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Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt. 3

March 6, 2017 in Opinion

As we home in on the final months of the season, it’s clear that this NBA campaign has been one of sheer unpredictability. Perhaps not at the top of either the Western or Eastern conferences, but certainly elsewhere.

The trade deadline saw one of the biggest moves in recent memory, while other teams reinforced smartly ahead of the play-offs.

Without further ado…

Best Team: Boston Celtics

It’s bewildering how far the Celtics have come in such a short period of time.

At the start of the season, they were struggling to find consistency with Isaiah Thomas’ brilliance being tossed away by under-performing team-mates.

At this point, the Celtics are the best team in the NBA, not just a surprise package.

They are the only team that can step to the Cleveland Cavaliers in both the regular season, and the play-offs. They have offered the Eastern Conference, as well as neutrals, the hope of an upset in the road to the Finals.

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Little Isaiah floats a shot against 7ft Marcin Gortat

Thomas’ electrifying form is infectious, and has clearly spread to those around him.

Jae Crowder looks a man possessed, while Jaylen Brown is making a case for being one of the standout performers in his age-bracket.

Coach Brad Stevens has yet to manage a play-off game, so it will be interesting to see how his youthfulness and hunger translates to the biggest stage.

As of right now, his progression has been impeccable. Not only has he got the Celtics in 2nd place, two wins behind the Cavs, but he already has an All-Star game under his belt.

GM Danny Ainge’s reluctance to make a trade at the deadline could hurt this team in the play-offs, especially since their interior defence is non-existent.

But the percentages they are currently shooting at could see them blow out any team on any given day.

Worst Team: Brooklyn Nets

One has to wonder if copy and pasting part two of this quarterly report would suffice in this section. But, somehow, the Nets have worsened.

Not only did they make no significant push at the trade deadline, they allowed 3-point shooting maverick Bojan Bogdanovic to move to Washington for next-to-nothing.

Without a shooting presence, and an underperforming Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez, the Nets look nailed on for one of the worst NBA season records of all-time.

They were 8-33 when the previous report was written. 21 games later, they have only won two more. And only three of their wins have come in their own conference.

The Nets look a dishevelled franchise. Broken, unfixable and unwatchable. New York has become devoid of any team worth shouting over.

Most Improved Team: Washington Wizards

Not only are the Wizards the most improved team, they’re undoubtedly the most entertaining.

A backcourt comprised of John Wall and Bradley Beal has become one of the most talked about partnerships this season. Electrifying and productive in the clutch, these two have a genuine chance at making the conference finals this year.

Thunder at Wizards 2/1/14

John Wall prepares to shoot a free-throw

They’re third in the conference, boasting 17 wins in their last 23 games. In the first quarterly report, we had them down as one of the most disappointing teams.

Right now, they look unstoppable. Whether that be going toe-to-toe with the Warriors and beating them, or taking the Cavs to overtime, the Wizards look like the real deal.

Wall is posting up career highs in points, assists and 3pt percentages. Likewise, Beal. Around them is a team made up of hot shooters and workhorses.

Otto Porter Jr. has the best 3pt shooting percentages in the entire league – yes, higher than Steph Curry and James Harden.

Kelly Oubre Jr. looks to be developing into a future star of this league, meanwhile Markief Morris is doing all the dirty work at both ends.

With the smart acquisition of Bogdanovic at the deadline, the Wizards have become even more of a sharpshooting team. This could be the key to any play-off upset.

Most Improved Player: Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic has gone from the typical brutish European centre to a player of immense, unplayable quality. He’s posted up multiple triple-doubles in the last 20 games, driving the Denver Nuggets from mediocrity to a near-lock for that 8th place play-off position.

He’s one of the league leaders in assists, and one of the most proficient passers around. A playmaking maverick, a rebounding machine and a point-hoarder, Jokic is utterly phenomenal.

Despite his bulk and height, he moves elegantly and to a level that we have never seen in the NBA. If there’s one player who deserves this award at the end of the season, it’s Jokic. From complete unknown to one of the hottest names around.

Best Trade: DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans Pelicans

I wanted to avoid the blockbuster move as much as I could, since I feel as though Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker to the Toronto Raptors is the move that most improves a team and equips them best for a play-off push.

But it’s DeMarcus Cousins. Moving away from the team where he’s spent his entire career and joining former college team-mate Anthony Davis.

This move was mind-blowing for the NBA. Not only do the Pelicans now have the two best big-men in the league, they undoubtedly have all the potential in the world to bring a ring to New Orleans.

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DeMarcus and Davis, reunited

Rebounding has long been an issue for Championship winners in the past; with the Warriors for example it’s been their Achilles heel this year.

The Rockets have the same problem; the Cavs sometimes struggle… the list goes on.

The Pelicans not only succeed in that area, they thrive and feed off it. Second-chance points are their best friend. If they can sneak into the play-offs this year, expect this blockbuster trade to upset the biggest of teams.

If not, they’re set to be the most anticipated team to watch for next season.

If they can acquire the right pieces to place around this titanic, unplayable frontcourt, they’re legitimate contenders next season.

Surprise Package: Miami Heat

The Miami Heat traded off Dwayne Wade in the summer, effectively leaving their team devoid of star quality. But the players who were nothing more than good, have now become great.

