Editors Blogs

The 2018/2019 End of Season Bumper Blog

The 2018/2019 End of Season Bumper Blog

Editor’s Comment

by Harry Fell

Since Gareth Southgate’s men made the country dare to dream again last summer, it’s fair to say that it’s been a pretty thrilling and surprising year in the sporting world.

In the Sports Blog we’ve got an awful to cover because, well, a lot’s happened this year. Man City are still – by the skin of Vincent Kompany’s Right boot – Premier League Champions, Liverpool are the new European Champions and Anthony Joshua is no longer the ‘ardest man on the planet (for now anyway). Oh and I won the in-house Fantasy Football League, again. #noworries

We’re on air from 3pm til 6pm every Saturday so be sure to catch us then. Next season will be our biggest yet, covering more live matches and interviewing more local sports personalities than ever before, and in doing so we’ll be giving you the best insight there is across all the sporting action in South West London and beyond.

And without further ado here’s what the team have to say about it all. All articles are correct at the time of writing.

FIFA Women’s World Cup

England face Norway on Thursday for a place in the last 4.

The Lionesses keep roaring!

by Naomi Briggs

The FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 is now in full swing as the globes best teams battle to earn the title as champions and lift the coveted world cup trophy.

With Phil Neville at the helm, England’s Lionesses have hardly roared into the World Cup. It has not quite been the start we envisaged but wins against Scotland and
Argentina have sealed qualification to the knockout stages.

England started their campaign in a tie against neighbours Scotland and secured a narrow victory winning 2-1 thanks to goals from Nikita Parris and Ellen White. However, in no way was it a convincing performance. The Lionesses started impressively and comfortably maintained possession but dropped off in the second half, allowing Scotland to ease back into the game. The Scots started to attack far more effectively and this eventually led to a strike from Claire Emslie in the 79th minute, their first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup goal.

The match against Argentina albeit a slight improvement from the Scotland game was more of the same and took the Lionesses until the hour mark to break the deadlock. With 17 shots on goal, England created numerous chances but failed to exploit Argentinas defensive lapses. Like Chile’s Christiane Endlers heroics against defending champions USA, goalkeeper Vanina Correa was outstanding making 6 crucial saves but was finally beaten in the 61st minute as Jodie Taylor ended her 14-month goal drought and tapped in Beth Mead’s left wing cross following an impressive counter-attack.

Despite the narrow wins, there is plenty of work to be done if England are to challenge the USA, France and Germany. There is no denying the quality that exists in this England team but we have been too predicable, lacked creativity and ruthlessness and if we can improve on creativity in attack and build on resilience I expect us to go far.

With two wins and a place in the last-16, Neville’s Lionesses head into their final group match against Japan knowing that a draw will be enough to claim top spot. England will need to finish top to avoid playing the strongest teams until the semi final stages. Second place will likely result in playing group winners in every round.

England are strong contenders and arguably have got what it takes to go all the way. Let’s hope so.

Summer Blues

By Phil Aizlewood

A Mini-Series Premier League Season Review

Wet Mondays, don’t you just love them? Nah, me neither. I’m sure we can’t blame a cricket World Cup for the miserable weather thus far this ‘summer’, but it just seems all too much of an vicious irony, doesn’t it? After the relentless, scorching sunshine of summer 2018, surely 2019 [global warming & all that] could deliver something similar.. but alas, England & Wales, welcoming the world of a sunshine-chasing sport to their shores, opened their arms with an umbrella and/or GoDaddy.com branded poncho for its rain-dismayed visitors.

No doubt, once the football season gets back up & running, the sun will have its hat back on and those early-season shadows will cast long over the relayed turfs at stadiums across the country. It’s only been 5 weeks since the Premier League season concluded with an almost anti-climatic final day, after such a scintillating run-in. The less said about a tired, leggy Champions League final, the better – not the finest showcase for English football, but all things considered, it seemed pretty fair that all the trophies found their way to cabinets in the North, to The Etihad & Anfield. But what about the South, The Capital – Chelsea, Crystal Palace & Fulham – who all experienced seasons of contrasting change & fortunes? Well, let’s have a little look in reverse order – starting with The Cottagers, and their calamitous return to the top-flight…

Fulham 2018/19

After such a phenomenal run in The Championship that culminated in an ever-euphoric Play-Off final promotion, this time 12 months ago, Slavisâ Jokanović was being linked to the vacant Chelsea manager’s job. ** We’ll touch upon that topic more again later . Jokanović’s stock was at an all-time high, Jean Michael Seri had been bought despite interest from Barcelona (!) & punditry talk was all about how high up in the league Wolves & The Whites might finish. Fast forward to June 17th 2019, Jokanović is now the manager of Qatar Super League Team, Al-Gharafa and Fulham have had 2 managers since his rather meteoric rise. So where did it all go wrong for Fulham? Well first & foremost, their transfer business was giddy & misguided, investing in a top-heavy squad & a [decent] defender in Alfie Mawson who was injured when bought. Not the ideal start, & it firmly laid the foundations for a frantic & failed season.

