Thursday, 11 February 2010

Gras roots cricket set to grow and grow

Below is an article I wrote for which went live before Christmas. I wanted to add it on my blog so I could add the extra picture. I'm quite pleased with how both of them turned out. (I am an extreme novice when it comes to lenses and pixels.)

Big stroke: The batter makes solid contact with the ball (too sexual?)

Cricket participation has risen by a double-digit figure for the third consecutive year, statistics released last week by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) show.

An annual study of ECB focus clubs revealed that overall participation has risen by 15 per cent. This increase comes on the back of a 24 per cent rise in 2008 and a 27 per cent rise in 2007.

And the captain of a Tower Hamlets cricket team knows the reason why.

“Ever since the Ashes [in 2005] there’s been a huge interest,” Iqbal Miah, team captain of East London Community Cricket Club said. “Regaining the Ashes this summer has maintained that and the Twenty20 matches have helped as well.”

Mr Miah’s team compete in the Victoria Park League every summer and he has seen first hand the dramatic rise in the amount of children coming to play at the east London green space.

He said: “Every year there’s so many youngsters coming along to play cricket. Every weekend if you come during the summer there’s always children here.”

“On a Thursday in the evenings this space is just for youngsters and as an adult you can’t actually play, so that’s how much interest there is.”

Mr Miah said that the new money being invested into the sport should be pumped back in to grass roots cricket and thought the venue for his team’s 16-over competition should benefit.

“With the Ashes going back to terrestrial TV there’s a lot of money coming in so it’s only fair there’s more money coming into Victoria Park,” Mr Miah said.

“It’s a huge park and in terms of the sporting activities here I think there could be a lot more done.”

Captain marvels: Iqbal Miah is pleased with cricket's rising popularity

Monday, 25 January 2010

Giving women a sporting chance

Figures show that females, and in particular mothers - like Olympic gold medalist
Denise Lewis - need extra encouragement to participate in sport.

“I always wanted to play football. When I was 11 I captained the local boys’ team, Ripon City Panthers. But when I turned 12 I wasn’t allowed to anymore. The FA stipulated that girls couldn’t play with boys from that age. So I was basically disenfranchised from then onwards.”

Lucy Mills, now 29, plays for Tower Hamlets Women’s Football Club and has a vital place on its committee organising pitches, kit, coaching and funding. She says of a lack of school and local girls teams, coupled with FIFA and FA regulations banning gender mixing from the age of 12, led to an exile from the beautiful game that only ended when she moved to London from North Yorkshire to study at Queen Mary’s where she joined the college team.

“I missed out big time on my football development during my formative years,” she says with more than a tinge of regret.

Statistics released last month show that Mills’ commitment to sport is atypical for women her age but the story of her teenage years isn’t. According to the figures only one in eight women, compared to one in five men, play sport regularly. The statistics also revealed, to the shock of many, that this gap between the sexes is widening.

The results come from the annual ‘Active People’ survey commissioned by Sport England – the arm of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that invests lottery and government funding – which asks around 113,000 women about their relationship with sport. This year’s feedback showed that since 2008 the number of women regularly participating in sport – as defined by 30 minutes at moderate intensity at least three times a week – has fallen by 61,000 to 2.727million, while the number of men doing the same has risen by 176,600 to 4.203million.

Sue Tibballs, Chief Executive of Woman’s Sport and Fitness Foundation described the increased divide as “worrying” and urged all sports to “become much better at understanding the barriers preventing women from taking part and then developing an offer which suits their individual needs.”

WSFF campaign to make “physical activity an integral part of life for women” and have highlighted numerous disparities which at present prevent the sexes from becoming engaged in sport in the same way. As well as differences in access to facilities, financial capabilities and the need for childcare, WSFF point to a cultural perception of sport that inhibits women from taking part. Issues with body image, clothing, and parental influences are all concerns that contribute to an environment where it’s easier for females to slip out of sport than to take it on.

Sport England recognised this gender imbalance in November by offering up a £10million cash pot open to sports clubs and initiatives, which specifically target females and make it easier for them to become involved. The fund is primarily aimed at groups which help women who have children to care for or come from deprived backgrounds with crèches and ‘pay as you play’ options recommended as potential money winners.

