Category Archives: Uncategorized

The year English talent started to flourish in franchises

The Indian Premier League is an easy competition to feel ambivalent towards. A key player in the T20 revolution since its inception in 2008, it has played its part in helping to resuscitate the sport. Yet as a tournament itself, it can irritate. On the superficial side, audiences have had to endure nonsense such as ‘Yes Bank Maximums’ and ‘Citi Moments of Success’, gimmicks trotted out by puppeteer commentators, the worst of whom has to be the superfluous Danny Morrison. 

Gushing is the default mode for all, perhaps out of fear more than choice. Harsha Bhogle — hardly known for rallying against the establishment — has had his IPL commentary contract cancelled in April of this year, with mild criticism the likely instigator. Of course, there has been little explanation as to why the decision was taken. Transparency isn’t the BBCI’s default mode. 

The BBCI — alongside the English and Australian Cricket boards — have shown themselves to be unstintingly greedy in recent years, and that air of superiority and untouchability seems to have rubbed off on the competition itself, with both the Chennai Super Kings and the Rajasthan Royals both suspended ahead of this year’s edition due to match fixing. The show goes on. 

Since the start of 2008, the show has gone on almost entirely devoid of English talent. For the rest of the world, that is an understandable irrelevance. For English Cricket fans, it jars a bit. Match fixing is a far greater issue, but part of the jealousy stems from seeing the likes of Chris Gayle and AB De Villiers strut their stuff, while as a nation we have almost uniformly steered clear. 

Things, thankfully, are starting to change. The IPL still overlaps with the start of the English summer, thus meaning it is not viable for all our stars to take part — namely Joe Root — but there has been a definite change in tack. Eoin Morgan and in particular Kevin Pietersen were previously treated as petty criminals for their yearning for the bright lights instead of a four-day game at Chester Le-Street in April. Not anymore. 

Andrew Strauss, a man who was at ruinous odds with Pietersen in the latter stages of his own career, has played a crucial role. The Director of Cricket has placed a lot of emphasis on white ball cricket since his induction, and the run to the final in the World T20 was justification for his approach. Encouraging county players to venture further afield will only help the rapid progression. 

Alex Hales had a short spell with the Mumbai Indians at the back end of last season, while David Willey and Adil Rashid starred in the Big Bash in the lead up to this year’s WT20. James Vince, Sam Billings and Ravi Bopara turned out in the inaugural Pakistan Super League. This time round in India, Jos Buttler, Sam Billings and Chris Jordan have featured for Mumbai, the Delhi Daredevils and Royal Challengers Bangalore respectively. 

Things haven’t exactly gone perfectly. Buttler has flitted in an out of form, largely reduced to cameos. Billings has played five games. Jordan only joined up with RCB as a replacement, and it took him until his fourth game  — where he took 4-11 against Gujarat Lions — to rediscover new-found ability to bowl at the death. Now he has, he will find himself lining up in the final. 

These England players aren’t novices — they are now part of one of the best limited overs squads in the world — but thrown into a situation like this it almost feels as if they are. Every standout performance from one of them feels like a validation: Our boys belong with the best. Adoration and worldwide recognition may follow.

On top of that, their participation will hopefully pile the pressure on ECB and the Counties for a solution to our own domestic T20 league, which currently survives rather than thrives. If the new breed can add their voices to the likes of Pietersen and Morgan, then something is likely to give. 

England’s solo T20 crown came in 2010, where the squad — ably led by Paul Collingwood — rode the crest of a Pietersen-inspired wave. Since then, the talent has been bubbling under the surface in the County game. However, it is 2016 that may well be remembered as the year we cracked it for good. The revolution must continue. 

 

This is the Mod-ern world

A look at how the FA is trying to improve provision for youngsters at grassroots level- and whether it can have the desired effect further down the line, which is ultimately producing a better national team and more players for the Premier League.

Part of my final major project at university. (Set out in the style of the Observer). 

Hoop dreams? A tricky route to stardom

Basketball is the second most popular played sport in the UK amongst 11-15 year olds in this country, but our international success is non-existent. Our professional league has no credible reputation either. I spoke to key figures in the game to see how the sport can progress.

Part of my final major project at university. (Set out in the style of the Observer). 

A Season With Verona- book review

A season with Verona

 

A Season with Verona makes you both laugh and despair about football.

It is a work of non-fiction, yet at times feels anything but that. The author Tim Parks is an English ex-pat living in Verona.