As they showed in the final furlongs of an already doomed season, Fulham can & did play some nice, tidy & technical football. They weren’t often outplayed, per se, but they were too often sliced open. Conceding 81 goals has only been ‘bettered’ by the disastrous Derby County & their 11 points in 2008 & by Swindon Town who shipped a century of goals in 42 games, back in 1994. Fulham’s defence was a catastrophe, despite the relative attacking prowess of a behaviourally-reformed Aleksandr Mitrović & the silky youth of Ryan Sessegnon. Both players will find themselves at new clubs come kick-off in August – West Ham & Man United respectively having already enquired – but hopefully the sturdy Scott Parker can build on the promise he’s so far shown as coach, & instil his grit for the gruelling battle of The Championship, even when their best 2 players have departed.

King Claudio [Ranieri] came in mid-season to try and arrest the slightly surprising slide down the table, but even this most magical of Premier League winning managers couldn’t perform more miracles at Craven Cottage. A brief glimmer of hope occurred at home against Southampton in a 3-2 win, then again against Brighton in a 4-2 victory at the end of January. However, these false dawns didn’t stop the rot & after 9 straight defeats, they were relegated on April 2nd after a 4-1 loss to Watford – this was naturally followed by 3 wins, and 3 clean sheets at an entirely ‘pointless’ part of their season, but it did ensure Parker’s job and some semblance of clarity moving into this somewhat fraudulent summer. A final day 0-4 reverse to Newcastle seemed to sum things up, in a familiar, fragile manner. Fulham may well be back, they’re an attractive proposition for any top EFL player [and surely, any oil baron with a thirst for a new project] and in Parker, they have a young manager who I think, will do well with his steely style & iconic side-parting. But their season began with a underwhelming, bubble-bursting loss to Crystal Palace & things didn’t get much better. Talking of The Eagles…

Crystal Palace 2018/19

After starting 2017/18 with 4 losses and ludicrously losing a manager (poer Frank De Boer) after only a month of a season, 2018/19 was always going to start with more success, it seemed. This duly happened on Gameweek 1, with the aforementioned 2-0 away win at Fulham, Wilfred Zaha scoring a lovely second and setting the tone for his early & late season form in particular. Palace will do well to keep him, especially if as rumoured, Spurs, Arsenal or even Borussia Dortmund come calling. His transfer to United came too early in 2012, but he’s developed into a real force, a direct runner and an increasingly calm-head in the final third. Alongside a rejuvenated Andros Townsend – in hairline & productivity – Palace did without a proper centre-forward until Michy Batshauyi came in January & did some brilliant bits, to remind Chelsea of his underrated quality [just before their transfer ban..]

Notable results actually came mainly away from Selhurst Park, with massive wins at The King Power Stadium, The Emirates & that 3-2 win at The Etihad, with that volley from Townsend. Roy Hodgson is now the oldest manager in Premier League history, but his wily old ways fit Palace at this juncture and their stabilisation over the last year, is all down to him. At the other end of the age-spectrum, 2018/19 was a breakout season for 21 year old Aaron Wan-Bissaka, playing in all 38 league games and having the best tackle-success of any full-back in the league. With Patrick Van Aanholt down the other flank, Palace were always potentially potent, if not consistent enough to really push for a top-10 finish. Like Zaha, Wan-Bissaka is a man in demand, Man United having already bid close to £50m for his precocious talent. After only one season in the top-flight, this could be viewed as an excessive valuation but with age, nationality & stats on his side, Palace are under no pressure to sell and if they do, it could help restructure a squad that needs strengthening for its next step. One man who will stay, Luka Milivojević, constantly reminded us that he’s one of the best dead-ball specialists in The Premier League, with 12 goals from deep centre-midfield, mainly from the spot or 25 yards.

It was Palace’s home form that really undermined their progress in a season of overall positivity. Only 5 wins from 19 games needs to be addressed & even if they’d just matched their 9 away wins in their own backyard, they’d be comfortably in that top-half, pushing for the Europa League. For 2019/20, this is probably a realistic aim with the right transfer business. If they can pocket close to £150m for Zaha and AWB, major works could happen, but until the transfer merry-go-round begins in earnest, fans will wait patiently to see what the realistic aim for next season can be. Can Benteke stay injury-free & come good, can they replace or keep their talisman Zaha? If so, more results like the 5-3 final day win vs Bournemouth might happen and The Eagles can soar higher than the ‘par’ of 12th they finished on May 12th. Players like Batshauyi would undoubtedly help their cause, but there’s stuff happening at his contractual home of Stamford Bridge that will scupper that scenario..

Chelsea 2018/19

As ever, the drama at Chelsea rumbled on all season – they ended up with another trophy & as we’ve come to expect since Roman Abramovich took control of the club in 2003, they’re now looking for another manager. It’s a ridiculous, riveting soap-opera at Stamford Bridge, but no team has won more trophies in last 15 years & their Europa League final demolition of Arsenal has slightly softened the blow of the inevitable loss of Eden Hazard to Real Madrid. Hazard’s season was statistically his best in a Blue shirt, 16 goals & 15 assists is a superb return & something he’ll need to at least match every season he’s at The Bernabeu – or those hankies will be waved. Although he was often supported by the omnipresent N’Golo Kanté & improving newbies, Jorginho & Kepa, there’s no way Chelski would’ve come anywhere near 3rd without their brilliant, bum-strong Belgian. Callum Hudson-Odoi showed glimpses of his immense potential & Christian Pulisic is a shrewd, proactive purchase, but a Hazard-shaped hole is something Chelsea fans are quite rightly fretting over. I’m sure the odd tear has been shed, too. A blue Blue on a Blue Monday, LOL.

