Sunday, 8 July 2012

I'm 21 years, 8 months and 29 days old.

And I wanted to cry my eyes out about half an hour ago. In Andy Murray's words "this is not going to be easy".

But I'm gonna try. I'm probably going to get really defensive at bigoted people or end up sounding like Andy's PR manager, but I'm gonna try.

For the last two days... OK two weeks... OK seven years, Andy Murray has had to deal with questions about when he would win a first Grand Slam title. "It's a matter of time" said all the pundits. "I'm still improving" said Murray. "Stop asking me about Andy bloody Murray" said the other members of tennis' big three-and-a-half. The weight of expectation for the best part of a decade has been on Andy's Scottish (coz he lost) shoulders and to forge a career as successful as he has is nothing short of amazing.

Yes, he has forged a successful career. Ten Grand Slam semi-finals, four Grand Slam finals, beaten in all only by three of the best players ever to play the game. How Andy must wish his parents had had a little too much vodka one night a few years earlier, then he would be battling Juan Carlos Ferrero and Gaston Gaudio instead of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. And Rafael Nadal. And Joe-Wilfried Tsonga.

Instead, Andy was baptised into the cruel world of British sporting expectation a little late, while it was left to Tim Henman to battle players from tennis' Hall of Meh. Life isn't fair.

People often don't like Murray because he is dour, serious and...well, Scottish. "Give me Tim Henman any day of the week" they say behind their copy of The Daily Mail, a replica England flag sticking out of a tweed hat as they intertwine their barely disguised disdain for their country's best player with their dissatisfaction with Council Tax, immigrants, the Labour party and Holly Willoughby. These same people are those who burnt David Beckham in effigy in 1998 and don't "get" Lewis Hamilton.

Only in this country could we reject our finest sporting products. If the Chinese turned their back on their finest products, there would be NOTHING IN OUR BLOODY HOUSES. Roger Federer is a likeable enough guy but sometimes fails to cross the line between arrogance and magnanimous...ness. Do the Swiss hate him? No. Why? Because the Swiss get stuff done. In their eyes, personality and background are immaterial when the results are taken into account. Only in Britain could we ask for just a little bit more. "Sure, he's good and sure, he plays for us, but would it kill him to smile a little more?" With all due respect; fuck off. This guy was around when sixteen children were killed at his school, a happy-go-lucky attitude probably went with them. Joe-Wilfried Tsonga is a chipper character and has a great name. One Grand Slam final. And was beaten by Murray.

Bear in mind, these same people who slag off our best tennis player may well be the first to support him when he dons Olympics clothing in just under a month's time. "Always liked him" they'll say. "I hope he wins" will say others. "Leave me alone" will say the rest.

Besides, Andy Murray's runner-up speech was heart-warming if nothing else. People criticise him for being stoic, apathetic and downright grumpy. So what if he is? Today, he showed a passion and a commitment to his sport which if a few more of us did to our jobs (I'm still unemployed but shhh), our economy would be a whole lot better. Here was a guy who had had his arse kicked for nearly four hours, but had the grace to applaud the man who deservedly beat him and the gratitude to thank those who share a country with him, even if some (the minority) turn their back on him.

Andy Murray is like a Scottish (coz he lost) Jesus, people didn't like him when he was doing his thing, but maybe two thousand years from now, huge churches will be erected with massive stained windows of Murray's face contorted in a mixture of rage, frustration and passion. A necklace of Murray pointing at a ball boy for a towel wouldn't look great though.

Even after defeat, and my own witty use of brackets, I wonder if our country and our media will finally accept that Andy Murray is British. The man lives in England, has some English blood and nearly kills himself for the "foreign" people who support him. Whisper it, he may even be becoming slightly more likeable.

A brief word about the match because, you know, there was a match before I decided to yell at people who dislike Andy Murray, even if they do have their own reasons and right to dislike the guy.