Heat at Wizards 11/19/16

Hassan Whiteside contests a call

After a shoddy start to the season, where they were rooted to the bottom of the conference for 30 straight games, the Heat are now one win from a play-off spot.

How they achieved such a feat is tough to explain. They registered a 13-game win streak – the longest we’ve seen this season from any team – including victories over the Warriors, Rockets and Cavaliers.

 

With the hustle, rebounding and blocking of Hassan Whiteside, the Heat are always a scrappy team to play against.

They’re physical and rough, with emphasis placed on bullying opposition teams off the court.

But, beyond that physicality, is a gorgeous style of play within their ball movement.

Players like Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters are facilitators of the highest order, creating space on the court, knocking down 3’s from improbable range and finding Whiteside in the paint for easy points.

This trio have brutalised opposition and dragged the Heat from misery to magnificence. It will be interesting to see how this young, untested team can cope in the play-offs, if they make it.

Offensive Play of the 3rd quarter:

Watch as LeBron James forces an entertaining game vs the Wizards into overtime with one of the craziest shots we’ve seen all season:

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Defensive Play of the 3rd quarter: 

LeBron’s so good, he becomes the first player in our reports to be awarded offensive and defensive play in the same quarter. This chasedown block on Courtney Lee is stunning:

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Hype=PPVs in embarrassing Haye v Bellew build-up

March 3, 2017 in Opinion

David Haye and Tony Bellew, two pretty average boxers who have somehow found themselves competing in the most anticipated fight of 2017 so far.

Okay, that is slightly harsh on Haye, who back in his heyday (excuse the pun) was a good fighter. However, even if he’d lived up to his potential he would have never gone down as a great fighter.

Merseyside-born Bellew also has a decent record but it seems that after his acting role in the 2015 film Creed, he’s happy just to get up in front of the cameras to bring the attention on himself.

The fact that their non-title fight at the O2 Arena has got attracted so much attention is a sign that boxing and the broadcasters who televise it have got their priorities wrong. Too much effort is now put into hyping up a fight – just for it to be one big let down.

Disappointed

Let’s look back at the eagerly anticipated (and long overdue) Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao fight in 2014. It generated $400m through pay-per-view, a record in boxing, but turned out to be complete letdown after months of hype and build-up.

Both of boxers looked too scared to lose, there was no risk-taking, just a lot of defensive boxing and plenty of disappointed fans.

Admittedly, there is pleasure you can take from the pre-fight mind games. It’s part of playing the game – getting the upper hand before you step into the ring.

However, it is getting way over the top now, to the point where it is not even fun to watch anymore.

And I would expect another letdown when Haye and Bellew finally come face-to-face in the ring. It feels like all the effort from both sides has been put into promoting the fight – with lots TV coverage building up an picture of the two hating each other.

To be honest, the two boxers have done a pretty good job of cranking up the animosity. There has been shouting, insults, a bit of pushing and even an attempted punch thrown by Londoner Haye. It seems like they really do hate each, right?

Expectations

Perhaps they really do hate each other, although there are many people out there like myself who see it all as a bit of manufactured aggro, with Sky orchestrating it all to increase their PPV numbers.

It’s not the first time and it certainly will not be the last time we see Sky come up with ridiculously over-dramatic campaigns for this reason.

But does this really benefit the spectacle everyone wants to see – the actual fight. With all the trash talk, the promises of harm being inflicted, can Haye and Bellew actually live up to the expectations that have now been put on them?

You would think that after having to talk such a hard game that the biggest thing on the two’s mind is to avoid an embarrassing early round knock-out.

Is the fight just going to be another Maywhether-Pacquiao borefest, with the whole thing is forgotten in a matter of weeks?

Stirring up

And it’s not just boxing. So many sporting events are hyped up with great expectations only to end in a disappointing spectacle.

It’s not rare to see a match such as Arsenal v Manchester United end in a dull stalemate, after hours of build-up.

Formula 1 is another example. Last year saw an extremely dull season of racing, with Sky seemingly putting more effort into stirring up off-the-track issues betweens Mercedes team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

Okay, Sky do not make the rules in F1, but it gets pretty tiresome watching manufactured drama away from where we want it to be; on-the-track, on-the-field-of-play, not off it.

So Sky are not entirely to blame when the spectacle is not what we expect it to be, but they are just making things worse. And at times, as with the Haye v Bellew fight, it’s becomes embarrassing.

It’s time to get back to basics and start focusing about what we are all really want to see – the sport.

Review – Being AP

February 28, 2017 in Opinion

“The thing is about records is that they always get broken. I want to make it as hard as possible for those who are going to break them.”

These are the words of a jockey who has saddled 4,358 winners and has been jumps champion for 20 consecutive years.

A stubborn, obsessive and perhaps a selfish character, though not the most thrilling of personalities, there is no doubt at that Tony McCoy, better known as AP, is a born winner.

When director Anthony Wonke started making his BBC documentary ‘Being AP’, he was expected to follow McCoy through another record-breaking campaign as the Northern Irishman aimed to complete his dream of 300 winners in one season.

However, in what ended up being the final season of his career in 2015, it is soon clear that it is not possible. With McCoy then at the age of 40, injuries are taking their toll and a realisation that the end is near.

Injuries

We see a man who regards retirement as ‘the end of your life’ facing up to that very prospect, and musing on the demands of being devoted to racing at the very highest level.

