5 sports stars who retired too soon

Put yourself in the mind of a sport star.

You’re midway through your career, still competitive, maybe even at the top of your game. But you suddenly decide to retire. Has it all become too much? Are injuries taking their toll? Do you miss family time? Have you lost interest in the sport you’ve competed in all your life?

These are all reasons that sport stars have given for what has been deemed a ‘premature’ retirement.

The trouble is, some of the sportsmen and women that have retired ‘too early’ were sporting mega stars.

So, who are arguably the five biggest sporting stars to have retired with plenty of gas left in the tank?

  1. Björn Borg – Tennis – retired aged 26

Seventies heartthrob. Winner of 11 Grand Slam titles. Bjorn Borg had it all going for him when he retired in 1983. Borg had a superb career, particularly on grass and clay, winning the French Open six times and Wimbledon five, including a four-year domination at Roland Garros from 1978-81.

Borg was also the first tennis player to earn more than $1m in a year. So why quit?

Simply, the attention his success earned also proved to be his downfall. He was fed up with the demands on his time from sponsors and media and decided to give it all up.

Eight years after his retirement he made a calamitous comeback when failing to win a single match between 1991 and 1993 before he halted his career for the second time.

Borg can still sleep easy though. He remains fifth on the all-time list of Grand Slam winners and has a successful fashion chain in his native Sweden.

  1. Casey Stoner – MotoGP – retired aged 27

When people think of MotoGP legends, most think of Valentino Rossi, few of Casey Stoner. Maybe that’s because the Australian quit the sport with so much more to give.

Stoner’s ability on the fastest motorbikes on the planet was incalculable. He routinely made a lumbering Ducati compete against the faster Yamaha and Honda machines in the late noughties and took his first title in 2007.

His prowess on the misbehaving Ducati led many to realise just how special a rider he was but he soon grew frustrated, leaving for Honda in 2011 and winning his second title after taking victories in 10 of the 17 races.

Midway through the 2012 season Stoner announced his retirement from MotoGP, citing a lack of family time, annoyance with political issues within the sport and a decreasing enjoyment of riding.

Stoner, who won his home race at Phillip Island six consecutive times, had been testing with Honda up to 2016 and has now switched to Ducati. Could a full-time return in 2017 be on the cards?

  1. Justine Henin – Tennis – retired aged 25

Despite her diminutive appearance Justine Henin was a heavyweight in women’s tennis.

Her distinctive cries of “Allez!” at Roland Garros became her trademark as she claimed four French Open titles in her career tally of seven Grand Slams.

But, in 2008, when ranked world number one, Henin announced her shock departure from tennis, enabling her to feel less burden of expectation and to concentrate on other projects such as her tennis school.

However, her retirement ended just 19 months after it began as she returned to competition at the Brisbane International in preparation for the Australian Open.

Chasing a career Grand Slam at Wimbledon, Henin fractured her elbow after slipping and didn’t play again in 2010. A brief pre-season in 2011 was unsuccessful after aggravating her elbow and she retired again aged 28.

Henin continues to run her academy and is an ambassador for UNICEF post-career.

  1. Carolina Klüft – Athletics – retired aged 29

The second Swede on this list, Carolina Klüft was the queen of athletics when she decided to switch disciplines, ditching the heptathlon to concentrate on the long jump.

Undoubtedly, in many people’s eyes, she retired from the heptathlon too soon. Citing a lack of motivation, Klüft stepped away aged 25.

The news came as a huge shock, with Klüft dominating her event in the noughties by claiming one Olympic and three consecutive world championship golds.

When she did solely focus on the long jump, she struggled to make an impact and could only manage ninth in the Beijing Olympic final.

Injuries played their part in Klüft’s eventual retirement from the sport. She had suffered a bad hamstring injury in 2009 and wasn’t the same athlete post recovery, often claiming her legs had lost their spring.

In hindsight it’s easy to suggest that she could have continued with the heptathlon for several more years but, had she succeeded in her long jump career, perhaps she wouldn’t have featured on this list.

