The lowdown on BT Sport’s free weekend

As battles go, this was as one-sided as they come.

BT Sport certainly picked a good weekend to open up their channels to everyone in what they billed as their ‘free weekend’.

By comparison, their archrivals Sky Sports, the other protagonists in this war of the sport broadcasters, had a meek splattering of goods on offer for their customers – who at £60 per month are being stripped of £720 per year. That sum would be sufficient to buy a season ticket at most Premier League grounds.

Even so, for at least a decade Sky have held the throne as the Kings of all things sport in the UK, but this season the tide looks to be turning.

BT Sport have them worried, and why not?

They’re offering free viewing to all customers with BT Broadband and, for those without the broadband deal, a fee of just £12 per month to view 38 first-pick Premier League games, an array of top Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 matches, plus comprehensive coverage of the Aviva Premiership.

That’s just for starters. If you’re a self-confessed sport addict then BT Sport could prove to be the perfect place for you.

Allied to the sport mentioned above, there’s football action from the MLS, A-League and Brazilian top flight plus other bits and bobs such as tennis, UFC, Major League Baseball and a generous helping of some innovative, interactive and engaging panel shows – the best of which is fronted by Tim Lovejoy and Matt Dawson on a Saturday morning.

On Saturday, BT Sport trumped Sky with their coverage of Crystal Palace against Arsenal. They also delighted in showing Inter Milan’s entertaining 4-2 win over Verona, while there was also a very watchable 3-0 victory for Wolfsburg against Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga.

If Sky can’t match the variety of BT Sport, then they can certainly pack a big punch of their own with the most anticipated fixture in La Liga – El Clasico.

It was rather unfortunate for Sky then, that the match was under-par by El Clasico standards – a 2-1 win for Barcelona failed, judging by various social media outbursts, to get the pulse racing.

Gareth Bale was largely anonymous and Lionel Messi was overshadowed by Neymar. That said, the goals scored by Barcelona were of high quality, particularly Neymar’s opener in which he embarrassed two Real Madrid defenders before finding the net.

The fact that the match disappointed wasn’t Sky’s fault, but what is evident is that if you put all your eggs in one basket – as Sky have done with their lack of variety – then the occasional anti-climax will inevitably happen.

But Sky’s tonic to that frustration is their Formula One coverage, which this weekend encompassed Sebastian Vettel’s title-clinching victory in the Indian Grand Prix.

Sky also screened the fifth one day international between India vs. Australia – or would have done had play not been abandoned because of rain.

Aside from that, Sky had very little to offer last weekend. Various repeats were screened and events like the CIMB Classic golf tournament from Kuala Lumpur did little to wrestle the attention away from BT Sport.

Sunday was slightly better for Sky, with the Tyne and Wear derby preceding the clash between Chelsea and Manchester City – once again their ability to show the top football matches in the Premier League proved the main draw to their coverage.

The second NFL London game between the Jaguars and the 49ers was also available to Sky customers, but they lost out on millions of spectators as it was also on offer to terrestrial viewers over on Channel 4, who have maintained their growing grasp on the sport in this country.

It was, at this point on Sunday teatime, as if BT Sport had their opponents on the ropes. It wasn’t long before they delivered a final blow.

France’s two cash-rich clubs, Monaco and PSG, kicked off one after the other – enabling viewers to gorge themselves on Ligue 1 action that is quickly being elevated to a higher level thanks to players such as Monaco’s Radamel Falcao and PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If that wasn’t enough, then a brilliant panel show featuring top football journalists from France, Italy and Germany, presented by the insuperable James Richardson, gave viewers a comprehensive and informative round-up of the best Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 action.

In critical terms, Sky’s service to sport fans has been bettered by BT Sport – and by some way.

The diehard Premier League fans will always flock to Sky, but BT Sport are slowly cranking up the pressure in that department as they bid to show more and more games per season.

Then there is the issue of costing. Would you pay £60 per month for Sky or £12 per month for BT Sport? True, Sky will have autumn international rugby Tests and the Ashes coming up soon, but when they’re all done and the viewers are sat down in February, what else is there to watch?

