Monday, 17 May 2010

Paying the Penalty - The Miss That Makes a Man?

Fifty Five minutes in to the FA Cup final and the script takes a twist that many had wished for but few thought would happen. After a bright start to the second half from Portsmouth Dindane is brought down in the box by the first half substitute Belletti. The whistle blows and without hesitation a penalty is awarded and the thought maybe, just maybe dares to creep into the minds of all Pompey and neutral fans. Kevin-Prince Boateng steps up just as he had done in the semi final against Spurs so successfully. The 23 year old looks calm but Petr Cech cuts an imposing figure and a more than worthy opponent in this duel. Cech does not need to be at his best however, Boateng's tame strike does most of the work for him and with in seconds we are faced with an all too familiar camera shot for English viewers, that of a player stood in total desolation; team mates run past consoling him while in the background we can see Cech playing down his heroics while all around him players in Blue are exchanging high fives and adrenaline filled celebrations of anothers failure. The script twists again and within minutes Drogba does from 30 yards what Boateng couldn't manage from 12. That fleeting moment of hope now seems like some ancient memory.

The script has been so often played out to us that Boateng's performance of it may not stick in too many peoples minds. Despite being an FA cup final his chosen stage still seems almost small compared to the great reprisals of the script that we are so often reminded of. I am not concerned with simply evaluating the most costly penalty misses, rather I want to discuss the next performance of the player and the team and see where a moment such as Boateng's can drive a player? Does it necessarily become that players tag line for the remainder of their career?

It simply does not get bigger than a World Cup final. Maybe this goes some way to explaining how one of the worlds greatest and most proclaimed players had a moment of madness and blazed his spot kick over the bar in the 1994 World Cup final allowing Brazil to take glory from Italy. I am referring of course to Roberto Baggio. Two other Italians missed penalties in that same shoot out, one blazing over the bar in exactly the same manner as Baggio would minutes later. No one remembers them, of course Baggio was far more famous than Baresi and Massaro but it is more than just his fame that makes Baggio more memorable. In 1994 Baggio was the record signing in Italian football. He had played in the 1990 World Cup mainly as a substitute but still scoring. In the 4 years since then he had become the number one striker in Serie A and a national sporting icon. He carried Italy through the tournament and in to the final. With the score level at 3 scored each Dunga the Brazilian captain had walked up in a self assured manner and dispatched his penalty with ease. The Brazilian fans had never doubted that he wouldn't score. Now as Baggio walked up in his own confident manner Italian fans were filled with the same feeling, here was their star player and man of the tournament there was no doubt in their minds just as there were seemingly no doubts in his. His reaction to missing could almost have been a mirror image of what the thousands of fans around him were feeling. He was beset by sheer disbelief that he had missed. He didn't move, didn't fall to his knees, didn't do anything but stand. It seemed to be the first moment he had contemplated that Italy weren't going to win and that he was going to miss. He was in an unknown place of failure. Until then his career had been only headed upwards now he was facing failure square on. The circumstances of the miss are of course memorable, the collective feeling that there was no way Baggio was going to miss this after he had dragged Italy to the final almost single handedly obviously make this miss one of the more shocking and unexpected but it is Baggio's reaction to this that complete the story and completes the image of the icon that endure to this day. The fans although obviously gutted at the defeat did not hold blame against Baggio. It was clear to them that without him Italy would never have made the Final and this contribution went some way to atone for his final failings. Baggio was in a difficult place though as personally he still felt failure. He was painfully aware that just as in 1986 people remembered Maradonna winning the World Cup for Argentina, so he would have been remembered for winning it for Italy. His star still continued to rise and his hero status if anything had increased since the final. He returned to his club Juventus and in the next season helped them to win the Scudetto. He did not return a jaded player who had tried to hit a peak and failed. No he returned a driven player determined to prove himself and atone. He scored more and more goals and became a leader, an icon and a hero. His star began to wain toward the end of a spell at AC Milan and in 1997 he feared losing his place in the Milan side and a dip in form could cost him a place in the 1998 World Cup squad. So he took a difficult and brave decision and moved to unfashionable Bologna and the guarantee of first team football. The decision paid off, he recaptured his form and took up his place in the World Cup squad. Italy reached the Quarter finals when their game with France went to penalties. Baggio stood up to be counted when many would not have faced their demons. He took and scored a penalty. Despite Italy eventually losing the shootout a sense of atonement and justification came out of Baggio scoring his. It was a measure of the man and the sportsman he had matured in to since the 1994 miss. It was a measure of the man he may never have matured in to without that miss to put a stutter in to the confident swagger he had developed. Possibly Baggio learned more from his greatest failing than from his greatest victories.

