Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Motty & Stan: The Return of the Unlikely Lads

No, it’s not the title of a new, inevitably god-awful ITV sitcom, but rather the billing for radio’s most improbable commentary duo since grand master Kenneth Wolstenholme was joined in the gantry by an inebriated Brian Clough. Ok, so that pairing never actually happened – but it bloody well should’ve.

So, on the one hand we have Stanley Victor Collymore: the outrageously talented but deeply flawed ex-pro with a surprising penchant for passionate, informed commentary, on the other; John “very much so” Motson: Sheepskin-clad, stat-obsessed, and a long-standing national treasure (or irritant, depending on your point of view). By accident more than design, this chalk-and-cheese pair has, at least unofficially, become Radio Five Live’s premier commentary team in the period following Collymore’s post-dogging renaissance.

This week the two were an integral part of the team which excitedly described West Brom’s dramatic elevation to the Premier League at a highly-charged Hawthorns. Motson’s animated chatter, allied with Collymore’s perceptive Black Country brogue perfectly illustrated the scenes as Tony Mowbray’s side belatedly clambered over the promotion finishing line; Motty briefly reprising Wolstenholme’s “and some of the fans are on the pitch..” at the climax, or near enough, of a breathless Championship season.

Since his breakthrough in that infamous Hereford-Newcastle FA Cup tie of 1972, Motson’s career went from strength to strength – to the point where his inimitable style has reached iconic status. He was unofficially confirmed as the Beeb’s TV commentary top-dog some years back, when he finally saw off the always articulate, occasionally amusing Barry Davies (the sheepskinned-one’s inexplicable dominance led Davies to reluctantly retire to the icy obscurity of Figure Skating commentary in sheer frustration at his lack of big-match opportunities).

But the veteran broadcaster, on the telly at least, has grown too self-conscious of late; trying far too hard to pander to those who un-ironically refer to him as ‘the voice of football’. To the neutral at least, his invariably stilted ‘performances’ during the big England games have been particularly excruciating. Of course, the BBC insists that, at 62 years of age, Motty remains a national treasure – but they also thought that Ian Wright was employable, so you can draw your own conclusions from that.

Pre-planned gags delivered with all the subtlety of a Michael Essien sliding-tackle, each one making Gary Lineker’s horrific puns seem almost (almost) acceptable; an insistence on offering up utterly pointless stats at the expense of describing on-field action; and simply not knowing when to shut the hell up, are all crimes for which Motson could reasonably be hauled up before the International Court of Justice for Armchair Fans.

And this heinous charge-list is far from exhaustive – his awkward chuckling at the perpetually-bored Mark Lawrenson’s execrable efforts at humour, as the pair once again hopelessly stumble their way through another insight-free 90 minutes, is a particular pet hate of mine. Please feel free to add your own…

During the Germany ’06 World Cup, digital viewers were offered the chance to avail of Five Live commentary instead of listening to Motson’s confused witterings. Viewers took up this opportunity to ditch Motty in their droves (an estimated two million of them did so during England v Ecuador). Though to be rewarded for that brave switch with an Alan ‘Greeny’ Green commentary was in itself a dubious pleasure, but that’s another story entirely.

However, recent analysis of Motty’s voice (let us pity the poor fool who endured such ear-bleedingly inane research) found that he has the “best vocal qualities” of any of his broadcasting rivals and was able to “speak at double the normal speed and across twice the range of an average person.” And apparently that’s a good thing.

Perhaps these singular qualities are key when it comes to explaining why his frantic style is more suited to the unique challenges of live radio commentary. The necessity to fill dead air with accurate, relevant comment and to paint a vivid verbal picture of what’s occurring down on the pitch tends to focus the mind a little. Plus, a Motty unencumbered by the scrutiny of the prime-time telly millions is a Motty free to get back to what he once did best.

And, of course, without the dead-weight of Lawrenson hanging languidly from his neck, the enthusiastic, knowledgeable input of a young punditry upstart such as Stan Collymore only serves to bring out the best in him.

