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Seagulls’ rising Welsh star looking to ‘make every chance count’

March 6, 2017 in Features, Interviews

Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s forward Bronwen Thomas is looking to continue to make her “chances count” for club and country.

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Thomas in WSL action against Oxford

The Seagulls hosted their opening home Women’s Super League game on Sunday at Culver Road, and it was 16-year-old Thomas, Wales’s young player of the year, who scored their only goal.

Albion Women drew 1-1 with Oxford United in the competition’s Spring Series format, to make it two draws in their opening two games for George Parris’s side following an identical result against London Bees in their opener.

Thomas found a way through the Oxford back line on 31 minutes and her deflected shot looped over goalkeeper Demi Lambourne.

After the game she said: “It’s really nice obviously to start, but to get the first goal is great. It’s not just about me but it’s the whole team performance. The goal took a deflection and hung in the air for a while, but it was great to get the goal.

“I’m going to work hard in training and when I get my chance I want to make it count wherever I can”

“Oxford posed a threat, they were physical and in the second half our standards dropped a bit, but looking at us (Brighton), there’s definitely things to work on, and overall it’s a positive performance.

“We are a new group of girls, so it’s building on the positives and mending the negatives. Personally, I’m going to work hard in training and when I get my chance I want to make it count wherever I can.” added Thomas.

Interim Albion women’s manager Parris praised Thomas after the draw on Sunday: “It was a great goal, where we were sitting it took an eternity to hit the back of the net! She is an extremely promising player.”

Rapid raise to success

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Thomas collecting her prestigious award in November

Just three seasons ago, Thomas was playing in the Sussex County Women & Girls Football League with Horsham Sparrows, captaining their under-14 team to Sussex Girls Challenge Cup success.

Since then, the young Brighton forward has been recognised as one of the game’s brightest talents and was  crowned Wales’ young women’s player of the year in November 2016 at a ceremony which also saw awards given out to Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Wales men’s team coach Chris Coleman.

Thomas’s award capped off a remarkable year in which she already broken into the Albion Women’s senior team and netted a hat-trick as the Seagulls retained the Sussex Women’s Challenge Cup in a 5-1 win over Crawley Wasps.

Praise from Albion chief executive

“We are incredibly proud of Bronwen, as a young player who has come through the club’s Regional Talent Centre”

Speaking last year, Albion chief executive Paul Barber led the congratulations, and said: “It has been an amazing year for Bronwen.

“She has broken into our first team, scored a hat-trick in the Sussex Senior Cup Final, been called up to the senior team by Wales, and now won this well-deserved award.

“We are incredibly proud of Bronwen, as a young player who has come through the club’s Regional Talent Centre, and in three short years made the step up to international football.”

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Netting a hat-trick in the Women’s Sussex Challenge Cup final

On winning the award Thomas said “It came as a total surprise. I was so excited to have an invitation to attend the Wales awards evening with the meant that had done so well at the Euros and had no idea I was going to get an award!

“I had to go up and receive it in front of everyone and then be interviewed in front of them all. I will never forget the evening

“It means a lot, just playing for your country means a lot but to be picked as a young player of the year is amazing, and it is a great honour.

“It won’t do it any harm (to my future career) but I completely believe ‘you are as good as your last game’ is the way to approach things.”

Remaining grounded

“She is an extremely promising player”

Despite her remarkable rise, the teenager remains grounded. “I’ve got to keep working really hard and improving as a player to keep getting the opportunities I am at the moment with Brighton and Wales,” she says.

Thomas is set to link-up with her fellow Welsh internationals this week as the national team travel to the Cyprus Women’s Cup tournament. The women’s side will face Hungary, Czech Republic and Israel in Group C.

MERTHYR, WALES - Tuesday, February 14, 2017: Wales' Bronwen Thomas warms-up before a Women's Under-17's International Friendly match against Hungary at Penydarren Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

International duty: Cyprus Cup

She will not be the only player away from Brighton on international duty. “The team (Brighton) will get back on the training pitch but with the nature of the set up, we have six ladies off on international camps,” said Parris. “This is great for them and the club, but for us back here, we will keep on working”.

Albion Women were meant to be at home to Doncaster Rovers Belles this coming Sunday, but because of the international call-ups, Brighton’s request to postpone the game was accepted.

The other players absent on national duty are  Alessia Russo (England under-19s), Jenna Legg (England under-23s), Laura Rafferty (Northern Ireland), Sophie Perry and Emma Byrne (both Republic of Ireland).

The postponed match means the Seagulls’ next game is a trip to Millwall Lionesses on Sunday 12th March.

 

Being a vegan bodybuilder

February 28, 2017 in Interviews

Naturally when you think about bodybuilding, you think about protein, and when you think about protein, you think about meat.

However, you may be surprised to find there are actually a lot of champion bodybuilders, such as Kenneth Williams, Robert Hazeley and Patrick Baboumian who live on a vegan diet.

Amateur bodybuilder Kiran Dehal does not feature in competitions but has gone from 63kg to 93kg in three years, having also implemented a vegan diet into his regime one year ago.