BT Sport will always be there with a good variety of sport, and it’s a strategy which is intrinsic to their quest to surpass Sky as the country’s leading sports broadcaster.

On the evidence of the last weekend at least, BT Sport have won the battle. Give them a few more years and they may well have won the broadcasting war.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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Can Manchester United be regarded as a ‘big club’ any more?

It may not seem obvious at first glance, but the roots of decline at Old Trafford have been growing for several seasons now. That they have been simultaneously camouflaged by a series of poor performances from many of their title rivals has helped them immeasurably.

But on May 8 this year, United’s manager – their great pillar of stability and trophy-winning continuity – Sir Alex Ferguson retired. David Moyes was swiftly announced as his successor, and it hasn’t taken long for the vultures to circle ominously above this once fearsome club.

Ferguson’s absence has exposed United’s decaying inner core – quite the opposite to innumerable suggestions that he had left the club in rude health following a record-breaking twentieth league title.

Moyes has acceded to a creaking throne which is in need of some refurbishment. One such issue within the club is the unfortunate loss of three promising young players who are now flourishing at their new clubs.

Serbian winger Zoran Tosic left the club almost as quickly as he came. Bought for £7m in 2009 he made just two appearances for United. His slight frame was deemed too diminutive for the physical pressures of the Premier League and he was sold to CSKA Moscow for £8m – where he has since scored at a rate of one goal every five games.

Even more surprising was the club’s inability to tie down Paul Pogba to a long-term contract. The young Frenchman, who United had so controversially ‘poached’ from Le Havre as a 16-year-old was starved of opportunities at United and when Juventus registered their interest he never looked back.

The pain United must have felt last season when Pogba enjoyed a breakthrough year for club and country would have been considerable as the Frenchman had long been identified as the type of player to replace Owen Hargreaves in the long-term.

More startling though, is their refusal to exercise a buying option on Tosic’s compatriot Adem Ljajic. The young Serbian also performed superbly last season in Serie A, scoring 11 goals in 28 games for Fiorentina, who showed no such disregard for Ljajic’s potential.

Ljajic has been heavily linked with a big-money move to AC Milan this summer and it is not hard to see why – unless you’re United, that is.

Infact, United’s impotence in the transfer market has long been a problem. They can only count Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie as true world-class signings since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

It is an affliction that has spread to Moyes’ reign as manager – a point exemplified by United’s failure to sign midfielders Thiago Alcantara, Kevin Strootman and now, in all likelihood, Cesc Fabregas.

United have also been scuppered in a bid to sign Leighton Baines from Everton for £12m. Also, at the time of writing, the Twittersphere had been chirping with rumours of an impending bid for Baines’ clubmate Marouane Fellaini.

Quite how Fellaini will feel about being a fourth-choice transfer target remains to be seen but Moyes’ desire to make a high-profile midfielder his marquee signing is clear.

Could it be that United’s international appeal amongst the top-name footballers is on the wane? That type of appeal appears to be in direct opposition to the surge in popularity of the club as a brand and business, with profits steadily eating into the steep pile of debt created by the Glazer family’s takeover of the club in 2005.

Part of the problem in attracting the best players in world football has been United’s form in European competition. In the 2011/12 season, United were ignominiously dumped out of the Champions League in the group stages, and then comprehensively outclassed by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.

All this embarrassment followed a Champions League final loss to Barcelona in 2011, their second such defeat to the Spaniards in the space of three seasons.

Their playing style has also changed, in line with a change in world football. Gone is the swashbuckling, all out counter-attacking of the early 2000s. A more measured, precise passing game with an emphasis on spreading play out to the wings has since taken hold.

Critics had called it more conservative, but in the current climate United would have been torn apart had they not adapted their game – something Ferguson famously addressed with his fondness for a fluid 4-5-1 in defence, which morphed into a 4-3-3 in attack.

It had also seemed that United were without a playmaker until the signing of Shinji Kagawa last season, but even then he was used sparingly in a debut season blighted by injuries. He should be the answer to Moyes’ search for a central midfielder, and his preferred position – in a more advanced midfield role – will provide Moyes with flexibility in that area of the pitch.