Parks commits to going to every Hellas Verona league game during the 2000-2001 season.  He sits on the fringes of the curva with his son Michele, he travels with the notorious Brigate Gialloblu hundreds of miles by coach, and he flies with the first team. It makes for an, eye-opening, and often jaw-dropping, read.

On a cramped coach on the first away trip to Bari, Black, Jewish and homosexual people are abused incessantly by the Gialloblu hardcore. The Juventus fans are taunted about the Heysel disaster. It makes for deeply unpleasant reading. The hardcore aren’t alone either. The curva make monkey grunts at black players. Club President Giambattista Pastorello even explains the difficulty of Verona signing a player from Cameroon. Parks certainly doesn’t shy away from describing the behaviour of the fans.

He also expands on other Italian issues through the medium of football. What better way to learn about the North v South divide than through a trip to Napoli on a Veronese supporters’ coach?

Politically-motivated corruption also appears to be rife. If you read the book at the time, you may have thought Parks’ grumblings about officiating favouritism towards the big six were exaggerated.  But after the Calciopoli (match fixing) scandal in 2006, which implicated Juventus, AC, Fiorentina, Reggina and Lazio, the writer’s impassioned fury now seems entirely justified and prescient.

The scope of the story is huge, but it ultimately fixates around Verona’s fortunes on the field. In that sense Parks strikes it lucky. The team are soon embroiled in a distressing relegation battle. The mood isn’t helped by the fact that their smaller city neighbours, Chievo Verona, could replace them in the top fight.

The season has everything. The emergence of young stars, last minute winners aplenty, a disproportionate amount of red cards and a gripping relegation fight that finishes in a spectacular manner.

But Parks doesn’t just describe the drama of the campaign like a detached reporter; he encapsulates the very essence of what it means to be a football fan. The genuine, unadulterated anger. The never-ending hours of exasperation, and most importantly, those rare moments of unbridled joy, the sense of unity and belonging.

Parks isn’t the only voice, a note from ‘The wall’ (the messageboard he frequents) is a feature at the start of each chapter, and we also here reports and views from many different figures throughout. But none perhaps sum up the pain of supporting a lowly club more than a disconsolate teenager at the end of chapter 30, as Verona slip to defeat in Naples:

‘‘My world is falling apart,’’ the boy beside me starts to curse rhythmically. He has his face in his hands. ‘‘Let it be over now. Let it be over. I don’t want to hear anybody talk about hope. I don’t want t hear anyone saying it’s not mathematical yet, that they still believe we can make it.

 ‘‘Let’s go into Serie B. It’s where we belong. Let’s not even try to get into Serie A again. It’s too painful. It’s too painful. Pastorello is a shit. The players are shits. They didn’t try. I’m not going to get a season ticket next year. I’m giving up football. Let’s stay in Serie B forever. It’s stupid expecting Verona to play in Serie A. All we do is go to games and suffer and suffer to no end. There’s no hope, that’s the truth. We’ve got to get used to there being no hope’’.

 Any regular match goer can surely sympathise with this anguished, miserable outlook.

A cut above the rest

Austrlia WC 

 

 

 

 

Watching the World Cup final yesterday morning, it almost felt as if the dominant, imperious Australian team that reigned supreme from the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century had never left us in the first place.

 It has pretty much been that way all throughout the tournament. Watching as an England fan, you waited for the veneer to slip, or maybe the moment when their natural confidence turned into a lackadaisical complacency. But the moment never came.

 Maybe it already happened. Australia got their bad game out of the way against New Zealand in the group stage, narrowly losing one of the matches of the tournament at Eden Park. Such a well-oiled machine wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. Not in one tournament.

 In the opening game in Australia, England were brushed aside by Clarke and co with ease, quite amusing ease. The rain then rescued Bangladesh. Sri Lanka suffered a similar fate to Morgan’s men.

 Aside from a scintillating spell of hostility from Wahab Riaz, Pakistan failed to provide an exemplary challenge in the quarter-finals. India, unbeaten India, MS Dhoni’s India, proved to be cannon fodder at the SCG in the semis.

New Zealand had played pretty similar cricket to Australia throughout the tournament. It involved brazen, snarling bowling and carefree, yet calculated batting. Maybe they were the ones to challenge this inexorable superiority. The simple, regrettable answer was no.

 Australia have found their level, and it is different to one that anyone else currently occupies. This has been a reversion back to the Australia that won three World Cups in a row from 1999-2007. The intensity simply doesn’t look like letting up.

 And who’s to say it will? Without wanting to sound reactive, this side has a chance to take 50-over cricket by the scruff of the neck for the long haul, like so many of their predecessors have done.

