All posts by Oliver Norgrove

The new ‘stability’ and the curious case of Arsene Wenger

There is a distinct feeling not only that any new deal will be a contract too far for Arsene Wenger, but also – sadly – that he is beginning to resemble a dying relative.

Wenger has become a shell of his former self. He is undoubtedly Arsenal’s most impactful and most celebrated manager. But his legitimacy has been irrevocably damaged by years of failing to identify and address weaknesses and being unable to adapt to the changes in contemporary football.

You begin to feel his weight on the club as he sits in the dugout with his head in his hands. He has become a financial and footballing burden on Arsenal, with fans realising that there is now no other way to for him to leave than for him to be forced out.

Pity has become the overriding emotion at The Emirates, with fans in increasing numbers now desperate for the Arsenal boss to go so as he is able to salvage what is left of his legacy.

Like the fans at matches, Wenger appears miserable and unable to inspire or be inspired by his team. We all know he is hurting; his expressions on the touchline and post-match interviews tell us this.

But what is perhaps even more worrying is the mockery being made of the demands placed upon modern football managers by the Arsenal board.

Pitfalls

Yes, the ‘hire em and fire em’ culture that has enveloped the game in recent years is quite extraordinary. Most football fans believe that their clubs do not show enough loyalty to managers, opting for short bursts of success over long-term project building.

“Sometimes swift, decisive change can instigate an upturn in form and the change of climate at a club that is desperately needed”

But from Wenger’s case, we can learn a lot about the pitfalls of pursuing the exact opposite policy: of idolising a manager, ceasing to apply pressure on him, and allowing him to decide when and how he leaves.

Just a few weeks ago, we were given a particularly cruel demonstration of football’s impatience at Leicester. Claudio Ranieri, a history-maker and record-breaker, was forced out by the players he had lost and by an unforgiving chairman.

But, callous though it was, the sacking proved beneficial to results on the pitch. The transformation of Leicester’s players has been really quite remarkable, especially given the significance that their former manager had in building the players and turning them into household names. Many were previously average and unknown.

What we are beginning to deduce is that, sometimes swift, decisive change can instigate an upturn in form and the change of climate at a club that is desperately needed.

Trigger-happy

Wenger, quite unlike Leicester’s chairman, is markedly more conservative, opting to keep around him favoured, loyal coaching staff and making subtle adjustments to the squad, both in terms of tactical organisation and transfers.

“The impatient, fast-paced, money-driven culture that has wrapped itself around modern football could actually be the new ‘stability’”

For years, pundits praised the determination with which Arsenal stuck to its principles. They maintained that the club was an example to others who perhaps were a little too trigger-happy when it came to firing managers.

This adoration has wavered somewhat, especially this season. Now they talk about Wenger in a much more resigned way, after finally subscribing to my long-held view that stability can no longer be expressed in the way that Arsenal think it can be, and that Wenger ought to step aside in order for the club to adapt and move forward.

It is poignant, for instance, that Wenger’s greatest years came when he himself was the source of change in the Premier League, and not in the years that he remained rigidly focused on his values, allowing himself to be bypassed and out-competed.

The impatient, fast-paced, money-driven culture that has wrapped itself around modern football could actually be the new ‘stability’.

Of course, not every club that ditches its manager after a few years of service or halfway through a season will reap the rewards of their decision.

But signs are showing (the sackings of Mourinho at Chelsea and Klopp at Dortmund) that a policy of severing ties with even big-name managers and sending a message that short term under-achievement is not good enough could well prove fruitful.

Desperate loyalty

Wenger’s free rein and effective self-employment at Arsenal is not defying the system as well as his club thinks it might be. Yes, Wenger has doubled share prices at The Emirates, but ultimately the football is what does the talking.

Actually, the message Arsenal’s embarrassingly desperate loyalty towards him shows is one of mockery. I believe that Wenger’s coasting along makes a mockery of the intense demands placed upon football manages in the modern environment.

Football management has changed, and with that, so too has the pressure on managers, who must live up to the fact that their use-by dates are now shorter and the patience of boards similarly so.

The lack of pressure being applied to Wenger is telling on the players, who appear starkly unmotivated and lacking in heart and leadership. The alleged stability that Wenger has provided, during a period that has seen Arsenal leave Highbury, angry protests from fans and a noticeable dilution of expectation and ambition, has been primarily characterised by a fundamental decline, both in terms of trophies and league positioning.

But, as Wenger reminded us in an interview with beIN sports this week, “It isn’t all about trophies.” Well, clearly. But at least Arsenal has its stability…

Review – WWE Fastlane

A sense of deflation is not ideal amongst WWE fans going into the biggest WrestleMania of all time.

But given its proximity – just four weeks away – Sunday’s Fastlane event, presented by the RAW brand, had a huge weight on its shoulders.

The best that can be said of Fastlane – and I’ve always thought that it sits far too close in WWE’s calendar to WrestleMania – is that it showcased the right talent, and planted seeds for storyline progression in the coming weeks and months.

The worst is, however, more noticeable. Milwaukee’s Bradley Centre witnessed two impressive winning streaks, those of Braun Strowman, yet to be pinned or submit, and Charlotte Flair, until now undefeated on pay-per-view, come to unnecessary and anti-climactic endings.

Fastlane, considered by fans and WWE officials a ‘B’ show, was not the right platform on which to halt the progress of two rising stars.

That is not to say that Strowman and Flair have been irreparably damaged by their respective defeats to Roman Reigns and Bayley.

