An Ode to Ian Holloway, the Premier League’s gift to the world

The world of Ian Holloway is one I’m certain that we as mere spectators will never be able to fully understand. This week has seen his beloved Blackpool side suffer a continued run of defeats and their talismanic skipper Charlie Adam moving ever closer to a departure from the club. However, Holloway has once again excelled himself in his frank, honest and admirable addresses to the press.

Holloway has found his perfect fit in Blackpool

Tuesday night saw Blackpool two goals to the good against the unbeaten league leaders Manchester United come half time. Dreamland for the Tangerines. However, when they were cruelly denied a stonewall penalty at the start of the second period, the mood became rather ominous. Things just started to feel like they were tilting in United’s direction. The game finished 3-2 to United, the half time score turned completely on it’s head, Blackpool fans and players alike were left in a state of disbelief.

In spite of this disappointment, Ian Holloway once again outdid himself in his post match interview. When quizzed over the controversial penalty decision his response was “deary, deary me”. He was understandably upset by a game changing decision in arguably the biggest match Blackpool have had in decades but he still had the honesty and decency to laud his opposite number Sir Alex Ferguson and his side for their “awesome comeback.” “What a team they are” he proclaimed in awe and respect of the comeback his counterparts had just inflicted upon his side.

This decision to not dwell on the poor decision of the officials and his side’s failure to close out against major opposition, but instead, to heap praise upon their opponents is indicative of Holloway’s sheer love of the game. He is the sort of character than can stand back and appreciate that there will be human error in top-level and fast-paced professional sport. He knows that his side will have had their fair share of luck along the way and is simply appreciative of the finer things his beloved sport has to offer.

It is this infectious attitude towards the game that has inspired Blackpool to the brilliant position the club find themselves in at the moment. The sort of spirit that has, as Holloway so brilliantly portrayed in the week, had the Blackpool players responding to such adversity as the potential loss of their captain to Liverpool by singing “You’ll never walk alone” to him as he entered the dressing room. Only a club run by a character like Holloway, and there aren’t that many of them, could demonstrate such humour and togetherness.

Charlie Adam Charlie Adam of Blackpool is pursued by Christian Poulsen of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Blackpool and Liverpool at Bloomfield Road on January 12, 2011 in Blackpool, England.

Could Charlie Adam find himself lining up for Liverpool come February?

With the likes of Manchester City and their financial bulk it is easy to believe that football has lost it’s soul and it’s romance. Ian Holloway, whilst leading his Blackpool side to achievements seemingly way beyond their means, has brought heart back into the Premier League in abundance. For the greater good of English football we need teams like Blackpool and managers like Holloway there as a presence in the upper echelons of the game. To say they have been a ‘breath of fresh air’ would be terribly cliché, but they simply have been.

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St John’s College, Durham Vs. Trevelyan College, Durham, Floodlit Cup 26/01/2011

It was a chilly evening down at the Rubber Crumb and a cup upset was on the cards, this was the stuff that one of the college sporting system’s most exciting competitions is made of.

On paper the game was finely balanced and there for the taking, however, a dominant St.John’s side had other ideas.  The top division side displayed their superiority and prospered in a confident display, disposing of the underdogs in convincing fashion, the final score a convincing 32-0.

The lower league side, with the exception of notable performances from inside centre Neil Bishop and full back Guy Patton, were outclassed in nearly all areas of the game. Right from the outset St. John’s dominated at the breakdown and forced uncharacteristic errors out of the in-form opposition through their direct and strong approach to the game.

Captain James Land and flanker Ryan Seabright led the charge in the pack throughout as St.John’s college once again demonstrated impressive resolve and composure, this was especially surprising given the period of two and a half months that has elapsed since their last outing.

Whilst the experienced pack members imposed themselves upon the game it was fly half and stand-in goal kicker James Sharland that made John’s tick. A confident and assured performance backed up with a consummate kicking display both out of hand and at goal kept the scoreboard ticking over and confidence levels amongst the backs high.

It was this demonstration of experience at a level of the true cut and thrust of college rugby that guided St.John’s to an eventually comfortable victory. In all major areas of the match they proved superior and it was encouraging to see the likes of first year Joshua Broomfield in the second-row taking command and accompanying the more experienced campaigners in their drive and impression upon the game.

