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.

A Foot In Both Camps: Fred Callaghan

This interview with Fred Callaghan was published in the Fulham matchday programme against Brentford on Saturday 29 April 2017.

Fred Callaghan made 336 appearances for Fulham, later spending just under four years as manager at Brentford from March 1980 to February 1984. It’s the Whites he’ll be supporting today, however…

What memories do you have of your time at Fulham?

The highlight was playing and training every day there. Fulham had a good atmosphere and we were always known as a homely club. I still go as a supporter. I started off as a 15-year-old and for the last 50 years, I’ve been following Fulham. It’s part of my life.

Craven Cottage is still fantastic. The pitch is great, it’s a terrific setting and it has a great atmosphere because the crowd are so near the pitch. The fans have seen the good times and the bad. Hopefully the good times are on their way back.

Of all the players you played alongside during your time at the Club, who stands out for you?

I played with a few world-class players over the years. Obviously, the likes of Johnny Haynes, George Cohen and Alan Mullery stand out, as well as some good up-and-coming youngsters at the time like Rodney Marsh, Steve Earle, Les Barrett and John Dempsey. All these lads went on to have good careers and we all came through together.

You also spent four years as manager at Brentford. What were the highlights of your time at Griffin Park?

I’ve got some fond memories of my spell there. The only problem at the time was that there was no money to spend on players or staff. Myself and Ron Harris, who was my assistant, used to paint the dressing rooms and the crash barriers, fork the pitch, roll the pitch – we had to do everything. The team were in the old Division Three, but I brought in some decent players – Terry Hurlock, Gary Roberts, David Crown, Chris Kamara and Stan Bowles all played for me.

What do you make of the current Fulham side?

When Tom Cairney is on song, the whole team plays well. We’ve also got a few up-and-coming youngsters like Ryan Sessegnon, who grew up in the same area as me, Roehampton. He’s improved and has come a long way for a 16-year-old. We look to have a really well-balanced team and hopefully we can carry on our good form right until the end of the season and get promotion. We struggle against sides that try to hit the ball long, but if team play us on the deck, we’ll outplay them.

As for Brentford, what have you made of them this season?

Brentford have done very well and that’s all down to their chairman. He’s put his money in and employed a very good manager. Hopefully there’s a bright future for them; I’m sure there will be. They’re a useful team and it will be a hard game for us. We’ve already beaten them this season, though, so I reckon we can do that again.

Finally, are you confident Fulham will get promoted via the Play-Offs?

I think we’ll go up. We’re top scorers this season and I think the players have really entertained the crowd this term, which is all down to the style that the boss has put in place.

Image: Getty Images

“There’s no club like Fulham”

I interviewed Leroy Rosenior for January’s issue of Fultime, where we talked about Jimmy Hill, Craven Cottage and much more.

Leroy Rosenior still has a great deal of affection for Fulham Football Club. It is where he received his big break as a professional footballer, going on to play for the Whites in three separate spells, before his son Liam followed in his footsteps. Having experienced the game as a player, manager and now as a pundit, his passion for the sport that gave him so much is undimmed. 

Leroy first joined Fulham in 1982 and it is fair to say that the bedding-in process was not exactly smooth. “My debut had been against Leicester away and I had broken my collarbone, which I didn’t know at the time. I played the full 90 minutes, although I had broken it just before half-time. I got on the bus, went to hospital and found out the true extent of the injury. I was out for a year. Then I made my debut at home on my return [against Derby County] and scored two goals.”

Fulham’s link with the Roseniors lived in when Liam signed for the club. “I remember going to Craven Cottage to watch my son play against Man United. I was really proud, he marked Ronaldo and became captain of Fulham. Then a couple of years ago, I took my two young boys down there to watch Arsenal at home. The club got me seats right behind the dugout. So I’ve had lots of good memories at Fulham and every time I go back there I feel very, very comfortable.”

It is clear that the infrastructure has changed beyond all recognition in the 26 years since the Balham-born striker left Craven Cottage for the final time as a player, but the character of the ground helps to bridge the gap between the past and the present.

“I have seen Fulham move the club forward, the facilities have improved a lot from my playing days there, but if they are going to develop, they need to develop the club on that site [Craven Cottage]. It’s unique and it’s special and it has a heart. It’s a lovely place for supporters to go home and away. It’s a lovely place to play football and if you were to build a purpose-built facility somewhere on the outskirts of the borough, not only would you lose a lot of heart, you would lose a lot of the history as well and I think that’s massively important. When you go back, you can smell the history, you can sense the history. It’s a celebration of the people that have been there. When you go back to a ground like Craven Cottage, that’s what you are doing, you are celebrating all those people who have graced that football club.”

When I asked why he felt such a strong connection to the club, the response was immediate. “The club did so much for me. When I first went to the club [in 1982] under Malcolm Macdonald as a kid, I was at school. They gave me a trial and within three months I was a professional footballer and that was all because of Fulham. Over the years I played with people like Gerry Peyton, Paul Parker, Ray Houghton. All these players went on to have excellent careers and they taught me a lot.”

