All posts by Sam Taylor

Aaron Thompson – the tough life of an amateur motorsport racer

Getting hold of Aaron Thompson in the flesh was always going to prove to be extremely difficult.

An electrician running two jobs, living with his girlfriend in Leicester, the 18-year old from Essex works 16 hours today to fund the biggest passion in his life; motor racing.

For the majority of us, when we think of a racing driver, we think of the glamour, girls and the grid in Monte Carlo; Casino Square, the swimming pool-topped hotels along Beau Rivage, and the marina bursting with super-yachts.

We don’t tend to consider those outside of F1, the men and women who grind throughout the week to just get on the grid on Sunday morning.

That’s why when I spoke to him, it was over the phone on the way home, and somewhat poetically, he was in the car.

Thompson comes from a racing family. His father still races today, and his grandfather was a top-level short-track oval racer in his day. With a hereditary talent, it makes sense that he’s already a big name in amongst the series’ he’s been competing in.

Investment

As the 2015 BRSCC Ford Fiesta Junior champion, and the most successful driver in the history of the series, his career as a ‘tin-top’ driver has gone from strength to strength.

After a year in the Quaife Fiesta series, where he set another record for winning the first race he contested, he made the jump to the much bigger, quicker, Renault UK Clio Cup Championship.

‘I haven’t walked into a team that are set in their ways and have their standard. We’ve been able to do that together’

After a solid debut season with Jamsport, the team who nurtured him when he made the switch from karts to Fords, he was picked to race by a brand new team in the paddock; Matrix Motorsport.

Managed by the veteran Clio engineer Dave Hayes, Matrix’s attitude to the series are really what drove Thompson away from the team he spent three years with.

“Matrix are approaching this not a business but as a family and as people that want to have success and want to do well,” he told me.

Obviously, there’s a lot of money involved in motorsport and the team owners want to justify their investment, but they’ve helped me out with testing budgets and time in the car.

The overall knowledge that the guys I have around like my data engineer, my actual engineer and the rest of them, and the knowledge they have of the cars themselves has put me in a position where I can go out and actually win races this year.”

Swept up

On top of their will to win, the Midlands-based outfit have both cherry-picked their drivers and also been able to build a team based on their requirements of each of them.

“Because we’re off the block, the guys in the team who run and own it all had their pick of the drivers they wanted to use this year. So what they’ve essentially done is built a team around us which is fantastic so far because I haven’t walked into a team that are set in their ways and have their standard. We’ve been able to do that together.”

Despite being swept up by a brand new team as one of their four-man driver line-up, the teenager still has to work his fingers to the bone to get on the grid. Especially more so than when he raced the Fiestas, where the budgets were no where near what they are in the Clio Cup.

“We’ve got quite a few sponsors on board, but Clios is such extortionate money that you’re going to need quite a bit of sponsorship to cover it. My work pays for my petrol, tyres, mortgage and maybe a pint if I do a bit of overtime. My dad’s the same.

“I started work at six o’clock this morning and I’ve finished [we spoke at two o’clock in the afternoon], and now I’m on my way home to have a sandwich. Then I’ve got to go into Leicester to do a night from eight until four, then go home have an hour’s kip, the go back to work at 6 o’clock, and I’ll do the same every single day.”

‘At least double that’

The money is what usually holds people back from getting into motorsport. Once you’ve bought the car, got to the race and bought tyres and fuel, you’re going to be set back way more than what you think.

When I said to him the figure I found online, he was taken aback at how short of the actual numbers it was. “You read 95 grand [to fund a season’s racing]? Where?”

“The Renault UK website,” I replied.

“It’s at least double that, at least. Jack McCarthy [Team Pyro] last year spent over £300,000 on Clios.

“I’ve met so many good kids. There’s a guy that I’m really good friends with, and he races in Mazda MX-5 Super Cup. I’m telling you now, if you put him in any race car, he’ll be up there. Last year, everyone was putting four brand new tyres on every weekend, he bought two brand new tyres last year and that was it.

“It is one of the most competitive championships out there. Paul O’Neill (the BTCC driver) couldn’t win a race in it, and my mate finishes inside the top 10 comfortably with tyres that are 3 weekends old, the car’s beaten up and he hasn’t done any test days. He’s a top, top driver, but he just can’t afford it.”

Passion

Although the money involved does end the careers of many drivers prematurely, Thompson has made it clear that he will continue to race, whatever the cost.

“I met my girlfriend through racing. She doesn’t race anymore, so it’s a bit different now as she doesn’t quite get how much of a passion it is. But I’ve already made it very clear to her from day one, I will race no matter what.

‘I’ve got a plan over the next couple of years of where I want to end up and what I want to do’

“If I completely run out of money, short oval racing will cost me £100 a month and I’ll do it. I’ve made it very clear to the missus as well, if we’ve got to sell up, and move back in with mum and dad to fund a couple of years of racing I’ll do it tomorrow.”

You could argue that being prepared to sell your new home to go racing is extreme.

However, in a world where so many people don’t follow their dreams, and seeing just how hard he works to get in the car every season, his desire is incredibly inspiring for anyone who wants to make it in motorsport, or any walk of life.

Even though he’s up to his neck in work, and gets next-to-no sleep, Thompson has still given himself goals for his future inside the car.

