Category Archives: Opinion

Why there is still a future in New England for Tom Brady

Fans at Gillette Stadium held their collective breath. Tom Brady had the ball with 15 seconds remaining, in his own end zone, the Patriots trailing by a point. We’d been here before. New England would find a way out of it, right?

Wrong. Brady’s pass went straight into the hands of former team-mate Logan Ryan, and the Tennessee Titans secured the upset. This time there was to be no miracle, no ridiculous pass down field, no trick play. The Patriots’ post-season ended with a whimper.

If that is to be the last we will ever see of Brady on a football field, it will be a travesty. Not all great careers have fairy tale endings, but one as good as his at least deserves better than that.

Struggles

On the face of it, it seems crazy that his future is even in doubt. Less than a year ago he was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy aloft, following victory over the much-favoured LA Rams. He has featured in the last three Super Bowls, winning two of them. It seems age really is just a number when it comes to the iconic quarterback.

However, the age factor is not something which can be ignored. At 42, he is unable to do what he once could. Much of his talent remains, but it became increasingly evident towards the end of the season that he is being overtaken by the younger generation.

Brady has previously stated on numerous occasions that he wants to play until he’s 45. Whether his body will let him do that is a question we cannot answer yet, but it would seem unlikely.

‘It would certainly not be fair to place the blame for this entirely on Brady. While he may have had one of his worst seasons by his own high standards, the Patriots offence in general was short on talent’

This season, the Patriots became extremely reliant on their defence. They conceded a mere 195 points in their 16 regular season games, considerably less than Buffalo, who conceded 237, and a huge gap to the third best defence, Baltimore with 270.

On offence, however, they struggled considerably. Six teams outscored them, with the Patriots managing just 420 pre-playoff points. In terms of total yardage gained, they ranked 15th.

Their early season form masked their flaws, with the team winning their first eight games against relatively weak opponents, before falling from 10-1 to 12-4, missing out on a first-round bye before crashing out in the wildcard round.

It would certainly not be fair to place the blame for this entirely on Brady. While he may have had one of his worst seasons by his own high standards, the Patriots offence in general was short on talent.

Tight-end Rob Gronkowski, one of Brady’s most reliable teammates who was with him for three of his Super Bowl wins, retired following their last title. Wide-receiver Chris Hogan, who was part of the Patriots team for their last two championship victories, departed to join Carolina in the off-season.

Other than Julian Edelman, the MVP of Super Bowl LIII, Brady had few dependable targets. Bill Belichick’s men did attempt to fix this with the signing of Antonio Brown, but that always felt like a move destined to fail, with the controversial wide-receiver lasting just one game before being cut amidst various misconduct allegations away from the field.

In many ways, it feels as if Brady was somewhat hung out to dry by owner Robert Kraft. At his age, talent alone was not going to be able to deliver another championship. Last year he was provided with the tools he needed to win, but this year too much offensive talent was not adequately replaced.

Future

So, what of the future? Can Tom Brady still win football games? Of course he can. It is the question of whether he is still capable of winning Super Bowls which both he and the Patriots must answer.

Brady will be a free agent come March 18th if he has not agreed a new deal to stay in Foxborough.

He will have no shortage of options should Kraft and the Patriots decide to move on, with several teams, most notably Miami, Denver, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and the LA Chargers all actively searching for their next quarterback. Even with several talented options available in the draft, the prospect of adding a six-time Super Bowl winner to your team could be too good to turn down.

‘It would appear mutually beneficial for the Patriots to keep him. It would give them time to search for his successor, whilst giving him a chance to avenge this season’s disappointments’

But Brady’s heart belongs in Boston. It would seem wrong to see him pull on another team’s jersey. Never playing again would be a better ending than seeing him struggling with a rebuilding team with little to no chance of getting near a title game.

New England’s options at quarterback are limited. They don’t have a young superstar waiting in the wings to take over. Jarrett Stidham is their current back-up and not considered by anybody as QB1 material.

Had Jimmy Garoppolo not been traded to San Francisco in 2017, he would’ve been a natural replacement. But he’s long gone and unless they are planning something drastic, such as a costly trade-up for a high draft pick, it’s hard to work out what their next move would be were they to cut ties with Tom.

Keeping Brady would not be a costly exercise, as he would likely agree to a short-term deal worth considerably less than his last contract. Retaining him, for one more year at least, would seem the obvious thing to do.

In the end it depends as much on what the man himself wants as it does his team. Would he really be willing to play elsewhere? Moving his family across the country, for one last contract on a team most likely not ready to win, is something it would be hard to see him doing.

Following that loss to the Titans – who have also since dumped No.1 seed Baltimore out of the playoffs – he reiterated his desire to continue playing and all but ruled out retirement. Whether he would feel the same if an offer to stay with the Pats was not on the table remains to be seen.

It would appear mutually beneficial for the Patriots to keep him. It would give them time to search for his successor, whilst giving him a chance to avenge this season’s disappointments.

If Brady bows out, he will do so as the greatest ever to throw the ball. But don’t bet against him walking out at Gillette Stadium again next autumn.

