test and further improve on their in-game snowboarding or skiing skills.

Out of the seven, the two event types that really catch your eye are Descent and Freestyle.

In Descent, players have to complete the course without crashing, while Freestyle sees virtual snowboarders and skiers attempting to record as high a score as possible through the use of tricks.

Both events are challenging yet still fun, but can have an element of frustration attached to them if you fall into the habit of constantly crashing before completing the course and having to restart.

Multiplayer

The Multiplayer mode for Snow resembles its Free Roam counterpart, with the only major difference being players get to snowboard and ski with other online players.

multiplayer
Multiplayer

Currently, it appears that Sialia is the only mountain available to play on, with a maximum of 12 players allowed to join the server.

Taking into account the size of Sialia, it can become difficult to come across fellow players in the server (unless you opt to spawn at their location), leaving you with the feeling that you are not actually playing with anyone from time to time.

However, once alongside budding snowboarders and skiers of the virtual world, Snow becomes much more fun as you speed downhill with other players while performing tricks simultaneously.

Perhaps Snow could do with additional content to its Multiplayer though, like actual races or trick contests between players, rather than just having an online version of free roam.

Overall gameplay

Despite being officially released and available to purchase on the PS4, Snow is still in its Beta stage and, as a result, has its flaws.

For instance, although quite minor, the manner in which a player’s character is tossed around after a crash can look very glitchy — an issue likely to be bothersome for those who seek perfection in a game.

Also, on Multiplayer, which can feel very laggy at times, players pass through each other as if they were ghosts when riding into one’s path, rather than colliding and eventually crashing.

This may have been done to prevent players from purposely riding into other players in order to cause them to crash and disrupt their experience but, ultimately, it has removed a sense of realism from the game.

Nevertheless, Snow remains an entertaining sports game.

It’s not as complete as other similar winter sports video games such as EA Sports’ SSX series, and doesn’t have the best of graphics in this current generation of gaming.

But if snowboarding, skiing or sports games in general for that matter are your type of thing, then give Snow a go.

Elephant Sport rating: 7/10

Featured image: ©SNOW

Five Chinese Super League players Premier League clubs should be looking at

While it may not yet be able to compete with Europe’s elite in most aspects, the Chinese Super League has still become an attractive destination for players across the world seeking a fresh challenge – and a hefty pay packet.

President Xi Jinping’s 10-year plan to make the country a footballing superpower has resulted in CSL teams being bankrolled by massive corporate investment to make the great sporting leap forward.

This January alone, the likes of Brazilian international Oscar, Argentina’s Carlos Tevez and Belgian star Axel Witsel, have moved to Chinese clubs Shanghai SIPG, Shanghai Shenhua and Tianjin Quanjian in deals worth insane amounts of money in transfer fees and wages.

Former Chelsea player Oscar earned his £52m move to Shanghai SIPG after impressing in the Premier League, as did other recent additions to the CSL such as John Obi Mikel, Graziano Pelle and Demba Ba.

But to turn the tables – here are five CSL players who Premier League clubs might want to consider bringing over to England in the current transfer window.

Jackson Martinez: target for West Ham?

Last summer, West Ham’s pursuit of a striker in the “£30m” and upwards bracket was well-documented after they failed in their attempts to recruit Michy Batshuayi – who later signed for London rivals Chelsea – and Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette.

The Hammers eventually managed to land Simone Zaza from Juventus in a loan deal that would become permanent after the Italian had made a certain amount of appearances, but the 25-year-old utterly failed to adapt to life in the Premier League, and is now set to return to Juventus before he is offloaded to another club.

jackson-martinez
©Jack Martinez’s official Twitter account

Their next target was former Hammer Jermain Defoe, but given his huge importance in their bid to avoid relegation, Sunderland have rejected the east London club’s £6m offer and made it clear they have no intention of selling.

Manager Slaven Bilic is now likely to look elsewhere, and having so far this season paid the price for his failure to recruit a decent striker last summer,  Guangzhou Evergrande’s Jackson Martinez would be well worth a look.

Martinez moved to China last January after a short and unsuccessful stint at Atletico Madrid, where he only managed to score two goals in 15 La Liga appearances. However, the 30-year-old Colombian’s prolific goalscoring record for Porto, which saw him finish as the Primeira Liga’s top-scorer in all three of his seasons in Portugal, proves how good he can be.

He can also boast Champions League experience and 10 goals in 40 appearances for his country, including appearances at both the Copa America and World Cup.

Whether Guangzhou would be willing to let him go remains to be seen, but he is the type of player many West Ham supporters would have hoped to see come in last summer to build on a successful final season at Upton Park before the move to the London Stadium.

Ezequiel Lavezzi: target for Everton?

©Wikimedia Commons

Everton appear to be in the market for a new winger, and Hebei China Fortune’s Ezequiel Lavezzi would be a superb option.

