This exclusive interview feature in the Independent on Sunday on December 1st has certainly had repercussions. Including some that for me, as a sports journalist, I did not expect. The manner in which one sports editor for whom I’d worked for 14 years has behaved in particular. Despite the fact I was asked by the Indy to provide a Hull piece, and so went up to carry out the interview in their name, said editor is so miffed he wasn’t offered the story he has brought our association to an end. Not by saying so of course, simply by ignoring any attempts at communication. Yes folks, such can be the world of British sports journalism.
Dr Assem Allam: ‘I don’t mind them singing ‘City till we die’.
They can die as soon as they want’
It may be that Dr Assem Allam, the owner of Hull City, is unaware of the unfortunate historical associations of the description “hooligan” in connection with the game in this country.
However, it seems unlikely given what else the 74-year-old businessman has to say about those supporters who object to his determination to change the club’s name to Hull Tigers, and who express their feelings by peaceably unfurling a banner reading “City till I die” at a given point during each home game.
“How can they call themselves fans, these hooligans, this militant minority, when they disturb and distract the players while taking away the rights of others to watch the football, and of companies who have paid good money for their advertising?
“If they want to express their feelings they are free to do so, either outside the stadium or pay to take space. Seriously, they are welcome to talk to the stadium management about buying a space for a permanent banner, 10 times as big if they want. I am a supporter of democracy. I would have no issue with that.”
So, as happened against Crystal Palace last week, will stewards attempt to prevent a second banner reading “We are Hull City” being displayed during today’s televised game against Liverpool? When they did so against Palace the situation threatened to become confrontational, before wiser counsels prevailed and the banner was allowed a moment – and it wasn’t much more than that – in the spotlight.
According to Allam it will not be his decision, as he insists it was not during the Palace game.
“I have professional management capable of handling the situation. The main thing is that freedom of expression does not prevent the freedom of others to watch the game, or the rights of those who have paid to advertise.
“But can I remind you, we lost that match. And we still talk about these people as ‘fans’? Again, how can you be supporting a club when you distract attention during a game?”
And the chanting? “I don’t mind ‘City till we die’. They can die as soon as they want, as long as they leave the club for the majority who just want to watch good football.
“These people, they want influence and authority without responsibility. The fans went against me when I sacked the previous manager, Nick Barmby, a nice man and a local hero who I liked a lot. But it was my responsibility to act and thank God I did not listen to them. I will never have other people taking decisions while I take responsibility.”
His message, he says, is very straightforward: look at my record and trust me. The alternative?
“I’m a simple man. Do they want me to stay? If it’s ‘No thank you’, fine, in 24 hours the club is for sale, I do not put in one more pound and hopefully things happen quickly.”
This appears to be the first time Allam has posited the nuclear option. Because that, effectively is what it is. Without his financial support, the club would almost certainly go to the wall, as they were within hours of doing when he paid £27 million to avert an HM Customs and Revenue winding-up order in December 2010.
If that was not an act of pure phil-anthropy, the most cynical would have to acknowledge it was not far off. Having arrived from Egypt in 1968 as a penniless refugee from the Nasser regime – he says he was beaten for his opposition to the dictator – Allam has become one of the area’s richest men, owner of a company he describes as the country’s biggest independent generator manufacturer.
Political and civil unrest in the Middle East – Allam Marine’s primary export zone – means business is not as good as it was three years ago, when turnover was £185m and he paid himself a dividend of £16m. Even so, this year’s Sunday Times Rich List esti-mated his family’s wealth at £317m.
However, Allam has put plenty back. Hull University, local hospitals and Hull Truck Theatre have variously received substantial six– and in some cases seven-figure donations. Two years ago the rugby league club Hull Kingston Rovers were handed £1m. A great squash lover, he has sponsored the British Open – on condition it is played in Hull.
But it is the football club on which Allam has spent by far the largest sum: by last July, he calculates, some £66m. It was not, he says, what he originally intended: “After the initial £27m, I had in mind to spend another £30m increasing the stadium capacity by 10,000 [to 35,500], which would have cost about £12m, and the rest improving the infrastructure, build cafeterias, a small supermarket, a hotel, offices, to allow the club to generate income so it would never have to depend on someone like me again.”
To do so, however, he required the club to acquire the KC Stadium freehold – “Would you build an extension on a house if you were just the tenant?” – and the city council, which built the stadium at a cost of £43.5m (realised by selling a substantial share in the unique publicly owned local telecommunications provider), wanted a co-operative approach.
