Cockerill: ‘My deal to join Fulham was done in half an hour down the local pub’

This is my interview with Glenn Cockerill about the incredibly successful 1996/97 season. It was published in the matchday programme against Derby on Saturday.

Glenn Cockerill may have made only 36 competitive appearances for Fulham, but he played an important role in guiding the club to the Premier League.

After saving the Whites from relegation in his first season as a manager, Micky Adams set about putting together a strong squad on a relative shoestring.

He needed someone with a strong character and knew Cockerill well having played alongside him at Southampton. The partnership proved fruitful, as Fulham gained promotion from Division Three in 1996/97.

“I know Micky was my manager,” the midfielder said, “but he was probably my best mate at the club. My nickname for him was ‘Tarzan’, I don’t know why.

“We both lived in the same village and drank together. My deal to join Fulham was done in half an hour down the local pub, The Jolly Farmer in Warsash.

“He just wanted somebody to socialise up the dressing room and I think by the end of pre-season, my job was accomplished.”

However, that strong team spirit was not just forged in happy times. Cockerill feels the turning point for the campaign took place after a match the players would have wanted to forget.

“The game that stood out for me was our first away trip of the season, to Hartlepool. On the way home, me and Morgs [Simon Morgan] had a chat at the back of the bus. I said ‘come on, I’m here to dig in with you lot’.

“It was a long, long trip home because we’d been beaten, but from that day, I had a feeling that the team would go on and achieve something. We won the next five games.”

Cockerill had been a regular in the Southampton side for the best part of ten years. However, he started to fall out of favour.

“I was in and out of the team in my ninth year and was offered another year to get my testimonial, but I knew I wasn’t going to play every week because the Premier League was getting quicker.

“I was playing against people like David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Giggsy and I didn’t want to stick around just to pick up a testimonial game.”

A few seasons with Leyton Orient followed before the move to SW6, where he became Fulham’s oldest-ever debutant, a record that still stands.

Although having a spread of goalscorers was vital for promotion, Cockerill notes the meticulous work done on the training ground to ensure they had the tightest defence in the division.

“We did so well because there were probably four of us who couldn’t move! But no, we were well-drilled. Micky and Corky [Alan Cork] did a good job with us all and did a lot of work on shape, especially with the back four. We also had a top-class keeper [Mark Walton].”

The arrival of Mohamed Al-Fayed ushered in a new era on the Thames, as the arrival of more high-profile names meant that Cockerill was no longer in the frame.

His love affair with the club was rekindled however when he became U19 coach in 1998/99. During this time he met his current wife Angela, who was working at Motspur Park as the academy director’s PA. The couple have three children.

It is not so easy for Glenn to go to Craven Cottage anymore, but despite this he has not forgotten the role the fans played in the on-field success.

“My nine-year-old boy Brody plays football on a Saturday, so I tend to watch him and see the results on TV.

“We were very close to the fans. They were terrific all season, home and away. I believe they saw something different for the first time in many years at Fulham.”

Little did anyone know the adventures that lay ahead in the coming years.

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Morgan: ‘1996/97 was the start of the Fulham revolution’

Simon Morgan spoke to me prior to Fulham’s match with Derby this weekend. This interview went in the matchday programme.

How did the 1996/97 promotion compare to the subsequent two?

They were all brilliant in their own way. 1996/97 was the start of the Fulham revolution and it was probably the most unexpected promotion. We weren’t the most gifted group, but we worked hard and had a tremendous team spirit, so it was a very special year.

Did Micky Adams drive the expectation to get promotion?

Micky drove us, definitely. He took us to Epsom Downs in pre-season; that’s when he was just running us every day. He said ‘remember Gillingham at the end of last season, they came to our place, they were celebrating promotion, why can’t it be us this year, why can’t we celebrate?’. From then on, we just rode the wave of optimism and kept it going all the way through the season.

Was the role of the fans crucial that season?

Absolutely crucial. I remember the first game of the season. The country was on the crest of a wave after Euro ’96, we had a decent crowd on the first day and they were really supportive. I think they appreciated that while we were never going to be the best team in Fulham’s history, we’d make sure we were the hardest-working. There was a band of supporters who followed us away and our away form was tremendous during the season.

In the wake of the campaign you wrote a book, On Song for Promotion. What was the reason behind the name and when did you decide to write it?

You’ve got my wife to blame for the title! Right from the start of the season, we always had a sing-song. Mark Walton and Glenn Cockerill were the big crooners of the group. The wife said ‘you’ve got to put something about singing because that’s all you lot ever did’ so that’s where On Song for Promotion came from. I wrote the book over the summer with the help of Dennis Turner, God bless him. We dragged the club kicking and screaming out of the bottom league and set it on its way to 13 consecutive years in the Premier League. Apparently, everyone’s got a book in them, that’s what I was told. Micky Adams has done one as well. If me and Micky can write one, then anyone can.

You had the best defence in the whole league that season. What work did you do to make yourselves a solid defensive unit?

