Monday, 27 February 2012

Time for McIlroy to put the past to bed

Rory McIlroy agonisingly missed out on the World Golf Championships Match Play title and the chance to become world number one on Sunday, but as the build-up to the 2012 US Masters begins, the Northern Irishman looks in fine fettle to make up for his collapse in the final round of last year's tournament.  

The 22-year-old has two events scheduled - the Honda Classic (1st - 4th March) and the Cadillac World Golf Championship (8th - 11th March) - before returning to Augusta National (5th - 8th April) where he threw away a four-shot lead in 2011. Since that harrowing experience, McIlroy has fulfilled his life-long ambition of becoming a major winner and also propelled himself to second in the world rankings.

Rory McIlroy is amongst the favourites to win the 2012 US Masters
Now widely regarded as the best golfer on the planet in all but name, McIlroy will view 2012 as a year in which he aims to further justify his immense stature within the game. Despite not securing a title in three attempts to date, he has shown great intent and an unerring level of consistency. The 2&1 loss to Hunter Mahan in the WGC final in Arizona comes after a second-placed finish at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and a tied-fifth placed finish at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

If he can manage to maintain his momentum throughout March, it could provide the perfect platform in his quest to claim the much-coveted Masters Green Jacket.

"I can't wait. That's what I'm building up to. I've got two events before the Masters and it would be nice to get a couple of good results before that," said McIlroy on the back of his final defeat yesterday.

"I'm happy with how I'm playing and hopefully it's only a matter of time before I win."

The man from Holywood, County Down, has admitted that he was reduced to tears at Augusta last year after dropping six shots in three holes on the back nine, on his way to an eight-over-par 80.

His record-breaking success at the subsequent major championship - the US Open - was largely put down to the lessons he had learnt just ten weeks earlier.

An eight-shot victory saw McIlroy become the youngest US Open champion since Bobby Jones in 1923 and the youngest major winner since Tiger Woods triumphed at the Masters in 1997.

If he can hold his nerve this time round at Augusta, and play to the best of his ability, there is a strong possibility that the tears of sadness shed last year will be replaced with tears of joy.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Race for Champions League = Race against the sack

Something has to give. Arsenal and Chelsea have qualified together for the UEFA Champions League group stage since the 2003-04 campaign, but it would appear that that is all about to change from next season, at the potential cost of both managers’ jobs.

With Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur looking certain to occupy the three automatic places, there is just one space up for grabs in Europe’s elite competition.

Although it’s anticipated that one of London’s big boys will secure the much coveted fourth spot, there is the possibility that both clubs will miss out if Newcastle United or Liverpool manage to sustain a challenge until the end of the season.

Arsene Wenger and Andre Villas-Boas are both expected to deliver
For Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, failure to deliver Champions League football for the first time since the 1997-98 season could signal the end of his sixteen year tenure at the club’s helm.

Having almost definitely gone seven seasons without winning any silverware, there is a growing sense that finishing outside the top four will be the final nail in the coffin for the Frenchman.

Chelsea chief Andre Villas-Boas may not have been expected to transform his team into genuine Premier League contenders in his first season in charge, but missing out on the Champions League would surely leave owner Roman Abramovich with no other option but to show him the door.

The race for Champions League football could effectively be a race to beat the sack for Wenger and Villas-Boas.

Ironically, Arsenal and Chelsea are the only two English sides to make it through to the last 16 of this season’s competition with City and United both falling into the much maligned Europa League.

Unfortunately for the Gunners, a 4-0 mauling by AC Milan in the San Siro last Wednesday has all but ended their chances of progressing into the quarter-finals.

Chelsea face a seemingly less difficult first-leg task away at Napoli tonight, but any hopes they harbour of going onto win the trophy, and securing automatic qualification for next season’s competition, are severely hampered by the presence of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in the knockout stages.
Neither Arsenal or Chelsea are currently up to the standard required to compete with the giants of the continent which in itself highlights the steady decline in the quality of English outfits since they dominated the semi-final line ups in 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09.

You would have to believe that their fates will be determined by their league form and with both sides neck-a-neck on 43 points with thirteen games remaining, it’s all to play for.

Chelsea face tough trips to Manchester City (19 March), Arsenal (21 April) and Liverpool (5 May) and also play host to Tottenham (24 March) and Newcastle (14 April).

Arsenal’s fixtures are less treacherous but home games against Tottenham (26 February), Newcastle (12 March), Manchester City (7 April) and Chelsea (21 April) will test their resolve, along with a tricky trip to Anfield to face Liverpool (3 March).

