All posts by Joseph McKay

Q&A with BT Sport presenter Jules Breach

It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon in February. Britain is experiencing its ‘Indian Winter’ and I’m walking to the Market Place Bar in London’s Fitzrovia to meet sports presenter Jules Breach, fresh off the train from Liverpool.

I’ve known Jules for just over a year and I’ve been able to see her grow as a TV presenter but also as a person. I wanted to interview her to get her own insight into her life and hear her views and opinions on challenges in presenting sport as a female.

As I arrive, she’s got a little suitcase and is wearing a tiger print shirt, which makes her even easier to spot in a relatively empty bar.

She orders a hibiscus and peach tea and is frustrated at me when I paid the bill for the drinks.

 As a child you were pretty well travelled: has this helped with the travel now involved with your job?

“I was born in Brighton then moved to Mauritius when I was six months old, then I moved back to England when I was about five, and then moved to Jamaica when I was eight. I moved back to Brighton when I was 15 to stay with my aunty and uncle as the schools were better here.

“Definitely, I look back at my whole life and see that it’s just preparing me for what’s to come.

“It’s funny. I never imagined I would be working in football when I was 15, I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. I loved journalism, I loved TV, I loved performing but I never knew that it would be a career when I was 15.

“I was playing tennis at quite a high level and I still had dreams of being a professional athlete for a living in that just didn’t work out.”

Moving to the UK without your parents: how was that?

 “It was terrifying. My mum slightly bribed me by telling me that I could be my only female cousins’ best friend and that we’d share a room together. We had a little den in the third-floor attic conversion and it was great!

“I did miss my parents and it wasn’t like it is today where you can Facebook, WhatsApp or Skype all the time. We genuinely wrote letters and the phone calls were only every so often. It was a different world to what it is now.

“It was hard at the time, but whenever people ask me about that period of my life I didn’t know any other way. It is just normal that I didn’t live with my mum and dad and we lived on the other side of the world.”

You work regularly on the Premier League, you’ve covered a World Cup, you work on the sidelines at Champions League games and done some presenting at the Rugby World Cup. What’s next? The Cricket World Cup – I ask as a bit of a joke…

“Funnily enough, I am actually doing something for the Cricket World Cup but just for a charity. I’ve recently become an ambassador for Street Child United; it’s a phenomenal charity that helps street children through their love of sport.

“They have a really big presence in the Philippines, which is where my family are originally from, so it’s a really lovely thing for me to be involved.

“They have some amazing people that are coming over to play at Lords Cricket Ground in the summer, so I’ll be there with the charity and hopefully help raise money and awareness and play a little bit of cricket. Obviously, I have no idea how to play cricket, but I’m so excited – it’s going to to be great fun.

“To work at the Champions League final is definitely on my bucket list – I don’t know if it’s going to happen this season, so fingers crossed.

“On a serious note, I just want to keep enjoying myself. I know it sounds cheesy! But I just want to work and have fun and enjoy my job.”

You host BT Sport’s Score programme with Mark Pougatch. What has working with him been like?

“Mark Pougatch has been an absolute legend to me. Before I worked with him, I knew Mark from his radio work, and he has been the most incredible person to work with.

“He is so helpful and is so understanding. He’s worked in this industry for a long time but he was paired with someone who is completely new to it, but yet he has so much patience and understanding with me. He’s always wanting to help me in every different area of our work.

“It was an insane achievement for me to go from a screen test to actually getting the job, and then work with Mark, and for him to kind of mentor me has just been amazing.”

Recently, female football pundits have faced sexist abuse from trolls online. What has been your experience with this?

“Whenever I saw these Twitter trolls, the small-minded people, I have kind of always just let them go over my head

“Rachel Brown-Finnis did that piece on BT Sport and it really got to me. It upset because it was such an attack personally on her and because I know her, and I know how great she is and how phenomenal her knowledge of the game is.

“It’s just wrong and unfair that those kinds of opinions still exist in this day and age.

“She didn’t deserve it, and BT Sport decided to have a piece on the abuse female pundits get, only for it to be greeted by more abuse.

“One thing that’s nice is working for BT Sport as they are one of the channels that want to give more women an opportunity to work in different sports.”

Before we leave, I make her promise me that she’ll take me to the World Cup Final in Qatar in 2022 as the final will be held on my birthday. She laughs and says she will.

Feature image courtesy of BT Sport.

What’s next for British tennis?

In the early part of this decade, the likes of Andy Murray and Laura Robson were making waves in tennis.

However, with Murray’s career now tailing off after injury problems, where is British tennis heading and will we need to wait a further 70 years for another grand slam victory?

Great Britain’s Davis Cup win in 2015 was one of the highlights of Murray’s career, with GB winning the competition for the first time since 1936.

Without the three-time slam winner and double Olympic gold medallist fighting so hard for every point across the doubles and singles matches, GB wouldn’t even have reached the final.

But where is the new Murray as the old one edges closer to retirement following his latest round of hip surgery?

There have always been problems in cultivating the raw talent of young tennis players in the UK and turning them into champions.

Too much choice? 

One reason for this could be the number of sports that are accessible to British children. At high school in Scotland, I played not only tennis but, football and dabbled in rugby and boxing.

If British youngsters were able to focus on one sport instead of many they would be able to refine the skills that are needed to be successful at tennis. Murray and younger sibling Jamie started playing at around the age of four and tennis was their focus.