Everyone in the team worked so hard, with and without the ball. We all wanted to be involved in keeping a clean sheet, the same way we all wanted to be scoring at the other end. That was just the team ethic that Micky and Corky [Alan Cork] instilled in the team more than anything else.

You returned to Fulham as head of community development. Was it always in your mind to go into that sort of role?

I was always more interested in the administrative side of football than coaching or management. As all the players that I ever played alongside will tell you, I didn’t like training. The thought of going out and coaching on a cold, Monday morning just didn’t appeal to me, so a nice, warm office was much more to my taste. I did a business course when I was a player, so when I left Fulham for a year, it was always with the agreement to come back and then start working on the administrative side. It was a great experience working at Fulham and I’ve now been at the Premier League for ten years and in my current role for the last three [as head of football relations].

Have you seen much of the current side?

I saw them a few times at the end of last season and was very impressed. Obviously I was disappointed that they weren’t able to get through the play-offs and get promoted. I know, working at the Premier League, that Fulham were a great favourite and we all want them to get back into the division as quickly as possible. There’s been a bit of a hangover this year, but hopefully the club and the manager will be able to turn things round as soon as possible.

Elliott: ‘You can play on a ploughed field in the Football League’

Sutton United chairman Bruce Elliott has expressed his desire to see the club retain its artificial surface should the club gain promotion to League Two this season.

The EFL currently only allows teams to play on grass pitches, with the most recent vote on a change of policy in November 2014 resulting in a dead heat.

The pitch at Gander Green Lane drew plaudits during their glorious FA Cup run and Elliott knows full well the advantages that an artificial surface can bring.

“It’s been the best thing we’ve ever done. I’m surprised that a few clubs in the Football League haven’t put their league under more pressure. These clubs are being held back from putting a 3G pitch in, which surely will make them more financially stable. That’s what the leagues want their clubs to be.

“If it’s good enough for the FA Cup, for European games, for World Cup games, why is it not good enough for the Football League? Very strange.”

Elliott has questioned what he sees as a “contradiction” between the stringent regulations governing the installation of 3G surfaces in EFL competition compared with the seemingly more relaxed approach to the condition of grass pitches.

“I’m not singling them out for special treatment, but a number of people have used the example of Newport County’s pitch last year. They were allowed to play Football League matches on a pitch which clearly left a lot to be desired and there doesn’t seem to be any rules and regulations about the quality of grass pitches.

“You can play on a ploughed field it seems in the Football League. But if you’ve got a 3G pitch, it has to be FIFA two-star rated and has to have rigorous testing every 12 months. There does seem a little bit of a contradiction there, which I’m sure at some stage will get addressed.”

While acknowledging that the current state of play means that the club has to replace the top surface with grass, Elliott believes that the club should bring pressure to bear on the EFL to reconsider their stance.

“I don’t what the procedures would be, but obviously the first thing if you found yourself in that position would be to put some pressure on to see whether the rules could be changed. We’re so far away from that scenario that we’ve got enough to worry about without worrying about that at the moment, but we’d deal with it.”

Featured image: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

‘I can’t remember a time when we actually had a bit of money to spend’

Ask English football fans to pick their fairytale story from last season and many would plump for Sutton United’s memorable run to the fifth round of the FA Cup.

The south Londoners, who were enjoying their first season in the National League, disposed of four higher-ranked teams to make it to the last 16, where they came up against Arsenal. Alas, the Gunners had too much quality on the day, but for a club that train twice a week and who are kept ticking over by an army of volunteers, just reaching that stage of the competition was an achievement.

For Bruce Elliott, the campaign was particularly sweet. “That was my 20th season as chairman of the club and obviously that would be my best ever. We got promotion at the end of the previous season, so we were entering a little bit into the unknown with the National League. It was a big step up, so we had that to look forward to and then of course we got caught up in a wonderful FA Cup run as well.”

This was very much uncharted territory. The level of attention that non-league clubs receive is usually pretty limited, so to have hordes of journalists flocking to Gander Green Lane on a fairly regular basis took some getting used to.

Gander Green Lane

“It was difficult and quite stressful at times. We’re very lucky that we have so many good volunteers who know the club and have been involved for some years, so there’s a great continuity there, but it took quite a few of us out of our comfort zone.

“I don’t think those of us who were trying to work got very much work done. I kept coming into the office and ending up spending the whole day on football business.  It was enjoyable, but it took over our lives for a few weeks. Would we do it again if it came along this season or next? Of course the answer is ‘yes’.”

Sutton have always spent responsibly under Elliott’s stewardship. Despite the windfall they received following their fantastic journey, it was never going to disappear overnight.

“By profession I’m an accountant, so that probably tells you all you need to know. The way the club has been run, we’ve never gone mad on the occasions we’ve had money. We were never, ever going to take what I suggest is a slightly irresponsible route, which is just to splash the cash on players.

“There’s a certain amount needed to ensure, as far as we can, that we stay at this level. We’ve competed at National League level now for one season only. The second season is traditionally quite difficult, so the first priority is to make sure, as far as we can, that we stay in this league. But there was always going to be a long list of things that we wanted to do at the football club that have never, ever got to the top of the priority list for expenditure. Every penny we earn from the cup run is going to be reinvested into the fabric of the club, which is how it should be.”

