All posts by Marcus Hogg

East Midlands rivals battle to derby stalemate

Nottingham Forest and Derby County played out a first goalless draw since October 2002 in this hotly-contested 102nd East Midlands derby.

Despite almost 16 years having passed since that day, with 23 full- time managers between them and leagues swapped a handful of times, the passion of the rivalry remains, as confirmed by an attendance of nearly 30,000.

Before kick-off, the Upper Trent End was a sea of red and white as a massive banner of Giuseppe Garibaldi – nodding towards the founding of their colours – was erected, along with the words that read ‘The Garibaldi we wear with pride was made in 1865’ as the lower tier waved their scarves and flags to create a sight to behold.

The City Ground was rocking

Footage of Forest under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor was shown in a hair-raising and emotional showreel – whilst also stirring the Rams’ emotions of the great man also leading them to glory.

The atmosphere was electric as Mull of Kintyre blasted around the ground, with the players entering the pitch fully pumped up.

The scene was set for a thrilling Championship encounter. Unfortunately, the football that follows doesn’t always match the build-up.

Despite some meaty challenges, an intriguing battle ended in stalemate. Certainly no-one would have predicted a first 0-0 in a derby match at the City Ground since 1906.

“It’s been an emotional game, an emotional derby. I’m pleased because we’re improving,” said Forest boss Aitor Karanka, whose team are 15th in the table and unbeaten in six matches.

“I am pleased for our young players because of the way they’re improving.”

Pantilimon to the rescue

Forest made one change to their line-up as Lee Tomlin replaced Kieran Dowell in midfield, whilst Derby made two as Bradley Johnson and Ikechi Anya replaced the injured Joe Ledley, with Kasey Palmer dropping to the bench.

The opening was cagey and short of any real quality, with some heavy challenges from both sides as they battled to take control.

Andi Weimann saw a shot well blocked by Danny Fox, who was superb all afternoon, before Joe Lolley went on a surging run but his through ball just eluded Matty Cash for the home side.

Those two then linked up again, with the former whipping in a ball for the latter, but his header at the near post was too far in front of anyone.

As the game got into its rhythm, both sides had their chances, with Tom Lawrence flashing a shot wide before Tomlin found some space outside of the box but his shot was well off target.

Costel Pantilimon made a succession of vital saves in the 0-0 draw

Lawrence was booked for simulation, but Derby could have felt themselves unfortunate not to be ahead at the break.

Weimann got in behind Ben Osborn and his fierce shot was parried away by Costel Pantilimon, who the Reds were indebted to for keeping them level.

After his initial save, a combination of the Romanian and Tendayi Darikwa somehow kept Lawrence’s goal-bound effort out of the net.

The resulting corner was almost whipped all the way in by the former Leicester man, but Pantilimon was alert to push the ball out and away from danger as the two sides headed into the break level.

Rowett feeling the pressure

Forest failed to register a shot on target in the game, but they really should have done so with their best chance of the game shortly after the restart.

Cash hounded the Derby defence into a mistake just inside their half and played the ball through to Ben Brereton. The striker used his pace to power forward. The Trent End stood to their feet in unison, as they held their breath.

The 18-year-old should have shot and made himself the hero, but he instead chose to try and square to Cash who had continued his run, but his cut back was weak and allowed Scott Carson to gather, to the groans of the home fans.

He then rose highest to meet a cross, but under pressure he headed over.

With the Rams fifth in the table, without a win in six and only two victories in 2018, their automatic promotion hopes were fading – and they were looking over their shoulder of the chasing play-off pack.

With that in mind, they started to take control as they attempted to find an elusive winner.

Johnson’s powerful free-kick looked destined for the back of the net with 15 minutes left to play, but it was superbly blocked by the Reds wall.

Derby huffed and puffed, camping Forest in their own box. There were a few scrambles, but nothing every truly troubled the hosts’ back five.

Huddlestone saw red for Derby

With 81 minutes gone, the Rams were reduced to 10 men as Tom Huddlestone was given a second yellow for chopping down Tomlin after the on-loan Cardiff man had taken the ball past the midfielder.

It set up an interesting final few minutes, but the home side never looked like pressing home their numerical advantage.

Darikwa powered into the box, but his heavy touch resulted in him lunging into a tackle and giving away a free-kick. Ben Watson almost played in Daryl Murphy, but his through ball was just cut out.

The Rams’ disciplined defence dealt with everything thrown at them, and in the end both sides had to settle for a point.

At the end of the game, Rowett came onto the pitch to remonstrate with the referee about the sending off, before he, Watson and Tomlin had a little shoving match with the Rams gaffer clearly annoyed and displaying the signs of a man under pressure.

The managers’ thoughts:

“Forest have got nothing to lose in some ways, but they look to me very happy with a point,” said former Burton Albion and Birmingham manager Rowett.

“The fact is, Scott Carson had nothing to do all afternoon. We just couldn’t take our opportunities.

“I’m really pleased with the effort, just disappointed with the result.

“It’s another game where we’ve been the better team but we just can’t turn that draw in to a win.

“But the reality is, I’m not sure we could have done an awful lot more.”