At 31, the Argentina international probably has a couple of good seasons left in him and remains a big name.

With Yannick Bolasie sidelined for a year and Gerard Deulofeu set to leave the Merseyside club on loan, manager Ronald Koeman is looking to add to that area of the squad, having already snapped up 19-year-old Ademola Lookman from Charlton for £11m.

“I know what we need to change and if everyone opens their eyes today maybe we will get further on our improvement as a team. Because that’s really what we need and that’s all about what happens this month,” Koeman told the Liverpool Echo regarding the club’s lack of transfer activity.

Manchester United’s Memphis Depay is rumoured to be Koeman’s top target; however, it is believed that the Red Devils will only consider letting the 22-year-old leave on a permanent deal, while Everton are reportedly insisting on a loan – so if Koeman cannot get his number one choice, Lavezzi could serve as an excellent alternative.

Like Depay, former PSG and Napoli star Lavezzi’s preference is to operate on the left-hand side where he can cut in and cause damage with his right foot. But he is just as capable of playing on the left or behind the striker, making him both a skilful and versatile asset.

A proven top-level success in Europe, he could be just the spark a club like Everton need to give propel themselves upwards.

Graziano Pelle: target for Watford?

©Graziano Pelle’s official Twitter account

Graziano Pelle and Watford could potentially be a match made in heaven.

With strikers Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo having failed to reproduce last term’s form this season, the Hornets are in serious need of reinforcements up front, ailing to reproduce the goalscoring from they showed during the 2015/16 campaign, the Hornets could really do with some fresh impetus up front.

Given his aerial threat and impressive hold-up play, the former Southampton striker could fit the bill ideally.

Watford boss Walter Mazzarri likes to deploy Watford in a 3-5-2 formation, a set-up Pelle excelled in for Italy at Euro 2016, playing under current Chelsea boss Antonio Conte.

The Shandong Luneng forward netted twice against Belgium and Spain to add to the 14 goals he scored in all competitions for Southampton that season before his move to China. At 31, Pelle could still have a couple of years of top-flight football in him.

Paulinho: target for West Brom?

©Wikimedia Commons

West Brom manager Tony Pulis is looking for a central midfielder and has already had a £13m bid for Morgan Schneiderlin rejected by Manchester United. 

Earlier this month, Pulis told the Birmingham Mail: “Morgan is just one of two or three we’re looking at.

“The most important thing is that you do your business with other clubs. It’s respectful to other clubs and then you move on from there. If we get the deals done, you get them done.”

The Red Devils want to recoup the £24m they paid Southampton for Schneiderlin in 2015, whilst the player’s preference to be reunited with his former Saints boss Ronald Koeman at Everton suggests he is out of the Baggies’ reach.

In that case, a decent alternative option might be Guangzhou Evergrande’s Paulinho. 

The 28-year-old Brazilian international did not have the best of times during his previous stint in England with Tottenham, but has all the right attributes to fit into a Pulis team. 

His strength, energy, defensive capabilities and physical presence in set-piece situations, makes him an ideal alternative to Schneiderlin and, ultimately, a good midfield option for West Brom to have.

Currently eighth in the table, he could be just the man to push them on for a Europa League spot.

Papiss Cisse: target for Hull City?

Barring miracles, Hull look destined for the drop this season.

©Wikimedia Commons

New boss Marcos Silva has spoken of the need to strengthen his squad if he is to save them, and one area he will have to address is their attacking options.

“I have confidence in our players, but it’s clear we need to improve our roster,” Silva said in his unveiling as Hull manager and as quoted on BBC Sport.

Joint lowest scorers in the Premier League so far this season, with just 17 goals in 20 games, Hull need a proven Premier League forward, and Senegal international Papiss Cisse is just that.

The 31-year-old made an instant impact in English football’s top flight when he joined Newcastle from Bundesliga outfit Freiburg in January 2012, scoring 13 goals in 14 league appearances that season – including an incredible strike against Chelsea – but struggled to follow up that dazzling debut. 

Since last summer, Cisse has been playing for Shandong Luneng. Anything would be an improvement on Hull’s current striking options, so the main issue could be if the player wants to join a relegation fight.

David Bytheway – official Fifa player for Wolfsburg

For most people, football gaming is a recreational activity, but that is far from the case for VFL Wolfsburg’s David Bytheway.

The 23-year-old is widely considered as one of the best Fifa players in the world, and his reputation has only continued to grow since signing for the Bundesliga outfit earlier this year.

Bytheway is very proud to be the first British gamer to be snapped up by a professional football club.

“It would feel amazing at any point [to represent a huge football club as a gamer], but to be the first British gamer to be signed to a club is a massive achievement,” expresses Bytheway.

“There can only ever be one person who is the first. I just want to repay the faith they have in me with tournament wins.”