I talk to the 20-year-old about the decision behind becoming vegan and how he has successfully adopted veganism into his lifestyle.

Why did you become a bodybuilder?

I was originally introduced to bodybuilding by a friend I went to school with when I was 17. He was very interested in it and invited me to train with him at a nearby bodybuilding gym. From these sessions I developed an appreciation which turned into a dedication then into a love for the process of bodybuilding.

 What was your thinking behind turning vegan as a bodybuilder?

Looking at my diet I realised that the proteins I was getting in my diet also came with a lot of fat.

I found it was very difficult getting the toned and cut physique that I wanted.

After doing some research on vegan diets, and athletes who have followed them and thrived, I made the decision to transition into the lifestyle.

Ethical and environmental aspects also came into play through time but the main reason was health and cutting some fat from my diet.

 Were there any differences you noticed when you became vegan?

Due to the fact that I was paying much more attention to what I was eating and was cautious to the potential negative effects of drastically changing my diet, I only gained positive effects from this.

I had more energy, less bloating and felt fresh and healthy, keeping my muscle and becoming more cut.

 Is it any harder now getting the required protein you need to build muscle?

I have a big appetite and tailored my diet to keep a good amount of protein in it, so no.

I did my research into meals that would be suitable for me to eat and I now know what sort of foods I should be looking to include in my diet.

 What do you now eat daily to get sufficient protein?

My diet now contains more beans, lentils and lagooms, I have switched my whey protein for a sunflower protein, although the taste isn’t as pleasant.

I’m cooking more of my own food so I know exactly what’s in it and keeping to a strict regimented diet.

 Have you noticed any difference in the speed you build muscle since you became vegan?

I now find it much easier to cut than bulk which has both its benefits and setbacks, but overall I’m happy with the results.

What advice would you have for any bodybuilders who are thinking about becoming vegan?

Commit to it, do your research, plan ahead so you can be prepared for what’s about to come.

It won’t be too long until you don’t even notice being vegan and it all just comes naturally to you!

Q&A with Fanfair co-founder Connor Reddy

February 20, 2017 in Interviews

In today’s footballing world, much of the real action is in debate and discussion across social media platforms. 

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, to name just a few, have become the home for fans’ views, opinions and knee-jerk reactions across the globe.

A new app, Fanfair, dedicated solely to football, hopes to join that list. Shortly before it went live, Fanfair’s co-founder Connor Reddy spoke to Elephant Sport about the app and what he hoped it would add to the existing market.

What is Fanfair?

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©Fanfair

Fanfair is a new live-streaming platform that brings live football news and opinions together to spark discussions amongst fans. It seeks to be a live football community bringing fans from all around the world together to voice their opinions in a live environment with other like-minded fans.

How did the idea come about?

One evening watching the same old pundits rambling on Sky Sports, we began to wonder why it was only their opinion getting a platform and yet the average guy has to scramble together a 140-character message and hope not to get lost in the thick of it.

Surely the fan on the street had has much of a say as these guys being paid to churn out the same lines week in, week out?

What did you use as your inspiration for how Fanfair would work? 

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We looked at a company called Twitch that specialises in video game live-streaming, the reason being because they managed to build a community out of the passion of gaming, instead of just creating another social network or streaming application.

They really brought together a community, and that’s what we want to do with Fanfair.

They created a medium for true fans to interact with each other over a shared passion but also provide a stage for anyone and everyone to showcase their skill irrelevant of experience.

What makes Fanfair unique in this era of social media where football is already heavily discussed across multiple platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube?

In essence, Fanfair aims to be the sole social platform dedicated exclusively to football fans.

On a feature front, our unique audio commenting allows fans the chance to engage with one another like never before on a live-stream. We as football fans ourselves love to have ourselves heard when we’re raising our point to our mates, and this is what we are trying to recreate.

Traditionally, people have phoned into radio talk shows to have their say on the game, and we’re trying to simplify that process. We feel by using speech comments, we give passionate football fans the chance to really get across the emotion of what they’re feeling about the final score.

What do you aim to accomplish with Fanfair?

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Ultimately, we want to change the way fans interact with one another and make that a simpler and more emotive process for them to engage with one another.

Over the long-term, we want to develop Fanfair into a wider idea that transcends simply a football discussion app.

This has the potential to take form in an all-singing, all-dancing sports platform for fans of various sports and develop a fan-led content platform for the digital era that takes over traditional mediums such as radio.

With a younger, digital-savvy generation on the rise, our overall vision for Fanfair would be to see it become an innovative and interactive version of sports radio shows, where fans curate the content and have their say on the biggest talking points from the game.

Can you tell us more about a couple of Fanfair’s main features?

We decided to integrate live news into the app to help stimulate the conversation. A lot of live-streaming apps out there seem to be struggling to answer why to go live. We’re providing our community with a catalyst of live news to spark discussion.

Our audio comment feature gives fans the chance to voice their opinion so they can finally be heard. We noticed that all the other live-streaming apps out there focused heavily on the video aspect, whereas we want to place the emphasis on the actual engagement between fans and 140 characters just doesn’t constitute engagement in our opinion.