“I’ve always been realistic. If I was to say right now I’m going to win the championship this year, I’d be lying. Yes, I do genuinely believe I am in a position where I can win races this year, but consistent top fives, top five in the championship, a couple of podiums and a win would be perfect.

“I’ve got a plan over the next couple of years of where I want to end up and what I want to do. I just need to put it into place and practice what I preach and hopefully in the next theree years I could be in the British Touring Car Championship.”

Aaron is on Twitter @AThompsonRacing

Why there should be more goalkeeper pundits on TV

As an amateur goalkeeper, it’s always frustrating when people don’t appreciate just how hard the role really is.

It’s completely different to playing outfield; you can’t make a sloppy pass to the other team, quietly retreat into your shell or take a poor first touch, as any of these will almost always lead to a goal.

Us goalkeepers are mentally rather than the physically  exhausted after a game. It’s 90 minutes of pure focus, with no chance to switch off because a team can break in three seconds and be bearing down on you on the counter.

As a result, I always find it difficult when the usual gang of pundits on whichever channel is broadcasting a televised game begin to criticise the goalkeepers because, usually, none of them were ever one.

The BBC’s usual suspects, or Sky’s Soccer Saturday squad all feature outfield players of questionable qualities in their own positions, let alone in goal.

Future in punditry

Therefore, it was a breath of fresh air when Petr Cech made his punditry debut on the BBC as Leicester City played Chelsea in the quarter-final of the FA Cup.

The Arsenal goalkeeper, 35, stepped up from the pitch to the studio to essentially put his foot in the door for a future in punditry before hanging up is gloves in the next 12 or so months.

Despite not having to be called upon for the highest quality of insight, there was a flash of what having a ‘keeper does to the rest of the panel, especially when reviewing someone between the sticks.

Leicester’s equaliser came from their fourth attempt in two seconds. Two blocks from defenders followed by Willy Caballero’s parried save fell into the path of Jamie Vardy, whose attempt crept through the hands of the Chelsea ‘keeper to draw the Foxes level.

As soon as the goal went in, Danny Murphy, co-commentating alongside Guy Mowbray on the night, was quick to suggest Caballero’s “disappointment” in himself, as the ball he initially saved bounced back into the path of Vardy via his knee.

Nothing new

In the post-match analysis, however, Cech was quick to defend the actions of the goalkeeper, putting the blame simply on bad luck rather than an error that cost the team a goal.

The Czech pointed out the bodies in front of the ‘keeper during the three strikes prior to the goal and also the time he has to even get to the ball in the first place, which has to be commended.

‘Bullard’s inability to make the ball stick to his hands or move his body quickly across the ground cruelly exposed an outfield player’s ineptitude in the position’

Outfield players-turned-pundits harshly criticising goalkeepers is however nothing new.

In the Daily Mail, Mark Schwarzer, ex-goalie for Chelsea, Fulham and Middlesbrough, believes that pundits will not argue about the qualities of a ‘keeper like they would an outfield player, and would rather just leave an opinion on the table and everyone jumps on the bandwagon.

“Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet has been this season’s whipping boy,” says the Australian. “He has made mistakes just as I did numerous times during my 22-year career. But a lot of the time he is unfairly criticised.

“A lot of pundits want a response and the publicity. It is ironic that if a goalkeeper does not attempt to reach a shot, he is almost let off. The view will be: ‘He had no chance’. Yet if he does well to get a decent hand on it, they will say he should have saved it! That cannot be right and underlines a lack of expertise on the position.”

Challenge

What underlines their lack of knowledge on the position even more is what happens when we see an outfield player actually pull on the gloves.

Soccer AM’s weekly segment You Know The Drill, featuring Jimmy Bullard, sends the midfielder up and down the country to take on teams in drills and challenges devised by a team’s coaches.

Two seasons ago, Burnley boss Sean Dyche decided to mix up the challenge by putting Bullard alongside Tom Heaton to go through some goalkeeping drills rather than the usual turn-and-score circuits that are staged.

As a result, Bullard’s inability to make the ball stick to his hands or move his body quickly across the ground cruelly exposed an outfield player’s ineptitude in the position.

To top it off, the drills didn’t include anything to do with organisation or decision-making, the two things that make a truly great goalkeeper stand out from the rest.

Bullard even admits in the video: “It’s so much harder than it looks.”

This is why introducing more former goalkeepers as pundits will redress the balance when it comes to criticism.

If the berating were to continue, it could have the long-term effect of dissuading younger generations to become goalkeepers in the future.

Circuit Paul Ricard

F1 circus returns to Paul Ricard

As 2018 won’t see any major regulation changes following on from Lewis Hamilton’s fourth driver’s title, the focus on the new this year falls on a circuit that is in fact anything but.

Last used 28 years ago, the Circuit Paul Ricard was home to the French leg of the Formula One calendar for 14 seasons between 1971 and 1990 before the organisers switched the Grand Prix away from Le Castellet to Magny-Cours.

Technically, this layout of the track hasn’t seen a F1 race since 1985, where the circuit switched from its original length of 5.809km to a shorter, ‘club’ version, removing the loop around Saint-Beaurne and the first half of the colossal Mistral Straight.