Charlotte remains the best women’s wrestler in the company and Strowman has huge potential as the product’s only credible monster.

Painfully predictable

Clearly, though, WWE wanted Reigns to look strong heading into WrestleMania, where it is rumoured he will face The Undertaker.

“Sunday night’s event produced a painfully predictable main event… 22 seconds in total”

Fans will have seen his victory coming, but what made the whole thing worse was the lack of surprises in the match. It wasn’t spot-filled enough and, in defeat, Strowman didn’t look as convincing as his recent run suggested.

Flair will surely have a place in WrestleMania’s fatal-fourway match for the women’s title, set also to feature Nia Jax, Bayley and Sasha Banks.

It is likely that she will not drift too far from the championship picture, given her talent and popularity with fans. Banks’ match with Jax was slow and a little sloppy; I blame Jax for her stiff, methodical style.

Sunday night’s event also produced a painfully predictable main event. It was clear that either Brock Lesnar or Chris Jericho would interfere in Kevin Owens’ Universal title defence against Goldberg.

But obvious time constraints (thanks to the addition to the card of two unannounced matches) told fans that the show’s final bout would be short. And it was – 22 seconds in total.

Pleasant surprise

I did not want Owens to lose the belt. He is a much younger talent who has been on an incredible run of late. Goldberg is in the twilight of his career at 48, and since it was confirmed that Lesnar would be his WrestleMania opponent anyway, he did not need a belt to add any value to such a marquee match.

“Gallows and Andrews, are bland, and I can’t understand why WWE tag team gold remains around their waists”

Judging by the way he celebrated victory with his young son, the match felt like such a throwaway.

For Owens, the path ahead is clearly Jericho, a former partner whom he turned on mercilessly a few weeks back.

It was at least a pleasant surprise to see Jericho back on WWE duty; his absence from RAW the past few weeks has been glaring.

I think the two will have a stellar match in Orlando at WrestleMania 33, and having him screw Owens in his title defence provides a more heated backdrop to their feud.

Momentum

There were few particularly interesting things to take away from this year’s Fastlane.

The return of a 375lb Big Show was nice to see, the fans clearly into his new look, though this could possibly be due to the knowledge that his current run will be his last in WWE after almost 20 years with the company.

I wasn’t a fan of the manner in which he beat a much younger Rusev, but if WrestleMania is his final match, he must go in with solid momentum behind him. The break-up of Rusev and Jinder Mahal wasn’t going to be anything other than a mild understatement.

Enzo and Cass, whom I have come to like immensely, continued their losing streak in pay-per-view matches, which is shocking when one considers the excitement generated by the duo.

Their opponents, Gallows and Andrews, are bland by comparison and I can’t understand why WWE tag team gold remains around their waists. It is possible that a split for the former is in the works, but that does not mean a title run cannot work.

Lack of charisma

Even the opening contest, a decent match between Sami Zayn and Samoa Joe, couldn’t allow me to rate this PPV event at any more than two stars.

“If this is the Fastlane to WrestleMania, then I’d suggest we find a side route…”

Both men are undoubtedly technically gifted, but lack the charisma to really, fully integrate a crowd with a match.

Joe’s victory was made predictable by his recent introduction to WWE Television, and his relative freshness makes the crowd’s lack of investment into him somewhat odd.

In fact, ‘somewhat odd’ aptly summarises Sunday night’s show.

The wrong superstars were stunted just weeks before the biggest show of the year.

A part-timer, who has contributed just 48 seconds of match time since his return in the autumn, has been rewarded with a major championship run, and WWE insists on putting its lower-card belts on talent who just aren’t managing to capture the excitement of the live crowd.

If this is the Fastlane to WrestleMania, then I’d suggest we find a side route…

Fan marginalisation and the rise in amateur football punditry

It is commonly – and correctly – argued that the rise of fan punditry in football can be credited with digital advances.

Technological developments have facilitated the entry of non-professional voices into the journalistic arena and completely transformed the nature of discussion and analysis.

“The modern trend of prioritising corporate influence over fan involvement has left supporters unfamiliar with the sport they once knew, and bred huge resentment”

The rules have changed: punditry has become increasingly uncensored, certainly on social media platforms. The grip of sports editors, radio and TV producers over  discourse in the football media environment has been loosened.

In recent years, YouTube channels, vlogs and social media sites have provided football fans with platforms through which to express their opinions, in both unfiltered and instant fashion.

These new media have had a potent effect on the way in which football punditry is conducted. Fans, smartened through easy access to historical records, statistics and tactical information, have used alternative platforms to demonstrate their lack of patience with mainstream punditry.

As football fans have become more knowledgeable, their dissatisfaction with the quality of professional punditry has declined, perhaps the result of higher expectations and a desire to see their footballing acumen reflected on television.

Disconnect

Microcosmic of the growing competition between fan-led and professional punditry were Gary Neville’s comments on Sky’s Super Sunday recently about Arsenal Fan TV, a successful YouTube channel attracting hundreds of thousands of views.

He referred to Arsenal fans outside Stamford Bridge participating in filmed interviews as “embarrassing”, and called one man inside the ground brandishing a ‘Time for Change’ banner an “idiot”.

Irrespective of the views that were expressed, the segment illustrated a disconnect between mainstream and fan opinion.

I do not think that comment on whether Neville was right is necessary. But his comments were a powerful reminder that many fans simply no longer feel represented in the footballing world.

Television companies, intent on maximising their viewership and advertising revenue, hire big-name pundits on lucrative deals.