We’ve also implemented a ranking system that rates from: bronze, silver and gold with everyone starting from bronze irrelevant of their external background. The reason for this was because we wanted to allow validation for people’s opinions from other fans but also encourage those who want to build their own profile within the community.

What would you say is your favourite feature or aspect of Fanfair and why?

Definitely our audio feature, as we really want to be able to capture the real emotion that someone’s feeling when they’re talking about their team or a topic that resonates with them.

Why should football fans download Fanfair?

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©Fanfair

Football fans should download Fanfair and join the community because they’ll finally have an interactive way to discuss with fellow fans about the game they love.

We’re taking the football discussions you have with your friends and connecting you to other people who share some of the same ideas! If you’re sick of hearing the same old pundits using the same old clichés, then Fanfair is for you!

Heated football discussions can sometimes provoke the wrong kind of passion. People can go from simply disagreeing with a point someone’s made to eventually insulting or even threatening them. How does Fanfair plan to combat this and, ultimately, keep the environment a civilised place?

We strongly believe that the platform needs to be real and authentic. For that to be the case, we have to allow people with differing views to interact with one another. We have our own moderation team who will block and delete content that we feel has crossed a line, and we are clear that we do not accept abuse and threats from one user to another.

Fanfair was born from the passion of football and we want to harness that to unite people and accept that you can disagree with someone else’s view, but that doesn’t mean you can’t respect them.

Much like with any social media platform, ultimately it comes with the territory that you are going to have to moderate the content. We allow users to block others and report inappropriate content and are looking at measures to put in place going forward, which will put the emphasis on users who are constantly engaged with the platform to moderate the community as well as the team in the back-end.

Where can those interested in trying out Fanfair download the app?

You can join the community via the iOS App Store and Google Play Store. We’re always looking to improve the app so it benefits our community, so feel free to send us feedback at team.ff@fanfair.co as we’re always willing to listen to new ideas and opinions!

Featured image: ©Fanfair

Team GB will feel pressure at Worlds, says Kwakye

February 20, 2017 in Interviews

This summer, five years after it hosted its third Olympic Games, London will stage the 16th World Athletics Championships – the first time the capital has staged the competition.

Former British 100m champion and Beijing 2008 Olympic finalist Jeanette Kwakye says the competition is a fantastic opportunity for British athletes, but will bring with it a unique set of challenges.

“It’s a rare opportunity to have the World Championships in your home country, for the British athletes it will mean everything, especially for those who missed out on London 2012,” said Kwakye, whose own chances of competing on home soil at the 2012 Games were ruined by injury.

“I don’t believe there will be as much excitement around the World Championship as there was for the Olympics, but for Team GB there will be pressure because it’s a home games.

“There’s more exposure and it’s easier for friends and family to watch, so it will feel the like stakes are a bit higher.”

‘Worlds are as tough as the Olympics’

The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games should have been the start of great things for Kwakye.

She was the only European to reach the 100m final, and the first British woman to do so since Heather Oakes in 1984.

“I believe the Worlds should be on the same level as the [football] World Cup”

Her sixth place finish was done in a personal best of 11.4sec, and she came home ahead of 2000 Olympic relay gold medallist Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie, and 2003 world champion Torri Edwards.

The future looked bright but, sadly, injuries kicked in with a vengeance after Beijing, and Achilles tendon problems forced her to miss the entire 2010 season.

The following year, the outlook was better, as she won the British 100m title, adding the British 60m indoor title in 2012, but as the London Olympics grew closer, injuries intervened once again, ruling her out of the Games, and in January 2014 she retired from competing altogether.

Athletics has always played a huge role at the Olympics, but at the World Championships it has the stage all to itself.  But in the eyes of many spectators, an Olympic athletics gold medal still seems to a higher prize than a world title.

Kwakye says this is partly down to the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) not making the best job of promoting the world championship as a truly global event.

Burnout

“Spectators hold the Olympics in higher regards because of its history,” she said. “I believe it should be on the same level as the World Cup.

“If you had a successful Olympic campaign, it can really push you on psychologically to continue the good form”

“World championships are tough – as tough as the Olympics, it’s just that the Olympics have more prestige, so any UK athletes being crowned world champion will be a big deal, especially if it’s a woman – we’ve never had a female sprint world champion.”

Athletes’ preparations for major tournaments happen in cycles, and with London 2017 taking place less than 12 months after Rio 2016, there is a risk athletes who competed in Brazil last summer may suffer physical or mental burnout trying to raise their game for another major tournament so soon.

“A lot of this is down to coaching and experience,” Kwakye said. “A younger robust athlete can carry over the training effect from the year before and will probably benefit.

“But those who are less robust will have to adapt their training in the winter months because it can be very stressful on the body and mind,” she said.

Experience

“Nerves and excitement always kicked in for me at the preparation camp. It takes place two weeks before a championships and is usually in close proximity, but with them being at home this time, it’s likely that British athletes will go somewhere warm abroad”.