  1. Miguel Indurain – Cycling – retired aged 32

Known as ‘Big Mig’, Miguel Indurain will go down as one of the greatest riders ever to have competed.

His palmares – list of achievements – includes five consecutive Tour de France wins from 1991-95, including two Giro d’Italia-Tour doubles in 1992 and 1993.

He also won Olympic and world gold in the time-trial and took to the podium three times in the world road race.

However, with a lucrative two-year contract on the table, he decided to quit the sport aged 32 despite being in good enough condition to win a sixth Tour.

Indurain claimed this was due to the sport getting harder and harder for him but, compared to other professional cyclists, he could at least have seen out the contract he was offered and potentially have won the Tour twice more.

Sceptics have claimed his retirement just before the era of doping came to prominence was particularly suspect, but the Spaniard has never tested positive and his legendary results remain intact.

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

2016 F1 season preview

Anyone fancy a bit of Hamilton vs. Rosberg, or Mercedes vs. Ferrari?

Yes, the new F1 season is upon us almost as soon as the 2015 season ended.

After a couple of pre-season tests in Barcelona the teams have packed up and flown to Australia for the first race of the 2016 campaign.

But, easily the biggest question that has circulated the paddock over the winter surrounds the improvement of Ferrari – can they beat Mercedes to the championship title?

Are Ferrari catching Mercedes?

Pre-season testing indicated little in the way of outright pace, headline times were unreliable and there were different teams using different tyres, engine maps, fuel loads etc.

Even so, some number crunchers have concluded that Ferrari may have edged a little closer to their German rivals.

Mercedes are predicted to continue their dominance but if Ferrari have closed the gap, hiding their pace in testing, it presents a very attractive scenario for the season.

F1 has been starved of a two-team title battle for the past three seasons. Not since the infamous Vettel/Alonso scrap in 2012 have two drivers from two separate teams been contesting the title until the last race.

Naturally, the sub-plot to Mercedes’ superiority is the decline in attendances at some races and, worryingly, falling television audiences.

That Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have been virtually untouchable during the hybrid era has been the final straw for some fans who are either upset at astronomical raceday tickets or the rising cost of pay-to-view television.

So, do Ferrari have more than their reputation on the line? Is their challenge of Mercedes vital to the future of the sport? With every passing race it certainly seems that way.

The answers will begin to become apparent when the 2016 season is established and we know where all the teams stand.

Grid hierarchy

It definitely appears as if Mercedes and Ferrari are the top dogs, while Williams may just be at the head of a tight-looking midfield involving Red Bull, Force India and Toro Rosso – who have switched to 2015 Ferrari power-units this season.

Much of the spotlight will be on the latter’s Max Verstappen, who had a rookie season to remember last year.

Then there is McLaren, who have been encouraged by the news that Honda have fixed their ERS deployment issues, gaining the team multiple tenths of a second per lap.

Can they mix it with the four midfielders?

It’s widely expected that American newcomers Haas may struggle while they sort inevitable teething problems out, but they have decent pace and should be aiming for the occasional points finish with Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez at the wheel.

Renault might be fighting with McLaren, while Sauber will have to beat off competition from the revamped Manor team who are hoping to rid themselves of the perennial backmarker tag.

New rules

Over the winter F1 rushed to get qualifying updated to a new elimination format. The system is similar to track cycling’s elimination race where the slowest competitor is eliminated after a given period.

Q1 will last 16 minutes, with elimination beginning in the final minutes and seeing one driver omitted every 90 seconds until seven are gone.

Q2 is 15 minutes with the same system, while Q3 sees the top eight places decided in a 14-minute shootout.

The tyre rules have also been given a shake-up, with Pirelli adding a new purple-walled ultra-soft compound to the mix alongside the new rule that allows teams and drivers to pick their tyres from the three slick compounds Pirelli will bring to each race.

Theoretically this could see Hamilton on medium tyres being chased down by Rosberg and Vettel on super-softs – which is exactly the type of exciting scenario F1 bosses intended to craft.

Strict new radio rules also come into force in 2016, meaning drivers will have to think problems out without the help and guidance of their race engineers.

