All posts by Simon Cromie

The Boy on the Shed: Paul Ferris’ memoir is more than a sports book

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Paul Ferris the former footballer.

Why would you have? A quick Google search sees him dwarfed by the controversial Scottish writer and reformed criminal of the same name. His 50-odd appearances for Newcastle United in the early 1980s would rightfully warrant a shrug of the shoulders, a ‘so what?’

But, like us all, Ferris has a story. And although it may seem like his is one told a thousand times — a tale of sporting disappointment at the cruel hands of injury — the truth is that The Boy on the Shed goes far beyond your average sporting autobiography. Rather, it is an altogether beautiful account of shattered dreams and shattered limbs, of love and death, of harboured fears and inner turmoil.

You see, a good story is in the telling of it, and Ferris writes with such unique flow and metre that his tale pulls you in until you live it yourself. You are there in his Lisburn home as the Troubles rage through Northern Ireland, you are there aboard the plane to Newcastle to realise his footballing potential, and there when that potential disintegrates once and for all, there for the life-altering death of his mother and his discontented voyage through a plethora of careers from sports physiotherapy to law to writing.

Some lines are short, sharp, intentionally stunted, while others pour out over the pages like foaming waterfalls. Ferris’ experience in writing means The Boy on the Shed comes from his own pen, from a place inside himself that bleeds out by way of prose. There is not the emotional sieve that comes inevitably with employing a ghost writer; instead his thoughts and fears emerge in full weighty clumps, laden with feeling and above all searing candour and unexpected humour.

His Lisburn youth is a glimpse into the trials and struggles of a disadvantaged, Catholic family living in a primarily Protestant area of Northern Ireland. The raw horrors of the Troubles are relayed by a boy who lived through it all, who saw his living room set ablaze in an unprovoked act of hatred, along with the countless sectarian beatings and murders which defined Ferris’ hometown during his youth and early adulthood.

The brutal affects of the Troubles on Ferris are laid bare across the book’s 300-plus pages, but in his own words such traumas were mere ‘punctuations’ to his childhood. Instead, Ferris’ family and upbringing is the glowing centre-point of the book, particularly his relationship with his mother, whose heart condition leaves him in a constant state of fear over her impending death.

It is in his descriptions of her that Ferris writes with the most poise and elegance, beautifully encapsulating the unique bond between mother and son, not least in the account of her death and its aftermath — the journey from utter despondency to realigned hope once more. Her impact on his outlook in life marinades Ferris’ story from start to finish, along with his pride in his own children who bear her eyes and smile.

Such is Ferris’ emphasis on the commonalities of our collective lives — on home, family, relationships, life and death — that football often seems like an undertone in his tale.

Indeed, despite being heralded as the next George Best, dominating school football across Lisburn and Northern Ireland, Ferris treats the sport with a degree of caution — the beast that will rend him from his home and his mother. Far from most boys of 15 or 16, his dream is to go to university, to marry his girlfriend and live a homely life.

It is Ferris’ fears and apprehensions that form the empathetic backbone to The Boy on the Shed. It is not merely a case of sporting dreams being dreamt and then coming true, as is the case with so many professional footballers, but an account of indecision and lack of surety, a child caught between the career all young men aspire to and the warm embrace of home comforts and a simple life. And indeed, by the time Ferris realises that professional football is indeed his dream, his calling, he is robbed of it by the frailty of his own body.

Throughout the book, football weaves in and out of the narrative as the driving force. The sport seems to have a gravitational pull on Ferris, thrusting him back into its clutches when he least expects it. As a physiotherapist at Newcastle for many years, Ferris was there for both hellish and heady days on Tyneside, witnessing the disastrous reigns of Gullit and Souness, but also experiencing the warmth of some of the sport’s genuine heroes, like the late Sir Bobby Robson.

“The Boy on the Shed triumphs in its at times indifferent, at times obsessive view on football”

Ferris’ interactions with and opinions of such characters, and indeed of Alan Shearer — whom he  worked with in vain to try to save Newcastle from relegation in 2009, and who pens the foreword to the book — offer a great deal of insight. In many ways, Newcastle United’s recent history is one of shrouded vagaries, but Ferris shines a light on these from the unique perspective of the physio’s room.

Ultimately, The Boy on the Shed triumphs in its at times indifferent, at times obsessive view on football, because sport in one moment can seem the most important thing in the world, and in the next utterly inconsequential. One Amazon reviewer awarded it only two stars with the complaint that this ‘is not a sports book.’ That person has sadly missed the point.

The joy of Ferris’ work is that it offsets professional football against the things in life we can all relate to. When considered in the grand scheme of life, death and despair, sport often seems so trivial, and yet it defines its followers and exponents, ensnares them, and is often their downfall. For those like Ferris, football can be nothing and everything all at once.

Legend status can be claimed or crushed in a split second — one goal at the Gallowgate End on a cold rainy afternoon, or one snap of a medial ligament. As Ferris himself puts it in the closing stages of his story, “who would think that entire lives can be shaped on such small things?”

Rating: 10/10

Win over Wigan highlights Broncos potential despite league’s malaise

Not even Storm Freya could keep London Broncos’ loyal hordes of followers away.

Even as the wind howled and the rain blew through the stands, as the wet mud and gravel squelched underfoot, and as chips were turned to salty mush by the ever-worsening downpour, still they cheered and revelled in the sheer joy of a competitive Super League team in London.

And they were rewarded. The Broncos battled as the gale battered rain against their skin, matching reigning champions Wigan Warriors in every department, turning around a 10-0 deficit to emerge 18-16 victors.

This was a statement victory for London, a proclamation that the-once laughing stock of professional rugby league are no longer here to make up the numbers.

It was the nature of the win that leaves such an impression. After two Wigan tries in the early exchanges, one could be forgiven for anticipating something of a rout.

The travelling fans certainly seemed to, but as the contest wore on, their singing slowly lost its zeal and volume. In contrast, as the Broncos gained a foothold in the game, so the home support found its voice.

Danny Ward’s side rallied to score twice and lead 12-10 at the interval. Kieran Dixon’s magnificent run at the start of the second half extended their advatanage, and the hosts held firm despite a late Wigan onslaught to claim a famous victory.

Long way to go

There can be a tendency to dwell too long and too keenly on such monumental results. After all, the 2019 Super League is just five games old, and there remains a long and winding road ahead.

According to rugby league journalist and Broncos fan David Ballheimer, such sweet victories need to be tempered with level-headedness.

“It was a magnificent win for London, but the importance of it won’t be known until late September,” he told Elephant Sport.

