You are browsing the archive for News & Features.

Five footballers who went on to strange second careers

February 20, 2017 in News & Features

Former Liverpool and French international striker Djibril Cisse recently announced his retirement from professional football.

The decision, he explained, was in part due to failing to earn a contract at Auxerre but also so that he could put his “mind, body and soul” into DJing, alongside working as a producer, pundit and producing his own clothing line.

The 35-year-old, who scored 19 goals for Liverpool in two seasons and earned more than 40 caps for France, surprised many with his desire to be a DJ, but he isn’t the only professional footballer to follow an intriguing career path after his playing days. Since so many coming out of the game go down the roads of managing, coaching or punditry, it is always interesting to watch former stars who do something entirely different.

Here are five of the most unlikely post-football career choices.

5) Dion Dublin – Host of Homes under the Hammer and inventor

dion

Dion Dublin was one of the big names in Midlands football during the early days of the Premier League, playing 145 games for Coventry City from 1994 to 1998 and 155 games for Aston Villa from 1999 to 2004, where he scored 48 goals in the most successful spell of his playing career.

He also had a brief stint at Manchester United, which was ruined by a broken leg, and won four caps for England in 1998.

Since retiring from football in 2008 after two years with Norwich, Dublin, now aged 47, has dabbled in the world of inventing, creating a musical instrument; a type of Cajon (a box-shaped percussion instrument played by slapping the front and rear faces) that he called ‘the dube’.

Aside from creative exploits, he has taken the well-trodden ex-footballer route of television punditry, but also, less obviously, as a presenter in his own right, since joining Lucy Alexander and Martin Roberts as a presenter of the popular daytime property show Homes under the Hammer in 2015

Upon being selected for the role, Dublin retorted: “When they offered it to me I was overjoyed. The only shorter phone call I had was when United signed me from Cambridge.”

4) Tim Wiese – WWE wrestler

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 15: Tim Wiese celebrates with The Usos during WWE Live 2014 at Festhalle on November 15, 2014 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo by Simon Hofmann/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Tim Wiese was an experienced goalkeeper, spending 13 seasons, from 2001 to 2014, in the top flight of German football, playing for both Hoffenheim and Werder Bremen.

However, heavy competition from the likes of Jens Lehmann, Oliver Kahn and Manuel Neuer meant he won just six caps for the national team, and after retiring from football in 2014 aged 33, Wiese traded in the football for weights, pursuing a career in bodybuilding.

It was this that led to his most recent unexpected career path – as a professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the world’s most high-profile wrestling organisation.

In 2015, Wiese took up an offer and began training for his new role. After receiving a personal invitation from Triple H (a former world champion, now WWE’s CEO) Weise was sent to WWE’s training facility in Florida and shortly afterwards, made his in-ring debut on WWE’s European tour in Munich, teaming up with the RAW Tag Team Champions Sheamus and Cesaro to defeat The Shining Stars and Bo Dallas.

As things stand, Wiese is yet to make his debut either in NXT or on the main roster (comprising of RAW on Monday night and SmackDown on Tuesday), and remains in full-time training.

3) Jerzy Dudek – Racing car driver

dudek

Polish goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek was Liverpool’s number one between 2001 and 2005, and wrote his name in club folklore with his performance in the penalty shoot-out win over AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final.

He made 127 for the Reds appearances and won 60 caps for his country, seeing out the final years of his career as back-up to Iker Casillas at Real Madrid.  Following his retirement in 2011, Dudek opted for a new career behind the wheel of a racing car, and in 2014 completed his first full season in the Volkswagen Castrol Cup.

Interestingly, Dudek claims the two sports are very similar, telling FourFourTwo magazine: “My position in goal is about making quick decisions during the game.

“When you are racing in the car, you have to do the same, especially when you have to defend or attack, and control the car. This has helped me keep my focus and concentration, and maintain my physical ability to be a good driver.”

2) John Carew – Actor

hovdinger

John Carew remains one of the most prolific Norwegian footballers of all time, scoring 24 goals for his national side in 91 appearances.

He made his mark in European football in spells with clubs including Valencia, Roma, Lyon and Besiktas, but is best known to English fans for his four seasons with Aston Villa from 2007-2011, during which time he made 113 appearances notching 37 goals.

After being released following an unspectacular spell at West Ham in 2012, Carew has pursued a professional acting career, starring in 2015 gangster movie Hovdinger in which he played the character Ivan.

Carew told VGTV: “‘It’s a fun and interesting role. I would compare myself with Will Smith and “The Rock” perhaps.”

1) Arjan De Zeeuw – Police detective

de-zeeuw

Few ex-footballers have taken quite such an unlikely career path as former Barnsley, Wigan and Portsmouth defender Arjan De Zeeuw.

The centre back spent 17 years in English football, and was part of the Barnsley squad who reached the Premier League for the first time in their history in 1997, was named Portsmouth’s player of the Year in 2004, captained Wigan in the Carling Cup final 2006 and most bizarrely was named one of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s favourite footballers.

Despite the high regard in which he was held in English football, the Dutchman never earned an international call-up, and following his retirement in 2009 at the age of 39, he returned home to complete his training as a doctor, he began work as a forensic scientist and is now a police detective based in Alkmaar.

“It was never my intention to put my feet up after playing – I like to use my brain a little bit,” De Zeeuw told BBC Sport, adding that after playing football, he needed to ‘look at the world a bit more’, and that he liked the idea of justice and of trying to make the world a better and more equal place.

Premier League ‘will have safe standing by summer 2018’

February 15, 2017 in News & Features

Safe standing areas could be installed at Premier League grounds as early as next summer, despite ongoing government concerns, according to expert Jon Darch.

The founder of the Safe Standing Roadshow predicts that a system known as rail seating is on the horizon for the English football’s top flight, and said: “My gut feeling is that we are heading for its introduction in August 2018.”

Premier League clubs have discussed the possibility of using rail seating, formally adopted in Germany in the 1998/99 season.

Currently, their stadia have to be all-seater because of legislation implemented after the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 in which 96 Liverpool fans were killed.

Celtic introduced a 2,600-capacity section of rail seating at Celtic Park in last year, and it has been widely hailed as a success.

Despite this, the UK government recently stated that it remains “unconvinced” by safe standing but says it will continue to “monitor the situation”.

Crushing

However, Darch told me that Celtic’s rail seating ‘trial’ has put safe standing firmly on the agenda of both politicians and football’s administrators.

“Celtic don’t like to use the word ‘trial’ when talking about their rail seating section. As far as they are concerned, it’s here to stay, but they call it a ‘trial’ to keep  Glasgow city council happy,” he said.

Celtic's safe standing section

Safe standing at Celtic Park

England’s top-flight grounds have been all-seater since the 1994-95 season for safety reasons.

But fans continue to rise to their feet during games, and away fans often stand throughout a match.

Many supporters have called for the introduction of rail seating, which allows standing but prevents the kind of dangerous crushing that was once common on the terraces.

Since 2011, Darch has been on a mission to enhance the credibility of rail seating by touring a roadshow around the UK to give people a real taste of the benefits of a system which has worked so successfully in other countries, most notably Germany.