Denise Lewis, heptathlon gold medallist at the 2004 Olympics, said: “As a mum, I know how difficult it can be to prioritise yourself and find that personal time to play sport and be active

Lewis’s words ring true for Mills who says the few mothers who train with the club can’t play every week due to childcare responsibilities. As well as time, the club also requires a financial commitment from its members in order to pay for running costs thus creating a rather narrow (and, for Tower Hamlets, unusual) definition of a typical player. “Our members are typically white, middle-class women.”

Mills explains that funding of the kind Sport England is offering would be crucial in keeping costs for members down and enable the volunteers to go out into the community to promote their team to people who might be unaware they even exist. “Keeping committed players and making the club sustainable is our biggest challenge. We want to encourage a younger age group, 16 to 20 year olds, and young mothers. It would also be great to encourage more Asian women to participate.”

The gender inequality in sport participation is recognised as a priority issue at Croydon council too. Last week the borough announced it would extend the range of women-only swimming sessions to include Purley and New Addington leisure centres while next month Croydon stages a festival of sport called LOVE2, deliberately designed to coincide with Valentine’s Day.

Last year’s inaugural event reached over 800 women (and a handful of questionably-motivated men) and this year’s version includes free ice hockey lessons, a golfing week, and Tai chi sessions for mums and daughters.

David Gentles, the project’s partnership manager, says the series of events aim to “encourage organisations in London to not just help women and girls take part in their sport on a one off basis but to make it part of their plans to increase female memberships throughout the year.”

Community events such as LOVE2 demonstrate that support for women is mobilising at a local level but, as Tibballs says, a change of attitude at the top of sport is essential if this hive of activity is to be harnessed.

“We need to look at wider factors which impact on the state of play for women’s sport and influence grassroots participation,” she says, highlighting the startling fact that only four per cent of sports news coverage focuses on women. “Without the profile, the money won’t come in. And without the role models, women won’t feel inspired to take part.”

With the success this year of Jessica Ennis, Beth Tweddle, the women’s England cricket team and co, it is hard to imagine the landscape of female sports stars will remain barren for much longer.

Successful applicants for the Sport England fund will be announced sometime in June.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Tourniquet in a manger: An unusual setting for a cracking Christmas

Drug addict Bubbles: May or may not have been one of the three wise men I encountered

The walk from Brixton Tube station to my home down the road never fails to bring a smile to my face.

Whenever I journey down the high street I am amused by the juxtaposition of two groups hawking contradictory yet equally omnipotent wares to a crowd of commuters who would rather be left well alone.

These commodities? Religion and drugs.

First you encounter a megaphone-wielding, sandwichboard-sheathed preacher extolling the power of God and the futility of life (or just repeating the word "redemption" over and over).

Then, just as these noises ebb away, a cacophony of whisper-shouts* uttered by dealers promoting skunk outside KFC begins to flick at your ears.

Each opposing promotions posse seems oblivious to the heads-down lapels-up attitude adopted by everyone in the vicinity and carry on regardless.

But rather than a nuisance, I bracket these rather awkward throat-ramming sales tactics as a characteristic 'liveliness' that can usually be kept at arms length by moving speedily on.

But last Friday the liveliness was unavoidable.

My girlfriend and I were finally staging our flat-warming party, a whole four months after we'd moved in. To give it a sense of contempraneity we also christened it an 'end-of-term' bash and a 'Christmas' do but in truth we just wanted an excuse to get pissed.

We have a one-bedroom place situated among a fairly new block of twenty similar apartments and as such felt inclined to warn the other residents of our forthcoming event. This we did by distributing hand-written notes cunningly disguised as invites that very morning.

Surprisingly, one couple actually turned up with wine in hand but soon left as the crush of bodies escalated.

Flash forward to 4am. As the dregs of the party drained away I shoveled all the rubbish I could find into a bin-liner and went outside to the dumpsters.

As I approached the double-doors guarding the big bins I noticed a light shining from within.

I opened the door to see a guy and two women setting up all the paraphernalia required for a spot of serious socialising.

Which specific drug they were about to enjoy I couldn't say (as in I don't know whether it was crack cocaine, heroin or some potent mixture of the two, not that I'm too squeamish to utter such names) but they were using spoons and were most likely addicted to it.

I surmise you must really love something if you're willing to share an intimate space with rotting food and broken bottles - at a time more disposed to sleeping in a comfy bed - just to score a hit.

