Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Sunday 24th May: focus on North East England

(C) PA/Getty Images
So, let's set the scene. The Premier League title has been sewn up. Champions' League places? That's pretty done and dusted too. Thus the Premier League focus is on the relegation battle ahead of the final day on Sunday (May 24th). A nerve-wracking time for fans of clubs in North East England[1]; Hull City and Newcastle United are directly in the line of fire, with the 17th placed team clinging to safety well short of the (informal) 40 points cut-off which tends to guarantee it.

Hull came into the season after a landmark campaign the previous year, which included a memorable run to Wembley. However, early promise has evaporated and a bad run of results means their fate depends on a final home game against Manchester United, of all teams. If they survive then the club's manager, a man of the North East, may end up relegating the club he supported as a youngster, as a by-product of his success.

Newcastle's season has taken place against a backdrop of huge supporter unrest mostly against the running of the club by owner Mike Ashley. Yet it looked around February as if they would be ok, following a steady run of results during the winter months. However, there was an enforced managerial change. A Geordie, a Newcastle United man through and through, was brought in at the helm, despite having very little outright managerial experience. Despite his best efforts, results have plummeted, meaning that he now may need three points against those boys in claret 'n' blue, though their opponents' star has faded since they were battling for the Champions' League places earlier in the campaign. The other professional clubs in North East England are also having a busy time of it. Sunderland, despite parting company with their manager mid-season, are still not mathematically safe and are looking over their shoulder, with a formidable Chelsea lying in wait on Sunday should things get that far. Middlesbrough, too, are in the headlines as a club fighting frantically for a Premier League future.

So the question is: what will be the final outcome? And the answer, I think you'll find, is as follows: Hull, Newcastle and Sunderland all lost their final games. Thus it came to pass, ladies and gentlemen, that on Sunday, 24th May 2009, Hull City stayed up in 17th place on 35 points, despite losing 1-0 to Manchester United at the KC Stadium. Despite falling away at an alarming rate in the second half of the 2008-09 Premier League season, survival was still a commendable achievement for a club who had never played in English football's top division before their promotion the previous season[2], achieved after beating Bristol City 1-0 in the Championship play-off final at Wembley. Manager Phil Brown, a boyhood Sunderland fan, felt sufficiently moved by Hull's survival to belt out an adapted rendition of The Beach Boys' "Sloop John B" at the final whistle.

Will any of this year's relegation-battled managers burst into
(improvised) song if their club survives? (C) John Giles/PA
For Newcastle, defeat to Aston Villa - who were in the league's Top 4 as recently as March that season - meant relegation from the Premier League with just 34 points; a painful experience for their manager, Newcastle's record goalscorer Alan Shearer. Shearer was philosophical in defeat, though, conceding that, whatever the issues around the club, the team had not been good enough over the season. What this also meant was that Sunderland, despite parting company with Roy Keane midway through the season, were shepherded to safety under the nervously watching eye of Ricky Sbragia. Middlesbrough, alas, were the long shots for safety and were, along with Newcastle, consigned to the Championship for the following season, ending an 11-year stay in the top division which included their first major trophy (the 2004 Carling Cup) and a memorable run to the 2006 UEFA Cup Final.

Fast forward six years and I do find it staggering how history has managed to repeat itself here (right in time with the calendar repeating, no less). Of course, Middlesbrough are fighting a different fight to that of six years ago; a play-off final with Norwich City on Monday (May 25th) and a chance of promotion, rather than staving off relegation. But the others are all in very similar positions, though Sunderland would be safe with a point at Arsenal (their game in hand) later this mid-week. The big difference, for me, could be that it is Newcastle - managed by lifelong fan John Carver - occupying the 17th place rather than, in 2008-09, Hull. However, looking at the Magpies' run of results and brittle confidence, one suspects that they will be relying on Hull (whose manager Steve Bruce, grew up supporting Newcastle![3]) to fail to beat Man United to survive. And, on balance of probability, that appears to be the most likely of the outcomes, for Bruce's record against his former club is not that great. However, that can always change, and I wouldn't want to be a fan of any of the teams, should they be relying on results elsewhere to go their way on Sunday.

Whatever happens, it looks as though history will repeat itself; in all likelihood, either the 17th placed team going into the final day will survive again, or Hull City - last season's FA Cup Finalists - will survive at the expense of Newcastle again. Which history, though, will it be? Or will they both prevail, say if they both win and Sunderland lose? By around 5pm on Sunday, 24th May 2015, the watching public should find out.

FOOTNOTES:
[1] - Generally, I have used "North East England" here to encompass a wider geographical area (including Humberside, where Hull is) than the term "the North East", which in my view has a more geographically specific meaning and starts further north than Humberside (though the exact area it spans is often the subject of debate in university halls!).

[2] - In fact, I think Hull - full name Kingston upon Hull - was before 2008 the biggest city (by postcode area?) in England not to have had representation in top-flight football.

[3] - For the avoidance of doubt, I do not intend, by bringing these up, to question the professional integrity of Steve Bruce or Phil Brown in any way; both are (or were) totally committed to getting a win for the team they are (were) managing. It's just that I noticed it added an extra layer of intrigue, and of similarity between the two years.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

MotoGP in 2015: A year of comebacks?

CAN VALENTINO ROSSI BE MOTOGP CHAMPION AGAIN?


Yamaha rider Valentino Rossi celebrates his win in Argentina last
weekend. (C) Autosport.com
Despite the success and solid fanbases of Casey Stoner (now retired), Jorge Lorenzo and current champion Marc Marquez in recent years, MotoGP's (the premier class of Grand Prix motorcycle racing) box office star remains Valentino Rossi. The Italian's charisma, flair (both on and off the bike) and dramatic victories were a magnetic attraction for many fans during his heyday in the 2000s, and their love for him shows no sign of abating, no matter where the riders go in the season calendar (even in Spain, where most of his rivals hail from).

Yet those fans have not seen Rossi become a MotoGP World Champion since 2009 (his 6th MotoGP title, 7th premier class title and 9th Grand Prix title), when he narrowly defeated team-mate Jorge Lorenzo in the Yamaha. Since then, a broken leg in 2010; two barren years at Ducati (an all-Italian dream team which sadly for both parties turned to a nightmare) in 2011 & 2012; and old Father Time (compared to a set of youngsters - like Lorenzo & Marquez in particular - who learnt from watching and/or competing with The Doctor) appeared to have caught up with him. Yes, upon his return to Yamaha in 2013, Rossi was again winning the odd race and was by now more competitive. Yes, he even confounded the odds by beating team-mate Lorenzo in 2014, despite parting company with long-time crew chief Jeremy Burgess at the end of 2013. But I felt that surely, with Marquez proving himself as the new Rossi (dominating in 2014 and also winning in 2013, his maiden MotoGP season at age 20!), and Lorenzo keen to shake off his 2014 annus horribilis, another MotoGP title was still beyond him.