Another big issue is cost. For example, to rent an indoor court in Edinburgh – and it needs to be indoor because it rains a lot in Scotland – for an under-16 is £7.50 an hour. The only indoor courts that are owned by the council are six miles from the city centre and are hard to get to by public transport.

Such factors don’t help Scotland’s search for the next Murray, and young players across the UK – particularly those from poorer backgrounds – face similar problems.

Who do you play against?

Murray moved to Spain at the age of 14 so that he could compete against some of the best players in his age group. Among those he faced as a teenager were Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

But in Britain, the national tennis centre is in Roehampton, an expensive suburb of south-west London.

National Tennis Centre

Can the Lawn Tennis Association realistically move the best young talents away from their homes in their early teens and coach and train them at this facility?

Yes, but it remains an under-utilised resource because of its location and the financial costs of accommodating these future stars.

Spain has one of the best youth tennis set-ups with high-quality academies around the country, constantly pitting the most talented youngsters against each other.

There is no surprise that they generally have at least 10 male players in the top 100 at any given time.

Tennis on TV

The LTA has launched various initiatives in recent years with the aim of capitalising on Murray’s success and International profile.

The Scot has inspired thousands of children to pick up a racquet and give tennis a go. But there is a problem in maintaining their initial enthusiasm.

Tennis on TV has increasingly become something you need a subscription to watch. Wimbledon continues to be screened by the BBC but other events have migrated to Sky Sports and, more recently in the case of the US Open, Amazon Prime,

If the UK wants to produce more top players, tennis surely has to be more accessible. British kids can’t fall in love with a sport they can’t see.

Other players carrying the torch

Murray has not been doing it all on his own in recent years. For starters, brother Jamie has won several grand slam titles as a doubles player.

Laura Robson, the winner of the Wimbledon Junior title in 2008, looked on course for the top but has only played a handful of matches since 2016 after wrist and hip surgery.

Heather Watson is another player who seemed destined for great things but has been derailed by persistent poor form, whilst Johanna Konta’s issues with building on her Wimbledon and Australian Open semi-finals have been well documented.

In the men’s game, Dan Evans is rebuilding his promising career after a drugs ban, but he turns 29 in May.

Kyle Edmund needs to show more consistency after reaching the Australian Open semi-finals in 2018, whilst Cameron Norrie is another British prospect expected to make an impact.

Women’s singles also have some exciting prospects with Katie Boulter and Katie Swan having impressive starts to their careers, with 11 ITF titles between them.

British tennis may yet have many happy days to come. Norrie and Edmund have grand slam potential, while Boulter and Swan can capitalise on the fluidity at the top of the women’s game.

But if Britain is to have further success, it is going to have to enhance the way it develops players from a young age.

Photo by Carine06 via Flickr Creative Commons under licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Can Ajax reclaim former glories with an accent on youth?

Few results this season have shocked world football as much as Ajax’s 4-1 demolition of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the Champions League.

Some blamed poor management at Madrid in the wake of Zinedine Zidane’s departure after winning European club football’s top prize last year.

The fact that they have now re-hired the French legend speaks volumes about how letting him go in the first place was a major mistake.

The Amsterdam Arena, home of Ajax

In part, his exit was borne out of frustration over plans to sell Cristiano Ronaldo, knowing Real would inevitably failing to replace him.

However, their stunning defeat at the hands of Ajax wasn’t entirely self-inflicted; it was also down to a renaissance for the Dutch giants.

In truth, they have been a shadow in recent years of the club which won four European Cups – three in a row from 1971-73 and another in 1995.

More TV money in other, larger markets have seen Ajax fall down the continent’s pecking order, but they have found a different way to compete with the Euro elite.

On a trip to Amsterdam two years ago, I witnessed the beginnings of a process which led directly to that recent 4-1 triumph in Madrid.

The opposing team that day at the Amsterdam Arena were AZ Alkmaar, and the final score exactly mirrored the win over Real two years later.

Trusting young talent

Against AZ, it was amazing to see Ajax field so many talented young players – a host of fearless 18 and 19-year olds starting in a fiercely competitive fixture.

Cruyff is a legendary player and manager

After 10 minutes or so, it was apparent they were quite right to trust in this latest batch of outstanding products from their famous De Toekomst academy.

Seven of those players in the squad to face Alkmaar started against Madrid in the second leg: Andre Onana, Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek, David Neres, Frenkie De Jong Lasse Schone and Hakim Ziyech, with Schone on the scoresheet in both games.

Ajax has long had a reputation for turning out major talent, including Johan Cruyff, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristian Erikson and Luis Suarez to name but a few.

In 2011, Dutch master Cruyff returned to the club in a technical role and had plans to reinvigorate the club’s youth facilities, sell high-earning and ageing players and completely change the way that Ajax operated.

He resigned the following year after a dispute over attempts to bring Louis van Gaal into the club’s set-up, but the seeds of change were sown.

Erik ten Hag, Ajax’s current manager, has noted: “At 19, they needed to be ready to play in the first team, because at 20, they are gone.”

The reserve team, Jong Ajax would be filled with teenagers that would play the Ajax way of free-flowing attacking football.

De Toekomst currently produces the highest number of young players who become professionals. The academy clearly has a formula that works.

Director and former goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar has helped oversee this period of change. “We have to give a [clear] path to the next one. If players stay too long, the next ones cannot play. The whole things chokes.”