So, St.John’s march proudly on into the next round of the Floodlit Cup with potentially trickier opposition in store.  Meanwhile Trevelyan college will push on to enhance their promotion prospects that could indeed see them rather ironically replace St.John’s in the Premier Division of college rugby. Perhaps they could even face each other in the top flight next year, if so, one would hope for an all-round more engrossing and closely fought contest.

Why top managers throw January transfers out the window…

As the January transfer window enters it’s final week a pattern of low spending at the summit has become evident. This is a pattern that has now been developing for some years now and it is starting to catch on.

A recent media example of January 'flops'

Four of the league’s top five sides have opted not to dabble extensively in the transfer market this season. Sir Alex Ferguson has sealed only one transfer this month and that was the signing of Anders Lindegaard, a young Danish goalkeeping prospect. Therefore Manchester United have only spent approximately three million pounds. Other  title contenders Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal have between them only spent around the three million pound mark also. So why is it that the bigger and better sides choose not to invest come January?

Well, initially it seems unclear why these great sides, all striving for perfection in their own unique ways, would refrain from spending big at every opportunity given their financial superiorities. But it is undeniable that the last few seasons have seen an increased level of avoidance of the January market by the bigger sides.

Ferguson and Wenger both tend to avoid 'panic-buys'

Managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger seem to go as far as dismissing it as an inconvenience, a bother and an unnecessary inclusion into the routine of running their clubs on a day-to-day basis. The word branded about regarding their tendency to dismiss the opportunity is often that they do not want to ‘unsettle’ their respective squads. After all do you really believe that the likes of Ferguson would ever start a season without a side that he believes are capable of winning silverware? Of course he wouldn’t and we’re all well aware that bullish and stubborn characters like Ferguson don’t just change their mind on a wim and a prayer.

Such managers much prefer the option of pre-season preparation and are therefore far more inclined to make any transfers they deem necessary in the summer off-season. The length of and the preparatory nature of this period is a much more apt occasion to make additions to the squad and blend new members with far greater care and attention. These managers realise just how vital pre-season preparation can be and therefore utilise this period by bringing in new players and giving them the chance to ease their way into the set-up in lower-key and far less important games. Such preparation sets players up for far greater chances of long-term success at a big club.

Major clubs tend to regard January purchases as ‘panic-buys’ and therefore avoid them at all costs. However, the same can’t be said for the lower league sides. Premier league under-achievers Aston Villa who went into the weekends fixtures in 19th position have this week forked out a whopping twenty four million for Darren Bent, a player with just one international goal to his name. ‘Panic-buy’ or not, he begun his spell at his new club with a winning goal against a title contender. Can it be that the January transfer window can benefit lower-league sides but not top sides?

Didn't seem to be offering O'Neill that sort of money..

In conclusion, I believe the transfer window can benefit sides. It has happened before and it will happen again, the classic example of success was the upward charge of Harry Redknapp’s ‘Pompey’ side a few years back after wholesale January changes. The proof is there that some managers can indeed use it for the greater good of their respective clubs. However, the top clubs lack of need or desire to splash the cash in January is down to their superior pre-season preparations. If all teams prepared as shrewdly as the top clubs then the January transfer window would become little more than a mid-season lottery. As it stands though, it is a window of opportunity, especially for those clubs feeling the winter blues.

Can Murray prove he is worth his mint?

Andy Murray has this week set out on yet another quest to bring the Grand Slam glory days back to British tennis. He today progressed into round three with a more than convincing straight sets victory over an out-of-sorts Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.

The next round sees Murray going head to head with Jurgen Melzer, the start of a potentially treacherous route to Australian Open glory for the in-form Scot. Melzer is a tricky draw for Murray who could potentially go on and face number 4 seed Robin Soderling in the quarters, world number 1 Rafael Nadal in the Semis and a re-match with Roger Federer in the final.

Spotlight on Britain's only hope...yet again..

Such a potentially tricky route for Murray is testament to the strength of the men’s game at the moment. The fact that it is necessary to defeat arguably the two greatest players of all time, the fourth seed and the world number 11 in order to win a Grand Slam as a fifth seed is indicative of just how high the level is right now.

Murray, having strolled through his first three matches, will be strong favourite to defeat the dangerous Jurgen Melzer. However, it is vital that Murray doesn’t get too complacent. If he does we could well see a repeat of the embarrassment he suffered at the hands of Stan Wawrinka at last years US Open. Murray went into that game having been untroubled in the earlier rounds, and as soon as things started to go against him he lost his head and started to throw the proverbial ‘toys out of the pram’.

