Category Archives: I Was There

A Riversider for the day

“It’s okay, my mate will be there so you won’t be the only black lad.”

She says it with a smile. If I’m honest, I was more surprised she has another black friend, but I brush off a questionable joke with a shake of the head and accept the invitation to my first Championship away day – Brentford hosting Blackburn Rovers.

Daisy lives in London but is a die-hard Rovers fan, tattoo of the badge and all. Blackburn are based in Lancashire, and with only five London teams in England’s 2nd tier, there are only so many games she can go and watch in the capital, and this was one of them.

I said no initially for three reasons. Firstly, it’s Blackburn; couldn’t name a player if you put a gun to my head. A team I have no ties to in any way, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched them play on TV before. Secondly, its Blackburn… I’ve never seen or heard about any trouble from them, but still… Thirdly, I don’t succumb to peer pressure. Except this time, I did.

When we arrived, the atmosphere was already quite hostile, and winding up the Brentford fans seemed to be the main item on the agenda for the away contingent.

Stunning volley

Adam Armstrong gave Rovers the lead against the run of play after 10 minutes and added his third in as many games from the penalty spot shortly after the restart to put Rovers in control in west London.

But a stunning 25-yard volley from Ollie Watkins reduced the deficit for the hosts in the 62nd minute, before Said Benrahma tucked away a spot-kick of his own to earn the home team a deserved share of the spoils.

I was pleased to see a good game with lots of goals, and after calling the Blackburn players by their first names all game, I felt obliged to clap them off as if I too was a Riversider.

Scenes

As for Griffin Park itself, no seating arrangement like at the Emirates or the occasional snoozefest once the game loses its intensity. This was constant, and my voice really couldn’t hack it, with more shouting, screaming and swearing than I’d ever done.

The terrace we were on was directly behind Brentford keeper for the second half, and we did not give him a moment’s peace. I also used this opportunity to practise my football chants. “It’s all gone quiet over there” at 2-0 up was started by me.

The home fans weren’t just letting this happen, of course, and were doing their best to quieten us down. After Benrhama had equalised, a local lad ran the length of the pitch from the stands to come to the away end to give us a piece of his mind.

I felt at home, one of the lads. I got laughs out of people with my slightly odd (and if you ask me effective) but imaginative way of trying to get into the Brentford players heads. “He doesn’t want it” “Let them come and get it”.

With the match done, it was time for a drink. I lost my friends in the wave of supporters flooding out but, nonetheless, I found the pub they had headed to and caught up with them there.

Post-match

Man of the match – Ollie Watkins: A constant thorn in Rovers’ side as he scrapped and fought for chances all game. After Brentford sold Neal Maupay to Brighton in the summer, Watkins was entrusted to play up top, coming in from the wing to be a fully-fledged striker.

The frontman bagged goal number 21 of the campaign in sensational style at Griffin Park and rightly changed the course of the game with his venomous second-half strike; probably his sole meaningful contribution but what a contribution…

The managers

Brentford’s Thomas Frank: “I’m annoyed we didn’t win but immensely proud of the boys for their attitude, the way they stayed together, kept going and worked hard to the end.

“In the end, Blackburn looked so tired and that is a huge credit to our team. We have big togetherness even after going behind in the first half when we really should have been in front.”

Blackburn’s Tony Mowbray: “For the majority of the game we managed them pretty well and we know what talented individuals they’ve got and how they can build pressure.

“We got to the point where the crowd were about to turn on them after a few misplaced passes and then a bit of magic from their centre forward changes things.”

It’s not always about winning…

I sat there as the heavy rain fell, in pain and feeling so disappointed at not been able to help my team to push for victory.

For months, we had been preparing for this match, doing extra training sessions, eating more healthily and going to social events together so that every player felt a strong bond with their team-mates. We were ready for Varsity.

The annual multi-sport competition between University of the Arts London and Goldsmiths is a big day for both institutions and attracts a lot of interest among their students.

As captain of the UAL women’s football team, I woke for Varsity at 8am with butterflies in my stomach – a feeling of nervousness that I couldn’t shake all morning. I showered quickly, barely ate any breakfast and left for my college where the coach was waiting for us.

Even those players not involved had been asked to come along and support the team, and seeing all the girls talking and laughing made me feel better. I could see everyone was feeling positive and focused for the big game.

However, the 30-minute journey to the Varsity sports ground felt more like two hours, and I began to feel tense again. I tried not to let it show, although my feelings were obvious, and concentrated on my music.

Velocity

On arrival, our excitement rose even further, and as we got changed, I started talking to motivate the girls, but my mouth was dry and what I was saying didn’t feel like it was enough.

Outside, the rain was pouring down, but we were ready. We left the changing room took to the pitch in silence, and I had never seen the team so focused. I met the Goldsmiths captain, and then the referee – the same one who booked my last year when I got a bit too passionate…

We talk and made our peace. This day should be one to remember and I wanted it to be a good memory.

The writer takes a corner before her injury

By now it had started hailing, but the ref signalled the start of the game. Five minutes in, the ball found me outside the box and in a split second I had fired it goalwards. The ball seemed to gain velocity and height as it beat the Goldsmiths ‘keeper and nestled in the net. Everyone was jumping around and hugging me.

