All posts by Umar Choudhry

Cycle touring around Copenhagen

Few sensations are more soothing than the reassuring feel of a mild breeze on the back and the sound of tyres caressing a bicycle path as it meanders through the outskirts of beautiful Copenhagen. 

Before this summer’s holiday to Denmark, the last time I had climbed aboard a bicycle coincided with the last time I fell off one. Despite this mishap, I was eager to explore Copenhagen on two wheels.

The Danish capital remains the benchmark for cities around the world as they try to figure out how to take the bicycle seriously as a mode of transport.

With the beautiful medieval city centre streets and the unlimited access for cyclists to ride on, Copenhagen continues to inspire, but where did the Danish cycling craze start?

History

Denmark is the epitome of a bike-friendly country. The opening of the city’s first bike lane in 1892 saw cycling become hugely popular, and in just 15 years the number of bikes on its streets rose from 2,500 to 80,000.

By 1960, however, using cars had become the norm, which brought with it pollution and traffic-related accidents.

The real problem, however, was the international energy crisis in the early 1970s. For a country which at the time depended on imported oil for 92% of its energy, this was a major issue.

This meant that much of the country went green and bikes now seemed more than just a cheap exercise.

Throughout the 1980s, Denmark saw a bicycle renaissance. Individuals lobbied for the introduction of bike lanes in cities and since Copenhagen began to observe its cycling rates to see how many individuals were using bicycles in 1995, the continuous rise has been spectacular.

In 2004, 41% of Copenhagen commuted by bike and by 2010, it had reached 50%. Today, the country sets a gold-standard for renewable energy and efficiency.

Cycling in Copenhagen 

Copenhagen is a cyclist’s dream. Throughout my week there, I biked to restaurants and famous sights such as the Little Mermaid statue, and through the city’s most elegant parks and attractions like Tivoli Gardens, the world’s second oldest amusement park.

Biking around in Copenhagen is so relaxing, it almost felt like meditation. People in Denmark obey cycling’s etiquette, so an obvious factor in feeling assured and pedalling at a safe pace.

After hiring out my bicycle, what really struck me about cycling round Copenhagen was how seamlessly one could weave through the city without feeling vulnerable. Sometimes the ride to a new destination in the city was as enjoyable as reaching the destination itself.

Difficulties 

Despite the highs of my cycling experience in Denmark, I did experience moments of frustration, mainly down to my general unfamiliarity with the city. Being someone who doesn’t speak Danish apart from the word ‘Hej’ – hello – remembering street names was a difficult task.

Parts of the city were a bit of a labyrinth, too. This is, of course, mainly a problem for visitors, and there were plenty of times when, seeing my confused looks at road signs, helpful locals asked if I needed help. There is a reason why Denmark is officially the happiest nation in the world.

Danish drivers were very patient with minor cycling indiscretions that would have caused road rage in London. Nothing in the city was hurried, and the main difference I observed from cycling in London is that in Denmark, cycling is an incredibly social way to get around.

I came across many friends and families cycling with one another and this is important for making a mode of transport more appealing.

The country’s wide cycle lanes mean people can ride side by side and despite the overcrowding at times, it is one of the most amazing things to witness.

Cycling and pollution 

It is common knowledge that cycling in polluted air is harmful to people’s health, but does that mean you shouldn’t cycle because of pollution?

If there is a cleaner alternative the answer is yes, but if the alternative is to drive or use bus, cycling is not necessarily the worst alternative.

Cyclists are exposed to pollutants more than car drivers – however studies have shown that the concentration of pollutants at rush hours is substantially larger inside cars than outside.

The reason for this is that cars’ air intake is close to the exhaust of the car in front, so depending on the relative speed and volume of air taken in per minute, cyclists may not be exposed to a higher amount of pollutants over the same distance.

Health benefits

If the thought of experiencing a capital city on two wheels is daunting, Copenhagen will help you conquer your fears, and as the cycling craze intensifies, so do the health benefits.

Cycling may save money and help the environment, but its biggest benefit is for health, and as a low-impact form of exercise, it is easier on the joints than running.

My view of cycling across central Copenhagen

The capital region of Denmark estimates that the city’s high cycling levels save one million fewer sick days per year and regular bike riding contributes to increased cardiovascular health and decreases in stress and obesity.

Visit Denmark 

If cycling is your thing, you would be hard-pressed to find a better-equipped destination than Denmark. With over 12,000km of signposted cycle routes, eye-catching scenery and short distances between amenities, the place is made for pedal-powered travel.

Copenhagen leads the way and the rest of Denmark follows. Cycling networks have allowed cities such as Odense to reinvent themselves as eco-friendly destinations, while Bornholm has made a huge transition from a simple beach escape once, to a place that boasts 150 miles of cycling routes.

Denmark has many cities to visit and cycle from and it is safe and great fun. So get on your bike and pedal away to take a cycling holiday in Denmark because it will be the most enticing thing you will ever try!

Click here to learn more about cycling in Denmark.

‘We had this look in our eyes like this is our day’

“You’ve got to believe in yourself because if you don’t believe it’s going to happen and you don’t make it happen, it won’t.”

Nicola White is recalling the advice her mother gave her long before she won women’s hockey Olympic gold in Rio de Janiero.

White lives by those words and is honest when discussing the turnaround that led her from failing to make her first England trials at the age of 15 to becoming Great Britain’s hero as her late equaliser to make it 3-3 in the final against reigning Olympic champions the Netherlands forced the game to a shootout decider.

White and the GB hockey squad ensured hockey became compelling viewing in Rio. When it comes to discussing the team’s journey from London in 2012 to Brazil four years later, White’s steely undercurrent and strong motivation becomes apparent.

“My journey wasn’t particularly perfect,” she admits. “I had my first England trials when I was 15 and I didn’t make it. I didn’t get my second England trials until I was 19 and I was quite a latecomer really because under 16’s and under 18’s is crucial for the development. To come in at under 21 level fairly late, I was really lucky.

“One of the things that we worked really hard since London was our culture. There’s 31 of us that train and it was sometimes hard to agree on something and get the best out of ourselves, but we improved our values and we embraced it.”

Competition 

Her and the team’s success is a result of perseverance and dedication but it is also a tale of competition. “Everyone in the squad had a responsibility to do their best,” she says.

“We wanted to make a difference and it created this massive bond of trust within the team. I think one of the most amazing things was stepping onto the pitch having built this culture. The competition for places was so high and we used to play high-paced games on a Thursday within the squad.

“The coaches would send out the game plan on a Wednesday night so we knew what we had to bring and what we had to do.

“Everyone brought their best games, and it ensured this amazing standard of hockey and brought out the best in us all.

“These little things impact hugely because when you get into an Olympic final, the pressure is massive but you know how to deal with it.”

Golden moment 

White is still overwhelmed by the team’s stunning success this summer. When it came to Rio and taking on the Netherlands, who were vying for a third Olympic gold in a row and huge favourites, there was a determination among the GB players.

The game was drifting away at one point, but Britain’s never-say-die attitude led by an indomitable White performance, paid off when she made it 3-3 in the final period.

Goalkeeper Maddie Hinch then pulled off some stunning saves in the shootout as the GB girls achieved history.

