I thought they were different

New depths: You can't take our history but today is another low point.

New depths: You can’t take our history but today is another low point. Photo: Waywardeffort

Football has officially gone mad.

Many will have told you this happened a long time ago but no-one ever takes anything seriously until it affects their own club, and now it has.

The Al Hasawi family sacked Nottingham Forest manager Sean O’Driscoll after a 4-2 home win over Leeds United left them a point off the Championship’s top six.

The decision makes a mockery of their family’s promises.

I had been pleasantly surprised by the Kuwaiti’s management of Forest since they bought the club in July.

They appointed Sean O’Driscoll, a manager who knew the club after a spell as Steve Cotterill’s number two last season, and had a good record in the Championship.

Funds were made available to assemble a very competitive Championship squad with no pressure statements of ‘we must get promoted this season’.

Instead we were assured they were in it or the long haul, wanted to build a sustainable club and in time return Forest to the promised land.

But all the gloss and good will built up with the fans started to fade in the past few weeks as the players were paid late, bills went unpaid and the club’s credit card was refused in Brighton.

A shiny new replay screen was installed for the game against Leeds, something the City Ground has been crying out for, but it was clearly just another attempt to curry favour.

For after the mightily impressive result against Neil Warnock’s men the owners decided to part company with O’Driscoll after all his good work.

The manager had a group of strangers just one point from the play-off spots with half a season left to gel them into a team.

His sacking is just as baffling as Gareth Southgate’s when Middlesbrough had just won 2-0 to sit a point from top in the Championship.

That was in 2009 and ‘Boro are still trying for promotion to the Premier League now.

Short-term plans very rarely work out and sacking a manager clearly respected by his player’s after just six months in the job is ludicrous in the extreme.

Gloomy Trent End

A dark day: Forest have been in the doldrums and can’t help but shoot themselves in the foot. Photo: Torcello Trio

O’Driscoll may not have been the Kuwaiti’s first choice, proclaiming as they did to look for an ‘iconic’ name.

But he was doing his job well and the excuse of wanting a manager with Premier League experience is rubbish.

We are a Championship side, let us worry about the Premier League if and when we get there.

Paul Lambert, Nigel Adkins and Brendan Rodgers are just a few examples of managers without Premier League experience but all have won promotion in recent seasons.

For now all I can say is good luck to Sean O’Driscoll, wherever he may go next – one lucky club will be getting a very fine manager.

And why would any player now want to sign for Forest in January, with a brand new manager who knows nothing about the club?

Photos: Waywardeffort, Torcello Trio, rutty

Right to watch?

Clare Balding holding a microphone

Clare Balding presented from Aintree for the last time on Saturday. Photo: CharlesFred

Saturday saw the end of an era, the end of the Grand National on BBC television (well for four years at least). The loss of the TV rights to Channel 4 means that as of 2013, there will be no horse racing on BBC television. The Derby and Ascot festival have also been lost, so Channel 4 will be the sole source of racing on terrestrial television.

Admittedly I’m not the biggest racing fan you’re likely to meet, so to say that this passing on of the ‘baton’ hasn’t really troubled me, is somewhat of an understatement. Though,  as the Grand National is most people’s solitary dealing with the ‘gee-gees’ all year, I would wager that the news is unlikely to have affected all but the most ardent of racegoers. As long as the public can still watch the race on Channel 4, then I doubt they are too upset that Clare Balding has lost her most beloved presenting job.

The BBC’s inability to hold onto the coverage does highlight the wider issue of the their shrinking sports portfolio though. Not only has the racing been lost, but the athletics and Paralympics coverage has made the switch to C4, the French Open tennis is now on ITVSky have bought the BBC out of the two remaining years of their exclusive Formula 1 deal, and most recently Sky have also acquired exclusive rights to the BMW PGA Championships and the Scottish Open golf.

Cuts at the BBC have forced them to streamline their sporting commitments and prioritise where the licence fee income is spent. Reports at the time suggested that the corporation sacrificed their exclusive F1 rights to maintain their coverage of the full Wimbledon fortnight. Now this is a very simplistic view to take, but were I to be given the choice between a full F1 season live and exclusive on the BBC, but with limited Wimbledon coverage, or the situation we have now, then I would opt for the latter every time.

