Super Mario's World

Why always me? Well Mario, there’s only one real answer to that. Because you are bonkers. Literally mad. However, my opinion of Super Mario is beginning to change rapidly. Before, he seemed like a petulant child, throwing tantrums John McEnroe would be proud of. Yet some of his recent antics have begun to swing opinion on the controversial Italian in his favour. Rather than stroppy or moody, his personality now appears colourful or even charismatic. City fans are certainly warming to him after the victory over Manchester United. Back to the start though, and his relationship with first club Inter Milan. Let’s just say him and Jose Mourinho didn’t exactly see eye to eye. With a pair of such over-inflated egos, I’m surprised the two of them could even fit in the same room. Given the racist nature of the Italian fans, maybe winning over the public was an impossible task as well, certainly the Juventus took a keen dislike to their rivals front-man. Balotelli made the task even harder to conquer with his fiery nature. Whether the interview conducted in the shirt of main rivals AC Milan was tongue-in-cheek or just downright stupid is anyone’s guess, but it certainly didn’t help his cause and the San Siro cauldron erupted into a blistering volcano of torrents of abuse directed his way. This escalated after his substitution in the Champions League Semi-Final against Barcelona after a poor performance, whereupon he threw his shirt onto the ground. Enraged Inter supporters then attempted to physically assault him, suggesting Balotelli’s career at Inter had run its course.

Balotellis eccentricities are well documented

So Mario left Italy. And his old mentor, the one who picked him up and mentored on the path to stardom decided he was suitable for his wads of Middle Eastern cash. Roberto Mancini forked out a cool £24 million to bring the then-20 year old to Manchester, where in all honestly, he made a poor start. Fans of City and other clubs alike tired quickly of his temperamental behaviour, that involved throwing wobblies with any players or referees that came across his path. His disciplinary record also made nasty reading, picking up numerous yellow cards and two red ones, one against Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League for producing a Wayne Rooney esq swipe at his opponent. Even Mancini felt the brunt of it, staking his reputation on his ability to handle his prize possession, a claim that looked mightily bold at the time. There have been signs however of his undoubtedly prodigious talent, bagging a hat-trick at Villa in December, whilst picking up man-of-the-match in the FA Cup Final, helping City secure their first trophy in 35 years. And this season Balotelli has set off like a rocket. As Carlos Tevez’s star falls faster than Cristiano Ronaldo in the penalty area, Mario appears to be the new hero, impressing in the incredible 6-1 drubbing of United, whilst also bagging 6 goals in his first 5 games.

So that’s playing side of things covered, but let’s be honest, the new-found cult hero status hasn’t appeared courtesy of his on-field performances. Let’s just say an autobiography of his life will make fantastic reading. Some incidents have been less than savoury though, take his showboating back-heel against LA Galaxy in the summer, his slating of the City of Manchester in the summer or the more sinister Mafia links that appeared following a trip to Sicily. But other wildly eccentric activities have been far more amusing. And the terraces at the Etihad Stadium have quickly picked up on it with their inventive new song.

Oh Balotelli he’s a striker…
He’s good at darts
He’s allergic to grass but when he plays/ He’s fucking class.
Drives round Moss Side/ with a wallet full of cash
Can’t put on his vest/ But when he does he is the best
Goes into schools/ Tells teachers all the rules
Sets fire to his gaff/ With rockets from his bath
Doesn’t give a fuck/ Cos he did it for a laugh
Runs back to his house/ For a suitcase full of cash
Oh Balotelli …

Now to explain those lyrics.

Line 1 – Mario throws a dart at a youth team player from the third floor of City’s training ground. For a prank. As you do.

Line 2 – A poor performance against Dynamo Kiev led to his substitution with a ‘swollen face.’ He later announced an allergy to grass, something that clearly hadn’t surfaced despite his other hundreds of appearances on a football field.

Line 3 – After a car crash early in his Blues career, police found Balotelli carrying £5000 cash in his pocket. His reason? “Because I am rich.” Rumours he was seen in a Manchester nightclub throwing £20 notes at ‘poor in comparison’ Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley are as yet unconfirmed. Other money related incidents involve winning £25,000 at a casino before promptly handing a tramp a casual grand. Generous guy.

Line 4 – The bib incident. The one that had everyone questioning whether Mario was just a little bit special. And not in a talented way. Either way, our maverick Italian couldn’t tell the difference between the hole for his head or his arms.

Line 5 – The story that began to show Balotelli in a more favourable light. Enquiring as to why a young autograph hunter was truanting from school, he found the boy was the object of a group of school bullies. Upon hearing this story, Mario jumped in his Maserati and sped off to arrange a meeting between the boys and the headmistress, thus resolving the issue. His Nobel Peace Prize is in the post.

Line 6 – His most recent antic. At 1am before the big clash with Manchester United, the fire crew were called to ‘a substantial fire’ on the first floor of Balotelli’s house. Apparently, he and four friends were practising for Bonfire Night, setting off fireworks out of his bathroom window. The night went all Guy Fawkes however, as the bathroom towels caught fire, causing a blaze. Mario’s excuse? “It was my friend.” It was ok though, as he made amends by supporting a local firework safety scheme though.

So there you go. Six reasons why Balotelli is fast becoming one of football’s quirky characters in the style of Best, Gascoigne or Cantona. Both in ability and in lunacy. But while serious allegations of racism and other unsavoury incidents continue to hamper our game, football needs people like Super Mario to keep a smile on our faces. Let’s pray it always continues to be him.