When 21-year-old midfielder Frenkie de Jong leaves this summer for Barcelona in a £74m transfer, Ajax has the likes of Jurgen Ekkelenkamp waiting to come through and take his place.

Hunting for honours

It is only recently, however, that Ajax has been able to combine nurturing young talent with challenging once again for Europe’s major honours.

‘The likes of De Light and Van de Beek will eventually move on, but Ajax hope they will have repaid them for polishing their talent before leaving’

For some time, they have produced players and sold them before they are able to make a real impact for Ajax outside of the Netherlands.

Last summer, seven of the current crop were called to a meeting and asked to extend their stays in Amsterdam for another season or two to help Ajax push for the elite prizes and give something back to the club that had developed their abilities from eight years old.

It worked, and they are now seeing their academy labour is now bearing fruit. As well as being through to the Champions League quarter-finals, Ajax is second in the Eredivisie, five points behind PSV Eindhoven with a game in hand.

The only player who didn’t respond to the club’s plea was Kluivert who wanted to escape from his father Patrick’s shadow and joined Roma.

The likes of De Light and Van de Beek will eventually move on, but Ajax hope they will have repaid them for polishing their talent before leaving.

Tragedy

Another future star who featured against AZ in that game two years ago was Abdelhak ‘Appie’ Nouri. He was seen as Ajax’s very brightest prospect, a player that the team could be built around.

Then, tragedy struck during a pre-season friendly in July 2017, when Nouri suffered a cardiac arrhythmia attack which resulted in severe and permanent brain damage.

As well as being a terrible blow for the player and his family, it must have placed a huge burden on his team-mates, preparing for a new season and having to fill the void left by Nouri’s enforced retirement at the age of 20.

Perhaps the experience of doing so further toughened up the rest of Ajax’s young guns; they have certainly pushed on this season, as confirmed by their Champions League progress.

Going all the way and securing another European crown may not be a realistic prospect, but a first Eredivisie title for four years (and a 34th overall) is definitely achievable.

In the meantime, more talent will be emerging from the Ajax academy, and perhaps some of those players will want to stay and create a dynasty of success in Amsterdam – if Van der Sar allows them…

All photos from Wikimedia Commons.

Fan attacks on players will end in a stabbing unless action is taken now

Sitting in the office, dreaming of being outside instead of trapped behind a desk overseeing orders due to be delivered throughout the UK, something extraordinary happened.

A man from the street outraged that his favourite alcohol hadn’t been delivered to his local supermarket, burst into the room.

Absolutely seething, he ran up behind me and swung a punch that luckily for me only grazed the side of my face.

When I stood up to confront him, he kicked me and screamed expletives. As security dragged him out the front door, he blew kisses to nobody in the car park.

Okay, this didn’t really happen. But this wouldn’t happen because there’s respect for people in their place of work. Unless you’re a professional footballer, judging by recent incidents of abuse and assault by fans encroaching on the pitch.

Attacked: James Tavernier

Rangers skipper James Tavernier was taking a throw-in in front of Hibernian fans at Easter Road when a home supporter jumped a barrier, evaded a steward and then kicked both ball and player.

During the Birmingham derby, Aston Villa talisman Jack Grealish was punched from behind by a City fan.

The responses

Former Spurs and Blackburn midfielder Tim Sherwood was asked on BT Sport’s Saturday Morning Savage show what his response would be.

“If they come [on] with aggression, you’ve got every right to chin them,” he opined to laughter from the studio audience and fellow panellists.

Maybe not the best advice, but the fact remains that footballers simply doing their job have the right to feel safe in their place of work.

Tavernier said of the Hibs incident: “My wife was watching, and it must have been disgusting to see that on TV. She was worried a little bit.

“It shouldn’t happen, no player should be targeted by fans on the pitch, or coins thrown. These things shouldn’t happen. It’s down to clubs and their security to stop it.”

In his post-match interview, Grealish said “I was walking into position and I just felt a whack around the side of my face. There’s rivalry and stuff in football, but I don’t think there’s any place for that.”

Hibernian chief executive Leeann Dempster said: “I can use the word unacceptable but that isn’t strong enough. The person you saw is in custody. He won’t come to another football match at Easter Road. Ever.”

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard added: “When we’re getting to the stage with fans running on to the pitch, we’ve got a problem.”

Punched: Jack Grealish

Villa manager Dean Smith condemned the attack on Grealish, saying: “It should never happen at a football game, whether it be a local derby or not.

“Security should be better, it’s why we kick off at 12 pm on a Sunday to keep them out the pub. Unfortunately, some mindless moron has gone on the pitch and attacked Jack [Grealish] then you’ve got 15,000 idiots clapping him as well, which doesn’t help.”

What should the punishment be?

Cameron Mack, who invaded the pitch at Easter Road has only been charged with breach of the peace, while Paul Mitchell has been sent to prison for 14 weeks for his attack on Grealish.

Pundit Gary Neville tweeted about Birmingham City: “The club are going to have to take a huge punishment for this to act as a deterrent in the future. A points deduction or empty stadium for 10 games!”

Dempster said that with Hibernian “nothing was off the table” as a result of recent crowd problems.

A particular issue with punishments that target the fan base is that 99% of supporters would never act in this way. However, it’s the 1% that needs to be punished and prevented from being able to enter the stadium – let alone run onto the pitch – in future.