Murray made the better start. So often in the big matches, he is slow out of the blocks and cedes a momentum which becomes too forceful to overcome. After breaking early, he was pegged back on serve early in the first set. However, he staved off the Federer threat and eventually broke and then went on to win the first set. So often Murray is accused of being defensive or overwhelmed by the occasion. Others use that most ambiguous, convenient, self-serving and pointless of sporting phrases: "he bottled it". Not in that first set he didn't, he went full pelt and deservedly took his early lead. Hell, he even played so well, he made Roger Federer look his thirty years. Federer almost broke sweat.

But like that bit when your dream is getting good, some bastard wakes you up. Halfway through the second set, Murray was arguably playing the better tennis and had points to break the Swiss players serve. And then Federer showed up, playing unbelievable tennis to hold serve and then even better stuff to force the break which gave him the set. It was all too good to be true, like when you're doing an exam and the first ten questions are easy, then someone asks you to work out the square root of the meaning of life.

As Murray contemplated his now level footing with tennis' best ever player, he struggled to stay in touch until, in a moment of sporting pathetic fallacy, it began to rain.  A collective breather was almost audible under Centre court's closing roof as the players took a break which one sensed Murray needed.

As it turned out, Federer wasn't fussed. Momentum? Pah! Home hero? Whatever. Federer came out under the 1,000 ton roof and proceeded to dump that same weight of pressure on the Murray serve which, if you were nit-picking, was his main weakness. Federer broke midway through set three and then midway through set four to set up his grand victory, a victory Murray made sure was not inevitable until an attempted passing shot on Federer's second match point was 90% of its way to the tramlines. Those were the margins. Murray was incredible, Federer was just a bit better. The bastard.

What now for Murray? He's come back from this sort of adversity before and I think we can all agree that he is one of the best players in the world. He will continue to get chances and he will continue to improve, something he has done (at least mentally) with the instalment of Ivan Lendl as his coach. Lendl himself, you will be bored to tears hearing, lost his first four Grand Slam finals too. But then, he played in a slightly more favourable era too. Murray should win one of these dam things soon, but this country is amazing at producing nearly men. Which is one of the few things we do with as much consistency as a Roger Federer drop shot.

It wasn't easy to write that, but I did it anyway. The last few months have sucked for me as a sports fan. To fill you in, I support Manchester United, Lewis Hamilton, the Scotland rugby team, Surrey country cricket club and other teams which have this year been so close to victory, before being pipped by someone slightly better.

Sporting Gods, why have you forsaken me?

For the next few weeks, I may give a lot of money to charity, do more of the washing up and even buy gifts for people. Things have got to turn around.

And they will. This was not Murray's time but, as I write, the sun has just come out. Maybe it will for Britain's (coz he's still a winner) Andy Murray one day.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Euro 2012 over, productivity levels rise

Stupid blog won't let me add stupid pictures, I hope your concentration holds!


For 23 days, I have been stuck in a blissful state of football related comatose. I woke up this morning feeling as if I’ve aged three years in three weeks.

The skies are grey again, as if the football Gods themselves are preparing for their impending exit from the spotlight. Euro 2012 is over, which means that for the more dedicated of us, a seemingly endless trawl through football’s transfer gossip is depressingly likely.

Fortunately, I like tennis and, as I’m not yet a taxpayer, I like the Olympics. I essentially get the next month of sport-induced procrastination for free, which probably means continued unemployment, but a sort of permanent weary smile. So I think we know who wins there.

Anyway, this is a Euro 2012 article, so I thought it would be pertinent to do a review of a truly, wonderfully, excitingly adequate tournament. Enjoy.

After 30 games, a few exciting debates, a few moronic ones, 72 goals (I think), the brilliance of Andrea Pirlo, the ineptitude of England and much, much more, we had a final.

Most people predicted a Germany v Spain showpiece, while the more ambitious (stupid) of us thought the Netherlands would go all the way.