I appreciate there were a huge number of F1 fans incredibly upset at being forced to pay for something that they previously received effectively ‘free’. However, I believe the general public feel a greater attachment to the events in SW19 every summer, than they do to the millionaires playground of F1, a view the BBC clearly share.

In an ideal world the BBC would win the bidding for all television rights, for every sport, and still find space to broadcast a diverse array of programming to keep all license fee payers happy. This simply is not possible though, not only do the BBC work within a limited budget, they simply don’t have space to give exposure to every sport. From football fans, to handball fans, to arts documentaries fans, the BBC face an impossible task in satisfying everyone.

Spokespeople for minority sports often claim that their sports suffer from a lack of exposure, unfortunately that is just the way of the world. Money is spent where the demand is largest, and demand is most commonly at its largest where there is a history and tradition, or when there is success to be celebrated. Take cycling for example, not traditionally a major sport in Britain; British Cycling have built a highly successful team, and as such they now have a very marketable product. If minority sports want more exposure then they need to be successful first, then use the exposure that brings to fund and drive further success. At a time when the world’s best golfers are British, and even they are complaining that the BBC are cutting their commitment to golf, why should handball expect to compete?

Mark Nicholas interviews Daniel Vettori

Mark Nicholas interviews Daniel Vettori for Cricket on Five. Photo: HNM_1977

It should also be noted that, though many people are upset when the BBC loses sports rights to competitors, there are other sports on terrestrial channels that are covered very well. Channel 4, along with Sunset + Vine, did a fine job in revolutionising cricket coverage before it moved to Sky, and ITV, with VSquared TV, have done a fantastic job with their Tour de France output.

So yes it is a shame to see the Grand National switch to Channel 4, and even more of a shame to lose other sporting occasions from terrestrial television completely, but unfortunately that is just the way it is. I would love to be able to watch test cricket on television for free, but who is to say that England’s ascent to world number 1 status would have occurred without the extra funds the Sky deal brought to the ECB?

It is these dilemmas that lead to the list of sports ‘crown jewels’ being created. The list dictates which sporting events are so important to the nation that they must be kept on free-to-air television. In its current guise the groups are as follows:

Group A – full live coverage protected

Olympic Games
Fifa World Cup finals
European Football Championship finals
FA Cup final
Scottish FA Cup final (protected in Scotland)
Grand National
Epsom Derby
Wimbledon tennis finals
Rugby League Challenge Cup Final
Rugby World Cup final

Group B – highlights only on free-to-air TV

England’s home cricket Test matches
Other matches, excluding finals, at Wimbledon Championships
Other matches, excluding final, at Rugby World Cup
Six Nations matches involving home countries
Commonwealth Games
World Athletics Championships
Cricket World Cup – final, semi-finals and matches involving home nations
Ryder Cup
Open golf championship

Source – BBC, Panel names free-to-air choices

As we can see there aren’t actually many sporting occasions deemed so important to the nation that we shouldn’t have to pay for them. Yes it’s nice for sports lovers to pick and choose what they watch, and there is a strong argument that sports participation would benefit from increased exposure on terrestrial television. But governing bodies have to stay afloat somehow, and if they can put television money into grass-roots initiatives then maybe that is a better option?

In 2009 the list was reviewed and a new one proposed:

Summer Olympic Games
Fifa World Cup finals
Uefa European Championship finals
Grand National
FA Cup final (England, Wales and Northern Ireland only)
Scottish FA Cup (Scotland)
Home and away football qualifiers for World Cup and European Championship (listed only in home nation to which they relate)
Wimbledon Championship (in its entirety)
Open golf championship
Cricket’s home Ashes Test matches
Rugby World Cup tournament
Wales matches in Six Nations (in Wales only)

Lydia Lassila wins Women's aerials event at Vancouver 2010

Events like the Winter Olympics could be lost from terrestrial television. Photo: Kyler Storm

This would have been the sole list, no Group B for highlights, just the events listed above. Notable objections were raised about the emission of the Winter Olympic Games, and the inclusion of home Ashes Test matches. The head of the ECB complained, citing the money they would lose from their current Sky deal, and the BOA were understandably unhappy at the world’s largest winter sporting event potentially being relegated to subscription based TV.