‘Sarriball’ was the buzzword trending in the stands & timelines for most of the season, and despite disdain of his one- track methods, the ex-banker puffed out his chest (and some smoke), dug his Italian-heels in & stuck to his guns. Even Gonzalo Higuain was brought in January, the prolific forward who had scored 36 goals in 37 games for Sarri just 2 seasons before at Napoli. The transaction didn’t quite work out for either party, and it was in fact their other remaining senior striker – Olivier ‘One Touch Finish’ Giroud – who fired them to their 3rd European trophy in 7 years, whilst always retaining his immaculate hairstyle & beard combo. Conversely, there was the debacle at Wembley with Kepa refusing to come off, the 6-0 annihilation by Man City & a 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Bournemouth. Sarri somehow navigated the storm – no doubt aided by dangerous, dangerous levels of tar – and even though he’s now unsurpisingly left for Juventus & Ronaldo (& maybe Pogba), the season miraculously will be remembered as another successful one. With their infamous loan system now coupled with their impending transfer ban, the emerging talents of Mason Mount & Tammy Abraham might now return to the club with major roles to play, but you would imagine that’s intertwined with the next, impending managerial move..

Frank Lampard – the club’s all-time record goalscorer – is the odds-on favourite to replace the subtly-toking tactician, followed closely by Rafa Benitez & another old friend [foe], José Mourinho. Derby are, as expected, playing hardball for a contemporary coach who almost got them back to the promised land, but in the current climate Chelsea find themselves in, you can’t see another realistic option. From Lampard’s side, it’s a case of risk and reward – will his legendary status be put in jeopardy if he flops and gets fired by Christmas? Potentially, yes. Can he risk another season in The Championship, finishing outside the Play-Offs and not receiving another offer like this ever again? Probably, not. All roads lead to Pride Park for the Chelsea board, and I just don’t see any other eventuality.

As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has shown at Old Trafford, being so liked by the terraces will buy you time & patience from fans and board alike. These are commodities that Chelsea so rarely trade in, but you sense a shift in expectations over the past 6 months. You can never write them off, and as they showed in the mid-90s, the London lifestyle will always get big names into the club, whatever your standard of football. They can still offer Champions League football and​Lampard should resuscitate the integrity of their board-level decisions. At the time of writing, Derby Chairman Mel Morris insists no official offer has been made, but you sense it’s a case of when, rather than if. Personally, I’d love to see Eddie Howe offered a chance at the top-table, and if Mauricio Pochettino gets his head turned by Barca or Bayern this window, I could see him coming to The Big Smoke. The smart money though, is on Lampard to take the reins & what better narrative does he have than an opening-day fixture against Ole’s United at Old Trafford. It’s got 1-1 written all over it, followed by a typically emotionally-undulating interview with Frank afterwards. Whatever happens, the dominos will start falling in the next couple of weeks, and all 3 of these South London clubs will be looking to better the seasons they’ve just had. In the meantime, there are 16 different World Cups to watch, Love Island to ignore & partners we should speak to ’til Liverpool destroy Norwich 5-1 at Anfield & you realise you should’ve captained Mané in your Fantasy Team.

Until then, enjoy the rain, & working out the Duckworth-Lewis Method as much as you can. Cheers!

Both Brentford and QPR endure seasons of frustration

by Sean Russell

The Championship review 18/19

Championship football in South West London this season has been filled with ups and downs.  In a season whereby both would have thought it would be achievable to aim for the play-off places that so many teams desire, both Brentford and QPR fell apart at different points their seasons for many different reasons.  From managerial changes to the standout performances, this is the story of their seasons.

As with most seasons, there was a clear sense of optimism as Brentford began their 18/19 campaign and in beating newly promoted Rotherham 5-1 on the opening weekend it had appeared that Dean Smith had all the parts in place for a successful season.  Attacking players Neal Maupay and Ollie Watkins in particular looked fresh and ready to become two of the most prolific players in the Championship. There was also a solid base at the back with Chris Mepham, an academy graduate, leading the way. The same couldn’t be said for Steve McClaren’s QPR as they desperately tried to add to a squad lacking quality and depth in the summer transfer window.  This was reflected on the pitch as the had to go through a humiliating 7-1 defeat inflicted by a rampant West Brom which contributed to them being in the bottom three at the end of August. The fans would be relying on McClaren’s tactical nous and experience to make up for the squad they have.

As both seasons progressed, the West London clubs struggled to find consistency as they would continuously linger in mid table. There was never a sign a run of results to suggest that a push of any kind would manifest itself to the disappointment of the fans.  QPR at times were accused of being spineless and having one too many ‘bad days at the office’. Different problems occured for Brentford. Dean Smith, who left to his join boyhood club Aston Villa in October, had created a defensive partnership of Chris Mephem and Ezri Konsa that were arguably the one the best in the league at playing out from the back and feeding it into midfield. However when it came to individual battles and set pieces, neither were experienced enough to deal with it. Mepham would later be picked up by Bournemouth in January with his Premier League quality there for all to see. QPR also sold and loaned many players, most notably Idrissa Sylla.

The beginning of 2019 was positive for QPR as they would rise as high as 11th which is realistically what the fans would have hoped for at the start of the season.  Players such as Luke Freeman and Ebereche Eze and Luke Freeman where starting to find their form. In contrast, Brentford would drop down as low as 17th with new manager Thomas Frank who was promoted from within the club.  It was only until mid January that Frank began implementing his ideas through implementing a 3-4-3 formation which Frank himself said was heavily inspired by former Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. This created an upturn in results as wing backs Moses Odubajo and Henrik Darlsgaard had a big part to play in providing the width for the now dynamic front three of Ollie Watkins, Said Benrahma and Neal Maupay.  