Online leagues

The recruitment of elite-level gamers by football clubs is a relatively new development, and Bytheway admits he didn’t set out to become a professional.

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©David Bytheway’s official Facebook page

“I got into professional gaming purely by chance,” he reveals.

“I was playing Fifa and only wanted to beat my friends, no other goal. When I got to that stage, I wanted to play better people so starting looking for online leagues.

“That is where I started playing some of the best players in the country and where I was first introduced to e-sports [also known as electronic ports]. I have been doing this for the past seven years.”

In that time, Bytheway has had his console highs and lows.

“My high is definitely finishing second at the Interactive World Cup in 2014. It is our world championships and felt amazing. It was also my 21st birthday the same day.

“The lowest was probably recently in a YouTube tournament with other football clubs,” he confesses.

“I lost three out of four games. It was within the first week of Fifa 17 [being released] and I had barely played it, which is my reason. But it was still an awful feeling.”

Perks

Bytheway is aiming to eradicate that feeling with some stellar performances for Wolfsburg, but how did the link-up come about?

“I was lucky enough to be a part of the Stark Talent agency who have the relationship with Wolfsburg, and I’m grateful for the opportunity they have given me,” he said.

“I think we are very close to a number of clubs announcing back-to-back that they have entered the scene”

And while there may be pressure attached to being an official Fifa player, there are also many perks.

“I often go to the games, which is great,” reveals Bytheway, who is currently working in marketing in central London.

“I also get treated just like one of their squad players with behind the scenes access and I have met quite a few of the first team.”

Pressure

What advice does he have for anyone who plays Fifa for fun but thinks they could take it to another level?

“With friends, everyone wants to win but losing isn’t the worst thing ever. But when you are known for being one of the best, the pressure just doubles.

“When you are in a competitive game, you have to be one hundred percent focused one hundred percent of the time.

“One bad player switch, one wrong pass, one wrong skill move and you can lose the game.

Bytheway thinks other opportunities like the one he took are in the pipeline, with West Ham recruiting at least one official Fifa player and other Premier League clubs set to follow suit.

“I think we are very close to a number of clubs announcing back-to-back that they have entered the scene,” he said.

It’s a great opportunity for them to enter a new growing market and would be stupid of them not to at least consider it.”

Sport or not?

ea
©EA Sports

Despite the rise of e-sports and its growing recognition as a sport, many still refuse to accept it as such.

But Bytheway rejects any notion that competitive video gaming cannot be mentioned in the same breath as chess or snooker, for example.

“In my experience, it’s more of the older generation who refuse to accept it as a sport, and I can see why they don’t like it,” he said.

“It starts off with people just playing games in their bedroom, but the difference is massive,” he emphasises.

“When I play, I’m playing with the best players in the world.

“I compare it with playing football in the park and Barcelona playing in Champions League. It’s the same sport but different levels.

“They struggle to accept it as a sport because there’s no physical input, but that’s because it’s a mental sport.

“There are many sports with minimum physical input. Chess, snooker and many others. e-sports is just as much of a sport as they are.”

Feature image ©David Bytheway’s official Facebook page. Follow David on Twitter @DaveBtwFIFA

Will Major League Soccer ever be taken seriously?

The profile of Major League Soccer in America has certainly grown in recent years, but will it ever be able to compete with its European counterparts?

When it comes to other sports, the United States boasts some of the top leagues in the world. The National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Hockey League (NHL) are unquestionably the world leaders in their respective sports.

But considering the size of its pool of players and the resources available, America’s domestic football league is still a poor relation.

The men’s and women’s national teams have both impressed on the world stage in recent years, and the Premier League continues to be extremely popular, but as for MLS? It is still some way behind its rivals in other countries.

European imports

One way in which MLS clubs have tried to strengthen themselves and ultimately the league as a whole is by importing some of the biggest stars of the European leagues as they come towards the end of their careers.

The prime example of this remains former England captain and ex-Manchester United and Real Madrid midfielder David Beckham, who,  in 2007,  joined LA Galaxy at the age of 31.

beckham_la_galaxy_cropped
©Wikimedia Commons: David Beckham

This coup opened the door for other clubs, and the likes of Freddie Ljungberg, Rafael Marquez, Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill followed suit by ditching Europe for America, keen to try out a new footballing experience, live in some of the world’s most exciting cities – and pick up a decent pay cheque for doing so.

One of the MLS’ more recent high-profile signings Frank Lampard, however, who joined New York City from Chelsea in 2014, believes players such as himself have the responsibility of trying to improve football in America instead of just going there to pick up their wage packages.

Speaking to The Drum in March, Lampard said: “As a player now you come to America to play but also you have a responsibility to improve the brand of football, which means taking the MLS to bigger levels.

“I think as a player coming from Europe, myself, David [Villa] and Andrea [Pirlo], we have a responsibility then to get out in the community and do these things [promotional events] and make people want to come and support us.