 Players will inevitably have to move on. Four that played yesterday were aged 33 over. Yet replacements seem so readily available that it scarcely seems to matter. Smith will captain the side in Clarke’s absence. He has led and will lead his teammates well.

 Smith is also batting in that serene, almost faultless zone that few players ever enter during their careers’ entirety. The former bits and bobs cricketer now looks infallible to the point where you wonder whether his form will ever decline again. It will invariably come to an end, but that point doesn’t seem close for now.

 Brad Haddin, at the age of 37, will surely follow Clarke. If so, his competitive edge will be missed, but his sneery sledging will not be. He will be seamlessly replaced by one of the plethora of wicket keepers at Australia’s disposal. Matthew Wade, Tim Paine, Peter Handscombe and Peter Neville could all make the grade. Tim Ludeman also impressed during the Big Bash.

 Mitchell Johnson has also hinted at a potential one-day retirement. His absence would be more keenly felt in the current set-up, but if there is one thing Australia don’t have a paucity of, it is young fast bowlers. Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood are fully settled in the team, with Starc picking up the man of the tournament gong.  James Faulkner, who bases his game round a deceitful array of slower balls, proved his worth by dismantling New Zealand’s middle order in yesterday’s final.

Young Pat Cummins has had to look on from the sidelines.  Mitchell Marsh took a five-for v England before promptly disappearing. Nathan Coulter-Nile, Sean Abbott, Kane Richardson and John Hastings didn’t make the squad. Others fantasise over such riches, Australia make them wait patiently in the wings.

 You get the idea. Australia will recover from their losses.

 They will still face stiff challenges. South Africa’s three stars, Dale Steyn, AB De Villiers and Hashim Amla, will all continue for the foreseeable future. Faf Du Plessis, David Miller and Imran Tahir have all showcased their ability at the highest level, and they will consider themselves unlucky not to have reached their first World cup final.

 New Zealand are currently sweating on the potential retirement of Brendon McCullum, and Daniel Vettori is bowing out after a wonderful career. The Black Caps though, with or without McCullum, would remain a formidable force. 

 India still perhaps have the most talented set of batsmen in the world. In the one-day game they have recovered from the loss of the stars that took them to the world title in 2011 admirably.  Australia were too good on home soil, but they will remain there or thereabouts, and significantly more comfortable on slower surfaces.

Sri Lanka face an uncertain future without their two benign batting fathers. Pakistan will also find life hard without the phlegmatic presence of Misbah ul-Haq. For England and West Indies, the outlook seems decidedly bleak for the time being.

 The point is though; none of these opponents look like they are about to drastically improve. India may have the potential to, but it is Australia that look like they may have the best chance of developing under Steve Smith in this format.

 This is after they have just walloped everyone out of site on the biggest stage of all. Australia have won four out of the last five World Cups. That authority doesn’t look like ending anytime soon. 

A strictly mutual love affair

JA

(Photo credit: Macclesfield express)

There are many things a football fan in the modern day yearns for. A return to sensible ticket pricing, for a start. A serious discussion with the powers that be about safe standing would also be welcomed with alacrity. The prohibition of selfie sticks and half and half scarves would undoubtedly go down a treat. The list is endless.

 A small semblance of loyalty, from both players and managers alike, wouldn’t go amiss from time to time either. In the current climate where transience trumps longevity, it is becoming increasingly rare that supporters can relate to those that represent their club. The people they help to employ often don’t have the courtesy to stick around long enough for that to happen.

 At Macclesfield Town it is a different story. The Silkmen, like any other club in the land, aren’t without problems. In their case, the issues are chiefly financial. In May 2013, the club was thought to be in £500,000 worth of debt.

 Later that year, names such as Bryan Robson, Frank Sinclair and James Beattie turned out in a vital fundraising game for the club. In recent years, players and staff haven’t always been paid on time. All is still not well at Moss Rose. Financial problems cast a portentous shadow. Yet at least the club and the fans can rely on John Askey. They have been doing so for 31 years now.

 Askey has been at Macclesfield since Dario Grady has been at Crewe. He was playing at Moss Rose before Alex Ferguson had even been considered for the Manchester United job. The year Askey started playing for the Cheshire club was the year that now-Uefa president Michel Platini inspired France to European glory. It is therefore a gross understatement when he describes Macclesfield as a ‘‘big part of my life.’’

 ‘‘I feel as though Macclesfield is my football club. As a lad you support a team. I would say now, if I wasn’t managing or playing or whatever, then Macclesfield would be my club,’’ Askey says.