Whether a compromise was ever possible is unlikely, but now seems almost impossible given Allam has severed relations, accusing some councillors of publicly misrepresenting what was said at a meeting between the two parties.
He has still pumped in a further £38m, though, money used to buy the players who got Hull promoted last season, pay the necessary uplift in contracts, then bring in and pay the likes of Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore to provide a decent chance of staying up.
Hence the need to generate more income, and so the name-change. Or, as he insists, the name-shortening, because he claims the word “Tigers” has been part of the club’s official name “for ages”. This is news to most supporters, many of whom find the marketing case – that “Hull Tigers” will be a far more effective global brand than Hull City, or even Hull City Tigers – unconvincing at best and spurious at worst.
Many feel it is some sort of reaction to the fall-out with the city council. The “No to Hull Tigers” campaign group, an amalgam of the various supporters’ groups, has been trying desperately to make Allam understand that while every fan fully appreciates what he has done for the club, and is as ambitious for the future as him, tradition also matters.
When he met representatives of the group recently, Allam admits he was impressed. “They were good listeners and I was a good listener, and someone said, ‘OK, what if we come back to you with alternative ways of generating commercial income?’ I said, ‘I would love that’, we agreed to make a joint statement and that’s how we left it.
“Unfortunately they issued their own statement and I am still waiting for them to come up with commercial alternatives. So far they have only come up with banners and actions that affect the players.”
Even the announcement that Hull will be the UK’s City of Culture in 2017 has not given him pause for thought. “I am very pleased about this, but it is not relevant to football. Every-body uses ‘City’, which is why I said it was a common name. What is relevant is colour, logo and name of area. The university is not Hull City University.
“Where were these militant fans when Hull City AFC was dead in December 2010? I made it clear to everybody that I will run the club the only way I know, on sound business policies. That is what I have done, and it is what I will continue to do.
“If the majority of fans are saying now, no, it doesn’t work, OK, tell me that and I am off. Not a minority who shout loud, they will not force me out, that would be a Scargill scenario. You remember [Arthur] Scargill? Where is the mining industry now? No.”
If the club stay up this season, Allam believes that next season mid-table will be achievable, followed by possible European qualification. And if not, and the income falls off a cliff?
“I don’t want to answer hypothetical questions, but the militant fans will have to deal with the issue. Will it be their fault? If they affect what happens on the pitch it will be. If the majority want me to go, I will. Remember this. Trust me on this.”
Fans: He’s being offensive
The City Till We Die campaign group, who have set up a membership scheme aimed at forming a supporters’ trust, is asking Dr Allam to launch a consultation on the issue of the name with all supporters, using the database of 20,000 season-ticket holders.
In a statement they said: “The intemperate suggestion that singing ‘City Till I Die’ or holding a banner with Hull City’s name on it constitutes disorder is ill-informed, unhelpful and will be considered by many to be offensive; nor is it credible to believe that such measured actions will have any effect upon the team. We reiterate our advice to all City fans to continue their fine support for our fantastic team while positively expressing a preference for our current name. We remain committed to working with the club on this and other issues. We are particularly mindful of Dr Allam’s comments when he took over the club in 2010 about broadening supporters’ representation at Hull City AFC. We are keen to assist the club with establishing this.”
So, once again it’s been a while. Odd the way the more you have to do, the more time you find to do it, and vice versa. Or perhaps that’s just me. Anyway, last Saturday night found me at Carrow Road, quite possibly watching a manager’s fate turn on a goalkeeper dropping an easy catch. Here’s the Guardian report on Norwich City 3 West Ham United 1. It’s been mainly football reporting for the last few weeks, as it usually is at this time of year, though I have also written a piece about the Polish racing driver Robert Kubica for The Independent, and I’ve been over to Trent Bridge to interview Chris Read for one of the cricket magazines. Also some BBC days.
More spare time means running is back on the agenda, the motivation a fourth London Marathon and a fourth PB, which means ducking under 3.30. I’m a long way from that sort of form at the moment, and as I’ve long since learned there are no short cuts, it’s a case of getting my head down and racking up the miles, while avoiding injury. If I can get in four long runs — 18 miles plus — before Christmas, I will have some sort of chance. Being a member of the Stamford Striders helps, massively.
Well, the last three months have just flown by, he says nervously. Again, no excuses for the lack of updates, but a glance at the diary confirms I’ve been to cover cricket at Derby, Leeds, Scarborough, Birmingham, Hove, Leicester, Northamptonshire, Nottingham, Wormsley and London — or The County Ground, Headingley, North Marine Road, Edgbaston, Hove, Grace Road, Wantage Road, Trent Bridge, Getty’s Ground and Lord’s, which sounds altogether more poetic somehow. Football’s back too, of course, though it never really seems to go away these days. I was at Hull City v Norwich City yesterday for The Sunday Times and The Independent on Sunday. I’ve also been to Elland Road and whatever Huddersfield Town’s ground is called these days — The John Smith’s Stadium, I think.