England's long history with penalty shoot outs has been much documented. It is a little known fact that the first penalty ever awarded to England was in fact missed by Jimmy Crabtree in 1899 against Ireland. The most revered stories however are the redemption stories however which demonstrate a passion and a single mindedness with the fans similar to that of Roberto Baggio. Think of Stuart Pearce and David Beckham, now think of Southgate, Waddle, Batty and Vassell and the contrast of emotions that are evoked. Stuart Pearce transformed from the embodiment of English failure in 1990 to become a symbol of undying passion and redemption in 1996. Beckham who is one of only 3 people to miss more than one penalty for England, has been hero and villain so many times while wearing his nations colours. As captain in Euro 2004 he had a penalty saved in the group stages during a 2-1 victory over France. Then in the quarter finals he stood up to take a penalty despite his earlier miss. He again missed and England exited the tournament but the respect he gained for having the guts to stand up after such a recent failure helped him through the disappointment and he continued to show unrivaled passion and commitment to England's cause where others would have shied away. Others that is such as David Batty, Darius Vassell and to an extent Gareth Southgate. All three were guilty of similar misses to those of Pearce and Beckham but none of them showed the grit and dertermination to win back the respect of the England fans. They each allowed their misses to cast a shadow over the remainder of their careers. Batty once described his miss as a 'bad day at the office' something I can hardly hear Baggio uttering. For Southgate there is still hope. As Middlesbrough captain he took a side to a UEFA cup final where his experiences could have proved invaluable, and now as a manager he possesses an understanding of what he has gone through that most managers do not. Whether he will ever have the opportunity to use his specific experience to any effect will become clear, but it is this ordeal of missing and the vilification that followed which could set him apart from other managers, if he chooses to stand up and make a positive out of a huge negative in his career.

Domestic football offers greater opportunity for redemption. Penalties are awarded week in week out and a proven penalty taker will soon enough get a chance at atoning for a previous miss. It's been known for a designated penalty taker to be relieved of duties due to a spell of bad misses. Disagreements have also broken out over who will take the responsibility of the penalty especially if it is crucial it is converted, remember Paulo Di Canio petulantly wrestling the ball from Frank Lampard's hands. Fans are generally forgiving as the miss may cost 3 points but often not a trophy. Robbie Fowler however proves to be an exception to this rule. In 2004 /05 Fowler was playing for Manchester City. He started the season poorly but had improved and was soon scoring well and proving popular with the fans. On the final day of the season Manchester City needed to beat Middlesbrough to secure a UEFA cup place. With 90 minutes played the scores were tied and Manchester City were missing out on a European adventure. As hope seemed to be fading fast they won a penalty and a chance at glory. The Premier Leagues 3rd highest all time goal scorer steps up and strikes a tame kick which is easily saved by Boros Mark Schwarzer and City miss out on European football for another season. The following season Fowler is blighted by injury and does not feature in the first team often. He moved on a free transfer back to Liverpool later the next season never really having the oppurtunity to atone for his miss. That penalty will be an enduring image of Fowlers spell in Manchester.

Undoubtedly the pressure on a penalty taker is greater during a penalty shoot out. If he misses in the 90 mins the games goes on; if he misses in a shoot out it could be all over for his team and their dreams. Some of the greats (Lineker, Shearer, Terry, Ronaldo to name a few) have failed to convert from 12 yards, some through over confidence, some nerves, some poor technique and some simply slipping on the turf at the crucial moment. It is always going to happen, in a shootout there has to be a loser and when a team loses a shootout the blame so often can come down to one individual. It is then up to that individual to atone for the miss, take inspiration from it even and show to the fans it hurt him as much as it hurt them. Baggio, Pearce, Beckham set examples it is down to Kevin Prince-Boateng and many more to follow.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Up for the Cup

Whatever happens today at the FA Cup final there should be 30,000 extra medals handed out to each and every fan who has made the trip from the south coast this morning. They are there supporting 11 heroes (12 including Avram Grant) who have given them a reason to be proud this season when all seemed lost. Portsmouth has become a total dichotomy; on one side there is the fans club seemingly galvanised by the situation that has made them group together and stand united with the players and manager. Then we are faced with the business club, a total failure and a shining example of gross incompetence. The business men who lost all sense of realism and buoyed by an upturn in the clubs fortunes started to live beyond their means forgot that they run Portsmouth football club not a multinational company. They betrayed fans who trusted them time and time again to take steps to protect the clubs future and at each turn it seems greed and self promotion dominated rather than the common good of Portsmouth. Today at Wembley is a day for the true Portsmouth, the fans, the players and the manager. They deserve this day more than many who have previously enjoyed the privilege. There are stories to be told all over the pitch. Many who could have walked away from the fight did not. Kanu and David James both survivors from the Harry Redknapp side that won here what seems a lifetime ago have stuck with this team and this club. Both will be expected to leave in the summer but by both sticking out this season they have won a place in Pompey folklore. Avram Grant in an added twist will be facing his old team. At Chelsea he was the unlikely successor to Jose Mourinho and faced an uphill struggle to win the affection of fans of what many now deemed to now be Mourino's club. This was a struggle he seemed to be winning as his contract was terminated after the Champions League final loss to Manchester United. The fans moved on and so did Avram but a feeling that he never got the recognition from the fans perhaps endured. Today as Chelsea stand on the verge of a double they must surely feel is in the bag he has the chance to thwart them and have the last laugh.