Despite what was an average season for both, finishing 11th and 19th respectively, both teams had shining lights that will give the fans hope for next season.  QPR’s Eze getting a deserved call up for England’s U20’s while Brentford’s Maupay finished the season with 22 goals, a very respectable number considering where they finished the season.

Ultimately, both sides will hope for better in the 19/20 season.  Former Brentford boss Mark Warburton has been chosen as the man to succeed Steve McClaren with 19th place not being deemed good enough by the QPR board.  New signings Liam Kelly and Lee Wallace are players Warburton knows well from his time in Scotland and look to be promising. As for Brentford, the main priority (as it has been for many seasons) is holding on to their best players.  Neal Maupay and Said Benrahma’s standout seasons have attracted major interest from the Premier League and Europe. But who knows, maybe next season will include a promotion push from a West London club.

The Wombles salvage their season!

by Luke Engelen

League One season review 18/19

With the Christmas break over AFC Wimbledon looked well and truly down and out, 9 points from safety and with bad form seeming unshakeable, it was an easy task for 7 game undefeated Barnsley to pick apart an unsettled Wimbledon side. A 4-1 win for the Reds from South Yorkshire saw the four thousand Womble fans leave the Kingsmeadow Stadium with little hope remaining for their league one survival.

It wasn’t until the fourth round draw of the FA Cup where Wombles fan began to feel their current form in cup competition was about to run out. The Dons drew West Ham, a premier league side sitting at tenth in the table. It would only be after the match that the Wimbledon squad would realise that they are capable to avoid the drop having outed a side fifty-eight places above them. A match that saw Wimbledon score three with no reply not only showcasing their technical capacity, but also the passion that is shared between the club and the fans. The game ended 4-2 with the Dons looking unbeatable going into the fifth round.

Fellow teams looking to escape relegation from League One were put on notice. AFC Wimbledon were one of only two teams progressing to Round 5, and looked to take their form into the league. With two upper table teams to face in Sunderland and Burton, Wimbledon had their work cut out for them. Wimbeldon were unlucky not to take any points away from the Stadium of Light, and came away narrowly losing to Aiden Mcgeady Goal in the second half. Holding second in the league Sunderland for 67 minutes was quite an achievement from a team destined for relegation.

After losing to Burton, the Dons seemed to come back to form, besting Walsall and Rochdale and losing narrowly to Charlton in the 90th minute. As March came the Dons looked enduring,  A goalless draw at Shrewsbury didn’t seem to knock Wally Downes team, as they won three on the trot against Doncaster, Peterborough and away at Southend, by this point Wimbledon had moved up to 23rd, a feat that saw Wimbledon move from the position that they had been in since the start of the year.

As the Wombles moved into April, their eyes were set on staying in league one, 22nd in the table and 3 points off of safety Wimbledon were looking like a different team than the one seen in early January, with Joe Piggott being instrumental in front of goal. After only salvaging 4 points from 4 of their games in April, AFC Wimbledon knew they had to produce a win one of their two remaining games to have a better chance of safety. Sitting at 21st in the table with 46 points, guarantee of survival looked in grasp, they were one point behind Plymouth and Southend, two teams that had just come into form and found themselves reasonably comfortable with staying in League One.

Their two remaining games were against two teams in similar positions as the Dons, Wycombe Wanderers who were sitting 4 points above the Wombles but with two games still left to go, not even 18th Wycombe were safe. With Wally’s Wimbledon having home advantage it looked like the stars were alining for the team from South West London. A 2-1 win at home against Wycombe saw the Dons move to 19th and safe from relegation, it now looked certain that the Dons would stay up. With one game left to go against bottom of the table Bradford, everything was seeming to fall into place. A 0-0 draw didn’t phase the fans of Wally’s Wimbledon as they knew that had clinched safety.

Ending the season by only goal difference, AFC Wimbledon survived by a narrow margin but were overjoyed to see their hard work pay off, with the next season starting in less than two months, Wally Downes’s Dons will hope to stay comfortably in mid table.

by Louis Allen

National League and National League South Review 18/19

Sutton United

Missing out on promotion in their 2017/18 campaign after losing 3-2 to Boreham Wood in their play-off semi-final set high expectations for Sutton United this season. Sutton manager Paul Doswell set a target of fifty points which looked very reachable as United recorded early wins against Salford City and Leyton Orient. Points began to dry as the U’s struggled mid season and only managed five wins in fourteen matches between January and March. The poor run of form continued and Sutton gained just one point from their last four matches of the season. The club finished in tenth position and nine points of a play-off spot. Doswell, who had been at Gander Green Lane for the past eleven years and had seen Sutton through two promotions and five cup wins, left at the end of the season and the club have appointed Matt Gray, who has previously been assistant manager at Eastleigh, Aldershot and Crawley, in his place.