Taken aback, I said a startled hello and, in a clear case of carry-on regardless (echoing the dealers and preachers of the high street), proceeded to try and open the lid of the dumpster.

Soon realising my doing so would spill their well-prepared items on the floor I stopped and looked kind of lost.

Then: "Give 'em here," one of the girls offered, "we'll put them away after we're finished."

And so a strange exchange ensued where it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to be assisted with the disposal of trash by a trio of addicts who were probably only being obliging so they could get high sooner.

We uttered a few words by way of conversation (I resisted the temptation to ask the knee-jerk "Having a good night?" though). When I tried to hand over a semi-full can of lager the woman returned it to me with the guidance to empty its contents down the drain, ever mindful of the destruction such fluid can cause to a mountain of solidified garbage.

I found her environmental awareness endearing.

"You from up north?" The other woman asked.

"Yeah. Stockport," I answered, warming to this bizarre interchange.

"Me too," she said. "I come from Preston."

"Oh really? My dad worked in Preston for a long time."

"Yeah. Bit shit in't it."

"I believe so," I laughed. With that it was time to leave them to it.

But a thought flashed in my mind: how are you supposed to end an encounter as unusual as this? With a sort of disarming, please-don't-kill-me-I-won't-report-you-promise: 'Lovely to meet you?' Or a buddying-up kind of self-parodying jostle: 'Don't do anything I wouldn't do?'


What I said instead, while slowly closing the door behind me, was the cringing: "Have a good time!"

It was like I was a parent gawkily telling my offspring to enjoy a new computer game I have absolutely no idea how to play, as I edge out of the living room to avoid further embarrassment in front of their friends.

The whole thing gave me a glimpse of the kind of feeling I'll get when I actually am a parent. And that thought scared me more than anything else.

*I feel that while appearing paradoxical it perfectly encapsulates the sound emitted. Namely something mumbled at an ironically large volume.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Odyssey to college proves fruitful – in more ways than one

The moment I chose the capital as the location for my postgraduate studies I knew I would soon be doing much more travelling.

Even though I’d never spent more than an afternoon in London (usually for a match at Wembley) the size of the brown blob representing the city on Google maps gave me an accurate impression of its scope.

By bus or by train, by walking or Tubing, I anticipated that ‘getting around’ would take up a lot of my time. What I hadn’t bargained for was just how much.

I live in Brixton and go to Goldsmiths College in New Cross. Two spots in South London which are relatively close in the scheme of things. Yet it still takes me up to an hour and two buses to journey in. (Incidentally, it took me a couple of weeks to work out the most effective route after had recommended I take something like three trains, seven buses, five Tube lines and a 30 minute walk to do the same trip. I’m told it has a habit of throwing out such ridiculous suggestions.)

Spending two hours a day sitting in isolation being transported to my destination is something I’ve never had to do before – school, college, and undergrad university were all within easy walking distance. And the prospect of such an arduous daily migration was not an idea I relished.

But rather than eating valuable time out of my week I’ve found the voyage of enforced fixation the perfect opportunity to do a lot of the things I all too often put off when at home with a healthy internet connection. Quite simply, when I had other options.

As an aspiring journalist doing a masters in the subject this list is fairly long. I must read the national and local newspapers everyday; I must practice my shorthand (yes it’s still required, to my delight) everyday; and I must read the assigned text books (including the usual one written by the course leader) everyday.

And if all these practical applications were not enough I have recently discovered that bus journeys are also a fertile ground for blog material.

Take an incident last week. Immersed in the scrawlings of shorthand on the top deck of the 177 at 10 in the morning a voice boomed out behind me: “Oi!”

I ignored it.


I ignored it again.

“Excuse me?” he changed tack.

I turned around to see a clearly inebriated gentleman peering in my direction.

“You got a light?” he asked.

“I don’t smoke, sorry,” came my automatic reply before turning back using the logic that ‘If I can’t see you, I can’t hear you.’

Moments later: “Hold this a second brother.”

The guy had walked over to my seat and was thrusting a recently-opened can of Red Stripe into my hand. Reluctant to share in his pre-noon party, I held back from taking it.

“C’mon man, just one second.” His plea mixed with my conceptions of social politeness convinced; I accepted the lager.

He waddled downstairs while I consulted the text book.

“Yo! Has anyone got a light?” The guy had decided to broaden his quest for cigarette ignition and was now petitioning the poor passengers on the ground floor.