Marc Marquez looks set to embark on an era of Rossi-like
domination...but may have his hands full with the original
one in 2015. (C) EPA
However, three races into the 2015 season, Rossi has continued to really build on 2014, winning two of the first three races to lead the title standings. Lorenzo (the 2010 & 2012 champion), by contrast, has continued to struggle and already lies a full 29 points behind him. At last weekend's Argentine MotoGP (April 17-19), Rossi was back to his majestic best; from the third row of the grid, he conserved tyres early on but, as the laps went on, he cut loose. Moving up to 2nd, the way Rossi hunted down Marquez, then overtook him and held the move firmly as Marquez tried to fight back, was hallmarks of the 'old Rossi' of the mid-2000s. Moreover, the collision between the two, which put Marquez out the race (he now trails 'Vale' - who went on to win - by 30 points), was arguably a sign of the old ruthlessness that characterised his rivalries by the likes of Max Biaggi, Sete Gibernau and Stoner (though Marquez was not totally blameless in the event and accepted the outcome afterwards as a racing incident).

To be sure, it is a long season ahead and Rossi is no longer a master qualifier over one lap. However, his speed and racecraft in and cut-and-thrust of race day, if anything, appear to be the strongest that they have been for years (and they have never been weak!). Looking at motorcycle racing's legion of greats, not many have won world titles whilst well into their 30s in the premier class of GP racing: Brits Geoff Duke, John Surtees & Mike Hailwood were all in their 20s; Americans Eddie Lawson & Wayne Rainey in their early 30s; and both Mick Doohan and even Giacomo Agostini (whose all-time race wins record Rossi is now approaching) won their last titles at the age of 33. Rossi turned 36 in February and, rationally speaking, another title would have seemed impossible[1]. Yet, after his start to 2015, this most incredible feat suddenly seems far more attainable. And, as commentator Julian Ryder said in commentary at Argentina, if Rossi was to achieve it, it may well settle the "Greatest of All Time" debate for at least a generation[2].


DUCATI BACK TO (THE) FRONT


The smiles of the Ducati riders, and General Manager
Gigi Dall'Igna, have been justified with the GP15 so far
Rossi's closest competitor in the points standings, after Argentina, is his compatriot Andrea Dovizioso, an extremely consistent rider who has racked up dozens of podiums in MotoGP since his debut in 2008, but only one win. Dovizioso has opened the season with three 2nd places (in the first, at Qatar, he only narrowly lost out to Rossi in the battle for victory) and has benefited from the resurgence of his Ducati team. The Bologna-based team won the MotoGP title with Casey Stoner in 2007 but that year's GP7 was the start of a succession of bikes which were often too difficult to ride competitively (only Stoner delivered a race win for the team after 2007), partly due to a lack of front-end feel.

This season, the team has benefited from the current (complex) set of MotoGP rules, in which teams are either categorised as Factory or Open. A concession in the rules enables uncompetitive Factory teams to compete with some of the benefits of Open teams, at least until results start coming; in a nutshell, Open teams have to use a standardised system to control the bike's electronics (the ECU) while Factory teams can develop their own. In return for this, Open teams get, for example, more freedom to develop their engines and are given a greater fuel limit (for Factory teams using the Open concession, these freedoms are reduced as results improve).

By using this Open clause, Ducati have been able to develop their bike holistically to catch up to the likes of Honda and Yamaha. Moreover, the hiring of former Aprilia World Superbike team technical director Luigi Dall'Igna as General Manager of the racing team, with effect from November 2013, has bought fresh ideas to a team which, despite the unstinting efforts and the Stoner-era success of former General Manager Filippo Preziosi and his team, had started to look like it had run out of them. To be sure, a title in 2015 will be difficult, as the team loses its Open concessions. Additionally, while I like "Dovi" (and think he's somewhat underrated), he is arguably yet to prove that he's in the same class as Rossi, Lorenzo & Marquez (though he remains very consistent and may benefit from the flagging form of both Lorenzo and the arm pump-affected Dani Pedrosa). However, in 2015 Ducati's progress has almost been as irrepressible as Dall'Igna's chin (and, indeed, his success at Aprilia, which included two Superbike titles), and this may even bring a first race win since Stoner's departure at the end of 2010.


THE RETURN OF SUZUKI


Suzuki's mission: to recreate moments like this one, from
their last win, in  Le Mans in 2007. Photo: Crash.net
Ducati may be returning to form but Suzuki are returning to MotoGP entirely for the first time since 2011. And their new bike, while down on top-end grunt, already looks pretty handy in the corners; Aleix Espargaro put it on the front row in just its 3rd GP back in Argentina. In title-challenging terms, though, the team have been in the wilderness since Kenny Roberts Jr triumphed for the team in 2000. Since the start of MotoGP in 2002, their strongest season was in 2007, when the then Rizla-sponsored outfit benefited from having the Bridgestone tyre while Yamaha and Honda struggled on Michelins. Their riders were John Hopkins and Chris Vermeulen and "Hopper", the stronger dry-weather rider, ended up a very solid 4th in the championship. However, it was Vermeulen - who ended up 6th overall - who used his wet-weather prowess to deliver the team's first premier class win since 2001 at Le Mans, France. Looking back at that time, I recall with admiration not only Vermeulen's wet-weather ability and results but that these were achieved despite him openly admitting he didn't actually like the wet weather that much! Though they are one of the underdogs among the manufacturers, Suzuki are definitely a popular (re)addition to the MotoGP and any upsets that Espargaro and team-mate Maverick Vinales can achieve will no doubt be warmly received by neutrals.

FOOTNOTES 
[1] - Admittedly, in other series, titles have been won by older riders. Angel Nieto won his last title in Grand Prix motorcycling at the age of 37. However, due to his height, he mainly contested smaller-capacity GP categories than the premier class (e.g. 80cc, 125cc and 250cc rather than 500cc, which became MotoGP - currently 1000cc! - in 2002). Max Biaggi won the 2010 & 2012 World Superbike titles at the ages of  39 & 41 under Luigi Dall'Igna's Aprilia team. However, this was a Superbike series, not a GP series. More on his 2012 win, and on the difference between Superbikes and GP (in the footnotes), can be found here.

[2] - The elephant in the room here could well be Marquez who, by the time he gets to his mid-30s (around 15 years from now), may have broken many of Rossi's records and achievements. However, we obviously have no way of knowing this right now in 2015. Regarding the verification of rider ages (e.g. Giacomo Agostini) for when they last won their titles, by the way, I resorted to simple Wikipedia searches! 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

On the subject of a winning mentality

Sean O'Brien (back row) scoring a try in Ireland's 40-10 win over Scotland, as
they narrowly retained their Six Nations crown. Photo: Wales Online
What a day. The final day of the 2015 RBS Six Nations Championship was a memorable one for all sports-watchers, even those who do not watch much rugby union outside of the Six Nations or the World Cup. Wales overcame an initially stubborn Italy (61-20 in Rome) to storm to the top of the table; Ireland demolished Scotland (40-10 at Murrayfield) to then take the lead off Wales; while England and France served up some tremendous entertainment and attacking quality as the English too sought to win the title; heroic effort and verve was to be found all over the field at Twickenham on Saturday (March 21st) as England won 55-35.

