News Blog

The Return of Sonny Bill

7th February 2020

The upward trajectory of the Toronto Wolfpack rugby league club – which has hitherto involved three seasons in the lower leagues – has now taken it into the Betfred Super League, the premier division of the game in Britain. I sense that views on this within the sport are divided: some welcome the broadening of rugby league’s horizons and the other opportunities that might be presented in North America; others would prefer to consolidate within the traditional heartlands of the north of England and – I suspect, at the extreme – would be quite content for Wigan to play St Helens or Warrington every other week. I am firmly in the former camp.

The Toronto climate being what it is, the club is obliged to play the first few matches of the new season away from their base at the Lamport Stadium. Their first match in Toronto will not be until the visit of Hull FC in the middle of April. The opening fixture – last Sunday – was against the Castleford Tigers at Headingley as part of a double-header that also saw the Leeds Rhinos take on Hull (afterwards, not at the same time!).

As if the entry of a Canada-based team into a British sporting competition were not newsworthy enough, the Toronto Wolfpack club has raised the promotional stakes several further notches through the high-profile signing of the former All Blacks rugby union player, Sonny Bill Williams.

SBW started – in rugby league – in 2004 at the age of 18 with the Canterbury Bulldogs in Australia’s National Rugby League. Four years later, he moved on France to play rugby union for Toulon. Since 2010, he has played for various union sides, mainly in New Zealand though also in Japan, interspersed with two seasons back in the NRL with the Sydney Roosters. His international appearances for New Zealand have been at both league (World Cup runner-up) and union (twice a World Cup winner). In addition, he has fought in (and won) 7 bouts of professional boxing (including for the New Zealand heavyweight title).

At the age of 34, it is reasonable to assume that SBW is approaching the end of his distinguished career: 16 years in professional rugby will have taken its toll and he has been far from injury-free during that time. Nonetheless, his acquisition by Toronto is a major coup – albeit an expensive one – which is generally recognised to have given a major shot in the arm not only to the Super League entrants, but to the sport as a whole. It is certainly one of the reasons I turned up at Headingley on Sunday.

Toronto took the field to polite applause from the near-capacity crowd. In their match-day squad, they fielded 5 players who had featured in the corresponding group for the League 1 encounter against Newcastle Thunder that I had seen at the Lamport Stadium in August 2017 and it was one of these – the winger, Liam Kay – who registered their first Super League points with an early try following a neat kick through by Hakim Miloudi. Miloudi – along with his fellow centre three-quarter Ricky Leutele – had a strong game and was rewarded with a long-range interception try late in the match. Another of the survivors from the Newcastle game – the Australian Blake Wallace – played soundly at full-back.

However, Toronto were generally second-best to Castleford, whose strong-running forwards provided the creative platform for the half-backs Jake Trueman and Danny Richardson to exploit. Castleford were also sharper around the play-the-ball, where the experienced Paul McShane ensured a strong momentum to the play. Toronto relied heavily on the distributional skills of the former St Helens veteran Jon Wilkin, but he was closely targeted by the Castleford defenders and several of his passes were rushed and misdirected. It was one of these, during another promising Toronto attack following Kay’s try, that was picked off by the Castleford winger, Greg Eden, for an 80 metre run to the try-line.

Sonny Bill Williams made his keenly anticipated entrance from the replacements bench after 25 minutes. His first contribution to the match was to drop a pass. Thereafter, he had a generally quiet game, attempting without success to create something from his characteristic overloads in the tackle. He moved into midfield to play a more central role after Wilkin had been substituted but, by then, Castleford were coasting on their 22-4 half-time lead and the result of the match was not in doubt. The final score of 28-10 was a fair reflection of the play. One senses that more will be required from both SBW and Wilkin if Toronto are to hold their own at this level.

In the second game, the Leeds Rhinos were overwhelmed by Hull FC by 30 points to 4. The visitors have invested heavily in some big, powerful forwards and, on the evidence of this first game, it looks to have been money well spent. Leeds found it difficult to contain the powerful surges of Manu Ma’u and Andre Savelio, in particular; the home side’s creative efforts, by contrast, tended to be far too lateral. Hull also have some firepower in their three-quarters, as shown by the winger Ratu Naulago who, after collecting a high kick on his own 22 line, displayed a potent combination of dexterity, power and speed in making the break for the opening score by Carlos Tuimavave. I suspect that, in due course, that try will come to be seen as one of the best of the season on this ground.