Forest manager Karanka added: “We managed the game in the right way. Six weeks ago we weren’t a team. Now we feel a team. Now at least, once again, we are a team on the pitch.”

Teams:

Forest: Pantlimon, Darikwa, Figueiredo, Fox, Osborn, Watson (c), Colback, Cash, Tomlin, Lolley (Dowell 77′), Brereton (Murphy 85′)

Unused subs: Kapino, Mancienne, Bridcutt, Vellios, Worrall

Bookings: Colback 33′, Watson 75′, Figueiredo 79′, Darikwa 90′

Derby: Carson, Wisdom, Keogh (c), Davies, Forsyth, Huddlestone, Anya (Palmer 66′), Johnson, Weimann, Lawrence (Hanson 84′), Nugent (Jerome 66′)

Unused subs: Roos, Pearce, Thomas, Bogle

Bookings: Lawrence 28′, Huddlestone 78′, 81′

Sent off: Huddlestone 81′

Referee: Jeremy Simpson

Attendance: 29,106 (1,995 away)

 

 

‘Beardwell’s on fire, your support is very dire’

When Witham Town travelled to Grays Athletic in the Isthmian League Division One North clash they were backed by just one super fan – James Beardwell.

Beardwell, who has also appeared on Channel 4’s Undateables, made the journey hoping to spur his team onto victory in front of a 192-strong crowd as the only fan in away shed

Beardwell’s on fire…

Chants such as ‘Beardwell’s on fire, your support is very dire’ made him an internet hit, with fans such as Sky Sports presenter Chris Kamara praising him for his efforts.

But for the 34-year-old, born and raised in Witham, it was just another day supporting his beloved team.

“The Witham Town FC team means so much to me and I have shown my passion for the club,” he said.

 

“There are a few people go to matches home and away matches. But they don’t sing much and I was the only one singing the loudest, to make it sound as though there were hundreds of fans getting behind the team.

“Before the match I was getting ready to get behind the team and preparing my loud singing voice.”

Atmosphere

Beardwell, who has autism, said his support was vital, but says he wasn’t left red-faced in any way, also revealing the team were grateful for his backing.

“I didn’t feel embarrassed at all as I was singing loud as possible to create the atmosphere to sound like lots of fans singing for Witham.

“The players and the management team came over to clap and thank me for my loyal support after the final whistle whether we win, lose or draw.”

Trending

He also struck a chord with many fans for his unwavering support, including Eastenders actor Jake Wood who praised him on Twitter for his loyal backing. But the mega-fan says he was shocked at the level of support he received.

“I didn’t expect it as many people from the non-league scene know me very well.

“They’re aware of my level of support with lots of loud singing, to make it sound like hundreds, even thousand of fans are getting behind the team.

“It was nice, and I hope we can finish in the top 10 this season.”

Despite his staggering support, James’s Witham heroes went down 4-1 and languish in 17th position in the table.

James is on Twitter @undateables_jb

 

Unbeaten Hatfield reap benefits of Phillips’ relaxed approach

Hatfield Queen Elizabeth RFC head coach Gary Phillips said his side’s unbeaten run came from the massive improvements made after their narrow 19-18 opening day success over Tring 3rds.

The Roe Hill club have gone all season unbeaten in the Herts and Middlesex Merit Table 3, a run stretching to 11 league games and counting.

At any level of sport, going unbeaten is incredibly impressive, and the club have turned a massive corner on the pitch since Phillips came in during the summer. After edging to victory over Tring, Phillips went about making his team unbeatable.

Tactical improvements

He recalled: ‘’Our defensive line was static, we gave Tring so much time. We didn’t pressure them enough, so the first thing we did was work on that. Even if you’re shattered at the end, just two steps forward and it will put the scrums and fly halfs under pressure.

‘When we play Tring away [in the last game of season], I expect us to bloody kill them because we’ve come on leaps and bounds’ – Gary Phillips

‘’Another thing we learned from that game was that we weren’t observing what was going on ahead of us. So as they flooded forward we had nine defenders up against three or four attackers and four of five defenders up against nine or ten attackers, so that was the other major thing we learned.

“We needed to look up and observe what was going on better, and the lads took to that really, really quickly and now our defense is far harder to get past.’’

For 1st XV captain George Stone, now in his third year as skipper at the club, it’s all about what Phillips is doing off the pitch that has improved the side.

‘’I think it’s down to planning, communication and the players that came in. We worked a lot with regards to player retention and getting everyone on board. Everything has just come together at the right time for us.

“Gary is very good. He breaks things down very well and if things are going well he will tell us, but if not, he isn’t afraid to let us know.”

Learning and improving

The club has a fantastic campaign so far and sit top of the table, but Phillips says the team are hard on themselves as they strive to be better. ‘’We are self-critical but you can’t argue with an unbeaten start to the season.

‘’The games against Hendon and Enfield (which they won 12-38 and 47-0 respectively), there’s nothing you can take from them and you don’t really learn too much because the opposition didn’t really give us a game.

‘I think it’s about how you address the players and getting their belief up’ – Hatfield skipper George Stone

“The Tring game, in all fairness, they should have beaten us. Their kicker missed quite a few and we were lucky to scrape by. That was a huge learning curve for me as a coach, to see where we needed to make strides.