My team-mate and best friend said “That’s what we needed, well done, mi capitano.” In that moment, I was so happy but, as my dad always says, it is not how you start but how you finish.

We were playing beautiful football, and I could hear people from UAL’s hockey, men’s football, netball and cheerleading squads chanting and cheering. Even the sun had suddenly come out as we pushed forward, desperate to make up for last year’s Varsity loss.

The second half began and we looked to maintain our momentum. But five minutes in again, I ran for a ball in our box but pulled up with a pain in my right calf. Even one step was painful. Seconds later, I felt the same pain my left leg. It was like I was in movie and someone had shot me as I fell down screaming.

I had never felt this pain before. I look up to see if someone could help me and suddenly I saw my centre-back running over. She grabbed my right leg and tried to stretch it, as if to alleviate cramp, but the pain remained.

I received treatment on the pitch, but to no avail, and was helped to the sidelines. People watching asked me what had happened. “I am okay, I will come back on in a bit,” I replied, but even as I stretched both legs, I felt broken and unable to take a step.

Frustration

On 60 minutes, Goldsmiths equalised and I felt like I was letting my team down, that they needed my help and I couldn’t give it to them.

With 10 minutes left, they scored again to make it 2-1. Our midfield was disorganised and our defenders seemed to have forgotten everything they had been taught. The spirit so evident in the first half had gone out of the UAL team.

I was so mad at my players because they were not fighting hard like I had showed them. At the same time, I felt that if they weren’t capable of doing that without me, that meant I hadn’t done my job properly.

I was also bitterly frustrated at myself for getting injured because it was my last Varsity game and I had wanted to win it so badly. To make matters worse, not only did we lose our game, but UAL’s other teams also suffered narrow defeats to seal overall victory for Goldsmiths.

Afterwards, and in a more reflective mood, I realised that, yes, I am passionate about football and my team, but it’s a game, and sometimes we win but many others times, we lose.

It is the best way to learn from our experiences, not only sporting ones. It can also help me to approach situations in life. That is ultimately why I am so grateful to be able to play and to have been part of such a wonderful team.

Photos courtesy of UAL Sport.

Enduring appeal of Chinese hoops confirmed by Guangdong derby

Although football has made great strides in China in recent years, basketball remains the nation’s pre-eminent sport.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Guangdong, China’s wealthiest province, which has three teams in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), including nine-time champions the Guangdong Southern Tigers.

The province is also home to China’s leading football club and double Asian Champions League winners Guangzhou Evergrand, but it was the CBA derby between Guangzhou Loong Lions and Guangdong which drew me to this city whose wider metropolitan area is home to 25 million people.

Hosts the Loong Lions went into the game on a dismal run of seven straight losses, languishing 17 places behind their top-ranked visitors to the Tianhe Arena, which is located in the city centre and next to Tianhe Stadium -Guangzhou Evergrand’s home.

Very few of the arena’s 8,628 seats were left unoccupied, but it felt like most spectators present had come to watch Guangdong’s star player Yi Jianlian, who is also captain of the Chinese national team.

Yi stands out on the court with a height of 2.17m

Yi is widely believed to be China’s best-ever domestic player after the legendary Yao Ming, an eight-time NBA All-Star with the Houston Rockets, famously known as ‘The Great Tall of China’.

Yi spent seven seasons in NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, and Washington Wizards but failed to replicate Yao’s achievements in the USA. However, the 32-year-old centre is still a key performer for the national team.

In the 2019 FIBA World Cup tournament, he proved his continuing reliability whilst younger team-mates kept making mistakes as hosts China suffered the ignominy of failing to qualify from the group stages.

Since Yao’s retirement in 2011, Chinese basketball has stagnated, and this most recent World Cup performance frustrated fans further. To some extent, Yi represents a link in their memories to better times for Chinese basketball.

The home fans use the costume of traditional lion dancing, which originates in Guangdong

Back to the derby, and it the gap between the abilities of the two teams was evident, but the overall quality of the match was not bad. The Lions worked hard to stay in touch with the Tigers, but Yi carried the visitors to victory with a game-leading 21 points and 20 rebounds.

Despite the Tigers claiming a 116-90 victory, the atmosphere remained vibrant as the home supporters waved flags and balloons, whilst the away fans also cheered on their heroes.

The Southern Tigers are undoubtedly the best basketball club in China and have contributed multiple outstanding players to the national team. Their current coach, Du Feng, is also one of their legends as a player.

Whilst the NBA continues to set the standard for domestic leagues around the world, the CBA is arguably the second strongest, and the number of basketball fans in China far exceeds those for football. The Chinese Super League’s clubs represent 11 provinces, whereas the CBA’s 20 teams are from 14, including many remote areas such as Xinjiang, China’s western-most region.

Tigers head coach Du Feng is a former Chinese international and a Guangdong legend

Its widespread popularity throughout China is often attributed to the high profile of Chinese players such as Yao and Yi in NBA, but the reasons for basketball’s continuing dominance run deeper than that.