Top Ten Celebrations

Ever been playing in the local park when you fire in an outrageous goal from miles out, only to ruin it with one of those ludicrously embarrassing celebrations? Well don’t worry; the top players do it too. Iconic celebrations are all part of the game, from Shearer’s salute to Crouchy’s robot and a well worked out routine after scoring a goal is always necessary. Otherwise you end up as boring as Michael Owen…Anyway here are 10 of the best:

  1. Craig Bellamy – A man whose career has never been short on controversy, indeed Bellamy himself acknowledged this after an incident during his unsuccessful stint at Liverpool back in 2007. During a training camp in Portugal, Craig allegedly brandished a golf club at team-mate John Arne Riise after a disagreement, an action that earned him the nickname ‘the Nutter with the Putter.’ Both players seemed to put it behind them though, whilst Bellamy showed his sense of humour by celebrating his equalizer in a Champions League match against Barcelona with a well-aimed golf swing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFiq3YSfbi0
  1. Stuart Pearce – England are often accused of a lack of pride and passion when pulling on the Three Lions shirt, but here is a man who cannot be doubted on that front. The current England Assistant, u21 Coach and incumbent Great Britain manager’s name is embedded on one of those famous English lists, those to miss a penalty in a major tournament. The whole world felt for Stuart as he missed in the shootout against Germany back in the World Cup Semi Final of 1990. So when England and Spain were locked together in penalties at the Euro 96 tournament , not many expected Pearcey to step up to the plate. But step up he did, rifling his penalty into the bottom right corner, prompting an iconic image in English football. Displaying a face more contorted than the Elephant Man’s, his fist pump signalled a triumphant end to his and England’s penalty woes. Until the next round against the Germans. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ws4cNeBQL9I
  1. Robbie Fowler – Liverpool/Everton derbies are always dramatic affairs, so when Robbie popped up with a goal in 1999, he thought he’d take a light-hearted approach to the whole affair. Except his actions didn’t go down too well. Responding to false allegations from Everton fans over drug abuse, Fowler decided to crouch down and snort the white line of the penalty area, insinuating cocaine use. Needless to say, the powers-that-be were not impressed, handing him a 4 match ban and a £60,000 fine. At least manager Gerard Houllier saw the funny side; suggesting it was a Cameroonian grass-eating celebration picked up from team-mate Rigobert Song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOBja7ZjGws
  1. Paul Gascoigne – Ah Gazza. England’s number one prankster. Of course he had to feature in a list of humorous celebrations. Back to Euro 96 again and Gazza scored England’s most memorable goal in a glorious Wembley win over Scotland. What followed after was one of the most memorable celebrations. After tabloid headlines over a drinking session that involved players strapped to a ‘dentist’s chair’ while vodka was poured down their throats, Gazza then rammed such criticisms back down the journos own throats. Lying down on the pitch, he opened wide as teammates squirted their water bottles into his mouth. Though knowing Gazza, the water bottles probably contained vodka as well. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0NT6aUwN8c
  1. Roger Milla – The Cameroon striker has an incredible story, given he made his professional debut in 1974! However he came to prominence as a 38-year-old in the 1990 World Cup, scoring 4 goals in the process as Cameroon became the first African side to reach the Quarter Final. However, his celebration of these goals ensured legendary status and led to a Coca Cola commercial in 2010. Dancing round the corner flag now became known as the ‘Milla Wiggle’ and incredibly he returned four years later to become the World Cup’s oldest goal scorer. Strictly Come Dancing should take notes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bUfz7UgPDw
  1. Temuri Ketsbaia – The feisty Georgian joined Newcastle United in 1997 and became a popular figure with fans despite his less-than-impressive goal scoring record of 8 goals in 78 games. Maybe he was forgiven on account of what he did when he did score a goal! After one strike against Bolton, Temuri whipped off his shirt and went all Eric Cantona on the advertising hoardings. Attacking specifically the McDonald’s and Adidas boards, perhaps he just doesn’t agree with multi-national corporations, after all, Georgia used to be Communist controlled. Or maybe he’s just mental. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlqCCDh9XT0
  1. Julius Aghahowa – The Premiership has seen many flippers, from Lua Lua’s spiralling efforts to Robbie Keane’s pathetic gun slinging, but the best of the lot had to be the Nigerian Aghahowa. Unfortunately during his spell at Wigan between 2007/08, he failed to score once, but previous gymnastics for Shakhtar Donetsk caught the world’s eye. Indeed, there are rumours he can flip further than a Rory Delap throw in. It’s just a pity he didn’t teach this skill to striking partner at the time, Emile Heskey. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFfhKPC6Y6U
  1. Bernardo Corradi – The Italian striker spent an extremely forgettable two years at Manchester City, back in the days when Arab money couldn’t buy you a team. His only notable offering was a bizarre celebration involving more corner flag antics with Joey Barton following a goal against Fulham. Whilst Barton knelt down, Corradi proceeded to knight him with the flag. Arise Sir Joey. Shame Bernardo didn’t have the execution powers the Queen also possesses to use on Mr Barton… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDDsi7tg28E
  1. Stjarnan FC – A team in the Icelandic Premiership who specialize in team celebrations, with routines including ‘the fishing rod,’ ‘the Rambo shooting spree’ and a ‘human bicycle.’ If they spent the time used on practicing such displays on their game play, then Barcelona should watch out. Still, I’m sure some of the X-Factor dancers could learn something from such superb choreography. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHpAYlas7lA
  1. Cristiano Lucarelli – Back in 2007, Lucarelli, a striker from Livorno whipped off his shirt in traditional celebratory fashion after scoring a goal. What happened next certainly wasn’t traditional. Dropping his shirt on the floor, he proceeded to climb on top of it and perform a simulated sex act. One can only assume him and his girlfriend were having problems in the bedroom at the time. Otherwise he has some interesting sexual habits. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Je4O7IbSOY

Team GB: Why is Football so divisive?