The result is often a monotonous and one-dimensional sample of experts. Most big football matches today are analysed by ex-Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester United players.

For broadcasters, it has become more about presentation than it has intelligent – or even watchable – discussion. This fact symbolises one huge change in modern professional football. Fan marginalisation is now widespread.

In the upper reaches of the the game, it manifests itself in sky-high ticket prices, intensive commercialisation and corporate sponsors dominating the financial and sporting agendas.

Where it was once considered the norm for the working classes to pay the top clubs a visit and watch them play, nowadays, those in attendance tend to be older fans and clients at various events.

Replaced by corporate hospitality, commercial leverage on club policy and TV rights, the modern football fan has seen his or her role in and around the stadium attacked to a demoralising extent.

In many ways, football was always capitalist, but the modern trend of prioritising corporate influence over fan involvement has left supporters unfamiliar with the sport they once knew, and bred huge resentment.

Trusted

Once upon a time, football pundits were liked and trusted. Fans were more deferential. They knew less and didn’t have the same readily-available information that they now enjoy. Fans appreciated those ex-pros and their ‘expert’ views.

“Perhaps the most potent incentive for this has been the treatment of the modern football fan, left sidelined by the cynical business executives who really run the game”

Today, fans have been excluded from football’s centre of focus. Their response to this crushing blow has been to mobilise and attack the game from the new avenues provided by digital platforms – and with impressive popularity.

The disenfranchisement of modern fans has given birth to a monster that football itself can do little to change.

The anger visible amidst the content of amateur punditry, too, highlights the growing separation between the interests of the average fan and the direction that the game is taking.

One only has to watch YouTube clips and browse the internet for a few minutes to find individuals committed to rallying against club owners and the excesses of modern, neo-liberal capitalism.

The digital age, it is true, has allowed supporters to venture into punditry, share their views in blogs and videos and engage with others.

But perhaps the most potent incentive for this has been the treatment of the modern football fan, left sidelined by the cynical business executives who really run the game.

Five footballers who went on to strange second careers

Former Liverpool and French international striker Djibril Cisse recently announced his retirement from professional football.

The decision, he explained, was in part due to failing to earn a contract at Auxerre but also so that he could put his “mind, body and soul” into DJing, alongside working as a producer, pundit and producing his own clothing line.

The 35-year-old, who scored 19 goals for Liverpool in two seasons and earned more than 40 caps for France, surprised many with his desire to be a DJ, but he isn’t the only professional footballer to follow an intriguing career path after his playing days. Since so many coming out of the game go down the roads of managing, coaching or punditry, it is always interesting to watch former stars who do something entirely different.

Here are five of the most unlikely post-football career choices.

5) Dion Dublin – Host of Homes under the Hammer and inventor

dion

Dion Dublin was one of the big names in Midlands football during the early days of the Premier League, playing 145 games for Coventry City from 1994 to 1998 and 155 games for Aston Villa from 1999 to 2004, where he scored 48 goals in the most successful spell of his playing career.

He also had a brief stint at Manchester United, which was ruined by a broken leg, and won four caps for England in 1998.

Since retiring from football in 2008 after two years with Norwich, Dublin, now aged 47, has dabbled in the world of inventing, creating a musical instrument; a type of Cajon (a box-shaped percussion instrument played by slapping the front and rear faces) that he called ‘the dube’.

Aside from creative exploits, he has taken the well-trodden ex-footballer route of television punditry, but also, less obviously, as a presenter in his own right, since joining Lucy Alexander and Martin Roberts as a presenter of the popular daytime property show Homes under the Hammer in 2015

Upon being selected for the role, Dublin retorted: “When they offered it to me I was overjoyed. The only shorter phone call I had was when United signed me from Cambridge.”

4) Tim Wiese – WWE wrestler

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 15: Tim Wiese celebrates with The Usos during WWE Live 2014 at Festhalle on November 15, 2014 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo by Simon Hofmann/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Tim Wiese was an experienced goalkeeper, spending 13 seasons, from 2001 to 2014, in the top flight of German football, playing for both Hoffenheim and Werder Bremen.

However, heavy competition from the likes of Jens Lehmann, Oliver Kahn and Manuel Neuer meant he won just six caps for the national team, and after retiring from football in 2014 aged 33, Wiese traded in the football for weights, pursuing a career in bodybuilding.

It was this that led to his most recent unexpected career path – as a professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the world’s most high-profile wrestling organisation.

In 2015, Wiese took up an offer and began training for his new role. After receiving a personal invitation from Triple H (a former world champion, now WWE’s CEO) Weise was sent to WWE’s training facility in Florida and shortly afterwards, made his in-ring debut on WWE’s European tour in Munich, teaming up with the RAW Tag Team Champions Sheamus and Cesaro to defeat The Shining Stars and Bo Dallas.

As things stand, Wiese is yet to make his debut either in NXT or on the main roster (comprising of RAW on Monday night and SmackDown on Tuesday), and remains in full-time training.

3) Jerzy Dudek – Racing car driver

dudek

Polish goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek was Liverpool’s number one between 2001 and 2005, and wrote his name in club folklore with his performance in the penalty shoot-out win over AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final.

He made 127 for the Reds appearances and won 60 caps for his country, seeing out the final years of his career as back-up to Iker Casillas at Real Madrid.  Following his retirement in 2011, Dudek opted for a new career behind the wheel of a racing car, and in 2014 completed his first full season in the Volkswagen Castrol Cup.

Interestingly, Dudek claims the two sports are very similar, telling FourFourTwo magazine: “My position in goal is about making quick decisions during the game.