“Most big German grounds were once almost two-thirds standing, and the reason they invented rail seats was because Uefa said games in its competitions in the future had to be played in all-seater stadia.

“That was a problem for German clubs because they had these big terraces. Also, they were member-controlled,  their members were fans, and the fans wanted to carry on standing.”

On the agenda

Although Darch is pleased at the progress he still can’t quite understand why it has taken until now for the Premier League to explore the idea. In a TalkSPORT poll, just over 90% of fans questioned said they supported the introduction of safe standing.

“I think it’s very likely that the clubs will mandate [Premier League executive chairman] Richard Scudamore to explore further the possibilities with the government, and my gut feeling is that we are heading for the introduction of rail seating in August 2018,” he said.

John Darch

Darch (top right) in Hanover’s safe standing area

“It’s strange that the Premier League has never discussed it with their clubs, and the clubs have never sat down together to discuss the topic until now.

“But the main thing is that it’s on the agenda and the government will listen to Scudamore a lot more than they do to clubs and especially fans on the matter.

“With the power the Premier League has, it can certainly make it happen.”

Darch stressed that comparisons between traditional open terraces and modern safe standing/rail seating sections are “daft and irrelevant”.

Poor management

“People fall very easily into the trap that conventional terraces were unsafe,” he said.

“Yes, the design of safe standing is different and, yes, there is far less possibility of movement in a rail seating area. But well-maintained and well-managed terraces like they have at Burton Albion’s ground are completely safe.

“What caused Hillsborough, and what causes nearly every major every disaster at sports stadia or other large public assemblies of people is poor management of a moving crowd.

“It happened at Ellis Park in South Africa in 2001 – 43 people lost their lives, and if you read the judge’s views of that disaster, it read nearly exactly the same as Lord Justice Taylor’s on Hillsborough.

“That stadium was and is an all-seater ground and a top five-star Fifa stadium. It’s a good stadium, but because there was a failure of management of a moving crowd at the point of entry, people died.”

Safe standing economics

Some cite the cost of introducing safe standing as the main reasons for clubs’ hesitation to progress with the idea.

The Safe Standing Roadshow website gives an example of how it could impact on a club’s matchday revenue:

Stadium A

Current capacity: 35,000

Two-tier stand behind each goal

Lower tier of the home end (3,500 seats) converted to safe standing

A section of the away end (1,750) converted to safe standing

Total seat spaces converted: 5,250 (15% of capacity)

Total standing spaces created: 9,450 (5,250 x 1.8)

Revised total capacity: 39,200 (+4,200, i.e. +12%)

Example seat price: £25

Example standing price: £18

Total gate receipt potential before: £875,000 per match / £17.5m per 20 games

Total gate receipt potential after: £913,850 per match / £18.25m per 20 games

Potential gate receipt increase per 20-game season: £750,000

Potential total extra revenue (incl. fans’  spend on catering etc.): £1.4m

Source: The Safe Standing Roadshow.

‘Huge potential’

Darch said: “Rail seating has huge potential to bring the price of tickets down, with more space created by the system. There is a £30 cap now on away tickets in the Premier League [thanks to] protests by fans.

“We can make more progress on this in the future and if and when rail seating is introduced.

If the rules and regulations in this country permit more than one spectator per space – there’s room to do that- then clubs could reduce their ticket prices for that area and still make the same amount of money or even more.”

Darch predicts fans to have a big say on prices, as they did at Liverpool earlier this season when fans staged a walkout protest after the club’s owners proposed a hike in certain tickets.

“Liverpool fans are the perfect example of the amount of power spectators hold,” he explained. “They made the clubs owners change their mind on the ticket increase idea and it typified that football is all about the fans. It was a great moment.”

“Outrageous insult”

Darch believes that the introduction of safe standing would be a fitting tribute to the victims of Hillsborough and their families, that the link between the disaster and the standing ban is built on a “falsehood”.

“It’s based on the idea that fans who like to stand are hooligans, and therefore it says the 96 were hooligans and implies indirectly that they were guilty of the disaster which unfolded that day”

“It is assumed that the standing ban was brought in because Lord Justice Taylor decided that standing up at football was somehow dangerous and the only way to watch it was to be sit down. That isn’t the truth.

“The truth is: the standing ban was brought in because the Thatcher government saw it as a means of countering hooliganism in the same way that they saw the idea of a national ID card scheme as a means of countering hooliganism.

“Before April 15th 1989, Thatcher’s government were already moving towards all-seater stadia and the national ID card scheme.

“In many ways, the disaster at Hillsborough gave them an excuse to bring in a piece of legislation which they probably wouldn’t have been able to bring in due to the opposition they would had faced had there not been that disaster.

“If the Hillsborough families who still oppose standing think about that, the reality is that the standing ban is actually a huge outrageous insult to the good names of their loved ones.

“It’s based on the idea that football fans who like to stand are hooligans, and therefore it says the 96 were hooligans and implies indirectly that they were guilty of the disaster which unfolded that day.”

Views changing on Merseyside

Liverpool have in the past made it known that they do not wish to contribute or engage to the debate on safe-standing out of respect for the Hillsborough families who oppose the idea. But Darch believes it is a view which is changing.

“Every single member in that room at the spirit of Shankly AGM were in favour of rail seating” – John Darch

Liverpool Echo journalist James Pearce says Liverpool and the Hillsborough families should be deeply involved in any discussion which takes place on the topic, but Darch feels it shouldn’t be dismissed if they choose not to.

“It would be nice to have them heavily involved, not only the families but the fans as well. But if they don’t wish to engage in the discussion then it shouldn’t be held back,” he said.

In September 2016 Liverpool supporter group The Spirit of Shankly held a meeting on whether they should formally adopt a position of safe-standing and the reaction by the members was very positive.

Group chairman Jay McKenna told the Liverpool Echo: “As an organisation, we have always taken a step back from the conversation on ‘safe standing’ and never really joined in.”

In favour

But following the Hillsborough inquest last year, which ruled the fans were unlawfully killed, and the successful trial at Celtic, the group felt it was the right time to have a discussion on whether now is the time to formally adopt a position.

The supporters’ group decided to ask all their members online their views of rail-seating and the return of standing, and the results which came back were staggering.

“The first person who had to speak in the room was a man who had lost his brother at Hillsborough and Spirit of Shankly then widened that question to all their membership online,” said Darch.

“Every single member present at the at the Spirit of Shankly AGM who spoke were in favour of rail seating. Online, 93% came back saying ‘yes we should adopt a formal position of safe standing’ and now they have set out a long and very in-depth consultation time table.

That will take them through to late spring-early summer 2017 where they will announce their formal position on standing.”

Seven of the best comebacks in sports history

February 14, 2017 in News & Features

Trailing Atlanta by 25 points in the third quarter you could have been forgiven for switching off the TV as a New England Patriots fan watching the 2017 Super Bowl.

However, lead by 39-year-old Tom Brady, the Patriots launched a stunning comeback, described as the best in Super Bowl history, with Brady becoming the first quarter-back to win five Super Bowl rings.

With a great comeback always comes the turning point; Julian Edelman’s phenomenal catch for a first down, under pressure from three Atlanta players, with two minutes left on the clock proved to be exactly that, allowing James White to level the game on a two-yard run.