Sutton Wimbledon

A prime example of this community focus has been the club’s partnership with the Knights Foundation, who will sponsor Sutton United’s Academy for the next three seasons, while the ground will be renamed the Knights Community Stadium. Four new classrooms will be instated on-site at the ground, which will allow the Academy’s players to receive a formal education in conjunction with their football training. This September will see a fresh intake of 100 16-year-olds.

However, the club had already made great strides prior to their cup heroics. In a drive to entice local residents and disaffected supporters of more illustrious teams in the capital, the U’s took the bold move to reduce season-ticket prices dramatically.

“It was a calculated gamble on our part a couple of years ago. We started adult season tickets at £99, which was unheard of at National League level or above. In fact, when the BBC did a survey of the top five divisions for season-ticket prices [the Price of Football survey in 2016], it was no surprise to find that we were the cheapest season ticket.

“I think we’ve signed up just over 1400 for the season ahead, which, bearing in mind we’ve just had a couple of pre-season games, is pretty phenomenal really. I think what’s happened is, because we made them cheap, we’ve got a lot of Chelsea and Palace and AFC Wimbledon and Fulham supporters that live in and around Sutton and I think a lot of them have decided to adopt us as their second team, so when their team is away or not playing on a Saturday at 3 o’clock, they can come down to Sutton and enjoy some decent football. That’s really worked for us.”

The 3G pitch was another game-changer for the club and was the brainchild of manager Paul Doswell, who had previously brought in the idea at Eastleigh, where he had been at the helm for eight years. It was pointed out by Doswell prior to the Arsenal match that most League Two clubs are “skint”; the artificial pitch allows the club to rent it out to any group that wants to make use of it, meaning that a steady stream of income trickles in all year round.

Sutton 3G

A related strength is the durability of the pitch. The surface is not adversely affected in poor weather conditions, in contrast to grass pitches, which are susceptible to wear and tear as the season progresses. Elliott lamented the “anomaly” between the comparatively lax regulations for grass pitches and the far more rigorous assessment of artificial surfaces.

“I’m not singling them out for special treatment, but a number of people have used the example of Newport County’s pitch last year. They were allowed to play Football League matches on a pitch which clearly left a lot to be desired and there doesn’t seem to be any rules and regulations about the quality of grass pitches.

“You can play on a ploughed field it seems in the Football League. But if you’ve got a 3G pitch, it has to be FIFA two-star rated and has to have rigorous testing every 12 months. There does seem a little bit of a contradiction there, which I’m sure at some stage will get addressed.”

Despite the obvious advantages that the pitch brings, a vote on whether to allow them in EFL competition back in November 2014 ended in a dead heat, with 68 of the 72 member clubs choosing to have their say. Elliott was unsure about when the next vote would take place, but was surprised at the lack of persistence from some sides in favour of the proposed introduction, given that they are in dire financial straits.

“It’s the best thing we’ve ever done. I’m surprised that a few clubs in the Football League haven’t put their league under more pressure. These clubs are being held back from putting a 3G pitch in, which surely will make them more financially stable. That’s what the leagues want their clubs to be.

Newport Gwent Dragons v Newcastle Falcons - Anglo-Welsh Cup - Rodney Parade

“If it’s good enough for the FA Cup, for European games, for World Cup games, why is it not good enough for the Football League? Very strange.”

Sutton are entering their second season at this level and the club are certainly not entertaining the possibility of going up, either automatically or through the play-offs. However, were they to achieve the highly improbable for the second year running, would they revert back to a grass pitch?

“Well, if the rules don’t change and we were in that position, then we’ve signed an undertaking saying that in that scenario, we would take up our 3G and put grass down. Now of course, it’s not as though you waste the whole expense of the 3G because without knowing the technicalities of it, you only take up the top surface and replace it with grass, so you take up the carpet and put grass down.

“Obviously, we don’t want to do that because it would stop a lot of usage of the pitch, which obviously brings in much-needed income. But I think it’s one of those situations we’d worry about if and when it happened.

Sutton dressing rooms

“Let’s be realistic about it, look at who didn’t go up last year. A club the size of Tranmere is playing another season in this league, which shows just how difficult it is to get out of. You can’t plan for every eventuality, so we just crack on for the time being and let’s see how the season progresses.”

That said, Elliott feels that pressure should be brought to bear on the EFL in order to give themselves the best possible chance of retaining their current surface if they were to go up. Promotion would certainly provide Sutton with a dilemma should the policy on pitches remain unchanged and there could be the possibility of foregoing entry to the Football League to keep the artificial surface intact.

“This [the decision whether to accept promotion] would be the decision of the board of directors of the club at the appropriate time so I wouldn’t like to conjecture on it, but my personal opinion would be that we would have to make absolutely sure that if we were in a position of promotion, that we took it. The FA would be interested. They’ve authorised all this.

“I don’t what the procedures would be, but obviously the first thing if you found yourself in that position would be to put some pressure on to see whether the rules could be changed. We’re so far away from that scenario that we’ve got enough to worry about without worrying about that at the moment, but we’d deal with it.”