“If the Broncos stay up, this was an absolutely humongous win. If they get relegated, it was just a good win. They have to stay up, that’s the whole target of the season. I’m delighted, I thought it was fantastic, but I’m not going over the top.”

This season is London’s first at rugby league’s top table since 2014, when the Broncos managed just a single victory in a dire campaign.

But in their five games thus far this time around, the club have doubled that total, with this triumph over Wigan adding to their opening-day defeat of Wakefield Trinity.

Combined with their victory over the Toronto Wolfpack in last season’s Million Pound Game to gain promotion, there is a buoyant mood around the club once again.

A nomadic existence

The Broncos are currently based at the Trailfinders Sports Ground, where rugby union’s Ealing Trailfinders play their home games.

It is something of a ramshackle affair, a mishmash of temporary stands and hastily-assembled broadcast gantries. The main stand looks more like it belongs at a leisure centre than in a Super League stadium.

However, despite the imperfections of Trailfinders in terms of facilities, there is a homely feel to the place, its dissymmetry a fitting reflection perhaps of the club’s own lack of assuredness in its own identity.

The London Broncos have had a nomadic existence since their formation as the Fulham RLFC in 1980, and have played under numerous monikers and at a variety of homes since then.

The club’s odyssey has taken in Craven Cottage, Crystal Palace National Sports Centre (twice), Polytechnic Sports Ground, Copthall Stadium, Twickenham Stoop (three times), The Valley (twice), Griffin Park, The Hive and, finally, Ealing Trailfinders — remarkable given its mere 39-year existence.

Ballheimer suggests that a ground of their own would be the ideal solution, but given the impracticalities of such a step, Ealing is as good a home as any.

“It’s a great deal better than a lot of them were,” he says. “To be perfectly honest, a good home would be their own ground, where they are responsible for the food, the bars, who plays there, when they play there, who looks after the pitch, how the pitch is marked, and everything else.

“Having their own ground would be so massive, but it is utterly impossible.

“Ealing is better than Brentford, definitely better than the Hive, better than Harlequins because it’s more accessible to the general spectator — it’s that much closer to central London.

“It’s good but it’s not perfect. If it was perfect it would have a capacity of 10,000 and there would be 6,000 London fans coming every week. But that is a pipe dream.”

Doing the right things

It’s arguable as to whether the transient nature of the club’s existence has stunted their growth as a force in rugby league.

Could it be that the constant name and ground changes have disillusioned potential supporters? It’s a claim that is difficult to qualify, and Ballheimer believes that while such ground-hopping has had an effect, the club’s future is bright.

“I think the nomadic nature of the club has been a problem,” he says, “but London is doing better now than they have done for seven or eight years. Last time they were in the Super League, London were frankly an embarrassment.

“They are getting better. They are doing things right. They’re getting fans coming to the games. They are getting a better atmosphere — every crowd so far this season has been over 2,000. This is a massive increase and improvement on their last Super League season. There are signs.”

The match against Wigan certainly backed up Ballheimer’s assertions, with a feel-good atmosphere that only manifests amidst a happy club and fanbase.

Loyal followers still trek from across the capital; pints flow freely and pies are consumed with a sense that those attending are eager to make the most of the club’s Super League return — to simply enjoy.

Capital gains

However, even though there are green shoots peeking through at London Broncos, there remains a sense that rugby league itself is in something of a malaise.

The sport has always lacked the fanfare and media attention enjoyed by rugby union in its professional era and, according to Ballheimer, the powers-that-be have a responsibility to do more to market the sport to a wider audience.

“Rugby league needs a complete rethink about how it is run and what its aims are”

“The sport needs a complete rethink about how it is run and what its aims are. This goes far beyond London Broncos. It needs to consider whether it wants to be a national sport or the sport of the north of England.

“If it’s the sport of the north of England, and the media is all based in the south, what chance do they have? If it’s not a national sport, why should Sky invest millions of pounds in covering it?

“I honestly believe that Super League should insist there is a London franchise, because there has to be capital city representation in the national league. I barely watched a Super League game in the four years London weren’t in it because it meant nothing to me.”

If one thing is for certain, it’s that London has a power to bring new fans to a sport.

American sports have already begun to harness this phenomenon, with the NFL staging matches in the capital and the O2 Arena hosting NBA games, while Major League Baseball is set to host its first London series this summer when the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox come to town.

The city of 8.7m is a hive of sporting curiosity, forever willing to embrace new ideas and influences.

For rugby league to ignore that would be a crime, and perhaps the authorities should be doing more to appeal to those in the capital and the south of England, and not cling so tightly to the sport’s northern traditions.

For all the relative success of the London Broncos over the last 18 months or so, there is still a sense that potential is being wasted, that the club is swimmingly admirably against a tide.

Reanne Evans and snooker’s gender divide

The glass ceiling remains intact. Try as she might, Reanne Evans, snooker’s most decorated female player, has failed to make a meaningful impact on the men’s tour thus far.

Last month’s defeat to the legendary Jimmy White at the Shoot Out was the latest missed chance for Evans to make a statement, to give a taste of the quality that has won her 11 world titles in the women’s game.

Although opportunities have been relatively sparse, that defeat at the hands of White, 56, is the latest example of Evans’ inability to produce the goods when it really matters.

A one-table setup, a large, boisterous audience, live TV coverage, and Evans’ touch deserted her, an inexplicable miscue the defining moment of a nervy encounter, allowing White to secure victory in the fast, high-octane format that is the Shoot Out.

Of course, it would be wrong to place too much emphasis on Evans’ or indeed fellow female player Emma Parker’s performances at the Shoot Out.

Such a variant event is not an accurate measuring stick of any player’s true ability; the bright lights and baying crowd a far cry from snooker’s usual dignified confines. But such chances are ones that must be seized if a woman is to break up the boy’s club that is the professional tour.

Evans’ record in professional ranking events leaves something to be desired. She has participated in the World Championship qualifiers for four years in a row, failing to reach the Crucible each time.

In 2017, she overcame Robin Hull 10-8 in the first round of qualifying, a victory she described as the ‘best win’ of her career, but succumbed meekly to Lee Walker in the next.

She took part in Q School, a means by which players can qualify for the tour, in 2018, but could not emerge victorious. Results in the other scattered ranking events in which she has competed represent a failure to perform to her true ability.

Lack of incentive

The gender divide in certain sports is something of a hot topic. In a sport such as snooker — or indeed darts, where the best female players too have struggled to compete — where physical aptitude plays second fiddle to mental resilience and tactical shrewdness, why is it that the chasm between the most successful female player of all time and even the lowest ranked players on the men’s circuit is so large?