“We could see from the off where we needed to get better, but we were fortunate. When we play them away [in the last game of season], I expect us to bloody kill them because we’ve come on leaps and bounds.

“When you’re beating teams 30/40-0 you don’t learn anything. It’s pleasing as a coach to see a few things come off, but you don’t learn much.’’

Skipper Stone says: “I hoped that we would hold our own and give a good account of ourselves. I say to the boys every week, it doesn’t matter who we come up against, as long as we give our best and show what we can do.

“Personally, I haven’t done anything differently. I think it’s about how you address the players and getting their belief up. It doesn’t matter if we make mistakes or we don’t have the best players, it’s about that belief and carrying on.’’

International help

Phillips also runs his own coaching company outside of the club, something that he says is benefiting the team this season.

International coaching has helped Phillips

“I get to work with coaches from New Zealand, Samoa, South Africa, Fiji, Tonga etc. So I get an eclectic approach to the game. I’ve picked up loads from these guys who have coached at international level and as a coach you’re always learning.

‘’On a Saturday I don’t do too much. My job is in training, and when it comes to the matches, it’s down to the boys. In truth, the lads now have a lot of confidence. We played Luton 2nds after Christmas and for the first 40-50 mins we forgot how to play.

“We had a word, calmed down and then when back to what we do best. There was no panicking and there was a steel to the guys. They have huge confidence now.’’

Positivity

Chairman Toby Garrett brought the head coach in during the summer and said he has brought a great deal of positivity, which is not only reflected on the pitch but during training, too.

‘’I didn’t know I had brought any!” Phillips laughs. “I’m just a very positive person, that’s how I am. When I met Toby and George I said it’s all about enjoyment at this level, so I wanted to make training fun and have a laugh. We’re not going to be world beaters, we know our limitations.

“I tried to bring through a brand of through-the-hands rugby which is a break from the Hatfield tradition. We try to have a giggle at training, have fun and get dirty. We try things and if they don’t work it doesn’t matter. We have fun, which is the main thing.’’

Fitness

A ‘fair few’ beers are drunk after training

In sport, fitness is key. It means you can last the whole season and not fade, can last longer in matches, and pre-season is a core element that brings success. So for a team at the top of the table how key is it for Hatfield?

‘’Fitness is a major fault at this level. The fitter teams normally do better, but it’s hard,” Phillips said.

‘’A lot of the guys have families and children and the uni lads have a lot of work on, so we can ask them to go and do as much as we like, but we know our restrictions. We’re not out marching every night, it’s what you can do. The social side is doing well rather than running five miles and doing bleep tests.

‘’Mark Crystal is a fantastic club secretary and he puts in a lot of hard work. It’s a fantastic social club and at this level it’s all about having fun. They go down the pub after matches and training and a fair few beers are drunk.

“If fitness isn’t one of our strengths we will find a way around it. I’d love to go out and do a bit more – but it isn’t going to happen!’’

Stone added that it is more about squad unity than fitness and says they just control what they can.

‘’Whatever happens come April happens, we can only control what happens the hour and half on game days, from the moment we meet until the final whistle.’’

Belief

Hatfield play Tring in the final match the season, and with the two teams locked in the top two, it could be a winner takes all.

Phillips is confident they can win the league, whilst Stone says, no matter the final outcome, they have achieved this season.

The skipper said: ‘’I think we can win it. With the players we’ve got, the belief, the structure of the club right from the top with the committee to the fans we have the belief and we have a great feel good factor around the club.

“All we can do is keep performing. Win, lose or draw on the last day we’ve achieved and had a great season.’’

Phillips added: ‘’We’re confident we can win all the games. The last game of the season v Tring is a possible winner takes all. I’m trying to get the fellas to understand how to win games and how to exploit the opposition.

“The fitter teams normally do better at this level, but we have some great defenders and attackers. We want to win the league and we are hungry to do so.’’

Hatfield Queen Elizabeth RFC are on Twitter @HatfieldQEII

City Ground, Nottingham

Determined Karanka tackles winter of discontent at Forest

Nottingham Forest boss Aitor Karanka demonstrated his determination to turn the club’s fortunes around with a dynamic transfer deadline day.

Forest signed no fewer than six players on January 31st, with goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon, arriving on loan from Watford, and Iranian international free agent midfielder Ashkan Dejagah leading the way.

As the 11pm deadline neared, a string of captures was confirmed. Winger Joe Lolley was secured from Huddersfield Town for an undisclosed fee, whilst midfielder Lee Tomlin came in from Cardiff City in a loan swap deal with Jamie Ward moving in the opposite direction.

Newcastle’s Jack Colback agreed a loan, and fellow midfielder Adlene Guedioura of Middlesbrough also switched to the City Ground, returning to the club he left almost four years ago on a two-and-half year deal.

Ben Watson was expected to be the eighth signing of the window after his Watford contract was terminated, with The Reds having already secured Sporting Lisbon centre-back Tobias Figueiredo for the rest of the season.

