All posts by Brandon Prangell

Stephen Gulbis: the art of football

“I have been told by my dad that I was drawing on the walls when I was three, so I have been doing this for as long as I can remember.”

Art has been part of Stephen Gulbis’s life since early childhood, and his love of football was sparked a few years later, in 1969, when he attended his first match.

“It was at Middlesbrough’s old ground Ayresome Park,” he recalls. “My dad took me, and I was about nine years old at the time. Middlesbrough were playing Cardiff, who won 3-2.”

Gulbis has subsequently managed to combine his twin passions in a successful career spanning nearly 40 years. Better known as ‘The Football Artist’, his clients include Premier League clubs including Manchester United and Liverpool, the FA, EFL and the USA Soccer Federation.

Harry Maguire

He attended Bath Academy of Art between 1978 and 1981, and his first paid-for piece of work was published while he was still studying.

“That was during my final year as a student, and I have been working as a freelance illustrator ever since,” says the 61-year-old.

Style

His distinctive style has several influences. “There are so many pieces and people that have inspired what I do. I like the artwork in the Asterix and Tintin books, while graphic novel artists Sean Philips and Darwyn Cooke have done some good work.

“I also love the artwork in the Thunderbirds comic strips, so magazine illustrator Frank Bellamy would have to be up there with the work of Gerry Anderson creator of the Supermarionation TV shows, as well as Paul Trevillion [of ‘You Are The Ref’ fame] and legendary film poster artist Robert Peak.

“Of course, my work has gone through a variety of stylistic changes down the years. I have done realistic artwork, cartoons and stylised pieces, and my career also taken in the transition from handmade to digital pieces.

“These days, I hand draw the linework on paper with a mixture of brushes and ink and then once they have dried I add colour digitally to add a nice finish.”

Gulbis has produced cover illustrations for England matchday programmes

Although you can’t rush art, as the saying goes, being an illustrator in a commercial setting often involves Gulbis working to tight deadlines.

“What you have to consider when you are doing pieces is how detailed and complicated the work is to create. When I do personal projects, I do take my time. Commercial jobs tend to have a faster turn around, usually a couple of days or up to a week.

“I usually don’t like to do one piece at a time, I like having two or three on the go as it helps keep each piece fresher. Since starting, I have done hundreds of pieces that are all unique in their own way. At the moment, I am working on a couple of different prints, some on Portsmouth and others on Celtic.”

Production

Somerset-born Gulbis says research plays a vital part in his production process.

“For me, it’s what makes a piece that extra bit special,” he explains. “To do this job, I watch a lot of football, and what I really research is facial expressions and how sportsmen and women move in order to make the likeness of the action portrayed more accurate.

“To achieve this, I look at photos and video clips, but I always want my work to look illustrative rather than photographic. The thing about my pieces is all my prints are based on famous goals, games and legends, with an emphasis on storytelling, so this part of the work is crucial.”

Gulbis captures Jurgen Klopp as Liverpool win the Champions League

Having produced hundreds of pieces across the decades, it is hard for Gulbis to pick out particular favourites, but in terms of his recent work, three spring to mind for the positive response they received.

“I did a piece when Liverpool won the Champions League, which had Jurgen Klopp celebrating, and that turned out really well. I also did one of Kieran Tripper scoring that free-kick for England against Croatia in their World Cup semi-final (main image). That was special because of what it represented at the time.

“Another recent piece I did that I liked was a poster for the NFL when it came to Wembley. This was good because it was very different.”

Clients

The client-artist relationship is a big part of any illustrator’s life, and ‘The Football Artist’ is no different. Two really stick in his mind.

“I would have to say that both Stan McDonald who was the art director at Shoot! and Soccerstars magazines in the 80s and 90s, and Garry Hayes, the creative director at ProgrammeMaster, were my favourite people to do work for because they trusted me to do my job and gave me a lot of creative freedom.

Gulbis presenting Lee Dixon with his artwork

“I also had a piece commissioned by Universal back in 2017 which would be used to help promote their Arsenal 89 movie. The piece itself was in a comic strip style and I spoke a lot to Arsenal legend Lee Dixon about the story. He loved the artwork, so I presented him with a print at the film’s premiere in London.”

When he is not working on projects for clients, Gulbis and his wife of 28 years, Judith, put out new fine art prints via his online shop.

Despite taking a liking to Middlesbrough at that game in 1969, he claims not to support one team in particular, preferring to keep an open mind and watch as many games as he gets the chance to – although he will admit to having a soft spot for Boro and likes to see them do well.

If he could choose, though, to create a piece to illustrate one dream scenario in football, what would his be?

“I would say Marcus Rashford scoring the winning goal for England in a World Cup Final – and before you say anything, you did say it had to be a dream!” he says.

Finally, what advice would Gulbis give as an experienced artist to anyone wishing to follow in his footsteps?

“Because artistic opinions are so subjective, there will always be people who don’t appreciate your work, no matter how good it is. So, trust your own instincts, and don’t necessarily believe everything you are told.”

All images used in this piece are reproduced by kind permission of Stephen Gulbis. For more information, visit thefootballartist.com; click here visit his online shop.

Charlton legend Clifford juggling relegation battle with her day job

Although more female footballers are turning professional as the women’s game grows, tackling the twin demands of a full-time job and a playing career is common for those at FA Women’s Championship level.