“When you are racing in the car, you have to do the same, especially when you have to defend or attack, and control the car. This has helped me keep my focus and concentration, and maintain my physical ability to be a good driver.”

2) John Carew – Actor

hovdinger

John Carew remains one of the most prolific Norwegian footballers of all time, scoring 24 goals for his national side in 91 appearances.

He made his mark in European football in spells with clubs including Valencia, Roma, Lyon and Besiktas, but is best known to English fans for his four seasons with Aston Villa from 2007-2011, during which time he made 113 appearances notching 37 goals.

After being released following an unspectacular spell at West Ham in 2012, Carew has pursued a professional acting career, starring in 2015 gangster movie Hovdinger in which he played the character Ivan.

Carew told VGTV: “‘It’s a fun and interesting role. I would compare myself with Will Smith and “The Rock” perhaps.”

1) Arjan De Zeeuw – Police detective

de-zeeuw

Few ex-footballers have taken quite such an unlikely career path as former Barnsley, Wigan and Portsmouth defender Arjan De Zeeuw.

The centre back spent 17 years in English football, and was part of the Barnsley squad who reached the Premier League for the first time in their history in 1997, was named Portsmouth’s player of the Year in 2004, captained Wigan in the Carling Cup final 2006 and most bizarrely was named one of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s favourite footballers.

Despite the high regard in which he was held in English football, the Dutchman never earned an international call-up, and following his retirement in 2009 at the age of 39, he returned home to complete his training as a doctor, he began work as a forensic scientist and is now a police detective based in Alkmaar.

“It was never my intention to put my feet up after playing – I like to use my brain a little bit,” De Zeeuw told BBC Sport, adding that after playing football, he needed to ‘look at the world a bit more’, and that he liked the idea of justice and of trying to make the world a better and more equal place.

Red card for ‘Play to the Whistle’

It’s understandable that ITV would want to recreate the success of Sky’s A League Of Their Own and the BBC’s long-running A Question Of Sport.

There is clearly a huge appetite for watching sports stars step outside their professional environment and into the world of entertainment.

Athletes often come across as sullen, dull and uncommunicative, so giving them a chance to lighten up in panel show formats can clearly make for good television.

“Contestants appeared disinterested, ignoring the live audience, on their phones between rounds… the interaction between presenter Holly Willoughby and the panellists felt awkward”

In this regard, Play To The Whistle’s acquisition of Chelsea and England midfield legend Frank Lampard as a resident team captain was certainly shrewd.

His pedigree ensures that plenty of football fans will be drawn in, and he has a celebrity pull that might get viewers who aren’t into sport interested, too.

But if ITV want to make the third series of Play to the Whistle a success, then Lampard will not only not be enough, but may actually prove to be a obstacle.

If my recent experience at Elstree studios is anything to go by, then perhaps ‘Saturday night snoozefest’ would be a little more apropos a category than ‘sports-based comedy panel show’.

Effort

Unless I missed something during my two brief toilet breaks, there didn’t appear to be much to laugh at during the show.

Contestants appeared disinterested, ignoring the live audience, on their phones between rounds and failing through large parts to provoke any real laughter. The interaction between presenter Holly Willoughby and the panellists felt a little awkward.

It was clear that golfer Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston and reality TV ‘star’ Scarlett Moffatt aren’t cut out for this line of work, and audience members around me seemed expectant of a little more effort from both guests and regular captains alike.

What’s more, the ratings tend to agree with them. The show debuted back in April 2015 with an audience of 2.79m, which within two weeks had dropped to 2.03m. The second series revealed the same trend, with 2.71m viewers tuning in for opener – a figure down by 700,00 by the end of the run.

It’s hard to avoid predicting a similar level of dwindling engagement for the third series unless better-calibre guests and a more structured format are adopted for the show.

Lifeless

Somebody needs to tell Bradley Walsh that few people care about his new album nor will want to buy it. Why it was thought he’d be a good Play To The Whistle team captain eludes me.

He’s clearly a versatile performer, but his antics were inappropriately brash, and one particular audience member objected to him referring to her as “love” during one of the earlier rounds.

“Romesh Ranganathan was a rare highlight who did manage to amuse during the show’s more conversational segments”

Nobody’s performance underwhelmed quite like Lampard’s, though. Acting as a perfect example of why footballers ought to let their feet do the talking, his lifeless showing may go some way towards explaining the trajectory of the show’s ratings.

He didn’t expand on questions put to him by the presenter and when the cameras weren’t on, spent most of his time texting and sipping a beer.

Even comedian Seann Walsh, the show’s mock pundit, failed to inject the proceedings with any real humour.

His skits after each round, designed to show him doing anything other than watching the show or monitoring the scores, felt a little like a boy trying to impress the girl he likes at school: forced and over the top.

Burden

I did, however, like how he introduced each contestant. Mocking Sky’s punditry and line-up presentation was a nice touch that gave the show a uniquely sporty feel.

That burden fell mainly onto the shoulders of his fellow funnyman Romesh Ranganathan, a rare highlight, who did manage to amuse during the show’s more conversational segments.

I was especially surprised at Rob Beckett’s lack of contribution. I’ve been impressed with his work in the past, but I don’t recall him saying anything funny this time around.

Combine all this with a string of technical faults, which eventually set the recording 40 minutes behind schedule, and the overall impression was one of sloppiness and disorganisation.

For me, this displayed a lack of thought and attention to detail; two things Play To The Whistle is in desperate need of.