The next ten minutes seemed like an eternity as I tried to distance myself from the can – fearful of its possible illegality – while trying to keep it from spilling – fearful of its intoxicated owner below. I decided the best idea was to delicately balance it between my feet.

Intermittently, I could hear him ask new boarders for a spark and tell the congregation that he had a “mate upstairs keeping his beer safe.” I had hoped he might keep our little arrangement fairly secret.

When my stop finally arrived I made my way downstairs and gestured for the drunkard to take it off me.

“Cheers brother,” he said through a beaming smile. (I could only imagine the looks of disgust on everyone else’s faces.) Then he held out his fist for a parting knuckle touch.

“You’re alright man. ‘Ave a good day,” were his final words in what was the weirdest interchange with a stranger I’ve ever had. It was also the most peculiar - and most guilty - sense of satisfaction I’ve ever gained from giving someone in need a ‘helping hand’.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The fun in Brixton

Below is a little narrative from one of the more bizarre encounters in my life. It demonstrates how looking for a house in a new city is always an adventure.

“Do you like the smell of fish? Raw meat? The stink of rotting veg?” a round of verbal bullets sprayed from the woman’s mouth with an intensity intended to petrify. Her face contorted to such a level of disgust that anyone passing by might have thought I’d just declared an admiration for Alesha Dixon’s critiquing approach. I had in fact made the mistake of asking whether a two-bed flat advertised in the agency window was still available for rent. “‘Cause that’s what you’ll have to put up with every time you step awt your front door; a God awful stench,” she concluded as I dived for cover behind the nearest brochure.

As a postgrad fresher and London novice under pressure to find an abode I was a walking pay cheque ripe for the cashing. But Collette the Letting Agent was apparently oblivious to this. Rather than the hard sell she was giving me a hard time. (“I don’t bullshit ya,” was her preferred way of putting it.) And yet bizarrely her disregard for usual salesman spiel was refreshing to the point of sparking a curiosity within me: I wanted to see this horrible flat.

“Oh right,” she responded clearly taken aback by my ludicrous decision. “Well, err, I shouldn’t really do this but…” She threw a set of keys over to me. “There’s only me in here and I can’t leave, so you can just show yourself round,” she said while offering directions with a flick of her index finger.

Throughout my brisk search for shelter I had been treated to a kaleidoscope of customer courtesy from all manner of would-be letters. From feeling like I was auditioning for a role as an extra in a house share (“We’ll let you know our decision”) to being driven round nearly all of South London at a moment’s notice, the styles employed have been as varied as theories on Derren Brown’s Lotto trick.

And Collette’s renegade method was the one I found most endearing.

As it happens the flat was let down more by its dilapidated state and reportedly reluctant landlord (“What do you mean will he do it up? He already has”) than the exotic aromas coming from the market on its doorstep. But Janine’s style got me thinking; it sure would’ve been a whole lot easier if that Dubai-based landlord I found on Gumtree had trusted me to look round his flat on my own too. Rather than demand a scanned Western Union receipt be emailed as proof of finance and seriousness of intent before he would fly over to guide me himself (“I’ve had my fair share of time-wasters”). Oh well, I guess some people just aren’t very accommodating.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Premiership Prophecies

My thoughts on all twenty teams as well as predictions on who will win what, who will lose what and which item off a McDonald’s menu each club represents.

Arsenal – With a totemic striker and a seven-hearted defender off to join the revolution in the North it’s finally all over for Arsenal’s Champions League run, right? Wrong. There will be no royal beheadings at the Emirates this season. With the sublimely talented Eduardo back (and looking sharp in pre-season), the phenomenal impact of Andre Arshavin for whole season, and the signing of a steely-eyed Thomas Vermaelen the Gunners first team looks as full of potential as ever. The likes of Ramsay, Gibbs and Wilshire will make further strides too, inevitably becoming integral parts of the passing machine. It was a horror tackle on Eduardo which shattered his ankle and their title dreams the last time they made a serious push for the title and much will depend on injuries this season, with the return dates of Nasri and Rosicky crucial. But that charge came at a time when everyone was writing them off, much like now, and I feel this season could turn out to be a similar rebuttal.