Evans herself has pointed to the lack of prize money within the women’s tour as a reason for why many females struggle to attain the same standards as their male counterparts.

“We need to attract more [players], improve the game and build our own ladies’ tour up, then maybe — in a couple of years — give the top four ranked players places in invitational events or on the [main] tour,” she said in a BBC Radio 4 interview in 2015. “At the moment ladies don’t want to be pushed into the deep end.”

In the four years since those remarks, while the prize money on offer in the men’s game has burgeoned, landing the women’s world title still nets only a measly four-figure sum, peanuts compared to the record £500,000 cheque on offer to the winner of this year’s main World Championship.

The sad and brutal truth is that sponsors and investors will continue to shirk the women’s tour as long as the main professional game remains in such good health.

All in the head?

“The male of the species has got a single-minded, obsessional type of brain that I don’t think so many females have” – Steve Davis

But perhaps mere facts and figures do not do this particular issue justice, but rather key psychological factors play an important part in this debate. Six-time world champion Steve Davis believes that entrenched differences between men and women mean that female snooker players will always be at a disadvantage.

“The male of the species has got a single-minded, obsessional type of brain that I don’t think so many females have,” Davis said in a 2014 interview with the BBC.

He added that women lack “that single minded determination in something that, it must be said, is a complete waste of time — trying to put snooker balls into pockets with a pointed stick. Men are ideally suited to doing something as absolutely irrelevant in life as that.”

Evans even went so far as to back up Davis’ view at the time:” I think women find it difficult just to concentrate on snooker,” she said “I’ve got my little girl and you’re always thinking about them. Maybe men find it easier to focus on one thing at one time. Maybe that’s a slight advantage there.”

The question lies in whether or not such underlying psychological discrepancies are scientifically inherent, or if they are merely borne of the constructs that society has demanded women adhere to for centuries.

For Evans, the quest continues to disrupt the top table of snooker’s established male elite. There is a sense that all it could take is one breakthrough moment, one string of results or a big-name scalp for Evans to convince the world, and indeed herself, that snooker itself is not discriminative, but we as a society often are. 

Snooker’s Shoot Out: Why there’s magic behind the madness

In they file, bringing with them their large jugs of lager at 12.30 in the afternoon, ready for another four days of merriment.

These are the loyal yearly attendees of the Snooker Shoot Out, an event which laughs in the face of snooker’s traditional grace and decorum, placing cheap, poorly-fitting polo shirts on the normally smart professionals, and placing a beer cup in the hand of normally solemn spectators, along with an invitation to shout, guffaw, and generally degrade themselves.

Originally a one-off event held in September 1990, the Shoot Out returned to the professional snooker tour in 2011 and has held its place in the calendar ever since.

It is a fast, frantic form of the sport, each match comprised of a single 10-minute frame, with a 15-second shot clock that falls to 10 seconds for the final five minutes. Any foul results in ball in hand for the opponent. The crowd are encouraged to chant and holler in what is snooker’s answer to the beered up, rootin’ tootin’ atmosphere of live darts.

To watch the Shoot Out on TV is one thing, but attending in person presents the full array of pros and cons this unique event offers up. On TV, the atmosphere is diluted somewhat.

The commentary drowns out much of the boorish crowd, and the frequent wisecracks from members of the audience are, perhaps mercifully, inaudible through the television set.

But to witness the event at the Watford Colosseum first hand sees this seemingly benign event take on a whole new level. Everything is cranked up. The garish bleats and cries of the crowd pervade the atmosphere.

The bleeping of the shot clock timer conjures images of an operating theatre. MC Phil Seymour’s shrill timbre stings the eardrum, along with the dull, humanoid voice that yells ‘10 SECOND SHOT CLOCK NOW IN OPERATION,’ not dissimilar to the warning heard when the luggage doors of a coach are opening.

To derive any semblance of enjoyment from such a clamorous affair requires one to disabuse themselves of any prior held notions of what a snooker tournament should rightfully represent.

This is worlds apart from the soft, silent confines of the Crucible Theatre, where the slightest rustle of a Murray Mint wrapper draws tuts of admonishment.

This is thrash metal snooker, where the core values of strategic thinking and measured pragmatism are flung out the window like a rock star’s hotel TV. The shot clock disrupts players’ natural thought processes, sowing seeds of doubt where there would otherwise be none.

Quick-fire

It’s a well-worn cliché that the end result justifies the means, and in this case the end result is exceptional entertainment. There’s something thrilling about seeing these usually level-headed players scrambling around the table while the onlookers howl at them.

Some players crumble underneath the tumult of it all, while others rise to the occasion, almost relishing the challenge and the antagonism of the crowd.

‘Despite the fun image the event seeks to promote, many top pros resent the Shoot Out, and only six of snooker’s top 16 ranked players bothered to enter’

One such example is the eventual winner of this year’s edition, Thepchaiya Un-Nooh. The 33-year-old is the fastest player on the tour, posting an average shot time this season of 16.5 seconds, more than 1.5 seconds faster than second-placed Jack Lisowski. On paper, he’s the most suited player to the unique tempo of the Shoot Out.

And he stepped up to the plate at the business end of the tournament, beating an in-form Stuart Bingham in the quarters before producing a blistering break of 139 in his semi-final clash against Jamie Clarke.

It was the highest break in Shoot Out history, eclipsing Martin Gould’s effort of 135 in 2011. Another quick-fire 74 secured the title against a helpless Michael Holt.

Un-Nooh’s performances were the highlight of the four days, but overall it was a tournament of immense quality. To make a century in a 10-minute frame while the manifold sounds of the bleeping shot clock and the beery, shouty crowd pervade, is a remarkable achievement.

The total of four centuries during the tournament is itself a Shoot Out record, as the tournament seems to rise in quality year upon year.

A hive of stories

Despite the fun image the event seeks to promote, many top pros resent the Shoot Out, and indeed only six of snooker’s top 16 ranked players bothered to enter.

However, the absence of the sport’s usual suspects allows lesser spotted amateurs and youngsters to have their moment in the spotlight. The Shoot Out is a hive of stories, the result of the presence of so many underdogs combined with the unpredictable nature of its format.

It offers a glimpse of the sport’s future, as talented prospects are given an opportunity to flaunt their wares on live TV. Perhaps the biggest story of this year’s edition was the emergence of 16 year-old Ryan Davies, a spotty skeleton of a teenager blessed with a cue action as smooth as silk.

The youngster saw off Robbie Williams, 14 year-old Ben Mertens, and the very capable Sunny Akani to reach the last 16 before succumbing to eventual runner-up Holt.