The world is watching, all eyes on our tiny island as the Olympics draws nearer and nearer whilst London holds it’s breath in anticipation. Across the city, in an office located at Soho Square, another set of people will also hold their breath. But more in nervous anticipation. The F.A are understandably worried about the impact entering a Great Britain side in the Olympics for the first time in 52 years will have. The Celtic Nations are far more concerned. Reluctant to contribute on the basis that Olympic selection could undermine the independence of Scotland,Wales and Northern Ireland, questions over the commitment of  the Home Nations players to the Great British cause has been raised. Rob Earnshaw went public this week, stating ‘the Wales team has been around for so long, we want to be here forever,’ merely voicing the feelings felt many supporters of the Dragon nation. Though I’m not entirely sure why Earnshaw has uttered his opinion, as given the nature of his finishing against England back in September, his selection seems highly improbable. Other players have offered more promising noises over their participation, with Wales’ Joe Allen and more importantly, Gareth Bale articulating concerns over the FAW’s opposition to the Great Britain side. These are encouraging signs, as the governing bodies of Scotland and Northern Ireland have also expressed concerns over the involvement of the players of their respective nations, and therefore the more players willing to declare their support for Team GB, the better. Whilst their anxieties are understandable; can anyone really question their eagerness to protect their footballing sovereignty, it is important to have a representation for our most popular and ultimately national sport at our home Olympic Games. It may even offer a chance at international success!

Stuart Pearce will lead the side

England’s own F.A are suffering problems of their own, as once again the issue of club vs. country rears it’s ugly and monstrous head. Premiership managers are already expressing concerns about the fact players could potentially play in both next summer’s Euro 2012 and the Olympics. There are no prizes for guessing who jumped straight on the moany bandwagon, as serial whinge offenders Mr Ferguson and Monsieur Wenger immediately chipped in with their two pennyworth. Although Arsene has a point when he insists the event is “not a real competition,” his complaints resound rather like a broken record, as every time an international break comes up, the same old arguments of the extreme physical demands forced onto his players comes to the fore. Ferguson has also raised similar complaints, questioning why “players who have gone through a hell of a season” should then be asked to put their bodies on the line once more. Again, this is a valid point, the rigours of professional football today are becoming unmanageable, and top players regularly feature in over 50 games a season. But what the two managers haven’t built into their considerations are the Olympic rules, as the squad of 18 players can only contain 3 players over the age of 23. Therefore it is unlikely that players will suffer a cross-over between the two squads, as the majority of Euro 2012 selections will feature experienced stars over this age line. Admittedly there are notable exceptions, players like Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere or Phil Jones could potentially double-up, and this creates a problem, one the F.A have pledged to solve by engaging in “sensible dialogue” with clubs over such situations to ensure protection from player burnout to guarantee success is possible in both major tournaments next summer.

So onto the side itself. Stuart Pearce has been appointed manager, an interesting decision, but probably the man best suited for the job given his involvement with England at U21 level despite such limited success. After all, a good proportion of players picked will surely come from that team. Ignoring the arguments between the respective governing bodies of each Home Nation, Pearce needs to find a blend to the side that contains players from all 4 nations, and not just allow the talented English youngsters bursting on the scene to dominate the squad. This will help douse this Celtic contingent suspicions towards Team GB, whilst also ensuring the side will have a genuinely British feel, something that is important to harvest optimum support given matches could potentially be played at the Millennium Stadium and Hampden Park, not just Wembley. I would also state that whilst the option to use players already featuring in Euro 2012 remains open, Pearce must resist the temptation to select them, not just because of the busy summer schedule this would create for such individuals but the fact players will indeed be burnt out. Featuring in two major tournaments in one summer could prove too much of a mental and physical drain on these young lads, whilst their season will have then run from August to August, a full calendar year without a break.

So with that in mind, the choice of his three over 23 players could be crucial, vital to adding experience and gelling the side together. And my first two names would be controversial, but talismanic all the same. Not just over 23, but over 33 as well, two old teammates from the Manchester United ‘you don’t win anything with kids’ side of the 90’s are the perfect cornerstones for an Olympic side. Yep, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham. The wizard of the dribble and the king of the set piece. Perfect figureheads. Legends in their respective countries, both available, whilst offering the ability to provide a bit of harmony between the Home Nations, even adding global appeal to an Olympic event that gets overshadowed due to the poor quality of the competing sides. Not to mention they can both still play a bit. So there you have it, the first two names on a team sheet that can hopefully add a gold medal to the Euro 2012 winners’ ones the England side will pick up in July. Or is that just wishful thinking?

Here is my selected squad for the Olympic Games:

1.Allan McGregor,Scotland, 29 (O23)

2.Kyle Walker,England, 21 (subject to Euro 2012 squad)

3. Gareth Bale,Wales, 22

4.Phil Jones,England, 19 (subject to Euro 2012 squad)

5.Chris Smalling,England, 21 (subject to Euro 2012 squad)

6. Aaron Ramsey,Wales, 20

7.David Beckham,England, 36 (O23)

8.Barry Bannan,Scotland, 21

9.Andy Carroll,England, 23/DannyWelbeck,England, 20 (subject to Euro 2012 squad, one will be in it)