In the second half, Ash Handley’s neatly taken try on Leeds’s left-wing was little more than consolation, as his side was trailing by 24 points at the time. The latter stages were played in a heavy downpour, which seemed to serve as an appropriate metaphor for Leeds’s disappointing start to the league season. By contrast, the Hull players – prompted by Marc Sneyd’s accurate kicking game – revelled in the conditions and offered much promise for their new Super League campaign.

“Let’s Keep It Up, Otley”

6th February 2020

In the hierarchy of English club rugby, the division below the Premiership and the Championship – i.e. the third tier – is now called the National League 1. Below that, logically enough, is the National League 2, which is divided into North and South sections. On Saturday, the day after the Yorkshire Carnegie/Nottingham Rugby match in the Championship (“Arresting Decline”, 5th February 2020), I went to watch the lower league’s northern encounter between Otley RUFC and Caldy RFC.

The Otley club was founded in 1865 and – I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia – actually played rugby league for 6 seasons from 1900. It reverted back to rugby union in 1907 and moved to its current Cross Green ground in 1921. There are plans afoot for a new stadium a little way along the main road to Pool.

It had been over half a century since I had watched a rugby match on this ground: the Yorkshire Cup final between Roundhay and Wakefield on a Monday evening in April 1969. I recall that that had been – as with all matches between the leading Yorkshire clubs – an intensely ferocious affair. However, what set the match apart – not only as a rugby union game, but for any sporting contest at that time – was that it was settled in sudden-death extra time. The Wakefield full-back, a large bearded player called Chris Parkes, kicked a long-range penalty goal to give his side the trophy.

Since then, my only other visit to the sports fields at Cross Green had been to the adjacent Otley CC in 1974, when I played for a season in the First XI of the North Leeds CC in the Airedale and Wharfedale Cricket League. Our hosts had a strong side and they won the title that year. However, if my memory is correct, the record books will show that Richard Belverstone and I opened the North Leeds innings with a (rather slow) half-century stand. (I appreciate that this is something of a minor aside but, for me, this was a rare success in a season of generally low scores).

Such are my rather tenuous connections with the sports teams of Otley.

There are 16 teams in the National League 2 North, of which three will be relegated at the end of the season. This is promising to be a close-run affair. Prior to Saturday’s round of matches – when most clubs had 10 fixtures remaining – the bottom club Scunthorpe were well adrift (with 6 league points) and the next bottom (Preston Grasshoppers, 29 points) nearly so. However, there were only 9 points separating the 14th placed team (Luctonians with 43) from the side in 6th place (Sheffield Tigers with 52). Otley also had 43 points, narrowly above Luctonians on points difference. There are 4 points for a win, plus the scope for bonus points.

For Caldy, the season is shaping up in a different way. Having won all 19 of their league matches to date and with a 12-point lead at the top of the table – and a game in hand on their nearest rivals, Fylde – the Wirral-based side have their sights firmly set on securing the single automatic promotion place back to the National League 1 following their relegation last season. It looked a tall order for Otley, therefore, not least because Caldy had notched up a half century of points in the reverse fixture in October.

Otley had much of the early possession and the centre, Gavin Stead, made good progress with a couple of threatening runs. The Caldy defence was well organised, however, and when their turn came to attack, some swift and accurate passing enabled the left-wing, Ben Jones, to score in the corner. (It was turning into a good weekend for wearers of the number 11 shirt; his counterpart, Jack Spittle, had scored five tries for Nottingham Rugby against Yorkshire Carnegie the evening before).

Unlike the facilities at Headingley, those at Cross Green have a more “traditional” feel; the seating in the stand comprises wooden benches painted black and white (in contrast with the padded seats of the former’s North Stand). However, they constituted a perfectly serviceable vantage point, not least in giving some respite from a cold, blustery wind. The Otley club also offered an impressive match programme and an informative – though not exactly unbiased – MC to keep us up to date with the game’s progress. When – after Caldy had run up a 17-0 lead – the home side scored their first try, it was confirmed that it had been “after a superb bit of play”. “Let’s keep it up, Otley” was the immediate follow-up.