Chelsea have had a difficult season. This seems a strange statement to make as they are on he brink of completing the League - Cup double but it has been anything but easy. They have hit brilliant highs with their free goalscoring but also endured desperate lows with the Champions League exit and games such as the loss to Blackburn where the Premeriship title seemed to be slipping out of their grasp. It has shown tremendous character to bounce back from these lows and in a season where none of the 'big 4' has been at there best this has been one of the more difficult Titles they will have won. It has been affirming for the squad to come through these times after 3 unstable seasons dominated by Manchester United they looked in desperate need of a Title. Carlo Ancelotti has also silenced many critics at least for now. To face such a tight run in against two managers with huge experience of 'squeaky bum time' and to come out on top of the pile is a truly great achievment. When Sir Alex does retire will his successor win the title in their first season as Ancelotti has done? The only black mark against Ancelottis name is that he was bought in to win the Champions League as this is Abramovich's holy grail. This will again be the aim next year, and another failure may be hard to accept especially if the purse strings are loosened this summer as expected.

The question is can Portsmouth join the list of underdogs to win the final and stand alongside Wimbledon, Sunderland and Southampton with perhaps the greatest fairytale story of them all? Or will their fairytale end just as Fulham's did in Hamburg on Wednesday.
Free scoring Chelsea have already thumped Pompey 5-0 this season and that will still be in the minds of a few players on both sides. On that day David James gifted Chelsea the lead after a nervy start with a total air kick allowing the ball to roll beyond him. James will have to be at his absolute best today if Pompey are to create cup shock history, but with the World Cup fast approaching and his fitness and form stll to prove he just might be. A focus point for many is what will be torn apart first the Portsmouth defence or the Wembley turf. If this latest relaying leaves us with another ploughed field after 20 mins this could disrupt Chelsea and play into Portsmouths hands. The power of Drogba and the skill of Lampard running the midfield I fear will be irrestistable today no matter what. Portsmouth will need a goal I just cant see them getting bar a wonder strike or fluke. Avram Grant will have to make his players believe and keep believing throughout the match despite the thumping they took earlier in the season. His formation and set up will have to be spot on and if still level at 70 mins he will surely have to start thinking about holding on for penalties, or is he planning for that from the start? Carlo Ancelotti will have to keep his dressing room egos calm and remind them the Cup is not won. History shows us and him just how deadly over confidence can be.

It is possible Chelsea could destroy the opposition today as they did to Wigan last week and Stoke the week before and Portsmouth in March. I however feel showboating and Portsmouth grit and pride may halt a demolition. Goals will come though just through the magnitude of chances they will create and I see 3-0 and 3-1 as realistic scores with Drogba and Lampard the usual suspects for first goal scorer.

From there Chelsea will need to strengthen and next year continue their search for that elusive Champions League title. Portsmouth next year perhaps should seek to emulate West Bromwich Albion who are the only side to win the FA Cup and gain promotion to the first division in the same season. Avram Grant is rumoured to be heading to West Ham in he summer so holding on to Grant or installing an equally steady hand at the helm will also be essential in preventing Pompey free falling through the leagues as Leeds, Norwich and Southampton have before them. Financial security and ensuring the clubs future will precede all football talk however.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Evening Update

Just home from watching Fulham. Am gutted for them and their fans. In honesty on the night they did not look likely to win but a little luck and a bucket load of spirit seemed to have got them through to penalties when Forlan struck a deadly cruel blow with 3 mins remaining. Fulham seemed tired and were entitled to be so after an epic long season for them which began back in August. They have done themselves proud and I hope they can progress from here and figure more prominently in the domestic leagues and cups next year.
Tomorrow sees the second day of the Dante meeting and the Dante stakes itself will be run. My tip for the Dante is Workforce, I have also heard good things about this Sir Michael Stoute trained horse for the Derby so may be an idea to back it for that race ante post in case its price drops after a good run tomorrow.
I could not see Leicester putting in that performance against Cardiff. To overturn a two goal deficit and then to still go out on penalties was harsh but it is Cardiff who march on to Wembley to face Blackpool in the richest game in football. Credit to Nigel Pearson and his players for providing us with a fantastic match that went to the wire.
Rumours have also been circulating about who will replace Gianfranco Zola as West Ham manager. Some think Avram Grant is certain to take the reins but after a long hard season with Portsmouth and a lot of other good candidates in the mix I am not sure he will want to walk in to another tough season without a break. Whatever happens I don't think we will hear much more until after the FA Cup final on Saturday.