10.Daniel Sturridge,England, 22

11. Ryan Giggs,Wales, 37 (O23)

12.Danny Wilson,Scotland, 19

13. Rhys Taylor,Wales, 22

14.Kieran Gibbs,England, 22

15.Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain,England, 18

16.Jordan Henderson,England, 21

17.Liam Boyce,Northern Ireland, 21

18.David Goodwillie,Scotland, 22

Rugby League vs. Rugby Union – The big debate

I watched two games of rugby on Saturday the 8th of October. One was a crucial World Cup quarter-final, between two old international enemies aiming for the biggest prize in Rugby Union, playing at the pinnacle of their careers. The other involved two club sides, playing at a football ground, battling it out for the ultimate achievement in their respective sport, Rugby League’s Super League trophy. One game was played at a significantly higher level of quality than the other. And it wasn’t England vs.France. The rugby on show during Leeds and St Helens’ Grand Final was far superior in every department, skill level, intensity and even commitment to the cause. All this, despite the traditional nasty greeting from Manchester’s weather. Ok, so this was a one-off comparison, with England’s display hardly representative of Rugby Union as a whole, Christ they were dreadful, but it does beg the question why is Rugby Union a vastly more popular sport? Aside from a corridor of Northern England between Hull and Liverpool, Rugby League is largely ignored by the rest of the country. Yet is it a better game? I hear so many complaints over the quality of Union played in this day and age, but the same people refuse to consider League as a genuine alternative. Yet people continue to commit to Rugby Union on both a grassroots and national scale. Club setups at junior level continue to grow, whilst the media regards Rugby Union as the most popular alternative to football, highlighted by the amount of newspaper and TV coverage the sport receives. Whereas Rugby League features often among the other sports commonly forgotten about in this country, the basketball or the hockey, appearing on the pages people flick over immediately. England’s last meaningful home Rugby Union international against Scotland attracted 82.120, whereas the last England Rugby League international was attended by just 14,174. That’s a ridiculous difference. Why is Rugby Union’s popularity infinitely greater, when the two games share the same basics? So I’m going make direct comparisons between both sports to see if Rugby League is in fact, the better game.

As I mentioned earlier, the sets of skills on display in the Grand Final were far higher than their Union counterparts, how many looping passes did England throw onto the wing, removing any pace on the ball, and therefore momentum? Ability then, seems an appropriate place to start. To discount Union players as having a lack of ability would be a ridiculous notion, but there are noticeable differences in many of rugby’s fundamentals. Take passing for example. The looping passes have already been noted, whereas League in contrast sees a high percentage of tries scored by wingers who fly into the corner, given ample space by the timing and quality of the assist. Offloads are a key cog of Rugby League with many try scoring plays set up by a forward bursting down the middle before turning the ball inside to supporting runners. This is the reason Chris Ashton goes looking for passes infield with such great success in Union. Sonny Bill Williams is the perfect example. He has lit up the Union scene, with his initial bursts and out-the-back of the hand flicks, and rightly so, the man possesses a fantastic talent. But this happens weekly in League. It is an expected part of a players’ game. Although the tackling laws differ between the codes regarding use of the shoulder, it makes for a more brutal collision in League. And whilst purists will argue it’s the technique that counts, let’s be honest, who goes on YouTube to search for tackling technique. Type in Sam Burgess on Fui Fui Moi Moi and you’ll get my drift. Kicking wise, it appears ironic to criticise the amount of kicking in a Union game given that League players have to put boot-to-ball every 6 tackles, but it is the quality that counts. Countless times I’ve started watching a game of Union, only to leave part-way through to find a wall to watch where paint is drying. This is due to the number of mindless, unnecessary times a player hoofs it aimlessly up in the air for no real purpose. William Webb Ellis didn’t go to all that effort to bend down and pick up the ball only to see it kicked straight back at him. Otherwise we’d still be playing football. Yes, the ball is kicked every 6 tackles in League, but it is for a purpose, can set up tries, and keep the opposition constantly pinned back in their own half. Plus it’s in the rules. Not sold yet? Well, admittedly these are merely three blots on the copybook of rugby skills, but still pretty crucial elements of the sport, in passing, tackling and kicking.

Is Rugby League more entertaining? Well, statistically wise you’d have to suggest so. Far more tries are scored in League, for example in the Aviva Premiership last season, 507 tries were scored compared to the 1682 scored in League, down perhaps to the valuation of the penalty at two points and the drop goal at one, thus reducing the incentive to just accumulate small amounts of points on attacking visits to the opponents’ half as is often done in Union. The restarting of the game is so much better it’s almost untrue. No line-outs and the fact scrums exist only by name make for a fast-flowing, spectator-friendly sport. The Union scrum is such a mess nobody has a clue what to do with it. Regularly eating up around 10 minutes of game time, any hair loss I have suffered is probably caused by pulling it out watching the amount of collapses at scrum time. It’s just a joke. Line-outs aren’t quite in the same category, but they still don’t offer the efficiency of the Rugby League tap-on-the-sideline. The same applies to rucks and mauls. Crucial to the game of Union, but such an eyesore to the fans when applied badly. Take England in the World Cup, their play at the breakdown was painful, so slow, so hap-hazard and often penalised. Not needed. The roll-the-ball through your legs technique gets the game up-and-running quickly, allowing Rugby League to be played at a fast pace consistently. Whilst I’m aware the condemnations of Union that I’ve just made define it as a sport, the rucks, mauls, scrums and line-outs, but this just highlights even further its inferiority to its brother. Everyone watches rugby to see slick interplay, electrifying tries and enormous tackles and unfortunately, in my opinion, these four cornerstones of the game only serve to hinder the above purposes.