Added to the concern of a lack of signings this summer is Wayne Rooney’s apparent desire to leave Old Trafford. Chelsea, led by the returning Jose Mourinho, have failed in two bids for the England striker, and it seems that a fee of around £35m will be enough for United to consider selling.

Moyes, for the moment, remains committed to the idea of keeping Rooney at the club, despite his admission that van Persie was ahead in the pecking order at the moment.

If Rooney was to leave, his departure would give a chance to three exciting understudies – Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Angelo Henriquez.

The trio are destined to become the heart of United’s forward line in the future, and will be given their opportunities by a manager who, like Ferguson, is keen on blooding young talent.

United’s poor pre-season form – they have only registered two wins in six games against limited opposition – will also concern Moyes. That said, he has given a number of chances to exciting talents Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha, who look ready to make the step up into regular first action.

Lingard has been arguably the most impressive, scoring four times in four games during the club’s pre-season tour of Asia.

So, while United have recently struggled to compete with clubs like PSG and Monaco in the transfer market, it seems that there is no need to buy big when the conveyor belt of talent is bringing along players of Lingard’s and Januzaj’s quality.

In that respect, Moyes has the chance to emulate Ferguson and manage a team full of exciting young players, building the club into a feared standing once again.

For the moment though, United are not as feared in playing terms as they used to be. And while they are still a big club they are not as big as they once were, and it may take time to reassemble the towering presence in world football that they constructed for themselves throughout the 2000s.

Is Ferrari’s legendary reputation in Formula One fully merited?

Ferrari. The name synonymous with the scintillating sport of Formula One. For many fans their existence on the grid is reason alone to watch one of the world’s most exciting sports. Having been an integral and prominent constructor from the very first World Championship in 1950, and the only one to have featured in every season since its inception, few people could doubt how important Ferrari is to both the history of the sport and indeed its future.

Yet, when you deeply examine the history of the sport, including drivers’ titles and constructors, some cracks begin to appear in the revered standing of the famous Italian marque.

Starting at the very beginning of Formula One history, Ferrari were immediately a big team and were always challenging for wins and podiums. Alfa Romeo, however, dominated the first two seasons in 1950 and 1951 with Giuseppe Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio respectively. Alfa subsequently pulled out of the sport and a major change of rules for the 1952 season to Formula Two specification was designed to avoid a Ferrari landslide. That failed dramatically.

For the next two seasons Ferrari, who had a successful Formula Two setup prior to the rule change, won the title with the legendary Alberto Ascari. They dominated in ’52 and ’53 with Ascari winning all six races he entered in ’52 and winning a further five in ’53.

Ferrari would not have it all their own way in 1954, however, as the emergence of Mercedes as a powerhouse and Ascari’s switch to Lancia for financial reward saw them beaten to the title. Ascari had endured a frustrating season that year, waiting for Lancia to get their car ready in time, and he would not be able to defend his title, instead watching Fangio race to his second world crown.

The following year was a horrific season for the sport, and one which still resonates to this day. At the Monaco Grand Prix, Ascari crashed his Lancia into the harbour and escaped with minor injuries. Just four days later, in a testing accident at Monza, he died. It is known that Ascari drove in that test without a helmet, although the exact cause of the crash which killed him will never be known.

Ascari’s death came in the same year as the Le Mans 24 Hours tragedy in which 80 people died. It was a dark year for motorsport, and too dark for some. Mercedes withdrew from racing altogether whilst Gianni Lancia, who was close friends with Ascari, was so distraught at his death that he signed his entire team over to Ferrari. This was to be a significant move.

The Lancia’s had been widely tipped as title-winners in 1956 with their innovative design and super-quick performance. Such was Ferrari’s confidence in them they entered Lancia’s cars under their name and ‘Prancing Horse’ logo and won the title with Fangio.

Fangio left them the following season for Maserati where he won his fifth and last title and Ferrari retaliated by signing British driver Mike Hawthorn in 1958. His team-mate, Peter Collins, also British, died in a crash at the infamously dangerous Nürburgring and, after Hawthorn won the title for Ferrari, he quit before tragically dying in a road accident a short time after.