 ‘‘Over the years I’ve got to know, if not by name, by face, most of the people who come and watch Macclesfield so obviously people recognise I’m involved with Macclesfield, so I suppose I have become part of the fixtures and fittings, which is nice.’’

 Askey joined Macclesfield, who were in the Northern Premier League at the time, in 1984 alongside his brother Bob to fill a gap when the club were short of players. He arrived having not made a first team appearance for the club of his youth, Port Vale. Despite not making the grade at Vale, John’s ambition was to play league football.

The Silkmen reached the Conference in 1987, and after a few years of consolidation they won the title in 1994-95 season under former Manchester United midfielder Sammy McIlroy. However, the club was cruelly denied promotion to the Football League because Moss Rose did not meet league requirements of having a 6,000 capacity, including at least 1,000 seats by the deadline of December 31 1994.

 To Askey, it was a decision that ‘‘just didn’t make sense,’’ one governed by ‘‘politics’’ rather than facilities. For the many of the squad who dreamed of playing league football, the news would have been a hammer blow.

For Askey, the ruling presented a double-edged sword. His dream of playing in the football league had been temporarily put on hold, but he was able to keep his day job working in insurance.

‘‘It was a disappointment, but at the time it wasn’t a great disappointment for me because I had a good job, and going to the Football League I thought I might have to either pack my job in or pack Macclesfield in. So although I was disappointed for the club for myself it wasn’t too bad because it enabled me to do both,’’ says the 50-year-old.

 When Macclesfield did reach the promised Land in 1997, Askey continued to balance his work and football life for the first season back.

 ‘‘When you’ve got a family and you’re getting older you need security, so that’s why I carried on working as well. I was able to do the two and it didn’t stop me from being able to compete and do a job for the team. Again, it worked out really well for me.

 ‘‘In the team I think there was only me who did that so I was lucky that the manager allowed me to do it. But there aren’t many players. There’s no reason why not though. I think it does you good if it’s a certain type of job.  It keeps you mentally active. As long as it’s not a physical job, if you worked on a building site it would be difficult, but if the job’s not too manual and it doesn’t take too much of your time up then it is possible.’’

 It was a good time to be playing at Macclesfield, and the first season back in the Football League eclipsed everyone’s expectations. Under McIlroy the club went unbeaten at Moss Rose and finished third, gaining an unlikely promotion.

 Askey, who had spent his lengthy career in non-league football, was now facing the likes of Manchester City, Stoke City, Preston North End and Fulham. Although it lasted only a season, the striker from Stoke-on-Trent found success very sweet.

 ‘‘It was a fantastic time to be involved with the football club and it kept me going.The hardest thing in football is to keep your enthusiasm, but as I got older we got more successful and that enabled me to keep my enthusiasm. Instead of coming down the leagues as would normally happen when you get older, I was going up the leagues so it couldn’t of worked out better for me,’’ he says.

It is often said that no good thing lasts forever. Askey did his best to disprove that theory for as long as possible with a 19-year playing career, but in 2003 he finally hung up his threadbare boots. The next stage of his affiliation with Macclesfield beckoned.

 While playing, Askey had already taken the reserve team manager’s job, something that proved to be a rousing success. He led the team to the Alliance League trophy, competing against bigger names such as Hull and Stoke.

During this time he helped to invigorate the career of Rickie Lambert, who was without a club after being released from Blackpool. Askey spoke with Lambert and it was decided that he would best be deploying the future England man at centre forward rather than midfield.

 He was also assistant manager at this time, so when manager Dave Moss was sacked, Askey naturally stepped into his shoes. In his short period at the helm he felt he was helping the club ‘‘turn a corner.’’

 Ten players were replaced, with John Parkin (later sold for £300,000), Paul Horsley and Matt Carragher all arriving. Yet just as Askey began to feel ensconced in the role, he was replaced by Brian Horton and demoted back to assistant.

 ‘‘I don’t think the club or the owner really wanted me as manager so I was sacked, but still kept on as assistant to Brian Horton,’’ says Askey.

 ‘‘But with everything you have to learn from which I did and I have tried to pick up good things from all the managers that have come into the football club. Some things you think I wouldn’t do it that way. Good things you’d say I would do it that way. It has been a good learning curve.’’

 Fast-forward to the current day and Askey is back in the hot seat, seven managers and eleven years after he was rudely interrupted during his first spell. This time round, he has had ample time to exert his control.