Blow the full-time whistle, ITV.

‘People will realise that it’s a badass sport!’

Competitive cheerleading has been granted provisional status as an Olympic sport by the International Olympic Committee, paving the way for it to be introduced as a demonstration event before potentially becoming part of the Summer Games programme.

But should ‘cheer’ be seen as a sport at all, and does it really warrant Olympic inclusion?

Oliver Norgrove sat down with Alison Dominguez, president of the University of the Arts London’s cheerleading squad, The Royals, to discuss its Olympic potential, stereotypes and the hidden intensity behind a much-misunderstood pursuit.

…on the Olympics

ON: So as you know, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has given cheerleading provisional recognition as a sport. How did you react to this?

AD: I thought it was awesome. Aside from the fact that cheer is so physically and mentally hard, you have to deal with everybody else telling you that it’s not a sport, that it’s just for girls, and all this stuff which isn’t true.

The football boys in our school always give us trouble and they’re like ‘Why don’t you guys play a real sport?’ and I say ‘You guys wouldn’t last 10 minutes in practice’ – it’s really hard, and to finally get that recognition internationally was so good.

UAL's cheerleading squad The Royals
UAL’s cheerleading squad The Royals

ON: Do you feel the provisional status should go further?

AD: Absolutely. Cheer is not what it was 50 years ago. It’s not about dancing around and shouting ‘Go team!’ It’s physically demanding. I think it’s just as hard as any other recognised sport, per se.

ON: Do you think that cheerleading lacks the respect it deserves, and will the IOC’s decision change that?

AD: I hope so. I think yes and no. Some people will stick to their stereotypical opinions, as it’s one of the most stereotyped sports in the world. When I tell people I’m a cheerleader they’re like ‘Oh, like in the American movies?’. I’m like: ‘Not really no.’ But I think it will.

ON: If cheerleading does become an Olympic sport, how do you think public perception will change?

AD: The Olympics is one of the most watched television events. When the top cheerleaders showcase their skills to the world, people will be like: ‘Oh, that’s what cheerleading is!’

They’ll realise it’s not just jumping around and that it’s really difficult. I mean, we [The Royals] only do level 2, but when you get up to level 6 with the best of the best, it’s crazy stuff. It’s like three-tier pyramids, triple back flips in the air, and they just make it look effortless and they smile the whole time!

It’s really entertaining too, so I think people will realise that it’s not just really difficult, but really cool too.

ON: Are you confident that cheerleading will make it to the Olympics?

AD: I am, yeah. Maybe not this time around, but definitely in the future.

…on the physical demands of cheerleading

ON: Can you give us an idea of the physical demands that are involved in cheerleading?

AD: I would say that the hardest thing we do is tumbling and stunting. Tumbling is the floor stuff you do in gymnastics, handsprings, that kind of thing, backhand springs and that’s difficult in and of itself, especially if you didn’t grow up doing gymnastics.

“Cheerleading isn’t for everybody, I know that, just like football or rugby aren’t for everybody, but what’s the worst that can happen? You watch it and you don’t like it”

It’s really difficult to train a 20-year-old body to do a backhand spring, rather than a 12-year-old body because they just kind of throw themselves. The stunting, which is my favourite bit, is designed so you can throw a person in the air and make it look effortless and pretty, and it’s so difficult.

A typical stunt consists of two bases which hold the majority of the weight of the flyer, and a back which secures the stunt – they stand at the back to make sure no one falls. So the three of you at the bottom are holding up a girl who isn’t that much lighter than you and you’re making it look really effortless.

That’s really hard because she flies on like one leg and you pull shapes, that’s where the flexibility comes in.

ON: It sounds like a cross between dance and gymnastics

AD: Very much so. There actually is a section of a cheer team where you do dance. It’s not your typical dance, it’s very much hard motions. I always tell my girls that if you’re hitting your motions and it doesn’t hurt then you’re doing it wrong. Your muscles should always be really tight.

I really work my flyers to death because if you have a good flyer then they can get themselves up in the air, then it’s just up to the base to keep them there.

If you have a lazy flyer who relies on the fact that they’re light, it’s so much more work on the bases. I have a lot of flyers that weigh like 43kg, but then I have flyers who weight 50kg – who I prefer flying because they do so much more work, as they’re stronger.

…on her personal experiences 

ON: Can I ask you about your current participation in the sport of cheerleading?

AD: Right now I am the president of our university’s cheerleading squad, The Royals. I coach us once a week, we have another external coach once a week also, and I’ve been on the team for two years. I do tumbling outside of cheer with some of the girls just to improve, too.

ON: Which do you prefer, the coaching or the taking part?

“Competitive cheer has developed into this super-demanding sport where you don’t focus just on the appearance aspect”

AD: I prefer taking part. I really do like coaching a lot, but I am here to be on the team and enjoy participating.

ON: I imagine that both are deceptively hard?

AD: Very much so. I definitely didn’t anticipate coaching being as much work as it is – and it’s hard when you’re the president as well. If you don’t plan for practice then it isn’t happening, if you don’t pay for competitions then you’re not going, if you don’t nag all the girls to do X, Y, Z then it’s not going to happen.

ON: Why and when did you take it up? What makes you continue?

AD: I grew up overseas and bounced from sport to sport. I didn’t commit to one thing because I was moving every two years.

I did rugby for a bit, gymnastics for a bit, football for a bit, and then I moved to the States for my freshman year of high school, and for the first time ever cheerleading was an option. I kind of fancied it because of the whole stereotypical, high school movie stuff.