“I think you’ll see more [foreign] players come here as the league improves.”

Designated Player Rule

As for Beckham’s move to the States in particular, it had repercussions.

Repercussions that may need to be looked at should the MLS one day hope to have its top team teams filled with stars to rival the likes of the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga.

Beckham’s signing ushered in the Designated Player Rule, also known as the “Beckham Rule,” as part of the MLS salary cap regulation.

It means MLS clubs are only allowed to sign up to three players (the third resulting in a fee of $150,000 (£120,000) being paid and split between teams without three designated players) whose salaries will exceed the MLS salary cap of $436,250 (£350,000).

As a result, there is an obvious limit to how many big names a team can sign, considering they are the candidates for the designated player slots.

While such deliberate limitations do help keep a level of parity and competitiveness in the league, some modifications should at least be considered if the MLS truly wants to mix it with the big boys of Europe.

Retirement home

The signing of players such as Beckham definitely brought publicity to a competition which people may not otherwise have seriously considered paying attention to.

“The MLS will never be able to shed its unwanted tag until it can attract world-class players who are yet to reach their peak.”

However, whilst Beckham still had a few good years in him when he joined as a 31-year-old – Real Madrid tried to re-sign him before he joined the Galaxy, and he went on to have spells at Milan and Paris St Germain – many of the signings that have followed in his wake have given the MLS a reputation as a retirement home for ageing European stars.

That does not necessarily mean that those who have joined the MLS in recent years are not up to scratch.

©Nigel Wilson: Frank Lampard(L), Steven Gerrard(C) and David Beckham(R)

The likes of Henry, Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole and Robbie Keane, have all made an impact during their stints in the MLS.

Additionally, New York City’s Villa and Orlando City’s Kaka have also impressed and could probably have played at a higher level for at least one more season instead of joining the MLS in 2015.

But the MLS will never be able to shed its unwanted tag until it can attract world-class players who are yet to reach their peak.

‘A league that doesn’t count for much’

Regardless of the calibre of its foreign imports, the overall standard of quality across the league seems to be its biggest problem.

Earlier this year, former Juventus midfielder and Italy legend Pirlo, criticised the MLS for involving too much running.

The 2006 World Cup winner told Reuters: “It’s a very hard league to play in. It’s very physical, there’s a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play.

“What I’m talking about is actually a system or culture. I don’t mean that the level of technical skills are low. I just mean there is a cultural void that needs to be filled.”

And Pirlo is not the only Italian to have questioned MLS football.

Despite his red-hot form since joining Toronto in 2015, Sebastian Giovinco missed out on Antonio Conte’s Italy squad for Euro 2016 because he plays in the MLS, and the former Juventus forward’s exile has continued under Giampiero Ventura.

©Wikimedia Commons: Sebastian Giovinco

“I have done everything to help him [Giovinco] but the reality is that he plays in a league that doesn’t count for much,” Ventura was quoted saying on ESPN FC.

“And the number of goals he scores is less important because with the quality he has got, he is bound to make a difference in that league.

“The problem is that if you play in that type of league, and you get used to playing in that type of league, it becomes a problem of mentality.”

Does Ventura have a case? It is debatable, although some MLS fans interested in the affairs of the Italy national team will be quick to remind Conte’s successor that he has not been afraid to call-up Graziano Pelle – who is currently playing his trade in China.

Will MLS ever be taken seriously? Perhaps one day but, until something changes, it seems destined to remain deep in the shadows of Europe’s elite leagues.

Featured Image: ©Matt Boulton

‘I was naive about Paralympic sport – I thought it was easy’

Athletes across the globe dream of one day having the opportunity to showcase their talents to the world whilst wearing their nation colours, but for table tennis player Aaron McKibbin, that dream has already become a reality – twice.

At the London 2012 Paralympics, McKibbin fulfilled that ambition, but his adventure had the happiest of endings as together with GB team-mates Ross Wilson and Will Bayley, he clinched a bronze medal in the men’s team class 6-8 competition (moderate to severe limb impairment).

“It was a bit crazy, we didn’t expect it [to take a medal home],” he explains.

“We went in pretty blind; we were young. And being a home games, which was an amazing experience, we didn’t really know what was going on. It felt like a dream!”

Rio 2016

Fast forward four years to the Rio 2016 Paralympics, and the 25-year-old was part of the team that repeated that medal-winning feat, but he admits to a feeling of disappointment at only managing to finish third again.

©Supercharge ParalympicsGB

“We were so close to beating Ukraine in the doubles, and if we’d done that, we were most likely going to win the match and play Sweden in the final for gold,” explains McKibbin.

“On the other hand, to take a bronze there meant so much more than in London. The teams we beat along the way were so strong, and we saw our draw and knew it was going to be a tough ask.