Financial punishments may urge the club to step up their security. But if a supporter has decided that he is going to enter the field of play, then it is really hard to prevent that.

An issue that we run into with potential punishments is who takes responsibility for these incidents? Is it the stewards?  Is it the clubs? Is it social media culture? Or is it the TV and radio pundits who whip fans up into a storm?

Ill feeling

It can’t be expected that a steward earning £8.70 an hour is going to really put himself in danger for a job that they only work at every two weeks.

Football clubs themselves are going to be unwilling to close stands or heavily punish their own fans in case the supporters revolt and boycott merchandise or even games.

Flashpoint: Hibernian’s Easter Road stadium

Social media has given fans a place where they can hurl the most toxic slurs, which must surely bleed into crowd behaviour on match days.

Meanwhile, the pundits – who have to have an opinion on everything and are often biased towards certain clubs or fan bases – foment ill feeling.

Ultimately, the FA and the SFA have to come down heavily on both clubs and set stringent rules to not only protect the game but guarantee the safety of players.

If they don’t, how long will it be until football witnesses an incident similar to that of Monica Seles, the former world No.1 women’s tennis player, who was stabbed in the back while seated during a break in play in 1993?

With growing concerns over the rise of knife culture in the UK, surely this is what the police and football’s governing bodies fear the most.

There should be punishments in place forcing the clubs to take responsibility for their fanbase.

Banning individual fans from football grounds is incredibly hard to enforce.

However, if there was an automatic behind-closed-doors game for every time a fan ran onto the pitch, or even a point deduction, clubs would clearly take more action than they are currently doing.

More training – and better pay – for stewards could help but it won’t fix the problems at the heart of crowd troubles. But a solution needs to be found before a player is seriously injured.

Although we are still a long way away from the hooliganism that blighted the game in the 70s and 80s – and no-one wants to see the return of fences at football grounds – something has to be done to stop these violent acts from becoming an increasingly regular focus of concern.

All photos taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Why is sectarianism still a problem in Scottish football?

In the past month, the ugly issue of sectarianism in Scottish football has been making headlines again.

Kilmarnock’s former Rangers striker Kris Boyd was struck by a coin and called an “Orange bastard” while he warmed up in front of travelling Celtic fans at Rugby Park.

At Ibrox, Boyd’s manager Steve Clarke had chants of “sad Fenian bastard” aimed at him during a Scottish Cup replay against Rangers.

The roots of sectarianism run deep in both Scottish football and society in general, and its most obvious manifestation is in the heated rivalry between Glasgow’s Old Firm rivals.

But why does it continue to disfigure the beautiful game north of the border when the religious divide that spawned it is no longer prominent in most people’s lives?

A city divided or united?

Located on the River Clyde, Glasgow grew to become a shipbuilding and steel-making powerhouse in the industrial revolution; its citizens take pride in the city’s history and what it means to be Glaswegian.

When tragedy strikes, its inhabitants are united. In recent years, the city has pulled together after the George Square refuse lorry accident (December 2014), which left six people dead and 15 injured.

The same community spirit was to the fore a year later when a police helicopter crashed into the Clutha Bar, killing 10 and injuring 31. In between these sad events, Scotland hosted the Commonwealth Games using the slogan of ‘People Make Glasgow.’

All the stranger then, that an animosity borne out of differing religious beliefs still features in the life of this cosmopolitan, cultured city.

Of course, other football teams are available in the greater Glasgow area, but for most, it’s a case of being either Celtic or Rangers, green or blue, Catholic or Protestant.

For a good many, the rivalry will be confined to jokes and banter, but for others, it’s all about recalling famous battles in the 1600s or the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Sectarianism

One simple definition of sectarianism is “excessive attachment to a particular sect or party, especially in religion.”

The anti-sectarian Scottish pressure group Nil By Mouth defines it as: “Narrow-minded beliefs that lead to prejudice, discrimination, malice and ill-will towards members, or presumed members, of a religious denomination.”

Essentially, it’s a form of hatred, and Rangers and Celtic fans have a long and inglorious history of hating each other.

Even today, the politico-religious undertones still persist. Rangers current third strip is bright orange, while Celtic’s away shirt features a cross on its crest rather than the usual shamrock.

But both clubs only date back to the late 19th century. The Catholic-Protestant animosity extends back to the Reformation of the 1600s and was later fuelled by waves of Irish migrants, first fleeing the potato famines and then searching for work in the newly industrialised west of Scotland.

For much of the 20th century, Catholics in Scotland – particularly those of Irish descent – viewed themselves as an oppressed minority and Celtic as a symbol of their identity.

Rangers, meanwhile, were associated with Protestant unionist-loyalist values. Their first major signing of a Catholic player only came in 1989, when ex-Celtic striker Mo Johnston joined them.

Still an issue

That was 30 years ago now, and things have moved on, particularly since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 mostly ended the Troubles.

Throughout this era of conflict in Northern Ireland, it was common knowledge that in Celtic supporters clubs, money was raised for the IRA, while Rangers fans were associated with loyalist political and paramilitary groups.

Orange walks, in the build-up to the June 12th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, were huge affairs that would happen across Scotland and still do in some Protestant areas.

These links to the hostilities across the Irish Sea fuelled the violence that was once commonplace at Old Firm games but is now becoming a thing of the past.