“McCoy fears retirement more than anything else, more than the most serious of injury and perhaps even death”

“You can win the biggest horse races in the country and then the next race race you can be in the back of an ambulance. So you can go from a very huge high, to a very sad low very quickly,” AP reflects, as he reels off the list of injuries he has amassed over his career, from dislocated shoulders to broken ribs.

“I am not the one that is being weak, it is a part of the body that is weak. I wanted to bang my shoulder off the wall to punish it,” says McCoy, admitting he  deliberately ignored his injuries as a way of trying to overcome them.

Having seen her husband amass all these wounds, McCoy’s remarkably tolerant wife Chanelle is clearly keen to see her husband consider retirement and end his career in one piece.

Her role in this film is particularly interesting, not one you imagine that was originally planned, but adds another dimension.

Obsession

“Why on earth would any year be a good year to call it a day?” McCoy responds to his wife as they have a sincere yet awkward talk over dinner about his future.

His stubbornness is clear – McCoy fears retirement more than anything else, more than the most serious of injury and perhaps even death.

It is an eye-opening scene. The effect of such determination and obsession on family life, is at times obvious, but never more than here.

Whilst Chanelle worries about her husband, he continues to act oblivious to any danger, growing frustrated and awkward when questioned on life after riding.

It is an interesting insight on how dedication can affect others around you.

Stubborn

McCoy’s reluctant decision to retire comes in the film’s most interesting and insightful scene, as his riding manager Dave Roberts is called to a surprise meeting with AP and his wife.

“Ironically, moving away from the ever-present danger of racing into the safer world of retirement, takes McCoy out his comfort zone”

As the three talk about moments from his career and his attitude to riding, his wife describing AP’s attitude towards trying to ignore the reality of life: “You were so stubborn, I’m not listening to my collarbone, so what if it is shattered, my lung is punctured, my ribs are broken, I will continue riding.”

AP is still seemingly unsatisfied and unable to get over any failures, even just before he reveals his plan to retire after riding 200 winners for the season.

“That really mentally messed with my head. Broke my heart that did, to think that I was actually going to ride 300 winners, and then, I’m not going to ride 300 winners. The thought of it make me want to cry.”

Frustration

Despite saying he was “relieved”, there is clearly still frustration and sadness when talking to his commercial manager about possibilities after his career.

The look on his face after the suggestion that he could be the face of a peanut butter campaign is not that of someone who is looking forward to life after racing.

The film itself is not perfect. Running at 96 minutes, there are parts which feel unnecessary and over-produced, trying too hard to create drama which at times comes off as unnatural, though perhaps this is down to McCoy’s personality.

As such a driven winner, he is someone who struggles to look back on his life, when all he wants to do is think about the next triumph.

The director got lucky with his subject here, though. A film which was meant to simply be about winning is in fact, an incredible though sometimes painful insight of the realisation that the natural-born winner will not be able to win for much longer.

Ironically, moving away from the ever-present danger of racing into the safer world of retirement, takes McCoy out his comfort zone which makes everything a bit more interesting.

Fan marginalisation and the rise in amateur football punditry

February 21, 2017 in Opinion

It is commonly – and correctly – argued that the rise of fan punditry in football can be credited with digital advances.

Technological developments have facilitated the entry of non-professional voices into the journalistic arena and completely transformed the nature of discussion and analysis.

“The modern trend of prioritising corporate influence over fan involvement has left supporters unfamiliar with the sport they once knew, and bred huge resentment”

The rules have changed: punditry has become increasingly uncensored, certainly on social media platforms. The grip of sports editors, radio and TV producers over  discourse in the football media environment has been loosened.

In recent years, YouTube channels, vlogs and social media sites have provided football fans with platforms through which to express their opinions, in both unfiltered and instant fashion.

These new media have had a potent effect on the way in which football punditry is conducted. Fans, smartened through easy access to historical records, statistics and tactical information, have used alternative platforms to demonstrate their lack of patience with mainstream punditry.

As football fans have become more knowledgeable, their dissatisfaction with the quality of professional punditry has declined, perhaps the result of higher expectations and a desire to see their footballing acumen reflected on television.

Disconnect

Microcosmic of the growing competition between fan-led and professional punditry were Gary Neville’s comments on Sky’s Super Sunday recently about Arsenal Fan TV, a successful YouTube channel attracting hundreds of thousands of views.

He referred to Arsenal fans outside Stamford Bridge participating in filmed interviews as “embarrassing”, and called one man inside the ground brandishing a ‘Time for Change’ banner an “idiot”.

Irrespective of the views that were expressed, the segment illustrated a disconnect between mainstream and fan opinion.

I do not think that comment on whether Neville was right is necessary. But his comments were a powerful reminder that many fans simply no longer feel represented in the footballing world.

 

Television companies, intent on maximising their viewership and advertising revenue, hire big-name pundits on lucrative deals.

The result is often a monotonous and one-dimensional sample of experts. Most big football matches today are analysed by ex-Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester United players.

For broadcasters, it has become more about presentation than it has intelligent – or even watchable – discussion. This fact symbolises one huge change in modern professional football. Fan marginalisation is now widespread.

In the upper reaches of the the game, it manifests itself in sky-high ticket prices, intensive commercialisation and corporate sponsors dominating the financial and sporting agendas.

Where it was once considered the norm for the working classes to pay the top clubs a visit and watch them play, nowadays, those in attendance tend to be older fans and clients at various events.