“We beat Belgium, the former world champions in the first round. Then we beat Spain, the London 2012 silver medallists in the quarter-final, and then lost to the gold medallists in the semi-final.

“Finally, we had to beat China, the current world champions, who had the Rio 2016 gold medallist in their team.”

Tokyo 2020

After two consecutive bronze medals, looking forward to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, McKibbin has his eyes on an upgrade.

“I’m very determined [to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics],” McKibbin emphasises.

“I reached the quarter-final of singles in Rio, and my aim is to be competing for a singles medal at Tokyo 2020.”

Should McKibbin qualify for Tokyo 2020, it would be his third Paralympic Games – something he admits he never thought possible.

“My aim of going to London was simply because I had a dream of playing on the world stage and at a home games,” says the Londoner. “I didn’t even know about Brazil until after London 2012!”

European Championships and PTT Open

Whilst Rio and London are McKibbin’s biggest successes so far, they are not the only ones – he has also won medals at the 2015 European Para Table Tennis Championships and China PTT Open.

“They can’t compare to a Paralympics or World Championships. They are the most special competitions you can play in.”

“To win medals at any competition isn’t easy; the standard is getting harder and harder,” McKibbin says.

“Winning the China Open was possibly my most pleasing result outside of the Paralympics. I beat the world number two from China in the final and I had to win the competition to seal my qualification for Rio.”

While McKibbin clearly enjoyed those other triumphs, he admits neither comes close to the experience of Paralympic success.

“They can’t compare – things like the Paralympics or world championships are the most special competitions you can play in.”

Transition

Winning medals playing table tennis was not always McKibbin’s goal, however.

As a youngster, he dreamed of success on the tennis court, until he was forced to quit at the age of 14 because of his bilateral talipes – the medical condition more commonly known as club foot.

“It was was pretty hard, I couldn’t achieve what I wanted,” he admits.

“I was very naive to Paralympic sport – I thought it was easy and not serious”

“I fell out of love with the sport as no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t able to compete with the people I used to beat. My dream as a child was to play at Wimbledon so, once I knew that wasn’t a reality, then it [the decision to quit tennis] was sort of made for me.”

It was not until his first international table tennis tournament in Romania that his ambitions to compete at the highest level were reignited.

“I wasn’t really expecting much. I went because I was offered and thought it would be a cool experience,” he says.

“I was very naive about Paralympic sport; I thought it was easy and not serious. But once I arrived and saw how high the level was, how professional it was, I made my decision [aiming to compete at London 2012].”

Challenges

McKibbin eventually moved up to the National Table Tennis Centre in Sheffield to train full-time in a bid to make his Paralympic dream come true, and he admits the step into the unknown was a tough experience.

“At first I didn’t [find it difficult to leave London for Sheffield], I just made the decision. I needed to go and that’s it.

©Wikimedia Commons

“But then I think after a while I did. I had never left home before, and I was suddenly living 170 miles away from my family, looking after myself, while not knowing everyone that well being so new to the team.”

Several successful years later, McKibbin faces new challenges, such as balancing his time between playing table tennis and studying for a part-time Sports Science degree at Loughborough University.

“It’s hard as I have to drive to Loughborough two times a week, so it’s a lot of driving. But it’s something I must do as I know I a need a degree for my future,” he explained.

“The key is being organised. I have my year planned out; I’m in good contact with my tutors and lecturers. I’ve started back full-time training now, and it is hard after a long day of lots of physical work to come home and focus on learning.

“But I will find a way. I’m not the first to do it and sure won’t be the last.”

Next generation

At 25, and with several international honours to his name, McKibbin is in a good position to give advice to the next generation of future Paralympians – and his key message is the importance of a strong work ethic and mental resilience.

“It will take a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice but, if you have a dream, you should go for it and never let anyone tell you otherwise,” he explained.

“There will be lots of ups and downs, but it’s the down periods that make you learn the most about yourself. Enjoy the lows because they make the success taste that much sweeter!”

Aaron is on Twitter @Kibsta91. Featured image ©Supercharge ParalympicsGB

Three players unlucky to miss out on England’s latest squad

When the England squad was announced on Sunday via Twitter for the Three Lions’ upcoming fixtures against Scotland and Spain, a host of frustrated names were omitted.

The likes of Jermain Defoe, Wilfried Zaha and Adam Forshaw to name a few, were all mentioned as players deserving of a call-up, especially compared to some of those selected by interim manager Gareth Southgate.

However, the decision to omit three other players in particular, continues to come under scrutiny – and rightly so.

Charlie Austin

After a lacklustre start to life at Southampton, Austin is now finally starting to replicate the form he displayed at QPR in the 2014-15 Premier League season.

So far this campaign across all competitions, the 27-year-old has registered more goals (eight) than any other England forward, making his exclusion from the England squad a surprise to most.