Safe seating and better policing have played their part in this, as have broader changes in the make-up of Scottish society mirrored in football.

It is also ironic that in a survey in 2017 that almost three-quarters of Scots identified as atheists. With religion supposedly going into remission in Scotland, why are over 100,000 Scots indulging in pro-Catholic or Protestant songs and chants every weekend?

Some would argue that sectarianism, and other forms of hatred, have simply migrated online with the advent of social media.

Anonymous

Social media platforms have allowed bigots of various kinds to hide behind made-up names and share their toxic views and/or aim abuse and threats at others.

Some commentators believe this web-based bile has led to a rise in sexism and misogyny towards woman in football, as well as racist remarks made to black players.

Of course, you could argue that being part of huge crowds at Ibrox or Parkhead also offers a degree of anonymity which makes people behave in ways they wouldn’t outside of a football stadium.

Calling someone a ‘Fenian’ or a ‘Hun’ dehumanises them. As Jon Ronson discusses in his book So, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,  we hurl abuse at people with whom we have so much in common – the only thing that really separates us is our football teams.

Ronson also claims: “A crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. Exaggerate, affirm, resort to repetition, and never attempt to prove anything by reasoning.”

A football fan can shout and swear for 90 minutes and then return to their normal life. Both Old Firm clubs have supporters who are civil servants, lawyers, doctors and other professionals who will sit among those shouting what amounts to vile hate speech – maybe they will even join in with some of it.

Society’s problem

A rise in hate crimes and hate speech haven’t only affected Scottish football or Scotland itself. From 2016- 2018, hate crimes in the UK increased by 40%, seemingly demonstrating a growing lack of tolerance for other people’s views and values.

Roisin Wood, chief executive of the anti-racism group Kick It Out, has become concerned with the rise of hate crime in football especially in England’s top divisions. There were more than 500 reports across the top four league last season. Five years ago, there was under 100.

‘How do you remove something from the game that has been there longer than the sport itself?’

Bournemouth defender Tyrone Mings, on loan at Aston Villa, said: “On social media its all too easy to be racist. Just hide behind a fake picture, fake details and get away with it?”

It is difficult to find a solution to the rising tide of hate crime that isn’t only blighting football in Scotland but throughout the UK. With diverse communities behind each club, it is difficult to treat them all the same.

Pundits have suggested that the clubs should take more responsibility for rooting out the problem and if they fail to do so face either financial sanctions or point deductions.

But, in the context of Old Firm matches, how do you police or punish thousands of people in a stadium for singing sectarian songs or using chants that incite hatred?

Liverpool legend John Barnes recently said: “We all discriminate, and we have to admit it. Why I say that I discriminate unconsciously is because the environment that I’ve been brought up in shows me that and continues to show me that.”

Discrimination and sectarianism may be a part of everyone’s daily lives. However, it is something that we should strive to eradicate from our society as we strive to build an equal and free-thinking country.

It needs to be done on an individual basis, one by one, changing views and attitudes.

The hardest thing with sectarianism and its links to Scottish football is that anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant sentiments have existed since the 1600s. How do you remove something from the game that has been there longer than the sport itself?

Changes have to be made now. There has been far too much finger-pointing and blaming others from clubs who don’t accept that their own fans have issues. Clubs and fans need to accept that they have problems with racism, sectarianism and general discrimination and fix those from the bottom up.

From jumpers for goalposts to League One: Ivor Heller interview

Elephant Sport visits Kingsmeadow to interview AFC Wimbledon’s commercial director Ivor Heller.

Ivor was determined to help resurrect his beloved Dons in south-west London following the original Wimbledon FC’s controversial move to Milton Keynes in 2003.

He was there when the newly-formed AFC Wimbledon held open trials for players on Wimbledon Common, and is working hard as the club plans to relocate to a new stadium at its spiritual home in Plough Lane SW17.

Presenter/interviewer – Joe McKay; cameras and editing – Aina Villares-Vila and Jean Verdon.

My love for Andy Murray

Twice in my life has sport truly broken my heart. The first was on July 8th, 2012, watching Andy Murray lose to Roger Federer in his first Wimbledon final. The other was seeing him announce his plans to retire and breaking down in his press conference ahead of the Australian Open.

Being Scottish and a sports fan is hard. It could be one of the hardest things about being from Scotland. The constant defeat in football and an occasional glimmer of hope in rugby union. But generally, it’s not great. To quote Edinburgh author Irvine Welsh: “It’s shite being Scottish.”

But since the summer of 2005 we’ve had something to treasure as one of our own blasted onto the world tennis stage. Murray reached the third round of Wimbledon at the age of 18, easily dispatching 14th seed Radek Stepanek along the way, and we finally had someone to cheer on.

Tennis has always had a feeling of being a sport for the middle classes, but the boy from Dunblane’s emergence sought to change that.

Raised by his mother Judy, who was now a coach after her own brief playing career, he moved to Spain at the age of 15, determined even at that tender age to take his tennis education to the next level.

As Murray said “it was a big sacrifice to move away from your family,” but it was a risk that paid off, and he soon began to show he could compete against the likes of Roger Federer and his immediate contemporaries, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

Between them, this formidable quartet has dominated the men’s game for more than a decade.

Tears then cheers

Early in his career, Murray was treated harshly by sections of the British media. Asked in an interview who he would be supporting in football’s upcoming European Championship in the absence (yet again) of Scotland, his tongue-in-cheek response was “anyone but England.”