Algerian international Adlene Guedioura was one of seven January signings

Forest did suffer some frustration in their bid to sign former academy graduate Michael Dawson. Now 34, he started his career at Forest before moving to Tottenham in 2005, and reportedly was in Nottingham to sign a two-and-a-half year deal.

However, Dawson’s parent club Hull City blocked the move, although he could still sign in the summer as a free agent.

24 hours is a long time…

So why the late flurry of transfer activity on the banks of the River Trent?

Just 24 hours, earlier Forest fans has been left embarrassed and distraught by their team’s abject 3-0 loss at home to Preston. Karanka, appointed on January 8th, called it the “worst moment” of his career.

The Spaniard questioned the commitment of the players, and showed his desire to bring success back to Forest with his ruthless deadline day dealings.

For the first time in a long time, an uncompromising message was sent to the squad: you either want to play for this club or you can go.

And it seems some did want to go, with Mustapha Carayol moving to Ipswich having had his contract terminated, Portsmouth snapping up Stephen Henderson on loan, and Matt Mills leaving to join Barnsley.

Ward went as part of the Tomlin swap deal, and Tyler Walker and Zach Clough both made loan moves to Bolton Wanderers.

The squad was too big, and chopping and changing between so many players meant inconsistency. Karanka has attempted to cut out the deadwood while adding quality.

For all the talk of Forest’s revolving door for managers in recent seasons, it had become apparent to supporters that it’s the players on the pitch who were bringing the club down.

Ben Osborn apologised on Twitter for the Preston shambles, but not many of his team-mates seemed to care as they succumbed in dismal fashion – and not for the first time this season.

Substandard

Karanka has pledged to revive the two-time European champions, and is setting about changing the entire ethos at the club.

The former Real Madrid defender has shown he will not stand for excuses and poor performances – perhaps unlike his predecessors.

‘Karanka can see the issues and he isn’t afraid to address them, as his mass overhaul has shown’

Not since 2011, when Forest twice finished in the play-offs in two seasons under Billy Davies, have The Reds had a really good campaign, and they flirted with a disastrous relegation to League One last year.

Supporters wanted to see a team making progress under Mark Warburton this season, but in truth Forest weren’t good enough, with too many at the club seemingly accepting it.

New leadership

A lot of these problems originated under former owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi, but it looks as if his successor Evangelos Marinakis is serious about solving them.

Karanka can see the issues and he isn’t afraid to address them, as January’s mass overhaul has shown.

Forest also rebuffed a £12m offer from Burnley for star defender Joe Worrall – something that probably would have been accepted under the old regime.

That defiance was welcomed by the fans, as is Karanka’s no-nonsense style. He knows how to get promoted, as he did with Middlesbrough, and it seems he will do whatever he feels necessary to get Forest contending for a place in the top flight.

It seems Forest have finally got the right manager – and one who will return the club’s ethos to a winning mentality.

Feature image courtesy of Diego Sideburns via Flickr Creative Commons

Neville’s appointment shows the FA in yet more bad light

Phil Neville was appointed as England women’s manager this week – but just days into his new role, he’s been embroiled in a sexism scandal.

Despite the 41-year-old having no previous managerial experience, he was made Lionesses head coach up to the European Championship in 2021.

Many people’s misgivings about him getting the job were further fuelled when old tweets of a sexist nature posted by Neville came to light.

The former Manchester United and Everton defender has apologised for any offence these caused and deleted his Twitter account.

But the FA’s stance – deciding that the tweets in question did not meet its “threshold” to be worthy of punishment – sends out the wrong signals for all sorts of reasons.

One of these it that the governing body’s attitude will surely torpedo the likelihood of a gay male professional footballer deciding to come out any time soon.

Sexist tweets

Neville found himself in the dock in a trial by social media over tweets posted a while back.

One said: “When I said morning men I thought the women would have been busy preparing breakfast/getting the kids ready/making the beds – sorry morning women!”

Another made light of domestic abuse, saying: “Relax – I’m back chilled – just battered the wife!!! Feel much better now!”

Neville’s supporters will argue that he meant both to be light-hearted, no matter how ill-judged they now appear.

According to The Guardian, FA bosses already knew about the tweets – and yet still chose to appoint the former United and Valencia coach.

But what does that say about the FA’s stance on dealing with abuse within the sport?

Sampson was sacked after the Aluko scandal

Misconduct

One thing is crystal clear – after the Mark Sampson/Eni Aluko scandal, in which the former England women’s boss was alleged to have racially abused the Chelsea striker – the FA needed its next appointment to be sound.

Having been warned about Sampson’s misconduct in a previous job, he was hired and had a successful stint in charge.

But when Aluko’s allegations were made public, the FA was heavily criticised for appointing him in the first place and seeking to cover up the row by making a payment to the player in return for a non-disclosure agreement.

Now that the FA has said it will not charge Neville with any offence, it’s clear that its policy for dealing with abuse is flimsy, if not downright weak.

Neville has argued that the episode “doesn’t reflect” his character, but plenty of people feel it makes him unsuitable to lead England, on top of his lack of managerial experience and knowledge of the women’s game.