The half-time score of 17-7 remained unchanged until mid-way through the second half when back-to-back Caldy tries stretched out the score-line to one that was somewhat unfair to the home side. When both sides made the customary changes from their respective replacement benches, two of the Otley entrants wore the same number shirt. We were informed that the departing players had been “replaced by two Number 18s. I don’t think anyone spotted that”. “Oh, yes, we did” came the murmured chorus in reply. Otley’s persistent efforts as the final whistle approached were rewarded with their second try, through Owen Dudman, which left the final tally at 31-12 in Caldy’s favour.

The MC was magnanimous in his post-match announcement and, whilst his assessment of the season’s likely outcome is slightly premature, I would be surprised if it is not also accurate: “Well played, Caldy. We wish you all the best next season after your promotion”. He followed this, nicely, with “Well played, Otley”.

The Otley clubhouse is somewhat less grand than the previous one I had been in – at the Heriot’s Rugby ground at Goldenacre in Edinburgh the week before (“From RM Kinnear to the Super 6”, 27th January 2020) – but it serves the same functions: a communal meeting place, a place of refreshment, the location for the memorabilia of the club’s proud history. (It was on this ground, in 1979, that a Northern Division team led by Bill Beaumont registered a famous win over the All Blacks). On one of the shelves – alongside the collection of jerseys and match programmes and photographs – was an England cap that Arthur Gray of Otley RUFC had won in 1947, when he played three times for his country.

As I reported in An Ordinary Spectator, the first rugby (league) match in which I ever played was in Leeds for the Chapel Allerton Primary School against Alwoodley Primary School “B” team in 1965. I played at centre three-quarter and got punched on the nose for my trouble. In the review of the school matches for the Green Post edition of the Yorkshire Evening Post, I was reported as having provided “sound support” for our full-back and captain, Martin Gray. Martin – a good lad and a fine all-round games player in his own right – came from a distinguished rugby heritage: his father was Arthur Gray.

Did I mention that my connections with the sports teams of Otley were rather tenuous?

Arresting Decline

5th February 2020

The Yorkshire Carnegie rugby side are en route to being relegated from the Greene King IPA Championship – the second tier of the club hierarchy in England – at the end of this season. Prior to last Friday’s home match with Nottingham Rugby, they had registered only one point in the league table, having played 10 of their 22 scheduled fixtures. As the bottom side will go down – and the next-placed sides, Nottingham and the Bedford Bears, had 17 points – it is clear that their fate is close to being sealed.

The club’s difficulties began before the season started, with budget cut-backs, the move to part-time contracts, player and coaching departures and the resignation from the Board of the Executive President, Sir Ian McGeechan. As the mid-season approached, the union and league representatives of the parent club – Yorkshire Carnegie are based at Headingley, the home of the Leeds Rhinos RLFC – made public their various accusations and counter-accusations, providing further evidence that all was not well (if not in the state of Denmark, then at least in the LS6 postcode). Last month Joe Ford, who had taken on the player-coach role in August, became the latest to leave the club. Phil Davies, the former Wales international, has returned as Director of Rugby, having previously held the post for the 10 years to 2006.

Friday’s game followed the expected pattern. Nottingham had already made one clean break through the middle of the Yorkshire Carnegie defence before their next effort led to a try for the left-wing Jack Spittle after five minutes. Shortly afterwards, a set-play move from an attacking line-out – involving the swift movement of the ball from left to right and then a change in the point of attack with an inside pass – produced another huge gap in the Yorkshire Carnegie defence from which Spittle again profited. Worse was to follow for the home side a few minutes later, when the identical set-play generated an identical outcome. It has to be said that succumbing twice to the same (fairly routine) attacking move reflected poorly on the home side’s on-field organisation.

Yorkshire Carnegie did have some possession in the first half, but they found it much more difficult to generate any forward momentum; the Nottingham defence was accurate and aggressive. After the interval, Yorkshire Carnegie had the further disadvantage of being overwhelmed in the set scrum which, allied to Nottingham’s 100% return from their own line-out throws, made for a consistent flow of one-way traffic. The final score in the visitors’ favour was 62-10.