However, when it came to the final arithmetic, it was Ireland who won their second successive championship by a mere six points-score difference, having also beaten England on points difference a year ago. There are many different ways of looking at the final outcome of the championship but my conclusion is that Ireland won because they have a winning mentality, instilled by a coach (New Zealander Joe Schmidt, appointed in 2013) who possesses a winning mentality. England, by contrast, missed out because they and, by extension, their coach (Stuart Lancaster, appointed after the 2011 World Cup) do not - yet - have it. For England, the disappointment was not in yesterday's result or performance (of which they can be very proud) but in the wider context; they have now been runner-up in the championship four years running and 2015 was the second time in three years that they had led going into the final day (though they did have the most difficult opponents). To miss out yet again will be a disappointment, however gallantly it was achieved (and they were also very impressive in 2014). Lancaster has not, to my knowledge, won a single major trophy as a coach; Schmidt, by contrast, had already won two Heineken Cups (rugby's equivalent of the Champions' League, renamed and restructured for this season) and a Pro12 title (league championship title for teams in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy) for Leinster; and a Top 14 (French league) title (as assistant coach) with Clermont Auvergne before joining Ireland.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has also guided his team to No 3 in
the world rankings. (C) Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile/Corbis
It led me to think about what constitutes a 'winning mentality' and, in truth, I have no idea because I do not have one myself. Also, by definition, a winning mentality is revealed by the (often serial) success of the individual or team in question; it is not revealed beforehand, even if individuals may seem to (or claim to!) possess many of the qualities! If I was to come up with some key, defining qualities though, they would probably include iron will, tremendous focus (what my Mum calls 'ice-cold concentration') on the task at hand (to the extent that nothing else distracts them from achieving it), and a certain feeling that, for yourself, winning is meant to be. To those with a winning mentality, them winning - provided they've put the work in and the focus in, of course - is almost a divine right and the world is, in some sense, not functioning properly if this doesn't happen. Northern Irish snooker player Mark Allen put it simply yet profoundly after losing to (eventual winner) Shaun Murphy in the semi-finals of the Masters in January: "[Murphy] has obviously got a game plan that he has been working hard on - to be more aggressive...and it is paying off now...he looked like a man who knew he was going to win, whereas I looked like I was trying to win. That was the difference." The focus element to me is also key because it extends itself in several areas; one of them is the ability to focus on every small element to success (as so expertly illustrated by former British Cycling and current Team Sky supremo Sir David Brailsford); the other is in temperament. We might think of people like Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson as being quite temperamental but, in the cauldron of battle, I'm sure they remain utterly focused on the task at hand; moreover, I do not think serial winners are naturally of a nervous or anxious disposition (certainly when it comes to life generally).

With Lancaster's England then, the question is - can a winning mentality be taught? At times, even on Saturday against France, I felt they looked a little bit anxious; were trying to force the play a little. This is what the French exploited in their counter-attacking tries. Against Scotland a week earlier, England spurned a serious of try-scoring opportunities, having done the hard work in making the line breaks and creating them. I suspect the best way of overcoming this would be for the team to finally win a trophy; that sweet taste of ultimate victory would, in my view, help them overcome their demons and help them to develop their mentality as a result. Looking at other sports, Andy Murray - for example - was able to develop that winning mentality after winning both Olympics gold and the US Open in 2012, going on to win Wimbledon the following year. Spain's breakthrough win at Euro 2008 ushered in a golden era of three successive major international trophies (the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 being the other two) in football, despite not having won anything since 1964 before that. So, in my view, a winning mentality is not beyond Lancaster and this English rugby team. However, I do feel that - like Murray - their winning mentality will only develop to become occasional, or semi-serial, winners, rather than serial winners like Ferguson, Mourinho, Schmidt, Brailsford and former England rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward.

This was probably Stuart Lancaster's expression when someone
told him he'd been compared (albeit loosely) to Hector Cuper.
(C) Getty Images
Another question that formed in my mind was: what is the right way to think about the likes of Lancaster & England (at least on the basis of current achievements)? Do we castigate them for their perpetual near-misses, maybe even throwing the dreaded label of "chokers" in for good measure? Or do we acknowledge the great strides they have made to get themselves into the position they are in; the fact that they remain very good, even though they are not (yet) excellent. The person I was reminded of, perhaps bizarrely, was Argentine football manager Hector Cuper. In the early 2000s, he took Valencia to successive Champions' League Finals, as the side truly blossomed (particularly Gaizka Mendieta, who I was a big fan of at the time) under his stewardship. After leaving Valencia for Internazionale (my favourite team in Italy!), he led I Nerazzurri to the top of Serie A. Yet Valencia were to lose both their finals, and Inter were to fall at the final hurdle in agonising fashion during the 2001/02 season (though, like Lancaster's England on Saturday, they had - in Lazio - the hardest opponents on the day) to rivals Juventus and Roma. This pattern has been repeated, with only sporadic trophies interrupting it, through most of Cuper's career. He is arguably an extreme example but one that bears noting; yes, Cuper didn't translate his efforts into trophies and, yes, in the cut-throat world of sport that will (and should) be held against him - he is not a managerial great. Yet, at the same time, he still deserves credit for how far he managed to take Valencia (how many Champions' League finals have they reached since he left?), Inter (to an extent) and, amongst his other teams, Mallorca and Aris Thessaloniki. The same should hold, clearly, for Lancaster and England (whose roll-call of near-misses does not currently match up to Cuper's!).

So what are England's prospects going forward? The prospects for the World Cup, which will be held on home soil this autumn, are in my view very promising. On top of home advantage, their tendency to be a team of great matches, rather than a great team, should favour the knock-out format (after the group stage) of the World Cup. They will have a good chance of winning the Webb Ellis Cup yet, without any major international success (and therefore lacking the winning mentality), I do wonder if they will have what it takes to make that last crucial step against the best teams; against the likes of South Africa, New Zealand and Ireland. The same is true going forwards; they have the capacity to win Six Nations titles and autumn tests but one cannot yet be truly convinced that they will do so. Lancaster deserves a lot of credit for his unstinting professionalism, and for the way he has rebuilt the national team from the ashes of a somewhat chaotic 2011 World Cup campaign. However, for him to make the next step up, him and the team will need to start winning some trophies and, with it, a certain winning mentality.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Rishi's Retrospective: Kimi Raikkonen's 2003 season

2003 was the year of Raikkonen's maiden GP win, in Malaysia.
Photo: hupu.com
The start of a new Formula One season next weekend in Australia (March 13-15) will be an intriguing one for many reasons. One of these reasons is that it could be the start of a valedictory campaign for one of the sport's great natural talents; Kimi Raikkonen is in the final year of his second stint at Scuderia Ferrari and, while his testing pace has been very promising, it remains to be seen whether both driver and team will have the desire to continue in the sport beyond the end of the year (the team does have an option to extend the contract by an extra year if they wish). After all, 2014 was a disappointment for the Finn and he will turn 36 in October.