Of course people can change, and these tweets were five years ago. However, allowing someone who has been so derogatory into a top job, on the back of what happened previously, isn’t wise of the FA.

Support and protection

The FA’s approach is, at best, confused. In 2016, for example, it handed then-Burnley striker Andre Gray a four-match ban over homophobic tweets he posted in 2012.

But even taking that into account, would a gay player look at the FA and trust it to offer support and protection if they decided to come out?

Whoever becomes the first elite footballer to confirm publicly that they are gay will need a strong FA to deal with the abuse they would surely – and sadly – receive.

That’s why we probably won’t see it happen in the near future. Who wants to be the guinea pig for how the FA would handle the situation?

Kick in the teeth

The FA have undermined women’s football

Neville’s appointment is also a kick in the teeth for women’s football. Surely there had to be someone out there far more qualified that him?

He’s using the job – and the women’s game – as a stepping stone to further his career, and that is wrong.

He never applied initially and was last choice behind Chelsea’s Emma Hayes, Manchester City’s Nick Cushing, ex-Arsenal coach Laura Harvey and Canada’s John Herdman, who all reportedly pulled out of the running.

Of course, it’s not the most left-field appointment they could have made. He does, after all, have vast experience in football and has a winning mentality.

But he would be nowhere near a job in men’s football, let alone the national job. It’s belittling to the female game that he has been chosen.

He never should have been picked, based on his lack experience and his sexist remarks. Once again, the FA has made a real mess of things.

The Valley

Charlton in the play-offs? Not unless Duchatelet sells up

Roland Duchatelet needs to sell Charlton Athletic – and before the end of month – if the Addicks are to achieve a top-six finish in League One.

The team currently occupy the final play-off place following back-to-back wins against Oldham and then away at Bury. But those wins came after a torrid end to 2017 which saw their grasp on the play-off positions weakened.

Before their win against the Latics on January 6th, Charlton had collected just three points from a possible 24, losing six times in a damaging run from the end of November.

Following their 2-1 victory over Rochdale at The Valley on November 21st Karl Robinson’s men sat fourth in the table, just five points off the automatic promotion places.

But now they find themselves in a battle just to ensure they are in the play-offs mix at the end of the season.

Duchatelet needs to do a deal

CEO Katrien Meire left the club last month to take up a similar role at Sheffield Wednesday.

As Duchatelet’s right-hand woman, fans disliked her almost as much as their Belgian owner, whose four-year tenure has been hugely unpopular among the Valley faithful.

Reports suggested he was upset about Meire’s departure and ready to cut his losses and move on.

Roland Duchalet
Charlton owner Roland Duchatelet

But whilst he plays hard ball over his asking price for the former Premier League outfit, he is significantly damaging their prospects of success.

With the club up for sale, Duchatelet is refusing to sanction spending during the January transfer window.

However, he was happy to see 2016-17 player of the season Ricky Holmes – who has scored six goals so far – sold to Sheffield United for around £400,000, while blocking a move by Samir Curruthers in the other direction.

So Charlton lose one of their best players and aren’t allowed to buy a replacement, even as their promotion rivals are strengthening their squads.

Robinson has already stated he had four or five targets who were ready to sign in SE7 but deterred by Charlton’s current situation.

That’s why Duchatelet must sell quickly if a new owner is to come in and fund the deals Robinson needs to strengthen his side.

If they don’t, then Charlton will struggle to gain promotion and be doomed to spending at least another season in the third tier.

Injuries and slump

A succession of injuries was a major factor in Charlton’s mid-season slump. First teamers Holmes, Jason Pearce, Tariqe Fosu, Ahmed Kashi, Mark Marshall, Jake Forster-Caskey and Patrick Bauer, amongst others, have all been injured at various stages.

Lewis Page, Leon Best and Billy Clarke are all sidelined for the remainder of the campaign, leaving Robinson with a huge headache.

Manchester City managed Pep Guardiola recently bemoaned having a couple of injuries in his star-studded title-chasing squad, so imagine how hard it must have been for Robinson.

No club would have been able to keep up a viable promotion challenge while dealing with that kind of mid-season injury crisis.

Vital January

That is why January is so important for former MK Dons boss Robinson – it gives him a chance to bolster a squad already stretched to the limits.

The only issue with that is that he can’t – at least surely not in a way that will significantly impact on his team’s fortunes.

Yes, Charlton have managed to bring in Stephy Mavididi on loan from Arsenal, with the 19-year-old striker scoring the winner on his debut against Oldham.

But they can’t bring in anyone in permanently whilst Duchatelet is pursuing the sale of the club, as he won’t agree to finance it.

Reports have suggested that an Australian-based consortium, as well as a group of British buyers, are interested in taking over from him at the Valley.

For Charlton’s long-suffering supporters, any deal that sees Duchatelet cutting his ties with the South London club can’t come a moment too soon…

Feature image courtesy of adam.webb2 via Flickr Creative Commons.

Australian Open 2018 preview

The Australian Open serves up the first Grand Slam action of the year when it gets underway on January 15th, but the question is: who will actually be playing?

The build-up to the tournament has been been hit with with major pull-outs and injury scares.