White remains refreshingly low-key about her golden moment. 

The forward says: “I knew we had eight minutes to go and we were losing against the reigning champions of the world.

“Holland are historically a really good team and I was so glad we played them because they were the elephant [in the room] and people thought we couldn’t beat them when it came to the crunch.

“All I remember is we had a short corner and I was just on red alert, and I’ve never been on red alert like that before and I thought if we can get this level, I knew we would hold on and it would go to penalties.

“The ball just fell and I put it towards the goal and I thought nothing else of it. Everyone’s faces were the same as we had this look in our eyes like this is our day. We just had this confidence about us.”

Overwhelming 

Looking back on the summer heroics, White admits the feeling of winning an Olympic gold medal has only just recently sunk in.

“It’s a real cliche, but it’s pretty much a dream come true for me and my team-mates. I’ve started to come back down to earth now but at the time it was just so overwhelming.

“I had so many emotions going through my head when we actually won it. It was just sort of flicking from happiness and emotion and I had happy tears, but it was an amazing experience.

“The girls who took the penalties were confident and I knew that if we stuck to what we did, we would win.

“We all knew, as much as we were nervous at the time, that if anyone was going to win it, it would be us. We are so used to that feeling of being under pressure in penalties that we thrived on it.”

Support

The support of her family has been key for White, particularly in picking her up from that England trials rejection aged 15.

“My mum has supported me massively on my journey. I remember she used to tell me a lot when I was young that you’ve got to believe in yourself because if you don’t believe it’s going to happen and you don’t make it happen, it won’t.

“That’s probably what’s stuck with me the most. Her telling me that if I keep working and don’t give up in the first hurdle, it’ll all pay off, and she was right.”

Spotlight

With success comes greater attention, and White agrees that more interest from the media and general public in hockey can only be a positive thing for her sport.

“We have gained lots of media attention as a team,” she says. “That’s really good for our sport, and I think the biggest thing is how much the sport has grown.

“I guess the legacy started at London 2012, when we won bronze, and has grown since our gold medal.

“When we go around the country, people tell us how they didn’t watch hockey before but now they love it.

“People have warmed to us and that’s probably the biggest change because people are now talking about it.

“When I say ‘I’m Nicola White, I’m one of the hockey girls’, they’re like ‘we love you’! Previously they would have been confused as many people didn’t know about us, so it’s nice to now hear them say that.”

Mindset

As a seven-year-old in Shaw and Crompton, Greater Manchester, White dreamt of being a hockey player.

White and the rest of the GB women’s hockey team

“I was lucky that my school played hockey because a lot of schools didn’t,” she explains. “I was lucky to get involved with it at such a young age, and that my teacher was involved in the pathway to internationals.

“She was in the county and regional set-ups, had the best hockey knowledge and knew where to go and how to make it happen. She guided and started me off.

“Skills-wise you’ve got to have a certain talent to be good at any sport. What I’ve realised on my journey is that your mindset is just as important.

“It’s all good and well having the talent but you’ve got to apply yourself. Every day you have to wake up and want to give it your all, and it’s that commitment, that desire and hunger that’s needed to be successful.”

Women in sport 

As a youngster, the GB hockey star idolised female athletes such as Kelly Holmes and Tina Cullen, and says she has seen progress in the amount of media attention women in sport receive.

“I think there’s more of an acceptance that women are successful and need to be given as much credit as the men get, and it’s a major thing that’s been highlighted probably in the last decade.

“Women haven’t had as much recognition as they should have had. People are pushing for more equality. Tennis now offers the same wages for men and women, and things are becoming more equal.

“That should be the norm and moving forward, I think it will be. It’s being driven by the successes we have had in football, hockey, rugby union and other sports.

“I love it and I’m so proud because that’s all we ever wanted. We just want people to accept us for what we’ve done and give us the recognition.”

Tokyo 2020 

White regularly refers to her competitiveness in her downtime when playing other sports like tennis and golf with her two brothers, but the main objective is to get prepared for another four years of gruelling build-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Preparation is well underway, and White says it will be harder to stay at the top of the tree in 2020 because everyone will be aiming to knock GB off their perch.

“We have to not just be happy with the gold we won, but say to ourselves that we can win it again”

“It sounds so scary thinking about how we will be back in four years time,” she says. “No doubt we will be looking for a gold medal because you cannot go from this success to not target another gold medal.

“I remember our coach Danny Kerry, after the Olympics we sat in a room in Rio and he was talking about success on success and how much of a difficult challenge it is and that’s what we are accepting.

‘As much as the journey is hard to get to the top, it is much harder to stay there. You’re now at the top and everyone’s chasing you, so it’ll be about rebuilding the culture, replacing the players who have retired with new players.

“There’s nothing holding us back now so we have to relish it. We have to use it and not just be happy with the gold we won, but say to ourselves that we can win it again. That’ll be the challenge but we are aiming to go for it again.”

You can follow Nicola White on Twitter @NicolaWhite28 and on Facebook @NicolaWhiteGB28 

Review – The Wenger Revolution (Twenty Years Of Arsenal)

In September 1996 a Frenchman, so little known in English football that fans asked ‘Arsene Who?’, walked into Arsenal.

In his subsequent 20 years as manager, he transformed the club from ‘Boring Arsenal’ to a worldwide phenomenon.

A total renovation of the training, stadium, style, economics, diet and the attraction of a global audience has taken place under Wenger’s stewardship.

This fascinating era is chronicled in ‘The Wenger Revolution’ with distinctive photographs taken from inside the inner sanctum of the club by official Arsenal photographer Stuart MacFarlane while award-winning journalist and long-time supporter Amy Lawrence introduces each section to set the scene.

‘Arsene Who?’

When Wenger arrived from Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan, the vast majority of the football public, Arsenal supporters and many of the players were sceptical. Could a foreign manager succeed in England?

Although he was new to almost everyone in the English game, Wenger, 46 at the time, didn’t see himself as a novice. His intellectual rigour, workaholic determination and human touch gave him the value of using his own ideas with an open mind.

“I could understand my acceptance would depend upon that mix,” he says in the book. “I didn’t want to compromise what I thought was important in order to push through the elements needed for the success. I wanted to adapt to the local culture.”

That manifested itself in the way the team evolved. By using English players with a never-say-die attitude like Tony Adams and Steve Bould, as well as the technical refinement that arrived with the likes of Patrick Vieira and Marc Overmars, Wenger’s mix came to fruition.

The most surprising thing for many people when they look back at Wenger’s first full campaign in England, was how quickly the team’s style came together.

Wenger’s ability to identify and recruit outstanding talent was paramount in them winning the double in the 1997-98 season. That general air of scepticism about the manager soon evaporated.

Unbeatable 

“You work in a job where you never really know how good you are, but I didn’t think you can do more than go a whole season undefeated. To realise that life dream is a bit frightening, but it didn’t kill my hunger.”

To complete an unbeaten season at the highest level was an ambition Wenger had harboured for many years.

(Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

During the 2002-03 season, Arsenal were the dominant force in the early stages. However, with his team going strong in autumn, Wenger told journalists in a pre-match press conference that his team could go a season unbeaten. “It is not impossible,” he said.