The Hull fans are involved in a campaign to prevent the club being renamed Hull City Tigers. It sees to me this is an issue which should engage all football fans. Assem Allam has saved the club from financial catastrophe, but for him to be allowed to brush aside history and tradition in such a cavalier manner would set a very dangerous precedent. Everyone who supports a professional football club should add their weight to the campaign — and siging the ‘No to Hull Tigers’ petition seems to me a very good start.
Back in January I went up to Headingley to interview the Yorkshire all-rounder Adil Rashid. The interview started conventionally enough, but as time went on his unhappiness came out. Originally intended for a cricket magazine, the publication date was delayed for so long that in the end I placed it in The Cricket Paper and The Independent. It caused a certain furore, especially at the Yorkshire club, and as tends to happen, the messenger — me — copped the flak. Such is (a journalist’s) life. Anyway, since then he’s received much better treatment from Yorkshire and has responded by playing brilliantly.
Leg-spinner Adil Rashid: Yorkshire are ruining me
When the fast bowler Ajmal Shahzad left Yorkshire last May, there were many who thought the leg-spinning all-rounder Adil Rashid would follow him. The parallels were obvious. Close friends, both had enjoyed sufficient success to feature regularly for the England Lions and occasionally in full international squads, but their careers appeared to have stalled, and neither was happy with their treatment by their county.
The two are different characters however, and while the ebullient Shazhad went on loan to Lancashire before eventually signing a three year deal with Nottinghamshire, the more reserved Rashid stayed put, even after being dropped and publicly criticised by Yorkshire president Geoffrey Boycott. He was eventually recalled, but in the ten championship matches he played last season, Rashid scored just 129 runs in eight innings at 16.12, and took 16 wickets at 41 apiece.
The 25-year-old believes he knows why and is determined it will not happen again.
“Now is the time to draw the line, and if it happens again I’ll say ‘OK, I’ll go out on loan somewhere else to play’. I hope it doesn’t come down to that. I’ve been playing here seven years and I want to stay. But I have a career and I can’t waste another year.
“At the moment I’m hopefully still there or thereabouts, but another year like 2012 and I won’t be, I’ll be dropping down, down, down and gone. If I don’t feel as though I’ve been treated well, I’ll go. I need to be playing first team cricket, and I know if I’m not playing for Yorkshire there are going to be teams out there willing to take me and play me.”
Boycott may have insisted Rashid had not been mismanaged by Yorkshire, but the player disagrees.
“It’s hard to come straight on and hit your length and line with every delivery if you’re hardly bowling and the coaches and people around you don’t give you the backing. Last year a lot of people were saying ‘There’s something not right here’. ”
“People would ask me, ‘You’re playing but you’re only bowling one over, you’re batting nine or ten, why are you being treated like this?’ Because obviously if that happens to any player, not just me, the confidence goes down, you start doubting yourself, you start thinking you have to do something different.
“Obviously there’s some blame on me, but also there’s some on the people around me, on the captain and the coaches, because you have to be treated fairly. If a player’s not performing, don’t just all of a sudden disrespect him, or think ‘Oh, he’s nothing now’ then as soon as he starts playing well, ‘OK, I’ll respect him again now’.
That he has drifted so far out of international consideration that he was not even selected for the Lions squad last winter was one of the reasons he chose not to earn money by playing abroad last winter.
“I have to believe I can get back into international contention, so I didn’t go to play in Australia or South Africa, I stayed and worked on my game so this season I’d be ready to get good performances under my belt. At the end of the season hopefully I’ll have some hundreds, some ‘five fors’, and I’ll be knocking on the door of the Lions squad or even the main squad. I’m still only 25.”
Given most spinners achieve their best results in the later stages of their careers, it is a reasonable point. Rashid was 18 when he took 6–67 against Warwickshire on his debut on a typically hard Scarborough wicket back in 2006.
The season after that debut he took 40 championship wickets and scored almost 800 runs: the season following, 62 wickets, a return which earned him a late call into England’s touring party to go to India. International one-day recognition followed, but just six wickets taken and 70 runs scored taken in five ODIs and five T20s for England left some questioning whether he possessed the quality to adapt Test cricket. His struggle at Yorkshire last season obviously hasn’t helped.