These are the crucial games that will make or break Wenger and AVB as they battle to claim fourth spot and prove their worth to their respective employers.

Friday, 10 February 2012

English team, English manager

How many international football teams have won either the FIFA World Cup or the UEFA European Championships with a foreign manager in charge? The answer is just 1; the underwhelming Greece side who defended and counter-attacked their way to the Euro 2004 crown with German coach Otto Rehhagel at the helm. Coincidence? I think not.

Football may have become an intercultural breeding ground over the last 20 years, however, the above fact speaks for itself as the Football Association go in search of Fabio Capello’s successor as England manager.
England manager elect: Harry Redknapp is currently the frontrunner
Admittedly, the Italian and fellow foreign import Sven-Göran Eriksson both comfortably eclipsed the calamitous performance of our most recent home-grown boss Steve McClaren, but now it's time to put a proven English manager in charge.

The powers that be may be hoping to prise away a seemingly unsettled Jose Mourinho from Spanish giants Real Madrid or make a move for the heavily experienced Dutchman Guus Hiddink, both of whom could potentially take England to the next level.

Harry Redknapp, the bookies' favourite for the job, doesn’t possess the same CV as the aforementioned pair but what he does have is an unrivalled passion to ensure England live upto their full potential.

Fans want to see a manager who kicks and heads every ball on the touchline. Fans want to see a manager who punches his fists in the air every time the opposition’s net ripples. Fans want to see a manager who is one of their own. Redknapp fits the bill.

England’s main rivals for Euro 2012 - France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Portugal and Spain – all have managers from their respective countries - Laurent Blanc, Joachim Löw, Bert van Marwijk, Cesare Prandelli, Paulo Bento and Vicente del Bosque.

In fact, there are only three teams involved in the last 16 of the competition who have a foreign manager; Greece (Fernando Santos from Portugal), Republic of Ireland (Giovanni Trapattoni from Italy) and Russia (Dick Advocaat from Holland).

On paper, you would have to believe that the near-unbreakable trend of teams winning the championships with a home-grown manager will be adhered to. England ought to take note.

The more pressing dilemma for the FA should be whether they will make a permanent appointment before the tournament kicks off on 8 June.

Installing a full-time manager between the friendlies with Holland on 29 February and Norway on 26 May would certainly stabilize the camp, but the FA cannot afford to rush their decision purely for that reason.

If they choose to put a caretaker manager in charge for the tournament, England’s performance will ultimately determine whether he gets the job full-time.

Failure would almost certainly mean the end of a short journey for whoever it may be, but at least we would be in a position to wipe the slate clean and make the correct appointment ahead of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

There’s no doubting that the timing of Capello’s resignation couldn’t have been much worse for the national team but it’s now up to the FA to help restore some good old-fashioned English pride.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Time for 3G?

In my role as press secretary for the Altrincham and District Amateur Saturday Football League and player in the Sunday equivalent, the sight of 'match postponed' has become all too familiar in recent weeks. The cold snap hit extremely hard in December and January and it doesn't appear to be showing any signs of letting up as we enter February, causing a hefty fixture backlog in both leagues.

The 3G pitch phenomenon is growing fast 

A major issue for amateur football leagues is cramming in all these postponed matches at the end of campaigns, when clubs who have nothing left to play for struggle to field eleven players for a largely unappealing mid-week evening fixture. Title chasers and relegation candidates are being handed victories without even kicking a ball and it is ultimately the credibility of the leagues which is suffering as the fates of clubs are decided in a committee room as oppose to on the field of play.

The only match to go ahead at the weekend in the Saturday League was Baroni FC vs Northenden Victoria. Why? Because the home side play their games on a 3G pitch at Albert Park in Salford.

Surely increased investment into pitches of this kind would be a massive step forward for amateur football, despite the concerns that many hold in terms of their viability. Let's not forget that the 2008 Champions League final was played on synthetic turf at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. If it's good enough to grace the immense talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba in the biggest game in club football, it's good enough to host amateur games on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.

On 1 December 2011 the FA announced a £200 million four-year investment into grass roots football with one of the main priorities being to maximise investment in facilities. As well as aiding the smooth running of amateur football leagues, implementing flood-lit 3G pitches around the country would considerably benefit the development of young talent by allowing the game to be played all-year-round under safe and well-replicated conditions. Those at the top of the game didn't get there by taking their foot off the gas in the winter months. Potential stars need to be nurtured thoroughly if they're to replicate the feats of their idols and the growing influence of 3G pitches could well prove pivotal to preventing promising youngsters from falling by the wayside.