Dulwich Hamlet

Following an extraordinary 2017/18 season that saw Dulwich Hamlet promoted into the National League South for the first time, the Hamlet began their new campaign ground-sharing with local rivals Tooting and Mitcham at Imperial Fields with their future still in doubt. The Pink and Blue struggled to find early form and only secured four points in their opening six games. Off the field, there was good news as the Hamlet returned to their Champion Hill ground in late October. In the league, they continued their poor run of form and following reports of a tunnel bust-up at Eastbourne United, boss Gavin Rose threatened to axe players and demanded that his team needed an attitude change. On-loan signing Connor Hunte and new permanent addition Arjan Tajbakhsh gave Hamlet stability as they found ten points from their last five games to secure a fourteenth place finish. Hamlet have made six new signings over the summer and have announced a pre-season fixture against Tottenham Hotspur on July 20th.

Hampton and Richmond Borough

At the end of the 2017/18 season, Hampton and Richmond Borough came close to reaching the National League but fell short after losing to Braintree on penalties in the play-off final. The Beavers took their promising form into the new campaign, only losing twice in their first ten fixtures. However, after the 2-0 defeat at home to Billericay in late September, their form slumped and they lost a further ten matches out of the next fourteen. However, they saw off any threat of relegation by finishing the season strongly, winning four of their last six, and ended up fifteenth in the league. Midfielder Ryan Hill, who had been released by Stoke City the previous summer, has now signed a full contract and is an exciting prospect for the Beavers looking ahead at the start of their new season. 

by Henry Thomas-Aldridge – Deputy Editor

Lower Non-League Review 18/19

Kingstonian, Tooting & Mitcham, Balham FC and Tooting Bec FC

For my end of season blog post on our lower non-league teams, where else to start than with the team I looked at for last year’s end of season blog. Balham FC. Last year I said we should expect great things of the Combined Counties Premier (CCP) side as they finished 5th. I almost couldn’t have been more wrong if I’d tried as they finished 18th and remained in the division on goal difference. Several factors meant Balham were unable to capitalise on a great first season in the CCP. Manager, Greg Cruttwell, says several injuries and players pursuing full-time jobs, like James Gallagher, have taken a hit on the first team. Not to mention their very best players being poached by clubs in higher leagues. Ibrahim Olutade, a Balham youth product, moved to Hanwell Town last summer and has since moved from promotion chasing Leatherhead in the Bostik Premier to Maidstone United in the National League South.

 Cruttwell will be hoping Balham’s exciting youth system, which won their league cup final this season, will be able to help bolster the senior squad to show the league why their 5th placed first season wasn’t a fluke. Despite a season to forget, it will go down in the club’s history. Balham played their first ever FA cup game, beating North Preston 2-0.

Tooting Bec’s season will be seen as a positive one after they finished third. Lower down the leagues, you are only certain of promotion if you win the division so they’ll be staying in Combined Counties Division 1, one tier lower than Balham. I know you’re supposed to be going for the championship throughout the season but when it became clear that Bec wouldn’t win the league, it’s about finishing well. Stopping Frimley Green from winning the title will go some way to motivate the side ahead of next season.

They will be looking to emulate Balham’s season, as they’re hoping to also play in their first FA cup match in August. Bec need to ensure they don’t lose too many players so they can kick on early next season. They can show they are title contenders from the off, which they should be capable of doing if they don’t let the FA Cup get in the way. The best piece of news to come out of the club this year came late in the season. Tooting Bec FC are moving back to Imperial Fields to ground share with Tooting and Mitcham, where the club feels they belong.

Both Tooting Bec FC and Tooting & Mitcham will play at Imperial Fields next season.

From one Tooting club to another. Tooting and Mitcham narrowly missed out on the play-offs in the Bostik South-Central Division. Missing out on 5th place by one position, albeit 5 points, will be a tough one to take. But ultimately, they’ll have to look at their form against the top 5. The club only managed 4 points from a possible 30 in the 10 matches against the clubs that finished above them.

It doesn’t matter what league you’re in, if you’re challenging for the play-offs and promotion, you need to compete against the best teams in the league. Tooting and Mitcham didn’t do that. They’ll take stock, but they must see it as a stepping stone. Just like Tooting Bec, they need to keep hold of their players and make sure they don’t get snapped up by clubs in higher leagues. Then they should believe they can challenge for promotion.

by Lee Allen

The UEFA Nations League: a Tale of Two Halves

England’s run to the semi-finals at last year’s World Cup was one of the most exciting things I ever saw in the sporting world. But amid the flying beers and waistcoat fever, a small but vocal section of our country still had their doubts about the Three Lions’ credentials as a top international side. Victories over Tunisia, Panama, Colombia (on penalties) and Sweden may have been enjoyable, they said, but losses against Belgium and Croatia showed that when against major international opposition in competitive games, England was still second best.

To these critics, the Nations League group game between Gareth Southgate’s men and Spain in Seville on October 15 was the perfect response. England came into the game nursing a loss at the hands of the Spanish in the first of their group matches against each other back in September 2018 and very few expected England to salvage anything in the return fixture. Yet the Three Lions pulled off a stunning victory by three goals to two, cementing Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford as forces to be reckoned with on the international stage. England then followed that by gaining a measure of revenge by beating the third team in their Nations League group and their vanquishers in last summer’s World Cup, Croatia.

The freshness of the Nations League format worked well during the domestic football season, but this contrasted wildly to the environment in which the semi-final and finals were played. England looked lethargic in their 3-1 defeat against the Netherlands on June 6 – and who could blame them? After a manic and, for some, a mentally draining Premier League season, the only trip to Portugal which the players would have wanted to do would have been to relax on the beach in Albufeira. Similar sentiments were shared by much of England’s fanbase. With the drama of four of our country’s top teams being involved in European club football finals a matter of weeks before, the post-season Nations League games for felt like a real comedown. 