So what stands between Rugby League and the popularity Union receives? Well, it has to be said, the way the sport is structured plays a huge part in the lack of interest it receives at national level. Comparing the two leagues, the Aviva Premiership contains 12 teams, most of which are capable of beating each other with the exceptions being the recently relegated/promoted sides who loose the cream of their players when swapping divisions. Even this has begun to change recently; Exeter stayed up last year and have started well again this season, whilst newly promoted Worcester are more than holding their own early doors. Although Leicester have tended to dominate, there is still a feeling the Premiership is genuinely competitive. Regrettably the same cannot be said for Rugby League. The franchise system was a poor move, removing the excitement of relegation and thus creating a pointless bottom end to the table, in which teams having nothing to play for. The play-off system contains 8 of the 14 teams, a joke in itself, and this system’s flaws have been exposed to the max this season by the Leeds Rhinos, who won the competition from 5th, a position that wouldn’t have even made the Union play-offs. Whilst they did produce a superb end to their season, they have been decidedly poor all year and failed to beat a top 4 team until the final day of the regular round. Not exactly what you would call deserving winners. There has been 4 winners of Super League ever and as it stands, there are only 5 competitive teams, rendering the regular season a bit of a joke. As for the international scene, well the less said the better. The Union World Cup has been all over the press, the England team couldn’t breathe without having it classed as a ‘scandal,’ but when the League boys had their go in 2008, coverage was, to put it politely, limited. Probably down to quality of the tournament, in Rugby League, there are only three competitive nations, and that’s being kind to England. Because they have no chance either. They are only classified with New Zealand and Australia because they also thrash any other League-playing nation. The depth of the playing field for boss Steve McNamara is awful; he has resorted to picking overseas players, and why not? It worked for the cricket teams. He must turn green with envy when he sees what Martin Johnson has to work with. Even if he does it badly. A few key injuries and the England side turns from underdogs to absolute no-hopers. Hardly inspiring for any new supporters who want to follow both club and country. There lies another problem. Club vs. Country. It’s an argument we hear so often during football, but it’s potentially far worse in Rugby League. The attendance for the England vs. Exiles at Headingley was lower than a normal Headingley crowd for a Leeds Rhinos match. Those who did attend appeared to forget to leave their club loyalties behind for a night, with a small minority booing England full-back Sam Tompkins. Whilst Tompkins is the ultimate wind-up merchant when playing for Wigan, there is no excuse for that sort of behaviour. As soon as a player pulls on the England shirt, he is one of us. End of. Whilst Twickenham may have become the favoured place of wining and dining for the prawn sandwich brigade, at least everyone in stadium gets behind the national team. Rugby League cannot hope to compete among other elite sports in this country with this sort of disunity in the national game.

So what conclusions can be drawn from this argument? Well, to be honest, it isn’t the playing part of Rugby League that is hindering further development of the sport, but more the structures behind it. My general consensus is that League players offer a more rounded skill set than those in Union, from 1-13 every man has delivers similar base skills, whereas this is not seen in Union. There is no arguing over the fact that League is played at a much higher intensity, at a furious pace, thus increasing entertainment levels for supporters. But to compete with Union, and indeed other sports in this country, the Super League has to be improved. Cut the size of the tournament. Restructure the playoffs. Make the whole division competitive. But first and foremost, create an international scene worth watching. Without that, Rugby League doesn’t stand a chance. And unfortunately the problem is unlikely to be solved in the near future.

Foreign Flavours: Problems with imports in our national teams

Overseas imports. The hot topic on many of the lips of people involved in their respective sports today. Beneficial or not beneficial? Fair or unfair? The debate seems almost endless as numerous sports recruit those born overseas to pull on the colours of our proud nation. Whether it’s through the recent discovery of a long-lost English grandmother, or qualification through the residency rule, more and more people are finding ways of meeting the requirements to compete for England selection.

Rugby Union seems an apt place to start, given the disappointing Quarter Final exit at the hands of the French. Martin Johnson was not averse to allowing non-English players to jump aboard the sweet chariot but was it advantageous? Starting with the positives, one giant Samoan born centre seems to fill that slot immediately. Not many would argue against the fact Manu Tuilagi was England’s best player throughout the tournament, punching holes through defences that other team members could never have managed, whilst flicking deft offloads worthy of his South-Sea Island heritage. Manu proudly sports his Samoan tribal band tattoo around his arm, and in fairness his selection is not the most contentious, given he has played all his junior rugby in England since the age of 8, rising through the youth ranks with all the rest. Other Johnson picks didn’t quite hit the heady standards set by Manu, fellow centres Shontayne Hape and Riki Flutey, both English by residency, crashed and burned. Flutey failed to even make the World Cup squad after a shocking run of form, whilst Hape featured once, admittedly scoring two tries against the Georgians but ultimately being overlooked for the Quarter Final, where Johnson elected for Toby Flood, a fly half, to replace injured centre Mike Tindall. Selections like these raise the question, are they not holding back English-born players who have worked their damn hardest to realize dreams of playing for their country. I’m sure centres like Leicester’s Anthony Allan, or Wasps’ Dominic Waldouck would have provided a similar sort of impact whilst giving the side a more English feel altogether. The choice that created the greatest degree of controversy however, was the late replacement flown out to New Zealand, Thomas Waldrom. As English as the Empire State Building or Gruyère cheese, Thomas the Tank mysteriously discovered an English gran that meant his fine early season form for club team Leicester propelled him above other English choices who had worked so hard to get themselves in contention. See Luke Narroway, Gloucester’s dynamic Number 8, who voiced his discontent when overlooked for the World Cup Squad rather loudly on Twitter, with a sharp barb directed at Martin Johnson: ‘Good luck to Thomas the tank and his English Nan @not-bitter much.’ The thing about Rugby Union is England have quality academies setups, they have the talent in the youth setups, see the U20’s side who reached the Junior World Cup Final last year, so why the need to block their development into seasoned internationals with an import who’s not good enough for his own national team?