Photo via Flickr by Keith Allison at https://www.flickr.com/photos/27003603@N00/3866185527

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nathan Blake, narrator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mourinho is a big gamble by Spurs – but one worth taking

In a small corner of the Johan Cruijff Arena, the Tottenham fans are blasting out their famous Mauricio Pochettino chant. Lucas Moura has just scored a 96th minute winner against Ajax to send them to a first-ever Champions League final, following one of the most dramatic comebacks in the history of the competition. It feels like a culmination of all the Argentinian’s hard work – he has transformed the club into realistic contenders.

Had someone told you that night that Jose Mourinho would become Tottenham manager by the end of the year, you would have laughed at them. But just 19 games later, with Spurs languishing in 14th position in the Premier League, that is exactly what has transpired.

Despite a horrific run of form which has left them closer to the relegation zone than the top four, Pochettino’s sacking still sent shockwaves through the football world.

He is undoubtedly one of the world’s top coaches and has already been linked with several high-profile jobs. Not many would argue against him finding a job at a club bigger than Spurs before the end of the season.

It is easy to forget that the club made the top four just twice in the Premier League era before Pochettino’s arrival. He has made Champions League football the norm at White Hart Lane, all whilst operating on a shoestring budget relative to many of their rivals.

He also built a special rapport with the fans, as scenes such as those following their dramatic win over Ajax demonstrate, when the Argentine cried tears of joy amid the celebrations.

Demolished

But in football there is no room for sentiment; chairman Daniel Levy had to act on what he felt was best for the long-term future of the club.

In truth, Pochettino’s downfall began well before their historic Champions League run. Tottenham have not won away in the league since January – and even that came in injury time against relegated Fulham.

They have earned just 25 points from their last 24 games, and have won just three league games this season. They were also demolished 7-2 at home by Bayern Munich and knocked out of the Carabao Cup on penalties by Colchester.

There had been doubts for several months surrounding Pochettino’s long-term future, and a feeling that he would jump ship the moment a bigger job came his way. He has been growing increasingly frustrated with the club’s lack of willingness to spend big in the transfer market; they didn’t make a single signing last season.


“In Mourinho, Tottenham have a man who knows how to win”

Sacking arguably one of their greatest ever managers so early in the season may have seemed a rash decision by Levy had he not had a proven winner ready to take over.

In Mourinho, Tottenham have a man who knows how to win. Not just football matches, but trophies, something Pochettino was unable to deliver during his five years in charge.

The contrast between the two could not be greater. One actively seeks to bring through youth, looking to improve individuals rather than replace those who may be struggling, and build a team over a number of years.

The other is a winning machine, who will stop at nothing to achieve success, regularly looking to the transfer market to solve problems.

Turbulent

On the face of it, Mourinho does not seem the perfect fit for the North London club. One of the main reasons’ thing turned sour for him at Manchester United was over the hierarchy’s failure to deliver his transfer targets. Levy will need to dip his hand into his pocket far more often that he has previously in order to satisfy the Portuguese’s wishes.

Levy was not put off by his bitter Old Trafford exit, where he was sacked after a turbulent last six months at the helm. His second-place finish the previous season looks impressive now, and he managed to win two trophies during his tenure, but fell out with many during the process, most notably Paul Pogba.


There is hope that Mourinho will be able to convince several big names to remain at the club

Mourinho often feels like a ticking time bomb, ready to explode as happened in his third season at both Chelsea and United. However, he knows this is potentially his last chance in English football, so will surely come into it with a different, more measured approach.

The three-time Premier League winner is not known for undertaking rebuild jobs, but that’s exactly what he faces in North London. Three key players – Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen are all out of contract at the end of the season, while others such as Serge Aurier, Danny Rose and Victor Wanyama have been offered around Europe with little success.

It shows the mismanagement of the club that Eriksen, who was dead set on leaving following the defeat in Madrid, wasn’t sold and could instead leave the club for free next summer.

There is hope, though, that Mourinho will be able to convince several big names to remain. Surely at least one of the out-of-contract trio could be persuaded to sign a new deal, but even if this happens, there will still be a considerable rebuild needed.

Keeping Spurs talisman Harry Kane will be a priority for the new manager. His social media tribute to the departing Pochettino showed how strong the bond was between the two. But it is likely the future of his star man was on Levy’s mind when he decided to opt for Jose – if anyone can convince him to stay, he can.

Levy has made a tough decision, but the right decision. Mourinho is a gamble, but one worth taking. Expectations are far lower at Tottenham than any of his previous clubs. Jose has won 10 trophies since Spurs last lifted silverware – there are few people better placed to end their drought.

Featured image via www.youtube.com/watch?v=63apDKKx1o4

Le Mans ’66: Too many laps to be perfect

Ironically, a sluggish plot and overlong running time encumbers the pace of this otherwise exciting film about being first to the finish line.

With gripping racing action and reliable star names, Le Mans ’66 (also known as Ford v Ferrari in the US), has received huge praise since its release.

James Mangold’s new movie hauled in more than £41m at the box office in its first two days. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are currently two of Hollywood’s most bankable actors, and reason enough for many film fans -even non-petrolheads – to take a chance on their latest effort.

Damon plays Carroll Shelby, the legendary American motorsport racer and car designer hired by Ford in the mid-1960s to end Ferrari’s dominance at the annual Le Mans 24-hour endurance event in France.

To lead them on the track, and help him develop the Ford GT40 race car to its full potential, Shelby in turn hired Ken Miles, a stubborn but ultra-determined and hugely talented British racer, portrayed with his usual laser-focus and a Brummie accent by Bale.