The decision on the proposed list was supposed to have been made in 2010, the general election ended up delaying that and it has now been further pushed back into 2013. The reason given for the second delay is the digital switchover. The theory is that with digital television, there should be more space to broadcast, and therefore more free-to-air channels available to schedule sport on. However, buying the license to broadcast on a particular channel, buying the rights to a sport and then producing a programme all cost money. So with terrestrial broadcasters limited in funds, the problem of being outbid for television rights will still exist.

Decisions will have to be made whether governing bodies go for the money or the media exposure, broadcasters will have to decide which sports offer the best value for money, and minority sports will have to realise that exposure follows success, not the other way round. The decisions taken will never see everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, so we should be thankful then when a sporting occasion is kept on terrestrial television for the nation’s pleasure.

The challenge now is to tackle the TV companies who think that because they’ve paid so much money to broadcast a sport, that they now own all the history and tradition that goes with it. Tradition in sport is dying out and TV broadcasters that pay the money, and therefore hold the power, can largely be blamed for it. Take Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final as an example: played at Wembley, broadcast on ESPN, with a 12:30 kick-off. That is a whole other debate for another time though.

Featured image: Silver Birch wins 2007 Grand National – CharlesFred

The Price of Loyalty

‘Home is where the heart is’, or so the saying goes at least, more and more though home seems to be wherever the biggest pay check is for today’s sporting stars. The idea of a club side being made up of entirely local players is now so outdated that in the Barclays Premier League it would come as a shock to have more than one or two local lads in the squad, let alone the starting 11. It seems there will never be a repeat of Celtic’s European Cup winning ‘Lisbon Lions’, all of whom were born within 30 miles of Glasgow.

Dog on train

A dog may be a man's best friend, but can we expect the same loyalty from our sporting stars? Photo: marc falardeau.

Of course there are still exceptions, true ‘one club men’ are few and far between though. People like Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard and Marcus Trescothick are a dying breed, seemingly being replaced by ‘hired mercenaries’ such as Ashley Cole, Kevin Pietersen and Gavin Henson. Should we criticise these people though? Or are their actions simply symptomatic of the way sport has changed since television money flooded in? Is it realistic to expect an athlete to forsake a greater salary and a higher quality of competition simply to remain at their childhood club? And is this even a problem? Do fans really care about where their players are from anymore? Or is success on the pitch all they worry about?

Sports fans are a fickle bunch and I would suggest that when their team is succesful, they don’t really worry about the origins of their players. Of course they would prefer to have a team of home-grown world beaters but that just isn’t feasible anymore. Even Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy has only half its intake from Catalonia and perhaps the most famous of their alumni to date is Argentinian maestro Lionel Messi. When a team isn’t doing so well, and is made up of foreign imports and players with no connection to the local area then it is very easy for fans to turn on them and voice their displeasure. It is at this point that calls are often heard to ‘blood the youngsters’ as they ‘can’t be any worse’, calls that are rarely heard when that same band of merry men are winning and the youth players daren’t be risked for fear of a dip in form.

So if fans show little loyalty to their players then why should the players show any loyalty in return? Could anyone say for certain that Gary Neville or Steven Gerrard would not have left their boyhood teams if they weren’t so succesful and so handsomely rewarded for their efforts? Indeed Gerrard did have his head turned by Chelsea in the summer of 2004 but decided to stay put and commit his future to Liverpool. A commendable decision but not exactly one that risked his family’s financial security, or his ambitions to play in the Champions league, or his position in the England squad.

Cashley cole

Ashley will forever be known by Arsenal fans as Cashley Cole. Photo: Jason Cartwright.

It is important to distinguish between talented and ambitious young players and those who move simply for the money. Fans will forgive a local young fledgling spreading their wings and flying off to clearer skies, providing they feel that said fledgling has served their apprenticeship, they’ve developed as much as they can at their home club and that they get a bit of money in return for the departing player’s services. What fans will not forgive is a player holding their club to ransom with contract demands that are perceived to be born out of pure greed. The perfect example of such a case is Ashley Cole, who allegedly declined to sign a new £55000 a week contract at Arsenal, apparently disgusted at their ‘derisory’ offer. He was also found guilty of touting his services to Chelsea whilst still under contract with Arsenal and fined £100000 for doing so, later reduced to £75000 after appeal.