Kimi's story has always interested me because back in the day I was, whisper it, a Kimi "fanboy". He took over the void after Mika Hakkinen's sabbatical (later retirement) back in 2002, and I probably supported him through to about the end of 2005. Around that time, tired by the disappointments, and probably having outgrown partisanship in my enjoyment of F1, I moved towards a more neutral stance. These days, I tend to support the sport and each race (yes, I know it's a cop-out that sounds cheesy!) rather than individuals, and to make a judgement on the title depending on who I think "deserves" it the most (subjective I know!). Looking back over his career, I would say that four seasons have so far stood out in Raikkonen's F1 career as his strongest seasons; 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2012 (there is also an argument for including 2001 I admit). To pick a strongest would depend, in my view, on the criteria each individual uses to make their decision. 2007 obviously was Raikkonen's world championship year (in his first year at Ferrari) and so the pinnacle of his career when viewed objectively by his career statistics; in 2005, by contrast, he didn't win the title but did at times show, in my view, a tremendous turn of speed that was superior even to what he delivered in 2007. Meanwhile, in 2012, "the Kimster" returned to F1 after two seasons out and raced as if he's never been away. He remained in the title battle for many races (though he only won one race) and, as Michael Schumacher showed, making a comeback is not easy in this sport.

However, in this article I will putting the case for the 2003 season as being (hitherto) his strongest campaign. His team at the time, McLaren, were among those bruised after 2002, when Ferrari and its F2002 crushed all-comers and wrapped up both titles by mid-summer. McLaren's response to this defeat, the radical MP4-18A[1], would not be ready to start the 2003 campaign (neither would Ferrari's F2003-GA); thus the Woking outfit started the year with the MP4-17D, an upgraded version of their 2002 car (the MP4-17). With the reliability problems of the 2002 car-engine package ironed out, McLaren started the year on the front foot. Raikkonen and team-mate David Coulthard battled for victory in all of the three opening flyaways; Coulthard won the opener in Australia, while Raikkonen took his maiden victory at the following round in Malaysia. At round 3 in Brazil, in torrential conditions, both drivers drove brilliant races but a poorly-timed red flag relegated Coulthard to 4th, while Raikkonen was initially given the win, only to be relegated to 2nd when the lap count back after the red flag was found to have been incorrectly applied. Raikkonen then finished 2nd at the first European race of the calendar at Imola (the San Marino GP) and thus held the championship lead.

At the next round in Barcelona, Spain, Ferrari finally unveiled their F2003-GA, which won first time out with reigning champion Michael Schumacher. Thus the Maranello outfit seized the upper hand, along with a resurgent Williams, whose FW25 had started slowly but had developed very strongly. Of the 8 races between the Spanish and German GPs, Ferrari and Williams won 4 races apiece. Raikkonen was under pressure and the odd mistake surfaced; setbacks included crashes in both Spain (qualifying and, consequently, race) and Canada (quali) halted his progress. Moreover, the MP4-18A, whilst it was now running on track, had hit big teething problems quite quickly, failing the requisite crash test. Thus McLaren persisted with the MP4-17D. Coulthard, struggling with the new-for-2003 qualifying format, was no longer a title feature. However, Raikkonen brushed off his occasional errors and elsewhere racked up a consistent series of results. "The Iceman" finished 2nd in both Austria and Monaco, 3rd in Great Britain, 4th in France and (a recovery) 6th in Canada. The race in Austria is a personal highlight of mine from that season; McLaren had identified an engine problem before the race but wanted to avoid changing it as that would incur a grid penalty. They implemented an imperfect fix which required Raikkonen to run with reduced revs for the race's duration. The result? Kimi ran the McLaren to the maximum permitted, battling Schumacher early on and, later in the race, withstanding fierce pressure from Rubens Barrichello to come home 2nd. During this spring-summer period he also took a brilliant pole at the Nurburgring for the European GP, leading the race comfortably until his engine failed midway through the race.

Raikkonen managed to split the Ferraris in Austria despite
engine trouble. Photo: Sky Sports F1
By the time the paddock pitched up for Hungary, Round 13 of the season (out of 16; this was the last time in recent history that 16 races made up the championship), the title battle was between three drivers. Michael Schumacher led with 71 points, (Williams driver) Juan Pablo Montoya was 2nd with 65 points and Raikkonen 3rd with 62. Ralf Schumacher, Michael's brother and Montoya's team-mate, was 4th with 53 points and briefly a contender too but, despite winning two races impeccably at the Nurburgring and in France, his season was already starting to hit the buffers. Nonetheless, even as Ralf hit trouble, Raikkonen was the clear outsider; Michael and Montoya were more experienced[2], had better momentum (despite Kimi's consistency) and, by this point, superior machinery. However, a fuss-free, business-like 2nd from Raikkonen in Hungary saw him lead home Montoya (3rd) and Schumacher (8th) to put the points at 72-71-70 (Schumi-JPM-Kimi) with three rounds left. At the next round, Monza's historic Italian GP, a controversial ruling by the FIA (after a protest from Bridgestone) on the Michelin tyres stymied both Williams and McLaren at a critical stage in the season. Michael Schumacher won for the first time since Canada, from Montoya (2nd) with Raikkonen, who by now was stuck with the MP4-17D for the rest of the campaign after the MP4-18A's problems proved insurmountable for 2003, finishing 4th. Yet, as the F1 world pitched up at Indianapolis' famous Brickyard for the US GP expecting a Schumacher-Montoya head-to-head, who was it that won pole position? Kimi Raikkonen! And in a wet-dry race, while the more experienced Montoya got in the wars (including a drive-through and poorly-timed pitstop) and finished down in 6th, Raikkonen was the only Michelin driver to take the fight to the Bridgestone-shod runners (who much preferred the wet weather). Michael Schumacher won the race to put himself on the cusp of a record sixth world title. However, the star of the show was Raikkonen, whose 2nd place kept his title hopes alive by the slimmest of margins going into the final race, Suzuka's Japanese Grand Prix; Montoya, by contrast, was now out of the title race.

To secure the title, Raikkonen admittedly needed to win the race (something he hadn't done since that early success in Malaysia) and hope that somehow Schumacher failed to score points. Unlikely, yet Schumacher, feeling the pressure of making F1 history, suffered an error-strewn race and was in the midfield wars all race long. Furthermore, early reliability woes for Montoya and young Renault starlet Fernando Alonso presented Raikkonen with an opportunity. Yet, despite being supported by Coulthard, Raikkonen had to settle for another 2nd place finish, this time behind Schumacher's team-mate Barrichello, who drove an absolutely superb race to win. And Schumacher, despite his troubles, managed to scramble over the line in the 8th place (1 point) he needed to truly confirm the title.