Roarie Deacon

A mounting injury list stifled their progress in the league last season, but they still finished 12th and the club will be looking to consolidate that performance during their follow-up campaign in non-league’s top flight. Much of their success has been built on snapping up players released from the academies of more established sides, helping them to rekindle their enthusiasm for the game and then moving them on to a professional outfit.

Two beneficiaries of this approach were Max Biamou and Roarie Deacon, who have joined Coventry City and Dundee respectively over the summer. Both were standout performers last term and the club hopes that two of their recent acquisitions from Dover Athletic, Moses Emmanuel and Ross Lafayette, can fill their shoes.

This policy of nurturing and developing young talent is not a recent phenomenon though. “Nicky Bailey was a youngster at Fulham many moons ago and was thrown on the proverbial football scrapheap [back in 2000]. Our youth team manager cajoled him into playing in our youth team at Sutton. He did really well for us as a club, got to the first team, went to Barnet, then ended up at Charlton and Middlesbrough and did really well and the fact he’s returned home is great for us, towards the end of his career.

“Recently, we seem to be getting a very nice reputation, which is along the lines of picking up players who seem to have lost their way a little bit and don’t seem to be doing themselves justice, putting them in the shop window and giving them some really good-quality fitness and coaching. If you’re good enough, you’re going to get noticed. They see that we’re not going to stand in their way.”

Nicky Bailey

The conversation turns back to what they will do with the money. If the FA Cup adventure seemed other-worldly, the priorities now are far more prosaic.

“We’re refurbishing both home and away and referees dressing rooms. They were very, very old, well-publicised also as to how small they were during the cup run, particularly when Arsenal came to us. We’ve got some temporary dressing rooms as well, there’s a new turnstile block going in, there are some new toilets, there’s a new club shop coming in, so it has enabled us to do all those things that were OK, but you really wished you’d got a bit of extra money to be able to replace them, renew them and generally upgrade and that’s what we’ve been able to do.

“It is exciting. I can’t remember a time when we actually had a bit of money and sat round a table discussing how we were going to spend it! It’s normally the other way round, you sit round the table wondering where the next few thousand pounds is going to come from.”

This is a club that has their feet firmly on the ground, choosing responsibility over recklessness. Doswell has been in the managerial hotseat for nine years and it is easy to see why he and Elliott have one of the longest-lasting partnerships in English football’s top five divisions. The hubbub may have died down after last season’s madness, but don’t be surprised if they write more headlines in 2017/18.

Featured image: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe

Images (from top to bottom): Press Association, Clive Rose/Getty Images, SUFC 3G website, David Davies/Press Association, Press Association, Rex Features, BPI/Matt West

 

Why were Djokovic and Murray not subject to the same criticism as Klizan and Dolgopolov?

One of the main talking points during the opening days of this year’s Championships was the issue of retirements, with seven retirements on the men’s side during the first round compared to just one in the women’s competition. This issue was brought into particularly sharp focus when the Centre Court saw two out of the three matches curtailed on the second day, as Martin Klizan and Alexandr Dolgopolov bowed out prematurely in back-to-back encounters against Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer respectively. The matches lasted for a combined time of one hour and 22 minutes.

John McEnroe was quick to pile in, saying that there has “got to be a rule for guys who come out clearly not giving or able to give 100 per cent. Ultimately the player needs to be given advice and made to understand what he is doing to his own reputation and to the sport.”

The criticism of Klizan and Dolgopolov was that they came into the tournament carrying injuries, but were happy to pick up the cheque for those exiting at the first-round stage of £35,000 (which is awarded even if you retire injured). The Slovakian and the Ukrainian could have both dropped out prior to the match, giving an opportunity to a lucky loser who would put up a better fight than these two men did, potentially progress far and pick up decent prize money in the process.

This argument definitely holds some merit. Crowds want value for money and you don’t get that if an opponent is clearly in discomfort from the early stages.

However, both men were merely making the most of their opportunity to play on Centre Court. While both have had spells in the top 50, they have not been in the upper echelons of the game for long enough to enjoy these massive moments on a regular basis. The rule is the problem, not the players. By choosing not to dish out prize money to those who drop out, Wimbledon could send a message that only those who are fit can compete.

Which opens up a can of worms. Both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were carrying niggles coming into the fortnight, but they were able to avoid criticism when they eventually bowed out. They also deprived a lucky loser the chance to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, but McEnroe was strangely silent.

The problem that people had with Klizan and Dolgopolov was not that they retired, it’s that they were unseeded and they retired. Murray and Djokovic got sufficiently far in the tournament that they were spared the accusation of making a quick buck (or hundreds of thousands of bucks in this case), despite knowing that injuries were hampering their performance and that the crowd was not able to enjoy a match with two physically fit athletes going hammer and tongs at each other.

There is this perception that the world’s top two were right to expect that they would reach the latter stages at SW19 due to their past success, whereas Klizan and Dolgopolov were not. This completely overlooks the fact that shocks do happen and the latter two men have just as much of a right to prove themselves as the former.