Potentially, the film’s biggest drawback in terms of having wider appeal, is its subject matter. Motorsport and fast cars tend to attract a particular (mostly male) audience. However, Mangold opts to centre his film on the rollercoaster ups and downs of the friendship between Shelby and Miles.

Thus, there is something for both car lovers and those indifferent to them in Le Mans ’66, and those early box office returns suggest that message is getting through.

Capturing the thrills and drama of motor racing on the big screen is not easy and needs a big budget, but Mangold’s movie works best when it is recreating the brutal, high-adrenaline nature of Le Mans in the 1960s, an era of motorsport when driver deaths were a regular occurrence.

However, the pacing of its narrative is the major drawback of this movie.

There was a doubt raised in my mind when I saw the length of Le Mans ’66: yes, it is about endurance racing, but do film-goers really need to endure 152 minutes in their seats to get to the chequered flag?

Undoubtedly, the quality of a movie cannot be judged by its length. However, a film of this duration suggests either redundant plot lines or, at least, some which take too long to unwind. This defect risks depleting the movie’s overall excitement and losing the audiences’ attention. 

Mangold spends too much time on the description of the background details and supporting sub-plots, taking too long to get to Ford’s historic 1-2-3 victory at Le Mans in 1966.

The endless boardroom bickering and point-scoring among Ford’s top executives, for example, may increase our empathy for Shelby and Miles, but it also serves to somehow lessen the audience’s backing for Team Ford when it comes to the big race.

Multi-billion dollar US conglomerate run by loathsome corporate sharks and hustlers versus the Italian romance of Ferrari’s passion for racing? You choose…

Le Mans ’66 trailer courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Every England manager ranked: 15th-1st

As England play their 1,000th match against Montenegro at Wembley on November 14th, Elephant Sport takes a look at the men who have taken charge of the Three Lions down the years.

15. Sam Allardyce (2016)

‘Big Sam’ is the hardest to judge of them all, seeing as he only had one game in charge – an utterly forgettable game against Slovakia that was won by Adam Lallana in the 95th-minute.

His reign was brought to an abrupt and infamous end after a newspaper sting purported to show him offering advice on how to “get around” rules on third-party player ownership.

Despite being the only permanent England manager with a 100% win record, the embarrassment that Allardyce brought on the FA and the briefness of his reign puts him stone dead last in this list.

14. Steve McClaren (2006-2007)

He was nicknamed the ‘wally with the brolly’ after he sheltered under an umbrella in the pouring rain during England’s 3-2 defeat to Croatia at Wembley – a result that ended their hopes of reaching the 2008 European Championships.

Generally viewed as one of the Three Lions’ least inspiring managers, and considering the quality of the squad McClaren had at his disposal, the failure to qualify for Euro 2008 has to go down as one of the biggest under-achievements in England’s history.

13. Kevin Keegan (1999-2000)

Keegan was an icon whilst representing England in his playing days, but he failed to achieve the same distinguished status as manager – to put it politely.

The former Newcastle United boss’ side exited Euro 2000 after Phil Neville gave a last-minute penalty away in a 3-2 defeat to Romania, and dramatically quit his role as boss after a 1-0 defeat against Germany in the last-ever match at the old Wembley.

It’s fair to say it wasn’t an enjoyable time for England fans – nor, by his admission, was it an enjoyable time for Keegan, later saying he “found it hard to fill in the time”.

12. Graham Taylor (1990-1993)

Taylor remains a well-respected figure in football for his success with Watford and Aston Villa in the 80’s and 90’s but, much like Keegan, he proved that international management isn’t for everyone, with an ignominious stint in charge of England.

The ex-Villa boss was famously depicted as a turnip on the front of a tabloid newspaper following England’s 3-2 defeat to Sweden in Euro 1992 and, after the dismal failure to qualify for the World Cup in the USA, resigned from his post in 1993.

11. Don Revie (1974-1977)

Revie was the mastermind of the great Leeds United team of the 70’s, but failed to live up to expectations as England manager.

He was appointed to much fanfare in 1974, but the Leeds legend failed to get England to Euro 1976 and left for a highly-lucrative move to coach the United Arab Emirates a year later. It was always going to be tough to succeed the great Sir Alf Ramsay, but someone of Revie’s calibre should have performed a lot better.

10. Fabio Capello (2008-2012)

Capello was one of the biggest names in football management when he got the England job in 2008. Considering his huge reputation as a manager across Europe, coupled with the talented crop of players at his disposal, it was difficult to see how this could possibly go wrong – but it did.

Despite a very strong qualifying campaign for World Cup 2010, the tournament itself was a disaster. A dreary 0-0 draw with Algeria was sandwiched in between a Rob Green howler against USA and a thrashing against old rivals Germany.

The Italian dramatically resigned from his post after John Terry was stripped of the captaincy against his wishes. Not many England fans were sad to see the back of him.

9. Sven Goran-Eriksson (2001-2006)

The Swede became the first foreign manager of the England national team in 2001 when he replaced Kevin Keegan. Eriksson was seen as something of a master tactician and, following success in Serie A with Sampdoria and Lazio, it seemed like a forward-thinking choice.