“I was frustrated when I was dropped because I didn’t think I’d done much wrong. I hadn’t had much chance, the weather was poor, I hadn’t bowled a lot of overs, and all of a sudden for me not to be playing for the first team, it was very frustrating and very upsetting mentally as well.
“I didn’t really get any answers as to why I wasn’t playing. It was: ‘You’re not playing today, we don’t feel you’re bowling well enough.’ But how can I not be bowling well enough when I’m hardly bowling at all? Or just in one or two over spells? As a leg-spinner, it’s tough to bowl one of two over spells, it takes three or four overs to get into your rhythm.
“Ask Shane Warne. Off-spinning is different, you can land it there easy, but if a leg-spinner is cold or whatever, you need a couple of overs and you need the captain to give you confidence and backing. If a batter goes after you, the captain needs to be saying ‘OK, let’s set a defensive field, keep bowling, I’m going to keep you on, doesn’t matter if you get smashed, you’re my match-winner and you’re going to get me wickets’.
“Sometimes I didn’t even get hit, I’d concede five or six runs, and it’s like ‘Take a break’, and bring the other spinner [off-spinner Azeem Rafiq] on. And he starts bowling long spells, and I haven’t bowled yet.
“The captain [Andrew Gale] knows what I can do because I’ve got 200 plus [296 actually] first class wickets. I must have been doing something right to get all those wickets. He should have known, ‘OK, he’s done this in the past, I need to back him.’ If I don’t get that from the captain, if it’s one or two overs and then that’s it, obviously my confidence is going to go down.
“Doubts start creeping in. I’m thinking ‘I’ve got to take a wicket in this over or I that’s it, I don’t bowl again’. No captain in the past did that to me. I had [Anthony] McGrath, I had Vaughany [Michael Vaughan], I had Craig White, I had Jacques Rudolph, they backed me.
“Vaughany used to set defensive fields and just bowl me. He never doubted me and it would just build my confidence, I’d get a wicket, get another, get four get five. That’s how it worked with Craig White, with ‘Mags’ [McGrath] too. With Galey it’s changed, it’s different. A couple of overs and that’s it, you’re not bowling again for a long time, and when you do come on to bowl again, it’s for an over. I don’t think it’s fair.
“He [Gale] doesn’t understand leg-spin bowling, you need a captain that understands leg-spin. When you have two spinners, it’s so much easier just to go to the guy who bowls off-spin because you know what you are going to get. He might bowl ten overs at less than three an over and pick up one wicket. Do you go with that, or with the leg-spinner who might have a good day or bad day, but if he has a good day might get you five wickets in those ten overs?
“If you have seamers who bowl line and length, and keep it tight naturally, and then you go for your off-spinner to keep it tight again, everything is one-dimensional.
“A wrist-spinner can be a risk-spinner, but as a captain, sometimes you have to take a risk. You have to think OK, he might get smashed sometimes, but he’s my wicket-taker, and I don’t care if he goes for six or seven an over, just try and do your thing, I’ll give you a seven over spell, I’ll give you a defensive field, I’ll set a few close catchers. That’s what I want and hopefully I will get during this year coming. I’ve spoken to the captain and hopefully it will come into play.”
Batting too. “Batting seven or eight, or lower, it’s pretty hard from there to get big scores. Sometimes you need quick runs to declare or whatever. If I was getting the opportunity at number six, I could start playing like a batter, play myself in. The coaches have said it could be my position, it’s there to be taken and we want you to be that person.
“And if I’m bowling spells, the confidence will come and it will all start to feel natural again.”
Originally posted in The Independent.
Sometimes the attitude of young athletes to the media is very hard to understand. I’ve been trying to arrange an interview with a 19-year-old female athlete, a relative unknown who is going to take part in the World Junior Cross-Country Championships. I ‘sold’ the putative interview to The Sunday Times, as the runner is promising and of course Paula Radcliffe won the same title some 19 years ago before going on to great things. Perhaps this kid will too. I was pleased — it would be great publicity for the unknown, her sponsors, and junior athletics in a quality broadsheet read by millions.
Unfortunately said athlete, after consulting her agent (and coach, he’s the same person apparently) decided she wasn’t prepared to make time either for a photograph or face to face interview. She’d do a phone interview, that was all. the sports editor of The Sunday Times decided, not surprisingly, if she wasn’t prepared to put herself out for half an hour, he would use the space for someone who was. And I couldn’t help but agree. Can’t imagine her sponsors would be pleased if they knew. When people complain about the lack of coverage of female/junior sport, however, it’s worth bearing in mind that sometimes they don’t help themselves.