Mertens himself caused quite a stir in round one, knocking out the venerable Thai James Wattana by a single point in a Shoot Out classic. Former world number three Wattana needed just the pink to claim victory, but saw the match clock elapse agonisingly before it could be dispatched.

Liam Davies, 12, was the youngest participant, but saw his hopes swiftly dashed as first-round opponent Ricky Walden knocked in a rip-roaring 132 break to send the young Welshman packing.

Even still, the chance for these youngsters to pit their wits against seasoned pros is thoroughly uplifting, and it’s an opportunity that would not be possible if it weren’t for the Shoot Out.

Here come the girls

Two of the sport’s best female talents, Reanne Evans and Emma Parker, were also invited to compete. Indeed, Evans’ matchup with snooker legend Jimmy White was arguably the pick of the first round ties.

It proved a nervy affair, and an untimely miscue by the 11-time women’s world champion proved costly, allowing White to hold his nerve and seal his passage to round two, to the delight of the crowd.

Parker went out with something of a whimper, losing to Indian amateur Laxman Rawat. It felt as though it was a missed opportunity for both Parker and Evans to make a statement of their talents.

Evans in particular, who has toiled for some time to make an impact on the main tour, didn’t play to her potential, but that is the nature of the Shoot Out, where a player’s chances can go up in smoke with one long pot by an opponent or an unfavourable run of the ball.

It’s a fascinating question as to why Evans has been unable to gain a place on the main tour.

In a sport that is less concerned with physical aptitude, and more to do with mental strength and level-headedness, how can the sport’s most decorated female player, who has won a plethora of titles in the women’s game, be so far behind even the lowest-ranked male players?

Why so serious?

There is much to enjoy and much to despise about the Shoot Out. It is not for everyone, and its ranking status is a bone of contention amongst many. Many attendees flock to binge drink with their mates, call out nonsensical gibberish, and generally indulge themselves in nincompoopery.

Yet others seem to be there to try and enjoy the snooker, longing for the peace and quiet of other events. You can hear them tutting and see them frowning at the uncouth drunkards.

Many die-hard fans will refuse to tune in to the Shoot Out, such is their animosity towards what they view as a debasing of the long-held values of snooker.

But then, perhaps the key to enjoying the Shoot Out lies in simply embracing it for what it is, to leave preconceived notions at the doorstep and revel in the revelry. Snooker is a tense, high-pressured sport at the best of times, and this once a year chance for players and fans alike to let their hair down should be welcomed, cherished even.

Sport can be a lot of fun when everyone’s not quite so serious all the time.

Ken Doherty: I’d love to get back to the Crucible

Ken Doherty can’t help but smile at the memory of it all.

The feelings that have eluded many of snooker’s aspiring world champions come flooding back — potting the colours that made up his victory lap, shaking the hand of a bested Stephen Hendry, holding the famous World Championship trophy aloft — the culmination of a career’s effort and toil.

“It was what I’d dreamt of from the moment I picked up a cue all those years ago,” reflects the Irishman on his 1997 triumph at the Crucible.

“I watched Alex Higgins win it, I watched Dennis Taylor win it. To lift the trophy myself, beating Stephen who hadn’t lost a match at the Crucible for like six years, that was just the icing on the cake.”

Almost 22 years later, Doherty still boasts the same bright eyes and cheery smile which defined that moment of glory. Although he has gradually drifted further away from snooker’s top table in recent years, currently lying 66th in the world rankings, his work as a TV pundit still allows him to revel in the thrills of the sport’s majors.

Rivalries

“It’s nice to be involved,” he says as we chat in the dim confines of the media centre at one of snooker’s triple crown events, the Masters.

“I’d be sitting at home watching it on TV anyway, so I might as well be here, enjoying the atmosphere and catching up with the rest of the lads.”

The ‘lads’ he’s referring to are the BBC’s familiar team of pundits and commentators. It’s a group made up of many of the game’s former greats, including seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry and six-time winner Steve Davis.

With on-table rivalries long set aside, it’s the viewers who benefits from the team’s camaraderie.

“You never stop learning, I think that’s the key”

“I think it’s the same for us all, we just love catching up and enjoying the snooker. At the end of the day, we’re all snooker fans as well.”

Indeed, in working as an analyst, Doherty has come to fully recognise the wide array of technical intricacies snooker’s different exponents display, an appreciation he wishes he had made in his younger years.

“Going back 20 years, I wish I’d have watched a lot more snooker,” he reflects. “I think it would have helped my game a bit more. When I was involved in tournaments I wouldn’t watch that much of it other than playing in my own matches. I wish now I had.

“If I was giving advice to young players, I’d say watch a lot more snooker. It can help you identify weaknesses of potential opponents, but also how the top players go about making breaks, and the safety shots they play. I think that’s important. You never stop learning, I think that’s the key.”

Elder statesman

Now one of the sport’s senior players at the age of 49, the Dublin-born potter is realistic about his chances. A new wave of players has come along and left past greats like Doherty, Peter Ebdon and Jimmy White floundering in the sea of talent which is the modern tour.

For Doherty, simply preserving his tour status is his highest priority, although he still allows himself to dream of a return to snooker’s mecca.

Doherty still dreams of a return to the Crucible

“To get in the top 64 is my top target,” says the man who has won six ranking titles, “but I’d love to get back to the World Championship at the Crucible. I’m going to put in as much work as I can now and try and get back there for April.”

That is easier said than done, unfortunately, as the road to the Crucible is a gruelling one beset by potential potholes.

Three best-of-19 qualifiers must be navigated by those outside the top 16-ranked players in order to secure one of those coveted berths in Sheffield.

It’s a challenge made all the harder by Doherty’s inconsistent form of late, which he himself admits is “not great.”

However, if there is cause for a kernel of optimism for Doherty, and the loyal Irish fans still willing him on towards further triumphs, it was his display against Ronnie O’Sullivan at this season’s UK Championship.

He established a 4-1 lead in their second-round clash, before ultimately succumbing to the eventual champion in a 6-5 defeat.

“I played a good match against O’Sullivan, and could’ve beaten him. I just let it slip, but he came back really strong. I’m hoping that I can get a few results before the end of the season.”

Irish pride

Doherty, nicknamed the ‘Darlin’ of Dublin’, takes great pride in his roots, and still remembers vividly the reception he received back home when he became Ireland’s first world champion from south of the border.

In a nation often starved of sporting success, the Irish celebrated Doherty’s 1997 triumph with typical vigour.