One such player is Charlton Athletics’s Charley Clifford, who works for a motor finance company by day and joins up with her Addicks team-mates in the evening.

“I am in the office at eight every morning, and I leave about half four, or whenever I can get out, and then it is straight to training and then we don’t finish until at least 10pm,” the 27-year-old explains.

“If we can get on the pitches earlier, then we may leave earlier but it is always a late night and we do it again the next day.”

Clifford’s brother Tom plays for Southend United under Sol Campbell, but the Gravesend-born midfielder has her cousins to thank for introducing her to the game.

“They got me into football. I was put in goal in the back garden, they would kick balls at me as training, despite one of them being a keeper themselves, which is funny when you look back at it. From there, I initially joined my local boys’ team, and haven’t looked back since.”

Clifford has a great eye for goal, with 64 to her name for the Addicks. Last season, she established a formidable partnership with Kit Graham, however, she originally played in defence as a youngster.

“I just fell into this position, really. When we first started playing on 11-a-side pitches, I was played at right-back, but after a while I was moved into the centre of the park and have stayed there ever since, though I would be happy to play anywhere that the gaffer puts me.”

Support

Growing up, the Addicks star was supported by her parents as they juggled watching her and her brother make a career for themselves in football.

“Both my parents have sacrificed a lot, taking me and my brother to matches. My dad used to take me to all my games, but since my brother has gone pro, my mum has been watching mine more. Ours are on a Sunday, so it means they can both watch us as we now play on different days.”

Charlton commemorated Clifford’s 200th appearance

Making over 250 appearances in the famous red and white shirt, Clifford is a player who her younger team-mates look up to.

“We have got a very young team and everyone has got a lot of learning to do including me, even though people say ‘you’ve got all the experience’. I have, but I’ve still got learn how to deal with the younger players. With the fans, you don’t realise that all the young girls look up to you until you see their faces when they come to games.”

With seven matches left this season, Charlton are rooted to the bottom of the table on seven points, two off Lewes Women and Coventry City Ladies. The rest of the campaign is about belief if the Addicks are going to beat the drop.

Struggle

With only one victory all season – a 1-0 win over London City Lionesses in the Conti Cup Group stage back in November – Charlton have it all to do if they want to retain their Championship spot next season. However, Clifford believes they can still achieve that aim.

“I feel we can get out of this situation as the points difference isn’t huge, so if we can just win some of our remaining games then we will be fine. We will not want it to go down to the last game of the season because the pressure is just too much. The losing feeling isn’t a great one, especially when you have come out on top and that feeling is like nothing else. Touch wood, I have never suffered a relegation.”

Charley Clifford goes for goal against Crystal Palace Ladies in 2019

With a whole host of players coming and going, Charlton’s team chemistry took a hit, and the midfielder believes this has played a part in the team’s shortcomings this season.

“At the start of the season, we had 14 new players, and to gel with that many new people is hard and it takes more than a season. Playing with Kit Graham and Charlotte Gurr for the last few years, it has taken me at least this year to get on the same wavelength and gel with my new team-mates.”

This turnover of players is something that is common practice in the women’s game, with most teams getting several new faces during the season. For Clifford, it’s a case of getting used to all the changes happening around her.

“People jump from club to club, so there will be people that might be your friend from other teams you were in. You might go out for dinner with them one night and then the next day you might be on the pitch against them. You have to play for the team and put aside any personal relationships when on the pitch.”

Career

Clifford has achieved a lot since making her debut for the Addicks, playing for England at youth level and gaining promotion twice.

“When we won the league in 2017/2018, that was a pretty special moment as it was a really good season and everyone gelled together really well. The play-off match when we beat Blackburn Rovers was just unreal and it got us to the league we are in now. The feeling you get from being promoted on unbelievable.”

Riteesh Mishra joined as first-team coach in 2017 and has made a big impression on the midfielder’s footballing life.

“He brings new ideas, I like the way that he coaches, and I like that he goes down into the details. Also, his encouragement on the sidelines is massive and for us where we are at right now – we just need the encouragement rather than a battering.

“I feel like I have been coached really well in the last couple of years and I have learned a lot about the game, and that is largely down to him.”

Clifford in action against Gillingham back in 2014

The women’s game is seemingly going from strength to strength, with interest, attendances and media coverage increasing steadily, and Clifford says this bodes well for young girls who see football as their future.

“For the young girls coming through now, everything is in place for them to become professional footballers. When I was a kid that never was a thing, but now as a young girl, that should be every young girl’s dream to be a professional and I think more and more clubs are going to become professional. The women’s game could become massive as long as the money gets pumped into it.”

Charlton next play at The Oakwood on Sunday, 15 March 2020, when they take on eighth-placed Crystal Palace in a vital relegation six-pointer.

All images courtesy of Charlton Athletic Women’s photographer Keith Gillard. Find his photos at: https://topsnapper.photoshelter.com/index

Would female stars reinvigorate F1?

Formula One has only seen five female drivers compete in races and qualifying in its almost 70-year history – and now might be a good time for that to change.

We are currently in one of those eras in which one team and driver – Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton – are dominating the sport. The Briton will be gunning for his seventh title since 2008 when the new season begins in Melbourne on March 15th.