It may be that, as the tournament progressed, different topics began to occupy the minds of the columnists, pundits and tweeters. Certainly, the fact that successive matches ended abruptly on the main show court is rare and will provoke debate. It does seem convenient though that while the integrity of Klizan and Dolgopolov was questioned, Murray and Djokovic’s reputations remained intact and the critics fell silent.

While Klizan and Dolgopolov may not be blameless, they were simply not judged by the same yardstick as Djokovic and Murray. Perhaps if they win a Grand Slam singles title, they will be.

Featured image: Andy Hooper

Riders muffle Lions’ roar

As show time drew nearer, I had no idea what to expect from my first experience of watching professional basketball. In the UK, the sport is a long way down the pecking order. Its top domestic league, the British Basketball League, receives fairly sparse coverage and draws in small crowds compared to its football and rugby equivalents.

Despite having some games streamed on the BBC Sport website, the division still has massive steps to take if it wants to be a major name in the sporting landscape of this country.

My own exposure to the game had come through fleeting snatches of Olympic competition on TV and the less salubrious surroundings of City of London School’s sports hall, where my coordination and speed was certainly found wanting in PE lessons.

The game I had come to see was London Lions v Leicester Riders. Much like their city’s football team last year, the Riders were top of the tree at the conclusion of the regular season. However, unlike their counterparts, they still had play-offs to negotiate (similarly to rugby union’s Aviva Premiership) if they were to be crowned champions. This encounter was the first of two legs which would determine who would make the final to face either the Newcastle Eagles or Worcester Wolves at the O2.

The Copper Box Arena stands in the shadow of the London Stadium, where West Ham and Tottenham were doing battle in the lucrative Premier League. The former venue and the British Basketball League make up a far more modest package, but comparing the two franchises is hardly fair.

London Stadium

It was fairly obvious as I meandered my way to Stratford that the vast majority of those heading in my direction were going to watch the Hammers, but thankfully there were still a few thousand who had decided that the basketball was the better option.

Once inside, those with media passes could make their way down courtside. However, the lack of media seating presented a problem, so I decided to place myself in a section of seating that was not occupied by the crowd, in line with one of the baskets.

It soon became clear that the environment was far less hostile than during the build-up to a football match. Even though there was a lot at stake, there was no chance of anyone kicking off or lobbing coins at the visiting contingent, which was probably the case at the other big sporting event going on in E20 at that time.

There was applause for visiting coach Rob Paternostro as he was announced as the league’s best coach for the season. However, the ovation was certainly more muted when his charges entered the court, with attention turning to the task in hand.

The PA announcer, who also happened to be the club’s chief executive, Vince Macaulay, succeeded in geeing up the crowd during the warm-up. The cheerleaders for the Lions were already assembled on court, with the players snaking their way through to loud cheers, the substitutes receiving just as big a roar as those starting.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

Then, out of the blue, a gospel rendition of the national anthem was belted out. Craven Cottage this was not.

After the all the hubbub, the tip-off was almost upon us, with the Lions mascot (a lion, funnily enough) patrolling the perimeter of the court to engage the team’s younger fans.

As the match began, it was clear that Macaulay was much more than the club’s figurehead and his charisma greatly endeared himself to the crowd. The opening stages were incredibly to-and-fro, with both teams taking their chances. Slam dunks drew the biggest gasps and the first of those was put away by the Lions to level the scores at 5-5. At 10-10 Macaulay growled “have some of that!” as the hosts netted their second three-pointer of the contest. It was clear that he would not remain impartial.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

One of the Lions substitutes did his best to try and involve the crowd, stamping his feet and throwing sweets in their direction. However, things were threatening to turn sour for his team-mate, with the Riders flying into a 19-12 lead and demonstrating why they were such a fearsome force during the campaign.

Whenever a free-throw attempt was converted, there was a gameshow-style noise which could have been plucked from Pointless, while other interesting references include Woody Woodpecker, the “puppy power!” rallying call from Scooby-Doo and an alien-like zap which could have the beginning of “I’m Blue (Da Ba Dee)”. Macaulay was also back at it, booming “hand in the cookie jar from Conner Washington …. Digestive” as the Leicester man was unable to put away his free-throw.

Basketball clearly appeals to a younger demographic, with groups of teenagers and twenty-somethings standing out in the arena. At a time when people lament the cost of a football ticket, attending a basketball match seems a viable alternative, with tickets as cheap as £7 in advance for kids and just £10 on the door, with the most expensive adult ticket being £22. Family tickets ranged from £35 to £60. The relaxed atmosphere was also a strong point, with spectators allowed to bring food and drink to their seat, although there was not too much of the latter. The engagement with the crowd and the regular use of tunes during breaks in play mirrored Davis Cup tennis and T20 cricket.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

Leicester seemed to be pulling away, but this did not dampen Macaulay’s sprits, as he responded to one of the Leicester being penalised with “if you’re going to travel, you’re going to need an Oyster card”. Tempers began to fray for the first time midway through the second quarter and it became clear why there were three match officials.