It is not entirely unrelated to say how interesting it was to talk to the Egyptian footballer Ahmed Fathi, for The Independent. Here’s the piece. It’s another take on the old ‘getting sport into perspective’ argument. For Fathi, who saw people being killed on the football field, it’s even more important to keep playing than it was before.
Ahmed Fathi: Egyptian exile driven by Port Said tragedy
Ahmed Fathi watched fans die in the Port Said riot. So how does he feel sitting on the bench at Hull? He tells Richard Rae football matters more to him than ever
Just over a year ago, Ahmed Fathi stood on a football field in Port Said, Egypt, and saw supporters being attacked and killed in the stands. Under attack themselves, he and his team-mates ran for their lives to the dressing room and watched helplessly as the mortally injured were carried in to die on the benches above which they had hung their clothes.
The final death toll following the match between Fathi’s Al-Ahly, from Cairo, and local side Al-Masry was at least 74. Some maintain it to have been higher. When he has seen and heard things he will never, can never, forget, does making the starting line-up for a team to which he moved on loan in another country matter that much?
“Yes,” says Fathi, immediately. “It matters even more. I feel different to before [Port Said], yes, but when people die, you cannot stop. You must complete your life. For me that means I must play.”
The 28-year-old pauses, searching for words. “You must understand how important work is in Egypt. Always, but especially now. Football is my work. You must concentrate on your work and do it better. When you have good work, hard work, everything can be normal.”
For Fathi, who has won 91 caps and been an automatic selection for his country in midfield and defence since making his debut as a 17-year-old, normality is a place in the starting XI, for Al-Ahly and for Egypt. Hence his intense frustration at being used only off the bench since he and striker Mohamed Nagy – known by his nickname of Gedo – joined compatriot Ahmed Elmohamady on loan at Hull City in January.
At the time, the Egyptian domestic league was still suspended, as it had been since the riot, and with World Cup qualifying matches on the horizon, Fathi and Gedo felt they needed to play games. Hull chairman Assem Allam’s contacts in Cairo made a short-term transfer to East Yorkshire feasible, and the impact made by Gedo, who has scored five goals in his nine appearances for Hull, has been considerable. Fathi, despite the constant urgings of supporters back in Egypt – letters arrive on City manager Steve Bruce’s desk on a daily basis – has thus far been used only as a substitute. He didn’t even get on the bench against Nottingham Forest on Saturday.
From a footballing point of view then, the fact Fathi is relishing the prospect of playing for his country in a friendly against Switzerland this week, followed by a World Cup qualifier against Zimbabwe next Tuesday, is understandable. That he is not also apprehensive may be less so, because the causes of the violence were political and emotions continue to run very high.
Earlier this month there were further riots in both cities when a court handed down 21 death sentences but cleared a number of those accused, including seven policemen. Despite the volatility, however, Fathi insists he is not concerned about any possible danger. “For me Egypt is safe, absolutely. Cairo is a big place, and there is only trouble in one small area, and not big trouble. It’s not like it looks on the news. Even in the area where there is trouble, you can go in the car, you understand?
“It is true that no one knows what will happen in Egypt, but for now it is difficult but safe. Kids go to school, no problem. For you, maybe if you go to Egypt, you are afraid, but me, no. I am safe. I know everyone. I know what happens. It’s not like before, when you could stay out until three or four in the morning, no problem: now, just until 12. But maybe after a few more months everything is OK. Everything will be normal. I hope.”
Asked what he remembers of the events of 2 February 2012, Fathi speaks quietly. “We knew there would be a big problem with the match in Port Said. They are always difficult, but one of our players, who played for three years in Port Said, he knows the people, he told me he was afraid for this match, that friends in Port Said had told him it was no good for us to play.
“We travelled one day before, everything is OK. We go to the match, everything is OK. But when we go to warm up, already it is difficult. I went to the referee and said we should not play: he said it was OK, it was his choice, we can play.
“The start is delayed, but the first half is OK because the fans for Al-Ahly had not arrived. There can be many problems when you travel from Cairo to Port Said. They arrived after the first half, and then there is trouble. Many, many troubles.”
Seeing the early confrontations, some of the Al-Ahly players, Fathi recalls, stopped trying, believing that allowing the opposition to win might defuse the situation. It did not. At the final whistle a number of Al-Masry supporters, some armed with knives, sticks and stones, began attacking Al-Ahly players and fans, who fled where they could.
Fathi, having made it into the dressing room, recalls only general impressions amid the noise and chaos. “I remember the security disappeared. Maybe they were afraid. Or maybe [it was] not an accident.