Replaced by corporate hospitality, commercial leverage on club policy and TV rights, the modern football fan has seen his or her role in and around the stadium attacked to a demoralising extent.

In many ways, football was always capitalist, but the modern trend of prioritising corporate influence over fan involvement has left supporters unfamiliar with the sport they once knew, and bred huge resentment.

Trusted

Once upon a time, football pundits were liked and trusted. Fans were more deferential. They knew less and didn’t have the same readily-available information that they now enjoy. Fans appreciated those ex-pros and their ‘expert’ views.

“Perhaps the most potent incentive for this has been the treatment of the modern football fan, left sidelined by the cynical business executives who really run the game”

Today, fans have been excluded from football’s centre of focus. Their response to this crushing blow has been to mobilise and attack the game from the new avenues provided by digital platforms – and with impressive popularity.

The disenfranchisement of modern fans has given birth to a monster that football itself can do little to change.

The anger visible amidst the content of amateur punditry, too, highlights the growing separation between the interests of the average fan and the direction that the game is taking.

One only has to watch YouTube clips and browse the internet for a few minutes to find individuals committed to rallying against club owners and the excesses of modern, neo-liberal capitalism.

The digital age, it is true, has allowed supporters to venture into punditry, share their views in blogs and videos and engage with others.

But perhaps the most potent incentive for this has been the treatment of the modern football fan, left sidelined by the cynical business executives who really run the game.

Games review – Snow

February 15, 2017 in Opinion

Ever thought of bracing the chill of the Alps to do some snowboarding or skiing?

Maybe the cost has put you off, or possibly the thought of breaking a leg.

In which case, Poppermost Productions’ Snow is a winter sports video game that takes the expense, cold weather and potential for injury out of the equation.

Initially released towards the end of 2016 on PlayStation 4, Snow gives players the opportunity to digitally snowboard and ski across various locations, game modes and events with their own customisable character.

Free Roam

One of Snow’s games modes, and arguably its most, enjoyable is its Free Roam, where players get to explore different mountains under no gaming conditions (e.g. time limit) in place.

Players have the option to choose between seven peaks, which differ in size and level of difficulty, to snowboard or ski on.

These mountains, mostly named after competitions, include: Sialia, Suzuki Nine Knights, B&E, S Games, Jon Olsson Invitational and Fochi 2014.

olsson

Jon Olsson Invitational

Out of the seven, Jon Olsson Invitational (JOI) is without a doubt the one for beginners.

With its map size classed as small and its difficulty ranked as easy, JOI will break you in gently.

Players only have the short distance between the top and bottom of a very small hill to travel, with just a couple of ramps put in place afterwards to allow the practice of tricks.

However, The unchallenging nature of  JOI it quite tedious and probably surplus to requirements once players have grown accustomed to the game.

In contrast, Sialia, the largest mountain on Snow, can keep players entertained for days with its numerous pipes, ramps, rails and expansive landscape, which can sometimes feel never-ending but in a satisfying way.

As for the rest of Snow’s mountains, they strike a balance between both Sialia and JOI, ultimately offering players a range of experiences across Free Roam.

Events

With no overall aim or compulsory challenges to complete, Free Roam can become boring, especially in an offline setting.

If so, then there is the option of trying out the Events mode instead.

There are seven event types to choose from: Time Trail, Descent, Slopestyle, Big Air, Freeride, Freestyle and Rail Jam.

event-type

Events

These events involves tasks ranging from reaching the bottom of the course as fast as possible, to performing a specific number of tricks, thus giving players the chance to test and further improve on their in-game snowboarding or skiing skills.

Out of the seven, the two event types that really catch your eye are Descent and Freestyle.

In Descent, players have to complete the course without crashing, while Freestyle sees virtual snowboarders and skiers attempting to record as high a score as possible through the use of tricks.

Both events are challenging yet still fun, but can have an element of frustration attached to them if you fall into the habit of constantly crashing before completing the course and having to restart.

Multiplayer

The Multiplayer mode for Snow resembles its Free Roam counterpart, with the only major difference being players get to snowboard and ski with other online players.

multiplayer

Multiplayer

Currently, it appears that Sialia is the only mountain available to play on, with a maximum of 12 players allowed to join the server.

Taking into account the size of Sialia, it can become difficult to come across fellow players in the server (unless you opt to spawn at their location), leaving you with the feeling that you are not actually playing with anyone from time to time.

However, once alongside budding snowboarders and skiers of the virtual world, Snow becomes much more fun as you speed downhill with other players while performing tricks simultaneously.

Perhaps Snow could do with additional content to its Multiplayer though, like actual races or trick contests between players, rather than just having an online version of free roam.

Overall gameplay

Despite being officially released and available to purchase on the PS4, Snow is still in its Beta stage and, as a result, has its flaws.

For instance, although quite minor, the manner in which a player’s character is tossed around after a crash can look very glitchy — an issue likely to be bothersome for those who seek perfection in a game.

Also, on Multiplayer, which can feel very laggy at times, players pass through each other as if they were ghosts when riding into one’s path, rather than colliding and eventually crashing.

This may have been done to prevent players from purposely riding into other players in order to cause them to crash and disrupt their experience but, ultimately, it has removed a sense of realism from the game.

Nevertheless, Snow remains an entertaining sports game.

It’s not as complete as other similar winter sports video games such as EA Sports’ SSX series, and doesn’t have the best of graphics in this current generation of gaming.