Collymore’s journey from top professional to respected analyst has been both public and troubled. Ultimately retiring from football at the tender age of 30 (not accounting for an aborted comeback a couple of years later), controversy has dogged his every step. Clinical depression, a spot of sexual deviancy down on Cannock Chase, and a deliciously improbable appearance alongside Sharon Stone in the appalling Basic Instinct sequel have been among the lowlights of this period.

Though, if we may take a slight detour from the topic in hand, a check on his subsequent entry in the Internet Movie Database at least paints a brighter, if somewhat distorted, picture:

“One of the most gifted, charismatic and outspoken soccer players of his or any generation…scorer of some of the most amazing goals in recent football history…a highly intuitive mind, with natural screen charisma...The Maverick from the Midlands is an intelligent, multi-talented phenomenon.”

Bigging yourself up much?

Nevertheless, Collymore’s nascent broadcasting career – which also encompasses an anchorman role on Central TV’s Soccer Night – continues to draw a growing band of admirers. Detailing how and why footballers and managers do what they do (rather than aimlessly parroting the words of his co-commentator), does not seem to be a foreign concept to the one-time Liverpool and England star. It sounds a simple formula – but these are rare enough traits in football broadcasting.

He’ll never be popular with those dullards who oppose strong regional accents in their match commentators, and his chequered past will remain a stick with which to beat him until the day he finally hangs up his mike for good. But thoughtful punditry from ex-pros is currently thinner on the ground than goodwill for F1 chief Max Mosley at a Bar Mitzvah; Tim Sherwood, Nigel Winterburn, and Jamie bleeding Redknapp please take your leave.

As for motormouth Motty, he may well be commentating on his last Cup final for TV next month after his BBC bosses failed to agree a job-share deal for him with satellite broadcasters Setanta. With the FA Cup’s television rights moving to Setanta and ITV next season in a deal running until 2012, Motson must decide whether to stay put after a 37-year career at the Beeb. The corporation have squandered the rights to more or less any significant live football but still want him to sign a new deal with them for next season to commentate on both Five Live and Match of the Day.

If Motson does decide to put pen to paper, the working relationship of radio’s dynamic duo will hopefully be given opportunity to flourish further. Though you can’t see Colly popping round to Motty Mansion for afternoon tea with John and wife Anne – and the mere thought of Motson hopping into Stan’s “SVC”-plated Range Rover for a night-time sojourn to the car parks of Cannock Chase sends a shudder down the spine – on-air the two might just make the perfect odd couple.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Inspired McCullum flourishes amid the mayhem

The next stage in cricket’s rapidly-accelerating evolution was launched in Bangalore on Friday; by a zanily spectacular, yet mercifully brief, opening ceremony to the hotly-anticipated Indian Premier League. A bewildering performance by a troupe of brides, each encased in a giant translucent bubble, was superseded only by the enthusiastic input of the Washington Redskins’ cheerleaders – imported en masse specially for the grand occasion.

All of this silliness preceded the seminal clash which launched the IPL – between Bangalore Royal Challengers and Kolkata Knight Riders (though, a little disappointingly, there was no sign of an appearance by KITT or even The Hoff – a missed PR opportunity if ever there was one). Over 44 days, the inaugural competition will see 123 Indian cricketers and 73 highly-paid mercenaries, er, overseas players participating in 59 matches in eight different regions across the vast expanse of newly-affluent India.

Business magnates and Bollywood moguls have been tripping over themselves to splurge their bounty on luring the world’s best to the subcontinent during the past few months and, naturally, the world’s best could hardly refuse the lure of the ludicrous football-size salaries offered up by the eight competing franchises.

The cricket world has since been in thrall to the machinations surrounding the build-up to the tournament, which has been depicted as a more palatable predecessor to Kerry Packer’s controversial World Series of some 30 years ago.

By the time Knight Riders' opening partnership – captain Sourav Ganguly and Kiwi wicketkeeper-batsman Brendon McCullum – strode purposefully into the middle at the floodlit M Chinnaswammy Stadium; clad in a fetching, if ever so slightly garish, black shirt and gold helmet combination, the 55,000-strong Bangalore crowd had already reached fever pitch.