“I remember injured supporters coming [into the dressing room] and I think two, maybe three, died. I remember it is four in the morning before we are taken away from the stadium in army vehicles. I remember going to see families of people who died before I went home.” He spent the next 10 days making such visits.
Several of his team-mates, including fellow internationals Mohamed Aboutrika and Mohamed Barakat, said they would never play football again. Al-Ahly’s coach, Manuel Jose, who was among those who were attacked, asked to be allowed to return to Portugal. “I have to think about my life differently now,” he said. “Although everybody loves me greatly here, this experience has changed my life completely.”
All three of Hull’s Egyptians are heading home this week. Gedo, national coach Bob Bradley has said, will lead the line in the match against Zimbabwe, which will be played at the Borg El-Arab stadium in Alexandria. For Elmohamady, the national team has an important role as a uniting force in the country. “When we play, everybody is together, all fans back us. We need to go to the World Cup to make the people happy. This is what we hope.”
Last month, to the surprise of some, the Egyptian domestic league resumed, albeit behind closed doors. Al-Ahly are also playing their fixtures in the African Champions League, adding to Fathi’s frustration.
“The league had to start, because we have a national team, we have big matches coming, the World Cup in Brazil. And it has started, and everything’s OK.
“Now Al-Ahly play Champions League again. They probably would like me and Gedo back, but we have contracts with Hull. But it’s a problem for me because I’m not playing. But I came from Egypt to play.”
He shrugs. “I’m not surprised about Gedo. I know he is a very good player – physical, fast, and when he has a chance, he scores. In Al-Ahly he has many more chances. Here, I tell him, ‘There will not be so many chances. Here you have a chance, you must score’, and he has. He’s a good player.
“I train very hard, I play for the reserves, but I stay on the bench. I don’t know why. The manager in Egypt told me before I came here, ‘Don’t go please, the league will start again, Champions League too, and I need you’. But I take my choice and come here. That is football. But I need to work. I have to work.”
Egyptian Tigers: Hull’s loanees
Position: Midfielder Age: 28
Egypt: 91 caps, 13 goals
Clubs: Ismaily SC (2000–2007), Sheffield United (2007, loan), Al-Ahly (2007-present), Kazma Sporting Club (2007–2008, loan), Hull City (2013-present, loan)
Hull: 3 appearances
Position: Forward Age: 28
Egypt: 31 caps, 17 goals
Clubs: Ala’ab Damanhour (2002–2005), Al Ittihad Al Sakandary (2005–2010), Al-Ahly (2010-present), Hull City (2013-present, loan)
Hull: 9 appearances, 5 goals
Position: Winger Age: 25
Egypt: 43 caps, 2 goals
Clubs: Ghazl El-Mahalla (2004–2006), ENPPI (2006–2011), Sunderland (2010–11, loan), Sunderland (2011-present), Hull City (2012-present, loan)
Hull: 33 appearances, 3 goals
Delighted to see The Guardian has begun a running blog along the same lines as its very popular cycling blog. If the standard of the opening effort, by Adharanand Finn, is maintained it will be well worth keeping up with, even if parts of it are recycled from his book Running with the Kenyans.
I’d like to cover athletics more than I do, so need to make the effort to do so. I’ve got pieces in all the Cricket magazines at the moment — All Out Cricket (Matt Boyce), The Cricketer (Chris Wright) and Spin (Adil Rashid) — as well as regular articles in The Cricket Paper, and of course there’s constant football, but for me variety isn’t just the spice of life, it stops me going a little bit crazy. Though non-league Luton’s win at Premier League Norwich in the FA Cup made life interesting. On the day I wrote reports for The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Independent on Sunday, and on the following day for The Guardian and The Independent. Long reports. By noon on the Sunday I didn’t have much left to say about the event.
Crumbs, it’s been a while. Partly because of hosting issues, partly because of pressure of work and partly because of laziness. But the last month or so has been very busy, one way or the other.
I’ve made an effort to do a lot of cricket in particular — mostly for The Cricket Paper, for which publication I’ve written up interview features with Liam Plunkett of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire coach Mick Newell, Mark Wallace of Glamorgan — the new chairman of the Professional Cricketers’ Association — and Alan Richardson, the veteran Worcestershire bowler. I’ve also written for All Out Cricket, The Cricketer and Spin Magazine. None of the above put their articles on t’internet, so no links.
I’ve written a rugby feature for The Independent, on Northampton and England forward Courtney Lawes. It got a few likes and retweets.