Winning in New York was one thing – what the British sporting public really craved was its first Wimbledon men’s champion since Fred Perry in 1936

This endeared to him to those north of the border but seemed to generate real hatred from the south. Murray was seen as surly and miserable while also being prone to fits of temper on the court when matches weren’t going his way. There were allegations of an overbearing mother and frequent questions about his choice of coaching staff.

But that first day when sport broke my heart began to turn things around. Having lost in four sets to Federer, he broke down on the court while thanking the fans. Through his tears he promised “I’m getting closer” and the Centre Court crowd finally warmed to him.

Just a few weeks later, he would meet Federer again on the same court in the Olympic final, dismissing the Swiss legend in three sets to win gold.

Now on a roll, Murray clinched his first Grand Slam title at that year’s US Open, beating Djokovic in an epic final that lasted nearly five hours.

Winning in New York was one thing, though – what the British sporting public really craved was its first Wimbledon men’s champion since Fred Perry in 1936.

Endearing

That long-awaited triumph finally came in 2013 when Murray again reached the final, this time facing Djokovic. He performed flawlessly to win in straight sets, and once again the emotions on display in victory endeared him to his now-adoring British public.

He went on to win the Wimbledon title again in 2016, also defending his Olympic crown in Rio the same year. The naysayers might see his total of three Grand Slams as ultimately disappointing and point to all the finals – including five at the Australian Open – that he reached only to lose.

But Murray’s feats have to be placed in context, and he was competing in an era featuring three of the all-time greats of men’s tennis in Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

In total, he won 45 ATP titles and spent 41 weeks occupying the No.1 spot in the world rankings. Towards the end of 2016, he won 24 consecutive matches.

His victories will be remembered for a long time in the heart of tennis fans around the world, but it’s his work off the court which has really cemented his status in the sport and beyond.

Championing equality

In 2017, after he had ended his season early due to the hip injury which would ultimately end his career, he staged an exhibition match in Glasgow, playing against Federer, raising £70,000 for children’s charities.

He has been a huge supporter of equal rights, which has earned him praise from the icons of the women’s game such as Serena Williams and Billie-Jean King.

The Scot was once asked if he was he was a feminist; his response was “If being a feminist is about fighting so that a woman is treated like a man then, yes.”

He was the first top male player to hire a female coach in Amelie Mauresmo. He discussed the reaction he received for this by bringing equality to the forefront of the discussion.

“I didn’t realise that Amelie would find herself up against such criticism and prejudice. The staggering thing was that she was slated every time I lost, which is something my former coaches never ever experienced. It wasn’t right.”

As soon as Murray confirmed his impending retirement in Australia, tributes poured in from his colleagues and rivals.

King tweeted: “You are a champion and off the court…Your voice for equality will inspire future generations.”

Heather Watson, his doubles partner at the Olympics in Rio, said: “I know all of us girls in the locker room are in awe and so grateful for how you always fight our corner! Thank you so much for that. You inspire me in so many ways.”

Nadal, his rival all the from childhood, tweeted: “Congrats @andy_murray for all your achievements all these years. It was great to play against you all these years. Good luck with everything!”

Unity

The talented but wayward Nick Kyrgios was quietly mentored by Murray, who saw past his bad boy antics on court, and the Aussie paid heartfelt tribute on Instagram.

‘In tennis, it is not the opponent you fear, it is failure itself, knowing how near you were but just out of reach’ – Sir Andy Murray.

“You will always be someone that impacted the sport in so many different ways.  You took me under your wing as soon as I got on tour and to this day you have been someone I literally just look forward to seeing… I just want you to know that today isn’t only a sad day for you and your team, it’s a sad day for the sport and everyone you’ve had an impact on.”

Murray may feel disheartened as he has watched Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all come back from serious injury lay-offs and return their peak levels. Who knows how many Slam titles he would have won in a time less blessed with amazing talents in the men’s game?

We will never know, but what I will never forget is sitting in a park in Scotland in 2013 watching his final against Djokovic – I used up my whole data plan on my phone in one sitting. The cheers at our work summer party and the unity that you brought to Scotland – and the rest of the UK.

Another memory I’ll have is from a Wimbledon Championships video in which top players are asked how they like to eat strawberries. Stan Wawrinka, Djokovic, Maria Sharapova and Federer all replied “with cream,” but the Scotsman’s bone-dry sense of humour ran through his response of “with my fingers.”

We’ll miss him…

Feature image courtesy of Carine06 via Flickr Creative Commons under licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Viva Las Vegas: The future home of US sport

“It’s hard to imagine a bigger desert oasis than Las Vegas,” according to author Cinnamon Stomberger.

For the best part of a century, the neon-lit Nevada watering hole has drawn gamblers and pleasure-seekers in their millions.

On my flight to San Francisco late last year, Canadian tourist Jenny told me visits Vegas at least three times a year and has done for the past decade. She said there is nowhere else like it in the world and that it has everything that she could ever want from a city break.

But while boxing and, more recently, the UFC have thrived on ‘The Strip’, the one thing Vegas has never had historically is franchises from the big four US sports – the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.

For many years, its ‘gambling capital of the world’ identity – with its shadowy connotations and clear links to organised crime – served to deter the major leagues.