The track has not, however, been left exactly the same as it was 33 years ago. In keeping with the push on safety this season, epitomised by the ‘halo’, the 1.8km of tarmac before the terrifying right-hander of Signes has been split right down the middle, where a right-left-right chicane has been introduced.

According to the director-general of the circuit, Stephane Clair, this new feature will create a more of a “spectacle” for fans, as it introduces a huge braking zone to aid overtaking.

Whilst this has been so far unpopular with the supporters, he goes on to make the valid point that F1 cars reach their top speed in far less time than the straight anyway, making it pointless to have nearly 2km of a car at full speed with next to no overtaking.

Fine line

Despite the introduction of a chicane to slow the cars down, the organisers did nothing about the aforementioned Signes corner, a right-hander that, according to FIA simulations, will be taken by drivers at 343 km/h.

Whilst Mexico decided to replace the famous Peraltada corner for safety reasons, the decision to keep Signes in France helps to balance the fine line that the FIA have drawn between safety and excitement.

‘After finishing second all those years ago, it seems as though Newey and Red Bull may well have to settle for second-best again on 24th June’

Beyond the history of the layout itself, the track in fact made history back in 1990, when it helped to spark the career of one of F1’s great designers.

Already a famed IndyCar designer, Adrian Newey was looking to get a foothold in F1. Whilst working at March, he helped to design both F1 and IndyCars before the team was bought out by their title sponsor Leyton House, a Japanese real estate company.

At the last Grand Prix held in the south of France, Newey’s Leyton House 881 car, the first from which he designed from scratch, featured a host of aerodynamic traits that are now considered standard practice across the grid.

The driving position, front wing design and other aerodynamic features all culminated in Le Castellet, when Ivan Capello and Mauricio Gugelmin both drove their cars from seventh and tenth on the grid into first and second for much of the race, before Gugelmin was forced to retire and a misfire meant that Capello finished second.

Sought-after designer

Leyton House’s Judd engine was way down on power compared to the rest of the field, especially compared to the top teams of Williams, Ferrari and McLaren at the time.

As a result, the aerodynamic capability demonstrated by the 881 helped to catapult Newey from a successful IndyCar aerodynamicist into a sought-after F1 designer.

As a result, both through his talents at the drawing board and due to the arrest of Leyton House’s team owner and the constructer’s eventual demise, Newey moved in 1990 to Williams, where he would design arguably the most advanced Formula One car ever made, the FW14b.

Since moving to Williams, on to McLaren and now Red Bull, the 59-year old has amassed 10 constructor’s titles to his name, more than any other designer in the history of the sport.

After finishing second all those years ago, it seems as though Newey and Red Bull may well have to settle for second-best again on 24th June.

After the second test in Barcelona, Mercedes once again look ominously quick on harder tyres than the rest of the field, and Paul Ricard’s clear need for out-and-out speed will once again favour the defending champions and their all-dominant works engine. 

Image by Gilbert Sopakuwa via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Book Review: How To Build A Car by Adrian Newey

Usually a quiet figure who glides up and down the grid pre-race with a notepad taking notes on other cars, Adrian Newey has been at the forefront of Formula One for 18 years.

Now, since he took a step back from the day-to-day research and development and took on a wider role at Red Bull, the Old Reptionian has written a book, How To Build A Car, excellently encapsulating his time so far in motorsport.

Split into ‘turns’ rather than chapters, each one asks how you would go about designing each of Newey’s most iconic cars, starting with his time at March building IndyCars and then at Williams, McLaren and Red Bull.

The book perfectly highlights the process of Newey’s mind when it comes to sitting at his drawing board.

When the rule changes come through for an upcoming season, the art of the designer is to read between the lines, and not simply abide by what is in front of you. Looking for the slightest aerodynamic gain is what has given the 59-year old both 10 constructor’s titles and an OBE.

Expelled

Despite going into great detail about the development of his greatest machines, it doesn’t mean the reader also needs a first class hours degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics. The drawings done just for the book help to visualise exactly what Newey is talking about.

As a child, the labels on Tamiya model car kits helped him to understand what parts of the car were. His sketches are our childhood Japanese toys.

‘During the promotion of the book, Newey revealed that he was offered the top job at Ferrari multiple times’

However, for those not so interested in the finer details, each ‘turn’ goes into the stories of the seasons gone by, and his younger life as a troublemaking student at Repton, culminating in him being one of only two students being expelled from the school in the 1970s, the other being Jeremy Clarkson.

Whilst many of the stories that are told are ones of unrivalled success, whether it be at his early years at Williams or his ongoing time at Red Bull, the stories where things aren’t going to plan stand out as the most gripping, with the 1994 season being the hardest-hitting of them all.

As the lead designer of the FW16, and as one of the leading men in the garage in Imola, Newey is better placed than anyone to help to answer the many unanswered questions surrounding the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994.

Beyond the technicalities of the engineering surrounding the failure of the car on May 1st, the glorious writing from Andrew Holmes, who Newey credits in his acknowledgements, perfectly encapsulates the emotions of what the whole Williams team must have felt at the time.

Ferrari offers

The waste of life, the age-old questions about whether it’s all worth it, are all thoroughly dissected through both the memories of Newey and the writing of Holmes.

Obviously, the aerodynamicist’s time at the pinnacle of motorsport has run alongside the rise and fall of F1’s most successful team.