“It was amazing,” he says, momentarily lost in his reverie. “I remember being on the open-top bus going through the city centre in Dublin, all the cars stopping and beeping the horn.

“I knew it was my chance. I just thought, ‘I’ve got to grab this with both hands”

“People were waving flags and running by the bus, coming out of their offices and homes, just waiting to catch a glimpse of me and the trophy. In my home village of Ranelagh we had a big party with all my friends and family. It was just amazing, you know?”

He became a man in demand, parading his trophy around the country at different clubs and sporting institutions, and as a lifelong Manchester United fan, fulfilled a lifelong dream of a lap of honour on the Old Trafford turf, trophy in hand.

“That was an incredible experience, to take the trophy out at Old Trafford, as well as Croke Park and Lansdowne Road when Ireland were playing. I was a right tart with the trophy, I took it everywhere!”

Challenge

His celebrations were more than justified. The nature of representing a country for which individual sporting triumphs are few and far between brings its own set of pressures. Doherty, however, saw this as a challenge to relish.

“I knew it was my chance,” he says, offering a flash of the steely determination which has perhaps mellowed slightly with age. “I just thought, I’ve got to grab this with both hands and keep focused.

“I tried not to worry about what was going on back home, and tried to keep myself away from all the hype. Luckily I did, because I could’ve easily been enveloped by it all. It was an emotional ride, but fantastic in the end.”

Sadly, Ireland has not seen a champion of Doherty’s ilk since. Fergal O’Brien, another Dublin native, continues to toil away on the tour, but there is a notable dearth of young Irish talent breaking through in snooker. The reasons why remain up for debate.

“I wish I could put my finger on it,” Doherty laments. “Property prices got very high in Ireland and for many snooker clubs, to simply stay open was very expensive.

“Of course, the advent of the internet, video games, and phones have had an effect. Other sports like rugby have become more popular and snooker has sort of fallen down a bit.

“Hopefully, that changes. Mark Allen has done very well from Northern Ireland, Fergal O’Brien has done well, but I’d love to see someone else coming through and taking on the mantle.”

The battle ahead

Doherty currently lies 66th in snooker’s world rankings

One of the big questions facing snooker is what can be done to get young players devoting their time fully to the sport, and not merely seeing it as a hobby or pub game. For Doherty, it requires a marriage of both facilities and familial support.

“They need good competition, good coaches, support from their own families — mams and dads, you know? We can’t do anymore than we are doing TV-wise because we have so many great matches, and lots of people are watching it. It’s just about getting kids into snooker clubs and getting them started. That’s the first battle.”

The development of a new video game, Snooker 19, for Xbox One and PS4 could be a way of getting the younger, technology-fuelled generation hooked on a sport they may never have given much thought. Perhaps the key lies in utilising technology to advance snooker’s cause.

Doherty is optimistic: “Hopefully, the new video game will encourage some kids to give snooker a go, and sort of get them started.”

Doherty’s vested interest in the future of the sport is borne of a love for snooker that transcends mere silverware or legacies of success.

He is one of the game’s great champions, both in a literal sense of on-table triumphs, and in his desire to ensure snooker continues to make dreams come true for others as it did for him.

When he does finally hang up his cue, the Ranelagh man will be able to reflect on a career in snooker in which the joyful highs more than outweigh the painful lows.

“I’ll look back with a lot of fondness. I have a lot of great memories, and I’ve made a lot of great friends. I’ve had a great time. Snooker’s taken me all over the world. Being the only man to win the junior, the amateur and the senior World Championships — I’ll be very proud of that.”

For now though, ‘Crafty Ken’ is still determined to make his mark on the modern game. Don’t be surprised if, come April, we see Doherty emerge into the Crucible arena, trotting down those few little steps with that same infectious smile upon his face. It would be another great tribute to the beautiful ideal that class is permanent.

Snooker’s Masters growing into its home at Alexandra Palace

From the train window, out over the grey fog of north London, Alexandra Palace rises.

Its light beige facade shines bright against the grassy hill on which it stands. The iconic Rose Window sits proudly within its walls, surveying like a glass eye the city that stretches out before it almost endlessly. Alexandra Palace is an antidote to the greying, soulless railway lines and bland terraced houses over which it looms — a sight for sore and troubled eyes.

Venue for many a memorable music act, notably the Stone Roses, Blur and Björk among others, along with sporting events like the PDC World Darts Championship and the World Championship of Ping-Pong, ‘Ally Pally’ as it’s affectionately called now plays host to the Masters snooker, and has done since 2012.

Each year snooker’s top 16 ranked players are invited to compete, freed from the shackles of ranking significance to cement their status among the sport’s elite. 

Though Ally Pally has now become a much-loved and cherished venue, most will say that the original home of the Masters was the old Wembley Conference Centre where the tournament was staged from 1979 to 2006. A curved, futuristic construction in its day, the venue became famed for its uniquely raucous atmosphere, a far cry from the sombre silence of the Crucible and other snooker hotspots.

Close to 3,000 well-watered snooker fans would pile into the arena, where the players smoked and drank in their seats, creating a thin, grey, tobacco-scented smog which hovered above the table.

Members of the crowd were known to cough or rustle sweet wrappers in an attempt to distract players, usually those who threatened the success of local lads Jimmy White or Ronnie O’Sullivan. It was an atmosphere more akin to darts than the traditional calm of the baize.

London pride

The Masters has always been London’s snooker tournament, and the capital’s snooker faithful have always backed their men to the hilt, be it Jimmy or Ronnie, or even the Tooting potter Tony Meo who himself reached a couple of semi-finals in the 80s.

White especially has always been London’s darling in snooker, winning the Masters in 1984, and playing with the kind of flair that, barring Alex Higgins, had never been seen in the game before.

White’s well-documented defeats in six world finals seemed to galvanise his position as the likeable protagonist of snooker’s perpetuating storyline, the hero desperately trying to foil a villain who in this case was Stephen Hendry.

A prime example is White’s first-round victory over Hendry in 2004. Just listen to the roar that greets the Whirlwind’s game-clinching red. That is the sound of a sportsman on home turf, with an army of followers willing him over the line. As with another perennial Masters crowd pleaser Alex Higgins, it was White’s gung-ho approach to the game that won him so many fans. 

Sheffield may be snooker’s spiritual home, but it has always seemed fitting that the Masters should stay in London, that the country’s capital city should play host to the sport’s capital showmen. The magnitude of each match, whereby each could easily be the final, aptly reflects the magnitude of the city itself — a physical manifestation of the significant, of the huge.