Despite the brilliance of Sterling and Rashford in Seville and the buckets of pace England have going forward nowadays, the Three Lions are far from the finished product. The team’s defending in the semi-final game against Holland laid bare our difficulty in playing out from the back in a team whose manager seems unwilling to change such an instruction. To play such a style, we also require midfielders who are comfortable coming deep for the ball, able to resist high pressure and who can turn defence into attack rapidly. While Jordan Henderson has proved his ability to be a top-class midfielder in recent years, England lack such class from other candidates. Ross Barkley is erratic and should not be a starter for England given his lack of minutes for Chelsea in the second half of last season, while Eric Dier and Declan Rice have potential but are yet to become leading midfielders. Another potential longer-term solution is Ruben Loftus Cheek who is an excellent footballer but is facing potentially a year on the sidelines. 

In the meantime and in the absence of stronger midfield candidates, England will have to hope for their existing chargers to play with higher concentration levels than we saw against the Dutch. That said, with the match against the Netherlands morphing into what felt like a worthless end of season friendly, who could blame the players for having their heads partly at the beach? And that sums up the Nations League in essence, that during the season it made a nice change from friendlies, but after the season, became just as uninteresting and pointless as friendlies themselves.

by Elijah Allotey

The Summer Sales – who’s going shopping?

The Transfer Column

The Dawn of the new Galacticos

It’s official Real Madrid are on a spending spree and it looks like it won’t stop with Hazard! Over the last few seasons Madrid have not been dazzling us with their spending they’ve been going down a different route, buying talented high potential young players in Vinicius Junior, Theo Hernandez, Ceballos, Brahim Diaz, Odriozola but not since the season of 2014-2015 have we seen them spend so much in a transfer window now the question is why?

This is due to their disappointing campaign in La Liga and their Knockout by Ajax in the Champions league, so much so that Zidane has been persuaded to re-join. The Squad needed refreshing, only time will tell if its money well spent. Currently their grand total spending has been estimated at a value of 270million euros and with rumours of Pogba, Eriksen, Neymar and possibly Mbappe joining it’s going to be an interesting season ahead!

Super Powers on the Prowl

With all the investment that Madrid have made, Barcelona have been making waves as well Frankie De Jong is an exceptional player who has signed with Griezmann soon to follow. Dortmund have Snapped up Julian Brandt and Thorgan Hazard. Bayern have solidified their Defence with Big names in Hernandez from Athletico and Pavard from VfB Stuttgart.

This Dismantling of Ajax

When Ajax set out this last season nobody expected them to make the champions league semi finals they were knocked out cruelly by a late Lucas Moura strike however it was the way in which they dispatched Madrid and Juventus two European giants which made football fans take notice.

Ajax are a selling team, but this team feels like it has the potential to do something special within the next few years. I doubt they will get the chance to. De Jong has moved to Barcelona, their captain De Ligt is almost 99% to leave as well and with Van de beek, Neres, Ziyech and Tagliafico constantly linked the squad will look completely different in the new season ahead.

It’s a shame I’ve really enjoyed watching them play together but that’s football for you it’s inevitable that they will all move on.

With the English Transfer window closing on Thursday 8th August 2019 at 5pm, Italy serie A Shutting on August 25th and the other bigger leagues The German Bundesliga, French Ligue 1 and the Spanish La Liga closing all closing on September 2nd it proves to be an exciting and frantic next couple of weeks.

by Angus Clements

The Saracens Dynasty Continues as the Gap Widens at the Top

Gallagher Premiership Rugby 18/19 Season Review

As another year passes in the quest to win English rugby’s most sought-after prize, the Gallagher Premiership title, it is time to reflect on yet another season dominated by two titans of the game. Saracens continued to cement their place in the history books, establishing themselves as one of the greatest dynasties that English rugby has ever seen, whilst the Exeter Chiefs showed consistent brilliance from start to finish and once again pushing the Sarries right to the death, but ultimately, big game mentality won-out.

This year’s epic 71-point final was the third meeting in this fixture between Saracens and the Chiefs in the past four years, with the North Londoners edging out a 37-34 win to retain their impressive record in championship games. In a match that saw ten tries, a Premiership final record, the Chiefs led for throughout the first 60 minutes until a stellar trademark Sarries comeback saw them lift the title for a 5th time in their history, and completing a historic European and Domestic double.

For Exeter, this marked a disappointing end to what had otherwise been a very impressive season. From the opening day of the season they set the marker for the rest of the league, after notching up a 40-6 win against the Leicester Tigers. From there they went on to top the league standings after the 22-game season and comfortably dispatched Northampton in the semi-finals. Despite the doom and gloom of falling to their most formidable opponents at the very final hurdle, the future for Exeter looks bright. The emergence of a 22-year-old superstar Fly-Half in Joe Simmonds and the signing of Stuart Hogg to inject even more explosiveness to the Chiefs back line, put the team in a great position to launch yet another assault on Saracens title in the 2019-20 season.

Looking down to the rest of the league, questions must be asked about who might mount the greatest challenge to the leagues two most formidable teams. This year’s closest challengers Gloucester and Northampton perhaps have the best chance of closing the gap. Gloucester were arguably the most entertaining team to watch all season, with player of the year Danny Cipriani producing one of the finest single-player seasons in league history. Jumping from 7th to a 3rd place finish in just one year, Gloucester seem to be the team on the up, with a host of players establishing themselves amongst the league’s elite and another year together under their belt, perhaps the Cherry and Whites could be the ones to disrupt the two at the top.