While the US constitution famously confers “the right to bear arms” upon its citizens, the IPL’s constitution evidently includes “the right to bear gaudy bats” – each Kolkata batsman arrived on the field wielding a shiny, golden slab of willow with intent. And it was McCullum who used his to greatest effect in the opening overs; hammering four consecutive boundaries (which incorporated an unfeasibly massive six over third man) off Zaheer Khan’s second over – while the TV cameras picked up Knight Riders’ owner and Bollywood impresario Shah Rukh Khan cavorting joyously in the stands.

Racing towards his fifty from just 33 balls, McCullum (then on 25) was dropped on the boundary after skying an Ashley Noffke delivery – perhaps the critical moment in the match. The escape only served to galvanise the inspired New Zealander, who went on to slog all-comers far and away over the invitingly short boundary rope, on his way to a 53-ball century (and in just over an hour).

More illustrious team-mates Ganguly (10) and Ricky Ponting (a run-a-ball 20) were out relatively cheaply – the highlight of Punter’s brief IPL debut being his insistence on charging down the track at every conceivable (and inconceivable) opportunity to Bangalore’s star man Jacques Kallis. This clearly didn’t bother McCullum though; as he went on to compile an astonishing unbeaten 158 – shattering the existing Twenty20 world record of 141 held, ironically, by his Bangalore opponent, Aussie all-rounder Cameron White.

The 26-year-old from Otago, who later admitted to suffering from a bout of pre-match nerves, showcased a striking array of shots in an innings which included a mind-boggling 13 sixes – one of which fittingly closed the Kolkata innings on an intimidating 222 for 3.

From the moment Ishant Sharma violently knocked back the leg stump of Rahul Dravid (2) in the second over of the home team’s reply, the prospect of an unlikely Bangalore victory appeared all but dead in the water. Soon after, potential saviour Kallis followed a fine six with a straight slog to Murali Kartik from the bowling of Agit Agarkar (3-25) and the collapse was well and truly underway. Established international stars White and Mark Boucher could only muster a measly 13 between them as the Royal Challengers folded to 82 all out, failing even to make it through their 20 over allocation. At the conclusion the overriding feeling was, even at this early stage, that Kolkata could well establish themselves as a Premier League powerhouse.

So, the IPL Twenty20 opener was an anti-climactic, lopsided affair, but with the matches coming thick and fast, there’s still the promise of plentiful memorable moments to come from world greats and up-and-coming Indian stars alike.

Upcoming highlights will doubtless include the appearance of India under-19s star Napoleon Einstein, representing the equally charmingly-named Chennai SuperKings (perhaps a precedent has been set – Surrey RizlaPapers, anyone?). And will the unimaginatively-monikered Mumbai Indians (...Glamorgan Welshmen?) be able to out-perform their uninspired name? Boasting both national idol Sachin Tendulkar and exceptional death-bowler Lasith Malinga they surely will.

With its Bollywood glamour, bubble-brides, cheerleaders and all, the Indian Premier League has already marked itself out as a sporting spectacular in the vein of the major US sports. For traditionalists, the unadulterated razzmatazz of Bangalore was certainly a long, long way removed from the tea-sipping English county game. But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing?

Monday, April 14, 2008


Trevor Immelman became the latest recipient of the famed Green Jacket last night, heading the Masters field with a four-round total of 280 (-8).

In doing so, the South African became the first ‘wire-to-wire’ Masters champion since Raymond Floyd led from start to finish back in 1976. The feat was made all the more remarkable by the fact that Immelman has not long recovered from surgery on a benign tumour in his diaphragm, and his form leading into the year’s first Major had understandably been decidedly patchy.

In the final analysis, a three-over par final round of 75 was enough for a three shot winning margin over Tiger Woods, whose well-publicised dreams of achieving an unprecedented calendar-year Grand Slam must now wait until 2009 at least.

Unheralded overnight challengers Brandt Snedeker – with his flowing blond locks, a dead ringer for legendary Czech footballer Pavel Nedved, it must be noted – and left-hander Steve Flesch fell away from contention; posting scores of 77 and 78 respectively. And the much-vaunted British challenge faltered too – with Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood all sliding irretrievably down the leaderboard before they had even reached the turn.