The redevelopment of Wembley Stadium and the area immediately surrounding it meant that the old Conference Centre was demolished in 2006, and with it a part of snooker’s fabric. For the following five years, the Masters was held at the new Wembley Arena in an attempt to preserve some of the magic conjured by the locale.

But the same atmosphere could never be re-created, as the combination of a dull, insipid venue and a sport struggling at the time to attract new fans stripped the event of much of its allure.

Indeed, much like Wembley Stadium, the new Wembley Arena could not emulate its prior incarnation, awkward and uncomfortable like an ill-fitting pair of orthotics that can never quite be broken in.

New home

The decision to re-locate to Alexandra Palace, at a time when Barry Hearn was just beginning to breathe new life into the sport, has reaped dividends, reinvigorating a tournament which had stagnated during that vain attempt to cling to the past.

Now, the Palace seems the perfect home for this yearly clash of snooker’s giants, from the winding walk up the hill from the train station — itself a symbol of the toil required for a player to claim his place in snooker’s top 16 — and the fine stone and golden stair-rods which line the building’s interior, to the near 2,000 fans that hurry through those giant doors to see their stars in action.

Ally Pally is a fitting backdrop to the Masters, its inner finery and glass ceilings representative of snooker’s emergence from the dank, smoky confines of Wembley and into the light — an apt reflection of the sport’s growth into a global game.

Year upon year, the tournament grows more comfortable in its new home.

The atmosphere within may be slightly less raucous than the old days at Wembley, but occasionally cries of ‘come on, Jimmy’ still ring out around the arena, emerging from the mouths of fans keen to honour this tournament’s glorious past, as snooker’s most prestigious invitational bounds boldly over the horizon towards future traditions.

Rocket man: Record-breaking O’Sullivan makes snooker history

The two bookends are set 25 years apart.

In 1993, a fresh-faced 17 year-old named Ronnie O’Sullivan downed the reigning world champion Stephen Hendry to win his first major title, the UK Championship.

Some two and a half decades later, his head bestrewn with the scattered grey hairs that mark a man in his mid-forties, O’Sullivan is UK champion for the seventh time, and the proud holder of a record-breaking 19 triple crown titles.

In many ways, maturity is the perfect word to describe O’Sullivan’s performance at the Barbican, York, last week, capped by the 10-6 defeat of Mark Allen in Sunday’s final.

The flashy ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ snooker still comes through in the Rocket’s play on his very best days, but it is now bolstered by the tactical nous and pragmatism of the most steely and wily of operators.

Assurance

Potential banana skins such as Ken Doherty and Jack Lisowski were negotiated with competent assurance, along with the deceptively simple tasks of ousting Martin O’Donnell and Tom Ford to reach the final.

It was rarely vintage O’Sullivan, but then again it rarely is these days, for the 43 year-old’s burgeoning mental fortitude is what now defines his success, and is the reason why he has won three titles and reached four finals out of the five events he has entered this season. Recently, O’Sullivan has been less Rocket and more Rolls-Royce.

‘O’Sullivan never looked like missing, each shot culminating in the same thumping crescendo of ball on leather, as every red and colour cannoned the stitches in the back of the pockets’

Sunday’s final against Allen was the perfect exhibition of the modern Ronnie. He gave Allen every ounce of respect, appropriate when facing the leading player on the one-year ranking list, hanging in and matching the Northern Irishman’s early pace to go to the interval at 2-2.

It was in the next four frames that O’Sullivan won this final, capitalising upon a blip in Allen’s concentration, which can often affect players in the longer tussles of ranking finals. Blistering long-potting and ramrod-straight cueing, a feature of his game since working with Steve Feeney and SightRight, combined with laser-like safety, saw O’Sullivan end the session 6-2 in front.

For those four frames, O’Sullivan never looked like missing, each shot culminating in the same thumping crescendo of ball on leather, as every red and colour cannoned the stitches in the back of the pockets.

The evening’s action from there seemed a formality, despite Allen’s best efforts to claw his way back into a match that, sadly for him, had been won and lost in the early afternoon.

Snooker’s greatest showman

Indeed, it felt as though O’Sullivan’s name was on the trophy all the way through the competition. The draw was kind to the world No.3, as players like Murphy, Ding and Trump fell by the wayside against less-fancied opposition. The timing was ripe for O’Sullivan to claim that 19th triple crown title which now puts him clear of Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry in terms of major titles won.

It is with that degree of objectivity that O’Sullivan can now lay claim to be snooker’s greatest player of all time. He has chipped away slowly at Hendry’s various records for many years, now eclipsing the Scot in century breaks, maximum breaks, and finally triple crown titles.

The last vestige of Hendry’s domineering legacy is his record of seven world crowns, where O’Sullivan still lags two behind.

The long-form, drawn out nature of the World Championship has been the Rocket’s kryptonite in recent years, having failed to progress beyond the last eight since he lost the final to Mark Selby in 2014. It could be argued that unless O’Sullivan can match that particular record, Hendry will always have the upper hand in terms of objective greatness.

However, what is clear to most, and even Hendry will admit this through slightly gritted teeth, is that O’Sullivan is the most naturally talented player to ever play the game. He is the most entertaining, the most enigmatic — a rollercoaster of a player who has thrilled for over 25 years and showing no signs of slowing down.

While Hendry, through his 10-year dominance of the sport in the 1990s, was perhaps the most feared and venerated cueman, O’Sullivan will always be the most awesome, in the truest sense of that word. From the five-minute maximum at the Crucible in 1997, to his majestic fifth world title in 2013 having not picked up a cue for the entire season, and now to his ongoing quest to reach 1,000 century breaks, the Rocket is the gold standard in snooker, and arguably of individual sport in general.

Fortitude

It is O’Sullivan’s newfound belief in his own abilities, and the greater appreciation of the blessings in life, that have brought about this recent reinvigoration and birthed the kind of mental resilience which was once the missing ingredient from his game.

His work with acclaimed sports psychologist Dr Steve Peters, along with his pursuit of other activities away from the table — cooking, running, writing to name a few — have given him a platform to truly enjoy the craft he loves once again. He is now longer worn down, but rather strengthened by the vicissitudes of sporting life.

“Now I just think, if I play rubbish, who cares? It’s history tomorrow. Look forward to the next one” — Ronnie O’Sullivan

His remarks in an interview with World Snooker after Sunday’s victory were a testament to that more hopeful attitude: “Before, if I didn’t play well, it was rubbish. Now I just think, if I play rubbish, who cares? It’s history tomorrow. Look forward to the next one.”

Such an approach breeds sustainability of one’s talents, and it is the longevity of O’Sullivan’s success that is most striking. To maintain such thrilling standards for 25 years is the mark of the most complete of sportsmen.