Britain’s Andy Murray has undergone hip surgery and is out of action until the summer, whilst Serena Williams – eleven months on from winning her seventh Melbourne title – will also be missing, having had her first child in September.

Victoria Azarenka, who won the title in 2012 and 2013, will also be missing as a legal custody battle over her son continues.

Djokovic returns after an injury-hit 2017

World No.1 and last year’s runner up Rafael Nadal is by no means a certainty to play down under, with a knee injury that has been hampering the Spaniard since the end of last year. He is, at least, in Melbourne and due to play a Tie-Breaks Ten in preparation.

Novak Djokovic, six-time winner of the Australian Open, is also a doubt. He missed the last six months of 2017 with a persistent elbow injury and will use a couple of exhibition tournaments to see if he is fit enough.

Last year’s Wimbledon winner Garbine Muguruza is 50/50 after pulling out of the Brisbane tournament with intense cramp.

Britain’s female leading light Johanna Konta is also a doubt after pulling out of the Brisbane event with a hip injury, although the 26-year-old did play in Sydney this week, but was knocked in the first round.

With no Murray, as well as Dan Evans serving a drugs ban and Aljaz Bedene swapping his nationality to Slovenia, Kyle Edmund is Britain’s best hope of male success.

The 23-year-old made the second round last year, but has a tough first round tie against US Open finalist Kevin Anderson, who has beaten Murray and Milos Raonic.

Defending champion Roger Federer starts his defence against Bedene. Nadal starts his run with a match against veteran world No.83 Victor Estrella Burgos.

Djokovic faces Donald Love, whilst last year’s semi-finalist Raonic faces world number 44 Lukas Lako. Stan Wawrinka, the 2014 winner, plays Ričardas Berankis. Home hopes rest on Nick Kyrigos, who encounters Rogério Dutra da Silva

In the women’s section, Konta faces American world No.92 Maddison Brengle, whilst Heather Watson meets 50th-ranked Yulia Putintseva. Last year’s runner-up Venus Williams takes on Belinda Bencic.

Favourites

Since 2011, Serbian Djokovic has won five titles down under, but with injury plaguing him since last year, this tournament may come too soon for him. He is 5/1, as is last year’s runner-up Nadal.

No surprises then that the favourite is Federer. The 19-time Grand-Slam winner had one of the best season’s of his career in 2017 as he claimed both the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles.

He has been injury free, playing well in the run-up unlike his aforementioned rivals and he is 7/4 to retain his crown. Federer’s Swiss compatriot Wawrinka, who made the semi-finals last year, has also been troubled by injuries and he is 25/1.

Raonic has made the quarter-finals three years in a row and has a better winning percentage than at any other tournament. This year could be the year he goes all the way and he is 50/1 to win.

Jack Sock is a dark horse contender

There’s always an underdog to be fancied and this year it is Jack Sock, the world No.8.

He’s never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam, but having won his maiden Masters 1000 title in Paris, he reached his highest ranking and made an appearance at the ATP World Tour finals, beating Marin Cilic and World number 4 Alexander Zverev en route to the semi-finals. He is a dark horse at 80/1.

In the women’s draw – and without Serena Williams creating a massive obstacle – it could finally be the time for Simona Halep the break her Grand Slam duck.

The World No.1 hasn’t made it past the quarters in Melbourne and has lost in two French Open finals, but is in good form and a decent 8/1 shot.

World No.4 Elina Svitolina is 17/2, while and sixth-ranked Karolina Pliskova is 9/1.

Caroline Wozniacki is world No.2 for the first time since 2011 and won the WTA finals in Singapore at the end of last season. She goes in as one of the favourites at 10/1.

Venus Williams (22/1) will look to have a strong tournament again and without her younger sister in the way she may just be a strong force even at the age of 37. The 2016 winner Angelique Kerber is 11/1 to win again.

Sloane Stephens won the US Open last year, but hasn’t won a match since and doesn’t look like rediscovering the sort of form that would make her a contender. She is priced at 40/1 accordingly, while Keys, who she beat at Flushing Meadows, is 22/1.

One big name that shouldn’t be overlooked is Maria Sharapova, who has earned direct entry into the competition for the first time since her drugs ban. The 2008 winner has the experience and ability to go all the way and is 12/1.

Prize money

The men’s and women’s winners receive a cheque for £2.32m, whilst the runner-up gets £1.16m. Semi-finalists get £509k. Quarter-finalists earn £255k, whilst round one still pulls in a cool £28.9k.

Last year

The 2017 version was all about old rivals blossoming and romantic tales. For the first in a final since the 2011 French Open, Federer and Nadal faced one another again.

Despite the Spaniard having won more matches against the Swiss, it was Federer who prevailed in one of the best finals Australia has seen. In a topsy-turvy match, lasting three hours and 38 minutes, Federer won his 18th Slam.

He took the first set 6-4, but Nadal levelled up with a 3-6 win. Four-time winner Federer then took the third 6-1, before the now World No1 again took the fourth set 3-6. It came down to the final set, but with the crowd willing him on Federer took his first Grand-Slam in five years as he won it 6-3.

He went onto to triumph in SW19 in the summer, whilst a rejuvenated Nadal claimed the French and US Open.