Murray seems to have already developed something of a reputation for not having the will or the means with which to go on and succeed in Grand Slam tennis, I for one believe this to be entirely unjust. Murray has already won several more titles than his predecessor as Britain’s finest , Tim Henman, and he is only 23. He has a fantastic record for one so young, and it is only the mind-blowing achievements of his peers such as Nadal that have highlighted his inability thus far to win a Grand Slam.

Being a British tennis fan has for a long while now required a lot of patience. I believe Murray is indeed demonstrating everything it takes to become a major champion and I hope that this patience won’t have to go on for too much longer. He is an exceptional sporting talent and we as fans of Great British tennis should cherish this, I myself can’t wait for the doubters to be proved wrong.

Will England’s dynamic back-room help them complete the set?

The Post-Ashes euphoria has been inescapable over the last few days, but do England have what it takes to complete the most memorable of years? Fresh from the triumph in the Test format England will have to change tack come this Sunday as the ODI season returns. The return to the shorter format of the game begins with a match in Canberra this weekend against an Australian Prime Minister’s XI side before they take part in an ODI series and Twenty20 series in the build up to to the World Cup.

Saker is one of Flower's most valued staff members

England will hope to once again demonstrate the true magic and innovation that the current back-room staff have instilled into the national side in all formats over the last couple of years. Bowling coach David Saker has inspired a dramatic turnaround for the likes of the now ‘world-beating’ Jimmy Anderson and aided Graeme Swann’s surge to within touching distance of becoming the world’s number one Test bowler. Now signed on for three more years ,Saker, in tandem with spin bowling coach Mushtaq Ahmed will seek to keep inspiring the bowling unit on to bigger and better things.

English batting legend and current batting coach Graham Gooch is also receiving widespread plaudits for his contribution to one of the strongest looking batting line-ups in recent history. Andrew Strauss has grown into his role as captain and opening batsman both in test cricket and ODI’s whilst his Test partner Alistair Cook has broken all sorts of records down under this winter. Cook’s achievements are all the more remarkable given the horrible form he found himself in over the British summer against Test minnows Bangladesh and the tricky seam attack of Pakistan. A dramatic turnaround in fortunes has taken him from the brink of losing his place in the squad to being named man of the series in The Ashes and re-establishing himself as the heir-apparent to the Test captaincy. Cook has spoken out about fellow Essex man Gooch’s contribution to his re-incarnation as a Test batsman, if he has been as helpful as the likes of Cook are reporting then the part he has played in England’s Ashes triumph has been invaluable. Another outspoken supporter of Gooch is Ian Bell whom, as a batsman, has flourished down-under this winter. He has attributed much of his rapid maturing process to guidance and imparting of knowledge from the national coach.

One legend to another

Perhaps the most notable turnaround in English cricket has been the increased professionalism, commitment and fitness of the side under the current regime. This is in no short part down to Richard Halsall, England fielding coach and incidentally my former sports teacher. I myself can speak personally about how highly I and many of my friends regarded ‘Mr.Halsall’ as a teacher, a mentor and a role model. He always had a unique knack for instilling knowledge and advice into student’s heads, a skill that must have served him brilliantly in his current job. Experts and pundits in the wake of The Ashes have described England as the best fielding side in the world and the best in their history, quite a testament to the job Halsall has done thus far in his tenure.

Halsall has been credited with an innovative and successful coaching style

It is clear that the back-room team under the guidance of Head Coach Andy Flower have brought great success to England in the form of Ashes victory and in becoming World Twenty20 champions in 2010. ODI results have also improved under their guidance in recent times and expectations are racing in the build-up to the World Cup on the Sub-Continent. The current set-up has seen a new era of positivity and versatility at the very highest levels, with the unconventional players such as Eoin Morgan and the most conventional such as Strauss given license to take protagonist roles in the set-up. Such flexibility places England firmly amongst the favourites to start 2011 in the same vein as 2010.

Will England triumph again in One-Day cricket?

Best title race ever? Or is it just the worst quality Premier League season of all time?

A new year is upon us and 2011 is set to stage one of the most open title races in the history of the Premier League. Is this as good for English football as it is for the neutral supporter? Interesting certainly, but good for the game?

Will Rooney steer United to the title?