Although he makes headlines regularly with his at times ill-conceived comments – in York, these were about breaking away from World Snooker to set set up a rival tour – when you reduce snooker to its purest form, O’Sullivan is the finest exponent of this great sport the world has ever seen.

He is snooker’s rocket man, blasting through records one by one with singular power and beauty. It’s going to be a long, long time before we see another quite like him.

Inside the brilliant mind of football cartoonist David Squires

The worlds of football and cartoon satire are ones that never seemed likely to collide.

Football in comic form has always felt more at home in the cosy, feel-good clutches of Roy of the Rovers, or the abstract imagination and intelligence of You are the Ref. However, look in the Guardian on a Tuesday morning and you will find football and cartoon married in a uniquely hilarious and thought-provoking way.

David Squires is the man who finds himself at the centre of this cultural supernova. For the past four years, he has amassed an army of cult followers, united by their love of his rudimentary yet chillingly accurate portrayals of football’s big personalities.

He has just published his third book in two years, Goalless Draws, a collection of his own favourite and most acclaimed strips. Squires maintains the niche he has carved for his work is borne from a lifetime of drawing, rather than any kind of epiphanic realisation.

“There wasn’t really a Eureka moment,” he says, “I just never stopped drawing from childhood. I liked the feeling of making my friends laugh with my drawings, and continued making cartoons for their amusement throughout secondary school, usually on the subject of the more psychotic teachers and bullies at our school.

“As recently as 2014, I was still only drawing them for myself and the small group of people who followed my work on Twitter. Things took off for me during the World Cup that year, when I decided to draw a cartoon for each day of the tournament. People responded to it well, and at the end of the competition, The Guardian asked me to do some work for them in the following season, and here we are.”

It’s a journey that has its origins in his Wiltshire childhood. “When I was 15, the team I support – Swindon Town – were demoted two divisions for financial irregularities. I thought, and continue to think, that this was the greatest miscarriage of justice in human history.

“The first cartoon I had published was for the Swindon fanzine, The 69er, but I didn’t ever think I would end up drawing cartoons as a profession. It was just an outlet for me to express the way I felt about the game.”

Comic relief

Squires’ weekly contributions to The Guardian are generally a wry, satirical look at the past week in football. They have made fun of everything from the Fifa corruption scandal to English football’s at times overboard obsession with the poppy appeal, from Arsene Wenger’s departure from Arsenal to the growing pressure on Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. For Squires, keeping up with the news is hugely important.

“I always keep a notepad to hand, mostly to jot down references to news stories that might make good subjects for cartoons, rather than jokes themselves; although sometimes I’ll experience a bolt of inspiration, usually at an inconvenient hour of the night.

“On a good week, there will be a big news story that makes an obvious subject for a whole cartoon, but some weeks I’m forced to scratch around a bit more.”

Like every cartoonist, Squires has his personal favourite characters. It just so happens that they are real people, real personalities — which for him makes them all the more enjoyable to draw.

“The best people to characterise are those who have distinctive features and big personalities: Mourinho, Klopp, Allardyce, Harry Redknapp, and so on. This season, I’ve really enjoyed drawing Mauricio Sarri, who is so scruffy he could be a freelancer.

“The hardest people to draw are the conventionally handsome or those who behave themselves. There can be no place for rounded personalities on my drawing board.

“For a while, I struggled to draw Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe, so eventually I decided to depict him with a massive head. I’ve continued to do so, and people just seem to accept it now.”

Funny business

Squires is the kind of person to whom jokes come naturally. They swirl around his head like a swarm of bees, each one waiting for the opportune moment to escape. Even as he addresses my questions, his answers are littered with the kind of breezy quips and witticisms that define his work. Some of his jokes, he admits, are more abstract than others.

“I am aware that some of the cartoons contain fairly niche jokes and references,” he concedes. “I have been trying to make them less esoteric, or finding ways of explaining the reference within the text. However, there is usually someone in the online comments section who can point baffled readers in the right direction.

“My primary aim is to get the laughs”

“Last season, I based a cartoon on a Nike advert that it turned out only a handful of people had actually seen. But then, I’ve drawn parodies of Blade Runner and the John Lewis Christmas advert in the past and people have still complained that they don’t get it, which just goes to show that you can’t always please everyone.

“I usually start from the basis that the cartoons should be funny. Even if the topic is serious, I’ll try to use humour to draw attention to it. Naturally, not all subjects are appropriate for jokes, but on a regular week, if I’m just writing about the previous weekend’s football stories, my primary aim is to get the laughs.”

Indeed, some of Squires’ most popular and profound work has transcended mere humour, offering heartfelt and personal tributes to former sporting greats, not least Cyrille Regis and Graham Taylor.

“In those two cases, I was – to a certain extent – able to draw upon my own personal feelings, as both Taylor and Regis were prominent football figures when I first fell in love with football in the 1980s. In the immediate aftermath of their deaths, I also read a lot about what they had done for other people, principally supporters.

“More recently, I drew a cartoon about the deaths of five people in the helicopter crash at Leicester; club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha being among those who lost their lives. I thought seriously about whether this was an appropriate subject for a cartoon, before concluding that it was the biggest news story of the week, and to ignore it, or mention it in passing would be wrong.”

Does he approach those kind of works differently? “Obviously you can’t pack those sort of cartoons with zingers, but at the same time it would be inappropriate and insincere to be too mawkish. There is a fine balance.

“With the Leicester one, I again tried to think about the impact Vichai had had on the local community, and reflected upon the club’s astonishing Premier League title in 2016 – the helicopter crash being a tragic coda to that story.”

Painstaking process

For every finished cartoon, it’s easy to pass over the fact that hours of painstaking toil have gone into its inception. The process of creating one of Squires’ masterpieces is one that takes a great deal of dedication, as well as dependence and trust in his own creativity.

“I sit down on a Monday morning with the notes I’ve made over the previous 4-5 days and try to write a loose script with eight bullet points detailing what happens in each panel. Sometimes, I’ll have a clear idea about what will be in a panel, but more often, the bullet point will say something like: ‘joke about Mark Hughes.’”

“When I get to work on the cartoon itself, I’ll start with the panels I have the clearest vision of, and leave the vague ones to last. Over time, I’ve taught myself to trust my brain a bit more, and have faith that by the time I get to it, I’ll have thought of a joke about Mark Hughes, or dismissed it and come up with a better idea.

The challenge of producing content that is at once current, relevant and funny is one beset by a host of potential problems. Squires says that the news can be his worst enemy at times, as well as his best friend.

