Sunday, 30 December 2007

RIP Phil O'Donnell: 25/03/1972 - 29/12/2007


Tragedy struck yesterday as Motherwell captain Phil O'Donnell tragically collapsed and died during his side's 5-3 SPL win over Dundee United at Fir Park.

It's always really upsetting when something like this happens and while I admit I wasn't too familiar with O'Donnell, my thoughts are with his family at this time. The tributes have been pouring in and his club are postponing their next two fixtures as a mark of respect for the 35 year old father of 4.

When people are constantly complaining about comparatively trivial matters such as the offside rule or whether or not a player overreacts to a foul, it takes an event like this to really put things into perspective.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

In Attendance: Barnet FC v Chesterfield @ Underhill, Barnet - December 29th 2007



With the matches coming thick and fast over the festive period there is a danger of fans getting bored. Oversaturation can happen very easily. The Sports channels are pumping out the games at such a rate it's almost difficult to keep up. There are even those who championed the idea that this country should adopt a winter break during the football season...

Not me though!

Me and my mate 'The Mooch' have for a long time been talking about throwing our support behind Barnet as they are esentially one of our local sides here in wonderful North London. The Bees are currently languishing in league 2 so Me and Mooch hopped on the Northern Line (High Barnet branch naturally) to see if Paul Fairclough's side could show some signs of progressing beyond this level.

Having arrived at the Ground about an hour early, we thought we'd get tickets from what we thought was a ticket office. Let me set the scene: Underhill is essentially a football pitch surrounded mostly by corrugated iron... on a SLOPE! We approached a portacabin when people seemed to be queueing. When we got to the window they told us that we just pay at the turnstiles. Sheepishly we shuffled our way round to the East Terrace handed over our 15 quid (yes, 15 pounds stirling to watch 4th Division football!) and enter The ground.

The Theatre of dreams his was not.



The South Stand is currently being redeveloped while the North is uncovered and essentially protected by a fence so I can imagine the wind, if it's strong enough, having a major impact on the result.



As I said, we arrived early so we had the pick of almost the entire stand in which to take up a decent vantage point. We were soon to discover that our location had a restricted view of the corner to out left. D'oh!

I would like to say that the pre-match entertainment consisted of cheerleaders, a light show and a performace from Shakira but i'd be lying. We were However, privilaged to watch Hertfordshire's finest going through their pre-match warm up. We were literally spitting distance of our new heroes.

The Barnet side contained former Arsenal youngsters Adam Birchill, Nicky Nicolou and Joe O'Cearuill.

In contrast, the Spirites had lined up Jack Lester, Gregor Robertson and Keeper Barry Roche. All former Nottingham Forest players.

On that basis, I expected a dose of quality play from the Bees considering the lads were products of the Gunners' famed academy and having watched Forest for 3 years while at uni I have to say I wasn't excepting a great deal from Chesterfield.

Departing Striker Liam Hatch was named captain for he day as the Bees took the field. As is tradition, the home side played uphill on the infamous slope in the first half.

The game started out very scrapily. The away side seemed committed to giving the ball away at ever opportunity whereas Barnet employed the useless tactics of passing sideways a lot - that would be the Arsenal influence - before hoofing the ball up to the seemingly disinterested Hatch. Jason Puncheon, the Bees' hero on boxing day, showed some nice touches but his final ball was atrocious.

A lofted ball into box saw Liam Hatch completely mistime a jump as wasted a golden opportunity to open the scoring.

He would shortly come to regret it as the hopeless Joe Devera - an accident waiting to happen - failed to clear his lines and a Jack Lester through ball allowed Adam Rooney (no relation) to give Chesterfield the lead on 20 minutes.

At the time, I suggested that Lee Harrison in the Barnet goal could have done better but on the evidence of the rest of the game, I decided that he probably couldn't have. This is the keeper who also picked up a backpass and failed to convincingly deal with any cross he had to face in the first half.