The Saints on the other hand have shown new life under a new coaching staff. After a slow and inconsistent start to the season, they pulled together an impressive second half, which ended with them finishing in 4th. Scrum-Half Cobus Reinach was a stand-out throughout the campaign, with the nippy number nine finishing as joint top try scorer in the league with 12, an accolade rarely befallen to a player of his position. Northampton’s challenge now will be to maintain the levels shown towards the end of last year and continue to build upon their success with an exciting group of players.

As we look towards the bottom half of the table, it was a surprisingly poor year for the league’s most successful team – Leicester Tigers. For large periods of the season, it seemed like the Tigers may have been in danger of relegation, a harsh reality for many fans who went into the season with high optimism, given some of the signings brought in the summer before. However, it was Newcastle Falcons who ended in last position, notching up only 31 points, 10 less than their nearest competitors.

Newcastle will now join the National Championship for the 2019-20 season and will be replaced by a seemingly rejuvenated London Irish side. With the on-going construction of their new ground, which will be shared with Brentford Football Club, Irish have been splashing the cash and have managed to attract a host of international stars to join the club, including Ireland Flanker Sean O’Brien and New Zealand’s all-star Winger Waisake Naholo. Irish will hope that this new injection of talent and experience will help them avoid a third-successive relegation from the Gallagher Premiership.

The 2019 Cricket World Cup

Tom Davies rounds up the winners and losers so far.

The Winners

India
This year’s round robin format was designed largely to ensure that there was no repeat of the 2007 World Cup, where India crashed out at the group stages and worldwide viewing figures had a similar crush. But with India in such imperious form, such precautions were unnecessary. India have swatted aside South Africa, Australia and big rivals Pakistan comfortably, before edging past Afghanistan, and look strong with both ball and bat. Opener Dhawan’s injury, ruling him out of the rest of the tournament is a blow, but India look the team to beat.

Bangladesh
Given not much of a hope of reaching the final four at the start of the tournament, Bangladesh have been a much-needed surprise package and at the time of writing are still pushing England for the fourth spot in the semi-finals. An opening weekend surprise victory over South Africa and a comprehensive walloping of the West Indies impressed, and they ran New Zealand close. In Shakib Al Hasan, they have by some distance the best all-rounder in the world and the obvious choice for player of the tournament so far.

Australia
Job done for the dislikeable Australians, who haven’t always dazzled but have done enough to get wins on the board against the weaker teams in the competition, albeit while having scares against Sri Lanka and the West Indies. Concerns about the lack of depth in their batting line-up persist, and their curiously flat defeat to India doesn’t bode well for stronger tests to come.

New Zealand
Top of the standings at the time of writing, New Zealand have quietly impressed. Aided by having the weaker teams at the start of their fixture list and having their game against India rained off, New Zealand have beaten the teams who would be realistic rivals for the fourth slot in the table, and look nailed on for the semi-finals. While they’ll be the team the Big Three want in the semis, with Kane Williamson, Matt Henry and Trent Boult they have match-winners and could yet spring a surprise.

Ben Stoke’s top scores against Australia and Sri Lanka weren’t enough to get England the critical wins they’ve needed.

England
Relegated from second spot on the list when first written to clinging onto a spot in the winners list. A near miss chasing Pakistan down after a poor session in the field was excusable, but Friday’s shock defeat to a Sri Lankan side who had only impressed in spells prior to that was not. A range of batsmen have with the bat across their four victories, with Eoin Morgan’s rapid-fire 148 against Afghanistan the stand-out, and Jofra Archer’s fast bowling has lived up to the pre-tournament hype. Their inconsistent performances have not been seen by the three others in the top four, and may still see them needing to beat one of them to secure a top four spot.

The Losers

South Africa
A horror-show from start to finish for many punters’ dark horses before the tournament begun. A comprehensive defeat to England need not have been terminal for the Proteas, but an embarrassing reversal to Bangladesh just three days later, which seemed a shock at the time but less so with each passing match, all but killed their chances of progression four days into the tournament. A victory over Afghanistan is all that’s prevented a clean sweep of defeats, and with mathematical elimination already confirmed after Sunday’s defeat, Faf Du Plessis is unsurprisingly under pressure as captain. An ageing team need a re-boot.

West Indies
Not much better from the curiously flat Windies. Their demolition of Pakistan’s batting line-up on the second day of the tournament seemed to confirm their status as another dark horse, but since then it’s been another clean sweep of defeats, with big hitters Chris Gayle and Andre Russell not delivering. One can only speculate on how different their tournament might have been had they beaten Australia in the second game, when they found a variety of interesting ways to throw away a commanding position, and it seemed to knock the stuffing out of them. A limp defeat to England, mauling by Bangladesh and an agonising defeat to New Zealand followed to all but put them out of the tournament.