I’m not sure if there was a formal man-of-the-match award but, had there been, I assume it would have gone to Spittle, who ended the match with five tries. The most spectacular was his fourth, which began with a Yorkshire Carnegie penalty kick to touch which was tapped back into play by a Nottingham player. Spittle retrieved the ball behind his own try line and set off down his wing in front of the South Stand outmanoeuvring and then outpacing the Yorkshire Carnegie tacklers before touching down at the far end.

Over the years, I have seen some fine tries scored by some wonderful wing three-quarters sprinting down that touchline, beginning with Alan Smith and John Atkinson in the great Leeds rugby league team of the 1960s. The efforts of those two players were always accompanied by roars of encouragement from their (hugely biased) supporters crammed together on the adjacent terracing. By contrast, on this occasion, the backdrop to Spittle’s effort was an empty stand, as the spectating areas – catering for a few hundred, at most – were restricted to the comfortable padded seats in the North Stand or the lower terracing behind the posts at what used to be called the St Michael’s Lane end.

For those involved with the Yorkshire Carnegie club, there might seem to be little in the way of immediate consolation. However, one vignette did suggest otherwise. In the dying minutes of the match, when Nottingham were again pummelling at the home side’s try line, it looked as if one of their sturdy replacement forwards was about to barrel his way over for a score under the posts. He was halted by a brave last-ditch tackle by a couple of the young Yorkshire Carnegie defenders – I did not catch which ones – and the attack was repulsed. Their side may have conceded 10 tries, but they were doing their level best to prevent number 11. Their side might effectively be in the wrong league, but they were keeping going.

As with most sporting league structures, the rugby union club hierarchy is a flawed meritocracy. Whilst the differences in resources mean that it is not a “level playing field” – even within any given tier – there are rewards for success and penalties for failure. For Yorkshire Carnegie in its current state, it is the latter which is of potential concern – and not only for this season. Evidence suggests that there is the risk that a season of chronically poor results can lead to a process of decline that is cumulative and long-lasting.

To give one example, Manchester Rugby Club was in the Championship (then called the National Division 1) as recently as the 2008-09 season. It won only two of its 30 league fixtures in that campaign and none at all in the next two years, as it underwent a total of 5 consecutive relegations to the South Lancs/Cheshire league, the 7th tier in the system. At that point (in 2013-14) things were stabilised and, following a subsequent promotion and relegation, the club remains at the same level (in what is now the Lancashire/Cheshire 1 Division).

In the circumstances faced by clubs in such precipitate decline, there is no respect for tradition. Manchester is the oldest club in continual existence in England (having been established in 1860) and the provider of 60 international players in its history (including 9 in the post-war period).

The Yorkshire Carnegie club effectively dates from 1992 when the Headingley and Roundhay clubs were merged to form Leeds RUFC. (Its most recent re-branding dates from 2014). It has had some modest success, including Premiership status in 8 of the seasons between 2002 and 2011 and winning the RFU’s national knock-out trophy (the PowerGen Cup) in 2005. However, as I mentioned in Still An Ordinary Spectator, it is a cliched truism that, when one medium-sized rugby club merges with another medium-sized rugby club, the end result is a medium-sized rugby club.

I remember the Headingley and Roundhay clubs – formed in 1878 and 1924, respectively – as vibrant entities with close community links and established relationships with local schools and, especially, a fierce rivalry. But they are long gone. Let us hope that Phil Davies and his staff manage to arrest the decline of Yorkshire Carnegie by avoiding a Manchester-type free-fall and, in the years ahead, continuing to provide the city of Leeds with – at least – a medium-sized rugby union club.

From RM Kinnear to the Super 6

27th January 2020

This season the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) has introduced a new competition – the Super 6 – for elite clubs. As the name suggests, franchises have been given (for 5 years) to half a dozen clubs to play in their own league at a semi-professional level. The principal aim is to create a “pathway” for players to progress from the highest level of amateur club rugby in Scotland (the Premiership) to the two full-time professional teams in Glasgow and Edinburgh. At the end of the regular season, when the sides will have played each other twice, a play-off phase will decide the competition’s overall winners.