However, Arsenal lurched suddenly into a first defeat of the campaign, and the critics who thought Wenger was arrogant and disrespectful relished that loss.

After missing out on the Premier League title that season, Arsenal rallied the following year and dominated the league. Their 2-2 draw at arch-rivals Tottenham ensured they won the league and with four games to go, Wenger’s dream was near reality.

Here was the chance to make history. “Make yourself immortal,” Wenger told his players. The players didn’t miss their chance.

Trailing at half-time to already relegated Leicester City in the last game of the season, the pressure was on. The team’s outstanding will-to-win, and the class of some of its most talented components – Thierry Henry who scored the equaliser and Vieira and Bergkamp who combined for the winner – made the difference.

Wenger does not think anyone will be able to emulate the class of 03-04 as the competition is much harder, but Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ seized their moment. His controversial prediction that it was possible, mocked at the time, became a beautiful truth.

Regrets 

Wenger is one of a handful of managers who can be said to have made a truly lasting impression on the Premier League.

Throughout his time at Arsenal, Wenger has revolutionised the club. With the Frenchman at the helm, they have moved from Highbury to the Emirates, built a new training ground at London Colney whilst also winning numerous of trophies, including three Premier League titles and six FA Cups.

(Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images)

But despite the many highs Wenger has experienced, he has also suffered much heartbreak. According to the Frenchman, the Champions League final defeat in Paris against Barcelona in 2006 will forever hurt him.

“It is my biggest regret,” he says. “I feel there was not much in it. The regret on the night is that we could not get the second goal.

“Thierry Henry, who has been magic for our club, had the opportunity to do that. We were 13 minutes away from winning the biggest trophy. Maybe I will have to die with that but it will still hurt.”

Ambitions 

Wenger typifies longevity and loyalty. Despite getting offers from the biggest clubs in the world such as Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, he has stayed put.

When trophies were hard to come by after the stadium move and competition was harder due to the influx of money put into the Premier League, Wenger remained loyal and consistently got Arsenal into the Champions League each year.

Mesut Ozil reading The Wenger Revolution book

Yet he was not delivering the trophies that Arsenal fans craved, and as the voices of dissent grew louder, the FA Cup win against Hull City at Wembley in 2014, was a huge moment in the club’s history.

“Winning this FA Cup was an important moment in the life of this team. When it comes after a long time it sometimes comes with suffering. We had such a feeling of relief and happiness,” Wenger said.

After back-to-back FA Cup wins in 2014 and 2015, Wenger’s hunger for winning trophies hasn’t diminished.

He now has a team capable of challenging the big guns and he insists his commitment to the club is still the same as when he first started.

“The club has grown a lot. I am still completely committed to it every day. I am today more nervous, more keen, to win the league than when I arrived here.”

Must-buy

The book achieves what it sets out to do. With the words of Lawrence and the images of MacFarlane, ‘The Wenger Revolution’ is a must-buy for Arsenal fans – but even non-Gooners will find it fascinating.

The book’s 11 chapters each focus on a different theme or period at Arsenal under Wenger. From his arrival to the stadium move to his opinions of current and former players, the book recounts every minor detail of Wenger’s reign.

His vision for Arsenal was in place when he first arrived, and since then the club has gone on a remarkable journey and achieved great feats. Much of this would not have been possible without the determination and ambition of one man: Arsene Wenger.

The Wenger Revolution (Twenty Years Of Arsenal) is available via Amazon for £20.00. Featured image by Stuart MacFarlane 

Pickett relishing underdog status

Nothing in the fight world is more endearing than the lifer who has toiled in the shadows, dreaming of that one shot at greatness. 

Britain’s Brad Pickett gets his ‘Rocky’ moment next month when he faces former World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion Urijah Faber.

Pickett is skilled and resilient, and his December 17th showdown in Sacramento is the chance for him to throw a spanner in the works, with Faber planning a final victory before hanging up his gloves in front of his hometown crowd.

As Pickett enters the octagon in Sacramento’s new downtown arena, he will be alone under the lights and a long way home.

The atmosphere will be raucous as thousands of shirtless men sing for Faber under a swaying thicket of upraised arms.

Underdog 

Faber (33-10) enters the bout riding the toughest stretch of his lengthy mixed martial arts career.

The 37 year old, nicknamed the ‘California Kid’ has struggled in his previous fights and has only sandwiched a victory over Frankie Saenz before losing to Frankie Edgar, UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, and most recently Jimmie Rivera at UFC 203.

Pickett, meanwhile, is just as desperate as his American counterpart as the East Londoner risks being trapped in a spiral of defeat, having lost four of his last five bouts.

The slugger was submitted via triangle choke against Iuri Alcantara at UFC 204 in Manchester, and a win over Faber is of huge importance according to the 38-year-old.

“This fight is huge for me,” admits Pickett. “I want to cause an upset – I’m a professional fighter and that’s what I’ll look to do always.

“There’s no pressure on me… I’m just focused on turning up and spoiling his party”

“I have to come forward a lot but I’m in a situation where I’ll be a massive underdog and fighting him in his hometown.

“But I think I can impose myself on anyone against the world. Faber should be worried about my power and he’s going to try to grapple and wrestle me but I need to focus on my wrestling defence a little bit.

“I’m confident and I feel I can knock him out. We have the same style and we’ve been in the fight game a long time, so there’s not a lot of things we haven’t seen before. I think it’ll be a competitive fight.

“Faber is retiring as well so everything will be all about him, so I’m basically going there to make the numbers up. There’s no pressure on me and I like that because I’m not there for him. I’m just focused on turning up and spoiling his party.”

Preparation 

Nicknamed ‘One Punch’, Pickett is known for an exciting style that has garnered him seven WEC/UFC fight night bonuses, including five ‘Fight of the Night’ honours.

Pickett (25-12) is one of the UFC’s most likeable fighters but after talking to key players Dana White and Sean Shelby about not being at the forefront of the company as he’d like, the fight against Faber got arranged swiftly.

“I spoke to Dana White about not being in the main picture as I would have liked to be,” says the 38-year-old.

“Then the next day Sean Shelby gave me a call and we discussed my fight against Iuri Alcantara and then at the end of the call he asked if I wanted to fight Faber next month in Sacramento.

“I was ecstatic and instantly thought it would be a great opportunity to test myself against an opponent like Faber.”

His preparation for the contest has been gruelling but Pickett says he is in really great shape ahead of the fight.

“Training is going really well,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve gone from fight schedule to fight schedule and I’ve been in really good shape.

“I was obviously already in great shape from my last fight against Alcantara but now it’s just a case of ticking over and recharging the batteries a little bit.

“I’ve done a lot of my camp here in the UK and I will finish my camp in America so things are going nicely.”

Regrets 

Pickett still harbours regrets about his loss to Alcantara at UFC 204. The fight was a great spectacle for the fans, but in hindsight the Brit believes it was a one he shouldn’t have taken.

The former Cage Rage British Featherweight champion accepts that fighting a southpaw of Alcantara’s ability was a mistake.

“The fight was a tough one for me,” he admits. “I always knew that I didn’t like southpaws. I’d never fought one before.