At the time, whilst I was still proud of Raikkonen's season, there was a tendency to look at the "what if?" elements. The lost win at the Nurburgring due to engine failure, the mistakes in Spain and Canada, the tantalising fact that he only managed one win all season (should there have at least been one more?) despite his seven 2nd places. Yet, with the passage of time, I have tended to see this achievement in a fuller light. After all, this was a guy who took the title battle to the wire despite being in effectively a year-old car against superior machinery, despite the Michelin tyre issues that surfaced both in wet weather and also from Monza onwards, and despite the fact that he was much less experienced than all of his rivals during the season. Whichever way you look at it, even though he didn't win the title, it was an incredible achievement, was it not? And, in the process, facing odds and challenges that were arguably greater than in other really strong seasons he's put in.

FOOTNOTES
[1] - The ambitious yet flawed MP4-18A was a rare failure for McLaren's then technical director Adrian Newey. A cosmetically updated version of the car, the MP4-19, was run in 2004 but was hugely unsuccessful. It was only when a heavily-revised B-spec of the car (MP4-19B) was introduced mid-2004 that McLaren became competitive during that season.

[2] - Raikkonen was only 23 during the 2003 F1 season and in his fourth season of car racing (one year of Formula Renault followed by his F1 seasons). Though Montoya debuted in F1 at the same time as Kimi, he was older and had a wealth of experience from International Formula 3000 and CART (US racing) to draw from.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Craig Gordon's long road back from the cold

Craig Gordon making a save for Celtic. (C) Graham Stuart/Action Images
Looking at the results, former (West) German midfielder Berti Vogts' tenure in charge of the Scottish national team (2002-04) was hardly a rip-roaring success. Although they reached the play-offs for Euro 2004 qualification, they were trounced 6-0 in the 2nd Leg (having won the first 1-0) by Holland. They also suffered disappointing results against inferior opposition, most notably a draw with Faroe Islands early in his reign from which, arguably, he never recovered. However, in defence of Berti ("Berti Vogts revisionism"?), he did manage to unearth some gems; young players who went on to form the nucleus of the national side which, under first Walter Smith and later Alex McLeish, impressed so much during the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign (where, competing in the same group as World Cup 2006 finalists Italy and France, they failed to qualify in agonising fashion). These included midfielder Darren Fletcher, striker James McFadden and goalkeeper Craig Gordon.

Each of these players could arguably command a blog of their own, but the focus of this one is on the third of these players - Gordon - who has been one of the big stories of the 2014/15 Scottish football season. First capped in 2004 at the age of 21, the young goalkeeper for Edinburgh club Heart of Midlothian was also part of a Hearts team that, in 2005/06, genuinely looked like they could become the first team to beat the Old Firm (Glasgow clubs Celtic and Rangers) to the league championship of Scotland's premier division since 1985[1]. Although they fell short, The Jambos still split the two teams and won the Scottish Cup to boot. Moreover Gordon, a fine shot-stopper and mature young 'keeper, was a standout performer for club and country, winning both the Scottish Writers' Young Player (2004) and Player (2006) of the Year over this period (2004-07). He therefore caught the attention of teams in the English Premier League and, though mooted interest from Manchester United failed to materialise, he went on to sign for Sunderland for £9m in August 2007. This was a British transfer record for a goalkeeper (since broken by Man United's signing of David de Gea in 2011, though I believe Gordon's transfer fee to Sunderland is still the highest for a British 'keeper).

However, Gordon's time on Wearside turned out to be somewhat hit-and-miss, and his progress stalled. He got off to a shaky start - being briefly dropped at the end of 2007 after conceding 7 against Everton, and again in 2008/09 after a knee injury. However, for a couple of seasons under Steve Bruce, in 2009/10 and 2010/11, he hit good form and was putting in the performances and saves that had attracted Sunderland to begin with. Unfortunately, however, injuries continued to dog the player; the 2009/10 season was a broadly successful one (26 Premier League appearances) but was still interrupted by a broken arm sustained in a challenge with Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe. A recurrence of the arm injury, combined with further knee trouble, restricted him to only 15 appearances during the following season, though this did include a good run of form for Sunderland in the run-up to the New Year, and a superb save from Bolton's Zat Knight which was voted the Best Save in the Premier League's 20 year history by fans in 2012.

Gordon had a mixed spell at Sunderland. (C) Press Association
By the time Gordon entered the final season of his 5-year contract, the 2011/12 season, his knee troubles were proving to be very persistent. At the same time, in his absence, young Belgian 'keeper Simon Mignolet's impressive performances had seen him annex the goalkeeper's number one jersey. As for the Scottish national team, where Gordon was a regular during his time at Hearts and early on at Sunderland, he was moving from the fringes of the team into outright obscurity. These things (knee injury, change in the Sunderland goalkeeping hierarchy, exile from the national side) were only reinforced during the 2011/12 season, where Gordon only played one competitive fixture all season, and was promptly released by Sunderland upon expiry of his contract in summer 2012. In the summer, as Britain basked in the sporting and organisational success of the London 2012 Olympics, Gordon briefly trained with his old club Hearts and was in negotiations with Celtic but ended up in the wilderness as his knee injury problems worsened. In early 2013, having only turned 30 on Hogmanay, he took an informal coaching position at Dumbarton, ruling himself out of a immediate return to playing and conceding that he may never play again.

What happened next is intriguing. Most players, faced with the same situation, would either come back from injury as soon as they could and hope a recurrence doesn't happen, or retire for the game with a formal announcement. Yet Gordon played the long game, staying in the game with punditry roles and coaching roles, while continuing to undertake treatment on his knee to keep the door ajar on a return to the game. Finally, a path began to emerge last season (2013/14) and he restarted training with Glasgow Rangers (by now plying their trade in the third division - Scottish League One - of Scottish football after a huge, and ongoing, financial crisis). In an interview with BBC Scotland's flagship football programme Sportscene in March 2014, he elaborated on his knee issues: "My latest problem was with my patella tendon, which has taken a couple of operations and quite a few injections [to heal]...however, I'm now able to do all the things I've done before. I've been back training for three months and I'm hoping to get a club in the near-future." Last summer, he signed for Rangers' rivals Celtic, who offered him a three-year deal. After a long absence, it was a clear foothold back into playing for Gordon.

At this point, I personally imagined he would be a number 2 keeper (to begin with at least), perhaps putting in cameo roles in cup competitions and perhaps putting pressure on the number 1 (Lukasz Zaluska after Fraser Forster's transfer to Southampton). Even this, after what Gordon had gone through, would have been a very commendable achievement (particularly if he played enough games to finish with league and cup medals), given Celtic's proud history, European presence and large fanbase. However, Gordon has rapidly exceeded these expectations. Although that knee still requires some management, Gordon has established himself quickly as Celtic's number 1, cementing his position with a series of influential performances in the Europa League (against the likes of Red Bull Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb and Astra Giurgiu) for The Bhoys as they qualified for the tournament's knockout stages[2]. This run of form - in some ways the best of his career - earned his a rapid recall to the Scottish national side from current manager Gordon Strachan, and his half-time appearance against England at Hampden Park ended a four year exile at international level. This weekend (February 14-15), he was again praised by his club manager Ronny Deila as his crucial late save secured Celtic a 2-1 win over St Johnstone.