After that Super Bowl thriller, here are seven more of the best comebacks in sport, some you may of heard of, others maybe not.

 

Lasse Viren – 10,000m – 1972 Olympic Games, Munich

On the 12th lap, Finish runner Lasse Viren was tripped by Emiel Puttemans sending him sprawling to the surface, with Moroccan runner Mohamed Gammoudi also getting caught up in the aftermath.

Gammoudi was down and out, picking up an injury in the fall. Viren however, was straight back to his feet with a 20m deficit to make up and 12 and a half laps to go.

That might not sound like too much, but in an endurance race making up gaps that size is one of the toughest tasks. Not only do you need to have enough energy to get to the end of the race, you need to find the speed to catch up to the rest of the pack.

Incredibly, it only took at matter of seconds for Viren to find himself back in contention, with the crowd cheering him on as he recovered back to the leading pack.

Viren then produced an unprecedented last 600m to take the gold medal in a world record time – one which still stands as the fastest ever 10,000m at the Olympiastadion in Munich.

 

England – 1981 Ashes, Third Test – Headingley

With Australia up 1-0 after two Tests, the 1981 Ashes headed to Headingley, where Australia looked set to take a 2-0 series lead.

In a match where England were forced to follow one after the first innings, a victory was so unlikely that England had odds of 500-1 to win.

However, Ian Botham, who just resigned as captain due to poor performances, had other ideas, producing a total of 149 runs, giving England a small lead of 129, forcing the Australians to bat once again.

A lead which you would have expected the Australians to claw back, yet an inspired bowling display the following day from Bob Willis, saw him take eight wickets for 43 runs, as Australia fell for just 111 runs. Suitably fired up, England went on to win the series 3-1.

In what was described as Botham’s Test, it was only the second time in history a team won a test match after being forced to follow on.

 

Nick Faldo – 1996 US Masters – Augusta

Norman and FaldoHaving lead the first three rounds at the 60th US Masters, Greg Norman went into the fourth and final day with a six-shot lead over Britain’s Nick Faldo.

Norman and Faldo were paired together for the closing round, and after seven holes Australian Norman, despite have his lead reduced to four shots, still looked on course for victory.

While Faldo continued a flawless day, Norman who had never won the Masters in 14 attempts, completely collapsed over the next 11 holes, and twice found the water for double bogeys.

Faldo’s score of 67 was the best that day, while Norman’s 78 was one of the worst. It was one of the most astounding comebacks and collapses in golfing history, handing Faldo his third Masters title.

In a great show of sportsmanship, afterwards Faldo and Norman embraced, the Englishman almost seemed more upset for Norman than the Australian himself did.

Faldo told the press afterwards: “I honestly, genuinely feel sorry for him. He’s had a real rough ride today.”

 

Manchester United – 1995/96 Premier League 

In a glittering managerial career that spanned over 39 years, Sir Alex Ferguson was certainly no stranger to a comeback, a trait that defined the teams he managed.

The one that sticks in the memory are the 1999 Champions League Final where injury-time goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær completed a famous treble for United.

Their comeback to win the 1996 Premier League though is one that is overlooked. With Newcastle United 12 points ahead in January, no-one would have bet on on Fergie’s team winning the title.

Going into the season with a young squad and little spending, a 3-1 loss on the opening day to Aston Villa, saw BBC pundit Alan Hansen famously say: “You never win anything with kids.”

Newcastle, meanwhile, had a storming start after a big-spending summer. However a run of fives losses in seven games after January, while United went on a near-perfect run spurred on by the return of Eric Cantona from an eight-month suspension, saw Fergie’s men overhaul them in the title race.

This as well as Ferguson’s mind games prompted a famous quote, or rant, from Magpies manager Kevin Keegan live on Sky Sports, as United went on to win the title by four points.

YouTube Preview Image

 

Houston Rockets vs San Antonio Spurs – NBA, 2004

Perhaps one of the best one-man comebacks in history, with Houston Rockets 10 points down against San Antonio Spurs in the final quarter, Rockets swingman Tracy McGrady score 13 points in 33 seconds to secure a 81-80 win for the Rockets.

McGrady scored four consecutive three-pointers – one was part of a four-point play – his last one coming 1.7 seconds before the end to secure the victory.

Liverpool, UEFA Champions League Final – Istanbul, 2005

Keeper Jerzy Dudek was the hero as Liverpool fought back from 0-3 deficit at half-time to shock the giants of AC Milan, winning the Champions League on penalties in one of the most famous comebacks European Football.

Struggling in the league at the time, the Merseyside outfit produced a number of shocks against European giants, including Juventus and Chelsea, on their way to lifting the club’s fifth Champions League trophy.

Most expected an AC victory, and by the interval Milan fans were already celebrating victory, after Paolo Maldini and a double from Hernan Crespo sent them into half-time with 3-0 lead.

However, a Liverpool team with Steven Gerrard leading them could never be written off, and it was their captain fantastic who headed them back into the game.

Vladimir Smicer was an unlikely hero, really putting pressure on AC after his long-range attempt was fumbled by Dida to bring Liverpool right back into the game, before the outstanding comeback was completed when Xabi Alonso pounced on the rebound from his own penalty which had been saved by Dida.

The Italian side was totally stunned by the comeback, having completely dominated the first half, and despite golden chances to win it, Dudek produced an incredible double save from the shellshocked Andriy Shevchenko to send the game to penalties.

Liverpool’s Polish keeper then replicated Bruce Grobbelaar’s famous “spaghetti legs” to put off Milan’s usually reliable penalty takers and bring the trophy back to Merseyside.

 

Team Oracle USA – America’s Cup 2013

America's Cup 2013The 34th America’s Cup saw challengers Team Emirates New Zealand take an 8-1 lead, just one point away from victory.

That was before the defenders Team Oracle USA brought in British sailor and five-time Olympic medalist Sir Ben Ainsley as a tactician for race six.

Despite this Oracle fell 0-6 behind after eight races, due to penalties they had imposed on the, and by the twelfth race New Zealand just needed one more victory as they led 8-1.

However, with Ainslie’s presence now being felt, Team Oracle were flawless and they won the next eight races to stage an extraordinary comeback to defend the trophy.

The gruelling competition was the longest-running America’s Cup series in history.

Record eighth Wimbledon win still on for Federer

February 9, 2017 in News & Features

Not so long ago, the phrase ‘shock grand slam victory’ would never have been used in connection with Roger Federer.

The sublime talents of the Swiss star saw him amass 17 titles at the big four tennis tournaments – Wimbledon and the Australian, French and US Opens.

But he hadn’t won one since Wimbledon 2012 and, at the age of 35, retirement looked more likely than another slam triumph.

But surprise exits for Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in Melbourne last month helped both Federer and old rival Rafael Nadal reach the final.

Federer beat the Spaniard 6–4, 3–6, 6–1, 3–6, 6–3 to make it slam No.18 – four ahead of Nadal and Pete Sampras.

But was his win simply an unexpected bonus? A lucky last hurrah for possibly the greatest player the men’s game has ever seen?

Underdog

You would be forgiven for thinking that his triumph at the Australian Open will be his last. Surely Federer’s physical abilities are only declining whilst the competition remains as fierce as ever?