However – despite having the so-called ‘golden generation’ at his disposal – Sven could only guide England to the quarter-final stage of the 2002 World Cup, Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup. He really should have done a lot better with the squad that he had, and the way that quality was squandered means he won’t be remembered fondly as England boss.

8. Roy Hodgson (2012-2016)

The former Liverpool and Inter Milan manager swooped in and pinched the England job from right under Harry Redknapp’s nose in 2012 after Capello dramatically walked out just a few months before the start of the European Championships.

Hodgson steered England to the quarter-finals of that tournament, where they were ultimately knocked out on penalties by Italy. That wasn’t a bad achievement under the circumstances, but that’s as good as it got for him.

His side crashed out at the group-stage of the 2014 World Cup and were then embarrassingly dumped out of Euro 2016 by Iceland, which led him to resign in his post-match press conference.

He maneuvered some tricky circumstances well and always managed to guide England through strong qualifying campaigns, but the way his sides crumbled at the finals of major tournaments leaves Hodgson mid-table in this list.

7. Ron Greenwood (1977-1982)

Greenwood isn’t somebody that is particularly well-remembered and wasn’t that highly thought-of at the time either; mainly due to him not being Brian Clough, who many thought should have been given the job back in 1977.

However, he was important in the revival of England; finally steering the nation back into a major tournament in 1980 after a decade-long absence. Greenwood’s tenure also included the landmark selection of England’s first-ever black player when Viv Anderson was included in the squad in 1978.

His England team went unbeaten at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, but missed out on a semi-final spot after failing to beat the hosts in the second group stage. Despite that, Greenwood remains a bit of a forgotten man in England’s history and, therefore, only manages seventh place on this list.

6. Glenn Hoddle (1996-1999)

Hoddle’s ideas, on paper, looked exciting. As befitted one of the most exciting talents of his generation, his aim were to play an attacking, stylish brand of football and drag the national team into a modern era of the game.

His stint in charge was eventful. He brought a young Michael Owen into the squad for the World Cup in 1998 and, well, the rest is history, as they say. That was also the match where David Beckham was infamously sent off for petuntately kicking out at Diego Simeone.

He left the role in controversial circumstances after doing an interview where he seemed to suggest that people with disabilities were being punished for sins in a former life. Unsurprisingly, the FA didn’t react well to these statements and fired him soon after.

There’s a feeling that Hoddle left before he really got started and could have been more successful. Due to some of the failings of many of the managers who’ve followed him, he’s ranked fairly highly in this list.

5. Walter Winterbottom (1946-1962)

Seeing as Winterbottom left his post nearly 60 years ago, it’s hardly surprising that many England fans will never have heard of him.

He was England’s first-ever manager and is the longest-serving coach in the history of the nation, staying in charge for 16 years. He took England to four World Cup tournaments and also helped revolutionise the managerial role, putting more emphasis on coaching players on the training ground.

Some argue that he never really recovered from the embarrassing 6-3 home defeat to Hungary in 1953 and his sides never went far enough at major tournaments, but his pioneering influence as coach paved the way for future managers and leaves him with a strong legacy in the game.

4. Gareth Southgate (2016-present)

After finding themselves in a post-Allardyce wilderness, Southgate sewed England back together and made watching them enjoyable again in that unforgettable summer of sun, singing and beer-throwing in 2018.

He certainly wasn’t everyone’s first choice when he took the reins in 2016; seen as just another FA ‘yes man’. But he soon stamped his authority on the side by phasing out an ageing Wayne Rooney, bringing through young players and switching to a three-at-the-back system for the World Cup.

The former U21 boss saw his changes work wonders as England reached the semi-finals for the first time since 1990; falling at the penultimate hurdle against Croatia. It’s still early days in Southgate’s tenure, but the summer of ‘18 won’t be forgotten in a hurry and that puts the current coach up in fourth-place.

3. Terry Venables (1994-1996)

Much like Southgate, Venables put the enjoyment back into watching England after the failure of missing out on a place at the World Cup in 1994. England really captured the imagination of a nation on home soil at Euro ’96 and, again, much like Southgate, helped produce another unforgettable summer in the nation’s sporting history. The 4-1 hammering of the Netherlands remains one of England’s all-time great performances.

He didn’t stick around for as long as perhaps he should have, but the memories he helped created coupled with the way he got the best out of his players – Paul Gascoigne in particular – means he sneaks into the top-three.

2. Bobby Robson (1982-1990)

Robson is remembered as the suave, charming, twinkly-eyed coach who nearly guided England to their second World Cup triumph in 1990. He undoubtedly goes down as a legend, but he wasn’t always liked in the same way that he is now.

The former Ipswich and Barcelona boss had a mixed record at tournaments and was subject to mass derision in the press before that memorable World Cup campaign of 1990 after a fairly disastrous Euro 1988, where England lost all three of the matches they played.

However, Robson turned things around in Italy two years later; cementing himself as a legend within the game.

1. Alf Ramsey (1963-1974)

It won’t come as much surprise to anyone that Sir Alf Ramsey tops this list, considering he remains the only England manager to life the World Cup aloft.

The second longest-serving boss guided a side that contained the likes of Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton to the nation’s only trophy in 1966 with a famous 4-2 win over West Germany at Wembley Stadium.