Throughout the book, he seems to channel the frustrations of many of the engineers across the paddock who have to contend with Ferrari and the FIA (Ferrari International Aid as they are known across the garages).

According to Newey, Ferrari’s financial might and huge support have given them both increased funding from motorsport’s governing body and also far more leverage when it comes to decision-making and rule-breaking, which he has had to contend with for much of his career.

During the promotion of the book, Newey revealed that he was offered the top job at Ferrari multiple times during his career and promised wages that no other team could ever match. Despite the offers, the man born in Stratford-upon-Avon could not be drawn to Maranello and has stayed in Milton Keynes for 11 years.

How To Build A Car allows us to enter the mind and the life of a man who has been at the forefront of motorsport technology for near two decades.

The book opens up both his genius with a pencil in his hand and lets us see the tearaway side to him that you’d never know he had based on his interviews in the paddock.

How To Build A Car is published by HarperCollins.

Video: A day out at Dulwich Hamlet FC

Although Dulwich Hamlet play in the third tier of non-league football in the Bostik Premier, they regularly attract crowds of over 1,500 to their Champion Hill ground.

What is it about the South London club that brings in so many fans, and why are they up in arms at present about the planning dispute that threatens the future of ‘The Hamlet’?

Filming and interviews: Ed Krarup and Sam Bennett

Editing and production: Sam Taylor

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Funeral for a fan proves football is more than just a game

For any football fan, the words “it’s only a game” are among the most frustrating and belittling you can hear when your side has just lost.

My girlfriend, Jayne, is typically culpable for this. I fell victim to her comment as Sam Clucas put Swansea 3-1 up against Arsenal and I was put in a foul mood for the rest of our night out.

 We were on a trip back to her hometown of Liverpool for her grandfather’s funeral. Bernie Watkinson was a father of five, a loving husband and a lifelong Evertonian.

I had never met Bernie, but I had heard stories of his devotion to the Toffees stretching throughout his life, right up until his final days.

The day before he died, he was talking to his grandson, Michael, about Everton’s chances at Wembley as they played Tottenham Hotspur. Big Sam’s men were without a win in five.

“I’m glad he wasn’t here to see it,” Michael said at the wake, as Spurs swept Everton aside with a crushing 4-0 win.

Footballing farewell

The quiet coach we sat in on the train up to Liverpool Lime Street seemed particularly apt considering what awaited us over the next few days.

The air conditioning was bitterly cold, much like the Irish Sea winds that batter the city, and the lack of voices foreshadowed the eerie silence that hung inside Bernie’s wife’s living room before the funeral cars arrived on Monday morning.

However, what set the precedent for the coming days wasn’t the cold or the quiet, it was watching what I could of the FA Cup tie between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion on my phone.

Liverpool’s chaotic 3-2 defeat, which saw two uses of the new VAR system, and also the Reds’ first home defeat in 19 games, seemed almost like a gift to a grieving Evertonian family.

‘The conversations that took place were a true testament to football’s ability to give everyone an escape on a sad Sunday afternoon’

I met Jayne’s grandmother, and all of her aunts, uncles and cousins for the first time on Sunday afternoon, in the same room that we would all reconvene in again the day after for the funeral. Hardly the best circumstances to meet an entire extended family.

You could sense the expectation for tomorrow; as though the emotion of what was to follow was already in the room just waiting to come out.

Despite the lingering sadness, the television shone a bright green as Manchester City played Cardiff, also in the Cup. City’s sharp baby blue cut through a room made grey by the cloudy weather, and what amazed me the most was that it wasn’t just ‘on’.

Everyone was watching it, and all had an opinion on it, whether it was the ridiculousness of the Noisy Neighbours’ Middle Eastern funding, or the selective use of VAR.

Most prominent in conversation was Liverpool’s defeat the day before, with one member of the family getting an absolute battering from everyone else, being the sole Liverpool supporter.

The conversations that took place were a true testament to football’s ability to give everyone an escape on a sad Sunday afternoon.

It was incredible to see how football became a safe haven for 15 or so distraught family members, and it was a big two fingers to the people who say it doesn’t matter.

The following morning, the tears that held back on Sunday began to fall and football’s safe haven shifted in to being an avenue of remembrance.

The flowers, carried through the rain to the cars, were blue and white and would later lie around the Dixie Dean statue outside Goodison Park. Small touches throughout the day reflected Everton’s stature in Bernie’s life.

Anywhere but Anfield

Bernie’s wife, Bettie, was adamant that the trip to the crematorium mustn’t pass Anfield, though she organised that the cars would drive around Goodison Park before moving on.

To close the service, the celebrant finished with the words “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum”, the club motto. Balloons were released to the theme of the TV series Z-Cars, the same music that the players walk out to before each home game.

Despite the Evertonian focus, and Bettie’s desire to stay away from Anfield, avoiding Liverpool FC would always be a hard task. The crematorium’s main gate faced onto Stanley Park. Jutting out over the horizon stood Anfield’s Main Stand and Anfield Road Stand, imposing itself over the surrounding area.

Liverpool’s illustrious and, in 1989, tragic history as a football club means that they are the most renowned club in the north west. Everton remain firmly in the shadow of their neighbours.

Anfield being in the backdrop to his funeral service seemed to represent the club being in the backdrop to Bernie’s life as an Everton supporter; never in full focus, but too hard to ignore.