The refs rotated anti-clockwise seamlessly and although I initially thought that having three seemed excessive, the thicket of long limbs meant that the ball was often obscured, so it was advantageous to have more than one view of a specific incident.

One of the features of the sport was the way that points were scored extremely regularly, with no time to draw breath, aided by the use of rolling subs. It was no less true in this encounter and while the Lions were seven points down at the halfway mark, the first leg was by no means beyond them.

The interval saw the crowd entertained, as several kids had to make a free throw as part of a competition to get tickets for the BBL Final. These children were, on the whole, extremely diminutive in stature, so I arrogantly assumed they had no chance. After many wayward attempts, Summer made me eat my words with a perfectly-executed effort. No-one managed to replicate her feat, so she scooped the prize.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

“All The Way Up” was blaring out of the speakers, but unfortunately the same could not be said for the Lions, as the Riders still had their noses in front and underlined their championship-winning credentials. Tempers did flare at one stage – the three officials were useful once more – and there was a bit of ‘rutting stags’. Macaulay’s one-liners continued to amuse, as he gently mocked Brandon Clarke with the line by saying, “Hand in the cookie jar, Oreos for you.”

Despite the Lions being thwarted in their attempts to get ahead, they were chipping away at the Riders’ advantage. Having been down 47-40 coming into the quarter, an emphatic three-pointer for the home side meant that they were just two points away from drawing level. Cries of “defense!” reverberated around the arena as the Lions looked to ride the wave of positivity. The importance of the rest of the game was now ramped up – the encounter could go either way. This significance was reflected in the angry reactions of the players following a decision that they felt should have gone their way.

Going into the final quarter, it seemed that the Lions were going to be frustrated, and so it proved. This did nothing to dampen Macauley’s spirits as he admonished Brandon Clarke once more, comparing his footwork to that seen on Strictly Come Dancing. The Lions were six points adrift of their opponents and while they followed this with another shot from outside the three-point arc, their Achilles’ heel in this fixture was being able to capitalise on that conversion. Cries of “Lions” rained down from the stands, as the home support desperately tried to rally the troops. Their partisan backing extended to booing Leicester’s Eric Robertson as he stepped up to take a free-throw.

As the pressure increased, it was the Riders who stood up to the task. The game had become very stretched and there were definitely some tired bodies out there, but it was only the visitors who were able to take their chances in an end-to-end denouement. The final score was 90-71 to the Riders, a healthy lead to take into the second leg.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

The Lions were understandably dejected, but they showed their professionalism by posing with fans at the end of the game, while also shaking hands with those who had hospitality seats. Children flooded onto the court, revelling in the opportunity to occupy the space recently vacated by their heroes.

In the end, it was not be for London’s only professional basketball team, as they were defeated in the return leg 72-55 in the East Midlands. Nevertheless, their season was a successful one, as they made an improvement on their quarter-final finish in 2015/16. Coming away from the match, I got the impression that this was a club very much in touch with its fans and had aspirations to pick up silverware in the not-too-distant future. Watch this space.

Wimbledon: Five women who could make the second week for the first time

With the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament just around the corner, here is a quick look at five players who could break their Wimbledon hoodoo and reach the second week.

 

Karolina Pliskova

Karolina Pliskova

Pliskova is considered by many to be the Wimbledon favourite following her triumph at Eastbourne. The 25-year-old is blessed with massive groundstrokes and a potent serve, with an ability to serve and volley when necessary. Her end-of-year ranking has risen every year since 2006 and she has claimed three titles on the WTA Tour this year, with the latest in East Sussex her second on grass after winning in Nottingham last year. The absence of Serena Williams undoubtedly  opens a window of opportunity for Pliskova to stake her claim to become world number one and the Czech’s current form suggests that she will be difficult to stop.

 

Elina Svitolina

Elina Svitolina1

Svitolina is another player who has made continuous improvements since entering the senior ranks in 2010 and, at the age of just 22, she has plenty of time to get even better. Her aggressive game should suit grass, but the Ukrainian has not yet claimed a Tour title on the surface. However, her form this year has been scintillating, picking up titles in Rome, Istanbul, Taipei City and Dubai, defeating both Pliskova and Simona Halep in the Italian capital. The Odessa-born player also matched her best-ever performance at a Grand Slam last month, reaching the last eight of Roland Garros. A repeat outcome in SW19 would definitely be considered a success.

 

Johanna Konta

Johanna Konta1

As the only British woman in the top 100, Konta is very much carrying the weight of expectation on her shoulders. Of the five players listed here, her improvement has been the most startling. As 2014 drew to a close, the 25-year-old was world number 150 and was struggling to find any sort of consistency. Fast forward two-and-a-half years and she is one of the in-form players on the circuit, with her serve being a major asset. Konta has already notched up two titles this year in Sydney and Miami, with a runner-up finish in Nottingham. Her home Grand Slam does not hold happy memories, but, if fit, she should progress beyond the second round, her best performance to date.