Firstly, it still has a far greater number of participants compared to football, especially in schools, and a system of youth camps enable promising players to gain access to professional-level training at a very early age.

Meanwhile, basketball hoops are nearly as common as ping-pong tables in China, with football pitches needing far more space in often crowded cities.

Despite the troubles of the men’s national team, basketball in China is also run very professionally, especially since Yao Ming has become the president of CBA. He cancelled many old policies and started a revolution in Chinese basketball. As China’s best-ever player, he has massive prestige and carried a huge amount of trust among fans.

Time will tell just how popular football can become in China but, for now, the nation’s No.1 sport will continue to be basketball.

Intrepid Oxford nearly stun Manchester City in Carabao Cup

In an era of football that’s controlled by money and greed and spoiled at the top-level by the passion-sapping VAR, Oxford United’s performance against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on Wednesday evening reminded a few of the reasons why they fell in love with football in the first place.

On a cold and rainy evening at the Kassam Stadium, Karl Robinson’s side lit the place up with a courageous display that very nearly stunned the reigning champions of England.

Joao Cancelo broke the deadlock for the visitors with a shot that deflected off defender Elliott Moore and looped over goalkeeper Jordan Archer in the 22nd minute. A slice of luck for City in an otherwise cagey first-half.

The roof came off less than 30 seconds into the second-half, though, when Matty Taylor – a local lad on loan from Bristol City – produced a moment that he’d have dreamt off as a child; skinning Taylor Harwood-Bellis after a quick free-kick from Shandon Baptiste and blasting past Claudio Bravo to level the scores and send the fans wild.

Two breakaway goals from Raheem Sterling sent City into the semi-finals, but they were certainly made to work for it by a tremendous Oxford side.

Fearless

Manchester City’s rising star Phil Foden was in a confident mood before the match, saying the team were “excited to go further” in the Carabao Cup and that he knows “what Oxford are about” after cruising past the U’s with a 3-0 win in the same competition last season.

Little did the 19-year old know, Guardiola’s side were facing a totally different proposition this season.

Last season, United only managed a single shot. A long-range attempt from Ricky Holmes was the closest the U’s came to breaking down a defence that only conceded 23 goals in the entirety of a league campaign that yielded a staggering 98 points.

This time around, they managed 18 attempts; the most Pep Guardiola has faced in a single match since taking charge of Manchester City in 2017.

13 of those shots came from inside the box and five of them were on target, which is one more attempt on goal than City managed. A remarkable feat for a side plying their trade in the third-tier of English football and a real sign of their progress in the last 12 months.

Oxford showed no signs of fear with the way they set up. Instead of sticking men behind the ball and longing for a penalty shoot-out from kick-off, they played City at their own game and actually bettered them at it for a couple of spells.

Instead of playing a defensive and conservative formation, Robinson started with two pacey wingers in Dan Agyei and Tariqe Fosu after the Liverpool-born boss took inspiration from how the speed of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah helped Jurgen Klopp’s team overcome City in November.

Make no mistake, Oxford weren’t there just to take part and meet their favourite stars, they were there to knock them out of the cup.

Perhaps a few nerves crept into the first-half performance with a couple of Oxford’s stars uncharacteristically sloppy in possession but, after what was surely an impassioned half-time speech from Robinson at the break, United took the match to their opponents in the second-half with a raucous crowd fully behind them.

Within a minute of the restart, United were level. And, although Sterling had City back in front soon after, Oxford never lost hope of a famous upset; pressing and attacking the visitors with no concern of how much they cost or the amount of international caps they have to their name.

Baptiste and Cameron Brannagan drove United on from midfield with tough-tackling Spaniard Alex Gorrin sitting in front of the back-four and mopping up any danger. Fosu and Mark Sykes – who’d come on for Agyei early in the second-half – were hurting City from the wide areas with their pace and guile.

It wasn’t just a performance fuelled by adrenaline. Oxford looked composed on the ball and confident enough to knock the ball around world-class footballers worth hundreds of millions of pounds. There were spells where the team in yellow looked every bit as good as the team in sky blue.

Chances for Rob Dickie, Sykes and substitute Jamie Mackie went begging for Oxford as they poured forward with pace and intensity in the final furlong of the match. A little bit more of a clinical touch in front of goal could have made the night even more special for Robinson’s men, but it wasn’t to be.

City’s quality eventually shone through, but the fact that Guardiola was forced to introduce Ilkay Gundogan and Gabriel Jesus from the bench and even attempt to waste time towards the end was a compliment to the home side’s display.

‘Jim would have been proud’

Oxford paid tribute to legendary former manager Jim Smith before the game with a minute’s applause and an emotional rendition of ‘One Bald Eagle’ – the nickname that Smith was affectionately known by during his successful spell with the club in the 1980s.

During Smith’s stint at Oxford, he captured the fans’ imagination with a gutsy and fearless set of players achieving back-to-back promotions from the third division to the top-flight. In United’s first home game since Smith’s passing, it was as if he’d sprinkled a little bit of the old magic from above on the team in yellow and blue.