Final Position: 3rd, FA Cup winners

McMenu: Grilled chicken salad – looks nice but not too filling

Aston Villa – For much of last season it looked like Martin O’Neill’s side would be the one to finally break into the Top Four vault but their end of season plummet highlighted their Cheryl Cole thin squad. Stewart Downing will replace Barry nicely when he returns from injury and Fabian Delph looks a great coup – indeed the last time O’Neill took a large punt on a young English player with only a season in the public consciousness the pay off was instant and spectacular. Whether Delph makes the step up as seamlessly as Young will factor largely into how their campaign pans out. Bringing in Habib Beye has partly plugged the big Scandinavan gap that emerged with Mellberg’s departure and Laurson’s retirement, but we have to wonder whether a defender with Newcastle on their CV will be enough. I predict another season of fluid, attacking football to ruffle a few Big Four peacock feathers but without quality buys at the front and back of the team they will once again fall short.

Final Position: 7th

McMenu: Fries – been around for ages but always needs something more

Birmingham – A strange feeling of anticlimax surrounded Birmingham’s promotion in May, the kind inevitably brought about by years of yo-yoing between divisions (been there, done that, bought the replica shirt) and I worry about their desire to scrap for survival with every sinew. They were unlucky last time round when a remarkable surge in form from Fulham lead to final-day relegation and I feel a similar nail-biting showdown awaits them this year. Ultimately, a lack of any real star quality will see them unable to pick up enough points.

Final Position: 18th

McMenu: Apple slices – no one wants them

Blackburn – For the board at Blackburn last season was like a big money poker game. Employing Ince was a risk that could have worked brilliantly but could also have cost them relegation and untold millions – much like a bluff after the flop in high stakes Texas Hold’em. When immediate gains failed to materialise and tension grew they lost their nerve and retired to the security of betting with a made hand rather than going all in with nothing. Installing Sam Allardyce was a failsafe plan but it also style-proofed their football for the foreseeable future. The game is all about percentages for Big Sam, as any good poker player knows. On both the green felt and green turf relying on statistics secures you winning steadily if not spectacularly. The goal-gorger Kalinic could be a great find and should provide a focal point for a team of organised grafters. A season of rhythmical progress beckons.

Final Position: 11th

McMenu: Quarter-pounder with cheese – full of non-descript substance

Bolton – Despite saving the club from relegation – and Little Sam’s hilariously woeful attempt at impersonating his ‘Big’ brother – in 07/08 and building further to secure Premiership safety comfortably last season Gary Megson isn’t held in the highest esteem at the Reebok. A feud between fans and manager arose after a less than impressive second half away at Blackburn and post-match booing wasn’t something to let slide for Megson, who seems easily irritable. Sensible, though, is the word that resonates most strongly with a man who consistently buys PL veterans to create a solid team spine. Must hope Johan Elmander can do a better £8m striker act, they can’t rely on Kevin Davies repeating his anomalous 08/09 goal-scoring heroics.

Final Position: 13th

McMenu: Plain burger – cheap and nasty

Burnley – That 30% of Burnley residents are match-going Clarets is a truly astonishing fact and having the entire town’s vociferous support throughout the campaign could prove all important in inspiring the players to superhuman efforts, much akin to Stoke’s Britannia success. They may well be about to embark on their maiden PL voyage but with wins against Fulham, Arsenal and Tottenham, as well as a victory on penalties over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, in the Carling Cup last season it’s hard to imagine repeated matches against these kind of teams will prove daunting. Owen Coyle is one of those fiery-voiced Scots in the Ferguson/Moyes mould who commands respect from his charges and if he’s half as effective as either of those archetypes Burnley will stay up without a worry.

Final Position: 16th

McMenu: Mozarella Dippers - new and quite popular

Chelsea – They have a new enigmatic foreign manager, without a strong grasp of English or experience of working in this country, in charge. They are looking to strike back after a season of bitter disappointment, having been knocked out of the Champions League at the death. Their strong squad of players has been added to over the summer with only one medium money signing previously untested in the Premiership. Are you getting a feeling of déjà vu too? I could have written exactly the same thing last year and the same questions arise. While Chelsea’s power and talent is unquestionable their temperament over the course of a season can be. Can Ancellotti succeed where Scolari failed and lead the dressing room? Can he deliver the consistency of performance required? The fact he only brought the Serie A title to Milan once but the European Cup twice in his eight-year reign suggests the big stages of the knock-out tournament may be where he, and his team, really shines.