Chesterfield probably should have the opportunity to double their lead when Lester was seemingly hacked down in the box (Devera again unsuprisingly) but rather than a penalty, referee Mike Thorpe booked Lester for diving. Good to see.

The first half dragged on. It was like marching through treacle wearing concrete boots. The half time whistle couldn't come too soon. The fans had itchy feet and took to heckling the players to keep themselves entertained.
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Barnet's one shot on target of the half came from the lively Puncheon cutting in from the right wing. It was simply catching practice for Roche.

At half time, Fairclough tried to spice things up by introducing the nippy Anthony Thomas for the dispassionate Hatch. Suddenly, Barnet decided to play football. It's obvious that the slope makes a huge difference.

However, despite the nice build up play and fluid passing, the home side seemed to completely bottle it every time they got into the final third. Nicolau and Gillet worked well together on the left side but their delivery let them down time and time again. Crossing was aimless to say the least. When Micheal Leary wasn't giving the ball away, he was scuffing his shots and crosses. It was no suprise when he was withdrawn for Ashley Carew on 70 minutes.

Barnet's wasteful play was to cost them. With just ten minutes to go, Spirites defender Janos Kovacs stabbed home a loose ball to make it 2-0 after a poor Chesterfield corner was dropped by Lee Harrison to the shock of absolutely no-one at Underhill. Game over.

Cue more more mishit shots and crosses from Barnet before the ref put everyone out of their misery by blowing the final whistle.

10 years ago, Chesterfield were famously denied an FA Cup final appearance by the fialure of the officials to spot the ball crossing the line. They didn't perform nearly as heroically today but got the result to help keep up their promotion push.

Barnet on the other hand were woeful up front and I very much doubt they would have scored if they were playing til NEXT christmas. The club are currently midtable and at times I got the impression that they were content with that. The Bees wont get relegated but they are unlikely to threaten Chesterfield on any of the other play-off hopefuls.

As me and Mooch strolled back to the tube station, we decided that we would certainly be back to watch the Bees again. Hopefully by then, they will have learnt to put the ball in the back of the net.

Final Score: Barnet 0-2 Chesterfield
Attendance: 2,346
Man of the Match: The ref

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

In Attendance: Stan James Christmas Festival @ Kempton - December 26th 2007


The great tradition of Horse Racing has been dragged through the mud in recent years. From allegations of race-fixing to Kieren Fallon's recent positive drug test, there are many who look upon the sport with great skepticism. There are even suggestions from some quarters that the past-time should not be conisdered a sport as the gambling aspect is more important than the sporting endevour of the competitors. There are of course animal cruelty complaints as well but those people annoy me too much to warrant any comment.

Regardless of all these factors, a day at the races is still a bloody good day out!

A couple of months back when I agreed to attend The Stan James Christmas Festival at Kempton, I anticipated a day of drinking and losing a lot of money I dont have. I'd been to Sandown eariler in the year and, to say the least, wasn't exacty flashing the cash. Both my racing and gambling knowledge are limited to whatever I saw when I didn't change the channel on Grandstand after Football Focus as a youngster. The numbers and jargon send me into a spiral of confusion. Combine this with some questionable financial nous and you have recipe for disaster. No question I fully expected to be selling my bodily organs on the black market by the end of the day.

In situations like this, you stay close to those who know what they are talking about and hope for the best. Unfortunately, if everyone you're with knows what they are talking about and are all saying different things then it is very easy to get confused. As I sat silently on the bus from Richmond station, all I could overhear from my frinds was: "He's not been so good on the flats" "It would be stupid not to back him. He's already won 3 hurdle races this season", "He let me down at Cheltenham. I had a score on him each way but he fell at the second and it was on soft ground too."

What?

I was clearly in over my head. What was I to do? I haven't studied the form, I dont have that much money and I cant ask questions like "What's the Tote?" and get away with it in a place like this.

So I did what any reasonable human being would do. Lean over the shoulder of your mates as they fill in their slips. Pretend to study the racecard even though you have no idea who Robert Thompson is (He's a Jockey by the way) and away you go.