Then there’s Cricket. The sport throwing a spanner into the works for those opposed to the selection of non-English players. The success the England side has enjoyed over the last two years has been well publicised, 20-20 World Champions, back-to-back Ashes wins, not to mention becoming the number one test side in the world. But have these achievements been tarred by the obvious factor that half the side isn’t even English? Two key cogs in the well oiled run machine that is England’s top order, Trott and Pieterson both qualified for England through residency laws, Craig Kieswetter, another South African, blasted the side to 20-20 success, Prior, Dernbach, and even captain fantastic Strauss were all born outside the UK, and big-hitting Eoin Morgan has even played against England in the past! Crazy. Ok, so the England side has finally hit the big time, giving the Barmy Army, such loyal supporters for so many years something to cheer about, but will people look back twenty years down the line and say, well at the end of the day, it’s a form of cheating. The long-term future of the side also has to be questioned; do these players hinder the development of young English talent? Surprisingly, at the moment, the answer would have to be no, the recent ODI series against India and the two 20-20 internationals against the West Indies featured a side bristling with young talent, who were English citizens to boot. Players like Jonny Bairstow, Alex Hales and Scott Borthwick were given opportunities to impress at the highest level and didn’t disappoint either. The County Championship does have a cap of two overseas players to a squad, and perhaps these talents are helping improve the youngsters of the game, by providing experienced advice of the highest quality that can only be valuable to learn from. On this evidence, it is no wonder other sports are copying the cricket model in an attempt to reap the same rewards enjoying those playing England’s most traditional sport.

So in which direction should the other sports go? Can the successes of the cricketers be replicated, or will the experiment go all Frankenstein like the Rugby Union example. The import question has often been raised in football, our national sport, where international triumph would be joyous to so much of our population. Let’s be honest, if any national team needed a helping hand, the Three Lions could do with it most of all. Performances at international tournaments have been dismal and there is seemingly no solution. The Premiership is stuffed with overseas stars, far too many in fact, an issue the F.A needs to address before the academy products of all the clubs see their accession to the first team blocked by some overpaid, overrated foreigner. But given there are so many cases of these players, could any of them slot into the national team? Frankly, no. The vast majority come to the Premiership as seasoned internationals, and therefore those not involved with their own country aren’t good enough for ours. Just two names have sprung up in recent years. Firstly, when England suffered their annual goalkeeping crisis, Arsenal’s Manual Almunia popped onto the scene, offering a rather dodgy, but still viable option. Fortunately, he was ignored, and this decision has proved a good one, as Manual dropped clanger after clanger on his way out of the Arsenal first team. The second harboured much louder support for national selection, Mikel Arteta. When Gerrard and Lampard donned the England shirt together, they resembled passengers of the Titanic, all lost at sea. In desperate need of a creative midfielder, Everton’s silky Spaniard Arteta qualified on residency grounds and would have made a difference to the side, but the decision was taken to stick with the English boys. A moral choice, but was it wise? Maybe if England began to harvest the foreign talent currently festering in their divisions, we’d stand a chance in the next World Cup.

Certainly national Rugby League coach Steve McNamara has taken that approach, if you can’t beat them, select them. As England are currently so far behind the Aussies and the Kiwis, it would take a minor miracle to overcome them in this year’s 4 Nations. So Steve has opted to bring a foreign flavour into his line-up, selecting Australian based players Jack Reed, Gareth Widdop and Chris Heighington in his squad. Whilst Widdop and Reed are English by birth, Heighington most certainly isn’t, and Kiwi Rangi Chase has also been picked after qualifying on residency, a call that has attracted criticism from all quarters. It is easy to understand McNamara’s motives, the Australian NRL competition is light-years ahead of our own Super League and he is trying to incorporate some of that quality to make England competitive. Whether it will be successful, it remains to be seen. Exploring some of the more successful English sports, there are no foreign qualified players to be found. English, and on a wider scale, British golfers have enjoyed a couple of sensational years, including Rider Cup victories, not to mention two English players hitting the Number One World Ranking spot, in Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. Although success in a major eludes these two, the Northern Irish have picked up three! England have also seen a number of boxing World Champions, Amir Khan, Carl Froch and previously David Haye leading the way in propelling boxing into the national limelight. And the Olympic sports, cycling, rowing and swimming, the ones often ignored when not in the global limelight of every 4 years, provide the bulk of gold medals for Great Britain on the greatest sporting stage, never mind their World Championship achievements that go largely unnoticed.

Do these sports rely on stars who qualify on residency grounds? Or discover an English relative conveniently before a major tournament. Not a chance. They put in the groundwork at the grassroots level, training with passion and commitment throughout their careers and then find the way to international glory open, not blocked by someone who has lived here for just three years. Now such sporting success cannot be compared with football, cricket or rugby as the amount of people who compete in these fields are vastly higher but perhaps it offers a clue to those so-called bigger, more popular sports that investment and trust needs to be placed at grassroots level, in developing the English youngsters and nurturing them through to international recognition instead of grabbing a quick fix of foreign. And let’s be honest, if it wasn’t for the success of the cricket team, would the question of whether it was beneficial even exist at all?

Top 10 Football Funnies

Bill Shankly famously once said ‘Football is not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that.’ Well, this holds true for most supporters, there’s literally nothing worse than getting a hiding off your worst rivals, or losing a cup final (if you’re lucky enough to support a team that gets there.) However, there are some lighter moments in our sport, and here are ten of football’s funniest anecdotes.