The Coldest Place in the World?

Here as promised is a little guide to my local race track Bath. It is a peculiar flat racing track which unfortunately has experienced a recent decline. As the highest race track in the country on a cold breezy day you could easily freeze especially if you haven't won enough money to line your pockets. It is a stiff track with tight bends (not dissimilar to Chester) and usually stages races between 5 furlong and 1 mile 5 furlong in distance. It is only a small fixture and rarely attracts many quality horses. The place itself is in desperate need of rejuvination and offers only basic facilities. In recent years they have attempted to reinvent itself by hosting concerts after racing and also themed racing nights. The concerts however have often been only tribute acts. The theme nights such as ladys night and the cider festival have had a little more success but they also have on occasion discouraged traditional race fans from attending. The course has to diversify and run meets such as these to stay alive though. It is worth a visit and if you pick the right meet to attend can be good fun and a great day out. It is just maintaining that standard and redeveloping the stand and infrastructure to make it an attractive place to spend an afternoon. This cannot happen however unless the quality of racing improves, the two are dependant on eachother. It will take a massive effort but hopefully the course can survive and take steps to becoming a respected fixture in the racing calendar.

The Sporting Day 12/05/10

A fascinating days sport lies ahead of us. The first day of the Dante meeting at York live on Channel 4, then the Europa Cup final where the whole country will be getting behind Roy Hodgsons men as they seek to overcome the odds one more time and complete a fairytale story which has been growing in belief all season. Also tonight Cardiff host Leicester with a one goal advantage from the first leg of thier play off semi final, will the home crowd support and the crucial away goal be enough to carry Cardiff to the Wembley final?
For my bets of the day I'll begin at York. With 4 races live on Channel 4 what better afternoons entertainment could you wish for. As for the card, I think it's a cracker. Sure it may seem to lack a few stand out horses but the flat season is still young and it is the lack of the odds on 'certainties' which makes the card a facsinating one to me. So many have chances today, all the star trainers and jockeys are there and I would not be surprised to see a few blanket finishes and some of the longer prices going in. A few that caught my eye in particular are ;
3.10 - Sayif
3.45 - Deauville Flyer
4.55 - Contract Caterer
Away from the big meetings there is also racing at Fontwell and Exeter this afternoon with Bath and Perth also hosting evening meetings. Bath being my home course I shall endeavour to give it a closer inspection later.

Hamburg will tonight play host to a dream that could become a nightmare. The dream that Fulham could complete an amazing, heroic European run and lift the trophy. The nightmare that they fall agonisingly short at the final hurdle. They face a strong Atletico Madrid side with a talisman who needs no introduction to many English football fans - Diego Forlan. He will be dangerous and he knows England will be watching him and he will want to prove himself. I find it hard to see Fulham keeping Atl Madrid out for the 90 mins so they themselves will need to play positive football and score goals. It is vital for Fulham that Zoltan Gera has a good night, I expect Atl Madrid to pay as much attention to him as they do Zamora as so much of Fulhams good play goes through the intelligent Hungarian. He will have chances though and he will provide a constant and quality threat and given his goal scoring record I think he is a great price at 10/3 to score at any time. Ultimately my heart tells me Fulham but my head knows this is as tough, if not tougher than any game they have played this season. So we would do well to remember they have come through each of those games with spirit, fight, determination and ultimately good football. Roy Hodgson will have a job on his hands keeping his side believing they can win no matter what position they find themselves in through the game but you would be crazy to rule them out!

Blackpool's heroics last night ended Nottingham Forest's dream of the Premiership. It was hard on Billy Davis and the Forest squad after a great campaign that threatened so much finally ran out of steam. Maybe Blackpool had the right idea hitting their peak and getting up a head of steam at the perfect time of the season. Tonight another dream will be ended as Cardiff take on Leicester. Already holding a one goal advantage I fully expect Cardiff to win this tie as I just dont see Leicester scoring enough goals. They simply have to go for it and I have not seen Leicester do that often through the season and although it would be not totally out of the blue for the Foxes to do something special tonight I think Cardiff have enough to see them off. Dave Jones is an experienced manager who has shown consistently that given time he will get results. I expect him to not take any risks and for Cardiff to play their normal game. They have no need to go for it but should seek just to hold Leicester back and score a killer goal on the break. As for the goalscorer, well Cardiff have so many it is impossible to chose. I think the better bet may come in the total match goals market with 3 goals exactly being priced at 3/1.
Enjoy the sport and have a lucky day!

Tuesday, 11 May 2010


Welcome to my blog all about current affairs, sports and whatever else gets caught up in my head. I hope you enjoy reading it. Best Wishes Tom