The first race was the Novices' Hurdle Race. A novice is apparently a horse which has never won a hurdle race before the current 'jump' season. 'Song of Songs' ridden by A. P. McCoy was the favorite and seemed to be the horse man were plumping for so at 6/4 I thought "why not?". The prize money wasn't fantastic thanks to my paltry stake but hey, a win is a win.

Song of Songs was owned by J. P. Mcmanus. AH-HA! A familiar name. One may remember Mr McManus from the tedious Man Utd takeover saga of 2005 which ultimately ushered in Malcolm Glazier and consequently the on-pitch revolution currently taking place at Old Trafford.

But I digress, the second race was the Nigel Clark Feltam Novice Steeple Chase. Nigel Clark was the former President of the course, a Steeple chase involves a lot of obstacles and a novice is, well, I just explained that. Having got slightly ahead of myself following my win, I opted to stick an each way bet on 8/11 favourite 'Silverburn' as well as going for 5/2 hot tip 'Joe Lively' to win. This caused sniggers from my mates who pointed out that an each way bet on odds so low would still result in me losing money even if 'Silverburn' placed. Luckily the favourite finished 3rd and spared me the humiliation of going back and collecting. Oh, Joe Lively came in first so I was now 2 for 2. There's a lot to be said for copying people when you have no idea what you ae doing yourself! Time for a drink.

As we mulled over the next race, I was made aware of the fact that 'Harchibald' was a clear favourite again at 8/11 and was hardly worth the punt. I happened to spot that 'Straw Bear' a horse I backed at Sandown (Cant remember if it won but familiarity is always a good thing...) was also running in the race at 6/1. Worth a go? Maybe... However, the advice of my friends deterred me at the last minute and I felt the money would be better spent on booze!

Straw Bear, incidently another McCoy/McManus horse, beat Harchibald by a nose. I felt sick as I stared into the black pit that was my drink. Never have resented a pint of Guiness so much. 6 to flipping 1!!! It would have been a stroke of genius. I couldn't believe it. I was gutted. That's the nature of gambling I guess...

Race four was the big one. The King George VI Steeplechase. It was the race everyne had come to see. Kauto Star was overwhelming favourite having won the same race 12 months earlier. He was ridden by Ruby Walsh (a name I was only familiar with thanks to many a morning watching Sky Sports news and hearing Alex Hammond giving us a guide to the runners and riders each day even though I had no clue what she was on about!) was set to make a few people a bit of money even though his 4/6 odds barely represented good value for inexperienced gamblers - such as myself - betting so low. One of my friend's decided to swim against the tide and back 'Exotic Dancer'. Like the proverbial sheep, I followed and invariably Kauto Star won at a canter. I had money on both but naturally lost out as my winnings didn't match my outlay. Still 3 from 4 wasn't bad but the blow from the previous race was hardly cushioned.

My luck, or sneaky copying, was to continue in the next race as 'Boomshakalaka' came in at 5/2. However, another silly each way bet on 'The Hairy Lemon' meant I did't come away with as much as I coud have.

The final race, the Handicap Hurdle, FINALLY saw my win on one of my each way bets as 'Nycteos' romped home. However, this meant my bet on Princlet for the outright win was null and void. What I learnt today? I know it sounds obvious but ONLY ever back one horse! Forecasts and each way bets should be left to those who have an idea what's going on!

So 5 out of 6 winners at the end and a nice little earner in my pocket as we left is certainly nothing to frown upon. Considering I hadn't got a clue about the sport and remain none the wiser afterwards. Whether the sweet taste of success has whetted my appetite and spawned an insatiable gambling addiction inside me remains to be seen but for now, I'd definately recommend a day at the races as a great social event. A boxing day well spent.

My one bit of advice after the 'Straw Bear' fiasco however is that you should ALWAYS follow your gut feeling. In gambling or otherwise.