It was a spine of Malcolm Shotton, Trevor Hebberd and John Aldridge that roared the U’s to success during Smith’s first spell in charge of the club. Now players such as Rob Dickie, Cameron Brannagan and Matty Taylor have a chance to write their names into the club’s folklore by continuing this momentum in United’s league campaign.

Robinson said that he thought Smith would have been “proud” of his former side’s performance. There’s very little doubt about that. Jim might be gone, but it’s quite evident that his legacy is living on at Oxford United.

CFA Cup Final shows football passions run deep in China

While Chinese football itself remains from the highest level, its fans are fantastic.

They turned out in force for the second leg of the 2019 Chinese Football Association (CFA) Cup final, which took place at the Hongkou Stadium in Shanghai. The hosts, Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, defeated Shandong Luneng 3-0 and won the trophy 3-1 on aggregate, qualifying them for the AFC Champions League.

Although their men’s senior team has yet to make a significant impact on the international stage, the passion that Chinese people have for football runs deep. For my first live professional match in China, the atmosphere was impressive as supporters sang and chanted both on their way to and then inside the 33,000-capacity venue.

Supporters took group photos with a scarf writing: " Shenhua is the Champion".
Supporters took group photos with a scarf saying “Shenhua is the Champion”

The Hongkou Stadium was China’s first purpose-built football ground, opening in 1999 on the site of a previous multi-sport arena. In fact, to this day, very few Chinese football clubs have homes built mainly with football in mind, with most still featuring an athletics track.

Most of the fans making their way to stadium were wearing home team’s blue colours, and they were looking to the CFA Cup for redemption after a season in which their club almost suffered relegation from the Chinese Super League’s top tier.

Shenhua is the oldest football club in Shanghai, but they have been overshadowed in recent years by Shanghai SIPG (the club that Espanyol’s Wulei used to play for). They remain, however, Shanghai’s best-supported club: a symbol of the city which has helped to define its football culture as the best China.

HongKou Stadium has 35,000 seats in total, 28954 audiences came to watch this final.

Luneng, who had won the first leg through a penalty, are the main team in the capital of my province. They have a glamorous past, wealthy owners, and a massive number of loyal fans. Shenhua also won this tournament in 2017 to lift their second CFA Cup. The away team have five CSL titles to their name and also appeared in this final last year.

The fans of both sides were excited by the occasion and energetic in their support, which made for an amazing atmosphere. The home fans made a tifo in their section of the stadium, while their rivals sang loudly throughout.

Shenhua, seeking to overturn that 1-0 first-leg deficit, played quite passively in the first half, and both sets of supporters became increasingly anxious about their team’s failure to score the all-important first goal.

Things changed in the second half, however, and Shenhua’s Kim Shin-woo scored the opener in the 60th minute. This served to ramp up the atmosphere even further, as did some controversial calls by English referee Mark Clattenburg.

Shenhua’s fans were now in full voice, but they had to wait until the 81st minute to go ahead for the first time across the two legs as Italian international Stephan Shaarawy made it 2-0. Just two minutes later, Qian Jiegei put the outcome beyond doubt to make it 3-0 on the day and 3-1 overall.

Shaarawy saluted the fans after winning his first trophy with Shenhua

Although there are many people who believe that the quality of Chinese professional football remains limited, this does not affect the enjoyment of watching a big match here. The atmosphere was incredible, and the stadium well equipped.

More importantly, Chinese fans are no less passionate or loyal than supporters in any other country, which bodes well for the future of the sport in China. Although there are many problems waited to be solved, it is not hard to be optimistic about the development of Chinese football.

An additional story…

Getting a ticket for this match was not easy. There was nothing on the official website of Shenhua about how to buy one. Local fans told me that they always go directly to the ticket office, but for a cup final that meant taking a risk of getting no ticket at all.

Luckily, I found a ticket dealer on Taobao, which is the most prominent Chinese shopping website, but collecting it on match day was another matter. Following the instructions received, I went to a Starbucks next to the stadium. There, I found five staff from the ticket dealer, with dozens of envelopes on the table.

This did not match the traditional impression of how such ticket dealers operate – not in such an open way. However, these people were so organised and seems to have plenty of tickets available – even for groups.

Ticket office outside the stadium said that all tickets for the final have been sold out

Edgy home debut has a happy ending for Mourinho

A 4-2 victory and a place in the last 16 of the Champions League – things went well for Jose Mourinho on his home debut as Tottenham’s new manager, but they could have gone horribly wrong.

Beating Olympiakos ensured that the feel-good factor continued for Spurs after their 3-2 win at West Ham the previous Saturday, but the Mourinho era looked to have hit early problems as they went 2-0 down to the Greeks.

His predecessor at Tottenham, Mauricio Pochettino, failed to deliver any silverware during his five years in north London, whereas the Portuguese has landed 20 major honours at the five clubs he has managed. Mourinho is a serial winner, but Spurs are still finding their feet under him, particularly at the back.

They may have bid farewell to Pochettino, but the defensive problems and lack of confidence which plagued his final months at the club manifested themselves as early as the sixth minute as Olympiakos – bottom of Group B with one point – took the lead through Youssef El-Arabi.