After the wake, where alcohol became the family’s ‘safe haven’, I thought that my time soaking up the Evertonian lifestyle had come to an end. However, Jayne’s father Chris mentioned that he could get tickets for Everton’s game against Leicester City on Wednesday night.

One last win for Bernie

I had to go, not only as a football supporter, but as a way to pay my own respects to Bernie. Despite never meeting him, he shared my passion for the sport.

Before going through the turnstiles that I had passed just two days before on the way to the crematorium, we went to the Dixie Dean statue. Bernie’s flowers were sat to Dixie Dean’s left, resting alongside the flowers of other late Evertonians. Chris took a picture for the rest of the family to see, and then we made the walk around the ground to the Bullens Road Stand.

Our tickets were in the Lower Bullens, tucked away at the back, shielded from the dreadful wind and rain that lashed down on those in the Paddock Stand in front of us.

‘Football’s ability to make people forget, remember and feel elation or dejection in a heartbeat, proves that it is more than “just a game” ‘

The seats were fitted after the 1990 Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster demanded all-seater stadia. They were close together and wooden. Supporting beams holding up the Upper Bullens Stand stood in front of us, blocking small strips of the pitch. Fortunately, the blocked parts of the pitch weren’t in front of the goals.

Everton’s form, without a win since beating Swansea 3-1 in mid-December, meant that Sam Allardyce’s promising start seemed to be fading and the pressure was starting to mount on the former England manager. 

Despite a nervous start, Big Sam’s side took the lead though January signing Theo Walcott, who would score again 15 minutes later, providing a man-of-the-match performance in his second game for his new club.

The return of Seamus Coleman for the first time in 10 months would have felt like a new signing for Allardyce, with Everton having struggled for much of the season without their two most experienced full-backs, Coleman and Leighton Baines. 

The victory helped to end my four days on Merseyside on a lighter note. A victory with Bernie’s flowers still outside the ground is the send-off any football fan would want after they’ve gone.

On top of that, with Walcott being an ex-Gunner, it felt like I did my bit to help his club kick on from what had been a disappointing Christmas period.

After spending time in a city that has given so much more than just money to the game of football, and with a family that had been immersed in it for so long, it was gratifying to see just how revered it still is in people’s lives.

Football’s ability to make people forget, remember and feel elation or dejection in a heartbeat, proves that it is more than “just a game”.

The curious case of L’Equipe, Brexit and ‘100% white’ Burnley

On Christmas Eve, L’Equipe, the well-respected and long-established French sports news outlet, sensationally claimed that the success of Burnley FC this season was on the back of a discriminatory player recruitment policy.

In a profile of the high-flying Clarets, reporter Vincent Duluc said that the “surprise package” of the Premier League in 2017/18 are a “100% white team with with players with flattened noses and big ears”.

Duluc went on to say they are “coached by a ginger Englishman, in a city who voted 70% for Brexit and which has been the breeding ground of racial tensions”.

Burnley supporters were quick to take issue over the article, with fans on the uptheclarets.com website variously describing it as “disgraceful”, “shocking” and “activist hack nonsense”.  One user asserted: “No credible person honestly believes we are building a squad based on racism.”

So why did L’Equipe suggest otherwise? When the piece was written, Burnley’s only black player was Daniel Agyei, who went out on loan to Walsall at the start of the season.

However, on the opening of the January transfer window, Ntumba Massanka, who was on loan at Wrexham for the first half of the campaign, returned to become the only black player in Dyche’s squad, making Duluc’s article slightly out of date.

However, his young age and lack of experience suggest that he will not be thrust straight into the starting XI.

‘Ignorant’

Last season, Burnely had four black players on their books, two being those already mentioned and then most notably Andre Gray.

The striker, who departed for Watford for £18.5m before the start of the season, had previously spoken on social media about hearing Burnley fans racially abuse opposing players.

After a pre-season friendly at Bradford City, the Englishman tweeted: “Well done to the two racist Burnley fans. Still live in the stone ages I see! Ignorant prats,” in response to chants made by two supporters towards a Bradford player.

UKIP posterGray continued: “It’s alright you’ve only got black players playing for you anyway [himself and Tendayi Darikwa].”

However, this came came just two months before the 26-year-old was found guilty of writing racist, sexist and homophobic tweets in 2012 while at Hinckley United and given a four-match ban by the FA, along with a £25,000 fine.

Of course, Gray pointing the finger at two Burnley fans can in no way be seen as evidence that racism among their supporters is widespread.

But what L’Equipe has done is link the whiteness of Burnley’s squad to public support for Brexit in the town, along with each of the other 13 districts of Lancashire.

In doing so, it conjures up the discriminatory aura which characterised the EU referendum, fuelled by the anti-immigration stance of prominent Leavers like UKIP’s Nigel Farage, epitomised by the infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster (pictured above).

Tension

This “breeding ground of racial tension”, as Duluc calls it, is not a new phenomenon. An article in The Independent dating back to 2001, tells a story of de facto segregation amongst the whites and Asians of Nelson, East Lancashire, which is just five miles from Burnley.

It reported that white parents wouldn’t send their children to Edge End and allow them to mix with the 70% Asian contingent at the local primary school, in what the article’s writer Ian Herbert called, “[the] home at the heart of the segregated, racially fragile land of north-west England”.