It is probably reasonable to state that the administration of club rugby in Scotland has traditionally tended towards the conservative. Accordingly, the new structure has not been without its critics, not least because three of the six selected clubs are in Edinburgh and none in Glasgow. On Saturday, I watched two of them in action, when Heriot’s Rugby played the Boroughmuir Bears.

The scrutiny of my collection of match programmes revealed that the last occasions on which I had seen these teams in action (in their previous guises) had been as long ago as November 2009 (Boroughmuir RFC) and October 2010 (Heriot’s FP) on their respective visits to the Burnbrae ground in Milngavie to play West of Scotland. Unfortunately, since then, the West club’s star has been on the wane; it now competes in National League Division 3, the fourth tier in the Scottish hierarchy (excluding the Super 6 level).

My contact with Heriot’s had been more recent, however. In 2018, when preparing a couple of articles for the Rugby League Journal on players who had played for both the British Lions (rugby union) and Great Britain (rugby league) – “Double Lions”, of whom there have only ever been 16 in total – I contacted the Administration and Events Manager, Shona Whyte, to enquire about the club’s perspective on RM (Roy Muir) Kinnear, who won 3 caps for Scotland nearly a century ago.

Roy Kinnear had an extraordinary rugby career. After playing for the British Lions in South Africa (as a 20 year-old in 1924) and Scotland (in 1926), he turned professional with the Wigan rugby league club. He subsequently played in the first Challenge Cup final to be held at Wembley (against Dewsbury in 1929, when he scored a try) and for Great Britain in a test match against Australia at Hull in the same year. He was the first “Double Lion”.

Ms Whyte had pointed me in the direction of the official history of the Heriot’s Rugby Club, published to commemorate the 125th anniversary in 2017, which noted of Kinnear that: “[H]is loss was a severe blow… [T]he rugby club committee felt obliged to seek his resignation as a member of Heriot’s, which was duly received”. Thankfully, the rift does not appear to have been permanent, as the official history also states that Kinnear “re-enters the Heriot’s story some years later”.

Roy Kinnear died at the age of 38 in 1942 when he collapsed during a Services rugby match. He is commemorated on the War Memorial at Murrayfield, alongside other Scottish international rugby players (including Eric Liddell). His son, also Roy Kinnear, was a distinguished actor, as is his grandson, Rory Kinnear.

Heriot’s and Boroughmuir entered Saturday’s contest having had mixed fortunes in the Super 6 to date. The former had won 5 of their 7 matches to stand in third place (behind the Ayrshire Bulls on points difference) with the third Edinburgh side, Watsonians, leading the table. By contrast, the visitors had won only one of their games – at home to Heriot’s, as it happened, last November.

The walk from Waverley Station to the Heriot’s sports fields at Goldenacre took me through Edinburgh’s New Town, the first part of which was set out by James Craig in the 1760s. The names of the streets echo with the confirmation of Hanoverian hegemony in the post-Culloden era: George Street, Queen Street, Cumberland Street, Great King Street… At the ground, from the concrete terrace behind the posts at one end, there is a fine view of the city skyline in the middle distance: Arthur’s Seat, the tower of the Balmoral Hotel, the Scott Monument… On this side of town are the playing fields of the famous public schools including, just down the road, the Edinburgh Academicals ground at Raeburn Place, where the first rugby international – Scotland versus England – was played in March 1871.

On this particular playing field, Heriot’s were too strong for Boroughmuir. The opening try was scored after only a couple of minutes and quickly followed by two more. The visitors’ most threatening period of play, when the score was 3-15 against them, saw Boroughmuir mount a prolonged attack on the Heriot’s line, but a loose pass was intercepted and the hosts were able to break quickly downfield. Their fourth try was scored shortly afterwards. The final score was 53-10.

I am not able to judge whether this Super 6 contest satisfied the SRU’s objective of providing a stepping stone on the pathway from amateur to professional rugby. It was clear, however, that both sides had an open style of play that made for an entertaining contest. The Heriot’s half backs – Andrew Simmers and Ross Jones – were particularly adept at providing the swift transfer of the ball to their outside backs, whilst the Number 8 forward, Jason Hill, was at the forefront of securing a steady stream of possession.