Things got worse, with less than 20 minutes on the clock, as Ruben Semedo doubled the visitors’ lead. Mourinho took decisive action, substituting Eric Dier for Christian Eriksen in the 29th minute, and Dele Alli pulled one back for the hosts on the stroke of half-time.

After the match, Mourinho revealed that he had felt the players were ” in need of some love at that time and not the critical one” during the break. Whatever he said did the trick as his team tore into their opponents in the second half, with their new boss bringing his characteristically emotional body language into his technical area at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.


Harry Kane levelled the score just five minutes after the second half began, assisted by Lucas Moura and following Serge Aurier’s rapid throw-in. The ball boy who had swiftly retrieved the ball for Aurier received a hug from Mourinho and praise from him after the game.

Aurier added a goal of his own in the 73rd minute as Spurs went ahead for the first time, and Kane sealed the win with his 20th Champions League strike in 24 games; two fewer matches than previous record holder Alessandro del Piero took to reach that number with Juventus.

There remains much work to be done by Mourinho, and his first aim is to chase down the Premier League’s current top four as they threaten to pull away from the following pack. But with Champions League knockout football assured, he can get down to focusing on that task.

Photos by Yongjia Cui.

ATP Finals at the O2 Arena, London

Will we finally see a new face win a men’s Grand Slam in 2020?

For a third straight time, the ATP Finals singles title has been won by a player who isn’t Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer.

Stefanos Tsitsipas defeated Dominic Thiem in this year’s finale at London’s O2 Arena, following in the footsteps of Alexander Zverev in 2018 and Grigor Dimitrov in 2017. All three were just 21 when lifting the trophy.

So the question now being asked in the men’s game is: will we finally see a new face win any of the four Grand Slam crowns in 2020? Since 2004, only six players other than Djokovic, Nadal or Federer have won Slams: Andy Murray (3), Stan Wawrinka (3), Marat Safin (1), Juan Martin Del Potro (1) and Marin Cilic (1) and Gaston Gaudio (1).

Federer is now 38, Nadal is 33 and Djokovic 32, yet their grip on the sport’s four biggest titles – the Australian, French and US Opens, plus Wimbledon -remains as firm as ever. But there are signs that next season might be the one which ushers in a new era of younger Slam winners.

Defending champion Zverev, 22, defeated Nadal 6-2, 6-4 on day two at this year’s ATP Finals, giving him wins over the all of the big three in the past 12 months. Thiem, 26, claimed victories over Federer and Djokovic in the group stage, reaching the semi-finals and final at the O2 for the first time.

This year’s elite eight-man field in London also included Daniil Medvedev (23) and Matteo Berrettini (23). Thiem was competing in his third consecutive ATP Finals. Slowly but surely, the new generation are starting to make more of an impact.

Rising star

Thus far, however, no player born after 1990 has won a Grand Slam, although three have reached finals. In 2016, Milos Raonic was beaten at Wimbledon by Murray. Thiem lost to Nadal in both the 2018 and 2019 French Open. Medvedev was beaten by Nadal in this season’s US Open, but the rising Russian star forced the Spaniard to spend four hours and 50 minutes winning his 19th Grand Slam.

In the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows, Medvedev overcame Dimitrov. Earlier this year, Tsitsipas and Berrettini reached the semi-final of Australian Open and US Open respectively, but Nadal ended their runs.

Nadal in action at the O2 Arena
Nadal in action at the O2 Arena

Among all players in their 20s, Thiem might be the closest one to his first Grand Slam trophy. The Austrian has more experience compared to his peers and a stable world ranking; he has not been out of the top 10 since 2016.

He also has a strong and long-standing relationship with his coaching team, having worked with Gunter Bresnik since he was just eight years old. Bresnik also coached six-time Grand Slam winner Boris Becker.

After winning at ATP Finals crown, Tsitsipas declared he was ready to win a Grand Slam, but thus far he has only beaten Federer from that dominant top trio. Zverev, who has had a better overall ranking than the Greek in the past two years, has yet to reach the final four of any Slam event.

But the young guns are making progress. The last time that the ATP Finals line-up had four participants under 23 was 10 years ago, when Nadal (23), Djokovic (22), Murray (22), and Del Potro (21) all featured.

Out of the current big three, it will surely be Federer who is first to decide his time is up. The Swiss legend plans to play at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but will turn 39 during the Games, and retirement is beckoning.

Nadal and Djokovic may both yet overhaul Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles, but both have had injuries that will start to slow them down. Murray has returned after hip resurfacing surgery, but it is generally felt unlikely that he will be able to make it a ‘Big Four’ again.

Tennis fans will continue to cheer the big three to the rafters, and most will mourn Federer’s eventual retirement, but this year’s ATP Finals showed that the sport’s future is bright and in the safe hands of a younger, talented group of players.

Main image of the ATP Finals at the O2 Arena by Jess C via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC 2.0

England run riot in their 1,000th international to reach Euro 2020

Gareth Southgate’s team confirmed qualification for the 2020 Uefa European Championship in style with an emphatic 7-0 win over Montenegro.

There was already celebratory mood in the air at Wembley as the FA marked the Three Lions’ 1,000th match, and the party really got going as the hosts raced in a 5-0 lead by half-time against their game but limited Group A rivals.