Sisterly love? Serena Williams showed how ruthless she is to claim a record breaking 23rd Grand Slam and her seventh down under. She took the first set 6-4 in just 41 minutes against Venus repeated the score in the second to wrap up a relatively easy win.

Whilst Serena took time off on maternity leave, for Venus it was more disappointment as she lost 7-5 6-0 in the Wimbledon final to Muguruza.  

Australia’s hope: Nick Kyrigos

Kyrigos will fly the flag for the hosts

With Bernard Tomic claiming he was ‘’bored’’ at Wimbledon last year, his home fans have hardly been endeared by him.

After refusing to give him a wild card and Tomic not wanting to go down the qualifying route, their hopes rest on another turbulent performer, Kyrgios.

A talented player, the 22-year-old’s temperament has got him into much trouble on numerous occasions and he has admitted to giving up mid-match in the past.

He was fined last October for walking off during a Masters match in Shanghai with no explanation – the second year in a row he was reprimanded for his misdemeanours at the competition.

No doubt a supremely gifted athlete when he focuses, he has only made it to quarters once in his home country (in 2015) and hasn’t made it past the third round of a Slam since 2016. It’s hard to imagine he will cause an upset.

Prediction

Despite the return of Djokovic and Nadal, they’re not 100% fit and so I can only predict another win for a resurgent Federer.

There were remarks his career were coming to an end, but a sincilating 2017 saw him quash those who doubted him and I fancy him to win again down under.

The female draw is always so much harder to predict. Unlike the men’s side that is so vastly dominated by the Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray, literally anything can happen in the women’s game.

And with Serena missing, I think it’s time for Halep to deliver. Now World No.1, she is in good form and I think she will win her first Grand-Slam in Melbourne, although I wouldn’t rule out both Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams being surprise contenders.

Overall, though, I think Federer and Halep will prevail as winners.

Justin Gatlin should be handed life-time ban

Justin Gatlin is once again in the headlines for the wrong reasons, after his coach and agent have come under an athletics ant-doping investigation.

Convicted doper Dennis Mitchell – who coached Gatlin until his dismissal on Monday – and agent Robert Wagner were caught out by a Telegraph investigation after they were seen to be offering to supply and administer performance-enhancing drugs to an actor.

Abuse of power

The fact Mitchell – who was banned for showing high levels of testosterone in 1998 by the International Association of Athletics (IAAF) – is allowed to coach is a disgrace. If you’re banned for breaking the laws of the sport, there’s no way you should be able to hold a role of power – because they will abuse it, as it seems with Mitchell.

It’s a view shared by many of those within the sport. Retired Team GB sprinter and Olympic gold medallist Darren Campbell said in an interview with the Telegraph: “Why are these people allowed to stay in the sport? The only way we are going to be able to move forward as a sport and create clarity is if they are no longer involved.”

Jessica Ennis-Hill’s former coach Tony Minichiello added, “I think you should get one strike and then you are out. I don’t think the rules go far enough. When they ban athletes they don’t then look at who the coach is or where they got the drugs from. Agents and coaches should be as culpable.”

Commonplace

Both are absolutely right. If you allow cheats back into the sport then naturally they have a mindset to try and get around the rules – they may well have a good knowledge of how to do it – and then they will help their athlete to do so.

Coaches should be held more accountable, because they are the ones in control and should be advising their stars. If they give them a drug, it’s highly unlikely the athlete will turn down their advice. One strike should mean you are out.

Although claimed to be surprised Gatlin is surprised by the allegations against Mitchell and denies taking any PEDS – his former drugs tests are now being rerun.

The reason I think he should be banned for life and stripped of his titles is the following quote from agent Wagner given during the Telegraph’s investigation, claiming using PEDS is commonplace. “You think Justin is not doing this? Do you think Dennis wasn’t doing this? Everybody does it.” This is a clear indication that Gatlin has, once again, broken the rules surely?

Disrepute

Not only that, it shows that athletics is rife with athletes trying to cheat the system.

This is not the first time Gatlin has taking banned substances. He was stopped from competing in 2001 after testing positive for amphetamines, again being banned in 2006 after testing positive for testosterone.

“You think Justin is not doing this? Do you think Dennis wasn’t doing this? Everybody does it” – Robert Wagner

He’s broken the rules twice and yet is allowed back in? That’s a disgrace and brings disrepute to the sport. It’s athletes like Gatlin who tarnish athletics and they shouldn’t be allowed to return.

Gatlin was booed at the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London after beating Usain Bolt to 100m gold – a clear sign of what people think of him and what he’s done.

People don’t want cheats back in the sport. Wagner has been linked to controversial athletes, including Kim Collins who tested positive for Salbutamol in 2002.

“It’s athletes like Gatlin who bring the sport down and they shouldn’t be allowed back in.”

It’s quite clear that those three are trying to break the rules and they are probably not the only ones.

If Lord Coe – chairman of the IAAF and former Olympic champion athlete, as well as a long-term campaigner for giving cheats a life-time ban – wants an all-level sport then he must act.