As we enter the new year everybody’s least favourite team Manchester United top the table and with games in hand up their sleeve. Miraculously, given what a turbulent season we have seen so far, United have gone unbeaten up to this point only very rarely impressing along the way. It has been indifferent on the performance side of things from Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops bar a few notable exceptions including the 7-1 demolition of Blackburn Rovers and the 3-2 victory over arch-rivals Liverpool. Even the victory over Liverpool saw them negligently surrender a two goal advantage before Dimitar Berbatov salvaged three points with a piece of magic that he and pretty much only he could muster. Never before could a team boast such a consistently below-par level of performance whilst cruising to a position comfortably situated at the summit of the league come January. If this had been any other league season it is near certain that Manchester United’s form would of seen them soundly beaten five or six times come this stage, not this one however. The Red Devils have demonstrated defensive frailty, an ever-changing and unsettled midfield and up-front their star man Rooney has endured his much reported ‘annus horribilis’, all this yet they are dominating the race for the title. Surely this is reflective of a drop in standards?

What of United’s loosely termed ‘challengers’. Well.. most intriguing of the bunch must be their neighbours Manchester City. Currently City are level on points with United having played two more games much owing to the unstoppable form of their talismanic skipper and ex-United star Carlos Tevez. It is his form that has driven his otherwise under-performing side into second place in the league and their best half-way points tally in the Premier League. Tevez is undoubtedly world class and the owners of the club certainly possess the financial clout that could see big-money arrivals this month. However, it seems unlikely that a team with one absolute superstar and an unsettled squad otherwise would be capable of seeing off Ferguson’s men. It could happen but it seems a little out of City’s reach for now.

Next are the usual suspects Arsenal and Chelsea. The latter’s year has gone from the ecstasy of a domestic league and cup double and early season domination into absolute ruins over the last couple of months. The sudden loss of form from such a talented squad is utterly staggering and it is clear that all is not well within their camp. The usually unflappable force that is manager Carlo Ancellotti seems distant and agitated, star man Didier Drogba can’t buy a goal and is desperately lacking any sort of form or fitness and the press are swarming around the apparent unrest at the Bridge. The recent slide sees them six points a drift of the leaders having already played one more game. It would take another twist of biblical proportion to reignite any challenge from the Blues when it comes to the business end.

Arsenal on the other hand are brimming as ever with youthful exuberance and talent. The football being played by Arsene Wenger’s outfit has as ever been delectable. Such beauty is there to behold but Wenger  must again be ruing his side’s lack of substance when confronted with an organised and physical opponent. Losses to Newcastle and Manchester United horribly exposed Arsenal’s lack of strength and experience, yet again, Wenger protests his team’s increasing nous. The recent victory over Chelsea has sparked an air of belief within the camp that has been vacant for a few years now, but two points adrift with a game more played than United could it be another year void of silverware for the Gunners?

The last real contenders are Tottenham. Led by the signing of the summer Rafael Van Der Vaart and the wizardry of young Gareth Bale Spurs have become outsiders to win the league. It will surely take a couple more transfer coups this month from ‘wheeler’dealer ‘Arry’ Redknapp to seriously pose a threat but stranger things have happened already this season!

So, for now Sir Alex can sit tight with a smile on his battle-hardened face as United continue to stumble towards yet another title. It is advisable though that he does keep a watchful eye on the many challengers in case a minor miracle occurs and one of them actually hits form. The neutral fan will be salivating over the battle ahead, however, it is undeniable that standards have dropped in our beloved league. This off the back of a more than disappointing showing in the World Cup and World Cup bid for 2018 should be causing concern amongst fans and must surely worry the powers-that-be at the FA headquarters. A new year is here lets hope the English game fights back.

Premier League Predictions: 1.Manchester United, 2. Chelsea, 3.Manchester City, 4.Arsenal, 5. Tottenham… 18.Wigan, 19.West Brom, 20. Wolverhampton Wanderers

Players of the season so far: Carlos Tevez, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Darren Fletcher, Dimitar Berbatov, Charlie Adam, Samir Nasri, Luis Nani, Kevin Davies, Johan Elmander, Darren Bent

Young Players of the season so far: Gareth Bale, Andy Carroll, Seamus Coleman, Danny Wellbeck, Javier Hernandez, Rafael, Joe Hart, Adam Johnson

Managers of the year: Ian Holloway, Harry Redknapp, Chris Hughton, Owen Coyle

Can Chelsea fightback?