Harry Kane was the star of that first 45 minutes, notching a quickfire hat-trick after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had opened the scoring 11 minutes in, and Marcus Rashford also got on the scoresheet on the half-hour.

England, perhaps understandably, let the tempo drop after the break, but an own goal from Aleksandar Sofranac and Tammy Abraham’s first senior strike for the hosts completed Montenegro’s misery on an historic night.

Perfect ball

England’s youngest-ever starting XI looked a little anxious early on as the visitors – with no hope of Euro 2020 qualification – pushed forward, but any nerves were soon settled by Oxlade-Chamberlain’s accomplished finish.

Kane now has 31 goals in 44 games, which leaves him 22 off the record held by Wayne Rooney, who he replaced for his first cap

With England knocking on the door, Ben Chilwell drove towards the box from the centre of the pitch and flighted a perfect ball over the top for the Liverpool midfielder who took a touch before nestling the ball into the bottom left corner.

It was the first time Oxlade-Chamberlain, a relative veteran at 26, had started for his country since March 2018, and his first goal in an England shirt for over two years.

Skipper Kane missed a golden opportunity to open his account just minutes later as his goal-bound header hit Sofranic, but the Tottenham striker got off the mark before 20 minutes were on the clock.

It came from a free kick on the edge of the box as Chilwell – playing only his 10th England match but looking every inch an established international – again came up with the assist. He planted the ball perfectly onto the captain’s head and Kane made no mistake this time.

Crushed

The number nine was crucial to Southgate’s plan, dropping deep and carrying the ball to make space for the midfielders to get involved, and it bore fruit again in the 24th minute.

It was that Chilwell-Kane combination which crushed any lingering hopes that Montenegro had of getting back into the game. This time from a corner, the Leicester City full-back presented his team-mate with another header that ended up in the net, bringing up 30 goals for the prolific Spurs star.

Chilwell, later named as man of the match, became the first England player since Glen Johnson in June 2009, to bag three assists for his country.

Montenegro were not quite done, however, and there was almost a shock to the system as Jordan Pickford was forced into making a point-blank save to deny defender Marko Simic in the 27th minute.

Normal service was soon resumed, however, this time through Rashford. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross was met by the head of Harry Maguire, but Milan Mijatovic’s save fell to the Manchester United forward, who twisted and turned his way through the defence before burying the ball into the net.

Montenegro were 5-0 down by the interval as Kane completed his hat-trick in the 37th minute. Trent Alexander-Arnold was the creator, playing in his in-form skipper to find the far left-hand corner of the goal.

A mix-up in England’s defence meant that Pickford again had to come to the rescue as Fatos Beqiraj found space between John Stones and Maguire, but the Everton keeper was quickly off his line to deny him in the 41st minute.

Smashed in

Gareth Southgate gave both Kane and Oxlade-Chamberlain a chance to rest, with James Maddison and Tammy Abraham coming on in the 57th minute, as the game – no longer really a contest – entered a less explosive phase.

Kane departed with 31 goals in 44 games which leaves him 22 off the record held by Wayne Rooney, who was among a group of former England stars greeted with warm applause on the pitch at half-time.

Still only 26, Kane looks set to be England’s main goal threat for several years to come, and surely has every chance of surpassing Rooney’s total.

No England player was required for the next goal as defender Sofranic found himself in the wrong place at the right time for the hosts. A Rashford cross came off Jadon Sancho before Mason Mount’s shot hit bar, only for the unfortunate Sofranic to divert the rebound over the line for 6-0.

With sections of the 77,277 crowd starting to drift away to beat the Wembley post-match rush, Abraham completed the scoring, combining with winger Sancho who played the ball across for the Chelsea striker to slide it home with six minutes remaining.

The only blemish on an otherwise perfect evening for England came when some fans booed Joe Gomez as he came on as a substitute, following his minor fracas with Raheem Sterling which led to the Manchester City striker being dropped for the 1,000th game.

Sterling later took to social media to defend Gomez and again accept the blame for their bust-up. Southgate will want to draw a firm line under the row and begin his planning for next summer’s tournament.

Photos by Brandon Prangell.

Josh Taylor delivers in fight of the year contender

Josh Taylor became Britain’s newest boxing star with a sensational points win over unbeaten American Regis Prograis at the O2 Arena.

Taylor is not only the World Boxing Super Series winner, but now unified champion in the super-lightweight division, holding both the IBF and WBA world titles, as well as the Ring Magazine belt.

The pair could barely be split by pundits before the first bell and this was reflected in a fight which was decided by very fine margins.

One judge was unable to separate them, scoring the contest 114-114, with the other two giving the nod to the Scot, 117-112 and 115-113 respectively.

Ever since the tournament began back in October 2018, there had been much anticipation amongst boxing fans over a potential final involving the pair.

Both made it through the opening two stages with relative ease, each picking up their maiden world titles at the semi-final stage, setting up a mouth-watering clash for the Ali Trophy.

Not all fights of such magnitude live up to the hype they receive, but this London bill-topper undoubtedly did.