Despite his tenure tailing off and failing to lead the side to Euro 1972 and the 1974 World Cup, it’s difficult to look beyond Ramsey as the greatest England manager of all time. It’s been over 60 years now and there’s still not been a man to repeat his feat. It’ll be interesting to see how much longer that wait goes on…

Image credits: Dmitry Sadovnikov, Rob Anefo & Anton Zaitsevvia via Wikipedia Commons.

Why boxing needs the World Boxing Super Series

How often does sport really make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? Mine did as I watched Nonito Donaire and Naoya Inoue battle it out in one of the all-time great fights in the bantamweight final of the World Boxing Super Series in Saitama, Japan.

It’s quite rare that we get to see two warriors fearlessly attempt to unify their belts in an era of boxing where money and the boxing’s politics often conspire to prevent big fights from happening. And yet, thanks to the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS), we’ve been treated to two incredible fight-of-the-year contenders in as many weeks.

On October 26th, in front of a packed O2 Arena in London, Josh Taylor and Regis Prograis produced scintillating displays, with Taylor capturing the WBA and Ring Magazine belts, as well as the Super Series’ Ali Trophy in a close but deserved majority win, just five months after winning the IBF title against Ivan Barachynk in Glasgow.

And, two weeks later, just when you think it can’t get any better; a modern-day classic that’ll be talked about for years to come was produced in Japan. Inoue – one of the most talked about fighters on the planet – edged a decision win against former four-weight world champion Donaire; the Phillipino very nearly shocking the world and conjuring up the seemingly possible in his probable farewell from the sport.

Phenomenal

The contest had everything: skill, drama, grit, heart and an 11th-round that’ll surely go down as one of the best ever seen in the sport. Despite sustaining a nasty-looking cut early on in the fight, Inoue – who is fast becoming a pound-for-pound star – was the one to lift the Ali Trophy aloft, defend his IBF world title, capture the coveted Ring Magazine belt and win the WBA strap from his Phillipino counterpart.

Former WBSS cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk in training

This phenomenal conclusion to the second season of the WBSS is no one-off either. Last year’s tournaments didn’t exactly disappoint. British fighter Callum Smith shocked many by winning the light-heavyweight version of the tournament in Saudi Arabia, sending icon George Groves into retirement in the process.

Not many will forget the dramatic cruiserweight tournament either. Oleksandr Usyk produced a remarkable individual crusade towards greatness by beating Marco Huck, Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev in their home nations; thrusting the Ukranian into the public domain and building a profile that should earn him a heavyweight title shot next year. It really was a demonstration of what boxing can do when its frustrating politics are put to one side.

The WBSS sounds great, doesn’t it? The best fighting the best, immediate unifications with no opportunity for fighters to take easy defences after winning world titles, plus epic production values, with amazing light shows that make every show unforgettable. It sounds almost too good to be true.

So why are there rumours swirling around that the second season of the WBSS could also be its last?

Fears

In fairness, it’s not always gone smoothly. The WBSS – headed up by Kalle and Nisse Saureland – was founded as a tournament that looked to bring the best-of-the-best of each weight division into a knockout-style competition.

However, they haven’t always been able to secure every big name possible. Jose Ramirez – the current WBO super-lightweight champion – was a notable absentee from this year’s tournament.

“Boxing needs these fights to happen in order to keep up with mixed martial arts”

There were also fears earlier this year that the tournament may even discontinue before season two reached its conclusion due to complicated issues with investors. A competition attempting to get the biggest stars in world boxing on board was always going to need serious investment and, without that, there’s really no place for the tournament to go. Especially if they want to try and target some of the higher weight divisions.

Let’s hope that these problems can be put to one side, though, and the WBSS can continue for a few more series to come. This is fantasy boxing, an idea that only a true purist could dream up.

We live in a world where fights like Crawford vs Spence and Joshua vs Wilder are just quixotic debates in the pub rather than real-life fights in the ring. This tournament makes those dream super-fights a reality.

Boxing needs these fights to happen in order to keep up with mixed martial arts – another combat sport that is rapidly growing in popularity amongst the younger demographic.

Future

Last week, a world championship fight between Canelo Alvarez and Sergey Kovalev was delayed so it didn’t clash with Nate Diaz’s MMA bout with Jose Masvidal in the UFC. A worrying indication at where boxing is in comparison to other sports.

The Sauerland brothers are attempting to breathe new life into it by forcing unifications and putting on amazing events involving incredible fights in the process. It doesn’t just buy ready-made stars in either, it makes them.

Last year, it was Usyk and Smith who shot to fame as a result of their WBSS glory. This year, Taylor and Inoue will be the ones to rise to the summit. The Japanese star has already been snapped up by Bob Arum’s Top Rank on a highly-lucrative, multi-year deal.

There’s no denying that the project has had its issues, and future seasons would have to run a lot smoother than the first two, but to give up on the concept would be a crying shame after it has helped deliver so many amazing fights in such a short space of time.

The WBSS simply must be preserved for as long as possible – whatever the cost.

Image credits: MR Gatis & Andriy Makukha via flickr.com.

Man Utd's 1968 European Cup winning team

Review: Busby breathes fresh life into an oft-told tale

How to deliver a new feature-length documentary about one of the most celebrated careers in British sport – and make it feel fresh?

This is the challenge facing director Joe Pearlman with his latest film, which treads where many have previously stepped in telling the story of Manchester United’s legendary manager Sir Matt Busby.