If an athlete, or indeed their coach or agent, is seen to give or take PEDS or any other banned substances then they should be banned for life. Only then will we see a respectable sport without the whispers of cheating.

Valley return ‘biggest game in Charlton’s history’ – Scott Minto

December 5th, 1992 – 3.07pm. It’s a date and time that will be forever etched in the memory of every Charlton fan.

With a crisp left-footed shot, Colin Walsh fired past Portsmouth goalkeeper Alan Knight to score the first goal following the Addicks’ emotional return to The Valley.

They had spent seven years away from their home in SE7, struggling to survive as a club and playing at other grounds whilst their own fell into disrepair.

“There have been some great days in Charlton’s history, but that Portsmouth match is the biggest game,” says former Addicks full-back Scott Minto.

“I’ve played in some big matches, played in front of 80,000 people more than once, but the atmosphere on that day was something different, it was just fantastic – we wanted to win.

‘’We were relieved to win, because we wanted to do it for the fans; it was a reward for them. If we had lost it wouldn’t have been a disaster because it was the first game back at The Valley, but we were delighted to win. We had a great night that evening – a few sore heads – it was a great feeling.’’

Selhurst exile

Minto, 46, now working as a pundit for Sky Sports, arrived at Charlton as a trainee in 1988 – but had to play with his side away from their spiritual home.

Despite having England’s biggest stand in the shape of the old East Terrace, which held up to 30,000 in the 1960s, by 1977 the stadium was in a forlorn state and, due to the Safety at Sports Grounds Act, The Valley’s capacity was reduced to 20,000.

Four years later it was reduced again to 13,000 and in 1985, in wake of the Heysel disaster, Charlton could not afford repairs that were required by the Greater London Council, with the East Terrace declared unsafe and closed.

Rob Lee scored Charlton’s last goal at The Valley as they beat Stoke 2-0 before the Addicks moved to Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park to play their home matches.

The Valley became derelict while Charlton played in exile from SE7

‘’I was just a young 14 or 15 year old when Charlton moved away, so I was used not to playing at The Valley. I was used to playing at Selhurst Park,’’ says Minto. ‘’I was just a professional playing – I would have played in a mud park. I always gave 100% no matter what.

‘’There wasn’t the greatest of terms between Charlton and Crystal Palace.

‘’There was always talk of The Valley and us going back. It was only on the day of going back that I really understood the identity of The Valley and what it meant to everyone connected with the club.’’

Valley party

With the club struggling at Selhurst Park, The Valley Party was formed in 1990. Fans contested seats in the local elections with the aim of getting the support they needed to move back to SE7.

No seats were won, but with around a 15,000-strong backing, the council had to take notice. The chairman of the council’s planning committee was deposed, and planning permission for redevelopment was granted.

Thousands of fans turned up to The Valley to help clear the derelict ground as they made it clear they wanted to return home.

“The fans are everything – we must never forget that,” says Minto, who played over 200 times for the Addicks before leaving for Chelsea in 1994.

“Clubs, owners, even players sometimes forget the supporters. There was 8,000 on the day – full capacity – and they generated an amazing atmosphere. It was all for the fans and we must never forget the role they played. I am very proud to have been a part of the match.’’

In August 1991, Charlton moved to West Ham’s Upton Park. “We were just concentrating on playing football. We knew behind the scenes something was happening, but the manager [Alan Curbishley] kept us focused,’’ said Minto. “I was still young, but we all wanted to get back to The Valley.’’

Going home

Charlton went into that first game back at The Valley in poor form, slumped in mid-table in Division One. Their aim was three points and while Minto says they were concentrating on the football, they knew it wasn’t just another game as 750 fans marched from Woolwich Town Hall to mark the occasion.

“We were concentrating on playing, we knew we had to win. The atmosphere was just something incredible. We had trained there a few days before and the cameras were turning up to training – it was something I’d never seen before.

‘We were home and it was so important and special’ – Scott Minto

“We were still in portacabins and although the pitch was fantastic we weren’t sure if everything else was going to be okay.

“It was almost like an away game in terms of having never played there before. I didn’t feel much of it up until the warm-up. But as I was doing up my shin pads and getting ready I could hear this heavy music – almost like a fairground. There was so much razzmatazz, with balloons going off – and it was then I realised the enormity.

‘’We really wanted to win it and it wasn’t the greatest of games, but we did it. We were home and it was so important and special.’’

25 years on

The Valley is now a 27,000 capacity stadium

Coincidentally, Charlton’s opponents for Saturday’s anniversary fixture is Portsmouth. The Valley is now a 27,00 capacity stadium, and Minto is looking forward to going back. 

‘’I’m really excited,’’ says Minto. ‘’I was going to West Ham v Chelsea, but I’ve cancelled that to be in SE7.

‘’I think Charlton are doing really well and Robbo [manager Karl Robinson] knows the division inside out and has brought in much-needed stability. He’s a good guy and I’m really pleased for him.

“I’d love to see Charlton in the top two [automatic promotion spots], but there’s some great teams, and top six would be a success.

“The club has made some mistakes in the last few years, there’s been chaos and it hasn’t been Charlton. So we need to pull together as one and I think this season could be a great one.’’