  1. Rodney Marsh – A supremely talented player during a playing career that featured highly successful spells at Fulham, QPR and Man City. However, Rodney’s England career lasted just 9 games, something that may have occurred due to a clash of personalities with the main man himself, Sir Alf Ramsey. The story goes that self-proclaimed dressing room joker Marsh retorted to Ramsey’s remark ‘I’ll be watching you for the first 45 minutes and if you don’t work harder, I’ll pull you off at halftime’ with ‘Crikey, Alf, at Manchester City all we get is an orange and a cup of tea.’ I get the impression Sir Alf Ramsey’s sense of humour was, shall we put it, limited.
  1. Gary Lineker – England’s top scorer of all time. Gary could be relied on to pop out of nowhere in the box when England most needed a goal. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only thing Gary popped out during his England career. During a Group Stage match at the 1990 World Cup against the Republic of Ireland, Lineker hit the ground like he’d been shot. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence, as Lineker used to win more than his fair share of penalties, but what had actually occurred was far more sinister. As he shuffled along the floor, people wondered what on earth was happened. Well, to put it mildly, he’d shit himself. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9t_8pfbCH-4
  1. Vinnie Jones – The man who the term ‘mad as a box of frogs’ was designed for. Vinnie should have probably been interned years ago, but fortunately for the sake of comedy in football and incidentally, comedy in acting (not down to his timing of a joke, but more the quality of his acting) he remained free on the streets. If grabbing Gazza’s testicles wasn’t enough, his funniest moment came during his arrival at Leeds United in 1989. After punching team-mate Bobby Davison in the mouth after he asked him to play the ball to his feet, Vinne later threatened manager Howard Wilkinson with a shotgun after he dropped him. One of a kind.
  1. John Boileau – You may never have heard of this man and I’m not surprised. Because technically he’s not actually involved in football. But his story is funny enough to include anyway. When Steve McClaren left Middlesbrough in 2006 to become the ‘wally with a brolly,’ Mr Boileau decided to throw his name into the mix. Applying on a CV filled with his supreme achievements on Football Manager and his son’s Under 11 team, the highlight of which involved taking Rushden and Diamonds to the Champions League and signing Zinedine Zidane, he was unfortunately unsuccessful. Steve Gibson, the Boro Chairman replied saying he wasn’t suitable for the job as his talents were deemed too great for a side as lowly as Middlesbrough. A story that proves fantastic things can happen when a sense of humour is applied.
  1. Mario Balotelli – This Mario isn’t so much super, but mad. He certainly needs a Luigi to look after him that’s for sure. Antics have included donating his £10,000 winnings from a casino to a tramp outside, sorting out a group of school bullies, never mind his now infamous back-heel against LA Galaxy this summer. His best on-field moment though was caught on camera before a Europa League clash with Dynamo Kiev last season, where he memorably failed to pull a bib over his head during the pre-match warm up. Balotelli was seen struggling for well over two minutes, confusing which body part went in which hole, finally asking for assistance from a member of backroom staff. He must employ a whole team to dress him in the morning…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpL9eQ6mm-k

  1. Jimmy Bullard – A contender for football’s funniest man, Jimmy puts a smile on the nation’s faces with many funny escapades. Mocking Duncan Ferguson was brave, his Wash and Go adverts were stupid, but when Wigan took on Arsenal in a League Cup Semi Final in 2005 he was just downright comedy gold. When the floodlights failed, Jimmy first rumbled in Freddy Ljungberg’s shorts to see if his package lived up to it’s airbrushing in the Armani adverts. Then as the lights came on, Jimmy was revealed, huge grin on face, with the ball on the opposition goal line. Some people are just born to entertain.
  1. Phil Brown – Roll back to 2009 and Hull City had just successfully defended their Premiership status despite a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United’s reserve string. Manager Phil Brown, never short of controversy anyway, decided to perform a bit of on-field karaoke. Bear in mind karaoke is best left to those shady nightclubs after more than a few sherbets, his performance of a modified version of Sloop John B in front of 25,000 left most people in tears. Crying with both laughter and pain. Still, Brown taking ‘sing when you’re winning’ to the next level was worthy of a regular stand-up gig.
  1. Delia Smith – Ever thought Jamie Oliver was the most annoying celebrity chef? Well think again. That is, if you’ve seen Delia’s now infamous rant on the pitch at Carrow Road at the supporters of her beloved Norwich City. During a battle against relegation from the Premier League in 2005, the chairwoman took to the field at half-time during a game against Manchester City where she announced ‘Where are you?’ ‘Let’s be ‘avin’ you!’ Afterwards Delia denied allegations from the media she was drunk when the incident took place. Well if not drunk, she must have refined her culinary skills to hash brownies then…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_8JLkwzpd0
  1. Phil Babb – Phil Babb was a solid if unspectacular defender, who made 374 appearances at the highest level. However, many will remember him for a moment of comedy genius, something Babb won’t remember too fondly himself. Playing for Liverpool against Chelsea in 1998, Phil tracked back heroically to prevent Pierluigi Casiraghi from slotting the ball home. Sliding across the turf, the unfortunate Babb failed to stop the goal, before crashing into the post. Right between his legs. Men across the country grimaced as Phil prayed his child-bearing days hadn’t been prematurely ended. A defender who took ‘crunching tackle’ to a whole new level. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dONtFBuCztM
  1. David Dunn – Decent footballer, terrible trickster. Dunn has made a name for himself with some stellar performances for Blackburn and Birmingham over the years. However his name may bring a smile to any Brummie fans who remember his show-boating against rivals Aston Villa. Fancying himself as the wizard of the dribble, the only magic he produced was that of the comic variety as he attempted a cheeky back-heel. Before promptly falling over the ball. Cristiano Ronaldo he is not. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-7-5KFru4o