“Does Austin have the pace of Vardy or the technical finesse of Sturridge? Probably not, but in his current form he is arguably a more viable option than the pair”

The Southampton striker is outperforming both Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge, who have been called up as attacking options despite the different problems they are currently facing at their respective clubs, and Southgate’s failure to recognise such is a concern going forward.

Too often in the past with England, it has felt like that the inclusion of certain players has been based on club and reputation rather than form and, judging by this showing, things are unlikely to change should Southgate become Roy Hodgson’s permanent successor.

Does Austin have the pace of Vardy or the technical finesse of Sturridge? Probably not, but in his current form he is arguably a more viable option than the pair.

Nathan Redmond

Redmond
©Wikimedia Commons

Austin’s Southampton team-mate Redmond has also started the season in good fashion and can count himself unlucky to have been denied the opportunity to make the jump from the England Under-21s to the senior squad.

The 22-year-old is relishing the forward role Saints boss Claude Puel has been deploying him in, chalking up three Premier League goals in the process of forming a promising partnership with Austin.

Redmond’s £11m transfer from Norwich City in the summer is already being touted as one of the signings of the season and given his performances to date, it is a view that is not hard to fathom.

Like Austin’s predicament, it is difficult to understand why Redmond has not been called up bearing in mind some of Southgate’s other inclusions.

Despite operating as a striker since his transfer, Redmond is naturally a winger blessed with pace and great dribbling ability.

While Raheem Sterling and Theo Walcott are likely to occupy the wide positions for England’s game against Scotland on Friday, Redmond would have been a solid option for Southgate to have and a much better alternative to Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard and Crystal Palace’s Andros Townsend — who have both done nothing to warrant a call-up.

Redmond is far from the finished article. But Puel is crafting him into a fine and more consistent player, who without a doubt deserved to be included in England’s latest squad.

Ben Gibson

After a long absence from the Premier League, Middlesbrough can be pleased with how things have gone since their return to the top flight.

They sit 15th in the table and Aitor Karanka’s men have put in some good defensive performances of late to add to the five out of nine points they have collected in their most recent fixtures against Arsenal, Bournemouth and Manchester City.

©Middlesbrough FC’s official Instagram account

Central defender Gibson in particular has been singled out for praise, especially for his performance away at the Emirates in which he helped inspire his side to a point and clean sheet against an Arsenal team boasting the attacking talents of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and an in-form Walcott.

With that in mind, in addition to the current options England have at the back, Gibson’s omission from Southgate’s squad has raised eyebrows.

Chris Smalling is out injured, Gary Cahill has been shambolic when not playing in a back three (something England will not implement) and John Stones always looks like he has a costly mistake in him.

Then there is of course Phil Jagielka, likely to still be recovering physically and mentally from the battering he got from Diego Costa last Saturday in Everton’s 5-0 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Gibson should feel hard done by, he has done more than enough to earn the chance to win his first international senior cap.

Featured image: ©Southampton FC‘s official Instagram account

Review – Football Manager 2017

The full release of Football Manager 2017 is soon to be upon us and it looks set to be the franchise’s most authentic game yet.

*Note: This review is based on the Beta (early access) version of Football Manager 2017.

From its inclusion of Brexit and how the United Kingdom leaving the European Union will affect transfers to the addition of sports scientists and data analysts, Football Manager 17’s realism continues to the follow the trend of its predecessors.

“The authenticity of Football Manager 2017 gives it potential to be one of the sports video games of the year”

There has been an emphasis on areas such as coaching, training and scouting in the more recent versions, unlike in previous games.

And this has been made more apparent on Football Manager 2017 with the option to hire sports scientists and data analysts being just one of many new yet simple aspects added to the game in order to make it seem that more realistic.

The authenticity of Football Manager 2017 gives it potential to be one of the sports video games of the year, but the vast improvements and range of new features added to Sports Interactive’s latest product must also be highlighted.

Match engine

Since its introduction in Football Manager 2009, the 3D match engine has become arguably the most popular feature of the series.

It is an upgrade on the outdated 2D match engine that Football Manager was once renowned for and, more often than not, has improved game by game both in terms of visuals and performance.

©Eurogamer and ©Sports Interactive

This year, the most significant change to the 3D match engine is the way in which players carry out their actions.

Passing, movement and shooting have all been revised, giving users a much better experience when watching their teams take to the field.

On top of the modification to players and their actions in the 3D match engine, the improvement to pitch and stadium graphics should also be noted.

Pre and post-match analysis

Having introduced leading sports statistics provider, Prozone, into Football Manager 2016 to give players an efficient tool for assessing matches, ’17 has continued that theme with its new pre and post-match analysis.

Statistics such as possession, shots on target, pass combinations, key passes and mistakes, in addition to heat maps, have all been included to help players to gain a better understanding of how their own/opponent’s team operate from game-to-game.