Immelman and Snedeker, together in the final group for the second day running, both started nervously – each bogeying the first. While Immelman relied on his immaculate driving to maintain momentum, Snedeker started to haemorrhage bogies. The 27-year-old from Nashville briefly enjoyed a spectacular 40-foot eagle putt on the third, but that was by the far the best it got for him during an errant front nine.

England’s Paul Casey – just four shots behind the leader as he teed off in search of his first Major victory – floundered in the blustery conditions, which seemed to disrupt his hitherto serene progress in the tournament. The nadir of Casey’s 79 came at the par-3 fourth; failure to extract his ball from one of Augusta National’s pristine white greenside bunkers at the first attempt led to a crippling double-bogey five and effectively ended the Surrey man’s challenge.

As the final pairing approached the fearsome Amen Corner – holes 11, 12 and 13 – they were met by a familiar Tiger-inspired roar. Woods’ monster putt along the 11th green rattled into the cup for a birdie and sparked hopes of a first come-from-behind Major victory to add to his sparkling CV. But, in truth, the world number one failed too often to hole the crucial five-to-ten-footers for par which have characterised his many previous successes.

It was in fact Flesch who was perhaps best placed to challenge Immelman’s superiority at this stage, but his steady brand of par-gathering was cut dramatically short when he dumped his tee shot at the short 12th straight into the water. From there on in, the 40-year-old crumbled, posting an awful back nine score of 42.

Back at the 11th, Immelman bailed out with his approach shot and his following chip got caught up in the fringe; leaving a slick, downhill putt. To then roll that putt in, against the odds, was a key momentum-saver for the South African. A bogey at the 12th was followed by a glorious pitch to two feet at the par-five 13th, where the resulting birdie (and Snedeker’s bogey following a visit to Rae’s Creek) briefly opened up a six-shot chasm between him and the chasing pack.

Immelman once more made it safely through the deceptively treacherous 15th – where his ball had defied gravity 24 hours previously; hanging precariously on the bank when a watery grave looked a certainty – but came a cropper at 16. Holding an apparently impregnable five shot advantage, his pulled tee shot plunged into the greenside water, eliciting - at least in the minds of more pessimistic observers - unedifying thoughts of yet another Major meltdown being added to the bulging ‘choked and blew it’ file; already containing notable entries from Messrs Van de Velde, Norman and Sanders, to name but a few.

A par save at 17 steadied the ship though; leaving Immelman three shots in hand with only the final hole to negotiate. Despite his misfortune in finding a deep divot with his tee shot, the 28-year-old from Cape Town hit a well-controlled second and a simple two-putt saw him over the line. His win emulates compatriot and childhood hero Gary Player – a triple winner at Augusta National – and boosts his world ranking to 15th.

At the conclusion, Snedeker and Stewart Cink (72) shared third on four under, while two-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson (72) and last year’s Open champion Padraig Harrington (also 72) ended tied fifth alongside Flesch on two under par. Malaga’s Miguel Angel Jimenez fired a best-of-the-day 68 to shoot through the field; securing an impressive share of eighth.

With only one previous US Tour victory to his name, Immelman’s well-deserved victory perhaps came ahead of schedule – to win a Major championship before your 30th birthday is a rare old feat – but followers of the Sunshine (South African) and European Tours have long noted his pedigree. One of the smoothest swings in golf, allied to the coolest of temperaments, means that yesterday’s triumph could well be the first of many.


-8 Trevor Immelman (SA)
-5 Tiger Woods (USA)
-4 Stewart Cink (USA), Brandt Snedeker (USA)
-2 Steve Flesch (USA), Padraig Harrington (Ire), Phil Mickelson (USA)
-1 Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spa), Robert Karlsson (Swe), Andres Romero (Arg)
E Paul Casey (Eng), Nick Watney (USA), Lee Westwood (Eng)

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Trapdoor Looms For Brittle Bolton

Aston Villa 4-0 Bolton Wanderers

Saturday April 5, 2008
att: 37,773

Two goals from skipper Gareth Barry and one each for Gabriel Agbonlahor and sub Marlon Harewood accounted for relegation-haunted Bolton, as Aston Villa put a halt to their end of season slump at Villa Park yesterday.