Ferrari’s progress went into remission over the next few seasons as they were overhauled by a number of new and fast British constructors with a more powerful rear engine configuration. They would not win the title again until 1961 when new 1.5 litre engine regulations were introduced. USA driver Phil Hill won the title, but only after more tragedy when German driver, and championship leader, Wolfgang von Trips, died in a crash at the steep-banked Monza.

In 1962, Enzo Ferrari’s staff walked out on him and he was forced to enter old cars into the championship. It was an unmitigated disaster for the team as the British constructors continued to improve and the Italian giants were soundly beaten.

Ferrari owed much to the emerging talent of John Surtees in 1964 when they took both the drivers and constructors titles. Surtees became the first man to win the World Championship on two wheels and four wheels, having previously been a motorcycling World Champion.

The British teams had gathered strength though and Lotus, led by the ambitious Colin Chapman, were chief architects of Ferrari’s downfall with their revolutionary cars which put speed before safety. Other British teams, in the shape of Brabham and Tyrrell, played their part in dominating the next decade of racing and it was only in 1975, eleven years after their last title, that Ferrari next tasted success with the Austrian driver Niki Lauda.

Lauda was to suffer horrific burns in a crash at the Nürburgring during the 1976 season and, despite making an astounding comeback just six weeks later, lost the title to McLaren’s James Hunt in the final GP of the season at Suzuka. Ferrari did win the constructors title though and, in 1977, despite not having the best season, Lauda regained the title for Ferrari in a triumph of consistency over speed.

Lauda then left for Brabham after being replaced by Gilles Villeneuve, a quick young French-Canadian. Villeneuve enjoyed a popular status amongst fans for his driving style and, although he never won a title, was considered to be a Ferrari legend.

Jody Scheckter, a highly-regarded South African driver, was signed to partner him and pipped Villeneuve to the 1979 title in a double-triumph for Ferrari who had comfortably sealed the constructors’ title in the same year.

The subsequent 1980 season was perhaps one of Ferrari’s worst ever. They lost ground in the continuously evolving race for development and came tenth in the constructors’ title having scored just eight points.

Ferrari would not win another drivers title until 2000, after 21 years of being ruled over by the dominant McLaren and Williams teams. They did manage three constructors’ titles in that barren period, but they were not enough for a team of Ferrari’s wealth and ambition.

Their luck started to change in 1999, when they built a seriously competitive car for double world champion Michael Schumacher to drive. But, when he broke his leg in a crash at Silverstone, McLaren driver Mika Hakkinen won the title ahead of Schumacher’s team-mate Eddie Irvine.

Schumacher would have his day though, going on to win five consecutive drivers and six constructors crowns with the dominant Italian team as years of frustration in their pursuit of glory were washed away triumphantly – almost as easily as they brushed aside the competition.

French manufacturer Renault then halted the Italian charge, winning back-to-back titles with Fernando Alonso before Kimi Raikkonen stole the title at the last GP of the 2007 season in Brazil from McLaren to give Ferrari their sixth ‘double title’ of a distinctly red-liveried decade.

Since then, Ferrari have only won a solitary constructors title in 2008 (although it was their seventh of the decade) and have hampered themselves with a succession of complex and ambitious, yet fruitless, car designs as they continue their passionate quest for success in Formula One.

So, having looked at the highs and lows of Ferrari’s participation in Formula One, it has to be said that not only do they deserve their reputation in the sport as a result of their colourful and captivating history, but also on the basis of their achievements within the sport.

Although they have been massively inconsistent, with periods of domination often followed by unprofitable and hapless spells of drought, they were always searching for wins and success – winning was their vocabulary, their language. Their fifteen drivers titles and sixteen constructors titles may not statistically carry a better win percentage than other famous teams like Williams and McLaren, who have not been involved in the sport since its inauguration, but the sheer scale of contribution to the sport that Ferrari has been responsible for is, perhaps, immeasurable.

Ferrari’s intrinsic value to F1 is incalculable and there is a magnetic love for them across the world which illustrates just how significant and resounding their impact has been throughout the 62 seasons that Formula One has spanned. Historically they are priceless and their success is unrivalled. They are Formula One royalty – the very embodiment of the sport – and their legendary reputation is unquestionably deserved.