 

Kristina Mladenovic

Kristina Mladenovic

France’s top female player, Mladenovic comes into this tournament having reached the quarter-finals of Roland Garros. Her ability at the net and her use of drop shots and volleys to good effect makes the 24-year-old a highly unpredictable opponent. These skills have allowed her to carve out an excellent doubles career. She partnered Timea Babos at the All England Club three years ago, reaching the final and went one better in the mixed event the previous year, playing alongside Daniel Nestor. She partners Svetlana Kuznetsova this time round. It is hard to envisage her lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish on 15 June, but she is a different proposition in doubles.

 

Jelena Ostapenko

Jelena Ostapenko

Ostapenko is by no means the youngest or the lowest-ranked player ever to win a major, but her sensational win at Roland Garros rocked the tennis world. Her high-risk strategy did not change throughout the tournament, as the Latvian produced an astounding number of winners and unforced errors, swinging freely and giving her opponents no time to breathe. Her name was unfamiliar to the vast majority of observers, but having moved from number 47 in the world before the Paris tournament to inside the top 15, she will now have her cards marked. She will also compete alongside Raquel Atawo in the doubles competition as the 11th seeds.

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Featured image: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

Wimbledon: Five men who could make the second week for the first time

 

The grass-court season lasts for only six weeks, perhaps explaining why many top-level pros struggle to make the adjustment from clay. Here are five players looking to make a breakthrough at SW19.

 

Dominic Thiem

Dominic Thiem

The Austrian has, since 2015, looked one of the most likely contenders to upset the established order and at the age of 23 is playing some of the finest tennis of his career. A grass-court title at Stuttgart in June last year demonstrated that he has the attributes to be successful on the surface, but he has yet to show that at SW19, having only made the second round in the last two years. His preparation for Wimbledon has not been ideal, after suffering a shock defeat on Tuesday to world number 222 Ramkumar Ramanathan in Antalya. However, if the right-hander can rekindle the form that saw him demolish Novak Djokovic in Paris earlier this month, he will be an irresistible force.

 

Alexander Zverev

Alexander Zverev1

The lanky German has already surpassed the achievements of his brother Mischa, who is nine years his senior. However, the 20-year-old has yet to realise his potential in the Grand Slams, with the third round his best-ever finish at the All England Club. Despite his lack of success on grass, Zverev has begun to turn the corner recently, reaching the final in Halle and beating Roberto Bautista Agut and Richard Gasquet along the way. However, he came up against an imperious Roger Federer in the final, who swatted him aside 6-1, 6-3, underlining that he has a lot of work to do before being talked about in the same reverence as the Swiss maestro. One to keep an eye on though.

 

Gael Monfils

Gael Monfils

Amazingly, the miracle man with the elastic legs has never contested the second week at Wimbledon. Known for his incredible athleticism and exuberant shot-making, Monfils has always been a crowd-pleaser, but he has had a tendency to lose his composure in the important matches. The 30-year-old has yet to reach a final on the Tour this year, but could break that duck this week having moved into the last four of Eastbourne following victories over British prospect Cameron Norrie and the rangy Australian Bernard Tomic. Given his unpredictable nature, it is difficult to know which Monfils will turn up, but his semi-final showing at the US Open last year suggests that he cannot be discounted.

 

Jack Sock

Jack Sock

It is a sad indictment of men’s tennis in the United States that their top player lies just inside the top 20, but Sock is certainly a man who has aspirations to reduce that ranking to single figures. The 24-year-old has made encouraging progress in the past few years, with 2017 undoubtedly being the Nebraskan’s high water mark, after scooping first prize in Delray Beach and Auckland. Success on grass has been elusive thus far in his career, but somewhat suprisingly for an elite singles player Sock also excels in doubles and sensationally partnered Vasek Pospisil to the Wimbledon title three years ago, defeating the top-seeded Bryan brothers. Sock and Pospisil were unseeded.

 

John Isner

John Isner

Despite his intimidating serve and powerful groundstrokes, John Isner has found the third round his ceiling at Wimbledon. At 32, the Florida resident is certainly not a youngster, but the likes of Federer and Serena Williams have shown that you can still play at the top of your game into your mid-thirties. The University of Georgia graduate has claimed two grass-court titles in his career, both in Newport, Rhode Island. However, his most well-known achievement on the surface was defeating Frenchman and now friend Nicolas Mahut back in 2010 in what is the longest match in tennis history, with Isner dragging himself to victory in a marathon final set that finished 70-68.

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Featured image: Glyn Kirk/Getty Images

Roland Garros: Five men who could make the second week for the first time

With the second Grand Slam of the year about to begin, it seemed high time to look at some of the players who could break new ground at Roland Garros this year and possibly spring a few surprises along the way.

Alexander Zverev

Zverev

Zverev is in the form of his life and is destined to remain in the upper echelons of the game for many years to come. The rangy right-hander has enjoyed a breakthrough year on the Tour, but there were signs in 2016 that he would be one to watch, when he sewed the title in St. Petersburg last September, defeating Stan Wawrinka in the final over three sets.

Since then, the German has gone from strength to strength, adding three more titles to his collection, two of which came on clay. His ability to raise his game against the world’s elite has been astonishing and was underlined when he outclassed Novak Djokovic to pick his most recent crown in Rome.