Bolton, clearly still reeling from their dramatic 2-3 reverse at the hands of ten-man Arsenal last week, couldn’t muster sufficient confidence or goalscoring wherewithal to trouble resurgent Villa; Gary Megson’s side visibly crumbling upon the concession of a second, decisive goal midway through the second half.

The Lancashire outfit started out brightly enough; Kevin Davies nodding over Matt Taylor’s precision cross in the third minute, before Danny Guthrie skewed a poor effort wide following an absent-minded error from Villa’s Olof Mellberg.

But, on nine minutes, it was the home side which took the lead. Ashley Young left lumbering Davies – looking every inch a fish out of water in his right-wing station – for dead and then crossed accurately for Barry to steer a header past Ali Al-Habsi from close range.

A Davies cross-shot from the right clipped the top of the Villa bar not long after, more by accident than design, but ‘keeper Scott Carson was nevertheless relieved that his poor positioning hadn’t been fully exposed. However, it was Villa – winless in their last five – who pressed forward more convincingly in search of a second goal.

Stillian Petrov slammed a volleyed effort well wide from the edge of the box, having been teed up by the industrious Young – clearly enjoying the free role handed to him by boss Martin O’Neill. Young’s clever exchange of passes with Nigel Reo-Coker – moved to the right side of a midfield trio supporting the ex-Watford star – narrowly failed to send John Carew past Bolton’s last man, captain Andy O’Brien, with the goal gaping ahead.

At the other end, Taylor’s free kick from 30 yards out was deflected just past Carson’s post on the half hour mark. Agbonlahor then broke free following the resultant Bolton corner, with characteristic electrifying pace, but when one-on-one with the returning Gary Cahill he suffered a loss of nerve and steered an aimless pass out of play when a clear goal chance beckoned.

Omani international ‘keeper Al-Habsi, deputising for Jussi Jaaskelainen, then struggled to deal with successive Villa corners, and it was his fumble which allowed Martin Laursen to clip the outside of the post with a shot from an acute angle in the 37th minute.

The lively Guthrie was booked for a hack on Petrov just before the break and Carew shortly joined him in referee Martin Atkinson’s notebook, as a result of a reckless lunge which left Icelandic defender Gretar Steinsson needing medical attention.

Bolton returned for the second half looking fired up, doubtless by a vigorous Gary Megson tea-cup throwing session, and enjoyed their best spell of the match in the ten-minute period following the interval. Carson flapped under pressure at two Bolton corners – notoriously a strength for Megson’s side – and calamity-prone Zat Knight narrowly avoided turning the ball past his own ‘keeper in a penalty box scramble.

The decisive moment of the game though, arose from smart counter-attacking interplay down Villa’s left side. Barry received the ball from Young tight on the touchline and whipped in an inviting ball for Agbonlahor to finish off a fine move, in the process breaking a scoring drought which has dogged the speedy forward since the turn of the year.

A two-goal lead emboldened the home team; the confident, expansive play of earlier in their season returning at once. Stillian Petrov’s cute throughball sliced the vistors apart, a re-ignited Agbonlahor slid in Reo-Coker, whose shot was tipped wide by Al-Habsi. From the corner Villa had their third; Barry’s drive glanced into the net, owing to a heavy deflection off unfortunate Joey O’Brien.

In spite of his side’s listlessness, Bolton loanee Guthrie was able to manufacture two presentable opportunities for a consolation goal, but on the first occasion was denied by a desperate Zat Knight block, and, on the second, his fine approach work led only to raiding full-back Steinsson shooting tamely straight at Carson.

Perennial super-sub Marlon Harewood then emerged from the bench once more to replace John Carew on 77 minutes, and within five minutes of his introduction added Villa’s fourth. Woeful defending from the crestfallen visitors allowed the powerful targetman to head in Gareth Barry’s pinpoint free-kick totally unmarked.