Final Position: 2nd

McMenu: McChicken Premiere – big and full of quality

Everton – It always seems like Everton succeed in spite of things. Be it injuries, enforced transfer frugality or injuries they manage to prosper and challenge the wealthier members of the PL elite at the top of the table. Their success must be attributed to David Moyes’s – a man I tip as Ferguson’s eventual successor – skill as a man-manager, able, as he is, to distil the very best out of his players. Who’d have thought that Phil Jagielka and Jolean Lescott would be commanding England places and big-money interest when Moyes signed them from Sheffield United and Wolves respectively? The return of Yakubu and Arteta from injury will provide a big boost around September time but Everton look light at the back, the foundation for their formidable mid-season spurt, until Jagielka comes back in November. It looks inevitable they will lose Lescott, in January if not now, so a replacement will be essential. Other teams’ progress will lead to a static Everton dropping down a few places.

Final Position: 8th

McMenu: Chicken nuggets – well established but needs some sauce

Fulham – For my money Roy Hodgson should have claimed the manager of the year gong for his remarkable achievement with Fulham last season. Taking a misfit team of has-beens and never-weres and morphing them into an accomplished outfit capable of out-playing any team in the division when at their best is on par with any transforming skills exhibited by the eponymous heroes in Michael Bay’s recent blockbuster. The intelligence of the manager is evident throughout his side and they play with a verve and vigour that is refreshing to see. He may have unearthed another Norweigen gem with Bjorn Helge Riise and Damien Duff will be a nice addition – you get the impression the Hodgson effect will prove invigorating for the one-time PL champion – but with Europa League commitments, such is their squad depth, domestic form will surely suffer.

Final Position: 9th

McMenu: Sweet Chilli Chicken Deli – full of interesting ingredients

Hull City – It was amazing how quickly my appreciation of Hull’s forthright football turned to loathing of the man who propagated it. But such was the ugliness of Phil Brown’s egocentricity the shift was impossible and the way Hull limply accepted defeat to Manchester United’s second string in the last game of the season, and Brown’s ensuing karaoke session, only compounded matters. By the second half of the season Hull’s surprise attacking element had vanished and they will need to find another way to win in their second outing. Getting better players might be a start but that’s easier said than done as the ever growing list of rejections exemplifies. A real goal threat is essential but I doubt Negredo is the answer.

Final position: 19th

McMenu: Carrot sticks – made a surprise entrance but quickly discarded

Liverpool – The reason most Liverpool lobbyists are voicing as the one why their team will finally win the title is the exact same reason why they won’t. ‘Gerrard and Torres’ has been uttered ad nauseam by those tipping the Merseysiders to break their Premiership duck, with understandable motive – between them the duo have scored 65 league goals since the Spaniard’s move. But there is simply too much reliance on the pair – without them the goal threat is almost non existent. The back-up strike force of N’Gog and El Zhar mustered a total of two goals in 29 appearances last year and there is a distinct lack of top-end quality all over the team beyond the first eleven. The loss of Alonso will be irrevocable, not only for his skill as a generator of attacks but also as a magnet for drawing opponent red cards – a staggering six given for fouls against him last year. (It was piquing to hear Benitez question Alonso’s loyalty during Madrid’s pursuit after he’d vigorously tried to replace the player with Barry the previous summer.) I can’t see a repeat of the late comeback goals, collection of penalty awards, and number of opposition red cards and without these Liverpool will struggle. Throw in Benitez’s erratic temperament and transfer policy and not only will the title wait continue they will slip further behind the eventual winners.

Final position: 4th

McMenu: Apple turnover – never comes first

Manchester city – The parade of fans (and people who happened to be walking past Eastlands at the time) put on camera by Sky Sports News to answer the leading question ‘Why can city win the league?’ were predictably laughable (since when do stadiums win football matches?) but their unbridled optimism is understandable. Yes, these fans have got giddy about the smallest of upturns in the past but never before have they been in such a position as they now find themselves. Hughes (the right manager to keep the millionaires in line) has bought proven Premiership performers and – despite the perceived splurge on strikers – has amassed a balanced squad both in terms of positions and ages. Should Lescott arrive, the defence – city’s Achilles heel for years – suddenly takes on a very solid appearance to mirror the frontline. There will be the inevitable comic meltdown at some stage in the season but on paper (the only guide we have for this unprecedented experiment for the moment) they look able to pick up wins anywhere.