“Whenever I trained with a southpaw, I wasn’t fond of it, and I had to train hard for the [Alcantara] match-up.

“I didn’t understand how much of a completely different game it was. I was up for the challenge before but I would never fight a southpaw again.”

Striking style 

Things could have turned out differently as Pickett had been scheduled to fight Henry Briones, but his opponent picked up an injury. He admits that he wanted to fight so badly that he wasn’t really bothered about who it was against.

Pickett alongside boxing and UFC journalist Gareth A Davies

“The fight wasn’t for me. The striking style was hard and he’s massive but I would never turn down a fight regardless.

“After Briones pulled out, I got offered three other fights.

“I said yes to them all but they started pulling out as it got closer to fight night, I thought man I need to get a fight booked. I then got offered Iuri and I said fuck it, I’ll take it.

“I was in camp getting ready for a fight and I wanted to make sure I had one, so I wasn’t in a position where I was going to say no to anyone.

“The fight was the worst possible outcome. I’ve lost fights before but I didn’t get a chance to do anything and that really sucked so I was happy to get straight back in there with this fight against Faber.”

Ambitions 

Pickett’s will to win still burns brightly after a long career in which he has given his all and earned notable wins against the likes of Demetrious Johnson, acknowledged as one of the best fighters in the world.

His fight against Faber will earn him the chance to shock the world again and Pickett insists that he will leave everything in the octagon on fight night.

“My style has always been the same,” he says. “I’ve always gone for it and I will again against Faber. I’m definitely going to get to work and keep the pressure on him.

“I want to use my brute power and hopefully put on a good show in front of the American public. My main objective is to win and spoil Faber’s party and once the fight is over, I just want to spend some time with my family and enjoy the festive period.”

You can follow Brad Pickett on Twitter and Instagram at @One_Punch

Carlisle reaches out after taming his demons

Not a day passes where Clarke Carlisle does not think about 22 December 2014. On that wet, gloomy morning he stepped in front of a lorry travelling at around 60mph on the A64 in North Yorkshire. 

Having been charged with drink-driving just hours earlier, the former Queens Park Rangers and Burnley defender had hit rock bottom. No hope remained. The only way out was to end his life.

Two years after his near-death experience, the first thing that strikes you when speaking to the one-time chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association is how open he is when discussing his suicide attempt.

The 37-year-old says his outlook is now more positive, but admits that life is still far from perfect. He still has dark times but the worst has passed and now his main focus is discussing these issues with the wider public.

“Things are incredible right now but that doesn’t mean life is a bed of roses,” he says.

“What it means is that whenever pressures or stresses come on in my life or when I get uncomfortable emotions like sadness, anxiety or anger, I now know how to cope with them and process them.

“I know how to handle that in a constructive manner so on a day to day basis, life is very good.”

Depression

Many factors contributed to Carlisle’s fragile state of mind but the main one was struggling to adjust to retirement from football.

Although he suffered from depression throughout his career, when he finished his career at Northampton Town in 2013 aged 34, he no longer had a sense of purpose or direction in life.

“There are a lot of outside factors that can contribute to a deepening depression,” admits the Lancastrian.

“One of the factors for me was the transition from playing football and going into another industry. Even though I had another job lined up and I went straight into broadcasting with ITV, the loss of structure and the loss of identity was hard for me.

“When you’re an elite athlete, every day has a strong goal and focus, but when I came out of that and I was working in broadcasting, I was only contracted to do 36 days a year, which even if it was an overnight stay it was 72 days a year.

“I had no structure in what to do and even if I did fill that time with going for a run or anything like that, it wasn’t something that contributed to a greater goal.”

Carlisle says being part of an industry which kept reminding him of the one he had left was also not particularly helpful.

“I was commentating on players and I knew I was better than them or I could do just as good as job as them.

“There was a lot of feelings of failure that came around that and that was very tough to deal with, plus the standard pressures of bills to pay and the loss of income.

“The fundamental factor was that I didn’t have a coping mechanism. I didn’t have a way to understand what those stresses were and how to process them in a constructive manner. I was basically running away in the destructive way that I used to.”

Aftermath 

Life after his suicide attempt and deepening depression was difficult for Carlisle’s friends and family, a situation which in hindsight he calls “disgusting”.

“It’s incredibly hard to articulate the [impact] it had on my wife when I was married at the time, my children, my parents and on my siblings,” he said.

“All the old coping strategies like getting drunk or hiding or isolation, they are no longer a part of my life”

“They were coming to visit me in hospital to offer me love and support but I was still there telling them I wanted to die.

“It’s not as though I immediately changed my mindset and my approach around life as soon as I got into hospital.

“There was a long period of purgatory where I was in that frame of mind that I wanted to kill myself. The impact on those around me was disgusting.

“Going through psychiatric hospitals was hard but being there for six weeks was incredibly important to start the beginning of me turning that journey around.”

Handling depression 

The man named as Britain’s Brainiest Footballer in 2002 after appearing on a TV quiz says his progression from running away to now confronting his problems is a big factor in his recovery.

“I was an emotional retard when I went to psychiatric hospital,” he admits. “However, the journey that I have gone on since has been all about understanding myself.

“I now understand the individual emotions that I’m feeling and I understand that I need to feel them, and I need to be able to be at ease with those emotions.

“When I’m feeling incredibly sad or fearful or anxious, I now know what to do in order to help me get through that. It might be going and talking to someone or it might be calming and centering myself by using prayers or meditation.

“That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel or I hide or avoid emotions, it means I now understand and acknowledge them and I meet them face on and that’s made such a huge difference to my life.

“All the old coping strategies like getting drunk or hiding or isolation, they are no longer a part of my life because I know they aren’t necessary.”

Lack of understanding 

In the past, sport has been criticised for failing to understand depression, and Carlisle says the main reason why people within football take physical injuries more seriously is down to an absence of awareness.

“There is a distinct lack of understanding but it’s just not in the game, it’s in society in general,” claims the former England U21 player.

“Even though things are being done to address the issue, the fundamental knowledge in how to support someone in these situations is lacking across all industries. It isn’t football’s fault, it’s a societal problem.

“Football has the money, the time and the resources to be able to create a support template that other industries could adopt. They need to look after the health and safety of their employees at the workplace.

“People don’t engage and understand what mental health is. One of the factors is that it’s intangible. A broken leg is visible whereas with mental health issues, it’s the mind that is injured but it’s not something that can be seen.

“It is all about basic understanding and education. The way we can try and change that is by educating children so when they grow up and become the decision makers, they will know how to make far more informed decisions about situations and circumstances that are relevant to sufferers.”

Support network 

Although his life will continue to have good and bad moments, Carlisle is now aware on how to face his problems head on.

He speaks at awareness events for many charities, but his own foundation the Clarke Carlisle Foundation for Dual Diagnosis is continuing to help others with mental health issues.

“You don’t have to stand up and tell the world… but it is mandatory that you tell somebody”

“By being public about it and putting support mechanisms out there, it’s given people permission to acknowledge what is going on in their lives and has given them a chance to seek support and seek an emphatic ear,” he explained.