The idea of a playing for your childhood club can often be relegated to no more than a dream for those growing up in America. The draft system there gives emerging talent little to no choice over where they will start their professional career, but for a select few the dream does come true. LeBron James is one such player, the high-school basketball sensation that didn’t bother with college and declared for the NBA draft as soon as possible having graduated high school. Hailing from Akron, Ohio, his local team were the Cleveland Cavaliers who fortunately for him had done particularly badly in the 2002-03 season and so had a high chance of getting the no.1 pick in the draft lottery for the 2003 draft. They did, and proceeded to select local hero James, seen by many as the saviour of basketball in Ohio.

Unfortunately he couldn’t quite bring the success that the state so craved, he almost single-handedly dragged the Cavaliers to the playoffs for five consecutive years from 2006-10 but failed to win the NBA championship, falling at the final hurdle in 2007. ‘King’ James was loved throughout Ohio, but when his contract came to an end at the end of the 2010 season he refused to confirm whether or not he would re-sign for his home franchise and so sparked a bidding war for his considerable services. The Miami Heat were the eventual winners, landing James, along with fellow free agent Chris Bosh, and the re-signed Dwyane Wade (all class members of the 2003 draft) to give them a superstar trio hopefully capable of bringing a second NBA championship to South Beach. The rather expensive gamble seems to be paying off as well, Miami currently lead the NBA Playoff Finals 2-1.

LeBron James protects the ball

LeBron James protects the ball in his Cleveland days, he couldn't do the same for his reputation though. Photo: Keith Allison.

James is now despised in Cleveland and widely disliked across the country, this didn’t have to be the case though. James had given seven years of his professional career to his home-state franchise and taken them to the edge a championship. Most people would forgive him leaving for pastures new and a better shot at a title his immense talents (James has two NBA MVPs, and countless other awards to his name at only 26) so richly deserve. It was the manner he did it in though which left a bad taste in America’s mouth, after making it clear that he wasn’t going to automatically re-sign for Cleveland the whole saga dragged on for far too long and finally came to a head with an hour-long special entitled ‘The Decision’, broadcast live on American sports network ESPN. It is reported that he didn’t officially inform Cleveland that he wouldn’t be re-signing for them until just minutes before the show went on air, a move widely criticised by veteran players.

Another similar example is the reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose, who grew up on the basketball courts of South Chicago. He now plies his trade for the Chicago Bulls having declared for the 2008 NBA draft as a college sophomore (2nd year) and been selected by the Bulls as the 1st overall pick. Rose is four years the junior of James, and is still showing off his wares in his home town but his career path does seem to be taking a similar trajectory to that of the fallen ‘king’. The journey so far; home town hero brought into a struggling side, takes a couple of years to get up to speed with the league but drags his team into the playoffs where they lose in the second round having been named the league MVP, has a familiar ring to it. Chicago do seem to have built a better supporting cast for Rose than Cleveland ever could for James, but only time will tell how many more barren years Rose can take before the lure of a championship ring at another franchise takes his fancy – or if it even will. Rose seems more of a down to earth character than James, he does his talking on the court and leaves it there, he is very thankful to his Mother for raising him, and his three elder brothers for teaching him to play on the tough neighbourhood courts of the windy city. So it remains to be seen whether he will turn his back on Chicago or whether he can become the next ‘Mike’ and deliver a championship to Chicago.

So there is still loyalty around in sport, but present in ever diminishing amounts. Money now talks louder than geographical allegiances ever did and it doesn’t look set to change any time soon. But are we expecting too much from our sporting stars when we the fans can promise very little in return? We’ll be loyal to our clubs, but should a player so much as dare to misplace a pass then we don’t hold back in letting them know how we feel about it. I’d like to know your opinions on whether players are too easily swayed by money nowadays and whether we’ll ever see the likes of that famed Celtic team again, or even get close! Leave a comment below and we’ll see what everybody thinks.

Photo credits: Dog – marc falardeau, Cashley – Jason Cartwright, LeBron – Keith Allison.