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Post-match analysis of a Premier League match between Chelsea and Arsenal.

While Football Manager 2017’s pre and post-match analysis may not be as advanced as Football Manager 2016’s Prozone, it makes good reading for those who wish to make improvements to their team on the basis of statistics without having to spend a significant amount of time using something as complex as Prozone.

Social feed

Another new feature added this year is the introduction of an in-game social feed, and the decision to implement this is a good one.

The social feed on Football Manager 2017 is, in essence, the game’s own version of Twitter.

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Football Manager 2017’s new social feed section.

Whether it is a transfer rumour from a journalist or a knee-jerk reaction from a fan, players have now been given a new modern method to receive information and in-game views.

It can become tedious and may sometimes make you cringe, but overall the social feed is another element that has really helped Football Manager 2017 mirror this current generation of football.

Transfers

Signing players is one of the things people enjoy most about Football Manager as they look to build and craft their perfect team, and this year some changes have been made in that department.

In some cases, simply throwing money at transfer targets will not be enough.

Players (not all) now want other assurances, ranging from the promise of more attacking signings to the guarantee of being played in their favourite position, before entering contract negotiations.

Although many believe money is often the sole drive for a footballer when deciding which team to sign for, Football Manager 2017 has done well to highlight that other factors can be as influential, especially in a division such as the Premier League where most teams can offer a very good financial package anyway.

As a whole, Football Manager 2017 has not been overhauled in the manner that Football Manager 2016 was when it succeeded Football Manager 2015.

However, the new and simple features that have been added to this year’s game, in addition to the tweaks and improvements made, makes Football Manager 2017 arguably the strongest of its series.

Featured image: ©Football Manager

Mourinho made to suffer on Chelsea return

On his first match back at Stamford Bridge as manager of another English team, former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho was given a stark reminder of how easily things can change in football.

Stood in the opposition dugout and now at the helm of Manchester United, Mourinho watched on as his team’s dreadful start to the game inspired chants of “you’re not special anymore” from – admittedly, only a minority of – home supporters.

A year ago, those same fans were well and truly singing a different tune, in unison. “Stand up for the Special One,” was once the cry around Stamford Bridge as the Blues struggled to defend their Premier League title. Not anymore.

A broken man

As he witnessed the 4-0 dismantling of his United side from the technical area, Mourinho cut a frustrated and disappointed figure.

“Mourinho’s body language in Sunday’s game was a reminder of a chapter that most in west London want forgotten”

It was a sight that Chelsea supporters were already familiar with, engraved into the memories of those who cannot simply ignore the disastrous season of 2015/16.

We all know the story, and Mourinho’s body language in Sunday’s game was a reminder of a chapter that most in west London want forgotten.

Moving on

Ten months after the 53-year-old’s sacking, however, it seems Chelsea have finally started to turn a corner.

Slowly but surely, former Italy coach Antonio Conte, now occupying Mourinho’s old seat in the dugout, is repairing the damage left behind by his predecessor.

New Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has started to make friends at the Bridge ©Nazionale Calcio

Players who were shattered in confidence under Mourinho, like Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic, are now all performing at their very best again thanks to the Italian.

With a renewed sense of freedom and adventure, the days of players feeling shackled and restricted under Mourinho are a thing of the past.

Chelsea midfielders and forwards alike are truly blossoming in Conte’s 3-4-3 system, and the former Juventus manager is reaping the rewards of having ditched the 4-1-4-1 formation deployed earlier this season, a formation similar to that of Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1, in favour of his trusted three-man defensive set-up.

The future

After a bleak, dark and depressing 2015/16 season, the future looks somewhat brighter for Chelsea.

It is too early to predict whether Conte will be a success or not at Stamford Bridge. But what can be seen clearly under the 47-year-old is the establishment of an on-field identity and a long-term vision for the club.

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham are often picked up for the high-intensity football and constant pressing game they play on instruction from their respective managers, and Conte too wants his Chelsea team to be recognised for such.

For Mourinho, it was about winning at all costs. However, that does not seem to be the case for Conte.

For the three-time Serie A winning manager, Chelsea must win, and win in style.

Chalobah could play a key role in Chelsea’s future ©Wikimedia Commons:

As well as what appears to be a difference in footballing philosophy between the two, Conte has made it clear that unlike Mourinho, he intends to utilise the young talent that Chelsea have produced or are producing.

John Terry – who made his debut in 1998 – was the last success story to come from Chelsea’s academy, but that could soon be about to change under Conte, a manager renowned for giving those who deserve to play a chance regardless of their age.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ola Aina and Nathaniel Chalobah are all a part Conte’s plans with the latter finding himself gaining more first-team minutes as each matchday passes.

As for Mourinho and Manchester United, something has to give sooner or later if they wish for a change in fortune. But that is not Chelsea’s concern.