There was still time for Villa’s January signing Wayne Routledge to make his debut from the bench and for the otherwise impressive Reo-Coker to blot his copybook with an ineffable booking for wrestling El-Hadji Diouf – a disinterested passenger throughout – to the ground. His ninth yellow card (plus one red) of the season leaves the midfielder walking a suspension tightrope prior to the upcoming Second City derby with local rivals Birmingham City.

Martin O’Neill said of his side: “We played very, very well indeed – back to our best.”

“It was a pressure game, but we handled it well,” he continued.

“We’d hit the buffers of late, certainly. The confidence starts to ebb away but that first goal (their first from open play since late February) saw it return.”

On the end of Agbonlahor’s goal drought he said: “He had a great opportunity before half-time when there was a chance to run at the last man, and the old Gabby would have taken that chance and been through for a strike on goal, but instead he lost his nerve and played a loose pass to no-one in particular.”

“After he got the goal – which was a magnificent goal by the way – the confidence just flooded back and he was terrific.”

A downbeat Megson conceded that his charges simply “didn’t do enough” to avoid the heavy defeat, conceding some “very sloppy” goals.

On Bolton’s slim survival prospects he said: “We haven’t given up, but we’re on an awful run.”

“It’s a huge game against West Ham (at the Reebok next Saturday). You hear a lot about ‘must-win’ games. Well, it’s as near as you can get to one of those. We need all three points from it, there’s no doubt.”

While Villa are now back in contention for a spot in the little-lauded Intertoto Cup, the grim spectre of demotion to the Championship looms ever larger for Megson’s men.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Another Golden Moment For Sutton Cyclist

Paul Manning stormed to gold as part of the world record-breaking team pursuit squad at the World Track Cycling Championships in Manchester last night. A partisan home crowd packed into the velodrome at Sport City, as the Sutton Coldfield cyclist’s team pursuit quartet set the ball rolling on a night of triple gold glory for the dominant Great Britain squad.

Huddersfield rider Ed Clancy and established road-racing stars Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins joined Manning in the line-up to take on surprise final opponents Denmark. The line-up had been reshuffled from the earlier qualifying round, with Manning moving up to second – considered to be the toughest position because the rider has to absorb the starter’s initial kick and then accelerate to cruising speed, only millimetres from the back wheel of his team-mate.

The Danish squad were the fastest qualifiers; seeing off previous world record-holders Australia in the process, but were simply blown off the track by an inspired British team in the race for gold.

At the 2,000m halfway mark the British four were already just over a second ahead – a significant advantage in pursuiting terms – but they continued to press on, putting insurmountable pressure on the Danish quartet. And, with three laps remaining, the unlikely possibility of the Denmark team actually being caught by their inspired opponents was becoming improbably close to a reality.

Wiggins, bringing up the rear for Britain, prematurely kicked off the celebrations; wildly punching the air with delight with almost half a lap still to go. Having soundly beaten their on-track opponents, the quartet then went on to vanquish Australia’s team pursuit record set at the 2004 Olympics – crossing the line in a new world mark of three minutes 56.318 seconds.

After the race’s thrilling climax, the vastly experienced Manning remained sedately level-headed, keeping his eye firmly on the Olympic gold which has thus far eluded him in his medal-laden track career.

He said: “We could do even better, we weren’t quite 100 per cent tonight.”

“If we want to go on and win in Beijing, we’ll almost certainly need another one (world record). It is a great feeling though,” he concluded.

Team pursuit success was shortly followed by rowing convert Rebecca Romero – a former Olympic silver-medallist in that sport – overcoming American favourite Sarah Hammer in the individual pursuit final. BMX star Shanaze Reade then joined cycling’s golden girl Victoria Pendleton in team sprint triumph.

With an impressive medal haul already being amassed by the combined efforts of both men’s and women’s squads, the British team will surely now go on to head the medal table for the second Championships running, following their seven golds in Mallorca last year.

At the grand old age of 33, team veteran Paul Manning will gladly take the opportunity to recover from last night’s record-breaking feat and then re-focus in time for August, where the prospect of gold beckons in Beijing.