After a few big teams and names fell by the wayside, it was Italy who stood up to Spain to mark the end of the tournament.

The build up to the game centred on three main themes:

Are Spain boring?

I was thinking the same thing after painfully precise victories over France and Portugal. Efficiency? Clinical football? Winning on penalties? It suddenly seemed like Spain were turning into Germany.

Unfortunately for Ms Merkel and co, this sudden likeness is with regard to their football, not with their economy, but that’s a debate for people who have more of an idea of how economics works.

For all their possession, Spain were really struggling to break teams down, which led many casual (geeky) observers to question whether opposition teams had already figured out a way to cope with Spain’s control of possession.  This ball retention was becoming so monopolised that one expected Xavi to pull out a big cane and fake moustache, before turning the pitch into a grid which he endlessly circled in a tiny silver car. Just me?

Last night, the Spanish finally played at their best. It turns out that if your players play 60 odd games a season, they get tired. It turns out that if you are shorn of your record goal scorer, you’ll struggle to…score goals. It turns out that if you have Alvaro Arbeloa at right back, you can’t afford to be too gung ho. Last night, Spain were anything but boring; they beat Italy into submission until they stopped twitching.

Is Andrea Pirlo the best player in the universe?

It turns out that controlling England’s midfield is easier than reciting the words to the Spanish national anthem (there are none). Pirlo was outstanding against England, but last night he was almost peripheral as a lack of possession and space ensured that Italy never seriously threatened Iker Casillas’ goal.

Let’s talk about Mario Balotelli some more.

“Are we going to get super Mario, or stupid Mario?” “You never know what you’re going to get with Balotelli.” “He could score or he could get sent off.” I think the robotic BBC pundits have got stuck, as they keep saying the same things over.

As a football writer, I should love Balotelli for his headlines and tendency to do something stupid, but I don’t buy into the hype.

He worked hard last night, but was a frustrated figure and, his performance against Germany aside, remains a player who lacks the consistency to keep worrying defences. Stupidly, I’ve talked about him for 100 words.

So, Spain were excellent. Surprise. Apparently they only had 50% of ball possession but, as those aforementioned pundits love to tell us, “it’s what you do with it that matters.”

A goal of real quality from Jordi Alba answered the critics regarding Spain’s lack of penetration, an attribute I will not make a tenuous metaphor for.

The other three goals came from David Silva, Fernando Torres and even Juan Mata, which is likely to prompt further claims that the Premier League is to thank for Spain’s dominance.

Before I wrap up, here are a few of my highlights of Euro 2012.

Goal of the tournament – Cesc Fabregas vs Italy
Didn’t expect that did you?! It wasn’t going to be this goal, but I didn’t want to spell the name of the Polish captain again. This goal encapsulated what Spain can do when they are at their best and forced to attack. Minutes after falling behind, Spain struck when first Andres Iniesta found a path through Italy’s midfield, before a wonderful reverse pass from David Silva gave Fabregas the chance to score. An admirable mention for Theo Walcott’s deflected-but-not-deflected shot against Sweden.

Player of the tournament – Jordi Alba
This is so easy. Not Pirlo, not Gomez, not Milner. No, those titans of international football have been slain by the hitherto relatively unknown left back. A goal in the final was just reward for a fine tournament in which he constantly provided width to a sometimes pedestrian attack, contributed to five consecutive clean sheets and much more. Besides, he was top scorer in fantasy football.

Game of the tournament – England 3-2 Sweden
It may surprise you, but I did not pick this game for the thrilling technical brilliance on display. Olof Mellberg’s first goal was a finish of real quality, but although the standard of both teams was outstanding, it was the drama and entertainment which makes it stand head and shoulders above the rest.

So there you have it, the tournament is finished and so am I. I better find something to do now. I may even eat an apple. Football fans, stay strong, there’s only six or so weeks left to go till we can do nothing again!

Now get back to work.

By Doug Elder