 He has been in charge since the summer of 2013. Macclesfield are reaping the rewards for a touch of managerial stability. With seven games left they sit in third, four points off the coveted top spot. The play-offs at the very least seem a formality. Yet you can’t help but feel they are achieving spite of poor decisions at the top. Askey is adamant he wouldn’t have ever got the job again if the club could have avoided it.

 ‘‘It’s only circumstances (financial) that have meant I’ve got the job. I said before, because of the financial position of the football club, they couldn’t afford to bring anybody in, they couldn’t afford to sack me so it fell on my lap.

 ‘’Hopefully it has benefited the football club and myself and people realise now that they should have given me the job a long time ago.’’

 It isn’t hard not to sense a simmering undercurrent of discontentment. When asked about his working relationship with chairman Amar Alkadhi, Askey laughs and says, ‘‘fantastic. No comment on that.’’ The fans also remain apathetic to the current situation.

 ‘’I think people still don’t believe that we can do it. On Tuesday when we played Telford there was 1,200, which for a team that is going for promotion compared with the gates of a few years ago is not great.

 ‘‘There is still apathy about the town, but we believe we can change that and the only way to change people’s minds is to keep winning games and that is what spurs us on. Not just me but the players and the staff, to prove people wrong.’’

 There remains a steely sangfroid about Askey, despite all that has gone before and all that is still going on. They may have the lowest budget in the league, but promotion is now firmly within reach. He is open about what that could mean to the club.

 ‘’I think it’s worth about a million pounds if we go up. Obviously a million pounds to us would be like winning the lottery. Even today we’ve had to come and train here (the home ground) because we can’t train at the training ground because we’ve not paid the bill. So to get around a million pounds in would mean a great deal. The wage bill could probably increase double if we were to get up.’’

 Macclesfield’s money troubles appear even starker when you consider the town sits just twenty miles from Manchester, where City and United continue to spend with reckless abandon. Askey believes the Premier League clubs are trying to ‘‘wipe out’’ clubs such at Macclesfield, yet he insists he doesn’t think it will happen.

 ‘‘Each town has a football club and that is part of the town’s identity. If you are from Scunthorpe or if you are from Bury, you want to support those clubs. Most people do if they are into football. Not everybody wants to watch Manchester United and Manchester City.

 ‘‘I don’t think the people at the top get that. They don’t understand football. You can watch a good football game at the top level and you can watch a good football game on a Sunday morning. Sometimes it can depend on what the game means. It could be a cup final, it could be somebody trying to get promoted and it could be a relegation battle.

 ‘‘That’s what creates the tension and the atmosphere. I’ve watched fantastic games at the top level and I’ve watched fantastic games at the lower level so it doesn’t matter what game you watch, you never know what you’re going to get.’’

 There is no money coming in at Moss Rose. The club may be slightly over the worst of their financial problems, but it’s worth remembering that they were three days from being evicted from all leagues last summer. Some staff don’t get paid. Askey may only be able to take his chargers so far. Although his ardour for Macclesfield remains, he is realistic enough to realise it may not last forever.

 ‘‘I think everybody is ambitious and you’ve got to move on, especially as a manager. I think it’s different with other jobs but as a manager if you stand still too long then eventually you have to walk down to the job centre, so you’ve got to move on and be ambitious. Now it’s my only job as such, I’m looking to be ambitious.’’

For a man who has been tied to the same team for 31 years now, it seems like a preposterous thing to say. He can never leave. Can he? Maybe modern football has caught up with John Askey. Maybe he aspires to manage at a level Macclesfield can ever get to. Maybe, just maybe, he feels a tad under-appreciated.

 After all, he did slip into the job by default. Those who support the club revere their current boss. Do those in charge hold him in the same regard? They might not know it, but they need him more than ever.  

 

 

A New Zealand win would be a welcome win

Basin reserve two

New Zealand isn’t a big place, and it doesn’t have many inhabitants.  In 2014, the recorded population was just over 4.5 million. That is the lowest figure of any Test playing nation, and barring the West Indies, by quite some margin.

Cricket isn’t even New Zealand’s national sport, far from it. That is Rugby, and with good reason too.

 They have two World Cups to their name in that sport. Over 7% of adult New Zealanders play cricket, but it has never commanded national attention like Rugby.  

 And as a result, the Black Caps have never really taken the world game by storm. Sure, they have had their share of great cricketers.

 Richard Hadlee was a great cricketer. He was part of that quartet of all-rounders that shone brightly in the 80’s, standing alongside Imran Khan, Kapil Dev and Ian Botham.

Martin Crowe was a great batsman, one who oozed class. He has 17 test centuries to his name.  During the span of Martin Crowe’s Test career, New Zealand played 94 tests.