Simply titled Busby, it charts his rise from humble roots in a Scottish mining village to European Cup-winning boss of a team he rebuilt following the tragedy of the Munich Air Disaster of 1958 which killed eight of his renowned ‘Busby Babes’ line-up and left 15 others dead.

As mentioned, Pearlman is by no means the first to cover this ground. Any number of books and TV documentaries have paid tribute to the man whose achievements put United on the road to becoming the global ‘brand’ they are today.

These include the magisterial 1997 television series Busby, Stein and Shankly: The Football Men, written and fronted by that titan of sports journalism Hugh McIlvanney, and a recent, well-received Busby biography by acclaimed football writer Patrick Barclay.

So, is there room on the groaning shelf of Busby-related material, both on screen and in print, for yet another retelling of his remarkable tale?

Track record

A few years ago, one might have said maybe not, but in recent times the genre of feature-length films about iconic sports personalities has been firmly established by critical and commercial hits such as Senna and Diego Maradona.

Matt Busby holds the European Cup aloft outside Manchester Town Hall, June 1968.
Matt Busby holds the European Cup aloft outside Manchester Town Hall, June 1968.

Fulwell 73, the production company behind Busby, has its own decent track record in this respect, having made The Class of 92, about the generation of young talent at United which included Beckham, Giggs and Scholes, as well as Mo Farah: Race Of His Life, Sunderland ‘Til I Die and I Am Bolt.

Pearlman’s most recent film was the Bafta-nominated Bros: After The Screaming Stops, which received plaudits for its unflinching plunge into the rise, fall and rehabilitation of 80s pop stars Matt and Luke Goss.

Of course, with Busby, the film’s key character is long gone (Sir Matt died in 1994), and the danger in such cases is an over-reliance on the same talking heads who may have featured in the many other Busby documentaries.

The other risk of returning to an oft-told tale is that some key contributors to earlier tellings will either no longer be around or not want to participate again and, in truth, there is a hint of that with Busby.

The voice of Bobby Charlton is often heard, but the Old Trafford great is never present on camera, so presumably old interviews have been used (but possibly not; it is unclear). We also neither see nor hear from Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager who finally managed to drag Manchester United out of Busby’s long, intimidating shadow.

The roll call of former United players who do feature is still impressive and includes Pat Crerand, John Aston Jr, Alex Stepney, Jeff Whitefoot, Wilf McGuinness, Eamon Dunphy and a still spry-looking Denis ‘The King’ Law.

They are complemented by an array of former United staffers, the son of Busby’s right-hand man Jimmy Murphy – who took charge of the team when his boss laid critically ill in hospital after the Munich crash – plus a clutch of Busby biographers including the aforementioned Patrick Barclay.

Compelling

All make valuable contributions to the film, but what really makes it stand out as an significant addition to the Busby-United canon is its use of archive film from throughout Busby’s career, first as player and then across the four decades, from the 1940s and into the 70s, of his managerial reign.

Some serious research has taken place here, and whatever large chunk of the budget it must have cost to unearth and secure the rights to use this amazing array of raw material was absolutely worth it.


The bar has been set very high in the past few years by some excellent feature-length sports documentaries, and Busby – more often than not – feels as if it hits that mark

The die-hard United fan who accompanied me to the screening reckons to have seen pretty much every documentary made about his club, but he was astounded by some of the footage, particularly from matches in the early years of Busby’s tenure, when pitches resembled ploughed fields and the crowds looked like they had just stepped out of an L.S. Lowry painting.

We both agreed that the only disappointing aspect of the new film was a closing section which felt rushed as it hurtled through the list of managers who tried and failed to succeed the great man, and did not linger on the one who finally did – Busby’s fellow driven Scot and knight of the realm, Fergie.

At 105 minutes, it feels as if it could have been 15 minutes longer, especially as the pace early on is fairly leisurely. On balance, though, Busby certainly adds something fresh to what has, in recent times, threatened to become an overload of homage to the visionary who revolutionised the British game.

The bar has been set very high in the past few years by some excellent feature-length sports documentaries, and Busby – more often than not – feels as if it hits that mark.

Busby will be in cinemas for one night only on November 11th, available to own on digital download from Nov 15th, and on DVD & Blu-ray from November 18th.

Main photo of Man Utd’s 1968 European Cup winning team, with Sir Matt Busby, courtesy of Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images.

Should have kicked-off earlier – Review: Inside Borussia Dortmund

German film-maker Aljoscha Pause has scored a winner with Inside Borussia Dortmund, but a bit of added time would not have gone amiss.

Whilst most documentaries covering a football club pick things up either before or at the start of a new season, this one opens at Dortmund’s winter training camp in Marbella halfway through the 2018-19 campaign.

Filming also coincides with a downturn in their fortunes, and the series ends up tinged with misery as the club’s players and coaches keep blowing their chances.

Given that Dortmund ended up finishing second to perennial Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich by just two points, joining them at the season’s midpoint feels a bit odd.

Impactful

That criticism aside, Inside Borussia Dortmund gets off to an impactful start as team boss Lucien Favre explains his footballing philosophy and sets up how the series will continue.

It is an interview-led production by Pause, who is best known best in his country for creating Trainer!, a documentary that follows three German football managers during one season.