L’Equipe’s writer also mentions “ginger Englishman” Dyche, and even his record is not unblemished when it comes to its association with racial issues.

Back in 2014, the 46-year old called for Malkay Mackay to be allowed to “move on” after it was revealed that he exchanged sexist, racist and homophobic text messages while managing Cardiff City.

Whilst there is no suggestion that Dyche in any way sympathised with the Scot’s views, his call to allow his former colleague at Watford to get on with his career conflicted with the view of KickItOut, who were strongly against Mackay getting the job at Wigan at the time.

Scapegoating

It should also be mentioned that L’Equipe is not without issues of its own when it comes to race. During the Euro 2016, the hashtag ‘#BoycottLequipe’ appeared on Twitter as people online claimed that the publication was unfairly criticising certain players.

One user demonstrated via previous covers that Paul Pogba, Nicolas Anelka, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema have all been subjected to scapegoating by the newspaper and that as a result, many refused to read the news outlet at the time.

Whilst a sports newspaper has rights to criticise anyone, the trend here is that two are black, and two more are of Algerian origin.

On the other hand, L’Equipe were seen to be treating Michel Platini almost “as a victim”, according to another user on Twitter, as he was being sentenced alongside former Fifa boss Sepp Blatter for a host of breaches including conflict of interest and dereliction of duty while serving as Uefa president during the Fifa corruption scandal.

Duluc’s claims about Burnley FC, the people of Burnley and also Dyche, are damaging, and in the case of the physical descriptions, a demonstration of ‘reverse racism’.

However, his argument is that the social and political context in which the club sits means its success this season risks being tainted by an issue that is from, in the words of Duluc, “another century”.

Why it’s time for everybody to take esports seriously

In front of me, a young girl is sat, leant forward, hands clenched together, fidgeting as she watched her sporting idols go to battle to try and avenge defeat last week against a team at the top of the league and unbeaten this season.

I’m not at a football match or inside a rugby stadium, I’m at the Vue Cinema on Fulham Broadway, where on this Friday evening a screen has been converted into the Gfinity Esports Arena. It’s ‘Street Fighter Night’.

‘esports are no longer the preserve of spotty teenagers in their bedrooms’

Now in its second season, the Gfinity Elite Series features eight professional esports teams, who compete against each other on three different computer games over nine weekends, with the competition broadcast via both Twitch and the online-only BBC Three.

The first of these games is Rocket League, a relatively new offering compared to the others, in which two teams of five play against each other in what is essentially football with cars, but with more excitement and explosions than what Top Gear once broadcast as car football.

Second, there is Counter Strike: Global Offensive, which without doubt the most popular game amongst the three beyond the series, it has been bought on the computer-gaming hub Steam over 25 million times. Known as CS:GO, two teams of five are tasked with killing each other and either planting or defusing a bomb in the middle of the map.

Of the three, Street Fighter V is probably the most recognisable, even to those who aren’t avid gamers.  It remains close to its arcade origins, with both players moving left and right only and it still features its classic finishing moves and typically Japanese styling.

Global phenomenon

Now, I’m not here to give a jargon-heavy description of the night’s play; my motivation is to argue the case for why esports are no longer the preserve of spotty teenagers in their bedrooms, and deserve to be taken seriously as real sports.

To begin, let’s look at the sheer size of the esports community. In 2016, its global viewing figures via streaming service Twitch and other online streaming platforms sat at 320 million people.

‘This has created a huge online community which is watching for free; a massive factor when considering esports’ young fanbase and target audience’

To put that into comparison, Formula One currently has an international viewership of 500 million, and 400 million watched the Rabobank Hockey World Cup in 2014.

Bigger figures, yes, but both hockey and F1 have been around for a long time. The first Grand Prix in Pau was held in 1950, and hockey began a century earlier, whereas professional gaming is recognised to have begun when 2,000 people in the US played Quake in the Red Annihilation tournament in 1997, with the prize being gaming developer John Carmack’s Ferrari 328 GTS.

Esports’ rapid rise in popularity means that it has the fanbase and has the growth potential to challenge sports that have been played for decades.

Diversity

On the topic of this community, the night at Gfinity also revealed an unexpected diversity amongst the crowd, with the male-to-female ratio roughly 50/50. Obviously the audience was not necessarily representative of gaming in general, but to see such an even split was a positive sign.

The way a sport is covered in the media can make a huge difference to its profile. The punditry of the likes of Thierry Henry and Gary Neville is hugely important to football, and in their way, esports are no different – but with more technological platforms for users to chose from.

Whilst Sky spend billions to transmit the Premier League via their satellites, the top esports leagues in the world use Twitch, a live-streaming service.

The unique relationship between the fans and the professional gamers in esports, where many gamers play online and broadcast it on Twitch or YouTube, means that competition broadcasters can show the tournaments via the same platform as what the community is already watching their favourite players on.

This has created a huge online community which, most vitally, is watching for free; a massive factor when considering esports’ young fanbase and target audience.

Incredible job

This makes the BBC’s decision to broadcast the Gfinity Series on BBC Three via the BBC iPlayer seen strange.

It means viewers must use a different online viewing platform than the rest of the community. Even the players stream themselves on Twitch when they aren’t in competition, which makes it even harder to understand why anyone would switch over to iPlayer.