So how can F1 be made more interesting? How can its appeal be widened in a way which wins over new fans and generates fresh excitement? Surely one easy way is to get female drivers taken seriously and on the grid.

In recent years, the likes of Susie Wolff have tried hard to break down barriers in the male-dominated competition and show that women can compete at the highest level.

The Scot served as a test and development driver for the Williams F1 team between 2012 and 2015, and drove in pre-race practice sessions during 2014 at Silverstone and Hockenheim.

However, she eventually grew frustrated at waiting for her chance to claim a Grand Prix drive, claiming that she was fighting a losing battle in a sport in which, until recently, the most visible women were the race-day grid girls.

Pioneering women in F1

Wolff grew frustrated by the lack of opportunities for female racers in F1

Wolff is one of five female racers who have featured in F1 since its creation in 1950. The first was Italy’s Maria Teresa de Filippis, who competed in five GP races but only finished in one – the Belgian Grand Prix in 1958.

The next women to follow her was compatriot Lella Lombardi who remains the only woman driver to have points on the board. She started started 12 races and managed to finish sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.

Britain’s Divina Galica competed in four Winter Olympics as a skier but also took part in qualifying for three F1 races, the first being the 1976 British GP for the ShellSport Whiting team.

The follow season, she was handed the chance to replace Rupert Keegan at Hesketh Racing, but after failing to qualify for both the opening two races in Argentina and Brazil she called time on her F1 career.

Next came South Africa’s Desiré Wilson who lined up in qualifying for the 1980 British Grand Prix but failed to make the grid.

The last female racer before Wolff to try their luck in F1 was Giovanna Amati. Another Italian, she took part in qualifying in the first three races of the 1992 campaign but never raced in a Grand Prix.

Female success in other competitions

Women seeking to gatecrash the F1 party have usually found themselves given a chance by teams with little hope of taking on the manufacturer-backed outfits. But when female racers are given the right level of support, they can take on their male counterparts and challenge for honours.

America’s Danica Patrick (main photo) stunned the motorsport world in 2005 when she led for the Indianapolis 500 for 19 laps before finishing fourth. In 2008, she also became the first woman to win a major-league open-wheel race in a North American series when she won the IndyCar Series Indy Japan 300.

Patrick then moved from IndyCar to the NASCAR series, and became the first woman to take pole position for a NASCAR Cup Series event. Her eighth-place is still the highest finishing position ever by a woman.

France’s Michèle Mouton became an Audi works driver and won four World Rally Championship races. She had nine podium finishes and remains the only women to win a WRC race. In 1982, she was runner-up in the WRC drivers’ championship.

But who will be next to seek a breakthrough in F1? Jamie Chadwick, the inaugural champion of the women-only W Series, has moved closer to achieving her dream after joining Williams as a development driver but, as Wolff’s story shows, we have been here before.

So what will it take for women to finally take their place on the starting grid in motorsport’s most prestigious competition?

Points

Last season’s F1 bottom six

This season’s W Series winner will earn 15 points towards the 40 needed to gain the FIA Super Licence which any driver racing in Formula One needs. However, there is no guarantee that any number of points will open doors with F1’s teams.

Perhaps the winner of the W Series should at least get to try out for one of F1’s smaller teams. Who knows, if they succeed, they then might even get a chance with one of the bigger outfits?

I would also put forward the idea that any driver who finishes with less than the 25 points you get for winning a Grand Prix should be demoted, with their race seat given to an up-and-coming competitor.

Last season, for example, that would mean six racers ranging from Lance Stroll to George Russell would have been ‘relegated’.

Shaking up the grid

Another way of progression that could see more women in the driving seat is that every F1 team should have two female racers in their development line-up, with the main teams from F1 supporting them in the W Series to further expand their brands.

The first woman to make a breakthrough in this way doesn’t have to be the next Lewis Hamilton, but surely the likes of Jamie Chadwick are more deserving of a shot at racing in F1 than some of the drivers who are hired mainly on the strength of the sponsorship they bring in?

This ‘relegation’ concept would certainly shake up the industry and would make drivers even more keen to gather every point they possibly can towards the back of the grid. One point could possibly be the difference at the end of the season between staying in the sport and being demoted.

An all-female team?

Another idea which would certainly generate fresh interest in F1 would be to have an all-female race team and crew.

Critics might argue that having a such a team could be actually be seen as a negative for a woman driver – i.e. the only way she could get into F1 was through having an all-female outfit. However, once it became integrated into the sport and proven in competition, the other teams would start to see the potential of female drivers in real races, not just junior series.

Again, critics will say what if the all-women’s team came last every race? In F1, though, it’s a question of resources, not just driving talent, and if such a team had enough backing to properly develop and test its cars, it could ensure this wouldn’t happen.

It would certainly add a different dynamic to a competition where the outcome often suffers from being a foregone conclusion (see Hamilton, but also Michael Schumacher – seven titles in 11 years), and the rule-makers seemingly add a new layer of complexity every season.

Of course, F1 currently has lots of female fans, but how many more might it attract – to the delight of broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers – if women were competing and succeeding in the sport?

Feature image of Danica Patrick courtesy of  John Steadman via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0. Susie Wolff photo by Lewis James Houghton via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez

Aaron Hernandez: ruthless killer or tragic figure?