Pause was born in the North Rhine-Westphalia region, which is home to BVB, and much of his other work has been on the club or based around individuals such as Jurgen Klopp and Mario Gotze.

Inside Borussia Dortmund strikes a decent balance between showing the inner workings of a major sporting institution and also promoting it to a new audience

UK football fans will want to know how this series compares to others they might have seen such as All or Nothing: Manchester City and Sunderland Till I Die, and in truth there are a couple of things that could have been done better overall.

Limiting factors

Non-German speakers have to rely on subtitles, but this did not spoil the experience for me, especially as the interviews were brilliantly shot.

It felt as if the subjects were at put an ease by their questioner, and that each interview was done with the purpose of adding to the sporting drama being played out on the screen.

As well as players, coaches and club officials, the series also features a couple of journalists who know the club inside out and clearly care about its fans and their region, providing context not necessarily shared by those on the inside.

The CEO’s words sound rather callous, especially considering all the issues that footballers have with mental health these days

Inside Borussia Dortmund strikes a decent balance between showing the inner workings of a major sporting institution and also promoting it to a new audience.

Each episode features history lessons about the club, although these do not sit that well with this production, particularly if you know Dortmund, plus just four parts feels very short compared to other series in a similar vein.

Honesty

It is informative to see how the club acted in the aftermath of the bomb attack on their team coach in April 2017, and eye-opening to hear the thoughts of CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke.

He recalls: “So we had a big clear-out; perhaps we needed to do that a year earlier if we had realised. But then I’m sure we’d have been accused of scaremongering, of dumping players who were victims of a bomb attack two months previously. At the end of the day, we couldn’t find a better solution, because there is no blueprint. No club can claim ever to have experienced this.”

His words sound rather callous, especially considering all the issues that footballers have with mental health these days, but his honesty also feels likes a bold stroke.

Unlike other club-based series, Inside Borussia Dortmund focuses less on the team manager, with more emphasis on Watke, sporting director Michael Zorc and other big names behind the scenes, possibly to the detriment of Favre and his players.

With that all being said, even a non-Dortmund fan would surely agree that the series deftly explores the inner workings of the German giant. There’s no getting away from the issue that it picks the story of their season rather late, but overall it bears comparison with the best of its type.

Documentary poster courtesy of amazon.co.uk. For more about Inside Borussia Dortmund, click here.

What can other sports learn from the Morey-China controversy?

Even non-basketball fans might have noticed the recent controversy involving the NBA in China.

The sport’s most successful league has been frantically trying to undo the damage caused in its biggest overseas market after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey retweeted a message of support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.

He could not have imagined that the seven words it contained would result in China Central Television (CCTV) halting its broadcasts of NBA pre-season games and all Chinese sponsors suspending their agreements with the NBA.

The tempest was sparked when Morey used Twitter to shared a photo with the slogan ‘Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong’, which seemed to support the recent violent demonstrations in the special administrative region that officially became part of China in 1997.

He deleted the tweet an hour later, however, screenshots of it had already spread rapidly in China and irritated government and sports officials plus many Chinese people. Neither Morey himself nor the NBA acted swiftly enough to defuse the tensions, and 28 hours later, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) suspended all co-operation with Houston Rockets.

Two days after his controversial retweet, Morey used Twitter to insist that he had been simply voicing his own thoughts which in no way represented the Rockets or the NBA, but his words did not work.

At the same time, NBA president Adam Silver flew to Shanghai and met with his CBA counterpart Yao Ming, who as a player spent nine seasons with the Houston Rockets.

Silver said that the NBA would not apologise for Morey’s words as it values the right of having freedom of expression. However, this did nothing to assuage the anger felt in China, as Yao Ming made clear.

Forbidden

Why did people in China react so strongly to Morey’s post? What the NBA seemingly failed to understand is that it referred to separatism. Americans underestimate the significance in China of this issue, which can be compared to the sensitivities surround issues of race in the United States.

So whatever the NBA did – or did not – say in responding to the dispute, it had already entered into a forbidden zone of Chinese culture and both the Houston Rockets and NBA were going to made to pay for it.

With a population of 1.4bn, and a growing affluent middle class, many professional sports leagues around the world consider that China either is, or has the potential to become, their most important overseas market.

But in order to really succeed in developing it as a lucrative source of income, foreign teams, clubs, and leagues need to be aware of the areas of Chinese society and politics where they should tread lightly, lest a seemingly negligible thing such as a tweet might spark a huge loss.

Both the Chinese government and people have an adverse reaction to foreigners supporters separatism in any part of China. This stems in part from the fact that the country has suffered from numerous foreign invasions since the 19th century and spent more than 100 years to repel them.

Consequently, the whole notion of the integrity of their nation and its borders is extremely important to Chinese people, and that is why separatism is a red line that cannot be crossed by anyone.

The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty. This issue is non-negotiable.

– Brookyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai

The owner of another NBA team, Joseph Tsai of the Brooklyn Nets, explained the problem in an open letter: separatism is a third-rail issue in China.

“The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.”

https://www.facebook.com/joe.tsai.3781/posts/2653378931391524

So this means that foreign companies will make trouble for themselves if they treat the likes of Hong Kong, Macau or Tibet as singular regions. Doing so risks huge negative effects in their dealings with China and Chinese companies and organisations, even where good relations existed previously.