So I made the team and just sort of fell in love with the physicality of the sport. It is so challenging both physically and mentally and being a part of a team that’s so much better than yourself is just so rewarding. It was just one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

…on stigma and public understanding

ON: If it’s so difficult, why have cheerleading’s legitimacy and its merits been ignored or mocked?

AD: It’s a lot to do with what cheer used to be. It was predominantly a way for high school girls to get on the field and cheer on the boys.

There’s nothing wrong with people who want to do that, but competitive cheer is not that anymore, it has developed into this super-demanding sport where you don’t focus just on the appearance aspect of it.

ON: How is cheerleading changing?

dsc_0042
The Royals in action

AD: I think it’s beginning to be taken a lot more seriously by people. A lot of money is going into it, so people are looking for the best stunters, the best tumblers and for athletes that are really strong who can make teams better and better.

What you have is an industry that is taking all these athletes and teaching them how to stunt and cheer dance. All of this is being put together to create some really crazy routines.

ON: If you could make the public understand one thing about cheerleading, what would it be?

AD: There’s so much, but I really just want people to understand that if you think gymnastics is a sport, if you think dance is a sport then why do you not think cheer is a sport? Competitive cheer, anyway.

ON: What are the obstacles that cheerleading needs to overcome in order to engage with a more mainstream audience and enhance its profile?

AD: I think it’s a bit of funding and a bit of public image. In America, cheer is a huge industry and a lot of money goes into it. If the Olympics wanted teams then America would have it, but a lot of other countries have to catch up.

It’s still really up-and-coming so there’s obviously the money problem, and there’s also the problem of convincing people to give you the money because it’s a cool sport and people should take it seriously.

…on the future

ON: What are your own future cheer or coaching ambitions?

AD: I want to do all-star cheer after university. London has really good programmes and I would love to coach my own team one day. Coaching at the Olympics would be really cool.

ON: Are you hopeful for the future of cheerleading?

AD: I am. I think once people understanding the sport, see what it’s about and understand the athletes in the sport, they will understand that it’s a badass sport and its worthy of people’s time.

Cheerleading isn’t for everybody, I know that, just like football or rugby aren’t for everybody, but what’s the worst that can happen? You watch it and you don’t like it.

For more information, visit the British Cheerleading Association website, or the International Cheer Union site. Images courtesy of UAL’s Royals cheerleading squad.

Chapecoense and other sporting aviation disasters

In the early hours of Nov 29th, Lamia flight 2933 carrying 77 people, including the Chapecoense football team, crashed a few miles south of Medellin, northern Columbia.

The team were due to play in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, against Medellin team Atletico Nacional. Just six people survived and subsequently, the football world was plunged into mourning.

The saddest part about the crash, aside from all lives lost, is that such an incident is not unique in sporting, or even in footballing history. In this piece, we examine other sporting aviation disasters.

1) Munich air disaster

Perhaps the most well-known air crash involving a sports team occurred on February 6th 1958.

British European Airways flight 609, taking Matt Busby’s Manchester United team back to England after a triumph away at Red Star Belgrade, overshot the slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem airport, West Germany, where it had stopped for refuelling.

It was the third takeoff attempt after both pilots expressed dissatisfaction at the aircraft’s left engine. Of 43 passengers on board, 21 were killed, including seven Manchester United players. Manager Busby was severely injured and twice given last rites, but recovered and eventually rebuilt the team.

With Busby at the helm, United won the FA Cup four years later, the league title in 1965 and 1967 and then – a decade after the Munich crash – their first European Cup.

2) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash

On September 7th 2011, Yak-service flight 9633 crashed near the city of Yaroslavl in Russia on its way to Minsk, carrying 45 passengers; of which, 43 died.

On board were the Russian ice hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and every player but one on their roster lost his life. Forward Maxim Zyuzyakin, who was not on the flight, later became captain and embodied the team’s rejuvenation.

The crash happened shortly after departure and was blamed on human error, when the captain braked during takeoff, causing a stall.

3) Cubana flight 455

Cubana de Aviacion flight 455 from Barbados to Jamaica, carrying 68 passengers and the Cuban national fencing team, was bombed midflight on June 11th 1976. Two C4 explosives were used by terrorists in an incident found to be orchestrated by Orlando Bosch Avila.

CORU, his anti-Castro terror group had been waging a violent campaign against Caribbean neighbours that had developed strong links with the Cuban regime. Everybody on board died in the disaster.

A declassified FBI document dated October 21, 1976, states that CORU “was responsible for the bombing of the Cubana Airlines DC-8 on October 6, 1976… because CORU was at war with the Fidel Castro regime.”

4) 1972 Andes flight disaster

A chartered flight carrying 45 passengers and the Uruguayan Old Christian rugby union team crashed into the Andes mountains on October 13th 1972.

The incident was a controlled flight into terrain, in which both wings clipped mountain peaks and holes were ripped in the fuselage.

Upon impact, five passengers died, with some survivors perishing in the ensuing days due to avalanches and others resorting to cannibalism.

Sixteen people survived the ordeal, including six of rugby team. The disaster was the basis for the 1993 film Alive and in the Hispanic world is referred to as the ‘Miracle of the Andes’.

5) LOT flight 7

On 14th March 1980, 87 passengers on board LOT flight 007, which included the US amateur boxing team, crashed in the Polish capital on its way from JFK to Warsaw Frederic Chopin airport.

The crash was caused by a faulty engine and subsequent loss of flight controls, and killed everybody on board.