The round robin format
While life has been breathed into the race for fourth place by Sri Lanka’s victory over England and Bangladesh’s continued good form there’s no denying that the tournament’s bloated format hasn’t really worked, as predicted by many. The organisers haven’t been helped by the underperformance of the aforementioned South Africa and West Indies (and to an extent, Pakistan) who have failed to put any pressure on the top four spots, but a situation has developed where many teams are now playing near-meaningless games, near enough assured of either progression or elimination already. The second half of last week has breathed some life back into the tournament, but it seems unlikely we’ll see this format again.

by Sasha Colvile

The Wimbledon Preview

As I write this blog post it is to the second 13 days 0 hours 57 minutes and 26 seconds until the world’s biggest grass tennis tournament of the year begins. I am of course talking about Wimbledon. With the shop front decorations and themed menus appearing all over Wimbledon’s historic village, the countdown to the start of The All England Tennis Championships on July 1 st is well and truly on. If that though is too far away for you, never fear there is plenty of tennis action beforehand.

Andy Murray will have the eyes of the world on him as he makes his return to tennis at the Fever Tree Championships at Queen’s Club. Back from injury, he has entered the Doubles side of the tournament with Spain’s Feliciano Lopez. The big questions of course will be all about his fitness. How will his new resurfaced hip stand up to the rigours of professional tennis? Murray has already admitted he will not be playing singles tennis until at least September, when he hopes to return in time for the Davis Cup. For now we will have to get our dose of our favourite Scotsman (mine at least) on the doubles court.

From a former world number one to Britain’s current top ranking, Kyle Edmunds. He will also be playing at Queen’s and he faces tough competition. Edmunds will face the likes of Kevin Anderson, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Juan Martin del Potro, Grand Slam winners Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka, Australian star Nick Kyrgios as well as home players Cameron Norrie, Dan Evans and Jay Clarke.

Outside of the UK Federer faces off in the Noventi open in Halle Germany, while in the women’s game Maria Sharapova is in action alongside reigning Wimbledon Champion Angelique Kerber at the Mallorca open.

So now it is to the second 13 days 0 hours 53 minutes and 14 seconds until Wimbledon starts and if you listen very carefully you can hear 27 thousand kilos of Strawberries and 7 thousand litres of cream making their way to London SW19.

by Christopher Sharp

Hamilton the Unstoppable?

F1 Season Review so far…

Is the season over? That is the question. Hamilton currently holds a 36 point lead in the Championship ahead of Mercedes Teammate Valtteri Bottas. More importantly he holds a 76 point (a race win is twenty-five points) advantage over Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel who was denied victory at the Canadian GP after the stewards deemed he had blocked Hamilton when he returned to the track.

This has been the most dramatic moment in what, on the face of it, has been a pretty mundane 2019 Formula 1 season, one in which Mercedes has taken 6 1-2s, Ferrari has made poor strategy calls and Red Bull continue to be the third best team.

So is there any point in watching F1 this season if Hamilton looks like he is almost guaranteed to win it in Schumacher-esque style? Well that’s one way of looking at it but that isn’t the case.

McLaren is reason enough to watch for one thing. Having spent several years, since 2013 at least, in decline they finally seem to have started fixing things after the nadir of last year. New management under Zak Brown along with new drivers Carlos Sainz and exciting rookie teammate Lando Norris shows that there’s some fresh spunk in this famous name.

Also, the championship isn’t Hamilton’s yet.

We are only a third of the way through the season with over 300 points worth of race wins still to play for. Not only this but Bottas, after a lull in 2018, has come back a faster and more ruthless driver. Throw in the fact that Ferrari is experiencing a resurgence in form with both Vettel and young teammate Charles Leclerc in toe and you have the makings of fine title fight in the making.

by Andrew Murray

What Next for Joshua and the Heavyweight Division?

Anthony Joshua was untouchable. He’d made it. Heavyweight champion of the world and a national treasure having transcended the sport of boxing into mainstream celebrity. Now, he was about to break America with his New York fight debut. Even Ed Sheeran tweeted him a good luck message. That’s when you really know you’ve arrived.

Nobody saw Joshua’s first professional defeat coming when he faced up against Andy Ruiz at Madison Square Garden last month – but that’s what happened. Literally no one, from BBC boxing commentator Mike Costello, right down to little old me – scoffing at Ruiz’ body shape – predicted anything other than a drab, routine win for the Champ. In fact, the reason I didn’t bother watching it was because I didn’t think it was worth watching. I’ll watch the rematch though, and perhaps that’s the best thing to have come out of it.

For at least a year now, the Heavyweight division has been at serious risk of sleepwalking through a potential golden age of so-called ‘super fights’. Joshua, WBC champion Deontay Wilder and undefeated lineal champion Tyson Fury represent the very best that the sport has to offer, and everyone wants them to fight each other as soon as possible. Wilder v Fury last year only whetted the appetite further, but despite talk of a rematch, both fighters have since signed up to fight other relative nobodies. Meanwhile, Joshua sat atop of the pile, four of the five title belts draped and no reason to go chasing the more dangerous fights with Fury or Wilder. How things have suddenly changed!

Now Ruiz has those 4 belts, and a large target on his back. Joshua has significantly less bargaining power to negotiate these fights, and the air of invincibility has gone too. Maybe this is the best thing that could’ve happened for the viewing public. Maybe it raises the chances of getting more fights that we want to see; Wilder v Fury II, Ruiz v Joshua II, Fury v Joshua, Wilder v Joshua… personally I’d like to see Dillian Whyte included in those conversations.

For Joshua, it’s going to be a sobering period for him, away from the lime light and back to the basics that got him there to begin with. It’ll be interesting to see whether he comes back stronger. To quote Rocky Balboa, it ain’t about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward… that’s how winning is done.

June 26th, 2019

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