‘The four other presenters  are the esports equivalent of the Match Of The Day panel, or the Test Match Special line-up. Their knowledge of the games is incredible.’

Are Twitch users going to switch over to a ‘traditional’ broadcaster like the BBC? It seems unlikely to say the least.

However, it must be said that both Gfinity and every other esports broadcaster does an incredible job of making esports seem more than just people playing computer games.

The Gfinity Arena perfectly encapsulates the style and theme that any serious gamer will recognise. The studio is detailed with aggressive, angular lines and red lighting that makes the whole studio reflect the style that modern gaming computers use.

The huge screens both behind the presenters and set inside the two tables mean that when both players are in combat, you can see exactly what is going on.

This is while the players themselves sit raised, above the same screens that you’re watching them play on, also with monitors behind them showing their names and a picture of them in a classic Sky Sports arms-folded style.

If you take the Fantasy Football Show with Paul Merson on Sky, their studio reflects an old changing room. This is esports’ equivalent.

Entry point

From the set to those inside it, the presenters also help esports raise itself to just ‘sport’ status.

The use of Tom Deacon as the main presenter, a comedian rather than an esports expert, means that he is entry point for someone who is still learning the ins and outs of the series’ games.

In an interview with the Evening Standard, he admitted that he is learning all the time about competitive gaming and the intricacies of each game and its tactics.

On the other hand, the four other presenters or ‘casters’ as they are called in esports, are the esports equivalent of the Match Of The Day panel, or the Test Match Special line-up. Their knowledge of the games is incredible.

Baffled

Onto the games themselves, and there are so many similarities between esports and its ‘traditional’ rivals that its hard to really differentiate between the two other than one is done via a micro-processor.

‘Choosing a certain character or weapon to your advantage is no different, even if it’s on screen rather than on the pitch’

For example, esports is not lacking tactically. In terms of Street Fighter, different characters mean different moves and different play styles that may suit a certain player better.

For example, there was a moment during game one on Friday when the casters were baffled by a certain character selection when going into battle

It shows how using a certain character can be weaker in a certain situation, and that having the knowledge to make use of the best possible match-up for victory is key.

Having extensive knowledge of the game you’re playing is key across every game that is played professionally. In any shoot-em-up, if the map you’re going to play on is full of interior, tight, close-quarter spaces, you’re hardly going to want to take a sniper rifle in there.

In comparison to football, taking the correct tools into battle applies in both sports. When Arsenal played Manchester City and Chelsea this season, Arsene Wenger decided to select Alex Iwobi rather than Mesut Ozil in behind the striker as he has a higher work rate and is more likely to aid the defensive effort.

Choosing to use a certain character or weapon to your advantage is no different, even if it’s on screen rather than on the pitch.

Collided

There has even been moments when the real and virtual worlds have collided and created incredible success.

The Gran Turismo Academy has seen players from across the globe set lap times on the GT racing game and the fastest are then trained to become real-world drivers who can compete in international motorsport.

Lucas Ordonez has gone from racing round the Le Mans circuit on his PlayStation at home in Spain to racing round it in the Le Mans 24 Hours, and coming second-in-class in 2011.

Nissan, who partner Gran Turismo for this series, even entered an ‘all-gamer car’ in the Dubai 24 Hour race in 2012, which finished on the podium.

Wealth

To further draw comparisons between esports and its rivals, the financial might of the players is now being tapped into by Coutts, the bank and ‘wealth manager’.

With the prize funds that are involved in competitions across the world, plus YouTube and Twitch revenue for all of the major players, the bank of the Royal Family are now looking to expand their services to notable esports stars.

Speaking to the Guardian, Peter Flavel, the chief executive of Coutts, said that they are going to treat video gamers “much like footballers”.

If a major bank is treating them in the same standing as other sportsmen and women, its surely time that the rest of us follow suit.

Transform

Taking into account the size of the esports community, its financial potential and above all, the time it has taken for this all to happen, it’s clear that, before too long, Sky and BT will have to commentate and cover esports just like they would golf or cricket.

However, with the unique way that esports competitions are broadcast and consumed, twinned with the huge reliance on the Premier League that Sky has always had to bring in customers, could we now start to see a decline in traditional television broadcasting?

There is some evidence to suggest that viewing figures for live games across a number of sports, including football and the NFL, are declining.

As the youth of today view their sport online rather than watching traditional TV, the rise of esports could not only elbow its way into the public eye alongside football and rugby, but it could also help transform the way we watch television altogether.

Mes Que Un Club: the Politics of FC Barcelona

Even in the ordinary course of events, Spain’s El Clasico – the meeting between bitter rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona – is a match that makes fans across the world stop what they are doing and pay attention.

It is not just seeing the likes of Ronaldo and Messi, Bale and Suarez going up against one another – it is about years of complex rivalry and history on and off the pitch being fought out again and again.

And recent political events in Catalonia have ensured that their next meeting – in Madrid on December 12th – has a whole new level of significance and drama.

Whilst the football itself will hopefully take the headlines on the back pages, rather than it being a game littered with petulant fouling and diving, the incredible political connotations that this game will carry when it takes place will arc back to the famed Orwellian quote that football, “is war minus the shooting”.