Headline worthy

The early build-up was in part overshadowed by comments from heavyweight Dereck Chisora, who claimed he should be headlining the show in his fight with Joseph Parker, who later pulled out due to a spider bite.

“I’m not going to sell out the O2 for them guys to be the main event,” the Londoner exclaimed at the announcement press conference. “I’m being serious, you want me to sell it out to the London crowd, my London fans, then put these little guys that no-one knows about on my show and mug me off.”

However, any suggestion that the wrong fight was heading the card was put to bed almost as soon as the first bell rung.

The atmosphere in the O2 was electric. There were many Scots in attendance, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at Hampden Park with “Flower of Scotland” being belted out around the arena.


Pure heart and desire from both men, a great example of why boxing needs the best to fight the best.

It was all action right from the off. You could tell straight away that it was going to be a tough one to score – the opening rounds could’ve gone either way.

Prograis impressed early on with his fast hands and slick head movement, showing off the skills which earned him a record of 24-0, with 20 of those coming by way of knockout.

However, it was the less experienced Taylor, boasting a record of 15-0 pre-fight including 12 KOs, who dominated the middle rounds. He appeared to be throwing considerably more punches than his opponent, and although Prograis was evading many, the ones that landed certainly did enough to win him rounds.


“In my 31 years as a ref that is the best fight I’ve ever been involved with.” – Referee Marcus McDonnell with high praise

The American finished strongly but it wasn’t enough to stop the 28-year-old from Edinburgh etching his name into the record books.

It was all action, pure heart and desire from both men, and a great example of why boxing needs the best to fight the best.

It was a fight so good, referee Marcus McDonnell said: “In my 31 years as a ref that is the best fight I’ve ever been involved with. It was an honour to share the ring with two great champions.”

There was no protesting from the New Orleans native following the announcement of the result, as he admitted: “He won, I can’t make no excuses. The best man won tonight. I’ll be back.”

It almost seems unfair that someone had to lose. Taylor walks away the victor, deservedly so, but Prograis gained far more than he lost. He won the respect of everyone watching and can certainly come again. Far too many boxers fear getting that first ‘L’ on their record, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, especially when it comes against the best.

Respect between the two warriors following an epic battle

Road to undisputed?

For Taylor, his next goal will ultimately be becoming undisputed champion at super-lightweight. The man who stands in his way is Jose Ramirez, who became unified champion earlier this year, beating fellow American Maurice Hooker to retain his WBC title and win the WBO strap.

A fight between the pair certainly seems realistic and likely to happen sometime next year, once Ramirez has dealt with his next mandatory challenger.

Should the Scotsman win, he would become Britain’s first ever four-belt undisputed champion. Lennox Lewis was the last fighter from Britain to hold all the belts in a division, securing the three belts in existence back in 1999 to become undisputed champion at heavyweight.

Should Taylor manage this achievement, he would undoubtedly go down in boxing history as one of Britain’s greatest-ever fighters, and one of the greatest overall in his weight class.  

Chisora marches on

The highlight of a packed undercard was undoubtedly Chisora securing a third successive win over David Price, whose corner threw in the towel at the end of the fourth round.

It was an entertaining scrap while it lasted, with Chisora landing several nice shots before being buzzed by a lovely uppercut from Price right at the end of the third.

But it was a knockdown, delivered by the man from Finchley in the fourth which ended the night for Price. The brave Liverpudlian got up and wanted to carry on, but his corner took matters out of his hands.


‘Delboy’ will be hoping to secure one final shot at the heavyweight world title before he finally calls it quits, although that seems unlikely

For Chisora, a fight with Joseph Parker seems likely to finally happen next year. Having been talked about for months, it was finally set to happen on this bill, before the Kiwi was forced to pull out.

‘Delboy’ will be hoping to secure one final shot at the heavyweight world title before he finally calls it quits, although that seems unlikely unless he is able to work his way up to a mandatory position.

Amongst the other fights, Welshman Lee Selby got the better of the other Scotsman on the card, veteran Ricky Burns, in an entertaining lightweight clash which went the distance. The British derby was not short of controversy; it spilled over at the end of several rounds, with Selby accusing Burns of punching him after the bell. The man from Barry has now moved himself back into world title contention.

Laurence Okolie picked up the European title, knocking out previously unbeaten Belgian Yves Ngabu in the seventh round of their cruiserweight scrap. Okolie is now set for a world title challenge at some point next year and looks well placed to become the latest British world champion.

Nigel Benn might be set for a comeback, but it was his son Conor who shone in the first televised fight of the evening, moving to 16-0 with a fourth-round stoppage of tough Belgian Stephane Jamoye.

Overall it was a fantastic night of boxing, topped off by a sensational main event which delivered beyond expectations. Britain now has a new boxing superstar, and you can only see Taylor’s career going from strength to strength.

Photo by Harry Currall

A day to remember for Gary Rowett

A win in his first match in charge, and over the club who sacked him earlier this year, plus getting the home crowd onside from the outset – it was a good day at the office for Millwall’s new manager Gary Rowett.