Aaron Hernandez was an NFL tight end for the New England alongside Rob Gronkowski. Their partnership was integral to the Patriots’ plans to continue their domination of the league.

However, despite Hernandez being the youngest player on any active roster in the NFL in 2010 after being a fourth-round pick in the draft, he would end up being compared to OJ Simpson rather than Junior Seau.

Aged just 25, he was was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. In a separate case, he was tried for but acquitted in 2017 of two more killings. Days afterwards, he was found dead in his cell: the verdict was suicide.

At the time, Hernandez was appealing against his murder conviction. Even if he wasn’t guilty, the Netflix documentary series Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez paints a vivid picture of an angry young loose cannon who was more than capable of pulling the trigger.

The three-parter conveys that it is more likely than not that Hernandez killed Odin Lloyd, his soon-to-be brother in law, but many parts of his troubled life don’t make a lot of sense.

If he did murder Lloyd, he was smart enough to hide the murder weapon and also was calm enough to conceal his emotions. What makes it all the more fascinating is that lawyer Jose Baez may well have got his conviction overturned – so why did Hernandez take his own life?

Mental health

The documentary leaves you in no doubt that something was wrong with Hernandez and, sure enough, it turns out that the man who scored 18 touchdowns for the Patriots had developed a heavily advanced stage of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

This serious brain condition is linked to repeated concussive impacts to the head and has been diagnosed in many ex-NFL stars. The documentary mentions how former Pittsburgh and Kansas City centre Mike Webster was the first player to be identified as having CTE, caused by damage to his frontal lobe and leading to cognitive dysfunction.

Former Patriots linebacker Seau was also mentioned as someone who had developed CTE. He shot himself dead in 2012 at the age of 43.

Since these and other diagnoses, the NFL has set aside $1bn to compensate around 18,000 retired players who have displayed signs of the condition. The fund has paid out $5m in cases of Alzheimer’s, $4m for people diagnosed with CTE, and $3m for those with dementia.

However, other deep-rooted issues were affecting Hernandez before he developed CTE. His violent father died when he was young, and his upbringing is best described as troubled.

Sexuality

The documentary also explored his sexuality, suggesting that he was possibly gay or at least bisexual but remained firmly in the closet because of the macho world of professional sport in which he lived.

The series interviewed a former college footballer who played with Hernandez and he recalled how they had experimented together, and that their relationship was more than just that of being friends.

At one point, Hernandez asked an attorney if people are born gay, and the documentary seems to want the issue of his sexuality to be a key cause of his profound unhappiness, knowing he could never ‘come out’ in the NFL.

There is also speculation that Odin Lloyd had perhaps seen Hernandez with another guy, or found out from someone else that he was gay. We will never know, but would keeping it secret have been enough to make him kill?

Since the documentary’s release, his brother and mother have come forward to say that he did tell the family before he died that he was, in fact, gay so it was a secret that in the end, he could not take to the grave.

Documentary poster image courtesy of Netflix UK. For information about the documentary series, click here.

Is the January transfer window outdated?

And so another January transfer window closes, and if you found the whole experience a little underwhelming – despite Jim White’s best efforts to hype it up on Sky Sports – you are probably not alone.

While many clubs did do deals between Jan 1st and 31st, 17 out of the 49 in the Premier League were loans. Few, it seems, want to splash the cash as the deadline looms and be seen as buying in a headless panic.

Even fewer want to risk costly mistakes such as Benni McCarthy to West Ham (on £38k a week in 2011; fined £200,000 for failing to lose weight), Jean-Alain Boumsong to Newcastle (an eyebrow-raising £8m in 2005; ended badly) and Fernando Torres to Chelsea for a then-British record fee of £50m on Jan 31st, 2011 (just 20 goals in 110 games).

Although Bruno Fernandes joined Manchester United for £46.5m, while Tottenham signed Steven Bergwijn (£25m) and also converted Giovani Lo Celso’s loan to a permanent deal (£30m), big-money moves were few and far between.

Loans

Loan deals – often with a view to buy if things work out – have become an increasingly important factor in January. They offer a short-term fix at a crucial point in the season, when the hectic schedule of festive fixtures has left squads depleted by injury or short of cover. Arsenal were looking to fix such issues by signing Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares.

It also works for players seeking game time, which is why Danny Rose – out of favour at Spurs with Euro 2020 approaching – got his loan move to Newcastle. He gets to play more, the Magpie get an experienced international defender, and Spurs get him off their hands.

Some fans might question why their clubs go for players on loan rather than signing them permanently, but the reality is loans work better for the signing club mid-season because they don’t have to pay large fees and, in some cases, may not have to pay all the wages involved.

One way you could re-invent the January window is to turn it into an exclusive loan only window.

Total top-flight outlay during this January window was £250m, a lot more than the £180m spent in 2019, but miles off 2018’s £480m. When you look at the spend in the last summer window (£1.4bn), there is no comparison.

This lack of high-profile signings in January, compared to years gone by, leaves the likes of Sky Sports, BT Sport and other media outlets with a problem as the winter window becomes less dramatic, less filled with big stories, but solving this could be more obvious than you might think.

Fixing the window

One way the January window could be re-invented is to turn it into an exclusive loan-only period. Why not when 34% of the deals were loans anyway?