“Fast surfaces suit older players, with shorter rallies and more emphasis on serving consistently well – one of Federer’s best attributes”

He could, though, be a dark horse at this year’s Wimbledon, where a record eighth singles title at the famous tournament beckons.

Federer may need a bit of luck again, but he has show that on faster surfaces he is still a formidable foe.

He definitely won’t be the bookies’ favourite in SW19, but that is something that could play into his hands.

Weirdly, the Swiss suits the role of the underdog. An understated player, he has always gone about his business in a quiet, unspectacular but smoothly efficient manner, with an incredible ability to come back from the brink.

Less predictable

Athough Djokovic and Murray are still expected to dominate this year, they faltered in the early rounds in Australia on the new Plexicushion surface, which returned court speeds to that of the early 2000s.

And while Federer not have the legs he used to, he showed he still has intelligence which has made him so deadly across the 19-year span of his career.

Fast surfaces suit older players, with shorter rallies and more emphasis on serving consistently well – one of Federer’s best attributes.

As Wimbledon’s grass courts get harder and more worn as the tournament progresses, they play faster, and the ‘Fed Express’ can still thrive on the green stuff.

Grass is also less predictable, and losses of concentration see upsets and giant-killings happen every year. The hugely experienced Swiss is still seemingly less susceptible to these – and is also capable of throwing a few surprises into his game.

Early exit

What’s fairly certain is that, ahead of Wimbledon, Federer won’t add another French Open crown to his sole victory at Roland Garros in 2009.

“Will the 2017 Australian Open be his last-ever grand slam? I wouldn’t bet on it…”

The clay courts in Paris are much slower and take away the advantage of a good serve, benefitting instead those who can slug it out in long rallies from the baseline.

An early exit there is likely for Federer, as it’s his least-favourite surface, but this will give him more time to prepare for Wimbledon.

Meanwhile, Djokovic, Murray and the rejuvenated Nadal, 30 – who has won a record nine French titles – are expected to go further, and potentially have to slog their way through several long, gruelling contests.

Adding to his grand slam tally is still going to be a big ask for Federer. He turns 36 in August, but is fresh after sitting out the second half of 2016 with the first serious injury of his career.

At 35, he certainly cannot match the speed of Murray or the power of Djokovic. But his speed of thought and grace under pressure mean he is still a threat.

Will the 2017 Australian Open be his last-ever grand slam? I wouldn’t bet on it…

Image @brendamaiy

Change not for the better at rugby union’s grassroots

February 7, 2017 in News & Features

Having been inspired by England’s 2003 World Cup success, I was started playing tag rugby that winter.

Aged six or seven, I joined my local club, Esher, and played through its age-group teams for the next 11 years.

Grassroots rugby is something that has been important to me ever since. Those roots are precious and need nurturing.

A big part of that is the valuable life lessons the sport teaches its youngsters. These include respect for the referee, and it’s always been a virtuous circle.

Young players grow up respecting match officials and carry this through to adulthood, where they act as role models for the next generation.

Evidence

Compare that to the dissent and disrespect that’s become part and parcel of football.

Players at the highest levels harass and harangue referees while their managers abuse fourth officials on the touchline.

The risk is that young players will emulate this behaviour, but could this become a rugby problem as well?

There is evidence that the game’s long-cherished culture of respect is changing.

Steve Grainger, rugby development director at the Rugby Football Union, believes that an influx of new players and their parents is having an effect.

Success

These youngsters, encouraged by their families, are inspired – just like I was 14 years ago – by England’s recent success, but also by the increasingly lucrative rewards available in the professional ranks.

“The stakes are higher now in rugby as more people realise that a career can be made from playing it”

Grainger believes verbal abuse from parents and coaches on the sidelines in the amateur game is a bigger problem than player dissent.

“We are starting to see some challenges in touchline behaviour,” Grainger told BBC Radio 5 live.

“Traditionally, a lot of kids that have come into the sport because their parents have been involved in it, so you have a culture there,” he said.

“As we broaden that, we are bringing in parents who themselves have had no exposure to rugby.”

Influx

Unfortunately, and without wishing to negatively stereotype, the behaviour Grainger is referring to has been around in football for many years.

Last month, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Football Association is preparing to to relaunch its Respect campaign as the verbal and physical abuse towards match officials at grassroots level increases.

Maybe it is because the stakes are higher now in rugby as more people realise that a career can be made from playing it – if you are good enough.

Average annual salaries in the Aviva Premiership are now around £100,000 – more for ‘marquee’ signings and experienced players – and gaining international recognition can massively boost that figure.

The top 10 earners in the Premiership all earn in excess of £290,000 a year. No.1 is Manu Tuilagi at Leicester Tigers on £425,000.

Semi-pro woes

Esher RFC has always prided itself on being a successful semi-professional club. This culminated in 2008, when the club took on Northampton Saints in the National League 1 – now called the Championship.

“A club such as Esher has to constantly ensure it doesn’t overreach itself financially”

When they played the Saints that season, the opposition included players such as future England captain Dylan Hartley.

A club of Esher’s size and resources, however, was never going to be able to survive in the long-term at such a high level, and they currently play in National League One – rugby union’s equivalent of football’s League One third tier.

They’ve still managed to attract quality players in recent years including Fiji’s Nicky Little, plus brothers Steffon and Bevon Armitage. The former now plays at Toulon.

Lured away

But living strictly within its means, while other teams have continued to embrace professionalism, means many of Esher’s best young prospects – including some I used to play with as a teenager – are lured away to bigger clubs.

In some instances it proved divisive as players have flitted around different teams, trying to work out which one offers them the best chance of making it big.

However, Esher’s achievements have also accrued benefits, and Premiership clubs often send younger players there on loan. Esher helped to hone the talent of George Lowe of Harlequins, and he is now regular starter for Quins.

But a club such as Esher has to constantly ensure it doesn’t overreach itself financially.

Justify

In March last year year, Esher told director of rugby Mike Schmidt that that his contract would not be renewed after 11 years.

mike-schmid (Credit: Get Surrey)

Esher had to part with Mike Schmidt

Esher’s chairman of rugby, TV presenter John Inverdale, said the decision was entirely down to financial reasons.

“It’s getting harder and harder to justify the expenditure at the second and third levels of the English game,” he explained.

Given Schmidt’s key role in Esher’s rise to the heights of playing in the second tier, it was a sad way for that relationship to end – but such are the realities of an increasingly professional game.

As modern rugby evolves, clubs like Esher, who are the lifeblood of the game, are struggling to keep up with its demands.

The England national team’s record-breaking run should be inspiring a feel-good factor in the sport.

But unless the grassroots game at clubs like Esher is taking into account, rugby’s future may not be quite so healthy and secure after all.

Confusion reigns over rugby union’s high tackle laws

January 26, 2017 in News & Features

Concussions have increasingly become an issue for concern in elite rugby union. In recent years, the number of these potentially serious head injuries have soared by 59% in the Premiership.

Players are bigger, fitter, faster and stronger, the hits are harder, so it’s no surprise that a re-think of the rules around tackling has happened.

“It’s a brilliant directive, but its not being refereed properly” – Jonathan Davies

Several high-profile incidents have fuelled calls for more to done to protect the health and safety of those on the pitch.