During the second half, as Heriot’s racked up the points and the earlier accuracy of the teams’ play was disrupted by the wholesale introduction of new players from the respective replacement benches, I took a walk down the far touchline. On the adjacent pitch, another Heriot’s team was engaged in a match that seemed to be more closely contested. I fell into conversation with a gentleman from Biggar, who informed me that this was the Heriot’s Blues 2nd XV – effectively the third team – who were playing Hawick’s 2nd XV. Meanwhile, he said, the Heriot’s Blues 1st XV was playing in a Scottish Cup tie away at Gala RFC.

During the course of our chat, I mentioned that I was intending to visit Leeds next weekend to take in a couple of games at the start of the new Super League season, noting that the Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos were two of the sides on my watch list. More or less spontaneously, the man offered his views on the coaching abilities of Gary Mercer – the New Zealander who was a former player and/or coach with both those clubs – who had also held the reins at the Biggar rugby union club for three seasons. Such are the interweaving strands of the rugby spectating network.

My other conversation at Heriot’s was with Shona Whyte. I introduced myself to her at half-time, in the ground floor room of the impressive two-storey clubhouse, when the final tidying up after a clearly well-patronised pre-match luncheon was taking place. She mentioned that perhaps three or four players in the Heriot’s team had attended the school, but that it was generally difficult to retain playing contacts with ex-pupils once they had left the area for university or other reasons. I thanked her again for the assistance she had given me on the RLJ article.

On display in both the sizeable rooms in the clubhouse is a plethora of items commemorating the history of the Heriot’s rugby club: trophies, jerseys, programmes, and so on. It is an impressive collection. The team photographs of the George Heriot’s School First XV date back to before the First World War, whilst those of each year’s Heriot’s FP team are all meticulously named and dated. Each of the club’s former international players has his individual picture on the wall. RM Kinnear duly takes his place in this proud line-up.

For those charged with managing the current entity that is Heriot’s Rugby, there is a double-edged challenge: to respect the traditions of the club that have evolved over a century and a quarter; and to deal with the requirements of the next phase of the professional era, with its sponsorship and social media and pathways. Tradition and professionalism: a tension that Roy Kinnear would have fully appreciated.

Degrees of Latitude

12th January 2020

In the current season’s fixture lists of the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL), the League 2 encounter between Annan Athletic (54.99 degrees north) and Elgin City (57.65 degrees) represents the one with the widest latitudinal difference between the respective teams’ home grounds. The position would change if Elgin were to play Stranraer (54.90 degrees) but, for this season at least, the latter are plying their trade in League 1. (My reference source obviously prefers the decimal presentation, rather than the traditional one of degrees, minutes and seconds).

This is probably taking us into pub quiz territory, but it is interesting (perhaps) to note that the furthest north of the football clubs in England (in the top four divisions) – Newcastle United, 55.00 degrees – is closer to the North Pole than is the southernmost one in Scotland (Stranraer). In England, the latitudinal gap between north and south – 4.61 degrees from Newcastle’s St James’s Park to the Home Park ground of Plymouth Argyle – is larger than the 2.75 degrees in Scotland.

So much for the somewhat nerdish rationale for going to watch Annan Athletic play Elgin City at the Galabank riverside stadium yesterday.

In League 2, the divisional winners will gain automatic promotion and, as things currently stand, this looks to be a straight shoot-out between Cove Rangers and Edinburgh City, who have a commanding lead at the top of the table. The teams finishing between second and fourth will play off with the second-bottom League 1 side for the second promotion place. Prior to yesterday’s game, Annan were fourth and Elgin were sixth, so there was certainly something to play for.

The day was one of grey skies, persistent – occasionally heavy – rain and a gusty wind. After a two-hour train ride from Glasgow, the first sight that greeted me on alighting at Annan was the ruined Central Hotel, with its broken and boarded windows and burned out interior: a sorry introduction to the town. The large sandstone Victorian buildings – many of which are now guesthouses – on the adjacent St John’s Road give an indication of a once more prosperous era.