 In the same time frame England played 137.  Australia played 130.  Crowe could have scored many more test runs, had he been from a bigger cricketing nation.

 In the modern era, New Zealand have continued to provide some gems. Daniel Vettori has taken over 650 international wickets with his intelligent yet unspectacular brand of left arm spin, yet you would barely have noticed had you not been paying close attention.

 Shane Bond was an electrifying fast bowler, who but for injury would surely have taken countless amounts of wickets against hapless, cowering opponents.

 Stephen Fleming, who was often deprived of the services of Bond whilst captain, is generally seen as one of the great brains of modern cricket. Fleming has the most number of wins as New Zealand captain, and he led his side to their singular world title to date, the inaugural Champions trophy.

 Yet New Zealand have always remained on the periphery. If you don’t follow cricket attentively, they would barely enter your stream of consciousness.

 A consistent paucity of options means they are unable to challenge the supremacy of the bigger nations more than one series at a time.

 Barring Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the Black caps are the only Test side not to have been ranked at number 1 in in their history.

 New Zealand’s World Cup finishes have been consistent, if not remarkable. Perennial dark horses, they have reached the semi-finals in 6 out of 11 World Cups. But they have never gone one further.

 Yet you sense this time something could be different. Something has stirred in New Zealand cricket in these past 18 months. They are unbeaten in their last five test series, winning four, drawing one. 

That Draw came against Pakistan in the UAE, a result their more haughty neighbours Australia couldn’t muster months before.

New Zealand have won four of their last 5 ODI series’ as well. Brendon McCullum, a rambunctious, destructive batsman, has developed into a phlegmatic leader capable of drawing the best out the options at his disposal.

 And these options are perhaps as good as New Zealand have ever had. Alongside McCullum, the Black Caps can count on the stolid, unassuming Kane Williamson, who is quietly forging a reputation as one of the world’s next stars.

 Ross Taylor remains a stalwart of the middle order, and continues to score heavily despite the controversial loss of captaincy.

 In Corey Anderson they have the man who until recently held the record for the fastest ODI hundred, which came in 36 balls against the West Indies at Queenstown last year.

 Luke Ronchi, a wicketkeeper with little reputation, recently struck 170 off 99 balls against Sri Lanka, striding to the crease with his side 93-5.

 New Zealand are moving with the times. In a day where 300 may not be enough, the Black caps have the required firepower to make scores in excess of 330. They are lead of course, by McCullum at the top of the order.

 Their bowling unit has plenty about it too. Over the last two years in Test cricket Trent Boult and Tim Southee have formed one of the most effective opening new-ball partnerships, devilish enough to take wickets rather than just sit back and contain.

 The evergreen Kyle Mills has 240 ODI wickets under his belt, and the powerful Mitchell McClenaghan has made an impressive start to his career.

In the spin department, Daniel Vettori will do what he has always done, taking wickets at a good rate while stubbornly refusing to let the batsman dominate him.

For the first time in a long time, it feels like New Zealand have all the tools at their disposal. Just over two years ago they were  plunged into crisis when Ross Taylor was unceremoniously removed as skipper.

 He was replaced by Brendon McCullum. But once that sorry saga was put to bed, the Black Caps have not looked back. A youthful squad capable of destruction, playing on home soil, New Zealand suddenly don’t seem like dark horses anymore.

They might not win the World Cup. They might fall again at the semi-final, to the more fancied Australia or South Africa.

 If that were to happen, they would go without fuss, just as they usually do.

 But you can’t help but feel that this is their best chance yet, and who knows, it may be their best chance for the next 20 years to come.

 And for that reason, a New Zealand win would be a welcome win. 

However you look at it, Harry Redknapp failed at QPR

HR

Maybe Tim Sherwood, or whoever is next in line for the poisoned chalice that is the QPR job, won’t do a better job than Harry Redknapp.

 Maybe if Junior Hoilett had found the top corner with those sumptuous curlers he regularly pulled out of the bag at Blackburn just a few times, then QPR wouldn’t be languishing in the relegation places.

 Instead, Hoilett seems only to fire the ball into the first defender with unerring accuracy in a hooped shirt.  

Maybe if Sandro, one of the great lads from the Spurs days, hadn’t been injured with quite such alarming regularity, Rangers would have conceded just a few less sloppy goals on the road. Who’s to say they wouldn’t even have a point to show for their gallant efforts?

 Maybe if Redknapp didn’t have to rely on the efforts of 35-year-old Richard Dunne week in, week out, QPR would find themselves in a loftier position.