Northampton Saints were heavily criticised after letting their Wales and Lions international winger George North play on after seemingly lost consciousness (see image at top) following a collision with Leicester’s Adam Thompstone.

North was cleared to return to the game, but BT Sport pundit Ugo Monye said at the time: “I don’t think George North should [still] be on the pitch; it’s a simple as that.”

Long-term effects

The England Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project, published in collaboration with Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association, showed that although the rate of injuries remained stable during the 2013-14 season, their severity continues to rise in the professional game.

The Rugby Football Union has recruited former England internationals to pioneer a study into the long-term effects of playing rugby.

World Rugby have also issued a revision to its laws which came into effect on the January 3rd.

It has increased the severity of the punishment for reckless tackles, with a minimum sanction of yellow card and a red where deemed appropriate.

It has also encouraged an increase in any accompanying bans, but the changes have confused coaches, players and spectators alike.

Fallen foul

Ex-Wales star Jonathan Davies, now a BBC pundit, said: “Inexperienced referees have gone berserk in imposing yellow cards.

“It’s a brilliant directive, but its not being refereed properly. They’ve gone to the letter of the law, and it’s gone crazy.”

“Wayne Barnes admitted mistakes would be made but insisted that his fellow refs would learn from them”

Davies argued that referees need to use common sense about what can be considered a ‘high shot’ and is a ‘cheap’ one.

A player who has fallen foul of this recently is England international Brad Barritt.

The Saracens centre was banned for three weeks after a high tackle on international team-mate Geoff Parling during the match against Exeter.

Originally, Sarries prop Richard Barrington received a red card for his part in the tackle.

However, an RFU disciplinary panel found that ref Ian Tempest had punished the wrong individual. You can see the tackle in question here and make up your own mind.

‘No massive change’

Leading international referee Wayne Barnes told BBC 5 Live recently that the laws themselves have not changed, only how officials are being told to interpret them.

Barnes insisted: “[There’s been] no massive chance, we’ve carried on doing what we’ve done for a while now.”

He admitted mistakes would be made but insisted that his fellow refs would learn from them.

But what do people involved in grass-roots rugby union think of the situation?

I visited my local team, Esher RFC, to watch them play against Fylde, and talked to spectators about the high-tackle controversy.

Overall, there was general support for the ‘new’ laws and a recognition that something needed to be done.

‘Protection needed’

James Sharman, a former Surrey county youth player, said a more rigorous approach to high tackling is the best way forward.

“It’s good to see that these laws
are being put forward to help
protect us”

“Having looked at the [injury] statistics, it was evident that it was only going to end up this way,” he said.

“These players are putting their bodies on the line week in, week out. They need modernised ways to protect them.”

Joel Keefe, who plays at amateur level, said the changes have been made at the right time.

“Being someone that plays rugby, it’s good to see that these laws are being put forward to help protect us,” he said.

“Now all that needs to happen is to make sure that the referees judge their decisions diligently and correctly. The worst thing that could happen is if the rules were made a mockery.”

Committed

Clearly, this fresh interpretation of rules around high tackles is going to take some time to bed in.

With the 2017 Six Nations just around the corner, and the British & Irish Lions touring New Zealand in the summer, all eyes will now turn to the international game to see how the laws are enforced at the very highest level.

There’s bound to more controversy along the way.

But ultimately, it is good to see rugby union’s governing bodies demonstrating that they are committed to protecting the players who week in, week out put their bodies on the line for club and country.

LGBT football supporters’ groups on the rise

January 23, 2017 in News & Features

In 2014, Proud Canaries was launched and became the second officially-recognised lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) football supporters’ group in the country – the first was Arsenal’s Gay Gooners.

Since then, the group and its chair Di Cunningham have gone from strength to strength. Proud Canaries has raised awareness of LGBT fans and challenged homophobia as well as other forms of discrimination at Norwich’s Carrow Road home.

LGBT supporters’ groups are on the rise; there are now over 20 around the country, including 11 in the Premier League.

Fans from several LGBT supporters’ groups get together at a pride event

Cunningham has even set up the Pride in Football supporters network, which had its first formal meeting with the Football Association (FA) last year. The next scheduled for March 2017.

The groups are formed of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans supporters who work alongside their clubs to make attending football matches a safer place for everyone, by challenging homophobia and other forms of discrimination.

And since Proud Canaries was established, Cunningham has certainly seen a change. “In the 2014-15 season there were five incidents of homophobia and this was Norwich fans reporting Norwich fans”

“People didn’t report it before, partly because they didn’t think it was something to report, that it was normal behaviour at a football ground, and partly because they didn’t think anything would happen.

“Both of those issues have been raised by our launch and solved due to the awareness of Proud Canaries; there are LGBT fans in the crowd and that person sitting over there may be LGBT.

proud-canaries

Proud Canaries logo

“The fans can see the club are committed to Proud Canaries, that they will take action. No-one was banned or had season tickets removed, they were ejected from the ground but all five people are on their last warning and there’s been no reports since.”

The Proud Canary added that Carrow Road is now more of a “welcoming place” and that “more people are aware of not being homophobic,” she stated “you certainly get that impression from other LGBT supporters groups as well”.

The challenges of homophobia in football

The challenges of erasing homophobia from football stadia are clear.

The worry, however, is that there is no data to show exactly how many reports have been filed regarding homophobic abuse, at what clubs and what action may or may not have been taken, be it by police or football club.

If homophobia amongst football crowds was no longer a problem, we wouldn’t have police warning fans about potential discriminating behaviours; see Aston Villa’s police liaison officer’s tweet below – I didn’t wan’t to share the homophobic comments that followed in the Tweet trail…

 

banner_hertha_berlin-1477318745

Hertha Berlin’s anti-gay banner read: ‘WH96: Rather a mother than two fathers’

Often, homophobic abuse at football grounds, such as Brighton fans being taunted by the away supporters’ song ‘Does your boyfriend know you here?’ and Hertha Berlin’s recent banner jibe at Cologne (pictured) is labelled as ‘banter’, but Cunningham rejects this outright.

“I just don’t think any of it is banter; you wouldn’t hear it if it was racist, you just wouldn’t. Mocking anyone’s race is racist and anything mocking anyone’s sexuality is homophobic.”

The chair of Pride in Football explained the difficulties of reporting homophobia and the aim going forward. “What we are trying to do, as part of pride in football, across the country, is to get some kind of unified reporting system in place

“A set of data that shows how many reports there have been, at what clubs and what action was taken as a result.

“This just doesn’t exist at the moment, as there are so many different ways of reporting; be it through the club or the police and then it just ends, it’s been reported and nobody knows what happens as a result”.

Setting up Proud Canaries

151119-justin-fashanu

The late, openly gay Norwich striker Justin Fashanu

It was a personal experience that led Cunningham to set up the Proud Canaries, an experience of which many LGBT fans can sadly relate to.

“I had two season ticket holders who sat behind me, almost every home match would say something homophobic in some way and it began to really get to me.

“On Justin Fashanu’s birthday [Former Norwich striker and the first openly gay footballer who tragically hung himself in 1998] we had been handing out stickers from the yearly Norwich pride event, and that day I just turned round and said ‘Can you just not’.