The rain having eased slightly, I took a short walk through the town to take in a riverside view of the three-arched Annan Bridge (designed by Robert Stevenson in the 1820s), the Town Hall (1878) with its bulbous clock tower fronted by a statue of Robert the Bruce and the remains of the Mote of Annan, the twelfth century motte and bailey castle that was the seat of the de Brus family until they moved this further north to Lochmaben Castle. A broad trench separates the mote itself from the base court and I walked up the muddy path to the top of the latter. The site has a commanding position next to the nearby river and, with a little imagination, it is not difficult to envisage being located at the centre of the medieval stronghold.

I was safely under cover in the Galabank ground’s main stand when the match kicked off and the next heavy downpour began, the rain driving into the faces of the Elgin defenders. Although the early stages of the match were evenly contested, it soon became clear that the visitors had the more efficient passing game as they looked to exploit the pace down the flanks of the left winger, Connor O’Keefe, and the overlapping runs of the right back, Rory MacEwan. The latter, in particular, was composed on the ball and accurate with his passing and looked to be a player of some promise. By contrast, Annan relied largely on pumping the ball forward to their tall centre forward, Russell Currie.

As half-time approached, it looked to have been Currie who had created the opening period’s best chance when, after a smart turn and a strong run, he unleashed a powerful shot that was well saved by the Elgin goalkeeper, Thomas McHale. However, just before the interval, another neat Elgin passing move produced an opportunity for Kane Hester to run through and stroke the ball into the Annan net. The keen home supporters seated nearby – including the middle-aged man in his team’s sweatshirt and woolly hat and the stocky 20-something lad next to me who was kicking every ball and making every tackle – perhaps sensed that this was not going to be their afternoon.

And that turned out to be the case. With the wind at their backs during another long and heavy downpour, Elgin dominated the second half and registered three more goals to win the match 4-0. The result moves them up to fifth place in the league table and, although Annan are still fourth, I would suggest that it is Elgin who are the more likely contenders for the promotion play-offs.

The hospitality at the Annan club was friendly. I took shelter in the clubhouse before the match and retired there afterwards for a pint before making my way back to the station. The MC at the game thanked the crowd – 211 in total – for attending in such miserable weather and hoped that they would support their local team at next week’s fixture at home to Stirling Albion. I have no doubt that the Annan-kitted man and his younger colleague will be there.

On the train, I chatted briefly to an Elgin City supporter. He was about my age and readily identifiable in his scarf with its thick black and white stripes. He was intending to rush from Central Station up to the Buchanan Street bus station to catch the coach to Edinburgh, where he lived. “Every home match is a marathon”, he said. They are of a kind, these supporters of lower league football clubs – keen, loyal, admirable, slightly mad – in whichever league their team plays.

Towards the end of the match, the scoring having been completed, another neighbour in the stand had speculated on what his own preference might be: a 4-0 win followed by a return journey of several hours; or a 0-4 loss and a half-mile walk home for his tea. I suspect that the Elgin City supporters would have emphatically opted for the former. They had had a good day.

And so had I. I had visited a town that I had not been to before and watched two unfamiliar football teams. And, at the remains of the Mote of Annan, I had inhabited the space from which the de Brus family – the Lords of Annandale – had overseen their domain over seven centuries ago.

Personality Tests

17th December 2019

Prior to last Sunday’s programme, it had been many years since I had watched the BBC’s annual Sports Personality of the Year. In my youth and adolescence – when it was called the Sports Review of the Year – I considered it to be essential viewing. However, at some point, I realised that it had moved away from being a genuine review programme to one providing coverage of an awards ceremony. There were increased amounts of chat and padding, with many of the action shots being short clips presented in a sort of staccato fast-forward that was difficult (and annoying) to watch.

I recall it as a programme that was very predictable. In summarising the year’s rugby league – to give one parochial example – the tribute invariably consisted simply of the two Challenge Cup final teams walking out at Wembley, that game’s decisive try and footage of a punch-up between some (unnamed) players accompanied by Eddie Waring stating that someone might be going for an early bath. My father and I regarded this as a meagre reward for the significant number of hours of live sport that the code had provided (along with the horse racing) to the Saturday afternoon editions of Grandstand through the long winter months.