Final position: 5th, Carling Cup winners

McMenu: Summer BBQ Beef – pretty fancy all of a sudden

Manchester United – The figure of 56 has been much mooted this close season. It’s marked out as the number of goals that Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez contributed to the team last year and one which will now be lacking with their departures. Yet while the loss of Ronaldo will be seismic – no player can come close to his ability to convert skilled showmanship into the solid product of goals – Tevez’s absence will be shrugged off without a worry. His name has merely been latched on to beef up the Portuguese's stats. When big players have left United have always motored on, not by replacing them like for like, but by morphing their method of play (after van Nistelrooy moved to Madrid United’s strike force became more fluid and interchangeable) and this time will be no different. Rooney will be colossal as the focal point, finally free to influence games as he should be and Berbatov will perform consistently and effectively. Youth will course through the team, with wing backs Fabio and Rafael as well as Macheda and Welbeck my picks for particular impact. Whether Hargreaves can manage to return from his cruelly chronic knee problems will be massively important, his talent at tirelessly harrying opponents is unique for the team. Much will also depend on Owen’s goal contribution but I wonder whether his arrival was based more on necessity than desire – Fergie’s claim of an over-priced transfer market papering over the chasms of club debt. The proximity to 19 titles will provide the inspiration for triumph.

Final Position: 1st

McMenu: Big Mac – the favourite for years

Portsmouth – Who actually plays for them anymore? The rapid exit of so many players (from big names to big lames) recalls the final days of the Woolworths chain and its ensuing rapid fire sale – everything must go. Pompey’s squad is thinner than the hair on Paul Hart’s head – and judging by the sheen on it in recent interviews that’s clearly saying something. What’s left is a team devoid of creativity and goal-scorers, worse still it’s lacking in any signs of spirit, a prerequisite for any team looking to fight off relegation. Last season the goals of Crouch and the sheer poorness of other teams kept them up – without these hope looks distinctly Awol. By the time Distin switches to Villa and Kranjcar to Sunderland come January it may well have disappeared completely.

Final position: 20th

McMenu: Small Fanta – goes down quickly

Stoke City – Last year Rory Delap’s long throw-ins provided endless goal opportunities for Stoke City and pundits with endless opportunities to say the word ‘trajectory’ for the first time in their lives. But Delap’s robot arms masked the real cause for the team’s potency – strength, organisation, and relentless work ethic not only makes the team incredibly difficult to create moves against but also wears down the opposition leaving them susceptible to attacks. It took a red card, 85 minutes, and all the members of Manchester United’s attacking quartet for the champions to break them down – to claim what Ferguson called their most important win of the season – and Pulis’s side will not be pushed over by anyone. Second-season syndrome will strike but won’t prove lethal.

Final Position: 15th

McMenu: Cheeseburger – fairly minging but gets the job done

Sunderland – The chaos of at the end Keane’s whirlwind tenure left Sunderland in tatters back in December and rest of their campaign felt like a waste recovery mission. With the amount of money made available for transfers profligacy reigned supreme and some of Keane’s buys were baffling, especially considering stance as a disregarder of ego – he never quite practised what he preached. Bruce has already shown his acuteness in the market and the installation of yet another United old boy (S’Bragia was a coach there) should provide the club with a period of stable improvement. Bent, unfathomably unwanted at Tottenham, is a fantastic signing guaranteed to grab them upwards of 15 PL goals. If Bruce can sort out their clueless defence they’re my tip for a top-half surprise package.

Final Position: 10th

McMenu: Strawberry Cornetto McFlurry – backed by big money, should do well

Tottenham – Harry Redknapp is a wily Premier League operator. Without doing anything too inventive after being instated at Spurs last October he brought positive results to the Lane, perhaps most impressively by solving the defensive riddle that befuddled many of his predecessors. He undoubtedly has a formula for success in this league and usually only splashes money on players he already knows well, which, due to his longevity, is a fairly extensive address book. With (a quietly assembled) quality strength in depth across the whole team and no European distractions (despite my better instincts I use this word because of the way the competition was treated by the club last term – surely it’s just the type of trophy Spurs should be gunning for) I can see them leapfrogging the more slender squads of Fulham, Aston Villa and Everton.