“Shockingly they both had young sons they brought, so I did kind of confront of it, but I did feel bad for moving seats and not dealing with the problem.

“A friend of mine knew someone from the Gay Gooners group, so we thought we would set up the LGBT Proud Canaries.”

The club responded, and provide constant support for Proud Canaries. Norwich’s latest fans’ forum stated the following points:

  • Signage at Carrow Road is being reviewed and will be updated to incorporate reference to homophobia.
  • Reporting mechanisms for supporters to report abuse – more prominence to be given to contact details in match day programme.
  • Proud Canaries would like to offer their services as an educational resource as part of any anti-discrimination work the Club is undertaking, including through the Community Sports Foundation

You can see Di Cunningham’s video animation story explaining the beginnings of Proud Canaries by clicking here

Parliament committee’s and FA struggles

“Credit to the Premier League who gave us some money to have a planning away day, they’ve met with us regularly. The FA wouldn’t meet with us at first”

Chairing the group has even lead to Cunningham being asked to speak at a recent Culture, Sport and Media parliamentary committee, she said “It was brilliant, I was really pleased. Fans are usually the last in the list of people to be consulted by anybody”.

The FA Chairman Greg Clarke has twice been called to the committee and Cunningham explained that they’re getting somewhere. “Clarke has responded really well and after being called to two of the committee’s, we had a meeting with the FA”

The Premier League were supportive of the Proud Canaries last season, but the FA didn’t want to know.

Di Cunningham (left) pictured with local Police Commissioner Stephen Bett

“We had been banging on the door of the FA to give us a meeting, but credit to the Premier League who gave us some money to have a planning away day, they’ve met with us regularly. The FA wouldn’t meet with us at first.”

Although Cunningham admitted nothing is “concrete” as of yet, “progress is being made”.

There has been some fantastic work off the pitch, charted by the rise of LGBT fan groups and brilliant campaigners like Di Cunningham.

On the pitch we can only be closer to seeing a professional footballer, in England, confident enough to come out with his sexuality.

It’s likely the rise of LGBT fan groups could play a major role. Cunningham explained she’d “like to think” the supporters groups could help on the way to a footballer being open with their sexuality, but admits there’s still many challenges on the way for LGBT fan groups.

“LGBT fan groups have been in the absence of anything official from the FA, so we haven’t got the signage, the steward training and you still hear homophobia at many grounds and in the absence of that, we are a do-it-yourself movement.

“But it now looks like the authorities are going to act. I think it’s that awareness of the LGBT support groups, that there are LGBT fans around.

“It’s the fact the six percent of the population are LGBT. The next difficult thing to achieve is to make games more welcoming for transgender people.”

You can read more here: Pride in Football and Proud Canaries

Five Chinese Super League players Premier League clubs should be looking at

January 11, 2017 in News & Features

While it may not yet be able to compete with Europe’s elite in most aspects, the Chinese Super League has still become an attractive destination for players across the world seeking a fresh challenge – and a hefty pay packet.

President Xi Jinping’s 10-year plan to make the country a footballing superpower has resulted in CSL teams being bankrolled by massive corporate investment to make the great sporting leap forward.

This January alone, the likes of Brazilian international Oscar, Argentina’s Carlos Tevez and Belgian star Axel Witsel, have moved to Chinese clubs Shanghai SIPG, Shanghai Shenhua and Tianjin Quanjian in deals worth insane amounts of money in transfer fees and wages.

Former Chelsea player Oscar earned his £52m move to Shanghai SIPG after impressing in the Premier League, as did other recent additions to the CSL such as John Obi Mikel, Graziano Pelle and Demba Ba.

But to turn the tables – here are five CSL players who Premier League clubs might want to consider bringing over to England in the current transfer window.

Jackson Martinez: target for West Ham?

Last summer, West Ham’s pursuit of a striker in the “£30m” and upwards bracket was well-documented after they failed in their attempts to recruit Michy Batshuayi – who later signed for London rivals Chelsea – and Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette.

The Hammers eventually managed to land Simone Zaza from Juventus in a loan deal that would become permanent after the Italian had made a certain amount of appearances, but the 25-year-old utterly failed to adapt to life in the Premier League, and is now set to return to Juventus before he is offloaded to another club.

jackson-martinez

©Jack Martinez’s official Twitter account

Their next target was former Hammer Jermain Defoe, but given his huge importance in their bid to avoid relegation, Sunderland have rejected the east London club’s £6m offer and made it clear they have no intention of selling.

Manager Slaven Bilic is now likely to look elsewhere, and having so far this season paid the price for his failure to recruit a decent striker last summer,  Guangzhou Evergrande’s Jackson Martinez would be well worth a look.

Martinez moved to China last January after a short and unsuccessful stint at Atletico Madrid, where he only managed to score two goals in 15 La Liga appearances. However, the 30-year-old Colombian’s prolific goalscoring record for Porto, which saw him finish as the Primeira Liga’s top-scorer in all three of his seasons in Portugal, proves how good he can be.

He can also boast Champions League experience and 10 goals in 40 appearances for his country, including appearances at both the Copa America and World Cup.

Whether Guangzhou would be willing to let him go remains to be seen, but he is the type of player many West Ham supporters would have hoped to see come in last summer to build on a successful final season at Upton Park before the move to the London Stadium.

Ezequiel Lavezzi: target for Everton?

©Wikimedia Commons

Everton appear to be in the market for a new winger, and Hebei China Fortune’s Ezequiel Lavezzi would be a superb option.

At 31, the Argentina international probably has a couple of good seasons left in him and remains a big name.

With Yannick Bolasie sidelined for a year and Gerard Deulofeu set to leave the Merseyside club on loan, manager Ronald Koeman is looking to add to that area of the squad, having already snapped up 19-year-old Ademola Lookman from Charlton for £11m.

“I know what we need to change and if everyone opens their eyes today maybe we will get further on our improvement as a team. Because that’s really what we need and that’s all about what happens this month,” Koeman told the Liverpool Echo regarding the club’s lack of transfer activity.

Manchester United’s Memphis Depay is rumoured to be Koeman’s top target; however, it is believed that the Red Devils will only consider letting the 22-year-old leave on a permanent deal, while Everton are reportedly insisting on a loan – so if Koeman cannot get his number one choice, Lavezzi could serve as an excellent alternative.

Like Depay, former PSG and Napoli star Lavezzi’s preference is to operate on the left-hand side where he can cut in and cause damage with his right foot. But he is just as capable of playing on the left or behind the striker, making him both a skilful and versatile asset.

A proven top-level success in Europe, he could be just the spark a club like Everton need to give propel themselves upwards.

Graziano Pelle: target for Watford?

©Graziano Pelle’s official Twitter account

Graziano Pelle and Watford could potentially be a match made in heaven.

With strikers Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo having failed to reproduce last term’s form this season, the Hornets are in serious need of reinforcements up front, ailing to reproduce the goalscoring from they showed during the 2015/16 campaign, the Hornets could really do with some fresh impetus up front.

Given his aerial threat and impressive hold-up play, the former Southampton striker could fit the bill ideally.