Barcelona’s motto ‘Mes que un club’ (more than a club) has always encapsulated their position in both Spanish and Catalan society, starting in the early 20th century when the club declared Catalan as their official language rather than the more widely spoken Castillian Spanish.

Defining moment

The team’s association to the politics between Catalonia and Spain only grew from there, as in 1925, the crowd inside Barcelona’s stadium at the time, Les Cortes, booed the Royal March in protest against the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera.

As a result, the ground was closed for six months and club president Hans ‘Joan’ Gamper was forced by the government to relinquish his position at the helm.

In the following decade, some of the club’s players, along with players of Athletic Bilbao from the Basque region, fought in the Spanish Civil War against General Francisco Franco, in what was a fight between Republicans and Nationalists, the latter of which was supported by Nazi Germany at the time, and also was the the eventual victor of the conflict, leading Franco into 36 years of rule over Spain and its regional ‘nationalities’.

On the football pitch, Barcelona’s defining moment, confirming them as, what author Manuel Vasquez Montalban called “the unarmed army of Catalonia”, was in 1943 when they were beaten 11-1 in the semi-final second leg of the Copa del Generalisimo (now known as the Copa del Rey) by Madrid.

According to journalist and author Sid Lowe, it was the first time Real Madrid were seen as, “the team of the dictatorship and Barcelona as its victims.”

Blocked

The image of Real Madrid being Franco’s team again reinforces the rivalry between the two sides. The general’s decision to back the team from the capital represented the power of a centralised Spain, one that spoke the same language and one that was far more powerful than any team that could come from the likes of Catalonia.

Alfredo Di Stefano’s joining of Real Madrid, despite Barcelona actually having ‘signed’ the Argentinian only for the Spanish Football Federation to block the move due to illicit actions surrounding his transfer, despite FIFA allowing the transfer to go ahead.

After the move was blocked, Real Madrid came in and attempted to sign the player, and a decision was made for both clubs to use the player in alternating seasons.

The humiliated Barca president Marti Caretto resigned, the interim presidential board ripped up the deal and as a result Di Stefano was free to sign for Madrid, going on to win five European Cups, giving Franco an international PR machine which could reflect Spain’s success under his leadership.

Over the years, Barcelona has become a cultural and political representation of the Catalan people. This is even reflected in Barcelona’s local rivalry with Espanyol, the second biggest team in Catalonia. The name Espanyol which has clear similarities to Espana, suggests that, in Catalonia, you’re either Barcelona, or your Spanish.

Referendum

Due to pledges made in the 2015 Catalan elections, Catalonia’s independence referendum, on 1st October, saw over two million people vote for independence from Spain.

The two million votes for independence came from an electoral turnout of 43%, however the Catalan government said that over 770,000 votes couldn’t be cast due to the Guardia Civil (Spanish police) blocking off polling stations all over Catalonia.

Another reason for the low turnout was due to pro-Spanish parties in Catalonia calling for people to not vote due to the illegitimacy of the referendum.

Even so, if those 770,000 votes followed the pattern of the those who voted, where 97% voted to become independent, and were added to the the final tally, the turnout would have been at 57% with 55% voting to leave.

Brexit was a closer-run affair and it seems as though the pro-independence Catalans would have stormed to victory. However, the referendum was considered illegal and against the Spanish Constitution of 1978, and therefore will not stand as legitimate.

The president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, has since lost his job after he signed the independence declaration on October 10th, and on the 27th, Spain issued Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which has been described by multiple media outlets as the ‘nuclear option’, which gives Spain direct control over the region.

Strained

Barcelona’s statement on the issue, which states that they want to defend, ”democracy, freedom of speech, and self-determination”, has led to hostile reactions from Spaniards towards Catalans representing their national team.

Gerard Pique, who has supported the referendum publicly and is a figurehead for Catalan nationalism, was booed by Spain supporters at an open training session just days after the statement was released.

The current strained relationship between Spain and Catalonia are sure to be put under the microscope on December 12th, both before, during and after El Clasico.

It will feel as though Iniesta, Pique and co. will be walking out into a proxy war between Spain and Catalonia, armed with the same causes as those who fought against the Falangists in 1936.

On top of the huge significance of the game, recent form between the two sides suggests that, unless Real Madrid have a huge change in fortunes, Barcelona, who are currently unbeaten this season, should have no issue brushing aside a stuttering Madrid.

This means that if the ‘unarmed army’ were to defeat ‘Franco’s team’, the blood and gold of the Catalan flag will drape across Spain’s capital, once again figuratively demonstrating Catalonia’s potential as an independent nation.

Struggle

Of course, the might of a football team cannot accurately determine the success of a country. How would the Catalans manage financially? Do they have the growth they need to uphold a strong economy?

Whilst these questions are important, and even if Catalonia were to struggle if it stood on its own, it is surely better for Catalans to decide whether they want to be independent, and not for those who live outside of what is already a self-governed ‘nationality’ to decide for them.

To deny Catalonia the chance of independence is Spain simply harking back to their days as a dictatorship under General Franco.

However, Real Madrid flickering performances of late do not have the same PR might as that of the team starring Di Stefano in the 1950s, meaning that Barcelona are in the perfect position to sweep their rivals aside, once again reaffirming the motto ‘Mes Que Un Club.’

Photo Courtesy of Rob Shenk via Flickr Creative Commons.