 In a parallel world, he may have even signed a former Manchester United and England defender to guide us through these choppy waters.

 Maybe if new signing Jordon Mutch hadn’t been so bloody inconsistent in those six league starts of his then he wouldn’t have been sold to Crystal Palace, for a loss, six months after he walked through the talent-sapping walls of Loftus Road.

 And maybe, just maybe, if Redknapp hadn’t inherited such a disinterested rabble of mercenaries from Mark Hughes in the first place, then QPR wouldn’t be in this position at all.

 Heck, if Redknapp had taken over before Hughes, then the R’s would probably be howling at Paul Lambert as he screws Aston Villa up from our vantage point in upper-mid table utopia.

 Yet if there is one thing that is not up for debate, then it is the fact that Harry Redknapp failed in his role as QPR manager, perhaps spectacularly so.

 It is true that Tony Fernandes has taken to ownership of a football club like a shark to land rather than a duck to water. It also true that Mark Hughes was a disaster from start to finish.

 But that doesn’t wholly explain a scattergun transfer policy, inherent throughout Arry’s reign.

 Since he took over in November 2012, Redknapp has signed 21 players, spending approximately £50m. If that isn’t called a rebuilding process, then I’m at a bit of a loss as to what is.

Out of those 21 players, you can count on one hand which of those can be considered an unmitigated success. Loic Remy, Yun-Suk Young (still in early stages), Richard Dunne and Charlie Austin, god bless him.

 It can be fairly argued that Danny Simpson didn’t do much wrong before his move. Harry can have that one. Coll Donaldson was bought for the long-term, so we’ll forget him.

 The rest are; Christopher Samba, Jermaine Jenas, Karl Henry, Gary O’Neil, Matt Phillips, Oguchi Onyewu (who?), Yossi Benayoun, Aaron Hughes, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Caulker, Jordon Mutch, Leroy Fer, Jack Robinson (out on loan despite injuries to Yun and Traore), Alex McCarthy and Sandro.

 Amongst the few who arrived before he did, only really Rob Green and Joey Barton have got better. Marginally. Youngsters such as Nedum Onuha and Hoilett have continued to stagnate.

 QPR’s under-21’s ply their trade in division two development league south section, so unlike some others I find it difficult to pin the blame on Redknapp for not blooding youngsters into the team. They aren’t even mixing it with the conglomerate giants at youth level, never mind the Premier League.

 But you cannot look at that list of mediocrity that has filtered its way into squad and not ask pertinent questions. That isn’t Hughes’ mess there, it reeks of inadequate scouting and short-termism, and it has been done under the watch of Redknapp and his staff. 

 Fernandes’ general ineptness also doesn’t explain the lack of a structure and a workable strategy throughout this current campaign. Good home form has kept the club within touching distance of survival, but playing your new central midfielder out on the left wing and Chile’s main striker Eduardo Vargas on the right, simply illuminates the lack of a plan.

 Bobby Zamora’s knees may have held out to help QPR bully teams at Loftus Road for a time, but his conspicuous lack of pace has meant that playing along the floor often seems a distant memory, and playing on the break away from home has been rendered all but impossible with him in the side.

 After the Burnley game, a record-breaking 10th straight on the road, Redknapp had this to say to the newspapers:

 ”No one is more disappointed than me but it’s hard to win away. Seven or eight of that team were playing last year in the Championship and finished miles behind Burnley and 20 points behind Leicester so we can’t get carried away about who we are. We are scrapping away with the other clubs down there.”

 Forget the raft of players acquired over the summer, both signings and loanees; QPR finished behind Burnley so the fans mustn’t get carried away.  A quick glance at Burnley’s wage bill and transfer fees and it may be come clear why Redknapp should have been striving for more than a heartless relegation scrap with our Lancashire rivals.

Burnley, incidentally, are managed by a young, hungry manager, intent on siphoning the best from his squad, many of whom before the last season would have been viewed as Championship stalwarts at best.

 Sean Dyche is the polar of opposite of Redknapp, prepared to work within limits and mould a competitive team. He is exactly the type of man QPR should look to appoint.

 For Redknapp, his indifferent affair with QPR has come to an abrupt end.  The fans failed to love him, and he never really seemed to find much affection for the club in return. Maybe we will see him again, maybe we won’t.

 Maybe his knees are causing him genuine grief, and we are all showing a lack of warmth to one of the Premier League’s loyal servers.