Manchester United’s last-gasp loan swoop for Odion Ighalo from Shanghai Greenland Shenhua appears symptomatic of the way in which big clubs are no longer prepared to take a massive gamble on big deals in January, when buyers are seen as desperate and it is very much a sellers’ market.

What does seem to have changed, however, is how many such deals now have option-to-buy clauses and incentivised structures which are more complex that the simple loans of the past. These serve to increase the chances of players remaining beyond the short term – but not if things don’t go well.

Essentially, a loan is a quick fix for a situation which means clubs don’t have to fully commit to a player’s future, but may well decide to do so if this ‘try before you buy’ period goes to plan.

Making the January window loans-only would not necessarily appease fans desperate for their clubs to make a statement of intent by spending big, but perhaps they would eventually be persuaded that January is best-suited to short-term solutions, while summer is when the serious business is done.

Another option might be to scrap the January window completely. However, the number of games that English sides play in December and January causes the kind of wear and tear that led, for example, to Manchester United being forced into scouring the globe for a suitable striker.

The athleticism required to perform consistently in today’s high-intensity game is a fragile thing, and it is unlikely you would be able to convince managers that stopping them from replenishing their squads would be beneficial to the game – or the players pressured into returning to action to soon.

David Moyes

The David Moyes effect

Since David Moyes took over for the second time at West Ham, he has made the side a better team, with the likes of Sebastien Haller benefitting from the Scot’s approach.

But what has the former Everton and Manchester United boss done that has made a real difference in his three games in charge, and what does he offer the Hammers and their long-term plans to challenge the established top six?

Stability

The 56-year-old offers a back-to-basics approach to which will be needed for the East London club to at least stay in the league this season. At the start of the campaign, pundits including ESPN’s Don Hutchison were saying that they were going to be able to challenge for the top four, while this hasn’t been the case these players are the same and have real ability to save their season if used correctly.

Moyes will work on the training pitch with the squad to improve the little margins that they’ve not been getting right. Despite West Ham having many flair players, they are going to need to start passing normally before they can show their skills because it’s the trying to be exuberant that has cost the side an identity that they’re new manager will have to get back.

We have already seen a marked improvement in Haller, who scored his sixth goal of the season in West Ham’s 4-0 win over Bournemouth, and it was the players around him who really helped the Frenchman flourish.

The inclusion of Mark Noble made a big difference, and the Hammers needs their skipper and Declan Rice in a midfield to offer a combative duo in front of the back line. Mix in another hard worker in Robert Snodgrass, and the London club overpowered a poor Cherries side.

Defensive issues slowly being corrected?

With 21 games played the Hammers sit 16th in the league, having won one and lost one in the league under their new manager.

They’ve conceded one in three, including beating Gillingham in the FA Cap – a team they might have failed to see off under Manuel Pellegrini, considering Oxford United beat them earlier this season. Prior to that, they had conceded four in three games.

Lukasz Fabianski is one of the best keepers in the league, and a workman-like defence of Issa Diop and either Fabian Balbuena and Angelo Ogbonna should be enough to keep them up this season. From there, the club can look to get a serious partner for Diop, who is by far the club’s best defender.

Fabianski only recently returned to action after three months out with an injury, and Moyes will be hoping he can now stay fit. A mix-up between No.2 keeper David Martin and Balbuena cost the Hammers a point against Sheffield United, underlining Fabianki’s importance.

With Everton coming up for West Ham, it could be a make or break game for their season. If they get the tactics right, then they could be four points above the drop zone, and they will then surely have enough about them to get results and achieve safety.

Tactics

Having Snodgrass ahead of Manuel Lanzini is beneficial because while Lanzini is a better player, he has been below par and doesn’t perform well on the right-hand side.

Snodgrass has three goals and two assists compared to the Argentine’s three assists. He seems rejuvenated by playing for his fellow Scot, getting the assist for Mark Noble’s first against Bournemouth while also having an equaliser ruled out by VAR against Sheffield United.

Wingers have been a real problem for West Ham as they don’t have many good left-sided forwards, Of course, Felipe Anderson can play there but if he is being used as an attacking midfielder then they are short out wide. Pablo Fornals is also better when being played through the middle.

This means that when Moyes is playing with three at the back and a variation of five or six through the middle, he is using a formation that works to the strength of the squad. This will get the best out of all their attacking players, and if Haller plays up front on his own he can thrive with the level of creativity around him.

Moyes tempers expectations

Despite Hammers fans feeling that they need to be in European football, it is clear that the way the club is some way off that, despite spending lots of money on the likes of Haller from Frankfurt, Fornals from Villarreal and Alban Ajeti from FC Basel without splashing serious cash on their defence.

West Ham’s backline is a mess, with both Ogbonna and Balbuena being inconsistent. Ryan Fredricks is underwhelming at right-back, with 34-year-old Pablo Zabaleta his only competition.

Moyes’s brand of football is not necessarily fun to watch but it will minimise the deficiency’s in the squad’s defence.

Without Fabianski, the Hammers leaked goals due to their defence not being as good as the players going forward. Finding a way to mix the defence up without creating a lack of understanding will be one of the biggest tasks ahead for the West Ham boss.