Although Gordon had - in that Sportscene interview - set his sights high for his return to the game, the speed of his rise this season has even caught himself by surprise after so many years in the wilderness, as he admitted to the Scottish Daily Mail just before Christmas:
"If someone had said to me last Christmas (2013) that I'd achieved all that I have this season (2014), I'd have said they were being far-fetched. Quite a lot of things have happened and that's what I wanted. Did I think they would happen? Probably not but it's certainly something I wanted to make happen. It's all come about quicker than I thought but I put in the work and effort to try and make it possible. I've been lucky enough that things have turned around quickly for me."
Indeed, if the season was to finish tomorrow, his comeback would already be an incredible and somewhat heartwarming story for British football. However, having just turned 32, hopes now turn towards making this good run last; to remain at the summit of the Scottish game (domestically and internationally) for a few seasons yet. Although goalkeepers can usually play for longer than outfield pros (up to and sometimes beyond the age of 40), it would be premature to make such lofty predictions for Gordon. However if he could remain a prominent part of Celtic's plans during the remainder of his contract, the opportunities will continue to come for him to perform on the biggest stages of Scottish and even European football (i.e. the UEFA Champions' League). Maybe, just maybe, this will encompass a return for Scotland to a major international tournament (Euro 2016) for the first time since the 1998 World Cup (which, like Euro 2016, was held in France!). Yes, for all the above to happen that knee may continue to require diligent management, and he will most probably require a sprinkling of luck. However, if Craig Gordon was to get that little bit of luck, after the efforts he's made to return to the game, very few people would begrudge him it.

FOOTNOTES
[1] - The success in 1985 of Aberdeen came at the end of a period where the so-called New Firm, of both Aberdeen (managed at the time by a certain Alex Ferguson) and Dundee United (managed by Jim McLean) seriously challenged - and often beat - the Old Firm hierarchy in Scotland. Since then, the premier division title has somewhat reverted to type - and only ever been won by Celtic or Rangers.

[2] - Celtic's next match in Europe is against Internazionale of Italy - the 1st leg of which is on Thursday (February 19th). This has a strong historical resonance for the Glaswegian club, whose famous 'Lisbon Lions' became the first British winners of the European Cup (now called the UEFA Champions' League) when they beat Inter in the 1967 final in Lisbon. 

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Taking stock of Van Gaal at Man United

(C) AFP
A goalless draw in the FA Cup 4th Round[1] against Cambridge United at Cambridge's R Costings Abbey Stadium a week ago on Friday (January 23rd) was inspiring for the home team and their passionate support, but anything but for their Premier League opponents Manchester United. Instead, questions were asked about how United are doing, and where they are heading, under manager Louis van Gaal. The experienced and hugely successful Dutchman replaced David Moyes last summer and, having just passed the halfway point in his maiden season in England, it seems like a good time to assess what has gone well for the club, and what has been less successful.

LET'S GO STRAIGHT TO THE NEGATIVES!
After a promising pre-season, United's 2014-15 campaign got off the worst possible start with defeat against Swansea City at Old Trafford. Things did not immediately get better after that, with draws against Sunderland and (newly-promoted) Burnley. In between those two results, for good measure, the team were humbled 4-0 by League One side Milton Keynes Dons; while another low point came in September when the Red Devils contrived to throw away a 3-1 lead to lose 5-3 at (also newly-promoted) Leicester City.

More recently, United's performances have again hit the rocks. Since mid-December, United have only won three games out of their last eight (before the return Leicester game on January 31st), and one of those was the FA Cup 3rd Round tie with Yeovil Town, currently at the bottom of League One. Their draw against League Two Cambridge highlighted a problem that has been visible in the side recently; while United have controlled possession in matches, their passing has been slow and ponderous, and thus they haven't been able to do much with their possession. For the lion's share of Friday's game, Cambridge dealt with United's possession monopoly comfortably, and in the 1st Half even created chances of their own, looking more assertive than their illustrious opponents thanks to the speed of Ryan Donaldson. A similar pattern - for Man United - was observed at home to Southampton, who beat United at Old Trafford for the first time since 1988 thanks to a well-organised defence easily countering the home team's attack, and thanks to incisive attacking moves, including Dusan Tadic's winner; and away at QPR - though they recovered in the 2nd Half to win that match 2-0.

United were held to a 0-0 draw at League 2 Cambridge in
the FA Cup 4th Round. (C) Getty Images
The key to United's success under Sir Alex Ferguson, in on-pitch terms, can arguably be simplified into strengths in two key areas: tempo and width. With tempo proving an issue as described in the above paragraph, so too is width (and the two are to some extent correlated). Van Gaal has generally been in favour of a 3-5-2 formation at United; this puts a lot of pressure onto the wing-backs (the two wide players in the - broadly speaking - midfield 5), who need to bomb down the flanks to provide an attacking outlet (e.g. allowing the midfielders to have an overlap), whilst running back to ensure that the defence (who have looked vulnerable playing as a three) are not too exposed. In recent games United have tended to play a lot through the middle of the park, which suggests that the wing-backs are struggling with this intricate challenge. A corollary of this is that United have often struggled to get the best from club (and British) record signing Angel di Maria, who typically operates as a winger but has been moved inside and, at times, up front instead, but has struggled - in these positions - to meet Van Gaal's brief and inject pace into the game.

GEE, IT'S NOT ALL BAD Y'KNOW!
At this point, you may be wondering why Van Gaal has not suffered the opprobrium which befell his predecessor Moyes[2] (I should point out that I was not among his most vocal critics, but even those of us who weren't did feel unease at the direction the club was taking). Part of it, of course, is that the Dutchman has a proven track record at the highest level: League championships and Cup successes in Spain, Germany and the Netherlands; Champions' League & UEFA Cup successes with Ajax in 1995 and 1992 respectively (plus a losing finalist in the Champions' League with Ajax in '96 and Bayern Munich in 2010); and a World Cup Semi-Final with Holland in the last (2014) World Cup. Moyes, with a string of 4th-7th league finishes at Everton to his name, had none of these (at least as a manager; he did win a Scottish League title with Celtic as a player). There is also the fact that Van Gaal was following Moyes (i.e. replacing the man who replaced Sir Alex Ferguson), rather than replacing Fergie directly, which means expectations have shifted accordingly.

What has also worked in Van Gaal's favour is that he does seem to have clearly won over the players. Yes, performances have sometimes been uninspiring in terms of the extremely high standards of quality United fans sometimes expect (sometimes unfairly; even Ferguson's teams ground out many ugly wins over time). But the players have always shown a fighting spirit, and never more so against the top teams; in a run from late October to December, the Red Devils drew with Chelsea, lost narrowly to Man City and beat both Arsenal (away) and Liverpool (at home). After the narrow defeat to City (despite defender Chris Smalling's red card), United legend Paul Scholes wrote in his column (for The Independent, and published concurrently in the London Evening Standard) that he was disappointed to see United fans almost lauding a 1-0 defeat to their bitter city rivals. Whilst I understood his point, there was still something in United's performance which had been overtly missing under Moyes, where United had lost comprehensively to City (4-1 & 3-0), not to mention Liverpool (1-0 & 3-0) and also against Chelsea (3-0 away) and Everton (2-0 away). Moreover, after the City game, wins against Arsenal and Liverpool were part of a six game winning run which even led to murmurs of a title challenge (an unthinkable idea back in September!). Whilst performances were not always great (the win over Arsenal was somewhat fortunate), Van Gaal did have the defence that his team were blighted with big injury problems. Continuous injuries had, importantly, meant the starting XI was perpetually chopped and changed; hard enough in any season to find stability and player growth, let alone when the manager and many players are in their debut season.

