Friday, 30 April 2010

No Longer One 'F' In Fulham

By Shane Thomas

While Jose Mourinho and his Inter Milan side were providing the answer to the question 'How do you solve a problem like Lionel Messi' on Wednesday, it wasn't until the following evening that one of football's most extraordinary stories was taking place.

If the Champions League is UEFA's golden boy, then the Europa League is its unwanted step-child. The embarrassing one that is always a disappointment to its parents. Stuck in the backwater of Thursday evenings, it is a competition that is becoming increasingly devalued, all the while the format being tinkered with and dressed up to regain its lost credibility. You can almost hear UEFA's executive body desperately entreating, "Why can't you be more like your brother? Everyone loves the Champions League"!

With England's finest being sent packing from the Champions League before the semi-final stage, the eyes of the UK turned to the Europa League for our ego-boosting attempts at European superiority. While Liverpool were looking to salvage their season against Atletico Madrid, Fulham were up against the German side Hamburg. While those in Britain were hoping for a double English success, a betting sort would probably have put their money on Liverpool.

Liverpool had to turn around a one goal deficit from the first-leg in Madrid. But Liverpool have made a habit of overcoming adversity in Europe, particularly when they get teams back to their home ground of Anfield. It's become cliche to say that the legendary Kop End is worth a goal in itself.

Fulham on the other hand, have been pulling up trees in the Europa League this season. They, unlike Liverpool, started their campaign back in July, and have eliminated many of Europe's bigger names on the way to the semis. The holders Shakhtar Donestsk were not only beaten, but beaten comprehensively, and when the Italian giants Juventus came to town, Fulham were four goals in arrears. Against a team who hail from a country where conceding goals in regarded as an insult, Fulham confounded all logic by scoring the four goals needed and sending the grand old lady of Italian football back to Turin in ignominy.

But if Fulham wanted to get to the final they would have a tough assignment against Hamburg. After a 0-0 draw in Germany last week, their failure to score meant that the West Londoners were vulnerable to conceding an away goal. If the goal is sport's most highly prized currency, then the away goal (which counts for double in the event of a draw) is like a winning lottery ticket. And after 29 minutes, Hamburg scored one. A ferociously struck free-kick from the Croatian, Mladen Petric (a name that will forever haunt Steve McLaren) sailing into the top corner of Mark Schwarzer's net.

As the whistle went for half-time, Fulham were being outplayed, their crowd were growing ever more pensive, they needed to score twice, and it was patently obvious to all that their key striker, Booby Zamora was nowhere near fit enough to make the difference. Zamora was soon taken off as his achilles injury flared up to the extent where he could barely run at half pace.

Hamburg looked to be blazing an inexorable path to the final, which takes place in Hamburg's very own stadium. It seemed that the story of the night would be a victory and homecoming for the German side, winning the Europa League in front of their fans, and saving a season that has descended into severe underachievement - Hamburg have had a dreadful season in the Bundesliga and fired their manager only four days before yesterday's match.

At times like this in sport a spark is needed, something to galvanise and inspire belief. Be it a bit of skill to score a goal, a right hook that puts your opponent on the canvas or a home run with bases loaded in the 9th inning. A moment of inspiration can take the expected destination of victory and dramatically change its course.

Fulham got their spark. Simon Davies running on to a Danny Murphy pass in the penalty area. The great Pele said that the most important touch in football is the first one. That was illustrated beautifully by Davies, as Murphy's pass was slightly behind his body at waist height. Davies flicked out his right foot and took the pace off the ball with a sumptuous touch. With the ball now under the Welshman's control he then turned inside Guy Demel before placing the ball past Frank Rost.

The spark arrived, the touch paper was lit, and Fulham scored the pivotal second goal six minutes later. Zoltan Gera reacting sharpest to a loose ball after a Fulham corner and keeping his composure to score from close range.

While the Europa League is Europe's second-tier club competition, the incredible nature of this story cannot be understated. It was not so long ago that Fulham were in danger of dropping out of the Football League, playing against sides of part-time footballers. Two years ago, they were minutes away from being relegated from the Premier League. What their manager Roy Hodgson has done in that time is remarkable. The club have never reached these heights before, and in my opinion, never will again. For a club like Fulham to be one game away from winning a major European title is fairy-tale stuff.