After all, Mourinho himself said it better than anyone else could have after Frank Lamapard’s move to Manchester City in 2014. “When he decided to go to a direct competitor then love stories are over.”

Featured image: ©Aleksandr Osipov

The rise and rise of UFC

Once seen as a brutal, bloody and barbaric sport with murky if not borderline illegal ‘cage fighting’ origins, UFC is now watched by millions around the world.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship was devised to discover the most effective martial art in bouts with minimal rules between competitors from different combat disciplines, and is now the face of mixed martial arts (MMA) — a term first used by TV critic Howard Rosenberg after UFC 1 in 1993.

“23 years after its inaugural event at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado, UFC has evolved into a global phenomenon”

Since then, UFC has become the largest promotion company in MMA, absorbing rivals such as Pride, World Extreme Cagefighting, Strikeforce and the International Fight League in the process.

Some 23 years after its inaugural event at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado, UFC has evolved into a global phenomenon, sweeping across the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe on its journey to becoming the sporting powerhouse we know it as today.

So why is UFC becoming such a big thing in the UK?

UFC roster

From better accessibility to promotion via social media, there are various explanations to why UFC is gaining more recognition in the UK. But the roster of the number one MMA promotion, ultimately, represents its largest pull.

In recent years, the likes of Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes, have all produced jaw-dropping moments in the most incredible of fights to help put UFC and MMA on the map.

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Likewise, UFC’s roster of exceptional female fighters, which includes Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, Holly Holm and Cris Cyborg to name a few, has also been good advertisement for the brand and sport.

However, two fighters in particular stand out from the rest as individuals who are heavily responsible for UFC’s growth in popularity both in the UK – Conor McGregor and Michael Bisping.

McGregor

McGregor is largely considered right now as one of the best fighters in the UFC and arguably the MMA promotions’ most popular figure among fans.

“McGregor’s behaviour outside the Octagon has helped him transform into a fighter that even non-UFC fans want to follow”

Dublin-born McGregor made his UFC debut in 2013 against Marcus Brimage, instantly making a name for himself after knocking out the American in the first round.

The 28-year-old has since elevated himself to the top of the UFC, reigning as the UFC featherweight champion and featuring in several of UFC’s most viewed fights of all-time.

UFC 194: Aldo v McGregor, UFC 196: McGregor v Diaz and UFC 202: Diaz v McGregor 2, rank as three out of the four most sold UFC pay-per-view cards ever, showing the pulling power the Irishman has brought to Dana White’s organisation.

©Wikimedia Commons

McGregor’s record of 20 wins and three losses, which includes a UFC featherweight championship victory over Aldo after a record (13 seconds) title fight first-round knockout, shows how good a fighter he is and why everyone is eager to watch him in action.

But the fighting skills of ‘The Notorious’ are not the only draw.

McGregor’s behaviour outside the Octagon has helped him transform into a fighter that even non-UFC fans want to follow.

His arrogant persona, X-rated rants and often amusing social media posts, grab the attention of many and sway them towards taking an interest in his career.

Bisping

In addition to McGregor, Bisping, who successfully defended his UFC middleweight championship against Dan Henderson at UFC 204, has played a huge part in helping UFC to increase its fanbase in the UK, having been raised in Manchester.

©Wikimedia Commons: Michael Bisping(L)

But as well as influencing fans, MMA writer Nick Strickland also believes Bisping has had a huge impact on UK-based MMA fighters and has opened a gateway for them as a result of his success.

“I think without Bisping the UK scene and the fighters would not have been given the right opportunities to fight around the world,” Strickland said.

“I’m not saying the other fighters are not good enough and would not have made it, but it was Bisping who brought the attention to the United Kingdom.

“He opened the doors for all the UK fighters as we all saw when he coached in the Ultimate Fighter: Team UK vs. Team USA, a show that was dominated by the UK athletes.”

Other promotions

Thanks to fighters such as McGregor and Bisping, UFC has made its mark in the UK, but Strickland suggests there’s also room for other MMA promotions to gain an audience.

“They [UFC] usually hold about 90% of the talent right now but saying that Bellator MMA has a phenomenal roster of fighters who could give UFC fighters a run for their money on any given day,” the MMA writer said.

“Local shows are where the talent is grown so promotions like Cage Warriors, UCMMA and now ACB Fighting League are super important for the growth of the sport here and around the world. Either one of these promotions, with the right roster of fighters and shows could make its mark in the UK market.”

Since 2009, UFC programming has reached over 1.1 billion television households across the world, according to Forbes.

And while it may not yet be able to produce a fight that could match the viewing figures of a Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao or potential Anthony Joshua v Wladimir Klitschko bout in boxing, UFC’s popularity continues to grow within the UK and around the rest of the world.

Featured Image: ©BogoGames