But if snowboarding, skiing or sports games in general for that matter are your type of thing, then give Snow a go.

Elephant Sport rating: 7/10

Featured image: ©SNOW

Elephant Sport Podcast – The Rise of Online Streaming

February 1, 2017 in Multimedia, Opinion

Mike Newell and Lucas Chomicki investigate why more sports fans are turning to internet streaming to watch live events.

The increasing availability of illegal feeds is a growing problem for broadcasters anxious to protect their multi-billion pound investments in sports rights.

Sky and BT Sport paid £5.1bn between them for the current Premier League deal, but what happens when fans aren’t prepared to pay for what they view?

This vox pop features anonymous interviewees because of the subject under discussion.

 

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Why more footballers should be studying for degrees

January 26, 2017 in Opinion

The only certainty in the life of a professional footballer is that one day they will become an ex-professional footballer.

Some have long careers at the elite end of the sport and invest wisely for their retirement.

Others find themselves released by clubs and unable to find a new one in their early 20s or even younger. More still never get offered pro deals in the first place.

According to the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), of those entering the game aged 16, two years down the line, 50% will be outside professional football. At 21, the attrition rate is 75% or above.

The question is: are young footballers getting the education they need to prepare them for life outside the game?

First-class honours

Many aspiring pros leave school at 16 with a handful of GCSEs, go into full-time football and spend one day a week at college.

Most are pinning their hopes on ‘making it’ but, as the statistics show, the vast majority of them won’t.

So perhaps more should follow the example of Sunderland and England U21 striker Duncan Watmore (pictured above).

In 2015, Watmore graduated from Newcastle University in BA Economics & Business Management, becoming only the second Premier League player gain first-class honours.

Watmore started his degree whilst playing semi-professionally with Altrincham. After joining the Black Cats, he managed to complete his degree, achieving the highest grade possible.

PFA help

According to a report by Xpro.org, an organisation established to assist former professional footballers of all ages, two out of five players are made bankrupt within five years of ending their playing careers, often because they have little education or training to fall back on.

Mindful of the problem, the PFA provides members with many opportunities aimed at their transition into life after football.pfa

Among those backing its work in this area is Bradley Pritchard, who featured in Sky’s ‘Out of Contract’ documentary about players left in limbo after being cut by their clubs.

Like Watmore, the midfielder began his career in the semi-professional game before going on to play for Charlton, Leyton Orient and Stevenage.

At 31, he is now back in non-league with Greenwich Borough but, with the PFA’s help, has added a law qualification to his first degree and is aiming to become a solicitor.

Another testimony on the PFA’s website comes from Carlisle defender Michael Raynes, who graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2016 with a degree in Sports Science.

“I’ve always wanted to do something, my career has always been that of a lower-league footballer, so you always know that you’ll have to get a job when you finish there’s no two ways about it,” he says.

“It’s not like the Premier League players who are financially set. We know that we’ll need a job after, so I’ve always had in my mind that I wanted to have the best opportunity to do something that I enjoy and that’s how I looked at it.

“It was an opportunity for me to determine where my path after football goes instead of clutching at things and trying to find a job.”

No appeal

So why, with testimonies like these available to inspire footballers, are so many players finishing their careers with little education to fall back on?

For many, football is a way out of having to rely on qualifications to get a job. It’s their route to wealth, fame and acclaim, and it sidelines thoughts of college or university.

“Maybe it’s better to take the route of Pritchard and Watmore, who didn’t go through the professional academy system and completed their education first?”

In the higher leagues, young players are offered huge amounts of money and have agents taking care of everything for them. They are thrust into the limelight and think it will be on them forever.

Former professional Stephen O’Halloran was forced to think about life after football when two cruciate ligament injuries during his time at Aston Villa forced him to quit the pro ranks and go semi-professional.

He qualified as a physiotherapist, graduating from University of Salford in 2016 whilst playing for Salford City part-time, and now had a full-time job in the NHS thanks to his degree.

O’Halloran told the PFA website: “I made the decision about four years ago [aged 24] that I didn’t want to be going from club to club without anything to back me up.

“I was about to sign for Nuneaton in the National League when I got onto the course with the help of [assistant director of education] Oshor Williams at the PFA.”

Better off in education than academies

Watmore and Pritchard’s stories are different to those of O’Halloran and Raynes. The latter were young professionals who went back into education once they realised that football wasn’t a lifelong career.

Watmore and Pritchard completed their education and degrees before becoming pro footballers, and that fact begs the question if the fault lies with the academies of professional clubs.

The fact that older players are having to go back into education once the penny drops about brevity of their careers is surely down to a lack of guidance given to them as young pros.

Academies need to do more to encourage young professionals to go university, or study things other than sports science and exercise at college, to give them the best chance at finding what’s best for them after football.

So maybe it’s better to take the route of Pritchard and Watmore, who didn’t go through the professional academy system and completed their education first?

Time for more clubs to take the FA Cup seriously again

January 24, 2017 in Opinion

Weakened teams, poor attendances, crazy kick-off times – all featured in the FA Cup third round earlier this month, and threaten to dent its status and traditions once again as we head into the fourth round. 

Perhaps this weekend’s ties will see more clubs deciding to take football’s oldest knockout competition a bit more seriously?

Yet the temptation is clearly there for many managers to rotate, giving fringe players a chance to show what they can do, and saving their stars from fatigue and injuries, whilst keeping their main focus on maintaining their league position.

This weekend presents opportunities for Brentford, Wolves, Wigan and Wycombe to produce major upsets as they face Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs respectively.

Championship side Wolves look to have a decent chance against Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp fielded a vastly changed team at home against Plymouth in the third round and paid the price as the League Two outfit earned themselves a replay, which they only lost 1-0.

Clear sign

Brentford will also be looking to spring a surprise against the Premier League’s pace-setters, and their players will be fired up to do well at Stamford Bridge.

Like Wolves, the Bees occupy the relative safety of mid-table, so if we don’t see anything from them apart from first-choice XIs giving 100% commitment to win their ties then it really will be a clear sign that the FA Cup is no longer what it was it was.

“Howe’s caution was understandable to some extent, but what is the point in having top players if you are not going to push for success with them?”

Bournemouth did their best in the last round to prove this, making 11 changes for their trip to Millwall and failing to even register a shot on target as they went down 3-0 to the League One team.

With the Cherries not threatened by relegation from the top flight, boss Eddie Howe was widely criticised for not given the Cup his best shot. Surely it was worth taking a risk?

Howe admitted: “In hindsight with the result, yes, but though I haven’t been forced, my hands are tied a little bit. We are so stretched, the Premier League is such a demanding league, we feel we need our best players available for selection.”

Mediocre

His caution was, therefore, understandable to some extent. But what is the point in having top players if you are not going to push for success with them?

Bournemouth have Jack Wilshere on loan from Arsenal for the season; why not use his abilities whilst you have him to push for success in the Cup?

Despite all the criticism Bournemouth received, it is a given that this weekend we will see another top-flight team make a similar amount of changes.

Perhaps it will lead to another upset. But what fans of smaller clubs really want to see is their team beating the best an opponent has to offer, not a mediocre second XI whose names are all greeted with a derisory ‘Who?’ when the line-ups are announced.

Maybe the FA should start handing out fines for clubs who make wholesale changes for Cup ties, though this would be tricky to regulate and enforce. Perhaps the prize money on offer should be boosted? It’s currently dwarfed by the riches available in the Premier League – even for finishing bottom of the table.

Financial benefits

But if the big clubs (or any club for that matter) want to field weakened teams in the Cup, they can, so perhaps when it happens the smaller ones should really go for it?

“Will the magic of the Cup still be the same if those upsets really don’t count for much in the scheme of things?”

Of course, no-one can blame Plymouth for seeing a draw at Anfield as the best-possible outcome; half the gate money, plus a full house and the TV cameras at Home Park for the replay. That’s serious money for a League Two club who flirted with going out of business not so long ago.

But part of me still thinks even the likes of Argyle could, in the circumstances, have really taken the game to Liverpool’s assortment of fringe players and kids.

Yes, they earned around £1m from the two ties, but it would have been good to see them muster more than a single shot on target at Anfield to add their admirable defensive display.

Plain unlucky

In the replay, an early goal from Lucas forced Plymouth to start playing, and start playing is exactly what they did, taking the game to the Reds and coming within inches of a stunning equaliser from Jake Jervis with a 12-yard scissor-kick.

Okay, so they still didn’t manage many attempts on goal, but still a lot more than they did at Anfield, where an inexperienced Liverpool side were there for the taking.

Again I don’t want to criticise them too much, and others will argue that they got their tactics spot on because Liverpool do struggle against defensive outfits as we’ve seen in the Premier League. At the end of the day, maybe they were just plain unlucky to lose out.

But let’s hope we see more clubs taking the FA Cup seriously this weekend. If they don’t, the ‘shock’ results will keep coming. But will the magic of the Cup still be the same if those upsets really don’t count for much in the scheme of things?

Is it time for captain Cook to go?

January 24, 2017 in Opinion

He is England’s most capped player, their highest-ever scorer, longest-serving Test captain, and is a double Ashes-winning skipper.

But all good things must come to an end, and Alastair Cook’s leadership of England’s Test team looks set to end ahead of the summer.

“Captaincy always brings pressure… when things do not go your way, instantly questions will be asked of you”

After this winter’s tour struggles in Bangladesh and India, is the time right for the Essex man to step down?

Joe Root, the current vice-captain of the Test side and Cook’s most likely successor, has loyally expressed his desire for him to remain as skipper.

“I do think he’ll make a decision in the best interests of the team, and in my opinion it would be great if he did stay on and lead it forward. I think he’s got a lot to offer.

“Regardless of what decision he makes – whether he’s captain or not – he will continue to be a massive leader and a focal part of this team moving forward.”

Pressure

Former Ashes-winning England captain Michael Vaughan does, however, expect Cook to resign. He told BBC Sport: “His body language over the last three matches [Against India, all ending in defeat]… he looks like he might be thinking of calling it a day.”

Cook without a doubt is one of England’s greatest cricketers, having amassed over 11,000 Test runs. His average as captain in Test cricket is an impressive 47.84, but his recent form in the series in Bangladesh and India has dented that.

Cook’s top score in the series in India, at Rajkot in November, was 130. One century in your last 14 innings is not good enough.

Captaincy always brings pressure. You are expected to thrive in every match but when things do not go your way, instantly questions will be asked of you.

Nothing left to prove?

One example would be Angelo Mathews being captain of the Sri Lankan team. In Test cricket, Mathews’s average has sky-rocketed to 50.94 as captain when critics have been on his back for not scoring runs.

“The pressure onSangakkara was lifted and he was freed up to focus on delivering match-winning performances for his team”

This shows that Mathews has the ability to handle pressure as captain and continue to score runs and produce hundreds.

This situation on the England Test captaincy is similar to when MS Dhoni gave up the leading India during their Test series against Australia in 2014, with Virat Kohli succeeding him.

After a stellar career at Test level, Dhoni probably felt he had nothing left to prove, and the negative of the job had begun to outweigh the positives.

Cook won’t want to step down after a bad winter for England, but he’s achieved so much and has cemented his place in England’s cricket history.

Match-winning performances

Of course, no-one is suggesting Cook should actually stop playing for England as well. As Root says, he still has a lot to offer, and with the pressures and responsibilities of the captaincy removed, he can just focus on his batting.

Cook’s best Test innings came pre-captaincy in 2011 against India when he scored a mammoth 294. Giving up being skipper has benefited other players, including Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara.

In 15 matches as Test captain, Sangakkara scored seven Test hundreds with one double century. Pretty good, but after he gave up the captaincy in 2011, he became a run machine that could not be stopped.

He scored another 13 hundreds, with three double centuries and one triple ton between June 2011 and August 2015.

The pressure was lifted and he was freed up to focus on delivering match-winning performances for his team.

Inspiring young players

Another reason why Cook should give up the captaincy but remain in the side is because it will benefit up-and-coming Test players, with his experience helping inspire the likes of Haseeb Hameed.

“Root will surely become England’s captain and has the potential to lead them to even greater heights than Cook”

The possibility of him giving up Test cricket completely can’t be totally ruled out, and it would allow younger players a chance to get into the side.

Personally, I think England should want to keep Cook in the Test side, freed from the stresses and strains of the captaincy.

Less pressure will be on him, he can focus on his main strength which is his batting, whilst also helping younger players who are finding their feet at Test level.

But Root will surely become England’s captain and has the potential to lead them to even greater heights than Cook.

Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt. 2

January 12, 2017 in Features, Opinion

A thrilling 2016-17 NBA season has thus far delivered entertainment, elite individual performances and plenty controversy.

But, best of all, we have only just reached the halfway mark. Allow Elephant Sport to run through some of the most exciting categories since our first instalment.

Best Team: Houston Rockets

Before even diving into the excellence of Mike D’Antoni’s team, we need look no further than the Rockets’ record during this half. Led by James Harden, they are sitting comfortably in 3rd seed with a 30-10 record. Add to this only two losses in 19 games.

If the Rockets were the most improved team in the first quarter, they are undoubtedly the best one in the league right now. This has been aided by the return of potential defensive all-star, Patrick Beverley.

A lot has been said about Houston’s lack of defensive prowess but, with the aforementioned point-guard back, many of the criticisms have been erased. Beverley is averaging more rebounds than any other player in the team. Meanwhile, the Rockets have climbed into the top 15 defensive sides in the league.

But beyond number-crunching, this is a team rich in chemistry and unity. In a recent match against the Dallas Mavericks, small-forward Trever Ariza got into a verbal altercation with Salah Mejri. At the end of the game, the entire Rockets squad waited for the Mavs’ centre in an attempt to confront him.

While violence is not to be condoned, especially in a professional environment, it’s refreshing to see the Rockets team stick up for one another when, just a few months ago, they had a lot of internal disagreements and issues.

The Rockets are flawed – they certainly struggle to close out games and protect the rim when Clint Capela is missing – but they are living and prospering by the 3-ball. It could very well see them usurp many teams in the play-offs come season end. 

Worst Team: Brooklyn Nets

Neither Jeremy Lin nor Brook Lopez can lift the Nets out of their current rut. Which is ironic, since an arrangement of both their names phonetically adds up to Brooklyn.

This pun is atrocious – much like the Nets have been this season. They are currently bottom of the Eastern Conference and, in 41 games, have yet to reach double digits in wins.

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Brook Lopez warming up

Where the Nets have struggled most is in the creative department. Lin has been underwhelming and inefficient when running the point. Even when he has been at his very best, he has a lack of sharpshooters to lay the ball off to.

On the other hand, Lopez has tried his hardest to deliver wins. But in the game where he dropped a mammoth 38 points – all from inside the post – his team still lost by a comfortable margin.

Perhaps the over-reliance on these two stars has created a pressure hard to overcome for the Nets. But what is certain is this: they have an inefficient bench unit and a non-existent supporting cast.

Sadly, they look to be tanking for the remainder of the season – a testament to how insurmountable they view a comeback or, at the very least, improvement. 

Most Improved: Utah Jazz

 The Utah Jazz were almost unanimously everyone’s sleeper tip going into the new season. Many suspected they would finish in the top four in the West and, while they are currently sitting in 5th, just imagining that would have been far-fetched 20 games ago.

After the first quarter, Utah looked devoid of confidence and quality. Despite the dominant play of Gordon Hayward and the robustness of Rudy Gobert, the Jazz were struggling to string offensive plays together.

Fast-forward to January and they are now one of the league’s in-form teams. While the aforementioned players have turned in titanic performances, it is in the coaching that the Jazz have seen the biggest improvements.

Quin Snyder has drawn up a variety of plays revolving around a combination of point-guard George Hill and Hayward that has led to some excellent ball circulation in recent weeks.

Whether it is the long-range alley-oop, or the bounce pass-to-scorer, the two have struck up a chemistry unlike anything Vivint Arena has seen this term.

Add to that Rudy Gobert averaging one rebound short of the number one spot and the Jazz finally look like that team everyone had expected them to be. 

Who Needs to Trade Immediately: Toronto Raptors

 The Raptors may be one of the finer teams in the league; in their conference, they are second to only the Cleveland Cavaliers. While there is no shame in being second to the reigning champions and LeBron James, there is shame in being miles behind them.

In the three times the teams have met up this season, the Raptors have been torn apart. Two of these games were in this highlighted half.

What the Raptors missed most was a dominant centre – somebody who could prevent Kyrie Irving from entering the pick ‘n’ roll with Tristan Thompson. Furthermore, they lacked a real presence on offence inside the paint. This isn’t a team that shoots outside the perimeter often, so their reliance on inside scoring requires a centre who can do it on both ends.

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The fans at Air Canada could do with seeing a dominant centre every other night

Unfortunately, there are very few centres that can dominate on both ends that are available. Certainly DeMarcus Cousins seems attainable but, since he seems closer to the Boston Celtics, it makes little sense to include him here.

There is, though, one centre who is most definitely attainable. While he may still be young, the potential is there to become one of the finest at the five spot. That player is the Philadelphia 76’ers Nerlens Noel.

The 22-year-old is up for trade now that the 76’ers are shopping for a point-guard. He is the unfortunate collateral damage of this search, since the franchise deems Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor to be more valuable assets.

But when Noel plays, he dominates on both ends. And he is a former Round 1 pick in the draft (2014).

Under the wing of the Raptors – an inside scoring and rim protecting team – he could come into his own.

This is a risk worth taking because it benefits the Raptors in the years to come. They may not be able to challenge the Cavs just yet but, if they can unite the right pieces, that could change in coming seasons.

Surprise Package: Memphis Grizzlies 

The Memphis Grizzlies were predicted to scrape the play-offs; a true bottom-of-the-barrel team. To say they have exceeded expectations is an understatement.

In just the last 20 games, Memphis have defeated the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Oh, and the former they crushed twice.

Mike Conley, a point-guard of immense quality, has been in and out of the team with injury. In his absence, they were unbeaten. Upon his return, they continued to win games.

In veteran centre Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have found a sharpshooting rim-protector. While that may sound like a preposterous hybrid, it is exactly what the Spaniard has become. He has hit game-winning 3-pointers and combined that with blocks and defensive plays aplenty.

As the focal point of their play, Gasol has carried Memphis to 6th in the West within a couple of games off 4th.

MVP at the Half: James Harden

Only one man seems worthy of the award as of this halfway mark. James Harden has dominated the NBA in recent months, breaking records and personal bests alike.

He carved out his highest points (51), assists (17) and rebounds (18) in a historic night against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve. He is the first player in NBA history to amass a triple-double of 15-15-15 or higher; he also leads the league in assists by a country mile.

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Harden playing some defence for Team USA

Why Harden instead of Russell Westbrook, some may ask? It’s simple. Westbrook is registering crazy numbers, too. But his team isn’t winning as often, or emphatically, as the Houston Rockets.

That plays a part in contention for the MVP award, particularly when The Beard’s team were ruled out of play-off contention by many punters.

Coach D’Antoni has placed immense belief and confidence in Harden – asking him to command the ball with more regularity and lead the team. This was something Harden had been criticised for in the past: leadership.

That, and defence. It would be an understatement to say he has quashed those criticisms this season.

Houston are winning and Harden is playing his heart out. If voting were to end today, the MVP of the 2016-17 season would be as clear as day.

Rookie of the Year at the Half: Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid is the first, and only, repeat appearance of this series. Yet that’s more of a mixed bag than a clear indication of Embiid’s annihilation of the award.

While the Cameroonian centre has undeniably been the best rookie so far, there is an argument to be made that nobody is actually challenging him.

Buddy Hield, for all his enthusiasm, has struggled to find consistency in New Orleans. Meanwhile Brandon Ingram looks far too meek for the NBA as of right now.

Perhaps Embiid’s dominance is, too, down to the fact that he is one of the oldest rookies in contention for the award. This, of course, is owed to his 26 month injury. But, on the flipside, for him to be playing at the level he is considering said injury is mind blowing.

He could genuinely get into the all-star team come February – he’s currently fifth in the West’s frontcourt voting (top 10 take part in the all-star game). The last rookie to achieve such a feat was Blake Griffin in 2011.

He’s also averaging 19 points and seven rebounds a night, despite a minutes restriction to prevent injury. 

Offensive Play of the Half: Larry Nance Jr. Dunk

This was the best dunk of 2016 – and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if it remained better than anything conjured up in 2017.

Larry Nance Jr. channelled his inner-Michael Jordon to throw it down on one of the better rim protectors in the league: Brook Lopez. A man four inches taller than the Lakers’ power-forward. 

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Defensive Play of the Half: Durant block to Curry 3

The best defensive plays either win you games or flip opposition possession into your own points.

Kevin Durant’s emphatic chasedown block, collected by Stephen Curry and dispatched for three, falls into the latter. And it’s a thing beauty.

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