Post-crash investigations revealed that many of the boxers on board, unlike other sleeping passengers, knew that they were about to crash, as examinations by doctors showed tears to muscles and tendons in their arms, suggesting that they were braced upon impact.

6) Air Indiana flight 216

On December 13th 1977, an Air Indiana DC-3 carrying the University of Evansville basketball team to Nashville to play the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders crashed shortly after takeoff at Evansville regional airport.

Fourteen members of the team perished in the incident alongside 12 other passengers.

The crash was blamed on pilot error, with an overloaded baggage compartment ‘changing the aircraft’s centre of gravity to the back end’ combining with a locked rudder and aileron, meaning that the aeroplane could not get the lift necessary to keep it airborne.

The only surviving member of the team, who did not travel that day, was killed in a car accident just weeks later. A monument was erected outside the university called the ‘weeping basketball’.

Meet Heiner Alzate: UAL women’s volleyball coach

Elephant Sport’s Oliver Norgrove, Shan Gambling and Daniel Racheter visit a UAL women’s volleyball training session to speak to the team’s new coach, Heiner Alzate.

Originally from Colombia, Alzate played professionally for 10 years before turning to refereeing and coaching. He hopes to instil in his young players the tricks of the trade that he learned as a player in South America.

Norgrove asks him about the transition from playing with men to coaching women, comparisons between volleyball in Colombia and the UK, the challenges that the sport of volleyball faces, and how UAL’s season is progressing.

The video can be watched in full below. You can also find out more about the UAL women’s volleyball team here.

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Two fingers to the establishment: Reviewing ‘A Yorkshire Tragedy’

Award-winning journalist Anthony Clavane is right to have a chip on his shoulder over what he calls ‘a culture of neglect’. Having been raised in Leeds and worked in the capital, he is all too familiar with the increasingly glaring north-south divide in Britain. 

In his new book A Yorkshire Tragedy, he illustrates in heartbreaking detail the extent to which a formerly industrial and sporting powerhouse has been rendered a national afterthought.

Moreover, the hollowing out of working classes, so integral to Yorkshire’s character and communities, has transformed once bustling areas into ghost towns.

“I’m most upset by the idea that the working classes are being cut off from leisure,” reveals Clavane.

The economic growth enjoyed alongside the industrial revolution during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Clavane argues, was driven by a local trinity of home, work and leisure.

In Hull, St Andrew’s Dock, the Boulevard and Hessle Road were pillars of communalism, binding players and workers together in the name of advancement by co-operation.

Expression of community

Workers felt that they played a significant role in local life, and that local teams embodied a spirit not quite seen in a “less communal and more atomised” London.

yorkshire-tragedy“If you look at sport, where was it invented? In the north,” explains Clavane. “And which communities did it emerge from?

“The very first modern football club was in Sheffield. Modern sport and cricket was played in Sheffield and Leeds and came out of the industrial working classes.

“What I’m arguing is that these industrial areas – which grew directly as a result of industry – sport was their expression of community.

“When Featherstone won the Rugby League Challenge Cup in 1983, most of their players were miners. They had just lifted the trophy in Wembley, millions watched it, and two mornings later they were down the mines.

“Could you imagine Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney going to the mines?”

The decline of Leeds United, once a formidable top-flight force, is also particularly telling.

Leeds have spent the majority of the last decade sitting precariously below the elite tier of English football, and Clavane jokingly expresses his frustration.

“It upsets me that Leeds United are not the greatest team the world has ever seen any more.”

Under chairman Peter Ridsdale, Leeds encountered severe financial problems, including large loans which could only be repaid by selling key players.

The resulting implosion sent the club crashing into League One within just a few years, seemingly wiping clean all the progress that had been made in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

Blame game

The Hillsborough disaster of 1989, too, was an incident so tragic that in many ways it was microcosmic of the marginalisation of Yorkshire.

Families and friends of the 96 victims, knowing full well what had happened that day, were ignored and repeatedly demonised by a largely ignorant London media.

The Sun, in particular, is infamous for the blame game it played in the ensuing weeks. The stadium’s chequered safety record was not addressed sufficiently, as it may well have been had it been located in London, echoing the horrific fire at Bradford just four years earlier.

“Very simply, up until 1989, Hillsborough was a symbol of ambition, aspiration and majestic football because the stadium was the Wembley of the north.

“After ’89 it became a symbol of death and everything bad about football and society,” Clavane points out, clearly in saddened agreement with my suggestion that it was emblematic of Yorkshire as a whole.

Condescending neighbour

A Yorkshire Tragedy is alone worth reading for the rich history it unearths.

Drawing upon a wealth of sporting and political knowledge, as well as important critiques of the cultural effects of neo-liberal capitalism, Clavane can best be commended for capturing the rancorous nature of the lament felt by a substantial part of Yorkshire’s working class.

“Clavane notices an ominous connection between neglect and Yorkshire’s rejection of the political status quo on June 23rd this year”

There is no denying their ostracism from the centre of the political consensus. Government funding (or lack thereof) tends not to be afforded to worthy northern programmes and the media, too, seem fixated with events in London.

“There has always been a certain ‘chippiness’ towards the south, or at least the idea of the south as a condescending neighbour that sucks in the north’s skill, goods and talent,” writes Clavane, astutely.

Globalised capitalism, of which the author believes there exists a socially responsible version, has made a mockery of the very values which made Yorkshire a 19th and 20th century powerhouse

Beginning in the Thatcher years of the 1980s, strong social principles of togetherness and collectivism were thrown out, with the individual placed before the community.