Remember what I said earlier about how precious an away goal can be. Well while Liverpool matched Fulham by scoring twice last night, they also fell prey to letting one in at home. Combined with the goal they conceded in Madrid, it resulted in Liverpool's elimination from the competition. As I said, 'The Kop' can be worth a goal. Liverpool didn't realise that can count for their opposition as well.

But rather than lamenting Liverpool's exit, let us revel in the incredible achievement of Fulham. Because we may not see the like on these shores again. This is only a little club, and for them to be rubbing shoulders with some of Europe's more renowned teams is the great underdog story of the season. After a campaign that has lasted as long as a league season, we are watching Fulham's finest hour. Savour the moment.

Fulham's fanzine is called 'One F in Fulham'. Well not this year. Now we can add the phrase 'finalists'. Fulham - Europa League Finalists. Fulham - Europa League Winners? They go into the match expected to lose. But then Fulham are making a habit of confounding expectations over the past nine months.

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Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Handing Over To The Professionals a.k.a. 'Pimping Out The Times'

By Shane Thomas

For those who follow sport it can manifest itself in curious ways. There aren't many other - for want of a better word - industries where its followers not only think that their opinions carry weight, but also where those who make a living from sharing their thoughts are generally decried, despite the fact that they will have some expertise in the subject. If you snatch a few moments of any pub conversation about the World Cup in the next few weeks, listen to the authority in which the the various topics are discussed. Do these people have any specific qualifications to predict and pronounce? No, but sport can stir the passions in such a way that ego can sometimes supplant rationale & knowledge. If I'm honest, this blog is a clear example of my point.

Well for a change, I'm gong to hand over to those who bring more credence to sporting opinion than I do. I am a regular reader of 'The Times' newspaper. In my opinion, their sporting coverage is second to none. And there are some recent articles on there that I would like to share with you all.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Melbourne Storm Cheat The Cap: Was It Worth It For The Fans?

By Jonathan Wilkinson

In rugby league, in both hemispheres there is a salary cap for teams. This is to aid in two things, the first is to make sure the richest teams don't just sign all the talent and win everything every year (see Wigan in the late 80s and 90s) and to stop the clubs overspending and going to the wall, or almost going to the wall.
Now Melbourne Storm have won the following trophies in the last 5 years;
Grand Final - 2007, 2009
Runners Up - 2008
Minor Premiers - 2006, 2007, 2008
World Club challenge winners - 2010
World Club challenge runners up - 2008

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Iron Man's Back - Coming To A Clay Court Near You

By Shane Thomas

With the sequel to the excellent comic-book film, 'Iron Man', about to hit our cinema screens (which I'm looking forward to immensely), it seems quite apt that tennis's very own Iron Man, Rafael Nadal seems to be returning to the form that made him the World Number 1 back in 2008.

2008 proved (so far) to be Nadal's annus mirabilis. After demolishing Roger Federer to win the French Open for the fourth consecutive year, he then went on to Wimbledon (without any break in between) and beat Federer again in what I believe to be the greatest tennis match ever played. While Federer managed to take the US Open at the end of the year, he surrendered the World Number 1 spot to the Spaniard. To put that into context, Federer had been top of the rankings for 237 consecutive weeks and is regarded by wiser people than myself as the greatest player ever to swing a racket.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Wisden - Cricket's Bible

By Shane Thomas

The Wisden Cricketers Almanack 2010. Regarded unofficially as the Bible of cricket. It's it sport's longest running annual, founded back in 1864. This year's edition, which is now available, contains the most comprehensive documentation of the game in the past 12 months that you can find.