Watford boss Walter Mazzarri likes to deploy Watford in a 3-5-2 formation, a set-up Pelle excelled in for Italy at Euro 2016, playing under current Chelsea boss Antonio Conte.

The Shandong Luneng forward netted twice against Belgium and Spain to add to the 14 goals he scored in all competitions for Southampton that season before his move to China. At 31, Pelle could still have a couple of years of top-flight football in him.

Paulinho: target for West Brom?

©Wikimedia Commons

West Brom manager Tony Pulis is looking for a central midfielder and has already had a £13m bid for Morgan Schneiderlin rejected by Manchester United. 

Earlier this month, Pulis told the Birmingham Mail: “Morgan is just one of two or three we’re looking at.

“The most important thing is that you do your business with other clubs. It’s respectful to other clubs and then you move on from there. If we get the deals done, you get them done.”

The Red Devils want to recoup the £24m they paid Southampton for Schneiderlin in 2015, whilst the player’s preference to be reunited with his former Saints boss Ronald Koeman at Everton suggests he is out of the Baggies’ reach.

In that case, a decent alternative option might be Guangzhou Evergrande’s Paulinho. 

The 28-year-old Brazilian international did not have the best of times during his previous stint in England with Tottenham, but has all the right attributes to fit into a Pulis team. 

His strength, energy, defensive capabilities and physical presence in set-piece situations, makes him an ideal alternative to Schneiderlin and, ultimately, a good midfield option for West Brom to have.

Currently eighth in the table, he could be just the man to push them on for a Europa League spot.

Papiss Cisse: target for Hull City?

Barring miracles, Hull look destined for the drop this season.

©Wikimedia Commons

New boss Marcos Silva has spoken of the need to strengthen his squad if he is to save them, and one area he will have to address is their attacking options.

“I have confidence in our players, but it’s clear we need to improve our roster,” Silva said in his unveiling as Hull manager and as quoted on BBC Sport.

Joint lowest scorers in the Premier League so far this season, with just 17 goals in 20 games, Hull need a proven Premier League forward, and Senegal international Papiss Cisse is just that.

The 31-year-old made an instant impact in English football’s top flight when he joined Newcastle from Bundesliga outfit Freiburg in January 2012, scoring 13 goals in 14 league appearances that season – including an incredible strike against Chelsea – but struggled to follow up that dazzling debut. 

Since last summer, Cisse has been playing for Shandong Luneng. Anything would be an improvement on Hull’s current striking options, so the main issue could be if the player wants to join a relegation fight.

Langford puts clash with ‘deluded’ Eubanks behind him

December 29, 2016 in News & Features

New British middleweight champion Tommy Langford admits he was glad to see the back of Chris Eubank Jr in the build-up to the title fight that never was.

He had been due to compete for Eubank’s Lonsdale belt until the latter pulled out, relinquishing his title and leaving Langford with a battle to find suitable competition for the bout.

All was well that ended well for Langford, however, as he dispatched of Sam Sheedy, Eubank’s replacement, to claim the British crown for the first time.

Despite the sweetness of victory, dealing with the Eubanks – both Jr and his father Chris Sr – left a bad taste in the mouth for the 27 year-old.

“To be honest with you, I’m glad to be rid of them,” said the ‘Baggies Bomber’.

“They were really hard to deal with, they wouldn’t turn up to press conferences and didn’t conduct themselves right in my eyes in the build-up to the fight.

“So I just think I’m better off rid of them and I think that British boxing and the British public is better off not having anything to do with them.”

‘Banana skin’

langford-fletcher

Langford (left) poses with West Brom skipper Darren Fletcher with the Commonwealth and Intercontinental belts. Pic tommylangford.co.uk.

The Eubanks cited an elbow injury sustained in sparring as one reason for Chris Jr pulling out of the fight, however they went on to spark controversy by claiming the ‘vast chasm’ in quality between himself and other fighters would put contenders at risk of serious injury.

Many, due to the life-threatening injuries sustained by Nick Blackwell at the hands of Eubank Jr as the pair contested the British title in March, deemed this insensitive.

Blackwell has since had to retire from the sport after spending time in a coma, however Langford feels that the Eubank camp’s comments bear no relevance to his own ability to compete.

“Well, I think they’re just absolutely deluded, really,” he said.

“They know how the sparring went when I went down and sparred him, and they know I’m a very good fighter. They knew I was someone they needed to avoid.

“I’m not saying they were worried about fighting me, I know they’re hugely arrogant and believe they’ll beat everybody and every fighter needs to be confident and have a certain level of arrogance. So I’m not saying they were scared of fighting me.

‘Laughable’

“But what I do think is that I was a massive banana skin to them for their earning potential of fighting bigger fights.

eubanks

The Eubanks father and son team are a controversial pairing. Pic @ChrisEubankJr

“I could ruin the Eubank gravy train, if you know what I mean. I know that’s why they didn’t want the fight.

When I was signed to [promoter] Frank Warren, they said they’d fight anybody, but they didn’t want to fight me. There was a list of fighters they didn’t want to fight and I was top.

“So I know the ins and outs of it all and I know that’s the case and I just think they’re absolutely stupid.

“Eubank Sr’s comments about his son being so far above and beyond the British domestic scene is just laughable really, because now his son’s ended up moving up to super-middleweight and fighting for an IBO title against someone who has won 11 and lost 1.

“I was 17-0 when they were talking about fighting me and I’m still undefeated. And it was for a prestigious title. I’m number two in the WBO rankings so by rights that fight would have made one of us mandatory for the WBO world title.”

Big paydays

So after the saga of a potential fight with Eubank Jr this time around, has Langford washed his hands of his middleweight counterpart once and for all?

For the Birmingham-based British champion, big-name fights mean nothing without titles on the line.

“Names don’t matter – if you stack up the titles and stack up the wins then you’re the man”

“You never say ‘never’,” he admitted. “Ultimately, if he’s still about and his he’s still doing the things he’s doing and there’s big money on the line, you don’t turn down big paydays, although they seem to have done that.

“But until that happens, no I’m not interested in them. I’m not lowering myself to fight him, I’m going after bigger and better things and I won’t bother with him.

“Ultimately now, what’s he got?” asked Devon-born Langford.

“He’s not got the British title, he’s not got the Commonwealth title, and he’s not got a European or world title.

“So he’s title-less and he’s forfeited his right to call himself a champion. I’ve got the Commonwealth, the British, number 2 in the WBO and I’m looking at European and World title shots.

“Names don’t matter – if you stack up the titles and stack up the wins then you’re the man.”

Main image courtesy of tommylangford.co.uk Follow Tommy on Twitter @Tommy_Langford1

‘People will realise that it’s a badass sport!’

December 19, 2016 in News & Features

Competitive cheerleading has been granted provisional status as an Olympic sport by the International Olympic Committee, paving the way for it to be introduced as a demonstration event before potentially becoming part of the Summer Games programme.

But should ‘cheer’ be seen as a sport at all, and does it really warrant Olympic inclusion?

Oliver Norgrove sat down with Alison Dominguez, president of the University of the Arts London’s cheerleading squad, The Royals, to discuss its Olympic potential, stereotypes and the hidden intensity behind a much-misunderstood pursuit.

…on the Olympics

ON: So as you know, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has given cheerleading provisional recognition as a sport. How did you react to this?