So, it’s an F1 season with some good racing ahead of it. Have Ferrari closed the gap to Mercedes or will it be Hamilton against Rosberg for the third successive year?

Stay glued to your screens to find out.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 or 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.

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

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.

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

2015 Tour de France preview: Big four set to do battle

The 2015 Tour de France begins on Saturday in Holland as cycling’s ‘big four’ start their hugely-anticipated fight for the most coveted Grand Tour of the season.

Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali will be up against 2013 winner Chris Froome, 2013 runner-up Nairo Quintana and two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador.

This elite quartet only face one another on very rare occasions, so to have each of them prepared for a tilt at the General Classification victory is a mouthwatering prospect.

The contenders

As the reigning champion, Nibali arguably has the most to lose. The cycling community is under no illusions that his eight-minute win in the Tour last year was significantly enhanced by mid-Tour injuries to Froome and Contador.

Nibali has also been labelled as the weakest of the quartet, but having won all three Grand Tours this is a grossly unfair tag to pin on him.

Early indicators on a likely victor are swayed slightly by June’s week-long Criterium du Dauphine.

Froome came away as the stronger rider after being given a big scare by Tejay van Garderen, who is showing signs of delivering the big Tour performance his talent demands.

Nibali played a very tactical race, pushing no further than he wanted and attacking on a wet stage to briefly take the yellow jersey before losing it on another mountainous stage.

Contador and Quintana elected to race the Route du Sud and Contador, fresh from his Giro d’Italia win, narrowly beat the Colombian to boost his hopes of a Giro-Tour double.

If Contador did manage to win in Paris on the 26th July he would become the first rider since the late Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve the Giro-Tour brace.

For the mysterious Quintana, this is an opportunity to scare his closest rivals.

The diminutive Colombian has been training at home in the Andes and has picked his races very precisely. His massive accelerations are perhaps the strongest on the roster and he will be backed by his sneaky and astute Movistar team.

In many people’s opinion, Quintana is the favourite for the Tour with Froome a very close second.

Froome’s playground of the time-trial has been reduced, with the opening 13.8km TT and the team TT on stage nine the only chances to gain GC time against the clock.

His Dauphine win suggests he is in the ideal place to step up his Tour preparations and he won’t fear Quintana having left him for dead on the legendary Mont Ventoux ascent in 2013.

The Stages

The first stage in Utrecht is too long to be called a prologue, but the tiny distance will still favour the specialist time-triallers with Tom Dumoulin hoping to become the first Dutchman for over 20 years to wear the maillot jaune.

A tricky stage two takes place along the coast of the Netherlands, with crosswinds set to tear the race apart.

Stage three will traverse the Mur-de-Huy with gradients of 19%, before a brutal day over the cobblestones on stage four will undoubtedly separate the GC contenders.

From there, the sprinters will contest three flat stages before the race ramps upwards on stage eight and the opening week finishes with the intriguing team time-trial.

The second week looks horrendous, with the first summit finish on the ‘Hors categorie’ Col de Soudet on stage ten starting a run of imperious Pyrenean stages that will provide the perfect battleground for the big four.

Stage 11 features six categorised climbs and will pass over the highest point of the race – the Col du Tourmalet – which tops out at 2,115m.

If those two Pyrenean beauties weren’t enough, the last of them features two category one climbs and a final slog up the Hors categorie climb to Plateau de Beille.

The race then takes a breather before rolling over a stage featured in the Dauphine, a testing trip to Pra Loup, with a technical descent deep into the stage that could spell carnage.

The riders will definitely know they’re in the Alps when they hit the next stage, with seven categorised climbs.

Stage 19 is the penultimate mountain stage, but features over 70km of climbing before the queen stage, which finishes atop the classic Alpe d’Huez.

ASO, the Tour organisers, are hoping the winning move will be made on the slopes of that famous mountain, and it would certainly be spectacular if those hopes came true.

The Brits

A big British contingent will grace the Tour this year, with ten riders taking the start. Five of them ride for Team Sky – Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Peter Kennaugh and Luke Rowe – while Mark Cavendish, Alex Dowsett, Adam Yates, Simon Yates and Steve Cummings complete the line-up.