“There needs to be more profiling of athletes in the media… once young people show an interest then corporate sponsors will take notice”

“Older athletes use their experience and you may find many of them will not go back in to training until November to December following an Olympics”.

“If you had a successful Olympic campaign, it can really push you on psychologically to continue the good form. On the flip side a terrible campaign can also drive the athlete to do better. A lot of it is down to individual personality.”

Despite her retirement in 2014, Kwakye remains the national 60m record holder and retains a close interest in Britain’s athletic stars of the future through her involvement in schemes such as the Youth Sport Trust.

With London 2017 just six months away, Kwakye says she would like to see the competition being given a higher media profile.

“There needs to be more profiling of athletes in the media,” she explained. “We need more engagement with education organisations and schools – once young people show an interest then people and corporates will take notice.”

Team GB: Ones to watch 

Whilst Team GB may not have many clear favourites to win at London 2017, Kwakye says there are certainly plenty of medal hopefuls to look out for.

“For British female sprinters, this year I think Desiree Henry in the 100m and 200m will be the standout athlete.

“Adam Gemili who runs the 100m and 200m has had a coaching move, so I will be keen to see what manifests,” she added.

“There is also Lorraine Ugen and Jaz Sawyers in the long jump, Laura Muir over the middle distance; I think they are the ones to look out for.

“I would like to see how Sophie Hitchon capitalises on her Olympic bronze medal in the women’s hammer throw, too.”

What’s it like to be branded an ‘idiot’ by Gary Neville?

February 17, 2017 in Interviews

When Arsenal lost 3-1 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge recently, the Sky Sports cameras picked out a Gunners fan in the crowd with a ‘Time to go’ banner aimed at Arsene Wenger.

Former Manchester United and England defender turned pundit Gary Neville called the fan an ‘idiot’. This sparked plenty reaction, and the fan – Kane Hopps – suddenly found fame via social media.

Elephant Sport down with him to to get his side of the story, and his views on Neville, Wenger and Arsenal.

How the past few weeks been for you?

It has been pretty crazy. People have been calling me, texting me, tweeting me – even [Times football correspondent] Henry Winter, The Sun and TalkSport. It’s definitely not something I expected from just putting the banner up.

How have you dealt with being at the centre of a media frenzy?

It’s certainly been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. I’ve had to get on with my day job while it’s all been happening so it has been a bit difficult, especially getting calls left right and centre from various new outlets. But overall I think I have dealt with it pretty well!

You have received a lot of support from fellow fans. What does that say about Wenger’s current situation at Arsenal?

It shows the tide has most certainly turned and has become more vocal than it has ever been before. People who have previously been on Wenger’s side have even had enough now and it shows that more and more fans are not just going to sit there and accept it now.

Everybody knows about that banner now; will that recognition persuade you to bring it to even more games?

Definitely – that was the plan anyway. The Watford and Chelsea defeats have shown me nothing has changed. He goes on about how this squad is better and different this year, but it’s not. I don’t care what we do from now until the end of the season, we are not going to win the Premier League (which we were promised) so something has to change or the banner will keep on coming.

During games, has anybody come up to you in support of the banner?

Yes, quite often. At Chelsea I had people coming up to me and patting me on the back saying well done, who were in favour of the banner. We even managed to get a ‘Wenger out’ chant going for about 10 seconds or so. There are far more in favour of it than not, put it that way.

Has anybody come up to you who have not been in favour of the banner?

A few people approach me and ask me why I do it and tell me to ‘support the team instead’.  But they miss the point – I am supporting my team. I am supporting the club by doing what I believe is best for it! I respect their views whether I agree with them or not, so they should do the same with mine.

If you’d won at Stamford Bridge, would we have still seen the banner?

Yes. I know a lot of people will not believe me but win, lose or draw, that banner was coming out. The home game to Watford was the tipping point, and I cannot continue to sit here, pay all this money for the same mistakes to keep happening year in year out.

Can Wenger do anything now to prevent you from protesting/bringing the banner?

For me, no. That ship has sailed unfortunately. The FA Cups were nice but for a club like Arsenal to not win the league for over 12 years isn’t good enough and the manner in which we go about it. The way we capitulate year after year after year, nothing changes.

He goes into the transfer market and doesn’t buy the right players. We are short, again. Injuries hit us, again. We crumble in the big games, again. That will never change under him – otherwise, it would have changed already.

So when can we expect to see the banner next?

The next game!

Moving on to Gary Neville’s comment, what was your immediate reaction to being called ‘an idiot’ live on air?

First of all ‘wow’. I could not believe so much had been made of it. But I was quite shocked that he called me an idiot because  he has been quite vocal over Wenger, his failures, and how we are not title challengers.

So I ask for all that to change and all of a sudden he goes on the defensive and calls me an idiot! I thought it was very contradictory of him, especially from a top pundit to call a paying fan an ‘idiot’ for his own opinion, I was surprised.

Bearing in mind you didn’t take it personally, can you almost be thankful to Neville for the free publicity, even if it was unintentional? 

Yes, that would be fair. He has blown it up so much that it has ended up on the news, radio and national papers – the exposure it has had has been crazy. So I guess a small part of me does have to thank him for that!