 But maybe, just maybe, if QPR had signed Emmanuel Adebayor on loan, we wouldn’t be seeing the back of Redknapp just yet. Adebayor remains a Spurs player. Perhaps he would have reminded Harry of happier times. 

Premier League talking points: United/City, Mason, Arsenal, QPR

 

Both Manchester clubs continue to showcase their vulnerability:

 

Manchester City’s sixth win in seven Manchester derbies was barely convincing, but it at least put a halt to a three game winless run and kept them within touching distance of Chelsea. However, United’s dominance in the last twenty minutes when down to ten men will worry Manuel Pellegrini and it once again showed his sides’ brittle core against esteemed opponents. City shouldn’t have given United a sniff once they took the lead through Sergio Aguero, yet they found themselves hanging on at the end. A more encouraging sign for Pellegrini was the way in which City carved through the United defence even before Chris Smalling was sent off. Attempts from Jesus Navas and Aguero saved in quick succession by David De Gea came off the back of incisive, slick forward play that was a trademark of their title victory last season. They just need to find an extra bit of solidarity to return to their best.

For United, it was the same old story, as a patched up defence failed to impress once more. It is still just one clean sheet in the league so far, which came against lowly QPR. Successful moves for Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao in the summer were ominous signs of intent, but the key issue was once again criminally neglected. The Reds do not have a commanding, experienced centre half regularly fit. Jonny Evans can barely escape the treatment table, whilst Phil Jones and Chris Smalling seem inhibited by the pressure, rather than inspired by it. New signing Marcos Rojo hasn’t been a complete car crash, but he is not a defender in the same league as Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, who both departed this summer. He may also be more naturally suited to left back, and he faces a lengthy spell out after dislocating his shoulder. That left United relying on 19-year-old Paddy Mcnair and Michael Carrick at centre back on Sunday with Antonio Valencia at right back. Van Gaal’s men are simply not well equipped enough in defence to mount anything more than a top four push. For a side that has won many titles based on strong foundations, this continual lack of attention is dumbfounding.

 Mason right at home in Spurs midfield:

Harry Kane will grab the headlines for his deflected free-kick winner against Aston Villa, but the recent performances of Ryan Mason should not be quickly forgotten. It has taken Mason a full six years to break into the Spurs first XI, and he certainly appears to be making up for irretrievable time. The 23-year-old appears composed on the ball, unafraid of a tackle and able to make late dashes in the box. With Paulinho and Moussa Dembele both failing to kick on Mason has filled a vital hole, and he could be here to stay. He has already given us a glimpse of his long range shooting with a virtuoso effort against Nottingham Forest, his breakthrough game, and he was unlucky not to score at the Etihad Stadium after another adventurous dash into the box. He will be lucky if he doesn’t escape punishment for his part in Christian Benteke’s red card, but it would seem a waste for him to receive a suspension just as he starts to leave his mark.

Super Sanchez makes CL qualification seem a foregone conclusion:

 

After a poor start to the campaign Arsenal are all but out of the title once more, but thanks to the blistering form of Alexis Sanchez a top four finish looks a certainty this year, especially given the inconsistencies of others. This may not appease the Arsenal faithful, who constantly clamour for a proper title challenge, but it is still vital they don’t finish outside the Champions League places. Southampton may sit five points above them in second place, but given the firepower the Gunners possess it is unlikely that it will stay that way. Theo Walcott’s return should give them a boost, and alongside Sanchez and Danny Welbeck he should add the extra pace that makes Wenger’s men a devilish prospect on the break as well as a team who monopolises the ball. But for the time being Sanchez is carrying others around him, something that needs to change.

 

QPR take hope from recent performances:

 

Maybe QPR’s performance against Liverpool against Loftus Road a couple of weeks back was slightly over-hyped. After all, they ended up conceding three goals to a side that seemed totally devoid of any attacking spark against Newcastle at the weekend and finding life after Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge distressing. QPR’s last two performances should please them more. Firstly against Aston Villa, where they finally managed to get Charlie Austin, Bobby Zamora and Eduardo Vargas functioning at once, with all three dovetailing splendidly to set up a 2-0 victory. Secondly, Rangers should be pleased with the way they worried the League’s clear best side at Stamford Bridge. A wonder goal from and Oscar and a slightly dodgy penalty won and converted by Eden Hazard proved the difference, but it was a much improved away performances from the visitors after early season drubbings against Manchester United and Tottenham. In Austin QPR also seemed to have found a striker capable of scoring at the highest level. His goal against Chelsea was his fifth in nine games this season, and when he has a partner playing alongside him he seems to come alive.