“It’s wonderful but it’s also good for me because as much as I’m helping others, it’s helping me because it normalises with what I’m going through as well. The illness itself makes people believe that they don’t have no one to speak to and no one wants to listen but that is utter rubbish.

“There is always people out there, whether it be your GP or charities etc, but there are so many people out there who want to listen and want to help and who can help.

“My advice would be: you don’t have to stand up and tell the world and you don’t have to tell everybody, but it is mandatory that you tell somebody. It’s from there that you can begin to engage with a support pathway.”

Follow Clarke Carlisle on Twitter @CCforDD 

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255

Where are all the British Asian footballers?

According to Uefa B licence coach Rajab Noor, one of English football’s perennial thorny issues has a simple solution.

“We need more players playing and more coaches coaching,” he says when discussing why more British Asians aren’t involved in the professional game.

A lot has been written and said about the lack of Asian players and coaches, and perceptions are still skewed by cultural stereotypes.

Noor (left) with BBC sports presenter Manish Bhasin (centre)

What is your son currently studying,’ my mum asked her friend a while back. ‘He’s studying to become a surgeon,’ she replied.

‘It’s a very respectable job and he will earn a considerable amount of money. It’s the best decision.’

I have grown up in Asian family but mine have never pressured me into choosing a career path I was not keen on.

However for others in the Asian community, where many place a high premium on getting the best possible education, this isn’t the case.

There are plenty of British Asians playing football at grassroots level, although cricket doesn’t seem to have the pull anymore that it once had.

But why don’t more of them go on to establish careers and make names for themselves at professional level?

Talent pool

The dearth has been blamed on racism in the past, but Noor, a full-time coach studying for his Uefa A licence, believes that times have changed.

“You only have to see statistics to see how few Asian coaches are out there,” he said. “Same with players. Why are there virtually no Premier League Asian players? The talent pool is simply not big enough.

“Look at the amount of Asians playing football. Let’s say it’s 100,000 across the country. If we had more, for instance 500,000, then things would look different.

“Many people may want to point at the FA and point at issues such as racism, but honestly we need more players playing and more coaches coaching.”

Black & ethnic minorities 

Noor with caretaker England U21 boss Aidy Boothroyd

The 2011 census revealed that Asians made up 7.5% – or about 4.2 million people – of the population in England.

This is in no way reflected by the number of British Asians involved in professional football.

Initiatives such as tournaments to find Asian’s next star have helped increase the number of homegrown Asian players and coaches at grassroots level, and Noor says progress is being made.

“The FA is certainly doing its bit by getting coaches on courses. A lot more are coming through now, more than ever.”

Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) coaches have, he says, been held back by racism within the sport, but things are changing.

“In the past they’ve been neglected,” he admits. “At the same time, I’m just a coach or manager like anybody else. I wouldn’t want to say ‘Look, I’m an Asian coach’. I’ve got to where I am today for who I am.

“I don’t like to blame anybody but I do feel that there’s a lot more being done now, and the Premier League is doing a lot for BAME coaches.”

Role models 

Examples, of British-born players with Asian heritage who are plying their trade in English football are Neil Taylor at Swansea, Adil Nabi at Peterborough United as well as Northampton Town’s Kashif Siddiqi.

Neil Taylor of Swansea and Wales

Taylor who is of Welsh-Indian descent as his mother is a Bengali from Kolkata in India, played for Wales at the 2016 European Championship in France and has also been a pivotal figure for the Swans.

But despite his achievements, there is still a very limited amount of role models for aspiring young Asian players to look up to, and this – according to Noor – is a worrying issue.

“The lack of role models is a huge thing. When I’m coaching young Asian kids and I ask them if they know any Asian footballers and they reply ‘no’.

“I think we only need one or two to breakthrough and be on TV and have kids running around with their shirts on their back and wanting to be just like them.

“Until we have that, I think it’s going to be very difficult to inspire the kids of today.”

Progress 

But, returning to those cultural perceptions, are parents in Asian communities largely apprehensive about and unwilling to see their children pursue a career in football?

The film ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, which came out in 2002, highlighted the issue as an Indian girl Jess finds her obsession with football at odds with a culture which seemingly frowns on women playing sport.

To this day, the stance that many Asian parents have is that football is not the way forward for their sons (or daughters), and Noor, 27, insists this needs to change in order for Asian football to progress.

“It was the same with my parents, they never wanted me to pursue a career in football. They thought it was just a game and they didn’t really understand the industry behind it.

“I think it’s getting better and progress is being made, but I think parents need to be more informed and more educated about the sports industry and how much football has to offer.”

Noor highlights the FA’s latest community development initiative as evidence.

“It introduces football for the first time to children who usually don’t play the game. I’ve set one of them up myself and we have 100 on the register. People turn up each week and they are all new to football.

“They usually play at school or in after-school clubs, but they have never been involved in any organised football.

“More of this needs to happen because once you have a development centre up and running, you can ensure there are more Asian footballers wanting to play the game in the future.”

Ambitions 

The future is seemingly looking far more brighter for British Asian footballers hoping to make it big.

More youngsters from the Asian community are progressing in the sport at academy level, while older individuals are keen on coaching roles.

“I want to be a first team coach in a professional set-up, if not the Premier League then the Championship”

“I’m really positive and confident about seeing an Asian footballer or coach in the Premier League,” Noor added.

“We are not far off. I think there’s good Asian players and I think there’s a good number of Asian coaches knocking about.

“I’m a mentor and I have young leaders alongside me and the advice I give them is to do something that they enjoy.

“If they enjoy coaching for example, they will express themselves as a coach. Regardless of any qualification somebody gets, it is crucial to put the hours in on the grass.”

Rewarding

Noor added: “The more hours a person coaches and delivers sessions, the more they will learn about themselves and the more they will learn about their players.

“The important thing is to not be afraid to try and most importantly give it your all.”

The talented coach is hoping to make his mark at the highest level and has lofty ambitions of his own.

“The most rewarding thing in being a coach is seeing a team or an individual succeed. No matter what age group I coach, whether it’s five-year-olds or adults, seeing somebody improve and have a smile on their face during training and on a matchday is very rewarding.

“I want to be a first team coach in a professional set-up, if not the Premier League then the Championship. I want to succeed in England but if that’s not possible, I will look to go abroad, so fingers crossed.”

You can follow Rajab on Twitter @CoachNoor 

Letting it fly at Top Golf

How to stay awake between a busy shift at work and Conor McGregor v Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 on TV in the early hours of Sunday morning?

Luckily, two friends had a solution – playing Top Golf.

The thought of stepping outside on a bitterly cold Saturday night was not that appealing, but then neither was watching contestants on The X Factor make a fool of themselves.

So having been woken up by my friend Nasar’s phone call telling me to get ready, we were soon off to Top Golf in Watford along with another friend, Junaid.

But what is Top Golf, I hear you ask…

Relaxed

Founded in Hertfordshire in 2000, Top Golf offers golfing games for all ages and skill levels and advanced technology to track every individual’s shots.

It is currently played at four centres in the home counties, and the focus is firmly on relaxed fun as opposed to the strict rules and etiquette of golf itself.

Expansion in the UK and America has seen a total of 15 centres opened, with more planned for the future.