Realistically, Froome will be the Brit with the most to gain. His British team-mates will be riding in full support for him and, unless anything happens to their leader, they won’t chase stage wins.

Cavendish will naturally be a threat on the sprint stages and he needs three more victories to equal the great Bernard Hinault on 28 stage wins and move joint-second on the all-time list behind Eddy Merckx.

Look out for the Yates brothers too, who have been given the licence by their team Orica GreenEdge to hunt for stage wins. Simon also finished an impressive fifth in the Dauphine and could sneak into the top three young riders overall.

The jerseys

The yellow jersey is almost certainly an exclusive battle between the big four, but van Garderen has enough about him to keep pace with them – just how much of a challenge he puts up is unknown, but his Dauphine exploits mean he cannot be ruled out.

Nor can French duo Thibault Pinot and Romain Bardet, who are leading home hopes again and who will keep improving as France searches for a first home-grown Tour winner in 30 years.

The white jersey, given to the best young rider, will almost certainly go to Nairo Quintana, as will the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey if he cannot claim yellow.

The green jersey, given to the best sprinter, is going to be a fight between Peter Sagan and Alexander Kristoff, but with more points on offer for flat stage wins, don’t discount Cavendish.

A la Cartè

Some interesting little additions have been made to the Tour this year, with time bonuses of ten, six and four seconds available to the first three finishers on stages two to eight.

The 2015 Tour will also see the first African-based team compete. MTN Qhubeka have long been competing in and around the World Tour, but this is their first full season on the books and they will look to make a big impact with Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot going in search of a stage win and possibly the polka dot jersey.

But the sub-plots, for once, are just that as the big-four showdown finally happens.

Cycling fans have waited for years for a GC line-up as massive as this, and it has now come to pass.

Let’s hope the racing lives up to the hype.

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

My Day at Wimbledon 2015

You can’t help but feel particularly British when you go to Wimbledon.

Is it the tradition? Maybe the strawberries and cream? It definitely wasn’t the weather, which was well above 30C on day two of the 2015 championships.

Perhaps the most quintessentially British thing we did on the day was to queue, and there was a lot to do.

Arriving in good time for a grounds admission ticket at 07:30 we were flabbergasted to see the grounds already at capacity with our queue card informing us we were 8,702nd and 8,703rd in what Wimbledon terms ‘The Queue’.

We faced an eight hour wait. We were not amused. All of this while the sun was frazzling our necks, arms and faces and getting hotter all the time.

Our spirits were lifted while in The Queue by people offering free coffee, water and squash – very welcome in the heat where shade was at a premium.

There were even paper boys and girls trying to shift copies of the Guardian and Telegraph, complete with free gift. It’s fair to say they were flogging a dead horse. It would have been more popular if that gift was a ticket to end the misery of waiting.

Still, with honorary stewards telling us we wouldn’t get in until five or six o’clock, we were delighted to make it in by half-past three, with eight hours of queuing behind us and a generous six hours of play still to go.

Once inside it’s amazing to see how compact the outer courts are.

We first set eyes on Ajla Tomljanovic against Klara Koukalova, but just yards away Jelena Jankovic was capturing a large crowd on court 17.

On our way to watching Andy Murray on Murray Mount (or should that be Henman Hill?) we even had time to glimpse Ernests Gulbis playing Lukas Rosol.

Trying to get a seat on said Mount (or Hill) was tough, with security quickly preventing anyone from lurking on a walkway. Eventually, we found a rare piece of SW19 real estate to park ourselves on and we settled down to enjoy Murray’s game on the big screen along with thousands of others.

After that we watched an entertaining men’s doubles match on court four before investing the last part of our day on court three with Madison Keys taking on Stefanie Voegele.

This was the pick of the matches we saw as Voegele took the first set before Keys staged a fightback to level at one set apiece.

With Keys hitting some beautiful winners in the setting sun it was surprising when she complained about the light at ten-past nine when she had just levelled at 2-2 in the third.

Voegele wasn’t best pleased, understandably, but the tactic paid off for Keys as she won through earlier today.