But Las Vegas is now the 28th largest city in the US, with a population of well over 600,00 (and still rising fast), with that number swelled year-round by hordes of visitors from around the globe.

The saying ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ now seems to (mostly) belong to its sleazy past – its future is a lot shinier and corporate, making it prime territory for the big four sports.

Fight night

But those big fight nights are still a major part of the sports scene in ‘America’s Playground’, and being there in early October for the UFC 229 clash between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

Legions of Irish and Russian fans filled Vegas, having spent small fortunes on tickets, hotels and airfares to see their respective idols fight at The T-Mobile Arena.

The bad blood and feuding in the build-up to their bout almost inevitably led to ugly scenes in the aftermath of Nurmagomedov’s victory, with the Russian brawling outside the octagon with McGregor’s team, and the Irishman fighting inside it with his opponent’s entourage.

Both men received bans and fines, having sullied the UFC’s reputation – and by extension that of Vegas as a newly emergent location for respectable sports.

Afterward, the T-Mobile Arena went back to its regular role of hosting home games for the city’s first major league franchise, the Las Vegas Golden Knights.

The Knights made their NHL debut in late 2017 amid the backdrop of one of the most horrific massacres in American history, which occurred when a gunman opened fire from the Mandalay Bay Hotel on music fans attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival, killing 58 people and leaving 851 injured.

‘Vegas Strong’

Perhaps inspired by their mission to represent the city in the wake of this atrocity, the Knights went on to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

Becoming the first expansion team for half a century to reach the NHL showpiece, they lost the series 4-1 to the Washington Capitals.

The T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas

But as head coach Gerard Gallant, reflecting on that first season, said: “It wasn’t about our team winning, it was about the first responders and the tragedy that happened the week before [the Knights inaugural home game].”

Knights forward James Neal said: “You’re suddenly playing for a lot more than yourself and the team. It goes further, it means more.”

The slogan ‘Vegas Strong’ became part of the city’s mantra and hangs on a flag as you enter the arrivals gate at the Macarran Airport. It’s on every other car’s bumper and has even become a popular choice of design in local tattoo parlours.

Driving around The Strip with ‘Native Las Vegan’ Brian Wall, it became clear just how important the Knights had become to life in Vegas.

“Growing up here, you would occasionally visit The Strip perhaps for a special occasion like a birthday. But now all that’s changed because of the hockey; every week you have 20,000 people coming out to support their team.

“Almost everyone in Las Vegas is originally from somewhere else, and we all bring our sports loyalties – Cubs, Cowboys, Lakers – with us. It’s great now with the Golden Knights to actually have a team that feels like it belongs to all of us.”

Raiders arriving

We drove past where the Route 91 Harvest Festival had been held; it was really just a massive parking lot. The thing that struck me was the distance that the attacker had been able to fire on it from was at least 400 yards. He fired more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition before killing himself.

The new stadium for the Raiders takes shape in Vegas

His murderous deeds could have destroyed the optimistic feel that permeates Vegas but failed to do so. Certainly, its sporting future continues to look bright.

Just 10 minutes drive down The Strip from the Mandalay Bay Hotel is the construction site for one of the most expensive stadium ventures ever undertaken.

In early 2017, the NFL’s Oakland Raiders announced that they would move to Las Vegas, building a stadium that will cost more than $2bn.

The move has met with some criticism, especially from the West Coast fans. However, NFL followers in Nevada and Utah are ecstatic about the changing sports landscape in Vegas.

The cost of the Raiders’ new home, due to open for the 2020 season, will eclipse that of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons, which ran to around $1.6bn.

It will have a capacity of up to 72,000 and plug yet more visitors into the massive range of surrounding hotels and attractions in the Vegas area.

More to come?

The arrival of the Raiders may not be the end of expansion by the major leagues into Sin City.

In the summer of 2018, rumours began to circulate that an NBA team could relocate to the Mojave Desert.

I was assured by Brian Wall that these rumours have been swirling around for some time but have only grown stronger with the success of the Knights and the incoming Raiders.

‘It’s clear there’s a love for the unique culture on offer in Las Vegas, perhaps the last city where the American Dream still feels real’

Adding substance to them is the fact that the MGM Group has a lot of partnerships in the NBA along with massive investments in Vegas.

The new Las Vegas Stadium (awaiting sponsorship naming rights) could also be home to an MLS team in the near future. In Atlanta, the Falcons share their stadium with Atlanta United FC.

With the MLS and NFL seasons running at different times in the year, it isn’t a stretch to see a ‘soccer’ team move or be founded in Vegas.

Whatever happens in the future, Las Vegas will surely stay good on its promise to never do anything in a half-hearted manner.

Sport has been a healer for this desert oasis; it has united a city probably for the first time in its history after something that could have torn it apart.

Speaking to visitors and locals alike, it’s clear there’s a love for the unique culture on offer in Las Vegas, perhaps the last city where the American Dream still feels real.

It is also very obvious that it is a united city pulling forward towards a bright and dazzling future.

Hunter S. Thompson, the author of Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas, said that “A little bit of this town goes a very long way.” This statement is probably truer now than it ever has been.

Asher-Smith crowned BT Sport Action Women of the Year

Dina Asher-Smith was crowned BT Sport’s Action Women of the Year, marking her monumental achievements at the European Athletics Championships where she won gold in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m.

The holder of multiple British track records was a heavy favourite to win the prize which celebrates women’s accomplishments in sport throughout the year.