Final Position: 6th

McMenu: Double Sausage and Egg McMuffin – not good for your health

West Ham – It’s hard not to warm to Zola and the way he inspires his players to perform the game as he did, with a creativity free from the burden of boardroom turmoil. His confidence in promoting youth paid dividends last year and Noble, Collinson, Tomkins will improve further to become the heart of the side. Despite possessing the ox-like Carlton Cole they look lightweight up front and should he develop similar injury problems to Dean Ashton goals will be hard to come by. Another decent season of fluid football to entertain without much positional progress come May looks likely.

Final Position: 12th

McMenu: Fillet O’ Fish – prone to causing illness

Wigan – New man Martinez must worry that the Latics’ alarming dip in form last season, after obtaining 40 points early, might develop into one of those hangovers which come about after a serious night on the tiles – lasting longer than expected and becoming difficult to shake. His Swansea side played an admirably attractive game in the Championship but it was not enough to earn them a play-off place and I wonder whether we will see a repeat with Wigan; first-touch passing winning plaudits not points. Martinez is an exciting young manager and his appointment at this level is refreshing – he must now be given more time than another in a similar position this time last year. Despite departures he has inherited a decent squad to which he has added the prolific Jason Scotland but I fear it may take a season of consolidation before the manager can marry his style with results.

Final Position: 14th

McMenu: Little Chorizo Melt – experimental

Wolves – The Premiership doesn’t hold fond memories for Mick McCarthy. As manager of Sunderland during two record-breaking stints in the top flight he presided over just two wins. As a club Wolves haven’t fared much better and their only season in the PL saw a bottom of the table finish. Getting an early victory may prove vital in instilling a sense of belief and belonging, liberating the players to repeat the kind of football that got them promoted. With a young, exciting array of attackers Wolves could upset a few of the established teams and I think the balance of the side and the manager’s previous experiences will be enough to keep them up. Just.

Final Position: 17th

McMenu: Happy Meal – just enough

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Things you secretly dread

FHM's list page, coming at the end of each monthly mag, is often a treat of irreverant comment yet acutely perceptive insight into the male psyche. July's (labelled the August - I always wonder why magazines christen their publications a month ahead of when they come out) edition focused on masculine fears usually hidden in the relative comfort of our brains. I thought they missed a few and have decided to share these with you. Read on...

Ringing the takeaway to make an order
It’s a mystery why a straightforward phone call fills you up with such a sense of unease but you’d rather starve than converse with the stranger on the other end of the line. “I don’t mind doing it, it’s just that you’re better at it than me,” is a statement that echoes round the room as the decisive moment looms.

Negotiating bouncers on your own
A carousel of questions rotate in your mind: Will they make some sarcastic comment about my new belt? What if they remember my vomit exploits from last Saturday? If I have my hand poised on my wallet will they be more or less likely to ID me? Should I look at them in the eye? Slight nod? Say hello? Oh fuck it, I’ll just turn around and go home.

Playing football with a lone prepubescent
There’s always one on the field, a youngster stood alone doing kick-ups religiously in preparation for a career in the game. Shun his request to join your breezy kick-about and you’d be crushing his dream. 10 minutes later you’re wheezing like a whoopy cushion and trying to break his foot-long legs as he’s rounding you to score his double hat-trick.

Going to a fancy dress party
On the outside you’re saying: “Oh how crazy, so much fun!” On the inside you’re thinking: “Why the hell do people insist on adding a sense of foreboding to a perfectly good party by enforcing a themed dress-code?” You can only think of four things beginning with P, all of which mean constructing an impossibly elaborate costume that you have neither the time, money nor mental capacity to carry out. As everyone else shows off their peacocks, Pantheons and Peter Mandlesons the only thing you’re displaying is a woefully inadequate creative ability. By being dressed as a poo.

Watching porn with your girlfriend
The moment she agrees to your bravado-fuelled proposition to “get tips from the pros” you begin to shit yourself at the thought of the love of your life getting off seeing a more muscular, better looking, bigger-cocked stud screwing the brains out of some poor hillbilly blonde. “But darling, you don’t like it when it’s that rough… Do you?” Displaying too great a knowledge of certain starlets, accidentally revealing you picked up that trick with your tongue from some jock in College Whores 7, and letting slip your fondness for the ‘mature’ genre are also worries circling your mind like a hamster on speed.