Essentially a two-tier, 240-yard driving range, Top Golf has 10 dartboard-style targets on the ground at various distances.

Each ball that a player hits has a chip in it and this records which target someone has hit and how close they are to its centre.

The closer a person gets to the flag, the more points they will earn, and these are automatically displayed on a digital screen in the bays.

Celebrities

Golf is facing a big problem in attracting new players to the game. In the last four years, it has lost 13% of its regular players while participation amongst 16 to 25-year-old’s has decreased 45% in the same period.

“The resident DJ was spinning tracks in the packed bar while groups of people were enjoying drinks and food as well as the golf in equal measure”

To many golfers, it would be easy to dismiss Top Golf as just a glorified driving range, but the numbers show that it warrants further attention.

With 650,000 visitors annually, two-thirds of Top Golf’s players are under 25 and 79% are aged from 18-34 and this is the exact demographic amongst which golf needs to gain in popularity.

According to Top Golf’s marketing manager Michael Angelides, 65-70% of visitors class themselves as non-golfers, and despite the crowds it attracts, celebrities such as Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and One Direction’s Niall Horan are regular visitors.

Preparation  

Regular visitors to Top Golf who have a lifetime playing card do not need to wait in line because there a £20 membership card allows them four free games.

In contrast, for any person wishing to have a night out, Top Golf offers a 30-day playing card at £2. With this, it will cost an adult an additional £6 per game and a junior member £5 per game but many deals are also on offer.

There was certainly a competitive feel to the atmosphere but it doesn’t have that stuffiness associated with  golf clubhouses.

The resident DJ was spinning tracks in the packed bar while groups of people were enjoying drinks and food as well as the golf in equal measure.

After warming ourselves up by hitting numerous of practice shots, it was time to get started.

Nasar and myself took control and fired some long shots into the distance as our points total tallied up early on. This only acted as motivation for Junaid who reminded us: “It’s not a sprint boys, it’s a marathon.”

Comeback king 

Nasar was supremely confident in his abilities but arrogance seemed to get the better of him, and after a strong start, he struggled to maintain his accuracy and slipped from 1st to 2nd.

As I got into the flow, I started to push on and smacked a humongous shot into the far end that earned plaudits from other people around me.

I was pumped.

But then I too started to get over-confident and my shots began to go all over the place. Having been hitting 10s, my scores plummeted to 3s and 4s.

After being on the back foot for most of the game, Junaid fought his way back into contention, and he dominated the closing stages, hitting a huge shot that landed him a 10.

With the last shots remaining for all three of us, Junaid needed a score of 5 or more to be victorious and as he hit the the microchipped ball towards the centre, myself and Nasar instantly knew it was game over.

Junaid’s 7 made him the winner with a total of 59, with me three behind, while Nasar’s confident start ended in tears as he finished last on 39.

The journey home was horrific, as  Junaid boasted: “Boys, I was just getting into the swing of things, next time I’ll give you a good thrashing.”

Give it a go

Regardless of your ability to swing a club and hit a ball, Top Golf is more exciting than a trip to your average driving range.

Whether you choose to visit with friends or family on a Friday or Saturday night, where the music and drinks continue to flow until 1am, or during the week, you will find that Top Golf offers something for every level of golfer, from a four-handicapper or someone who’s never even held a club before.

In the past, I didn’t think golf would be a sport that I would ever enjoy, but every time I have visited Top Golf, I have loved it and I would recommend everyone to give it a try.

To find out where you can give Top Golf a go, visit the Top Golf website.

Iacono flies high to win Red Bull Street Style final

For many people, football’s international break is a chance to catch up on missed shows such as The Walking Dead or Eastenders. For others like myself it was a chance to delve into a new sport. 

After coming across Sky Sports’ promotion of the Red Bull Street Style world final on their website, I was filled with curiosity.

With the winter months in full flow, most people would be against the idea of going out on a chilly, blustery evening, but I was willing to broaden my horizons and watch a new sport.

Tickets cost £10 – peanuts in an age when prices to see elite sportspeople in action tend to be excessive and immoderate.

A tenner to witness some breathtaking displays of showboating in a world final was without doubt value for money.

The event took place at the Roundhouse in Camden, north London, and I was filled with excitement and eagerness to see a different style of football.

History 

The Red Bull Street Style is freestyle football’s premier tournament, where the world’s top tricksters go head-to-head against one another in a bid to impress the judges with their extravagant abilities.

The competition burst onto the scene in Brazil in 2008 and has also taken place in South Africa, Italy and Japan.

The 2014 event, back in Brazil, saw the most fluent freestylers from 44 nations battling it out for the biggest prize within their sport.

Britain’s Andrew Henderson, who has performed at Old Trafford and put Barcelona’s Neymar to the test in a freestyle battle, captured his first title with some dazzling showboating.

The rules are pretty straightforward. Three minutes, two players, one ball and one victor.

Atmosphere 

As I warmed up with burger and chips, excitement rippled through the Roundhouse crowd as it was announced that former Manchester United and England defender turned TV pundit Gary Neville was on the judging panel.

Gary Neville watching some skills on show

He was joined by Sean Garnier, the winner of the very first Red Bull Street Style in 2008.

Since then, the French star has been influencing and tracking the pulse of the sport and his name needed no introduction to the fans of freestyling.

The cheers were deafening for both Garnier and Sky Sports pundit Neville and the volume only kept increasing.

The atmosphere around the place was louder than most match days at the Emirates Stadium, with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ whenever someone did something amazing with the ball, plus moans and groans when competitors failed to get out of their comfort zone.

It was a superb showcase of jaw-dropping tricks and seemingly impossible transitions that left everyone astounded.

Talent on show 

With the biggest names in freestyle looking to stamp their authority on proceedings, the level of competition was so high that no-one was safe from elimination.

Portugal’s Ricardinho, one of the favourites to win, went out in the quarter-finals.

Another casualty was Ireland’s Daniel Dennehy, who oozed class and ability but was defeated by Carlos Alberto Iacono, the man from Argentina who was hoping it would be third time lucky in 2016.

After coming up just short in the last two tournaments, the man nicknamed ‘Charly’ was determined to claim the crown in London.

Donchet double

Ahead of the men’s final, the world’s best female freestylers got their chance to show off their talents.

The final between Melody Donchet of France and Poland’s Aguska Mnich was a truly gripping encounter.

In the semi-finals, Donchet had seemingly given her all to defeat long-time rival and double world champion Kitti Szasz of Hungary.

But there was more to come from her. In a fearless performance, the French star defeated Mnich with seamless transitions from standing to sit-down tricks and back up again.

Donchet’s ability to persevere when most fans felt she had nothing left in her bag of tricks was simply remarkable.

She secured her second consecutive title and, in the process, elevated her reputation to a new high.

Iacono on top 

In the men’s final, Iacono managed to get the monkey off his back by defeating Japan’s Kosuke Takahashi.

The Argentinian’s ability to ignore the noise from the crowd was one of the main reasons to why he delivered on the big stage.

Iacono celebrates his final win

At times it seemed like Iacono did have wings as he delivered the technical moves for which he is best known.