The 1982-1983 campaign promised so much for the club, as we fought for promotion from the second division, narrowly missing out in controversial circumstances to Derby. Although sidelined with his injury, Leroy remembers the game well. “I remember when the crowd came on with a few minutes remaining and there was the disappointment of the players. I really did feel for them. I didn’t actually really feel a part of that because I was still a kid, but I remember that and I remember the effect it had on the club, because Malcolm Macdonald had done such a magnificent job and from then on it was always going to be very difficult for him. Obviously, I think he left the club because of other things outside the game and the club really never recovered from that day.”

Leroy still remembers Macdonald’s flamboyant coaching style with great fondness. “Malcolm was a motivator. He would make you feel that you were the best player in the world. He’d come in and he’d have a big cigar on. In training, he’d say ‘no, that’s not how to do it’ and then he’d smash it into the roof of the net. He gave you unbelievable belief.

 “All of my managers at Fulham had positive traits and that’s what management is about, it’s about managing in your own way and getting the best out of people and they all did that.”

However, despite the high regard in which he held his former managers, the man who had the greatest influence on the club at that time, and indeed on Leroy’s career, was the late Jimmy Hill.

 “There’s no-one who is on a level with Jimmy in terms of his influence on the game of football in this country. He was so engaging. He engaged with people, he was inspirational in a lot of ways, but the most important thing was that he was a really nice guy. He was a fun guy to be around and I was very fortunate to get to know Jimmy.”

Hill was instrumental in kick-starting Leroy’s media career having enticed the striker back to the club when we were languishing in Division Three. “He [Jimmy] persuaded me to come back. I wasn’t sure about going back from QPR, because I was in the top division with them and I had to be really persuaded to go back. It could have been a backwards step, but it was the best move I ever made and not only did it give me the platform to go on and do well playing-wise, but it also gave me the platform to have this career that I have in the media now. Jimmy Hill got me to have media training and got me on Capital Gold with Jonathan Pearce.”

Leroy almost made it into the Fulham coaching set-up due to Hill’s influence. “There was a point when Ian Branfoot was manager and Jimmy wanted me to be the next manager of Fulham and asked me to make sure that I got my coaching badges. I had my coaching badges at the age of 24 because of Jimmy Hill and when Branfoot got the job, he [Hill] wanted me to be his assistant manager with a view to being the next manager. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a relationship between me and Ian so that never happened and it was a big regret that I never managed to fulfil that ambition. Jimmy was the person who saw that potential in me. And I’m sure that he not only saw that in me, but he saw the potential in lots of people, he saw the good, the best bits in people and he brought it out in people and that is a rare, rare talent.”

After hanging up his boots, Leroy made the thankless transition to management. He is realistic about his prospects of returning to the dugout. “You never say never, but I’ve been out of management a little while now. I didn’t really get the opportunities that I thought I’d get, but I was lucky because I found a career in the media. However, I love coaching, so if the opportunity arose I would obviously think really, really carefully about getting back into the game.”

The lack of black and ethnic miniority managers in English football is glaringly obvious and while the pace of change may seem frustratingly slow, Leroy insists that progress is being made. “They aren’t many more black and ethnic minority managers than there were ten years ago, but there are lots more black players now who are more inclined to get their coaching badges and look at a career in coaching, which hadn’t been the case because they didn’t have any role models.

“I think that organisations like the FA, the Premier League, the PFA, Kick It Out and Show Racism The Red Card are always looking for positive ways to promote ethnic minorities and to encourage them to get into the game.

“And it’s not just about black managers, it’s about grassroots and administrative positions. When I was managing, when I went into a football club, the only other black people I’d see in and around the football club would be the cleaners and that is what I wanted to change.”

Since the BBC stopped airing Football League highlights three years ago, Leroy’s attentions have turned to the top-flight. “I work for the Premier League and watch every single game. Our analysis is broadcast around the world and we do four or five live shows a week. I engage with people from all around the world and everyone thinks it’s the best product in the world.” He is also an ambassador for Show Racism The Red Card and writes a column in the Bristol Evening Post looking at both league clubs in the city. As well as that, he has a book coming out, which will predominantly touch on Leroy’s experiences as a professional footballer.

It can be easy to forget what a special club Fulham is. It is clear from listening to interviews with numerous current and former players that they often form an affinity with the club that endures for far longer than their spell by the river. This is certainly the case with Leroy.

‘You don’t realise what a unique club Fulham is until you come away from it. There’s no other club that has such an unbelievable setting, the type of fans that it attracts. It is a very, very homely club and that’s a massive strength.

“I was very fortunate to come from school at that age and to go to a club like Fulham. I think if I had gone anywhere else, it would have eaten me alive. But Fulham was a really lovely way to start my career. It was no surprise that I went back, I kept on going back, because you always go back to somewhere where you’re comfortable and happy and I was always happy there.”

Leroy’s book, It’s Only Banter, is out on February 28.

Image credit: The Telegraph