Disenfranchised

‘Right to buy’ increased homelessness throughout Yorkshire, the closing down of mines, decline of the fishing industry and outsourcing of factory work broke that spirited link between work and play, and left many in the north unable to reap the rewards of the south’s economic growth.

A Yorkshire Tragedy reaches out to those who have been left behind and reminds them that they are loved. It tells the disenfranchised men and women of Yorkshire that they are a cherished part of Britain, with a rich and respectable history.

“Sport is unpredictable, and these things go in cycles. But I don’t see the downward cycle coming back up”

Like me, Clavane notices an ominous connection between neglect and Yorkshire’s rejection of the political status quo on June 23rd this year. “What I think has happened is that whole swathes of the country have got chips on their shoulder over being left behind and betrayed, and that to me could help to explain the Brexit vote.

“These deep-rooted, long-standing communities have gone into decline and they’ve stuck two fingers up to the establishment and they will continue to do so.

On the question of an upturn in fortunes, Clavane is characteristically unmoved

“I’m a glass half empty man, so not very. It’s very strange. If I was writing about the decline of the economy or the film industry, you can forecast a trend. But let’s say Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday go up, all of a sudden my theory is buggered. That’s what sport is, it’s unpredictable, and these things go in cycles. But I don’t see the downward cycle coming back up.”

Yorkshire has been left behind. Of that there is no question. The author was understandably “very moved and angry by the absence of communities, shockingly impoverished” while writing his book. If only the political elite had an ounce of his consideration.

A Yorkshire Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of a Sporting Powerhouse, Quercus, £16.99. Feature image courtesy of the72.co.uk

Tarnished lustre of the Ballon d’Or

The usual names adorn this year’s Ballon d’Or shortlist.

A salad of supremely gifted attacking players from Europe’s top leagues, with regulars such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in contention.

The ceremony is on January 9th, but can anybody really say that they are looking forward to it?

Every year, the event receives a big billing from pundits, players and fans. It almost seems like an excuse to glamorise and draw even more attention to the sport. Attention which, by and large, doesn’t focus on the collective beauty of football, but rather on its individualistic and commercial value.

“Behind every significant footballer is a web of capitalist structures, from PR spokespeople to advertising companies”

Arsene Wenger rightly condemned the accolade last year for its tendency to “encourage selfishness”.

The award unashamedly prides itself on earmarking individual excellence. It appears to ignore the sport’s intrinsic collective spirit. The Ballon d’Or demands that great players think solely about themselves, their achievements and how they improve a team, rather than how their talent is extracted and nourished by team-mates.

This development is depressingly symbolic of contemporary western society. Thanks to neo-liberal capitalism and the withering away of our formerly Christian values, the emergence of ‘selfism’ has been ushered in to replace historical collectivist preferences.

This societal change is reflected in the continuing prominence of the Ballon d’Or. Football has not been able, or sought, to shelter itself from these changes.

Capitalist structures

Take the ever-growing commercialisation of sport. How fervent do we imagine Puma, Nike or Adidas’s interests are in the shortlisting and eventual winner of the Ballon d’Or?

When Adidas awarded Messi with the Golden Ball at the last World Cup, he looked like he had been handed a dead baby. He knew he didn’t deserve the honour, but Adidas were very keen on their baby soaking up the plaudits. The merit was shared between the player and the brand.

“The Ballon dOr is also consistent in its disregard for certain kinds of players”

Behind every significant footballer is a web of capitalist structures, from PR spokespeople to advertising companies.

The appeal radiated by the Ballon dOr, therefore, is now shared by the corporate visionaries who help to promote and brand ‘world footballers’.

This cannot be considered a healthy presentation of our sport.

Sure, the world of promotion hasn’t escaped team structures either: the major clubs receive huge financial incentives to display sponsors on their shirts and stadia. But at least it’s a celebration of team, unity and partnership, rather than a spotlight on an individual.

Disproportionate acclaim

The Ballon dOr is also consistent in its disregard for certain kinds of players.

Players of bloated goal tallies or attacking flair – as opposed to dominating centrebacks and title-winning goalkeepers – are in receipt of disproportionate acclaim.

“The household names will be back once more, posturing in their finery and bathing themselves in glory”

This should make football fans think about why the defensive side of the game, or the art of not scoring, is so often overlooked and underappreciated.

In the history of the Ballon dOr, only three winners were defenders: Franz Beckenbauer in both 1972 and 1976, Mathias Sammer in 1996 and Fabio Cannavaro ten years later, after leading Italy to World Cup glory.

The story of goalkeepers is even more dire. Only Lev Yashin, a Soviet great, managed to win the Ballon d’Or (back in 1963) from between the sticks, and we seem a long way from presenting the award to a goalkeeper once more.

Bias

It is easy to associate the goalscorers and headline-grabbers as being the game’s greats, but too often we overlook those who do the dirty work.

The holding players, the ferocious fullbacks and centrebacks who lead both on and off the pitch are worthy of mention. The Ballon dOr, though, isn’t so interested in them.

Perhaps those at the heart of selection and nomination have an ideological bias that they cannot seem to work past, or perhaps the art of defending has indeed been forgotten.

Either way, the Ballon dOr will return to our screens in just a couple of months’ time.

The household names will be back once more, posturing in their finery and bathing themselves in glory that cannot be attributed entirely to them.

How anybody can stomach it is beyond me.

Feature image courtesy of Carlos Torres via Flikr Creative Commons.