The 45-year-old came in following a caretaker spell under coach Adam Barrett who guided the Lions to a win, a draw and a loss in three games. Rowett watched the last of those – the 2-2 home result against Cardiff City – before succeeding club legend Neil Harris as Millwall boss.

Rowett may not have wanted to come against Stoke City – who fired him in January – before putting his stamp on his new team, and he had never won his first match in charge at any of his former clubs. So Saturday’s 2-0 victory over the Potters was the perfect start in more ways than one.

Proven track record

If some of Millwall harder-to-please fans were less than impressed by his appointment, one look at his managerial CV tells you why his new employers opted to hire him.

Rowett has a proven track record in the Championship, and joining Millwall could be seen as a step down compared to his previous jobs at Stoke, Derby County and Birmingham City, all clubs with larger grounds and fanbases.

After a decent playing career, he first caught the eye as a manager at Burton Albion, twice taking them into the League Two play-offs.

Having earned a move to Birmingham City, he took the Blues from 21st to 10th in his first season, only to find himself out of a job when new owners came in and appointed Gianfranco Zola as team boss. At the time, Birmingham were seventh in the league – a position they have never reached since dispensing with Rowett’s services.

It was Millwall’s Remembrance Day match

His good work at St Andrews had not gone unnoticed, however, and Derby owner Mel Morris took him from the West to East Midlands.

The Rams finished that season in ninth, and Rowett improved on that in the 2017-2018 season, guiding them to sixth spot and picking up two manager of the month awards along the way.

Despite winning the first leg of their playoff-semi-final, they lost to Fulham over two legs – no disgrace as the London side would go onto achieve promotion to the Premier League.

Rowett’s great run at Derby had got Premier League strugglers Stoke interested, to the point of wanting to recruit him mid-season, but he rejected their advances and signed a new deal at Pride Park. However, following Derby’s play-offs disappointment, newly-relegated Stoke came back and agreed to pay £2m in compensation to make him their new boss.

Things did not go to plan at the Britannia Stadium, though, and Rowett again found himself looking for work at the start of the new year.

Times are changing at the Den

He arrived at Millwall with the south Londoners in 17th place and five points off the relegation zone, having endured a shaky start to the season under Harris, their former striker and manager since an initial caretaker stint in 2013-14.

Rowett made two changes to the Lions side that drew 2-2 against Cardiff, which meant a switch from 4-4-2 to 4-4-1-1 as Matt Smith and Aiden O’Brien dropped out, with Shane Ferguson and Jayson Molumby given a chance to prove themselves under the new regime.

Both Harris and Barrett tended to favour 4-4-1-1, with the formation being used eight times out of 15 this season, so it was a simple yet straightforward change, using a system already familiar to the first team squad.

“That’s all it took to raise the noise at the Den, and choruses of ‘Ben Thompson, he’s one of our own’ blasted out of the home support.”

Millwall fans

Just over 14,000 were there to witness Rowett’s first match, designated by Millwall as the club’s Remembrance Day fixture, and it would certainly be one to remember for home crowd.

Whilst the Lions are known for having some workhorse players in midfield, the likes of Molumby, Shaun Williams and Ben Thompson worked tirelessly from the get-go and their energy levels were impressive throughout.

Despite the rain, which added to the thrills and spills at times, Millwall’s defence – a weakness in many matches so far this season – looked regimented and solid; clearly something that had been worked on in the training ground.

Barking orders

By the 28th minute, the hosts were ahead as Thompson latched onto a Jed Wallace cross to volley home from 10 yards and score his first of the season. That’s all it took to raise the noise at The Den and choruses of ‘Ben Thompson, he’s one of our own’ blasted out of the home support.

Rowett was barking orders from his technical area as he willed his team on to get that all-important first victory under his belt, and he seemed able to tactically deal with anything Stoke manager Nathan Jones threw at him.

View of the pitch

There could have been a penalty awarded as Thompson went down in the box just minutes after scoring, however the Lions got a corner instead, much to the displeasure of their fans.

The half-time break arrived, and for the first time in a long time, Millwall were cheered off the pitch. The second half was much more of a test for Rowett’s new charges, but they were able to adapt and deal with what was, in truth, a very weak Stoke side.

Thrilled

Not that the visitors did not have their chances, however, with Molumby and Williams needing to supply some defensive aid to the backline, but the Stoke’s attacks were mostly blocked and repelled with ease.

The home fans were also pleased to see a substitution in the 64th minute (Ferguson replaced by Conor Mahoney), as one of their criticisms of Harris was that he left it too long and too late to make changes.

Wallace scoring the penalty

Millwall gained a vital two-goal lead in the 75th minute after Jed Wallace went on an incredible solo run before being hacked down in the box. The winger picked himself up to scored from the spot, his fifth league goal of the season.

The win took the Lions to 15th in the Championship, six points away from the drop zone.

Players celebrating the second goal

By the end of the match, a large portion of the home support were singing ‘There’s only one Gary Rowett’. Will they still be belting out the same tune after next weekend’s away clash with struggling Reading?

If Rowett can win that one as well, it will stand him in good stead for the all-important derby against Charlton Athletics at The Den coming soon.

All photos by Brandon Prangell.