Wayne Rooney celebrates his goal, which helped United
defeat Arsenal 2-1 in November. (C) Getty Images
Van Gaal also seems totally focused on getting United to the top and, while results have been mixed, he deserves the time to keep developing his players and the formation to find optimal solutions for the club. Again, his role in developing players is something he has a proven track record with and, already, players like Ashley Young (on the occasions when United have played very well he has starred as a wing-back) and club captain Wayne Rooney (now reinvented as a midfielder - something Ferguson started experimenting with at the end of his tenure but did not adopt wholly) are showing strong signs of progress. Even youngish United fans such as myself are not new to periods of transition - there was one in the mid-2000s - and it's very normal that the club is experiencing another one.

There is a proviso, however. It has long been my personal opinion that what ultimately did for David Moyes was not so much what happened before the turn of the year, but what happened after it. Before January, there were setbacks, yes. However, these were to be expected for the first new manager of the first team in 27 years. They were also countered by good runs of form (not least in the Champions' League, and Moyes - like Van Gaal - also enjoyed a six game winning run towards the end of 2013). Yet in the new year, rather than kick on and show signs of development, Moyes went backwards. Many of the games cited earlier came after the new year, and came alongside an underwhelming showing in the Capital One Cup Semi-Final, which they lost to Sunderland. Thus it is important - in the second half of this season - that Van Gaal keeps showing signs of improvement; that United, as a team, augment their re-discovered fighting spirit with strong performances and that this shows in the results (a return to European football - preferably the Champions' League, as well as a strong FA Cup run). The start of 2015 has so far been unpromising but there is still plenty of time ahead and today's victory (January 31st) over Leicester City points to a step in the right direction. The start of the second half of the season starts here? Well, better (a bit) late than never, I'd say!

FOOTNOTES
[1] - The goalless draw means there will be a replay between the two sides. This will be held at Old Trafford on February 3rd. As revenues from attendances are shared for Cup ties, this should net Cambridge a useful financial windfall. And, of course, the second chance of an upset.

[2] - As Sam Allardyce pointed out recently in his London Evening Standard column, Moyes and Van Gaal had actually amassed the same number of points after 21 games of their respective United league campaigns. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Ched Evans and the moral maze of criminality

Ched Evans' attempts to return to football after his rape conviction has been
the subject of fierce debate. (C) Getty Images
The story of footballer Ched Evans is one that has led the sports bulletins on and off for months now, having stirred a passionate debate well beyond the sporting community. In 2012, Evans, now 26, was convicted of raping a (then-)19 year-old woman in the Welsh town of Rhyl in 2011, and sentenced to five years in prison as a result of his crime. In October 2014, he was released, having served half of his jail term, to spend the rest on probation. Since then, he has attempted to return to the sport, but attempts at former club Sheffield United (for him to train with the club), Maltese club Hibernians and, most recently last week, Oldham Athletic have all been unsuccessful. The 11th hour collapse of a deal with Oldham on Thursday (January 8th) concluded a few days where the debate had reached fever pitch, with brickbats and threats being hurled from both sides across social media (the straw that broke the camel's back was the revelation of threats made to Oldham board members, in which one person threatened to rape the daughter of a staff member).

The main thing to acknowledge about Evans' case is that it is a complex one. However, the fundamental considerations are, for me, the crime committed and the response of Evans to the crime (including any issues around it). Starting with the latter, Evans continues to maintain his innocence about the crime and, indeed, is currently pursuing an appeal to the conviction he was given in 2012. Until the collapse of the deal with Oldham, Evans had thus failed to apologise or show any sign of contrition for his actions. In this context I definitely sympathise with and, to a large extent, support the comments of Oldham East and Saddleworth MP Debbie Abrahams, who said on Monday: "As he is claiming his innocence, and in the process of appealing against his conviction, both he, and football clubs, should wait for the outcome of this process before considering a return to the sport." In this context, one gap that has become very apparent is that the Football Association did not have guidance, or policy, to deal with this particular issue and that this has ensured that the topic flares up periodically whenever any club considers signing Ched Evans. On top of this, part of the campaign supporting Evans' innocence has included a website which, combined with individuals on social media, has sought to attack the woman at the centre of the case, who has had to relocate and change identity on repeated occasions (although Evans did - eventually - condemn these attacks as part of his apology on Thursday). With all this in mind, I am persuaded that having Evans return to football so soon after his release, when there is an appeal pending and he is claiming his innocence, is not the best idea and, in this context, the collapse of the deals with both Sheff Utd and Oldham were ultimately correct, even if they may not have been achieved in an entirely palatable way (i.e. laced with social media vitriol and abuse).

However, for some opponents of the Evans deal, this does not go far enough. A sexual offence conviction is a very serious crime and, in the view of some people, should prevent the criminal in question from working again, particularly in professional football, where players are (not always logically) lauded as role models and cheered by fans of all (including young) ages. This view was expressed firmly but eloquently by Sky Sports News presenter Charlie Webster, who resigned as a patron of Sheff Utd when they were trying to do a deal for Evans to train with them. She said: "He's not just going into a job, he's bandied as a role model, we cheer him on as a role model and he's influencing the next generation of young men who are currently still making their decisions on how to treat women and what sexual mutual consent is." To be sure, no-one denies that rape is a serious crime (and what Evans did, even if it may not exactly conform to the predatory images we have of rape, has still been judged as a rape under the law, and still involves the fundamental issue of sexual mutual consent that Webster mentions); nor is anyone disputing that the crime is a horrible and often traumatising one for the victim, who must not be forgotten. However, the best way to recognise this fact, in my view, is to reform the penal system. We currently regard rape (and sexual offence) as serious, hence it typically carries a longer sentence than, say, a burglary or a robbery (which are still quite serious in themselves for those affected). If we regard it as still more serious, the solution is surely to lobby for larger penal sentences for sex offenders (or simply assuring that more of the custodial sentence is spent in prison, rather than early release, albeit on probation)? That, surely, is a way of helping ensure that the punishment better fits the severity of the crime, as seen through the eyes of the public?[1]

However, once they are released from prison, even under licence, they should - except in special protective cases, including those listed under 'regulated activity' like teaching and nursing (which involve working with children or vulnerable adults) - be allowed to resume their lives and seek employment in whatever field they choose. This is an important part of the rehabilitation process after having committed the crime and served the time. It is also an important principle, and the idea that society should instead, upon a criminal's release, start drawing arbitrary red lines about what jobs a person can and can't do, is one I feel very uncomfortable about. In a BBC article entitled "What should happen to a released rapist", written in November, the views of Unlock director Christopher Stacey were summarised as follows: 
Stacey disagrees. Once society starts specifying the type of jobs a rapist can do on top of the legally proscribed ones, it is heading in a "dangerous" direction. The jobs listed under regulated activity are about protecting people, not about punishing offenders again. "People make mistakes. As co-workers or neighbours or friends we should focus on the real risks of employing people rather than the perceived risks. Are they the best person for the job?"
Matthew Syed of The Times, also looks at how such a move could impact future behaviour, adding: "The point here is that the very concept of rehabilitation is undermined if we rig the world against those we have already punished. Why would anyone wish to change if they know they are never going to be given a decent shot?"