Do his views towards fans like you change your views towards him as a pundit?

Not really. I still respect him as a pundit and think he talks a lot of sense when he is analysing the game. He is not biased and does not let personal views dictate that either. But this particular view makes me think he is less in touch with fans than I thought, that’s for sure.

If you were in a room with him in a ‘gloves off’ scenario, and he maintained his view that you or any Arsenal fan who brings a banner to a match to express their views is an idiot, how would you respond?

There are a load of things I’d love to debate with him – the main one being why he feels he can call me an idiot for having an opinion, and really press him to see if he actually feels that towards any paying fan, not just Arsenal fans.

I’d also like to ask him how he can continue to criticise Wenger (even throughout the Chelsea game) and then question me when I ask for the same things to be changed in a positive way! I also think managing Valencia has made him go soft on other managers – has he has seen first had how hard it can be?

He seems to sympathise with managers more nowadays after his experience at Valencia, so I would love to question him on that too.

Willock turns Gunners rejection into resurrection at United

February 14, 2017 in Interviews

Every season, many young footballers go through the dreaded experience of getting released by a professional club.

The realisation that they will not fulfill the dreams they have chased for years can be a hard blow to take and for many of them, the opportunity will have passed forever.

To rub salt into the wound, in some cases the judgment comes from the player’s favourite club, the one they will watch for the rest of their lives thinking ‘what if’.

Former Arsenal trainee and lifelong Gunners fan Matty Willock knows this scenario all too well.

After spending his formative years dreaming of emulating his hero Thierry Henry, at the age of 15 he was given the bombshell news that he would not be kept on as a scholar in the under 18s.

But it was not the end of the story, as amazingly he was offered a second chance – at Manchester United.

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Despite the turn in events that got his career back on track again in Manchester, the pain of rejection by his first love was hard to take at first.

“I’m an Arsenal fan so I was dreaming of playing for them one day,” Willock said.

“But when I was 15 I got released. They told me they weren’t giving me a scholarship, so obviously I was without a club.

“Fortunately the head scout at Arsenal was in contact with United and he organised a trial for me to come up and play a couple of games. Luckily enough they said they wanted me, so I signed for United when I was 15.”

For many Premier League academy cast-offs, this type of career rescue act is unheard of. Some might drop down a division or two and have a mediocre career in the lower leagues; most will slip out of the professional game altogether.

Of course, grassroots football is where every player begins their journey to the top and the man from the capital’s East End was no different.

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Willock left his boyhood-club Arsenal at 15, but resurrected his career at Old Trafford

Connections

Recalling his pathway to Old Trafford, Willock said, “I started off in Sunday League when I was six or seven.

“I was at Ridgeway Rovers. David Beckham played for them and there are a few other players who have come through there. It was probably the best club around my area, Chingford, and they’ve got good connections with a few clubs like West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal.

“Then I got a trial with Arsenal when I was about 10 or 11 and I just went up through the age groups.

Now 20, and an important figure within United’s under 23’s, Willock’s career is on the up.

Having trained intermittently with the first team squad, he further proved his worth to the Red Devils’ hierarchy with a 93rd – minute winning goal in the Premier League 2 fixture away at rivals Liverpool.

The Londoner’s header deep into injury time secured a 1-0 victory at Anfield, and three vital points for his team.

Siblings

The next challenge for United’s match winner on Merseyside, is to force his way into Jose Mourinho’s reckoning and make his first senior appearance; something another member of the Willock family has already achieved this season.

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The midfielder grabbed a late winner at Anfield for United’s U23s

“I’ve got two brothers who still play for Arsenal; Chris and Joe,” said Willock, proudly.

“We used to play together as kids in the park, my dad used to take us every day. It was just something to do. It’s good going home and being able to watch my brothers and they’re both doing well, so that’s a good thing.

“Joe (17) is playing for the under 18’s at the minute and Chris (19) made his [first team] debut in the EFL cup [against Nottingham Forest] which was obviously a big moment for him because he’s a proper die-hard Arsenal fan, it was a dream come true.

“I wasn’t there and it wasn’t on TV so I didn’t get to watch it, but he told me he did well.”

Whilst his younger siblings continue their development in North London the older Willock brother knows he must bide his time for the opportunity to feature in Mourinho’s plans.

Furthermore, to be considered for a loan move away from Old Trafford in order to pick up valuable minutes in a first team environment, Willock concedes that he must listen to the instructions and wishes of his club.

“I’ve been with the first team a bit in training, hopefully I can push my way forward. Patience is key, really. Sometimes as a player you really want something but you have to remember the club always knows best.”

Barriers

Mourinho is famously a manager who tends to utilise experience, rather than youth, within his squad and therefore the path to the first team will not be straightforward for any young player at United.

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Willock’s older brother, Chris, has featured for Arsenal this season

Yet Willock, in pursuing his dreams, has proven that he is not adverse to overcoming barriers placed in his way.

Having bounced back from his early experience of rejection and the harsh realities of competitive football at the highest level, what message would Willock pass on to youngsters who, like him, have been left high and dry by their academy experience?