David Moyes for a season or so could build them in the way they need to as he seems to have some good ideas moving forward like it or not this is the situation that they’ve put themselves in Moyes could be a crucial part of the hammers revival.

Signing former Hammers back-up goalie Darren Randolph from Middlesbrough for £4m means that, if something happens to Fabianski, the Hammers don’t have to rely on Roberto, who has been a flop and is likely to be moved on, or Martin – a decent keeper but not of Premier League ability.

Their new boss has also seen that the centre of midfield is a problem as well with Noble and Rice being their only two serious contenders. This is due to inheriting Jack Wilshere’s injury record rather than his footballing talent, while Carlos Sanchez has proved to be a free transfer that hasn’t worked out.

West Ham need someone to fill the back-up void for Rice, who has played all 21 games in the Premier League this season.

Can Moyes keep West Ham up?

The Hammers have some tough games between now and the end of February, with a six-pointer against Everton at the London Stadium, followed by an away encounter with high-flying Leicester City.

They also face Liverpool twice in the space of just under a month, but between those games, they have a winnable tie against Brighton. On February 9th, they travel to the Etihad Stadium in an unlikely search ofor points before ending the month hosting Southampton. By then, they could be in a real fight if some of these games don’t go their way.

Overall, West Ham should have just enough and could nick some surprising points to see them finish between 11th and 16th. Next season is going to be really important for the Premier League side if they are going to challenge like the fans and owners want them too.

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons by Hasegawa Takashi under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bomber: Newport’s Rocky is a true – and truly – inspirational story

If you like me, hadn’t heard of David Pearce, then watch Bomber: Newport’s Rocky – it’s a documentary about a kid from South Wales whose dream of being a top boxer ultimately ended in tragedy.

Pearce was a steelworker from the tough Newport neighbourhood of Pill when he set out to become world champion. A teak-tough amateur before turning pro, he challenged and beat fellow Welshman Neville Mead for the British heavyweight title at the age of 24.

In his moment of triumph, little did big-hearted ‘Bomber’ know that this would be as far as his plans to take on the world would progress. A brain scan subsequently revealed a congenital abnormality, and his boxing career was effectively over within the year. By the age of 41, he was dead.

It is left to his family to bring this beloved son of South Wales to life through their memories and stories, combined with some – at times – grainy footage from the 1970s and 80s of Pearce in the gym, out on training runs, being an polite interviewee, and as a hard-hitting warrior in the ring.

“David ‘Bomber’ Pearce fought for Newport and when he couldn’t fight no more Newport fought for him.”

Nathan Blake, narrator

This 30-minute documentary takes you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions as it draws you into Pearce’s sad story. You feel happy for him as he KOs Mead with a devastating punch to claim the British crown, and you cannot help but feel angry and disappointed for the Welshman as his ambitions are cruelly dashed by the British Boxing Board of Control.

The board are not necessarily the villains of the piece, though, because it turns out they were right to take Pearce’s licence away. He was allowed to unsuccessfully challenge for the European heavyweight title before he was told to stop boxing, but his subsequent decent into mental illness – likely sparked by his brain condition – led to his untimely demise.

Where there were gaps in his story that could not be filled by vintage footage, the producers boxed clever by adding animated sequences to keep the story moving along, including one featuring Britain’s ‘most dangerous prisoner’ Charles Bronson.

The convicted armed robber and notoriously violent inmate became involved in Pearce’s tale when the people of Newport began raising money to erect a statue of their fallen hero in the city. Bronson got in touch from jail keen to donate some of his artwork to be auctioned for the campaign, describing Pearce as a “proper geezer”.

The efforts to honour Pearce with a bronze of him holding the British heavyweight belt aloft were successful, and give the documentary an uplifting conclusion as the statue is unveiled next to the River Usk.

As Cardiff-born narrator Nathan Blake says in the closing moments: “David ‘Bomber’ Pearce fought for Newport, and when he couldn’t fight no more Newport fought for him.”

It provides a poignant ending to Pearce’s story, and raises the possibility that this permanent reminder of his exploits may one day inspire another kid from Pill to step into the ring and seek to emulate this local idol.

Feature image of David ‘Bomber’ Pearce courtesy of Darren Wyn Rees via Wikimedia Commons Creative Attribution-Share-Alike International CC BY 4.0

lacrosse

From ice hockey to lacrosse: Jussi Grut’s sporting journey

Jussi Grut has a hectic existence as he balances being a full-time second-year Journalism student at the University Arts London in Elephant and Castle with a career in Premiership Lacrosse.

Up to the age of six he was living in Canada and playing ice hockey. “I when I was three and I carried on playing until last year pretty much ,but when I was about 14 or 15, I watched a game of lacrosse in Canada and thought ‘I want to give this a try’,” he recalled.

“It was something on the side that was more for fun as the Ice hockey was pretty serious for me, but when I realised that I had gone as far as I could with hockey, I just started playing more lacrosse.”

It was a sporting switch which has paid off, and the 22-year-old is now receiving funding from the UAL Sports Scheme for elite athletes, despite the university not having a lacrosse team.

Jussi, who plays as a goalie, explained: “I was playing on the England Universities Lacrosse team, and people were putting the team sheet on their social media feeds. One of the sports guys at UAL saw it someone’s Instagram and messaged that person to tell me to get in contact about signing up for us this programme the university has.