Luke McCormick returned to pro football in 2013 after
serving three-and-a-half year prison term. (C) Plymouth Herald

Regarding the suggestion of footballers being role models, I feel that this can cut both ways. This may sound like a utopia, admittedly, but offering the chance of a footballer to return to their profession after a criminal offence means they can be a potential role model for people who have got on the 'wrong side of the tracks'; they can show them that people can go down a wrong path and yet can still ensure that their errors do not define them and that, if they are able to learn from them (very important!), they can still really achieve things with their lives. Both Lee Hughes (former West Brom striker currently with Forest Green Rovers) and Luke McCormick (Plymouth Argyle goalkeeper) have been able to return to the game despite being convicted of (separate) offences of death by dangerous driving (in McCormick's case, also a drink-driving offence). However bad their crimes were (and we are talking about deaths here), they were able to rebuild their lives after serving their punishment, without the social media abuse that has come with the Evans case (though apparently McCormick continues to receive heavy abuse at games). The one that really got me thinking about this was the case, in Belgium, of Ilombe Mboyo. Having been a childhood contemporary of Vincent Kompany in footballing terms, Mboyo (unlike Kompany) got into gangs and crime and was convicted of a gang-rape in his teens. His time in prison forced him to reflect on the direction his life was taking, the consequences (in terms of the horrific crime he had committed), and to vow (based on events so far at least) to change his ways. He was then spotted in Ittre jail by Pierre Bodenghien, who ran a "Football in Prisons" scheme at the jail and was also a scout for Charleroi, then a professional team in the Jupiler League (Belgian Premier League). Gradually, Mboyo started attending sessions at Charleroi (managed at the time by former Scotland international John Collins) and was eventually signed by the club. A rise through the ranks took him to Ghent and then to Racing Genk, where he currently plays. This included, during a good run of form, a brief role in the Belgian national team, for whom he won two caps in 2012.

While vitriolic and distasteful in parts, maybe some good has come out of the Ched Evans case, and the emotions it has provoked. It has emphasised the difficult challenges society faces as a whole in reintegrating criminal offenders, particularly sex offenders, after they leave prison - irrespective of whether there is an appeals process going on. In the context of football, more thought needs to be given about the steps individuals must take before they play again. Firstly, and most obviously, the nuances of a case such as Evans' (e.g. the appeal process) must be taken into consideration when clubs consider signing a player recently released from prison. Secondly, there are steps a player can make to further their rehabilitation; if guilty (full stop), a show of contrition would be a positive start, and completing an educational programme or course on sexual consent and the treatment of women or, indeed, men (focusing on a rape or sex offence case for now), would definitely be a good idea (assuming such courses do exist, admittedly). Stretching the possibilities somewhat, maybe they could fund, or become a supporter for, campaigns which push for better treatment of women in this context (unlikely, yes, but note how Dwain Chambers and David Millar have become vocal opponents of drug taking in athletics and cycling respectively, having both been banned for drug taking in the past)? A related point about this is that, if a club does decide to sign a player early after release, they can help enrol a player on an educational course, whilst they are training and as part of a gradual, step-by-step transition to being involved in a matchday squad. What else can clubs do? They can try and create a dialogue with fans and sponsors, highlighting why they are signing the player and (e.g.) what steps they are encouraging the player to take has taken as part of their rehabilitation. Admittedly, though, whether such an undertaking is feasible or realistic on such a passionate topic, and where opinions can get so heated, is debatable. What could the FA do? Their guidelines could cover point 1 (the nuanced case of appeals) and perhaps formalise some of the steps myself and others have recommended which could form a part of a post-penal rehabilitation process, which could help educate the player whilst simultaneously assuaging some of the doubts fans have. Finally, what else could be done? Well, longer prison sentences for sexual offences as a whole could also come onto the table, if that better reflects people's beliefs about the severity of sexual offence.

My main conclusion from this is that, once a footballer has served their prison sentence (including release on probation) - even for a sexual offence - they should be allowed to return to the game (football-related offences like match-fixing notwithstanding). This, for me, is a very important principle in the rehabilitation process. Some of the proposals I have included above are ideas which try to enhance the rehabilitation process of the player after release, educating them and, additionally, recognising the complexity around rehabilitation of offenders and assuaging the concerns many people may have about the player's right to return to the game. No, we should not try to pretend that it will necessarily be easy. Yes, we need to be sensitive of nuances like appeals and maintenance of innocence. However, it is far better to be sensitive about these issues, by brainstorming ideas which can help resolve them and address the genuine concerns expressed by critics (as distinct from the simple blood-baying of a social media mob), than to start drawing arbitrary red lines, by banning the player from ever returning to the game again.


FOOTNOTES
[1] - In fact, figures suggest that we may already be heading in this direction. According to a joint-departmental Government paper "An Overview of Sexual Offending in England & Wales", published in 2013, 'the average custodial sentence of rape convictions stood at eight-and-a-half years in 2011, an increase of nearly 21 months since 2005'. However, as far as I can tell (I have only read the summary quickly, and not yet read the full paper - which may or may not have this information), this doesn't provide information on when rapists are released, e.g. on probation (i.e. how much of their full custodial sentence was spent in prison, and how this has changed over recent times).


FURTHER READING
Quite a lot of articles have helped guide and, in other cases, challenge my thinking on this subject. In addition to bits of articles quoted (and linked to) above, a selection of these are presented below. All dates presented below are to the best of my knowledge (I read most of them online).

"Ilombe Mboyo: Prison, stardom, and a terrible past" Patrick Nathanson, published by BBC Sport on September 24 2013
"Ched Evans: Charlie Webster resigns as Sheffield United patron" Includes interview with Charlie Webster on BBC Newsnight, broadcast November 11 2014
"What should happen to a released rapist" Tom de Castella, published by BBC News Magazine on November 13 2014
"Ched Evans case shows that the law is an ass, not the clubs wanting to sign him" Marina Hyde, published in The Guardian on January 6 2015
"The football rapist is vile, but courts hand out justice - not the Twitter mob" Melissa Kite, published in the Daily Mail on January 6 2015
"Ched Evans furore shows a sport out of step with the modern world" Owen Gibson, published in The Guardian on January 8 2015
"Ched Evans affair shamed football - myopic PFA, mute FA and idiotic clubs all disgraced themselves" Paul Hayward, published in The Daily Telegraph on January 9 2015