As you’d expect, old-fashioned hard work is high on the list. But so too is keeping a level head and realising there is still time for things to change.

“It’s not the end of the world,” he signs off.

“It’s easy to give up and start thinking you’re not good enough when people say it by releasing you, but you have to keep believing in yourself and keep working hard. If you’ve got the talent you’ll come through.”

Pacy Porter primed to thrive in the top flight

February 8, 2017 in Interviews

Fast bowler Jamie Porter played a big role in helping Essex gain promotion back to Division One of the County Championship last season.

The Leytonstone-born seamer, 23, has come a long way in a short space of time.

Having played for Middlesex under-17s and under-19s, he had almost given up hope of making it as a professional and was considering a career in recruitment.

But he had another crack at it with Essex and impressed with their 2nd XI before making his first-team debut late on in the 2014 season.

Porter took 50-plus wickets in 2015, and again in 2016 as Essex topped Division Two and returned to the top flight.

He sat down with Elephant Sport to talk about his career to date.

 

Essex won promotion from Division Two last year – what was it like to play a huge part in that?

Yeah, it was great! In previous years, the main focus was on white-ball cricket as we have always been a strong one day side.

But with the gap now between Division one and Two, and only one team getting promoted, we shifted our priorities to winning the Championship. So it was nice after really focusing on it for the first season to then go and win it. It was really special.

 

Is it your most satisfying moment to date?  

It’s up there, no doubt. But I think the real satisfying moment for me was signing for Essex in the 2013 season, and then I got capped towards the end of the 2014 season.

I started to realise how quickly things can change. Not only to receive my cap but to get it at the age of 22 and being one of the youngest players in the squad was really great for me.

 

You mention things have happened so quickly in such a short space of time; you must have worked extremely hard for that to happen….

The first season was real hard work. I signed but I had a winter where I hadn’t really trained, I was so out of nick. I didn’t even play a game for the first month!

I just had to focus on getting myself fit. I spent a lot of time with the physio trying to get back in shape to play. When I was fit enough to play, I started taking wickets and never looked back really.

 

You talked about there being more of a focus on red-ball cricket last year; was there a definitive moment where you thought to yourself ”Yeah, we are gonna win this’? 

It was amazing, actually. It was the first time ever I’d been in a dressing room where the belief we could win it was there from game one.

We beat Gloucester in the first game of the season and we had a big night out afterwards. We didn’t need many runs to win; Cooky [Alastair Cook] and Browny [Nick Browne] knocked them off pretty quickly, we had a few beers in the dressing room and then headed into town.

We were in O’Connor’s pub at about 11pm jumping on the tables and chairs singing ‘Were gonna win the league!’ But the real big moment was beating Kent, it was a two-horse race towards the end, so beating them was absolutely crucial.

 

On a personal level, you took 55 wickets for the year; out of 10, what mark would you give yourself?

Probably a seven. I thought it was a good season. I started well, I was leading wicket-taker in the country for the first few months, and then the middle of the season went a bit quiet for me.

I was not bowling as well as I would have liked and a few little injury knocks also didn’t help, but it was a good year for me on the whole.

 

You mentioned being leading wicket-taker in the early part of the season. Be honest, did you surprise yourself a little bit?

Maybe a little, but I always expect a lot from myself. I put myself under a lot of pressure. But it all happened quite quickly, in the Gloucester match I got seven wickets and then I went to Sussex and got seven again, and five in each innings against Northants in the next game.

The way it was coming out, I felt I was going to take wickets with every ball.

 

Are there plans in place for you to play T20 games?

I’ve been told I am going to play this year! I have played a bit of 50-over cricket but it was frustrating last year year because I was injured for the bulk of our T20 games and kind of missed my opportunity. Hopefully I feature more this year and take the role of being a specialist death bowler.

 

So what kind of things do you need to work on to be a ‘specialist death bowler’?

Well, I have always been a pretty good yorker bowler, and that is coming along quite nicely. I have also got three slower balls. I am comfortable with taking the pace off in the middle overs, and that is one of the keys to the short game, so hopefully it can work well for me this year.

 

Moving on to the upcoming season, a lot is made of the step up from Division Two to One, but just how big of a gulf is it?

We are aware of it but it is more down to the grounds we at play at rather than opposition. We will be playing more Test match grounds and pitches, turning wickets, bigger grounds so the spinners are more in play.

We know the opposition because we come up against them in various different competitions, so we know what we are up against.

 

Your aim last year from day one was to win the division, and you did that. What are the team goals for this season?

We don’t want to sit there and say we are going to win it. Obviously we want to win it, but the realistic thing is to try and get off to a good start and maybe surprise the other teams and get out of the blocks quickly.

Hopefully, we can get a few wins early on to put us in a top three position come the midway point of the season, then we can have a real push at it. But I think we will break it down a lot more this year and take it game by game.

 

And on a personal level, what would you like to achieve?

If I can get to 50 first-class wickets again for the season I would be delighted. And there is a lot more focus on the short form of the game nowadays, so hopefully I will have a role to play in the T20 side, too.