Asher-Smith expressed her shock in winning the award, saying: “To think that I am your Action Women of the Year is just incredible.”

The sprint star, who ended the season at the top of the 100m and 200m world rankings, added: “I never thought I’d be the fastest in the world, it’s crazy, it’s like a dream.”

Striving

Footballers Fran Kirby and Lucy Bronze were also nominated but were unable to attend the ceremony due to the inaugural Ballon D’or taking place on the same night.

The England netball team’s success was recognised at the Action Woman Awards

Other nominees included Lizzy Yarnold who celebrated another Olympic gold in the skeleton bobsleigh this year, golfer Georgia Hall, triathlete Vicky Holland, cycling queen Laura Kenny and the Paralympic skiers Jen Kehoe and Menna Fitzpatrick.

The England netball team beat Chelsea FC and Asher-Smith’s teammates from the 4x100m race to win the Team of the Year award after they secured the Commonwealth title in dramatic fashion, literally with the last throw of the game.

Former England striker Michael Owen presented them with the award. As they got a picture together he joked “I’m the mascot” because of his height in comparison to the netballers.

Captain Ama Agbeze said: “We really appreciate the support that we’ve got, and we love inspiring not just women and girls but actually men and boys too. We’re grateful for England Netball and the what they’ve done for us.

“There’s a number of people in the Roses programme that didn’t get to go the Commonwealth Games. As people know, sport is tough and there’s lots of people striving to be there, so these girls are representing not just Roses netballers but netballers [throughout] England, and we just wanted to thank everyone for their support.”

Dedication

The ceremony was presented by Clare Balding who opened the night by saying: ‘The awards celebrate all that is wonderful about women in sport.”

She led the tributes to Paralympic legend Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson who was given the lifetime achievement award, not only her success on the track as a wheelchair racer but for her dedication to charity work and the guiding influence she gives to the next generation of Paralympic athletes.

‘The event was hailed as a great evening for championing women and their sporting exploits’

“Throughout the year there have been countless stand-out team and individual performances with truly astounding women leading the way in sport,” said Balding.

The evening didn’t only celebrate female athletes but also felt women’s achievements in general, with ranking female guests from the RAF in attendance along with many others that work in broadcasting and print journalism.

In the past few years, since BT Sport began purchasing more sports rights in the UK, it has made a concerted effort to aim for more equality in their coverage, not only behind the scenes but also in front of the camera.

Its Saturday afternoon football results show The Score has several female presenters including, Jules Breach, Becky Ives and Reshmin Chowdhury.

Although the main award was a great birthday present for Asher-Smith, who turned 23 this week, the event itself was hailed as a great evening for championing women and their sporting exploits.

Photos courtesy of BT Sport. For more information on The Action Woman Awards, click here.

Poster for The Wolves

Review: The Wolves

The Wolves is ostensibly a play about nine teenage girls training hard for the chance to play in Malibu at an end-of-season indoor football tournament.

But instead of really being about ‘soccer’, Sarah DeLappe’s well-received debut drama deals with the everyday social pressures faced by these high school team-mates.

The majority of the sporting action takes place off stage at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, with the girls then discussing their adventures and misdemeanours while at training.

In a tight 90-minutes, they talk about massacres in Cambodia and children being separated from their parents at the border between the US and Mexico.

The captain (Hannah Scott), who tries to keep the team focused on the task at hand instead of delving into the deep conversations about tampons etc., is going through her own awakening and is seen throughout becoming more comfortable with her sexuality and starting a relationship with a girl.

Honest

It feels very much like you have stepped back in time to eavesdrop on the kind rumours and the stories that only circulate when you are a teenager. Scenes that address mental health and death from the view of a teenager are met with awkward laughter from the audience.

‘There are life choices that need to made by the characters, and opportunities laid out in front of them’

They are a little difficult to watch, being so honest about how mental illness is ignored by society in general and also the awkwardness of dealing with death for the first time.

When a new, supremely talent team-mate joins, she questions the group’s friendships and their views on the outside world, having travelled widely with her mother. She finds the intense spider web of their relationships intriguing: finding out that one of them may have had an abortion, she asks why.

The goalkeeper, who suffers from anxiety, is seen running off stage before every match with her team-mates laughing as she needs to be sick again. This results in an arc that sees all the lights but one goes off in the theatre as she screams on stage and rips of her shirt.

Poignant

It ends with three of the girls having the chance to go on and play football at college, sparking some intense jealousy from the rest of the team. After this match, one of the girls is missing from the stage; tragedy has occurred and the team is in mourning.

‘Although the piece is poignant, there aren’t massive strides made in terms of character development’

Wolves is an honest representation of the conversations that occur amongst teenagers, and focuses really well on the stresses and anxieties of adolescence.

It also highlights the challenges of fitting in and being the same as your friends at school. One girl is made fun of for still using sanitary towels instead of tampons.

There are life choices that need to made by the characters, and opportunities laid out in front of them.

However, although the piece is poignant, there aren’t massive strides made in terms of character development. The team feel more or less the same people at the end of the play as they are at the outset (apart from the captain’s haircut).

It has several opportunities to employ that development arc, as the play starts at the beginning of the season and concludes with its final game, but chooses not to, which is a shame.

Feature image courtesy of the Theatre Royal Stratford East. For information about upcoming productions, click here.