AD: I thought it was awesome. Aside from the fact that cheer is so physically and mentally hard, you have to deal with everybody else telling you that it’s not a sport, that it’s just for girls, and all this stuff which isn’t true.

The football boys in our school always give us trouble and they’re like ‘Why don’t you guys play a real sport?’ and I say ‘You guys wouldn’t last 10 minutes in practice’ – it’s really hard, and to finally get that recognition internationally was so good.

UAL's cheerleading squad The Royals

UAL’s cheerleading squad The Royals

ON: Do you feel the provisional status should go further?

AD: Absolutely. Cheer is not what it was 50 years ago. It’s not about dancing around and shouting ‘Go team!’ It’s physically demanding. I think it’s just as hard as any other recognised sport, per se.

ON: Do you think that cheerleading lacks the respect it deserves, and will the IOC’s decision change that?

AD: I hope so. I think yes and no. Some people will stick to their stereotypical opinions, as it’s one of the most stereotyped sports in the world. When I tell people I’m a cheerleader they’re like ‘Oh, like in the American movies?’. I’m like: ‘Not really no.’ But I think it will.

ON: If cheerleading does become an Olympic sport, how do you think public perception will change?

AD: The Olympics is one of the most watched television events. When the top cheerleaders showcase their skills to the world, people will be like: ‘Oh, that’s what cheerleading is!’

They’ll realise it’s not just jumping around and that it’s really difficult. I mean, we [The Royals] only do level 2, but when you get up to level 6 with the best of the best, it’s crazy stuff. It’s like three-tier pyramids, triple back flips in the air, and they just make it look effortless and they smile the whole time!

It’s really entertaining too, so I think people will realise that it’s not just really difficult, but really cool too.

ON: Are you confident that cheerleading will make it to the Olympics?

AD: I am, yeah. Maybe not this time around, but definitely in the future.

…on the physical demands of cheerleading

ON: Can you give us an idea of the physical demands that are involved in cheerleading?

AD: I would say that the hardest thing we do is tumbling and stunting. Tumbling is the floor stuff you do in gymnastics, handsprings, that kind of thing, backhand springs and that’s difficult in and of itself, especially if you didn’t grow up doing gymnastics.

“Cheerleading isn’t for everybody, I know that, just like football or rugby aren’t for everybody, but what’s the worst that can happen? You watch it and you don’t like it”

It’s really difficult to train a 20-year-old body to do a backhand spring, rather than a 12-year-old body because they just kind of throw themselves. The stunting, which is my favourite bit, is designed so you can throw a person in the air and make it look effortless and pretty, and it’s so difficult.

A typical stunt consists of two bases which hold the majority of the weight of the flyer, and a back which secures the stunt – they stand at the back to make sure no one falls. So the three of you at the bottom are holding up a girl who isn’t that much lighter than you and you’re making it look really effortless.

That’s really hard because she flies on like one leg and you pull shapes, that’s where the flexibility comes in.

ON: It sounds like a cross between dance and gymnastics

AD: Very much so. There actually is a section of a cheer team where you do dance. It’s not your typical dance, it’s very much hard motions. I always tell my girls that if you’re hitting your motions and it doesn’t hurt then you’re doing it wrong. Your muscles should always be really tight.

I really work my flyers to death because if you have a good flyer then they can get themselves up in the air, then it’s just up to the base to keep them there.

If you have a lazy flyer who relies on the fact that they’re light, it’s so much more work on the bases. I have a lot of flyers that weigh like 43kg, but then I have flyers who weight 50kg – who I prefer flying because they do so much more work, as they’re stronger.

…on her personal experiences 

ON: Can I ask you about your current participation in the sport of cheerleading?

AD: Right now I am the president of our university’s cheerleading squad, The Royals. I coach us once a week, we have another external coach once a week also, and I’ve been on the team for two years. I do tumbling outside of cheer with some of the girls just to improve, too.

ON: Which do you prefer, the coaching or the taking part?

“Competitive cheer has developed into this super-demanding sport where you don’t focus just on the appearance aspect”

AD: I prefer taking part. I really do like coaching a lot, but I am here to be on the team and enjoy participating.

ON: I imagine that both are deceptively hard?

AD: Very much so. I definitely didn’t anticipate coaching being as much work as it is – and it’s hard when you’re the president as well. If you don’t plan for practice then it isn’t happening, if you don’t pay for competitions then you’re not going, if you don’t nag all the girls to do X, Y, Z then it’s not going to happen.

ON: Why and when did you take it up? What makes you continue?

AD: I grew up overseas and bounced from sport to sport. I didn’t commit to one thing because I was moving every two years.

I did rugby for a bit, gymnastics for a bit, football for a bit, and then I moved to the States for my freshman year of high school, and for the first time ever cheerleading was an option. I kind of fancied it because of the whole stereotypical, high school movie stuff.

So I made the team and just sort of fell in love with the physicality of the sport. It is so challenging both physically and mentally and being a part of a team that’s so much better than yourself is just so rewarding. It was just one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

…on stigma and public understanding

ON: If it’s so difficult, why have cheerleading’s legitimacy and its merits been ignored or mocked?

AD: It’s a lot to do with what cheer used to be. It was predominantly a way for high school girls to get on the field and cheer on the boys.

There’s nothing wrong with people who want to do that, but competitive cheer is not that anymore, it has developed into this super-demanding sport where you don’t focus just on the appearance aspect of it.

ON: How is cheerleading changing?

dsc_0042

The Royals in action

AD: I think it’s beginning to be taken a lot more seriously by people. A lot of money is going into it, so people are looking for the best stunters, the best tumblers and for athletes that are really strong who can make teams better and better.

What you have is an industry that is taking all these athletes and teaching them how to stunt and cheer dance. All of this is being put together to create some really crazy routines.

ON: If you could make the public understand one thing about cheerleading, what would it be?

AD: There’s so much, but I really just want people to understand that if you think gymnastics is a sport, if you think dance is a sport then why do you not think cheer is a sport? Competitive cheer, anyway.

ON: What are the obstacles that cheerleading needs to overcome in order to engage with a more mainstream audience and enhance its profile?

AD: I think it’s a bit of funding and a bit of public image. In America, cheer is a huge industry and a lot of money goes into it. If the Olympics wanted teams then America would have it, but a lot of other countries have to catch up.

It’s still really up-and-coming so there’s obviously the money problem, and there’s also the problem of convincing people to give you the money because it’s a cool sport and people should take it seriously.

…on the future

ON: What are your own future cheer or coaching ambitions?

AD: I want to do all-star cheer after university. London has really good programmes and I would love to coach my own team one day. Coaching at the Olympics would be really cool.

ON: Are you hopeful for the future of cheerleading?

AD: I am. I think once people understanding the sport, see what it’s about and understand the athletes in the sport, they will understand that it’s a badass sport and its worthy of people’s time.

Cheerleading isn’t for everybody, I know that, just like football or rugby aren’t for everybody, but what’s the worst that can happen? You watch it and you don’t like it.

For more information, visit the British Cheerleading Association website, or the International Cheer Union site. Images courtesy of UAL’s Royals cheerleading squad.

Skip to toolbar