 

Finally, the majority of cricketers dream of playing for their country; has there been any contact from England as yet?

Yes, there has been funnily enough, the ECB stay in contact constantly. I just missed out on the Lions tour this winter but I am on the fringes and they are constantly looking at me.

Hopefully I can have a good year this year, and playing in Division One helps, so who knows what might happen!

Check out our quick-fire questions with Jamie here

Q&A with Essex bowler Jamie Porter

February 8, 2017 in Interviews

Jamie Porter made his first-class debut for Essex against Kent in September 2014, and has established himself as a seamer with great potential.

In 2015, he took six wickets against the touring Australians, bowling opener David Warner for just four runs in the second innings.

The 23-year-old paceman is currently preparing for the new campaign with his home county, having helped them gain promotion to Division One last season.

Here, he gives us some quick-fire answers on to our questions about his team-mates and more…

Team-mates…

Biggest joker? Tom Westley

Hard man? Me

Hardest worker in training? Alastair Cook

In a biggest six hitting competition, who wins? Ashar Zaidi

Best fielder? Callum Taylor

Worst fielder? Matt Dixon

Prankster? Anthony McGrath

Biggest moaner? Callum Taylor

Most intelligent? Ryan Ten Doeschate

Least intelligent? Me

Who thinks they are better than they actually are? Matt Dixon

 

General…

Best moment in cricket? Getting my Essex cap.

Worst moment in cricket? Against Leicestershire in a county game last year coming back from injury. I ran in four times and couldn’t let go of the ball. The fifth time, I lost my run up but bowled it anyway. And the sixth time I got a wicket! It was a bit embarrassing…

Toughest opponent you’ve bowled to? Kumar Sangakarra

One batsman you would like to bowl to? Sachin Tendulkar – let’s see what the fuss is all about.

Score a century or take a 10 wicket haul? 10-wicket haul

Win the Ashes or World Cup? Ashes

And the best thing about being a pro cricketer is…? Having October off!

‘I can do greatness’ – Russell has eyes on the prize at London 2017

February 1, 2017 in Interviews

“I have to prove to myself that I cannot be defeated.”

It’s a bold statement, but Janieve Russell is simply sharing her ambition to one day dominate the 400m hurdles.

Jamaica’s 2012 world junior champion took another step on that path last summer, finishing seventh in the Olympic final in Rio.

At 23, she is aiming to improve on that placing at this year’s World Athletics Championships in London.

“I’m trying my best to stay injury-free because I know if I can stay healthy, I can be great,” she told me.

“I want to create history for my country. I want Jamaican fans at home and abroad to expect good things from me. I want to be on the podium like my track idols.

“London will be very different to Rio but I’m very excited. I think it’ll be awesome.”

Upgrade

The first glimpse of Russell’s potential came to light on her international debut at the 2008 Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) Games, where she won silver in the under-17 long jump.

“I found my switch to hurdles challenging but I love challenges”

A year later at the 2009 Games, she upgraded that to gold, as well as winning bronze in the high jump and golds in the 4x100m and 4x400m relays.

Her burgeoning talent was confirmed three years later at the 2012 World Junior Championships, where she won gold in what has become her main event, the 400m hurdles.

This saw her become only the second Jamaican woman to achieve this honour, the other being future Commonwealth gold medallist Kaliese Spencer.

Focus

However, the impact of competing in multiple events began to take its toll on Russell with a succession of injuries, and it was this that made her decide to focus on the hurdles.

“I noticed I was getting numerous injuries, more than what I am experiencing now,” explained the former pentathlete and heptathlete.

“There aren’t many programmes in Jamaica designed for multi-event athletes, they tend to focus on specifics things like sprints, hurdles and the quarter-mile.

“I found my switch to hurdles challenging but I love challenges. I feel it suits me. I can do greatness. I’m comfortable.”

Progress

Since committing to the hurdles, Russell has made steady progress, culminating in reaching the final in Rio.

She might not finished among the medals in Brazil, but she says the whole experience of being part of the Olympics was a huge learning process.

“In high school I was always watching the Games as an athlete but not thinking I would be there like them”

“As we know, before the rainbow there is always rain!” she laughed.

“I was very excited to be on the Jamaica team. Being the youngest in the finals in terms of experience, I took away the attitude of never giving up, no matter the situation or outcome – just keep pushing.

“The Olympics taught me you will have some people who will stay by your side, and some who will leave. But no matter the outcome, turn it into a positive.

“I have to prove to myself that I cannot be defeated.”

‘Dream come true’

Even now, though, she admits to still finding it slightly overwhelming to line up against some of her more high-profile rivals.

“In high school I was always watching the Games as an athlete but not thinking I would be there like them – I was always supporting those competing,” she said.

“When I started the 400m hurdles, I wanted to be as great as [2008 Olympic and 2009 world champion] Melanie Walker and even better. I wanted to achieve as much as [1996 Olympic champion] Deon Hemmings.

“All of this is a dream come true.”