45 Years of Hurt – Are England's new breed the real deal?

June 27th 2010. A woeful day to be English. Humiliation by our arch enemies, the Germans, put the icing on yet another miserable performance at a major tournament. If the Three Lions carry on in the same vein, it won’t be too long before those who can remember an England victory in said tournaments become as rare as the Last Fighting Tommy’s are now. Like national treasures. So the future looked bleak last summer. The FA kept Capello on, a brainless decision based more on the size of the release clause in his contract than their faith in his ability to manage a team he can’t even communicate to. The man struggles to string the most simple of sentences together in English so the chances of him telling the team ‘to get out there and show some bloody pride and passion in the shirt’ is well beyond his capabilities. Still, a few retirements later and the whole country were buoyed again. So thanks go out to Messrs Carragher and Heskey for deciding enough was enough, allowing the whole of England to breathe one collective sigh of relief. Of the side that didn’t so much stall on that dreadful day in Bloemfontein, but crashed headfirst into a wall, Upson, James and Joe Cole haven’t been seen in a white shirt since, so at least that’s a start. And it finally looks as if Frank Lampard’s days have passed. What a pity. Playing the ‘where did Fat Frank disappear to during that game’ is one of my favourite post-England match activities. I’d say it could make a best-selling mystery board game. Rather like Cluedo. No-one seems to work out where Lampard goes during international matches.

Although England seem set to qualify for Euro 2012, it’s been a bumpy ride. Draws with Montenegro and Switzerland have left us needing a point in October, away to Montenegro, where you can guarantee the atmosphere will be nice and friendly for the English. Or not. Still, if England mess up from here, it will be a travesty. To say our group draw was slightly fortuitous would be somewhat of an understatement. The Swiss were supposed to represent our hardest challenge, but they have never been European heavyweights at the best of times and are currently undertaking a rebuilding process of their own. Our World Cup draw for 2012 has been just as kind. Old foes Poland no longer represent the threat they once did. Apparently someone is looking out for England after all, maybe we have a strategically placed agent at UEFA? Though going down the bribe route perhaps isn’t a wise move in the context of international football today…

So what of the furore over England’s new young pups? Are they the genuine thing? Or are we witnessing another bout of media hype slammed into overdrive when they so much as smell the scent of promise on the horizon of the England setup. Well, you have to say, that scent of promise is perhaps stronger than the weak cologne we’ve been used to recently. Ironically, a Scotsman is mainly to thank for potentially securing England’s future at the top of the world game in the future. Fergie has assembled a core of very talented youngsters at United, breeding them into mature footballers for club, and hopefully country. We all know of Mr Rooney’s talents, but more exciting is the hunger for the game he is currently showing in comparison to last year. His link up with Ashley Young can only benefit England as well. Throw Danny Welbeck into the mix, who is raw, but talented and you have a front three who have pace and skill in abundance, posing a genuine threat to opponents, rather than lumping in a target man, such as a Crouch or a Heskey to scrap with defenders. Phil Jones is the name on everyone’s lips at the moment. And rightly so. The hype surrounding him is believable, as the kid oozes class. Caution must be taken given he’s only made a handful of appearances for United, but if Sir Alex has no doubt that one day he’ll captain club and country, then I guess we can all agree. He doesn’t often get it wrong. The way he strides out of defence with a swagger and style not seen amongst your typically rugged English centre backs, reminds me of dare I say it, the Kaiser himself, Franz Beckenbauer. Now that is getting ahead of ourselves. His performances have taken the limelight away from a man who I think has been just as impressive, Chris Smalling. Playing out of position at right back, he looks to have made himself a new home, winning his first two England caps there last month, showing huge promise in the process. Maybe he could teach Glen Johnson what positional sense means. Then move on the art of defending itself. And whilst the last of Fergie’s young English guns, Tom Cleverley, looks a talent also, central midfield is a position England look well set in. Jack Wilshere, we’ve heard all about, and although his recent ankle problems are currently frustrating, he could go onto to become genuinely world-class.

Then there’s Ross Barkley at Everton. The papers are quoting a £30million move for him in January. Utter madness. Leave him where he is, progressing under David Moyes’ tutelage and England will have another Scouse superstar on their hands. Let’s not forget Josh McEachran either, who Andre Villas-Boas rates highly, as did predecessor Ancelotti before him. And what about Jack Rodwell, the forgotten man of England’s youngsters? Man United and Chelsea wanted him last summer and although his career has stalled recently, I’m sure he’ll be pushing hard for a squad place soon. There are some seriously good players listed there. Genuine reasons to get excited. And then there’s Andy Carroll, Anyone wondering why he was left out of this list, it was deliberate. He’s horribly overrated. It’s not his fault Liverpool decided to fork out the baffling £35million that they did, but the pressure seems to have really affected him, and now Suarez and Bellamy seem the preferred option upfront. Although he’s young, it appears he’s fast approaching the dreaded career crossroads. Despite being told to sort out his lifestyle by many experts including Capello himself, he hasn’t. Maybe Carroll prefers the taste of Jager to that of sweet success, but he needs to look at himself hard in the mirror if he wants a part in Engalnd’s promising future.

Is it enough? Are these the boys to lead us back to glory? Perhaps, though it is too early to judge, but if they are left to developed at their own pace, and not the media’s, there is a damn good chance of England ending all those years of hurt in the not too distant future.