So, after a combination of sun, lots of queuing and finally some wonderful tennis everything turned out fine.

Maybe we’ll camp next year, though.

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

2015 Giro d’Italia preview

Normally, a Giro d’Italia would attract a good selection of the biggest names in cycling. This year, however, they all seem to be concentrating on a particularly inviting Tour de France.

That leaves Alberto Contador as the red-hot favourite to secure his second Giro triumph and take home the famous maglia rosa.

Take nothing as read, though. Contador has had an unspectacular start to the season and has been beaten by the likes of Italy’s Fabio Aru and Colombian rider Rigoberto Uran already this campaign, and the three of them will again face each other in the first Grand Tour of the year.

The contenders                                                                                

Contador, Aru and Uran are exceptional climbers. Spain’s Contador is the class act of them all, and his time-trialling is still good enough to put time into his General Classification rivals.

In Uran, Contador faces the biggest threat to his hopes of a seventh Grand Tour victory.

The Etixx-Quick Step leader has improved significantly in recent seasons and finished second behind compatriot Nairo Quintana in the 2014 Giro.

Aru, who claimed third place in 2014, is also a big danger but his time-trialling lets him down. This aspect of the race is especially important in 2015 because there is a gigantic 59.4km time trial at the end of the second week.

Aside from that trio, an unexpected wildcard has thrown himself into the mix.

Ilnur Zakarin, who has served a two-year ban for doping, leapt to the attention of the cycling world last week when he won the Tour de Romandie, beating Grand Tour winners Chris Froome and Quintana in the process.

The 25-year-old Russian has lost 10kg of weight since his ban to strip down to GC material and possesses a nifty time-trial – even giving former TT world champion Tony Martin a severe scare at the Romandie.

Whether Zakarin can challenge for the duration of the epic 3,486km journey from Liguria to Milan remains to be seen, but he will be a marked man – both by riders and a doping-obsessed media.

Readers may also be confused as to why Richie Porte doesn’t feature as a contender.

He has been guilty of some shocking collapses in Grand Tours in recent years, falling off the pace on innocuous climbs when tasked with being Chris Froome’s wingman.

The Australian has a lot to prove and must rebuild his reputation with a solid Giro performance.

The sprinters

With big-name sprinters Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish not contesting the Giro, the muscular presence of Andre Greipel is favourite to claim the red sprinter’s jersey – or points jersey.

Greipel and his fellow sprinters will find the parcours difficult, with only three officially flat stages to battle for.

That suggests the hilly route of the Giro could favour a punchier rider, with early favourites for stage wins being Australia’s Michael Matthews and classics specialist Tom Boonen.

Other sprinters including Team Sky’s Elia Viviani and Movistar’s Juan Jose Lobato will be looking to minesweep the peloton for lead-out trains as the bulk of their teams protect GC riders.

The Brits

Disappointingly for British cycling fans there is not a single British rider in the 2015 Giro. Team Sky, the usual proponents of British riders, seem to be massing their star Brits for a tilt at the Tour de France, with Froome, Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh and Ian Stannard all set to feature.

Team Sky have thrown their weight behind Aussie Richie Porte for the Giro, and he can count on support from workhorses Vasil Kiryienka and Bernie Eisel before super-domestiques Leopold Konig and Mikel Nieve chaperone him through the Dolomites.

The fun zones

In usual Giro fashion, the lovely organisers have schemed a brutal route across Italy.

The 21 stages include a mammoth 264km trip on stage seven, a 236km in mountainous roads on stage 19, and the harsh 59.4km TT chucked in for good measure.

No less than six summit finishes adorn the Giro this year, with the queen stage being the long slog to Sestriere, featuring an ascent of the Colle delle Finestre, the last half of which is raced over gravel – making the quest for forward momentum that little bit more difficult.

All things considered, Contador is rightly the favourite for Giro glory. His Tinkoff-Saxo team is arguably the strongest in the race and he will have Roman Kreuziger, Michael Rogers and Ivan Basso at his disposal for the mountains.

The Spaniard’s going to take some beating.

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