He sealed victory with one of the hardest handstand tricks ever seen, as he juggled the ball flawlessly on his calf.

Russian’s Anatoliy Yanchev earned third with a respectable performance, however Iacono’s feat earned him a rousing reception from the arena and his piece of history showed that you should never give up under any circumstances

As he admitted afterwards: “After losing several times, I was discouraged. But my heart told me you have to try again.”

And boy, did he deliver.

For more information about the competition, visit the Red Bull website.

‘I’m certainly not going to call for Wenger to go’

Ranked amongst the top 10 stand-ups in Britain by The Independent, comedian Ian Stone has flourished to become one of the most talented topical acts in the country.

Currently presenting ‘The Football’s On’ for BT Sport, the north Londoner is a regular on shows like Mock the Week but his lifelong passion is Arsenal. Elephant Sport spoke to him about the highs and lows of being a Gooner, Arsene Wenger and much more.

How did you feel about the last weekend’s north London derby?  

Stone with Arsenal legend Brady

It was a fair result. They have some decent attacking players, they hit the post and I thought they played alright particularly in the first half an hour so 1-1 is probably fair.

We were kind of flat but we haven’t been brilliant in most games this season to be honest. We are muddling through.

It’s not the best but we are in it so I’ll take that.

Where do you think Arsenal will finish come the end of the season?

Genuinely – I’ve no idea. We could win it or we could finish third. The race will be between Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs and us.

It will be tight. I would like us to be running away with the league but that’s not going to happen so I enjoy the big games.

Anyone can win it, even Spurs – I hate them but they’re a decent team. They have a good squad but ours is better.

Not having European football will benefit Liverpool and Chelsea but none of the teams are defensively good, apart from Spurs, so that’s why I think they are a threat.

Growing up what was the best thing you witnessed as an Arsenal fan? 

That’s not an easy question. But if you’re talking about the school years, then seeing Liam Brady for the first time and going ‘wow the way he plays is just beautiful’. I loved him and I still do.

How did you first become interested in Arsenal?

My dad. He just took me to Highbury and I thought ‘yeah this is it, I love this place’. That’s what happens to most of us, isn’t it?

Favourite all-time Arsenal player and why?

Hard to pick one. Brady first, I loved him, and Pat Jennings too. When it was a one on one with the keeper and Jennings was in goal, you thought they were never going to beat him. Tony Adams, because he loved the club as much as I do and Ian Wright for the same reason.

Dennis Bergkamp because he’s probably the best footballer I have ever seen, Thierry Henry because he’s a close second. There’s many, but those players are great players and they loved the club, and as a fan that’s what you want really.

Dennis Bergkamp was a great but comparisons have been made between Mesut Ozil and him – what is your opinion of the German?

Ozil. That goal against Ludogorets. I could watch that goal a million times and I wouldn’t get bored. That second dummy… the bloke is a genius and unlike any footballer I have ever seen. He has a lovely style about him.

When he first arrived, I was a bit disappointed. There were some moments but he didn’t really impose himself in games and you thought ‘you really could win this game on your own if you could be bothered’ but now he’s bulked up a bit and he’s scoring goals.

He’s an outstanding footballer and I’m glad we’ve got him. I love watching him.

Away at Villa last season, he brought the ball down right in front of me and you just thought ‘how did he even do that’?  That’s what I love about Ozil. He makes the incredibly difficult look incredibly easy.

Favourite current Arsenal player and why?

Alexis Sanchez. He just loves the game and he loves to play. Alexis is a great footballer. I’m so glad we have got him as it’s a pleasure to watch players like that.

Arsene Wenger is into his 20th season at Arsenal but what is your take on the boss?

Last season I was fed up, we had a great opportunity to win the title, and for all the romance of Leicester winning, we blew it and I blamed Wenger.

Sometimes when he’s signed players like Igor Stepanovs and Marouane Chamakh, I’ve sat there thinking ‘what on earth are you doing?’, but what can you say about the boss?

He creates beautiful football teams and will be remembered long after we’ve all gone as someone who created a style of football. He’s made some mistakes but we all have. He’ll go when he wants to go. I’m certainly not going to call for him to go.

What I would love more than anything is for him to win the Champions League and sign off with that. He deserves it but you know his legacy.

We all sit in the most beautiful of stadiums and that’s all down to him so I have the most positive of feelings towards him.

I’ve not had a 20-year relationship with anyone who hasn’t pissed me off though!

Who would you get as his replacement when he decides to leave?

I wanted Jurgen Klopp but he’s at the right club at Liverpool, they suit him. Anytime we ever talk about a possible replacement, it all goes wrong for them.

Ronald Koeman is a very good manager and we will see what happens despite losing 5-0 to Chelsea on the weekend!

There’s been talk of Diego Simeone but I don’t think he’s right for Arsenal. He needs the fans onside and I think our fans are a little bit different.

We can be aroused but I don’t think we are right for Simeone. We’ll see what happens but I don’t think Arsene is going away for a while yet.

Best goal you have ever witnessed as an Arsenal fan?

Against Bayer Leverkusen in a Champions League game at Highbury. Robert Pires was penned in in the corner by three defenders but somehow managed to play a 40-yard pass to Dennis Bergkamp in the centre of the pitch.

He killed it, exchanged passes with Patrick Vieira and he’s away. Bergkamp plays the ball inside the full back to Sylvain Wiltord, who lays it across to Thierry Henry, who’s sprinted 80-yards to side-foot it in.

From one end of the pitch to the other in six seconds – it was the most exhilarating thing I’ve seen Arsenal ever do.

Worst moment as an Arsenal fan?

Losing the Champions League final to Barcelona was bad – I enjoyed the trip to Paris but not the game. Losing the 2000 UEFA Cup final to Galatasaray on penalties was awful.

In the 1980 season, I went to 60 games out of 68, and we lost to West Ham in the FA Cup final, then Valencia in the Cup Winners Cup final and somehow managed to get hammered by Middlesbrough 5-0. That was pretty grim.

Best moment as an Arsenal fan?

Beating Barcelona at the Emirates a few years ago was pretty awesome, and Thierry Henry scoring on his comeback against Leeds United in the FA Cup was special too. I interviewed him for a radio thing and he loved talking about that moment.

How impressed have you been with Alexis Sanchez up front this season?

It’s working. I like the fact that there’s movement when Sanchez is up front. Olivier Giroud is a great sub and you can bring him on and play him in a two but I like the mobility of the team when Sanchez plays.

What have you made of the summer signings of Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka?

Excellent. Two very good signings. We needed spine – we’ve got it now.

How do you feel about the progress that Laurent Koscielny has made over the years to become one of the world’s best defenders? 

I think most people realise how good Koscielny is. He’s got better as quite often defenders do so I’m pleased for him and he enjoys being at the club so let him stay as long as he wants!

Which player that left the club hurt you the most?

It killed me losing Patrick Vieira but he wanted to go. I remember him coming on as an 18 year old against Sheffield Wednesday – we were losing and he turned the game. He was a stunning footballer and a fighter and I loved him and Emmanuel Petit together.

How do you see Arsenal fairing throughout the season and could this be Wenger’s final season?