“I didn’t even know that it existed until I got this message on Facebook that said you should sign up and we will see what we can do.”

Inspired

Growing up in Canada, where ice hockey is akin to a national religion, Jussi’s first sporting hero was Roberto Luongo, at the time the starting goalie for the Vancouver Canucks.

“Luongo was also Team Canada’s goalie,” he explained. “Every time I needed to get new leg pads, I would get the same ones as him, that kind of stuff, and he was just a nice guy. The way he talked to his team-mates inspired me, and that taught me how I’d approach talking to mine.

“When I started getting into watching professional lacrosse in the States, I started following a guy called Jesse Schwartzman, who is one of the best goalies in the Major League Lacrosse. Also, when I was about 16, I started going to training sessions with the Wales national squad, not with any hopes of making the team but to just to improve, and two of the goalies were really good guys. Not professionals who were playing in the States, like Schwartzman, but at the time it was like wow!”

With no UAL lacrosse team to represent, Jussi has been playing for the London Raptors, who are currently bottom of the table after four defeats in four games, most recently losing 11-5 to Hampstead, who won the league last season.

Though they will have a real battle on their hands to stay in the division after winning promotion last season, the Raptors can hope for a better 2020 as they have already faced Walcountain Blues, Hitchin, Spencer and Hampstead – three of the four finished in the top four last season.

A normal week for the goalie consists of going to the gym twice sometimes three times, then he has training with the London Raptors squad on Friday nights in Canada Water. Matches tend to be on Saturdays, while on a Sunday there are try-outs – he aims to attend those held by Wales.

‘The dream’

National recognition is on his radar, and when he discusses his biggest achievement so far he also lays out his ambitions.

“Getting scouted by Canada was big for me because that was the thing that I had set my sights on since I was a young hockey player. The dream was I want to get out of England and I want to play, and I did that. For lacrosse, though, I think it is just the next thing that comes along will be my greatest achievement.

“So far, it would be making the England universities team, or last year being in the Wales squad for the World Cup in Israel. I didn’t end up going because they took two goalies, not three, but it would have been a lot of money to go. I could have gone but I didn’t want to because it is self-funded and would have cost almost three grand to go and watch, basically.”

With the European Championships coming up next summer in Wrocław, Poland, the 22-year-old is hoping to make it again into the Wales squad but this time he believes he will be ready if he gets the call-up.

“I’m quite confident that I can make it, but as a goalie, there are a lot of different factors that coaches could take into account. For example, the first cut has already been done and they have cut it down to, I think, six of us, and I would say that I’m in a good position within those six. It depends whether the coach wants experience or a mix of younger and older players in terms of whether I make it to the tournament or not.”

Advice

On the global stage, the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) has met with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to lay out a way getting Lacrosse into the Olympic Games. Among followers of the sport, there is an expectation that by 2028, when Los Angeles host the Olympics, lacrosse will be back in the Games programme for the first time since 1908.

Jussi says: “I think if that happens then you never know how far the sport can grow. People might see it and be like ‘Oh yeah, let’s give that a try’. Team GB would be good team, and if it was on TV and kids in the UK saw British players competing against the best teams and doing well, then that would encourage them to start.”

For any interesting in giving lacrosse a go, Jussi says: “Just give it a go. I understand that it is not for everyone, but just go into it with an open mind. You might have to put up with a bit of stick to start with, and it is not something that you can pick up instantly. I remember when I first started, it was really frustrating because of the skillset that you need to even begin to start playing competitively.”

He added: “Once you get past that hurdle, it is amazing. It’s best if you can try and find clubs that are accommodating. Find one that has a second or a third team with its own training session, or even go and play with some of the mixed lacrosse teams. There is one called Rainbow Rexes, I think they play on Clapham Common every Sunday afternoon and it is just a pick-up, no contact, just throwing the ball and having a good time playing lacrosse.

“Once you have mastered the basics then you can look to move up into a bigger team, but if you don’t know how to throw or catch, then a Premiership team doesn’t want you there.”

Lacrosse photo by Doug Schveninger via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

National Arena, Bucharest

Preview: Euro 2020 Group C

Group C consists of Austria, the Netherlands, Ukraine plus one team from the play-offs.

Austria

Ranking: 26th (Fifa); 16th (Uefa)

Head-to-head records:

Against the Netherlands: W-6 D-4 L-9 S-24 C-36

Against Ukraine: W-1 D-0 L-1 S-4 C-4

Key Player – Marcel Sabitzer: The attacking midfielder is one of several key contributors for Das Team, getting two goals and five assists in nine games for his country as they finished behind winners Poland in Euro qualifying Group G.

Next summer’s European Championship will only be the third time that Austria have made it to the Euros, the first being in 2008 when they co-hosted with Switzerland. The team, currently managed by Franco Foda, have never gone beyond the group stage.

In fact, they have only ever got one point from each of the other two Euros for which they have qualified. This time round, they sealed their spot at next summer’s tournament by beating Macedonia 2-1 in a must-win game, courtesy of goals from David Alaba and Stefan Lainer.