But mainly it’s been loads of football of course, for The Guardian, Observer, Sunday Times, Independent and Independent on Sunday. Sometimes one, sometimes more, which can get a bit frantic, but more worthwhile. Over the Christmas holidays it was West Brom v Norwich, Norwich v Chelsea, Hull v Leeds and Birmingham v Cardiff. Then up to Blackburn v Notts Forest — on the back of Forest appointing Alex McLeish, covered for The Guardian. Then Forest v Palace. The FA Cup third round meant a short trip to Peterborough v Norwich, before heading over to Mansfield v Liverpool. Since then it’s been Wolves v Blackburn, Birmingham v Leeds, a feature with Bradford City manager Phil Parkinson for the ST, Leicester City v Middlesbrough — a match that should not have gone ahead — and Wigan v Sunderland.
I’ve put in links to some of the Guardian, Obs and Indy reports — doesn’t seem much point with the Sunday Times, which is behind a paywall.
For an awful lot of sportswriters out there right now, Frank Keating was a hero. Which would have pleased the old boy, though not for the reason you might think. As far as Frank Keating was concerned, sport was about heroes. He positively hero-worshipped Ian Botham — wrote a couple of books with and about him — and as one who felt much the same about Botham the cricketer, I understood where Keating was coming from.
To be honest, I first started buying The Guardian because FK was writing for the newspaper. Sympathising with the paper’s politics came later. One of my early sports editors, a dyed in the wool Yorkshireman called Bill Bridge at the Yorkshire Post — positively hated him — he’d been in the same Twickenham press box one day and heard Keating’s fruity tones begging some post-match quotes, and that was enough for Mr Bridge.
Anyway, David Hopps, a long-time colleague of FK’s, has written a smashing appreciation of him here. John Samuel, his former sports editor at The Guardian, has written one here. Both are well worth reading.
Sat down over a coffee with a cricketer called Chris Wright the other day. He’s a bowler who took loads of first division wickets for Warwickshire in the season just past, not much more than 12 months after being told he was being released by second division Essex. At 26 he was perilously close to being washed up, and admitted — with a surprising degree of insouciance — he was wondering how he was going to keep his young family. Now he’s got a county championship winner’s medal and has been picked by England for the performance squad — a big step down the road to international cricket. Perhaps the thought concentrated his mind. Anyway, here’s what he had to say, as printed in The Cricket Paper on 7th November.
Warwickshire bowling coach Graeme Welch gets a lot of the credit, and rightly so, but according to Chris Wright, the most important reason for the best season of his career was straightforward.
“Playing,” says the 27-year-old Warwickshire seamer, a week after accompanying his team-mates to Buckingham Palace to the official reception afforded the county champions.
“Being picked, being given responsibility, being relied on. I already knew ‘Pop’ [Welch] from working together at Essex and I knew he thought I could bowl. As a coach he doesn’t over-complicate things and fill your brain with nonsense: he simply gave me one or two little things to think about, tried to make sure I swung it consistently, and that was pretty much it.”
But even Wright is prepared to admit he could not have expected to pick up 62 wickets as the Bears won the county championship for the first time since 2004.
“I’d have taken 35, to be honest. When I signed for Warwickshire at the end of 2011 it looked a good squad of bowlers, the plan was to do quite a bit of rotation, and I was happy with that. Then Chris Woakes rolled his ankle in Barbados, Boyd Rankin picked up a stress fracture in his foot, and I was thrust in to a really important role.
“It was the same with Keith Barker, who like me was probably just hoping to play as much as he could. As a side we were all wondering how we’d get the 100-odd wickets Chris and Boyd were worth, but it did create an opportunity for myself and Keith, and we both took it, I think.”
Wright and Barker ended up playing 15 out of Warwickshire’s 16 championship fixtures. The previous season, before he moved to Warwickshire on loan for the final month, Wright had played just five championship matches for Essex, picking up 12 wickets.
“I was playing a fair amount of one-day cricket, and they rated me enough to have me bowling a lot of overs at the death, but not with the red ball. It was ironic really, because when they said they were going to let me go I was bowling well in the Essex Twos, which isn’t the same standard I know, but a good ball is still a good ball.
“So from my point of view the timing was quite good. In fairness to Essex they said they’d help me moving, and when the offer to go on loan came about they were happy for me to do it. It would have been odd if they hadn’t because I wasn’t in their plans, but still.”
He left with a mixture of memories, some good, some, well, not so good. The match-fixing scandal involving Danish Kaneria and Mervyn Westfield left him bewildered.
“I was quite young and not being a senior player, it was all a bit over my head. It was a strange feeling though. When Tony Palladino told me what was going on I remember thinking how sorry I felt for him, because Merv just dropped a bomb on him really.