Whether people in the West believe it is right or wrong, any business, league or individual who wants to make profits in China must learn to stay silent on Chinese domestic affairs.

As the Chinese government insists on the principle of non interference in the internal affairs of other countries, so it expects those countries to reciprocate and avoid any actions detrimental to China or its citizens, or which challenge its status as an independent country.

In short, the NBA stands accused of not respecting China or its people, and as one influential basketball commentator said: “You cannot earn money from China but show no respect to your Chinese consumers.”

People have compared this current controversy with the one sparked in the NBA five years ago when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was fined $2.5m and banned for life from the league for racist comments.

Nobody supported Sterling’s “freedom of expression” when his words offended others, and that is why Chinese NBA supporters do not agree with the idea that freedom of speech can excuse Morey’s post

Nobody supported Sterling’s “freedom of expression” when his words offended others, and that is why Chinese NBA supporters do not agree with the idea that freedom of speech can excuse Morey’s post. The NBA did not react with sufficient measures in its aftermath, and thus its many Chinese fans felt offended.

Of course, one league’s mishap is another’s opportunity, and whilst the NBA continues to suffer from the fall-out of the Morey episode, European football and basketball leagues are receiving more attention than before.

History can be made in seconds – Review: Going Vertical

The figures may not be huge compared to the biggest blockbuster movies, but Going Vertical (also released under the title Three Seconds), is the highest-grossing Russian film ever, with worldwide box office returns of over $60m.

It tells the true – but dramatised – story of the Soviet Union’s improbable victory over deadly rivals (and dead-cert favourites) the USA in the final of the men’s basketball competition at the 1972 Olympic Games.

Everything that happened at that summer Olympiad in Munich tends to be overshadowed by the terrorist attack on the Israeli team, and the USSR’s triumph over the Americans feels largely forgotten, partly because of controversy over the result which saw the US make an official protest.

So Going Vertical can be recommended on the basis that it shines new light on an important moment in sport, and the film successfully recalls the unlikely Soviet win in a way which excites and moves the audience.

The script is based on the memoir by Soviet basketball legend Sergei Belov, and the film’s alternative title refers to the last three seconds of that famous game in Munich. Director Anton Megerdiche uses a long shot in the movie to reproduce the moment in which Ivan Edeshko heaves a pass up the court for team-mate Aleksandr Belov to score and make it 51-50 to the USSR.

The director controls the pace smartly and delivers a steady stream of conflict to increase the tension, even though the final outcome is already known. It has the hallmarks of a solidly commercial movie whilst, as a film about sport, evoking the team spirit and fierce passions involved in a classic underdog victory tale.

“The USA basketball team will be defeated by another team sooner or later, I hope it will be us.”

“The USA basketball team will be defeated by another team sooner or later, I hope it will be us,” says head coach Vladimir Garanzhin (Vladimir Mashov) who, in real life, predicted the Soviet victory, much to the consternation of Russian officials who believed his bold statement risked ridicule for their nation at the height of the Cold War.

The movie portrays Garanzhin’s battles with the pressure and threats from his politically-motivated bosses as he strives to give his players 100 per cent trust and support.

Garanzhin goes the extra mile for his team, finding contact lenses for talented but myopic player Alzhan Zharmukhamedov (Aleksandr Ryapolov) and spending money he has set aside to pay for operation his son needs to fund medical treatment for Belov in the United States.

He even gives Lithuanian-born team captain Modestas Paulauskas (James Tratas) the chance to escape from the clutches of the Communist regime.

Garanzhin’s human touch, not to mention his coaching skills, enables him to forge an indomitable team spirit that ultimately leads to triumph over an all-conquering USA line-up packed with NBA stars.

Away from the basketball court, the film touches on the lack of reward for the players, showing them smuggling items such as radios, leather jackets and even knitting wool when they return home to the Soviet Union.

Such details aim to reflect the harsh realities of life for many people in the USSR during the Cold War era, but ultimately this is a movie about one of the biggest sporting upsets of all time. Until that final in Munich, the USA had not been beaten in basketball at the Olympics for 36 years.

The meticulousness of the director can be seen throughout. He chooses not to gloss over those hardships so the film could resonate with the audiences, especially in Russia – hence its favourable critical reception at home and domestic box office success.

Of course, sport is war minus the shooting, as George Orwell put it, and Russia’s victory only added to the tensions between the two super powers. Garanzhin’s aim of defeating the USA becomes a political goal rather than simply a sporting one, and government officials warn his son will not be permitted to seek treatment overseas if the USSR’s reputation is damaged.

So high were the stakes that the USA team actually refused to accept their silver medals after claiming those crucial final three seconds of the gold medal game has been added erroneously.

No American distributor thought that Going Vertical was worth screening in the States. It did reasonably well in China, and was sold to a few other countries, but buying the DVD via Amazon is now the only way to access the movie.

It should be noted that Going Vertical has been criticised and was even the subject of legal action in Russia for playing fast and loose with the facts.

For example, Paulauskas never tried to leave the Soviet Union, Belov did not have heart disease when the team made the history, and it is also claimed the head coach was not trying to secure surgery for his son outside of the USSR.

Nonetheless, for any sports fan who loves a film about unfancied teams overcoming the odds to triumph, Going Vertical is worth seeking out.