Netherlands

Amsterdam Arena
Amsterdam Arena will host the Netherlands’ three group games

Ranking: 14th (Fifa); 9th (Uefa)

Head-to-head records:

Against Ukraine: W-1 D-1 L-0 S-4 C-1

Against Austria: W-9 D-4 L-6 S-36 C-24

Key Player – Virgil Van Dijk: The Dutch skipper is one of three defenders to make the Ballon D’Or shortlist. He has been an important cog for club side Liverpool, helping them to win the Champions League last season, following a runners-up finish the year before.

Ronald Koeman’s Netherlands are favourites to win Group C, having been reinvigorated following their failure to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This will be the 10th time they have featured in the Euro finals, with the Dutch winning the trophy in West Germany in 1988.

The one criticism of the Oranje is that they lack a top-level recognised striker, with the majority of their goals being supplied by Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay. The pair scored 24 in qualifying, including scoring six in the two matches against Germany, who topped the group.

Ukraine

Ranking: 24th (Fifa); 15th (Uefa)

Head-to-head records:

Against Austria: W-1 D-0 L-1 S-4 C-4

Against the Netherlands: W-0 D-1 L-1 S-1 C-4

Key Player – Andriy Pyatov: The 93-cap international is currently Ukraine’s captain. In their 2-2 draw with Serbia, he became the most-capped goalkeeper for his team. Pyatov is a legend of the game in Ukraine and has made 443 appearances for Shakhtar Donetsk, conceding just 370 goals and winning nine league titles with them.

Ukraine’s form was lifted when their most famous former player, Andriy Shevchenko, finally took the manager’s role after refusing it several times previously. They failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, though only finished three points off of Croatia.

This time out in qualifying, Shevchenko’s men topped Group B with two games to spare after beating favourites Portugal 2-1. Roman Yaremchuk and Andriy Yarmolenko scored, before a late scare from Cristiano Ronaldo, ensuring a place in a major tournament for the third time.

In terms of who makes the knockout stages, it is likely to be a scrap between Ukraine and Austria for second place behind the Dutch. Both could make it through as one of the best third-placed teams, but both would be in the knockout phase for the first time.

The final team will be the Winner of Path D in the play-offs (Georgia; Belarus; North Macedonia; Kosovo) – unless Romania win Path A containing Iceland, Bulgaria and Hungary.

Rankings and key players for the possible other Group C team

Georgia: 91st (Fifa), 38th (Uefa); Belarus 87th (Fifa), 37th (Uefa); North Macedonia: 68th (Fifa), 36th (Uefa); Kosovo: 115th (Fifa), 46th (Uefa); Romania: 37th (Fifa), 22nd (Uefa).

Georgia – Jaba Kankava: Captain of his national team, the experienced defensive midfielder is currently is playing for Tobol in the Kazakhstan Premier League. He has played over 80 times for his country and he featured in Ligue 1 for Stade de Reims a couple of years ago.

Belarus – Syarhey Palitsevich: He is one of many experienced faces in the Belarusian camp, having been capped 31 times. Currently, the centre-back is playing for Kairat Almaty, recent runners-up in Kazakhstan Premier League.

North Macedonia – Goran Pandev: Pandev is a legend in his home country – not only is he the most-capped player with 108, he is also their all-time top scorer with 34 goals. Despite having turned 36, if his country made it through, he would likely be selected for one final hurrah.

Kosovo – Milot Rashica: The Werder Bremen star made the switch to featuring for Kosovo after playing twice for Albania. His debut for them came in August 2016 against Finland.

Romania – Ciprian Tătărușanu: The experienced ‘keeper is his team’s most capped star and has experience from featuring in 2016 European Championships in France. He has spent the last couple of years in the top flights of Italy and France.

Group Schedule:

Sunday 14 June (all kick-offs Central European Time):

Austria v Play-off winner D or A (18:00, Bucharest)

Netherlands v Ukraine (21:00, Amsterdam)

Thursday 18 June:

Ukraine v Play-off winner D or A (15:00, Bucharest)

Netherlands v Austria (21:00, Amsterdam)

Monday 22 June:

Play-off winner D or A v Netherlands (18:00, Amsterdam)

Ukraine v Austria (18:00, Bucharest)

Routes to the later stages:

Round of 16:

Saturday 27 June: 1A v 2C (21:00, London)

Sunday 28 June: 1C v 3D/E/F (18:00, Budapest)

Monday 29 June: 1F v 3A/B/C (21:00, Bucharest)

Tuesday 30 June: 1E v 3A/B/C/D (21:00, Glasgow)

Quarter-Finals:

Friday 3 July: Winner 6 v Winner 5 (18:00, Saint Petersburg); Winner 4 v Winner 2 (21:00, Munich)

Saturday 4 July: Winner 3 v Winner 1 (18:00, Baku); Winner 8 v Winner 7 (21:00, Rome)

Semi-Finals:

Tuesday 7 July: Winner QF2 v Winner QF1 (21:00, London)

Wednesday 8 July: Winner QF4 v Winner QF3 (21:00, London)

Final:

Sunday 12 July- Winner SF1 v Winner SF2 (21:00, London)

Key:W= Won; D= Draw; L= Lost; S= Scored; C= Conceded

National Arena, Bucharest, main photo by Carpathianland via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC 2.0.Amsterdam Arena photo by Javier Novo Rodriguez via Flickr Creative Commons, licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0