I think if he wins the Premier League or Champions League, I think he will stay. We can win the league but will we? If we get lucky with injuries, we will be there come May, but it’s very tight. Our position in the league is good at the moment – let’s see.

Lastly, how do you feel Arsenal will fair against Manchester United after the international break?

I want to beat them so badly. I’ve not seen Arsenal win many games at Old Trafford but I went to the FA Cup game there when we won 2-1 with Danny Welbeck scoring, and it was absolutely wicked – 9,000 of us there on a Monday night.

What I loved was weeks later, reading that the players had been so happy with the support and the difference it had made. That means a lot to the fans. I love winning at Old Trafford, so hopefully we will.

I’d love us to have a run in the Champions League too. I want us to finish first in the group and give ourselves a chance because if we do that, the second leg of the next round will be at home and that’s huge.

It’s a long time since we went far in Europe and if we got to the semis and do well in the League, Ozil and Sanchez will stay and we can continue to improve. We’re doing all right at the moment, I’m enjoying it so let’s continue!

Follow Ian Stone on Twitter @iandstone

Hodge aiming to get back in the fast lane

There are some interviews when you really have to strain to get some reluctant sporting character to say anything even vaguely interesting or unanticipated.

Marcel Hodge, with his easy-going attitude and willingness to talk, is very different.

The Ascot-born athlete has overcome Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Asperger’s Syndrome to make his mark in the T20 (learning disabilities) category of track and field.

“I was never really fond of team sports, I couldn’t play football to save my life, so running was just an easy decision for me”

However, the 24-year-old’s career has been stop-start so far, ranging from becoming the fastest T20 sprinter of all time in the UK over 100m and 60m to defeat by female athlete Louise Bloor in a 200m indoor race in Manchester in 2016.

But first, back to the beginning, and Hodge’s decision – or rather his mum’s – that he should take up running as at eight-year-old at Slough Junior Athletics Club

“In all honesty, in the beginning it was just a way for my mum to get me out of the house,” he admits. “I have ADHD, so I was hyperactive as a child, running around everywhere and swinging on the chandeliers – not literally…

“But at the same time, I loved sitting around watching Cartoon Network and Fox Kids while eating snacks. I knew I was always quick but I was useless at every other sport.

“I was never really fond of team sports, I couldn’t play football to save my life, so running was just an easy decision for me.”

“Not really represented Great Britain” 

Hodge speaks with great maturity as he reflects on being classified as a T20 athlete in 2012, opening the door for him to compete for Great Britain’s learning disability athletics team due to his promising times.

“Ha ha, well, I won’t say my times were amazing,” he laughs. “I for one was not impressed. I think people knew I was capable of much faster times. Running the 100m in 11.1 seconds and running 22.6 in the 200m in 2012, is nothing to brag about.

“It’s sort of controversial. Ever since I was 15 years old, I wanted to compete at international mainstream level [non-disability] such as the World Juniors and the European Junior Championships.

“I felt you get more respect and appreciation, hitting those sort of levels. It made me feel okay but not Tony-the-Tiger great.”

Then there was the cost factor, with learning disability athletes effectively expected to pay their own way.

“The whole squad had to fund themselves,” he explains.

“It was about £80 for my kit and about £500 to compete at the INAS World indoor championships in Manchester and in the same year, I competed at the INAS European Uutdoor Athletics Championships in Gavle, Sweden.

“We had to fork out a £250 deposit plus £850 on top of that, so that’s £1,100 in total we had to pay to represent our country.

It might as well have been called a Thomas Cook all-inclusive holiday package to Sweden! Utter joke. It’s the same every competition.

“So I feel that personally, I haven’t properly represented Great Britain as in simple terms: if you can’t afford it, you can’t be on the team. And that’s not fair on anyone.”

Disappointments 

Hodge has, however, continued to strive to be the best in his sport, but he’s still smarting over his loss to Louise Bloor over 200m in March.

It came in an open competition where runners were seeded by time, and Team GB’s Bloor was looking for a fast run as she chased qualification for the World Indoor Championships.

“Getting beaten by her was hard,” Hodge recalls. “She wasn’t just any girl, though. She’s competed at World and Olympic level and is coached by Tony Minichiello, Jessica Ennis-Hill’s coach.

“I’m not making excuses, but running an indoor 200m is very different to running an outdoor 200m. The last time I ran an indoor 200m was back in 2012 and I’d had no practice at running an indoor since then.

“I also had a cold, but honestly I was just slow. I was still in my winter phase with no proper speed work in me.

“I thought I would break the world T20 200m indoor record of 22.17 seconds, which isn’t that quick by mainstream standards, or even destroy my old indoor 200m personal best of 23.09. Instead I got 23.86. I felt humiliated and embarrassed.”

Paralympics 

For any aspiring athlete with a disability, the main objective is to compete in the Paralympics.

But after missing out on going to Rio this summer, Hodge insists he is focused on competing at future Games.

“I was training fine for the Paralympics but the 400m was not my natural event,” insists the sprinter.

“Everyone said I would be good at 400m, but boy were they wrong”

“I only took it up so I could go to Rio for my category as they haven’t yet added  in the 100m and 200m. I did try long jump but I couldn’t jump to save my life, and I don’t compete in long distances, so my last and only choice was to do the 400m.

“I didn’t like the event from day one. I couldn’t even jog 400m when I started athletics. My mum had to run with me and she was pregnant at the time!

“People at British Athletics were telling me to take it up because of my 200m times, and they said I could make the top four in the T20 world rankings if I did a full 400m winter training programme.

“I was naive enough to believe them. Everyone said I would be good at 400m, but boy were they wrong. Despite that knockback, I want to compete in five Paralympics and I believe I can still be 40-plus years old and still hold my own as long as I stay on top of everything.”

Team GB won 64 Paralympic gold medals in Rio, their highest total since 1988, however Hodge was disappointed by the lack of support from the general public and the TV coverage.

“One thing I despise is adverts. Why put the Olympics on the BBC where it’s uninterrupted coverage and the Paralympics on Channel 4? It’s unfair. Paralympic stars do not get the same coverage as able athletes because they have a disability, it’s as simple as that.”

Ambassadorial work 

The highs and lows Hodge has experienced make him ideal as an ambassador for the UK Sports Association’s My Sport, My Voice project, and he says it’s important to give opportunities to young athletes with learning disabilities.

“I want to make a difference,” he says.

“Learning disability athletes don’t get half the recognition as other disabled athletes and it’s my duty to change that.

“The governing bodies are doing a lot right now. However, it’s about adding more events to our category for the 2020 Paralympics, so athletes such as myself have the chance to show what we can produce.”

Hodge’s career has not progressed in the way he’d hoped, but he is optimistic about the future.

“To be honest, I just want to be competitive again,” he says.

“I want to go back to the level I know that I was capable of, when I was 18-years-old. I may aim to break the T20 60m world record which currently stands at 7.01 in 2017, or I hope to become the world outdoor champion over the 100m and 200m, if I can afford it and if we have a team.

“I want to continue to progress and put my name into T20 sprinting history because at the end of the day I aspire to be myself, I am my own inspiration.

“Learning about yourself is limitless, there is always something new you discover about yourself.”