Added to this are some wonderfully enlightening articles on the state of the game. What I have always found so refreshing about Wisden is that as general journalism standards have dropped - due to the lack of people paying for newspapers and editors desperate to write their own narrative, which leads to greater homogenisation - Wisden has kept all its journalistic integrity. Unlike the game of cricket in general, you can't imagine Wisden selling it's soul to make the proverbial quick buck.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Time To Be Perfect

By Jonathan Wilkinson

Tonight the race to be promoted from League 1 took another twist in what is turning out to be the most entertaining league in England in terms of closest.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Why Tiger's Mirror Image Causes Trouble For Us All

By Shane Thomas

In a few hours time, Tiger Woods will tee-off at The Masters in Augusta, Georgia. It has been five months since he has swung a golf club competitively. I won't go into all the why's and wherefores as I'm pretty sure every person, whether they like golf or not are aware of the circumstances. This is not a Masters preview. This is me trying to cut through the furore surrounding the man.

Over the past five months, the glare that Tiger has been under has been akin to that of a leading political figure. Indeed, the media in America have predicted that his tee-off will be the nation's biggest televisual event - with the one exception of President Obama's inauguration. As I type Sky Sports News are in conversation with one of their correspondents about this very matter.

Why is this? Why does a man's personal failings warrant such intense attention? What correlation does this have towards what he does for a living? Why the fascination with the minutiae that makes the man?

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Dual Purpose Staduims

By Jonathan Wilkinson

According to that ever reliable source The Daily Mail (so this story is more than likely a load of shit) Premiership clubs who ground share with other sporting teams, such as Hull City and Wigan, who share with Super League clubs, will be told that they can no longer play in duel purpose stadiums. Here is the article

Best In The World - Now The Hard Work Begins Leo

By Shane Thomas

Throughout the course of the day Sky Sports News have continued their hyperbolic and irritable tendencies. Today it was regarding Lionel Messi, heralding him as not only the world's best footballer, but amongst the best of all time. After his wondrous exploits against Arsenal yesterday, they dared to draw comparisons between him and Diego Maradona. This made me suitably enraged enough to write the words that you are currently reading.

Rants against Sky Sports News aside - which are plentiful and must be saved for another time - can we please stop this consensus that Messi deserves to placed alongside the upper echelon of players to have graced the game. First, he is still only 22 and has only been playing regular first-team football for about four years. A career simply cannot be made in that time.

Sir Alec Bedser 1918-2010

By Shane Thomas

As I type I feel a wave of guilt sweeping over me. I actually debated with myself whether or not to post about the recent passing of Sir Alec Bedser. Not only was no debate necessary but I should never have waited three days after the announcement of his death.

Alec Bedser is rightly regarded as one of England's finest ever seam bowlers. The bulk of his England career occurred in the era of the Australian team led by Sir Don Bradman. This didn't stop him taking 29 wickets in the 1953 Ashes series, which was a major factor in England regaining the coveted urn.

Bedser's very name evokes a generation long gone in the world of cricket. Growing up, he was a player I had always heard of but knew little of the type of player he was. In an era when cricket selectors crave seam bowlers who can bowl with pace and bounce, hitting speeds of 90mph+, Bedser's focus was on control and accuracy. The modern day player he often compared himself to was Matthew Hoggard.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Barcelona vs Arsenal - Match Ratings

By Shane Thomas


Manuel Almunia - Had a thankless task and could do nothing with the goals. Was only ever on the pitch to service Messi's greatness. 6 (out of 10)

The Night Lionel Messi Transcended Football

BARCELONA 4-1 ARSENAL (Barcelona win 6-3 on aggregate)

By Shane Thomas

One of the all-time great Champions League performances from Lionel Messi destroyed a callow Arsenal in the Nou Camp. The Argentine scored all four Barcelona goals in an attacking masterclass. Let the debate end here and now, Wayne Rooney is not the world's premier footballer, not even close. Apart from the fact that they both wear the number 10 shirt, the similarities end there.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

10 Years On And Still No Justice

By Jonathan Wilkinson

One of the darkest days in Leeds United history happened 10 years ago. On the 5th April 2000 Leeds traveled to Istanbul to play Galatasaray in the UEFA cup semi final, a game that they would lose 2-0 but by the time the game kicked off nobody involved with Leeds United cared about the football.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Arsenal vs Barcelona - Match Ratings

By Shane Thomas


Manuel Almunia - Was literally unbeatable in the 1st half. But part of the reason why Fabio Capello has no intention of including him in his England squads was demonstrated by his awful error of judgement that led to Barcelona's first goal. 7 (out of 10)