Inspiration

Jamaica’s former Olympic gold medallist Walker and Omar McLeod, the current men’s Olympic 11om hurdles and 6om hurdles world indoor champion, have both shown Team Jamaica are capable of producing world-beaters in disciplines other than their usual strongholds in the shorter sprints.

“To come out on top in London in front of all those fans would truly be a blessing”

Russell said: “Melanie Walker has inspired me greatly because I know she is also multi-talented, she can do sprint hurdles and the 400m hurdles.

“To see someone with so much heart go out there year after year, to perform so well, pushes me to say ‘I can be great too’.

“I just have to believe in myself. As long as you are willing to work hard for something you want – which I am – as well as listening to my coach, I believe I can emulate what my compatriots have achieved in their events.”

London calling

Having already lived one dream in Rio, Russell’s sights are now set on the 2017 Worlds at the London Stadium, which of course hosted the 2012 Olympics track and field programme.

To step onto the podium, perhaps as champion, particularly in a city that’s home to so many Caribbean supporters, would be a huge achievement for her.

“To see all the preparations, dedication and faith I’ve put in over the last two years of being injured pay off, and to come out on top in London in front of all those fans would truly be a blessing.

“The preparations are going well. I am working towards small goals, building up to my season. Every race I run, I want to improve and to maintain my consistency.”

Russell surprised herself by reaching the final and finishing fifth at the 2015 Worlds in Beijing. Don’t bet against her being in the medals in London this summer.

‘My kids’ friends think I’m a superhero’

January 12, 2017 in Interviews

Andrea Thompson’s two children are very proud of their mum, and rightly so. She is, after all, officially Britain’s strongest woman.

“They often take in newspaper stories about me or medals in to school to show their classmates,” she says.

“It’s quite amusing when a group of five-year-olds approach me in the playground, and ask how much can I lift.

“As they don’t understand weights yet, I tell them I could pick up the head teacher – they think I’m a superhero, it’s the best feeling ever!”

Thompson, 34, won her title last August, and now has her eyes set on bigger prizes including the Arnold Strongman Classic. Founded by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it takes place annually in Columbus, Ohio.

Hiccup

The part-time bar manager from Melton, Suffolk, won four out of five events to claim the British crown in Northampton, having only begun competing in strongman/woman events in June 2014.

She triumphed in the deadlift contest, picking up a mammoth 215kg bar from the floor to a standing position, and destroyed the field in the giant dumbbell event by lifting a 42.5kg weight above her shoulder seven times.

Another win for Thompson came in the yoke carry, where she had to dash to 15 metres with a 230kg H-shaped frame before dropping it, she then proceeded to the farmers’ walk, where she transported 100kg in each hands back down the circuit.

She suffered a hiccup in the truck pull, coming second-to-last, but completed the day with a strong finish in the Atlas stones, where she lifted three of the four hefty spheres in the quickest time to beat her opponents to the prize.

Festival

Her focus has switched to the Arnold Sports Festival, where she competed for the first time last year.

“It’s hard as a ‘Strongwoman’ is still a niche and it takes many titles and broken records to really get noticed”

The ‘Arnolds’ are multi-sport competition which includes the Arnold Strongman Classic, fitness and figure events, professional bodybuilding, and a bikini weekend expo.

“The Arnolds are the biggest strength and fitness event in the world, they’re huge,” Thompson told Elephant Sport. “Sometime people work for years for a spot at this event.

“I competed there as a novice and came fifth in the world,” she explained. “My aim is beat that. You are competition against yourself, and if you mess up, you will only have yourself to blame.”

Gruelling

Although different to weightlifting as seen at the Olympics, Strongman – which, despite its name, includes events for women – does have similarities, Thompson said.

As well as lifting, the gruelling events also focus on areas such as athleticism, mental and physical strength, speed and endurance.

“It took a while to adjust my mindset, and I still have days where I want to eat kilos of chocolate – I’m a woman after all!”

Thompson has confidence in her abilities to compete at the highest level – if she can afford to…

“I was hoping there would be a flurry of potential sponsors [following her British title win],” she said. “It’s hard as a ‘Strongwoman’ is still a niche and it takes many titles and broken records to really get noticed.

“Ideally I would get a sponsor to fund my trip, and the rest I would fund through my job. I usually work extra hours if I have a competition coming up.

“For last year’s USA trip, I had help from family and friends. My husband is also very supportive, and supports my career financially, too.”

Disastrous diets

Although she’s still coming to terms with her rapid rise in the world of Strongman/woman and the costs involved in elite competition, one massive benefit for Thompson is that, after having previously struggled through disastrous diets, the sport has finally helped her to learn to love her own body.

“It started as a hobby and a way to get fit,” she explained. “I’d spent so long lifting at various gyms and bootcamps and being on disastrous diets in a body I hated. The sport has taught me to love what my body can do.

“It has also taught me to pass on that self-belief to my children and others around me. I look at food as a fuel, not as a comfort which what I used to do.

“It took a while to adjust my mindset, and I still have days where I want to eat kilos of chocolate – I’m a woman after all!”

Check out Andrea’s Facebook page.

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