Zverev will face a very stiff first-round test in the form of Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, but the 20-year-old has already shown on a number of occasions that he can overcome adversity.

Grigor Dimitrov

Dimitrov

Many who watched Dimitrov blitz Andy Murray in a clinical Wimbledon quarter-final performance in 2014 would have expected the Bulgarian to push on. It hasn’t quite transpired like that, but the 26-year-old is displaying his swashbuckling brand of tennis on a far more regular basis in 2017.

The recruitment of coach Dani Vallverdu, formerly part of Murray’s coaching set-up, was a major coup and the intensive work that took place in the off-season in Monte Carlo has paid dividends. Impressive victories over Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori led the former junior champion at the All England Club to the title in Brisbane and this was backed up with a memorable victory in Sofia.

His first encounter during the fortnight will be against the experienced Frenchman Stephane Robert. Time will tell if Dimitrov can break his Grand Slam final duck.

Lucas Pouille

Lucas Pouille

Pouille was not on many people’s radar heading into last year and his name would have drawn shrugs from many regular observers of the sport. However, that all changed in 2016, when the 23-year-old reached two Tour finals and two consecutive Grand Slam quarter-finals, at Wimbledon and the US Open, which included a sensational win over Rafael Nadal in the latter competition.

His sole title triumph this year was on clay in Budapest, where he convincingly crushed Briton Aljaz Bedene. At 6′ 1” he is not one of the tallest men on the circuit, but the Dubai resident compensates for that deficiency with a strong defensive game and a searing two-handed backhand.

Pouille’s first assignment at his home Major is against compatriot Julien Benneteau, a team-mate in France’s Davis Cup team. Given his remarkable recent improvement, bettering last year’s third-round performance at Roland Garros seems highly likely.

Nick Kyrgios

Kyrgios

Kyrgios has been beset by plenty of controversies in his fledgling career, but the 22-year-old has certainly matured recently and his scintillating brand of tennis can trouble any player in the world.

The Australian shot to prominence at Wimbledon three years ago, with an all-action display that shocked Nadal and those in attendance at SW19. His explosive groundstrokes, excellent balance and soft hands make him an exciting player to watch and last year saw him develop greater consistency with titles in Marseille, Atlanta and Tokyo. 2017 has not been as successful trophies-wise, but Kyrgios has claimed two notable scalps over Novak Djokovic.

The Canberra-born player’s first test will be against the elegant Philipp Kohlschreiber, who could push his young opponent all the way. A potentially intriguing duel.

Pablo Carreno Busta

Pablo Carreno Busta

One of a seemingly endless number of Spaniards to roll off the production line, Carreno Busta has taken a little longer to bloom than some of his fellow countrymen. However, his game has come in massively in the last year and he is currently nestled just outside the top 20.

The 25-year-old can generate a lot of power off both wings and is not afraid to come in and dispatch the loose ball when necessary, with his delicate touch at the net an indication of his extensive doubles experience. Last year saw him pick up his first ATP Tour titles, in Winston-Salem and Moscow. The Gijon-born player then captured his first clay court title in Estoril just three weeks ago.

Carreno Busta faces German Florian Mayer in round one, with a potential third-round match-up against Dimitrov on the horizon.

Featured image: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe

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Manchester United didn’t ‘represent’ the city. Let’s keep football and terrorism separate

The events on Monday were absolutely horrific and fans of the red and blue halves of the city will have been saddened at the events that unfolded.

Despite this, by Wednesday evening, many supporters of Pep Guardiola’s side will have liked nothing better than to see their city neighbours humbled.

In a similar vein, Jose Mourinho’s men will no doubt have been focused on the job in hand, with the carrot of Champions League football dangling invitingly in front of them. The assumption therefore made by Jake Humphrey and Co. that the players would have struggled to focus seems implausible.

It is difficult to imagine the pain and anguish felt by the families and friends of those caught up in the chaos of Ariana Grande’s concert. However, many of the players live a long way from the city centre, and would have only been exposed to what had happened via social media and TV coverage. It is hard to imagine that they have established as intimate a connection to the place as many long-standing residents. Why, given their rather remote links to the tragedy, was there this expectation that they would have been too grief-stricken to play?

The constant attempts to shoehorn nebulous notions of ‘solidarity’ and ‘representation’ into the commentary sounded more hollow with every passing mention. Players and staff who were interviewed must have been compelled to buy into this romantic narrative that they were ‘doing it for the city’, even if they did not viscerally feel those sentiments.

It may be unpopular to say, but most people just wanted to watch a game of football. The rather nauseating way that journalists tried to extract emotive soundbites both before and after kick-off smacked of an industry that absolutely revels in carnage and suffering, no matter how much they deny it.

For United’s travelling contingent, their abiding thoughts before kick-off must have been about realising personal and professional dreams. The wild celebrations at the end, led by Mourinho, were not emblematic of a team who had their mind on far more sombre matters. It seems strange that we could have expected them to be anything other than joyous.

Featured image: Reuters