PLAY SAFE

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Apologies

...for the recent two week hiatus. Your distinguished author has just returned from a week's work placement in the newsroom at ITV West in Bristol. An enjoyable experience that involved a lot of work learning the tricks of the trade so to speak. Contrary to popular belief, them thar yokels out West DO have the internet but unfortunately I was never online long enough to knock out my thoughts of the various stories doing the rounds. No worries though, I have returned. More soon...

Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Euro 2008 Draw


Yes, I know what you are thinking. I sure do tend to write a lot about International football for someone who so frequently reads it's last rites.

In any instance I feel it necessary that I comment seeing as the draw for next summer's Euro 2008 tournament has just been made. Yes, even without England, the show will most certainly go on. Those of you who remember USA '94 will remember it as one of the most enjoyable tournaments of modern times quite simply because of the lack of overwhelming emotional atatchment to a team which, lets face it, dont have that much chance of winning much.

England's absense may be a blessing in disguise and many fans of the game in this country will enjoy watching the competition from neutral perspective.

So, how did the draw shape up?

Group A sees co-hosts Switzerland drawn with the Czech Republic, Portugal and Turkey. The Czechs have been the model of consistency throughout their qualifying campaign and like last time around, could go a long way. With the abolution of the ridiculous Silver Goal rule, they might fancy themeselves once more. Portugal, like England, have for some years bemoaned the fact their 'Golden Generation' failed to live up to all the expectation. Unlike England however, the Portugese are actually going some way to fulfilling their potential. After losing the final at home in 2004 and finishing 4th in the last World Cup Ronaldo, Deco, Queresma et al will be hoping that they can finally reap the rewards their play has often warrented this decade. The Turks have not built on their great World Cup of 2002 and will be out to prove a point. Although very hard to beat, home advantage may still not be enough to get the Swiss through a very difficult group.

In Group B, Austria will also have their work cut out as they will be up against Germany, Poland and Croatia. The co-hosts have famously been on the recieving end of VERY strong criticism following an awful sucession of results and will find it tough going against Ze Germans! Joachim Low has taken over when Jurgen Klinsmann left off. Germany will always be force in World football and the last few years have seen a resurgence. The Podolski-Klose partnership was one of the most lethal in 2006 and if the two of them click once again, it's difficult to see them not topping the group. Saying that, we all know what Slavan Bilic's ever-improving Croatia side are capable of and Poland will certainly be a team to look out for having topped their qualifying group with little difficulty.

The Group everyone is talking about is the so-called group of death featuring the two world cup finalists Italy and France - where the undoubted talk of revenge with arise (Although I personally dont know who is out to avenge what between these two teams anymore) - along with Holland and the side who finished above them in the qualifying group, Romania.

Unfortunatley for Romania, not many people will give them a prayer against the other 3. Gone are the days of the legendary Gheorghe Hagi, Dan Petrescu and Gica Popescu. Aside the likes of Adrian Mutu and Christian Chivu, The side now mostly consists domestic based players who aren't exactly household names throughout the rest of the continent. It's just in the script for them to cause a massive shock isn't it?

The Dutch don't seem to bicker as much as days gone by but I guess there is still plenty of time for that bewtween now and June...

The final Group sees perenial under-achievers Spain whose embarassment of riches (in terms of talent) will not stop them flattering to decieve on the big stage (and lose me money) AGAIN! Sweden are a side that for as long as I can remember, play to their strengths. Without any real world-beaters in their side, they unfortunately always seem to come unstuck in the latter rounds when they face the big guns.

The Russians may struggle in warmer climes playing on actual grass (bitter? moi?) but Gus Hiddink seems to love tournaments, even moreso when his sides have the underdog tag. One to watch. As for Greece, can they do it again? Surely not!



Groups in Full

Group A
Switzerland
Czech Republic
Portugal
Turkey

Group B
Austria
Germany
Poland
Croatia

Group C
Holland
Italy
Romania
France

Group D
Greece
Spain
Sweden
Russia