“There have been times when a big story breaks on a Monday night and I have to start from scratch. For example, when Cyrille Regis passed away earlier this year, I knew I’d have to bin what I’d drawn and start again. Not that I minded on that occasion, as Regis was a player who formed a big part of my childhood and I wanted to write about him.

“Monday night fixtures are a pain, and I sometimes think that Sky Sports and the Premier League don’t even think about cartoonists’ workloads when they are planning their broadcasting schedules.”

A fun job

Squires has been based in Australia since 2009. He says that living down under has presented its own set of challenges in writing and drawing about British football.

“I supposed I’m removed from the general noise about football that you experience in everyday life in England,” he says. “However, being over here means that I have to be more selective about what information I consume. There are only so many podcasts you can listen to and websites you can read.

“I often rely on social media to provide some direction as to the subjects people are talking about back home. Sometimes that can be a red herring, which is why the cartoons sometimes contain jokes that only make sense to a dozen people on Twitter.”

The Premier League is not the only footballing landscape Squires’ pencil has portrayed. He draws another weekly A-League cartoon for The Guardian Australia, and enjoys the role of the outlander.

“It is the feeling that I am able to use what I feel are my best skills”

“Despite living here for nearly a decade, I still feel like – and am probably seen as – an outsider. I definitely play on that when I’m working on those cartoons and readers generally seem to respond well to it. People like reading what an outsider thinks about them. Bill Bryson has done pretty well out of it.”

Over the course of four years working for The Guardian, and the painstaking ordeal of creating his first two books —a process Squires says left him feeling “like a Medieval monk who had dedicated his whole life to copying out long passages of scripture in a windswept cabin” — he will have produced hundreds of comic strips. Does he have a personal favourite?

“The first cartoon I drew for The Guardian is one that meant a lot to me. Typically, when it was first published, it contained a glaring typo, but I’m just about over that humiliation now. The cartoon that I most enjoyed drawing was the tribute to Johan Cruyff, in the days following his death in 2016.

“Spending a couple of days thinking about his impact and drawing images from his life story was one of the times where I stopped and allowed myself to think, ‘This is quite a fun job’.

It is from that point of truth that Squires appreciates how blessed he is to make a living doing something that he genuinely loves, and has a talent for.

“I suppose it is the feeling that I am able to use what I feel are my best skills. For years, I worked in jobs where that wasn’t the case, and I would often feel frustrated and depressed. I try to remind myself of this on the days when my shoulder hurts and I can’t think of any jokes about Mark Hughes.”

Buy David Squires’ latest book on Amazon hereYou can see his weekly Guardian cartoons here

Checkatrade Trophy: The graveyard of English football

The short walk from Charlton train station to The Valley is usually marked by the familiar, life-affirming buzz of match-going fans.

Normally, chants of support are carried from the station platform all the way to the turnstiles. Children yap excitedly about the forthcoming to their parents. Scents of pie and beer are borne by the breeze, along with the shouts of programme sellers and charity collectors.

But ahead of Tuesday’s Checkatrade Trophy match against the might of Swansea City U21s,  there is none of that. The footsteps of the few diehard supporters puncture the silence in the approach to the stadium, which stands illuminated against the November night. The masses which usually surround it are nowhere to be seen. Tonight, The Valley is a mecca to no-one.

Of course, none of this is remotely surprising. The Checkatrade Trophy, formerly the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, has been the bane of clubs’ and supporters’ lives since its change in format in 2016.

That restructuring allowed Premier League and Championship clubs to enter age-group teams in a tournament that used to be strictly the preserve of those in the third and fourth tier of English football. The addition of a group stage to what was once a purely knockout competition has eradicated the appeal of a straight forward cup tie.

Braving the cold

The empty concourses at The Valley spoke volumes

That said, the competition had, until this clash, thrown up some interesting occurrences for the Addicks. A club-record 8-0 win was notched up against Stevenage, while bizarrely, a supporter proposed to his girlfriend at half-time of the 2-2 draw with AFC Wimbledon.

But whatever interest or excitement in the competition that had been generated in those two matches is undone by the arrival of the U21s of Swansea, a club just one division above Charlton.

With just 740 supporters (28 of whom are dedicated Swans fans) descending upon the 27,000-capacity Valley, this match feels more like a pre-season friendly than a key, group-deciding EFL Trophy match.

Only a limited portion of the west stand is open. The rest of the stadium stands bare as the shouts of players, coaches, and referee rebound across the ground’s emptiness and reverberate. Occasional cries of ‘come on you Reds’ from the more eager home supporters float hopelessly into the cold, dark sky.

The players do little to spark the small crowd into life. Swansea dominate the early exchanges, displaying the kind of crisp passing football the club has become famed for, but without ever applying the finishing touch.

Charlton, who have named a team far from their strongest, hustle and bustle but produce little in the way of quality.

Addicks anonymous

At half-time, the sense of boredom among the spectators is notable. In theory, this is a competition that should excite. The chance to win silverware is one that doesn’t come around all that often. Why, then, can the club barely attract 700 to a match with much at stake? Charlton need to avoid defeat in order to progress, so why can the Addicks’ faithful not be bothered to leave the house and cheer on their side, despite the low ticket prices offered by the club? 

The EFL have devalued and debased a trophy that was once coveted

The answer lies in the fact that the EFL, in their bid to increase the competition’s appeal by adding U21 teams from the big, shiny, attractive Premier League clubs, have only served to devalue and debase a trophy that was once coveted.

It’s frankly perverse that the young talent of Chelsea or Southampton should be able to deny lower-league clubs the chance to compete in a cup final at Wembley.

Having said that, the appeal of playing at the national stadium is one that seems to diminish season upon season.

The overuse of Wembley — for cup finals, cup semi-finals, play-off finals, not to mention the fact that Tottenham have used it as their home stadium, and welcomed a number of lower league sides in various cup ties — has stripped the home of English football of its mystique.

In reality, an appearance on the Wembley turf is a far cry from the footballing holy grail the FA seeks to present it as. The chance to play there, for many clubs, will not be worth the ordeal of having to negotiate the various stages of the Checkatrade Trophy.

At The Valley, a 20-yard strike from Swansea’s Adnan Maric ultimately condemns Charlton to defeat, knocking them out of the tournament at the group stage.

It’s a match defined by indifference. Indifference from the players, indifference from Addicks’ manager Lee Bowyer and his staff, and indifference from the few supporters who have braved the cold. The simple and sad truth is that no-one cares about the Checkatrade Trophy.

Photo of The Valley concourse by Ben Sutherland via flickr , and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic