#1 Training for a three-hour marathon

#1 Training for a three-hour marathon

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The London Marathon attracts over 35,000 runners each year.

“My feeling is that any day I am too busy to run is a day that I am too busy.” – John Bryant. 

Running the London Marathon has always been on my bucket list. The trouble is, I’m not the greatest running fan – so why run one?

Firstly, I love a challenge. Plus, if I can raise money for charity along the way that’s even better.

To make things a little more difficult, I’m aiming to qualify for the 2019 London Marathon through the ‘Good for Age’ classification.

This means achieving a time of three hours and five minutes or faster at any marathon in the world from the 1st January 2017.

Running such a speedy time has its advantages. I’ll be fitter, stronger and I’ll spend less time in training and running the 26.2 miles distance itself. I’ll also begin the London event in a specially designated pen, which means I can avoid the dreaded 30-minute walk to the start line with the masses – reducing the risk of getting cold, wasting energy and running a slow time.

So, do I need my sanity tested? Some may argue yes, but I’m lucky to have stumbled across a comprehensive training plan which should help me run a sub three-hour time in London.

Ideally, it takes six months to train for your marathon of choice, but running one quickly takes at least two years of preparation.

It’s this preparation which has thrown me massively. I had hoped to start training in October but, after a good deal of research, it became clear I couldn’t just start training when I wanted.

As a running rookie, I never realised how detailed the planning would have to be.

However, after setting training and meal plans, choosing running locations, seeing my GP and a physio to get the green light to train, I can now get started.

The planning

An initial 5-week training plan will lead into a fresh 24-week scheme, taking me into my first full 26.2 miler – the Bournemouth Marathon in October.

From there, six-month cycles of training – each culminating in a marathon – will begin. I’ll aim to run my second in April 2018, sneaking in another before the cut-off in June if I haven’t yet run under 3hr05m.

Provided I’ve got the qualification time in the bag, I’ll run the next marathon in October 2018 before London in April 2019.

The progress
In writing a blog through my training, I hope to give an insight into how much of a challenge it will be.

I’ll be posting pictures of my Strava times, nutritious recipes, route plans, motivational quotes, running facts/stats and handy tips along the way – roughly once every two weeks.

So stay tuned for all the stumbles, falls, pains and gains as I embark on what could be an immensely rewarding journey.

Top five reasons to avoid transfer deadline day

Top five reasons to avoid transfer deadline day

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TRANSFER DEADLINE DAY: Will any big names sign on the dotted line for your club? Here are five reasons to give deadline day a wide berth.

Luckily, this day comes around just twice a year otherwise I’d go and hide in a dark room and club my head against the wall more often.

Yes, transfer deadline day really is that annoying.

Crammed full of fairytale hope, hoax calls, fictitious player sightings, lamentable TV coverage and social media nonsense you have more than enough reasons to avoid this most horrendous of footballing days.

Granted, a good deadline day does come around – but only rarely. One of the few truly enjoyable deadline days came in the January 2011 transfer window when big-money signings Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez, David Luiz and Andy Carroll were recruited in a day’s spending worth £135m.

Maybe fairytales do happen? Only if you’re a Disney fan.

Just to squash those pipe dreams (and bring ourselves back to reality) here are five good reasons to give transfer deadline day a miss.

  1. Watch the football!

Unusually on transfer deadline day there are actual football matches being played. Come 7:45pm everyone’s attention should be well and truly on those, rather than the guff of transfer rumours.

Most exciting of all is the Liverpool vs Chelsea match, where Reds boss Jürgen Klopp is under serious threat of losing his job should Antonio Conte’s league leaders secure three points at Anfield.

A win for the Blues would leave Klopp’s men 13 points off top spot and spell Liverpool’s fourth defeat in 11 days – a run which has seen the Merseysiders eliminated from both domestic cup competitions.

So let’s all watch the football, not the rumours, yeah?

  1. Sky Sports News

If you’re a Sky producer, there is clearly nothing more exciting than watching unfortunate reporters loitering outside training grounds sniffing out the newest transfer rumours from clubs across the country – often in the pouring rain and freezing cold.

Sky have got transfer deadline day so wrong it’s just painful. Who wants to see hours of repetitive ‘breaking news’, unsubstantial updates, snazzy graphics and theatrical presenting?

Their self-indulgent coverage has gone too far. Fair enough, if a big-money signing is made let’s pay attention, but until that happens it’s just not worth our time.

  1. False rumours

These days, with smartphone use in overdrive anyone can be a transfer scout or even a journalist. All it takes is some intrepid fan rocking up to their favourite club’s ground and lucking out with a chance ‘sighting’ of a big-name ‘transfer target’.

Of course, over-enthusiastic fans aren’t just to blame, it’s mostly newspapers. Nonsense rumours, unconfirmed reports, plausible transfer suggestions and the madness of the Chinese Super League just fuel the imaginations of transfer deadline day nutters.

  1. Social media

Nothing says “this is a shambles” like a good-old meme. Whether it be Harry Redknapp’s face photoshopped onto Del Boy’s body, or Jim White’s most ‘memorable’ quotes, social media will usually rip the proverbial out of deadline day.

That said, social media is a rumours wasteland on deadline day, full of time-wasting reports, gossip and users looking to score a few retweets and likes.

Even worse are the users that post ‘breaking news’ from clickbait ‘football news’ accounts and profiles, taking their reports as gospel. Can’t we just watch the football now?

  1. Phone-ins

Football phone-ins are all about opinion and should be encouraged. Better still, fans can have their say on which players they’d like to see move to their respective clubs.

But do we really have to sit through an analysis of the transfer window? And what about the pundits that are regurgitated from show to show without lending any insight into the transfer rumours that are likely to hold true?

Sure, if a former player sheds light on what deadline day is like from a player’s perspective that’s some interesting background, but should washed-up pundits be given a chance to say how clubs should go about their transfer business?

It’s all a matter of taste, but I’d rather see more input from the fans that pay to watch their clubs each week rather than the players that were paid a fortune for to play for them.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

Are football fans spoiling the darts?

Are football fans spoiling the darts?

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Michael van Gerwen beat Gary Anderson 7-3 in the 2017 PDC world championship final, but was interrupted by an intruder while throwing for the match at 6-2.

It was the showpiece event of the PDC darts season.

Gary Anderson, world champion in 2015 and 2016, was looking to retain his crown against a rampant Michael van Gerwen in the 2017 world championship final at Alexandra Palace.

Scotland’s Anderson took an early 2-1 lead in sets, breaking the throw of his Dutch counterpart.

But, in a high-quality encounter, van Gerwen then moved through the gears, winning 12 out of 13 legs on his way to taking the next five sets for a 6-2 advantage.

Needing just 115 points to secure his second career world title, van Gerwen was interrupted by a disgraceful spectator, who leapt onto the stage and picked up the Sid Waddell trophy before being tackled by security guards.

That neither player was unhurt was a minor miracle. Van Gerwen, who went on to lose that set, somehow recomposed himself and won the match 7-3.

It says a lot that, despite the brilliance of van Gerwen, some anti-fan thought it was more entertaining to steal the winner’s trophy than watch the action.

Were 42 maximums insufficient entertainment? A 108 average for van Gerwen and a 104 average for Anderson?

The sight of van Gerwen dismantling his closest rival should have been one to cherish.

Instead it was clear that, despite a record 42 maximums being thrown in the match – a world final no less – the fans at Alexandra Palace had decided the match was over given van Gerwen’s superiority and would turn their backs on the play.

Facing their peers, a large number of supporters began orchestrating footballing chants such as the Kolo/Yaya Toure song, oblivious to the darting treat that van Gerwen and Anderson were serving up.

Of course, darts actually has a lot to thank these fans for.

The popularity of the sport has risen astronomically and one of the key reasons for attending live matches is the chance to sample the atmosphere – driven by Planet Funk’s ubiquitous song ‘Chase the Sun’.

The level of play is perhaps the biggest factor though, with perfect 9-dart legs and 170 maximum checkouts a regular occurrence on the PDC circuit, which now sees more 100+ averages than not.

But along the way to stardom the sport has taken with it more and more football louts looking to get drunk, shout abuse at players and now, invade the stage of play.

With the growing amount of unsporting behaviour, more commonly associated with football, now being seen at the darts, PDC bosses should be taking proactive measures to combat what has unfortunately become a trend.

There is no harm in having a drink, chanting songs and creating a wonderful atmosphere, but why not make songs about darts players and keep the environment a positive one?

Presently, each player’s walk-on songs provide darts-themed chants, Phil Taylor’s ‘walking in a Taylor wonderland’ song is also routinely heard, but there should be more tungsten tunes than footballing ones.

Perhaps the PDC could learn lessons from the fans on its rival BDO circuit, where players are respected in the same manner as snooker players with silence on crucial throws and knowledgeable applause throughout.

Let’s not eradicate the football-type atmosphere completely, but shape it more in support of the high-quality darts being played.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

2016/17 Premier League Preview

The 2016/17 Premier League season has quietly crept up on us just 88 days after Leicester City shocked the world with their astounding title win.

Leicester were priced at 5000/1 at the beginning of last season, but there is no repeat this time around as bookmakers are offering 33/1 to defend their title at the time of writing.

Despite losing N’Golo Kante to Chelsea, The Foxes have kept the core of their league-winning squad together, with top scorer Jamie Vardy signing a new contract.

They have also been boosted by the signings of pacy striker Ahmed Musa and Nampalys Mendy, who is seen as a direct replacement for Kante in midfield.

Whether Leicester can retain their crown remains to be seen, especially with Champions League commitments providing a distraction from their domestic exploits.

If there is one lesson we can learn from last season it’s not to write Claudio Ranieri’s side off.

Elsewhere, the two Manchester clubs look set to slug it out for the spoils with Arsenal and Chelsea.

New Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has signed an impressive array of young talent including £47.5m John Stones, and City will start the campaign as favourites.

Guardiola, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss, has left a glittering trail of trophies behind wherever he has worked and will be aiming to crown his first year in charge at the Etihad with the league title.

Arch rival Jose Mourinho has also made some big signings at Manchester United, breaking the world record transfer fee for Paul Pogba (£89m), while Zlatan Ibrahimovic (free), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (£26.3m) and Eric Bailly (£30m) are the other notable acquisitions.

Arsenal have been much quieter, signing only defenders Rob Holding and striker Takuma Asano. With manager Arsene Wenger again reluctant to strengthen his squad, it falls upon his talented team to take a step up in form – however previous seasons suggest it may be too great an ask.

Tottenham have again been quiet in the transfer market after their young side fell at the final hurdle last term.

Mauricio Pochettino has signed midfielder Victor Wanyama (£11m) from former club Southampton and Ajax striker Vincent Janssen (£17m) to give Harry Kane some competition up front.

Chelsea will be aiming for a much better season under new boss Antonio Conte, and the wily Italian will only have the domestic campaign to concentrate on after the London club failed to qualify for European competition.

Michy Batshuayi (£33m) and Kante (£30m) are the club’s big signings and, with Eden Hazard looking best to his best at the Euros, Conte will have plenty to work with as The Blues target a top four place.

Liverpool are outside bets, with boss Jurgen Klopp signing unheralded goalkeeper Loris Karius and centre-back Ragnar Klavan from the German Bundesliga, along with highly-rated defender Joel Matip.

Forwards Sadio Mane (£30m) and Georginio Wijnaldum (£23m) are the biggest deals for the Anfield club so far.

Relegation-wise, the likes of Burnley and Hull appear to be struggling.

Hull have yet to appoint a permanent manager after Steve Bruce’s departure and have made very few signings of note, bringing in only Jonathan Edwards (free) from Peterborough United.

Hull’s squad is dominated by Premier League has-beens such as Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone, Michael Dawson and Shaun Maloney.

Burnley will be motivated by the positivity of manager Sean Dyche, but their squad also looks bare and consists of the majority of players relegated from the Premier League

The Clarets will be heavily reliant on the goals of Andre Gray and Sam Vokes, but their defence might not be up to the task – which should prove to be their downfall.

Other than that duo, West Brom have had a tough summer and although they will enjoy a fresh injection of cash from new owner Guochuan Lai their aging squad looks vulnerable this season.

If striker Saido Berahino ends up leaving The Hawthorns this summer The Baggies will seriously struggle for goals.

Boss Tony Pulis loves a challenge and it may be one of the greatest achievements of his managerial career if he keeps Albion up.

Here are my predictions for the 2016/17 season:

  1. Manchester City
  2. Chelsea
  3. Manchester United
  4. Arsenal
  5. Tottenham
  6. Liverpool
  7. West Ham
  8. Leicester City
  9. Southampton
  10. Everton
  11. Stoke
  12. Crystal Palace
  13. Swansea
  14. Middlesbrough
  15. Watford
  16. Sunderland
  17. Bournemouth
  18. West Brom
  19. Burnley
  20. Hull

 

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 or WordPress: neilwalton089

Euro debate: Rooney in, or Rooney out?

Aside from the EU referendum, the next biggest debate about Europe surrounds the final 23-man England squad for the upcoming European Championship in France.

England boss Roy Hodgson has a tough job on his hands, with much discussion circling around players such as Wayne Rooney, Marcus Rashford and Andros Townsend.

On Rooney, the Vote Leave campaign will argue that he has been nowhere near his best this season.

His tally of eight goals and seven assists in the Premier League last season is mediocre by his standards.

But the Remain campaign would retort that he has had a couple of injuries and has been involved in a goal once every two games.

There is also the fact that Rooney is coming into form at the end of the season after a man-of-the-match performance in Manchester United’s FA Cup final win over Crystal Palace and a superb 20-yard strike against Australia in England’s penultimate Euro warm-up match.

Rooney himself has admitted he sees his future in a deeper position for club and country and there is definitely room to accommodate him at the base of Hodgson’s preferred midfield diamond in France.

Hodgson is keen to use Jack Wilshere in that position but he is desperately short of game time and looked off-form in England’s two warm-up games to date.

Using Rooney in that position would allow him to fulfil a role similar to that of Toni Kroos, who uses his fine array of passes to dictate play deep in the German midfield.

Rooney’s skill set is comparable to Kroos’ and his ability to spray long, diagonal balls in the mould of Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Kroos certainly adds weight to his midfield argument.

Of course, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy deserve to start up front against Russia in the first match of the Euros.

The strike pair notched 49 league goals between them last season and it is Kane’s relationship with Dele Alli, who is expected to start just behind them in the number ten position, that Hodgson is eager to preserve.

Therefore, deciding to play Rooney in midfield allows Hodgson to keep England’s captain and record goalscorer in the team, while conserving the exciting forward trio that England have developed since the 2014 World Cup.

So which three players should Hodgson drop from the squad?

Unfortunately for Hodgson some hypocrisy is creeping into his squad selection.

He has always indicated he would pick players on form – his inclusion of Marcus Rashford at least demonstrates his loyalty to form players.

However, there is a glaring exception to his rule in the form of Adam Lallana.

Liverpool’s creative midfielder has been anything but this season, scoring just four goals and assisting six more in 30 league games – even James Milner has more this term.

Lallana has endured an inconsistent season in Jürgen Klopp’s team and his England record is dreadful for a player of his technical ability.

In 22 games for the national side he has scored none and assisted just twice.

Hodgson may be persisting with Lallana because of his ability to play in a number of positions but the statistics don’t lie and they show Lallana to be ineffective at the top level, meaning he should not travel to France this summer.

Despite having a breakthrough season for champions Leicester City, Danny Drinkwater should also miss the Euros.

Hodgson is blessed with several options in midfield and has Jordan Henderson fit again, Eric Dier capable of playing in front of the back four, Jack Wilshere his number one choice, James Milner as a utility player and Wayne Rooney also as a classy alternative.

Drinkwater has quietly gone about his business in the warm-up games but has not done enough to suggest he is worthy of a place over the established midfielders in the squad.

The final player to miss out looks set to be Andros Townsend.

Hodgson is faced with a tough call between Townsend, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling, but it is the out-and-out winger who is struggling when pitted against the others.

Barkley has always been a regular in Hodgson’s plans, while Sterling’s versatility up front leaves Townsend looking vulnerable to the chop from England’s final squad.

Townsend has had a great finish to the season with relegated Newcastle, but it is too little too late and he will be left to rue a difficult time at Spurs where chances for him were limited.

However, the likes of Barkley and Sterling have flattered to deceive at international level and the pair will undoubtedly be looking over their shoulders until the announcement is made.

It would be hard to see Hodgson dropping Daniel Sturridge if he is fit, while Rashford deserves the opportunity to travel on form and given he is at times used as a makeshift winger.

As a result, Townsend can count himself unlucky to miss out should he be omitted from the final 23.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

6 concepts to improve the sporting world

Any casual observer reading recent news headlines could be forgiven for thinking that sport, as a whole, is in a pretty bad state at the moment.

Whether it’s the continued allegations of doping in athletics, further details in the tale of the FIFA corruption scandal or match-fixing in tennis, bad news presently seems to follow sport around.

So, how do the various sporting authorities address these issues? The answer is with great difficulty.

All they seem to be doing on the surface is ‘standing strong’ against the cheats and ‘rebuilding for the future’.

This is typically understated media talk but rest assured beneath that exterior there is a lengthy list of proactive, reactive and preventative measures being drawn up and acted upon.

Aside from dealing with negative issues, what positive proactive steps could be taken to improve sport as a whole and, moving forward, what could the authorities do to regain the sporting public’s confidence?

  1. Lifetime bans for dopers and corrupt players/officials

There is no other way to weed out the cheats – lifetime bans must be given out. This is a hugely radical concept – one that is also extremely difficult to see happening but also one that would prove popular amongst clean players and officials.

Take the recent meldonium tests. Athletes can hide behind the ‘health reasons’ (only if you’re diabetic), but the 120-odd positive tests for the drug amongst high-profile sporting figures such as Maria Sharapova and Abeba Aregawi prove that a doping culture remains the biggest challenge facing athletics.

Decisive action should be taken. No excuses for missed tests. No namby-pamby two-year or four-year bans. Take the cheats out of sport completely – for life.

The same should happen with corrupt officials in football, for instance. There should never be another Sepp Blatter. Could there be a future situation where the public can elect FIFA’s officials?

  1. More money and media coverage at youth level

Sporting bodies are always boasting about the amount of care and attention they put into grassroots. Extra funding, boosting club projects and providing young talent with competitive arenas are just some of the things governing bodies and sponsors are keen to display.

For example, FIFA have enjoyed good coverage in lesser footballing nations for their part in developing facilities, coaching standards and youth training.

In England, the Football Foundation (funded by The FA, Premier League and the Government) contributes £36m each year to grassroots sport. However, FA chairman Greg Dyke has said grassroots is in crisis and wants to spend £250m by 2020 to create football hubs in 30 cities and increase the number of 3G pitches in urban areas to 500.

That £250m amounts to £14m more per year than the Football Foundation already spends, but is it enough considering the new £5.1bn package paid by Sky and BT to show Premier League games between 2016-19?

Under-21 football receives good media coverage, so too does junior motor racing in a large spread of formulae thanks to outputs such as Motors TV, Autosport and ITV4.

Meanwhile, 2015 Rugby World Cup revenue will enable the RFU to spend over £1m on grassroots rugby and predicts that 750 more state secondary schools will be playing the sport by 2019.

Cricket clubs also received grants totalling £2.5m in 2015 thanks to the England and Wales Cricket Trust’s partnership with Waitrose, which benefitted 801 clubs and helped 70% of those to generate further fundraising proceeds via their improved facilities.

Given the large sums of money flying around different sports there still seems to be an opportunity to do more at grassroots – particularly with media coverage. Could we see a youth sport TV channel pop up some time soon?

  1. Equality for women’s sport

As far as equal opportunities for women in sport go, they are very hard to come by. Only in tennis is there parity in earning potential at Grand Slams – and even then men’s world number one Novak Djokovic recently, and controversially, suggested men deserved more than women.

Women’s football has received noticeably more media attention in recent years – a trend that was helped by England’s third-place finish at the World Cup last year.

There is also lots of focus on women’s cycling with the exploits of world road race champion Lizzy Armitstead being closely followed as she dominates the peloton this season.

However, on the track there is a sexism row unfolding at British Cycling after allegations by Jess Varnish that she was told to have a baby after being dropped from the Great Britain team.

Olympic gold medallists Victoria Pendleton and Nicole Cooke have since raised concerns about alleged sexism at British Cycling in the wake of Varnish’s comments.

Clearly, hard work needs to be done to overhaul existing cultures in media and within women’s sport itself.

  1. Live coverage cap for pay TV companies

Pay TV is a growing concern for sport consumers in the UK. No longer can Premier League, Champions League, cricket and MotoGP fans watch live coverage of those events due to Sky and BT’s monopoly of the live broadcasting rights.

The BBC, ITV and C4 are routinely happy with winning the rights to highlights packages which at least allows non-Pay TV viewers to watch shows like Match of the Day, Champions League extra and F1 highlights.

C4’s existing deal to show 10 live F1 races per season will finish in 2018, allowing Sky to gain exclusivity and further reducing the number of live sporting events on affordable platforms such as Freeview and YouView.

While Pay TV generates a fortune for sport – notably in English football with the £5.1bn Premier League deal – it is also preventing young people from watching and being inspired to take up a sport.

Despite BT’s free-to-air ‘Showcase’ channel featuring 12 live Champions league games this season, viewing figures have been poor. A peak audience of just 200,000 compared to ITV’s 4.4m for the play-off round and group stages.

F1 is suffering in this country too, with Sky’s coverage generally receiving just 10% of the viewership that the BBC did in 2015.

Sponsors are increasingly turning their backs on pay TV too, following concerns about the number of people watching adverts etc.

It is a difficult balancing act, though. Pay TV is a convenient way for sporting bodies to generate revenue, but perhaps people would be more likely to sign up if it was cheaper.

Why not test a coverage cap idea, where pay TV companies can only monopolise a given amount of live sport per season?

  1. Use of video technology in football

Video technology is prevalent in many sports, particularly rugby and cricket. F1 stewards also look at different camera angles to adjudicate on racing incidents.

Not all sports use it though. Football is the notable exception. With money spilling into football, why can’t a rapid system be developed to check penalty, offside and booking decisions? Would it really hurt the flow of play? Many fans think it doesn’t in rugby and cricket, so why would football be any different?

Even snooker and cycling use video technology, whether it be the World Championship or the Tour de France. It’s time for football to keep up with the 21st century.

  1. Pundit school for inept analysts

This slightly more light-hearted suggestion would put an end to the horror shows that we have to endure when watching sport. There would be no more Michael Owens stating the obvious, no more Martin Keowns mispronouncing players’ names. No more know-it-alls like Robbie Savage and Joey Barton who cast their opinions on Champions League football despite never having played in Europe’s elite club competition.

What sporting fans are looking for is to be enlightened on the mechanics of a match that are not obvious to the untrained eye. What are the sub-plots? What tactics are being used? Which player is having a blinder under the radar, and for what reasons?

Sky Sports have done more than most to address the dying art of punditry, recruiting Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. More must be done to create pundits that make the half-time analysis slots as enjoyable and informative as the game itself.

Perhaps a pundit school or an analyst academy is the solution?

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

Is the England cricket team on an upward trend?

England’s Test series win away to world number one side South Africa is about as rare as they come these days.

Not since 2012 had England won a Test series away from home, and to do it against South Africa has led to all sorts of glamourous predictions for the future of England’s Test side.

Firstly, are England actually any good?

They have a top quality bowling attack, with Stuart Broad and James Anderson leading the line and Steven Finn, Ben Stokes plus Moeen Ali’s improving off-spin to call upon.

But their batting has long been a concern and still remains the gremlin in their line-up. Only captain Alastair Cook and number four Joe Root can truly be considered world-class, and there is a gaping hole beside Cook for the second opener’s spot.

Alex Hales is the most recent of eight men tasked with cementing a place alongside Cook but he has struggled for runs as his lazy technique outside off stump repeatedly sees him edge behind.

After a solid opening Test, Nick Compton has faded in his comeback series, while James Taylor’s fielding has been more impressive than his batting so far.

However, the lower order looks very promising with Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Ali all capable of scoring fluently should the top order fail – which it regularly does.

The other problem for England is that they’ve beaten a South African side stripped of premier bowlers Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander.

Steyn is the best pacer in the world and scared England in Durban before his shoulder injury, while Philander provides accuracy and stifles the flow of runs. It would have been a much tougher series for England had those two been fit.

Add to that South Africa’s dismal thrashing in India and England should really have been expected to beat them.

There are problems internally too, with the team bereft of a suitable leader.

Hashim Amla started the series as skipper but was guilty of some embarrassing captaincy when Stokes plundered 258 in Cape Town and immediately stepped down after realising his ineptitude in a role he never really wanted.

That left AB de Villiers in charge and he is also reluctant to hold on to it any longer, especially with his potential Test retirement looming after this series.

Amidst the gloom, two shining lights for the Proteas have been Dean Elgar and Kagiso Rabada.

Elgar has shown himself to be a gritty competitor, in the same mould as a Mike Hussey or a Chris Rogers. His ability to repel Broad and Anderson was noteworthy but he did look vulnerable to the rising ball, especially when facing the bounce of Finn.

In Rabada, they have a young paceman of serious potential. At just 20 years old he already bowls at 90mph and has consistently threatened England’s batsmen on this tour with a sharp line and length.

Imagine Steyn, Rabada and Philander all steaming in and South Africa will be back in business very soon.

So, in answer to this blog’s title, yes, England are on an upward trend.

They have winnable battles with Pakistan and Sri Lanka this summer before a daunting trip to the sub-continent where they face India after a brief sojourn to Bangladesh.

Given their deficiencies against Pakistan in the UAE, they may struggle again with the same sort of slow, low, turning pitches they will encounter next winter.

But, for the moment, they have the best bowler in Test cricket – Stuart Broad. Number five, James Anderson, isn’t bad either.

Joe Root is also handily placed at number two in the Test batsman’s rankings, while the team as a whole remain sixth behind South Africa, India, Australia, Pakistan and New Zealand.

That will surely improve come the end of 2016 and into the Bangladesh tour, but it is against India – who are set to replace South Africa in top spot – where the yardstick lies.

The real upward trend will be set if England can gain a positive result in that series.

Then we’ll see whether all the hype surrounding the likes of Stokes and Broad can be justified.

Right now, there’s a lot to be cheery about if you’re an English cricket fan. Here’s hoping there’s plenty more where that came from.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

England’s Rugby World Cup calamity

Some said it was over when England threw away a 22-12 lead against Wales, but a dismal performance a week later against a rampant Australia sealed England’s exit from their home World Cup.

But what was to blame to for those two defeats?

England’s forwards, so impressive in the Six Nations and the RWC warm-up games, were quickly found out by the weight of expectation on them.

Against Wales, when trailing 25-28, they fluffed two excellent line-out opportunities deep in Welsh territory.

Against Australia, they were destroyed by the ravenous duo of David Pocock and Michael Hooper, who were quickest to nearly every breakdown and helped register a total of eight turnovers – mostly in their own half when England threatened to score.

It was also very obvious before the World Cup that England’s biggest weapon was their forward pack, but Australia coach Michael Cheika somehow managed to subvert that preconception and transform the Aussie pack into the dominant force on the night.

That leads to a big question – should England coach Stuart Lancaster have expected this tactic and prepared better for it?

The answer is yes, but not many sides could have lived with the performance of the Australian forwards last Saturday.

There is also another problem that occurred almost three years ago – the draw for the pool stage.

Seeding for the World Cup meant that a nightmarish group was always possible and it came to fruition when England, Wales and Australia were drawn together.

Back in 2012 they were ranked third, fifth and ninth respectively, but at the time of writing they are eighth, third and second.

Here lies the problem. The draw for the World Cup should be made later to greater reflect form, the pools should be bigger and there should be less teams. 14 teams in two groups would be ideal – as happens in the Cricket World Cup.

It’s not only bad for England that they’ve gone out in the group stage, it’s bad for the tournament, the English economy and the sport as a whole.

Estimations of England’s exit costing pubs, bars and rugby clubs £500m are being thrown about, and ITV will be counting the cost of dipping advertising revenues as less people tune in.

It would also have added an extra layer of excitement to the tournament had England had a good run, as the host nation is perhaps the most keenly followed team in any World Cup in any sport.

But no matter how you look at it, England rapidly need to improve.

Could they follow Australia’s example and pick players playing in France such as Matt Giteau? England could certainly have picked Toulon’s Steffon Armitage at flanker.

Unfortunately, while Lancaster is in charge his policy of picking players from English clubs will remain unless he performs a hasty u-turn.

Again, this leads us to another sizeable question – should Lancaster go?

With a contract running until 2020 the RFU would be digging deep into their pockets to get rid of him and, Lancaster being the fighter he is, has no plans to relinquish the reins yet.

There are a few contenders should Lancaster be relieved of his duties.

Some romantics are calling for Martin Johnson to play some part in the coaching setup. Others are looking at South Africa’s 2007 World Cup winning coach Jake White as a possible head coach.

But through all of this the RFU are keeping very quiet, which points to anything other than a swift resolution to England’s World Cup calamity.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 or WordPress: neilwalton089

My 2015/16 Premier League predictions

Can anyone detect the faint rumble of a new Premier League season ahead? Maybe it’s the ubiquitous Sky Sports adverts, or the imposing BT Sport billboards? Or maybe just the football?

Ah yes, it’s definitely the football.

Normally, nothing much should be ascertained from pre-season – especially with regards to form. However, there have been some noticeably quiet clubs in the transfer window – with some more in need of fresh faces than others.

What seems to be clearest though, is that the 2015/16 Premier League season will be closer than the last campaign.

Anyway, enough waffling. Let’s get stuck in to the main course – some predictions.

  1. Sunderland – 16th last season – 9/4 to be relegated

Wearsiders look away now. This season has the makings of relegation for Dick Advocaat’s side. Sunderland will need goals to stay up, but having sold Connor Wickham and with the misfiring Danny Graham and Steven Fletcher supporting an aging Jermain Defoe, they are in big trouble. One ray of light is the signing of Jeremain Lens, a goalscoring Dutch midfielder – but one good deal alone is not going to save the Black Cats.

  1. Bournemouth – Championship winners last season – 7/5 to be relegated

The Cherries make their Premier League debut after snatching the Championship title from under Watford’s noses, but they look short of the requirements to stave off relegation. Boss Eddie Howe has made some interesting signings, with 37-year-old Sylvain Distin, Christian Atsu and Max Gradel all coming to Dean Court. Bournemouth play some attractive football and have plenty of energy in their side but in terms of defensive quality they are desperately short, and that spells doom.

  1. Leicester City – 14th last season – 3/1 to be relegated

Like all promoted clubs, Leicester’s target was merely to stay up. They did so dramatically as a stunning end-of-season winning run helped them survive by six points. Claudio Ranieri has assumed managerial control after the anti-PR Nigel Pearson was sacked, but “The Tinkerman” has hardly enhanced his reputation after a dismally poor stint with Greece. New signings include Shinji Okazaki and N’Golo Kante, but a defence that conceded 55 goals last season looks like relegation material.

  1. Watford – Championship runners-up last season – 6/5 to stay up

Having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the Championship title race last season, Watford have wasted no time in preparing themselves for the Premier League, making 11 signings for a combined £21m. They have bought astutely, with Valon Behrami and Jose Holebas the headliners. The good news for Watford is that they have goals in them. Captain Troy Deeney, coveted by many PL clubs, scored 21 league goals last term and his goals could prove crucial in keeping them up.

  1. Norwich City – Championship play-off winners – 4/5 to stay up

The main advantage Norwich have this season is that most of their squad has Premier League experience and in Alex Neil they have a tenacious manager with a growing reputation. This summer they have strengthened in midfield with Youssouf Mulumbu arriving from West Brom and the guile of Robbie Brady adding a threat from dead-ball situations. Norwich will be fine this season, and a nice little bonus would be a return to form for Ricky van Wolfswinkel.

  1. Aston Villa – 17th last season – 3/1 to be relegated

If Aston Villa had not found a replacement for Christian Benteke, they would have been in big trouble, but in Rudy Gestede they have a striker ready to step up to the Premier League. Manager Tim Sherwood has also been in talks with Emmanuel Adebayor and, after getting the most out of him at Spurs, repeating the trick could be worth up to 15 goals. Villa’s young side will feel the loss of Fabian Delph, but offsetting his departure is the bright talent of Jack Grealish.

  1. West Ham – 12th last season – 8/15 for a bottom 10 finish

If West Ham end up qualifying for the Europa League their Premier League season could go up in smoke. The average cost of a Europa League campaign was recently put at -4 points by a PL statistician. Add to that the fatigue of starting your season in early July and boss Sam Allardyce will have some tired players come May. The signing of Dimitri Payet with his eye-catching skill is exciting Hammers fans as another solid season awaits.

  1. West Brom – 13th last season – 9/2 to be top Midlands club

The Baggies have cause for optimism this season as the emergence of Saido Berahino continues to develop. His 14-goal campaign helped them massively last season and the wily Tony Pulis has pulled off a great signing in Rickie Lambert, who struggled to impose himself at Liverpool. Lambert and Berahino are set to form a fantastic combination and, with a propensity for putting defence first, Pulis will guide West Brom to another mid-table finish, with the top ten within reach.

  1. Crystal Palace – 10th last season – 4/7 for a bottom 10 finish

Palace have signed some excellent players this summer, not least Yohan Cabaye from PSG. The Frenchman will be keen to cement a place in the France squad with a home Euro 2016 campaign next summer and his goalscoring prowess at Newcastle under boss Alan Pardew’s guidance is another good sign. Connor Wickham has also arrived, while Eagles fans will be hoping that Yannick Bolasie kicks on from his breakthrough displays last term.

  1. Newcastle United – 15th last season – 1/2 to be top North East club

New manager Steve McClaren was building a good team at Derby, but has ditched them to join Newcastle. Drawing on his time in Holland, McClaren has kept a close eye on neighbours Belgium and has dipped into the transfer market to bring in Anderlecht pair Aleksandar Mitrovic and Chancel Mbemba. The goals of Serbia striker Mitrovic are much needed in Tyneside and with McClaren’s focus on defending they will challenge for a top ten finish.

  1. Stoke – 9th last season – 10/1 to finish tenth

Ex-Barcelona striker Mark Hughes seems set on raiding his former club to bring as many Barcelona players to the Potteries as he can. Marc Muniesa and Bojan were already on the club’s books, and now Ibrahim Afellay joins them. Afellay struggled with injury and lack of form for Barca, but if Hughes can get him fit his pace will be a major threat. Hughes has also added Marco van Ginkel to his ranks, and another top ten finish will be the target for the ambitious Welsh manager.

  1. Swansea – 8th last season – 6/4 for a top 10 finish

The Swans have been fairly quiet in the transfer market but the quality of their squad is there for all to see. Often lauded as playing the most attractive football in the league, Garry Monk’s side have added striker Eder to replace Wilfried Bony, with Andre Ayew another capable arrival up front. Swansea will be aiming for a Europa League spot but they may come up just short.

  1. Southampton – 7th last season – 40/1 to go unbeaten at home

Saints boss Ronald Koeman is a pragmatic coach, and he will realise that the club’s Europa League exploits will have an impact on their Premier League endeavours. The signing of Jordy Clasie is a massive coup for the south coast side, while the return to fitness of Jay Rodriguez will give Koeman a potent extra option up front, but overall their season might not hit the heights of last.

  1. Everton – 11th last season – 4/11 for a top 10 finish

Everton will expect a big improvement on last season when a taxing run in Europe impacted their Premier League ambitions. Romelu Lukaku scored just 10 PL goals last term and will aim for 15 this season, while the permanent signing of Gerard Deulofeu adds pace and creativity. Everton boast the best PL full-backs in Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, but Roberto Martinez’s best work has been to rebuff the overtures from Chelsea for centre-back John Stones.

  1. Spurs – 5th last season – 8/11 for a top 6 finish

White Hart Lane purred at the form of striker Harry Kane last season, but the goals dried up at the end as the strain of his first full PL season took hold. Kane’s challenge will be to sustain his goalscoring form throughout the campaign as Spurs push for a Europa League place and beyond. Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino has reinforced his defence with Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Tripper arriving, but will they plug the leakiest defence in the top ten last season?

  1. Liverpool – 6th last season – 4/7 for a top 5 finish

The spending at Anfield has risen to £300m under Brendan Rodgers’ stewardship, and now he must start producing results. Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke have arrived for £60m, but the club has departed with Raheem Sterling for £49m. Jordon Ibe seems like a ready-made replacement for Sterling, and this could be his breakthrough season. There is no doubting the quality of players at Liverpool, but is their manager holding them back?

  1. Manchester City – 2nd last season – 3/1 to win title

There is a stuttering around Man City’s form over the past 12 months that seems more serious than the club are willing to admit. Yaya Toure has gone off the boil and last season the squad’s average age was the highest in the league. A signing of massive intent was made with Sterling, and manager Manuel Pellegrini is hoping to add Kevin de Bruyne for a cool £60m as he looks to freshen up City’s midfield. Sergio Aguero may miss the start of the season but he will score 20 goals when fit, however, worryingly for City their defence is getting shakier and that could prove their downfall this term.

  1. Manchester United – 4th last season – 11/2 to win title

United announced their first signing – Memphis Depay for £31m – very early on and he has looked excellent in partnership with Wayne Rooney in pre-season. United’s signings have been eye-catching, with Bastian Schweinsteiger prised from Bayern Munich and Morgan Schneiderlin, Sergio Romero and Matteo Darmian following. Darmian looks the dark horse of the transfer window, as the Italian right-back tore teams apart at the World Cup and went relatively unnoticed. United have strengthened but their defence remains a concern and will end up costing them the league.

  1. Chelsea – reigning champions – 7/4 to win title

Jose Mourinho has been unusually calm in the transfer window, happy to sign players only when one leaves. Asmir Begovic is their only signing of note, but goalkeeping stalwart Petr Cech has left for Arsenal, which paved the way for Begovic to sign as competition to Thibault Courtois. The trouble for Chelsea lies up front this season. Diego Costa is injury and suspension prone, while Radamel Falcao has struggled desperately at Premier League level. Too much pressure could be placed on Eden Hazard for goals and that could mean Chelsea faltering in their title defence.

  1. Arsenal – 3rd last season – 4/1 to win title

This could be the year that all the talent finally translates into a Premier League title for Arsene Wenger and his squad. A midfield studded with jewels such as Aaron Ramsey, Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla is backed up by the energy of Francis Coquelin and Jack Wilshere. Up front, Theo Walcott is back from injury and Olivier Giroud will always score goals. Cech’s arrival boosts a defence marshalled by the impressive Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, while Hector Bellerin is the best young full-back in the league. Arsenal, more than any other team in the league, are capable of destroying teams at will and the presence of a world-class keeper in Cech will spread confidence throughout the team. Arsenal are champions in the making.

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2015 Ashes preview

The 2015 Ashes starts tomorrow in Cardiff as underdogs England look to claim their fourth successive home Ashes triumph and snatch the famous urn from holders Australia.

Given both teams’ recent form, the Aussies will win 5-0 and that will be all she wrote. Or will it?

With Australia packing plenty of pace into their attack, England can expect some short stuff but they will find the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc easier to play on England’s slower pitches.

Add the likely omission of star Ashes performer Peter Siddle from the visitors’ starting XI and England will be breathing a little easier.

Elsewhere, bookies odds of 2/5 for an Australia series victory look especially stingy given the historical Ashes records.

Of the 68 Ashes series, 32 have been won by Australia, while England have snared 31 winning four of the last six. It’s not a clear cut Australian win after all.

England

England’s situation has improved markedly since their 5-0 humiliation in the 2013-14 series.

There is continuity and renewed confidence amongst their batting line-up, with the long-vilified Alastair Cook returning to something near his best form in recent series against the West Indies and New Zealand.

Adam Lyth is his likeliest opening partner, while Joe Root has rapidly improved – he looks England’s most fluid runscorer at present.

England’s middle order is more fragile, Root aside, as Ian Bell and Gary Ballance have struggled for runs recently while Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Jos Buttler provide plenty of threat but little dependability.

The hosts have also reinforced their bowling unit, with ever-presents James Anderson and Stuart Broad leading a line which is bolstered by the express pace and steepling bounce of Mark Wood.

Wood is a tricky customer as not only do opposing batsmen have to contend with his 90mph snorters he also likes to vary the angle and length of his run-ups – tactics more commonly seen in shorter formats of the game.

Perhaps the main weakness of their attack is Moeen Ali, who has struggled to fill the spinning boots of Graeme Swann, often proving expensive. Ben Stokes will also concede many boundary balls but showed signs of greater control against New Zealand.

Australia

Arguably, the form of Steve Smith is Australia’s most potent weapon.

Since October, the right-hander has scored 1,226 runs at an average of 102.17, notching five centuries and five fifties.

His first-innings average of 89.64 places him second on the all-time list behind Don Bradman. England be wary.

Smith will almost certainly bat at three behind the aggression of opener David Warner, while Michael Clarke will provide formidable company at five provided he remains injury-free.

Australia coach Darren Lehmann also faces a tough decision over which wicketkeeper to pick.

The decline of Brad Haddin is well documented, but he consistently peaks for Ashes series and could fight off a strong claim to the gloves from Peter Nevill, who has been in good knick with the bat in Australia’s brief warm-up games.

Following on from a trend they set a decade ago, Australia bat deep into the line-up with the ability to transform scores of 150-7 into a 300+ score. Just ask the West Indies what that felt like a few months ago.

And, after the tail wags, the bowlers can rip through any batting line-up as Johnson, Starc and new recruit Josh Hazlewood get stuck in with the new cherry.

Like England, spin is their weakness with Nathan Lyon looking every bit as vulnerable as Moeen Ali amongst both sides’ star contingent of seamers.

So, the moral of this preview is not to believe the early predictions. Both sides look a match for each other but perhaps Australia carry the greater confidence into the series.

That could well translate into an early series lead, but can we write off England after their recent improvement? Definitely not.

This could be one doozy of an Ashes series.

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