“When it surfaced you started looking back on games and wondering about stuff, which was a weird feeling, but thankfully it’s long gone now. I’m chuffed that Tony had such a great season for Derbyshire this year, he’s a skilful bowler, he’s very fit, he bowls a lot of overs and always gives it everything. I’m looking forward to playing against him next season.”
Even so, when Essex told him they intended to release him, and before a necessarily persistent Welch eventually persuaded Warwickshire director of cricket Ashley Giles to bring him in on loan, did Wright fear his career was petering out?
“Initially,yes. But the day after Gloucestershire showed they were keen, I think [Essex team-mate] Dave Masters spoke to them for me, so knowing there was interest was a great relief. Then Pop got in touch and talked about going to Warwickshire on loan: from my point of view it was more of a gamble, but [Gloucestershire Director of Cricket] John Bracewell was great and said they didn’t mind me trying. If they’d said they didn’t want me to, I wouldn’t have gone.
“If no-one had come in I’d have tried Minor Counties or Unicorns and tried to get back on ladder that way rather than just giving up. I just love playing cricket and I’d have given it my best shot to get back in.”
The gamble paid off, Wright taking 22 wickets in four games for the Bears and being given a three year contract. Last winter he built up fitness and strength, and when required by extraordinary circumstances to lead the attack, responded superbly. While every Warwickshire player made match-winning contributions throughout the season, it seemed fitting that Wright, bowling as quickly as he had all year, took the championship-winning wicket against Worcestershire.
“We were reasonably disciplined and the conditions were usually helpful, but they were the same for both sides and sometimes we swung the ball when other teams didn’t,” points out Wright. “We did work on that all previous winter and I know ‘Pop’ thinks it was a massive factor in our success, that every seamer moves the ball. It’s certainly something we have to keep doing.”
It is something Wright hopes will keep happening when he joins up with the England performance later this month: he has not actually turned his arm over in anger since pulling up after bowling three overs in September’s incredibly tense CB40 Final.
“I thought I’d torn my side, but nothing showed up on scans or test and I’ve done gym sessions since and been fine, so fingers crossed. I probably needed the break though, I’m a newbie when it comes to year-round cricket.
“It could be a pretty full-on winter because there’s the month in India and then the Lions trip to Australia, which I really want to try and get on, in the new year, then Warwickshire’s pre-season to Barbados and then as champions we play the MCC in Abu Dhabi.
“I think the Lions squad announced when we get back from India, and all I can do is the best I can with the performance squad and hope. I had a chat to ‘Woakesy’, who has been in a few EPPs, but he didn’t give much away.”
The suggestion that may be because in international terms he sees his county team-mate as a rival makes Wright grin.
“It’s an ambition, but one thing I have learned is not to get too far ahead of myself. The key is to keep improving as individuals and as a team, because expectations will be that much higher next season. “
Another grin. “Though that isn’t to say we didn’t give ourselves a little time to celebrate.”
Celebrations deservedly enjoyed, the Warwickshire players have begun thinking about next season.
“Not in too much depth yet, just how badly we want to do it again, and to do that we’ll have to prepare even better. We’ll start going into the processes of that when we get back together. We have a good age profile in the squad, most of us are in their mid to late 20s, with a couple of youngsters coming through and that suggests we can be successful for a few years.
“It’s not absolutely to have a great team ethic to win, but it certainly helps, and it’s a big part of what’s been created at Warwickshire. Jim Troughton sets the tone in that respect, but a lot of guys have come through the club, including most of the coaching staff, Ashley, Dougie Brown, Pop, even the physio, they’ve all been there a long time. I’m still new to it, but I’m starting to understand.”
A couple of weeks which have included rugby for The Guardian — London Welsh being thrashed by Stade Francais — and some cricket features for The Cricket Paper (not online), but a lot of football, as ever. Most interestingly, on Friday 19 October I was at Hillsborough for the match between Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United when all hell broke loose. Or at least a moronic Leeds supporter ran on the pitch and shoved the Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper to the ground, which as the media is concerned pretty much amounts to the same thing.
In the end The Guardian abandoned the match report and just took a big news story for the Sport section front page. What was a little frustrating was the editor’s decision to use some quotes from the Leeds manager Neil Warnock taken from the TV coverage, when I wanted to use only what he’d said to the written press some time later. His mood had changed a little by then, he’d become slightly less apologetic, and for me, it made the piece stronger because it made him look even more of an idiot (which being Warnock, is going some).
Sometimes you need the duty editor to trust you. Good ones do.