In most years, the programme’s predictability was also reflected in the viewing public’s choice (through a popular vote) for the Sports Personality of the Year. Not surprisingly, given the BBC’s domination of sports presentation in the pre-satellite era – and the huge viewing figures that were attracted – there were clear winners in those years in which there were significant achievements in those sports with weighty coverage: for example, football (Bobby Moore in 1966), cricket (Ian Botham in 1981) and motor racing (Jackie Stewart in 1973). In addition, the BBC’s Olympic Games coverage – and Britain’s ability to conjure up some success even in the relative barren years – meant that gold medallists were regularly rewarded. Indeed, an Olympian came top of the poll in every such year between 1960 (David Broome) and 1984 (Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean) and again between 2000 and 2008.

Not surprisingly, the method of voting has changed with the times. The original system of deciding the winner of the main prize via a free-for-all vote on postcard (over several weeks) has evolved into the current arrangement of a telephone/on-line vote (on the night of the ceremony) for the contenders on a pre-announced shortlist selected by an “expert panel”. On Sunday, the contenders were Ben Stokes (cricket), Lewis Hamilton (motor racing), Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson (athletics), Raheem Sterling (football) and Alun Wyn Jones (rugby union).

Although Stokes had been the clear favourite to win (due to his outstanding performances in the cricket World Cup final and the third Ashes test against Australia at Headingley), it was perhaps still some achievement for him to do so, given his sport’s limited exposure on the non-satellite channels (and complete absence from the BBC). Moreover, prior to this year, cricket had provided only 4 winners since the programme started in 1954, compared with 18 in athletics; Andrew Flintoff was its last success in 2005.

Rather bizarrely, Gary Lineker – one of the (three) presenters – referred to Stokes as the “main award winner” before the voting had even started. I assume this was an inadvertent slip of the tongue rather than, as the conspiracy theorists have been quick to suggest on social media, evidence of an election “fix”.

In its earlier incarnation, the Sports Review of the Year had 3 prizes of offer, the others being for the Team of the Year and the Overseas Sports Personality of the Year. This list now extends to 9, including the Helen Rollason Award for “outstanding achievement in the face of adversity” (this year given to Doddie Weir, the former Scottish rugby union international, who is battling motor neurone disease).

This year’s Team of the Year award must have been quite difficult to decide, given the respective successes of Liverpool FC (Champions League), the England cricket team (World Cup) and the Wales rugby union team (Grand Slam winners) and the performance of the England rugby union side (World Cup runners-up). The current edition of the Radio Times suggests that the England Women’s football team “must be strong contenders”; this for a side that failed to reach the final of the World Cup and which, following its semi-final defeat to the USA, won only one of its next six matches.

The prize was given to the England cricketers: a worthy choice though, had foreign teams been eligible, my selection would have another rugby union side – Japan – for its unexpectedly exhilarating play in the group stages of the World Cup, when they accounted for both Ireland and Scotland.

The choice of Overseas Personality (now called the World Sports Personality) was the Kenyan marathon runner, Eliud Kipchoge, who became the first man to complete the distance in under two hours (in Vienna in November).

This would not have been my choice. Whilst there is no doubt about the extraordinary levels of endurance and stamina that were needed to achieve this feat – I cannot imagine what is required to run at an average pace of 13 mph for two hours – I am not convinced that its attainment meets the criteria of a sporting contest. Kipchoge benefited from pace-makers (in vehicles and teams of runners) and a type of footwear that (I understand) is subject to some controversy. The International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) official world marathon record remains at the 2 hours 1 minute 39 seconds set in Berlin in 2018 – by Eliud Kipchoge.

For what it’s worth, my selection would have been either the Australian batsman Steve Smith for his Bradman-esque scoring feats in this year’s Ashes series – which more or less guaranteed his side would retain the urn (notwithstanding Stokes’s efforts at Headingley) – or the brilliant American gymnast Simone Biles, who extended her record of World Championships successes with a breath-taking repertoire of apparently gravity-defying routines. (In the programme, Biles received one brief name-check and Smith was not mentioned at all).

I shan’t list all the award winners, except to note that the year’s “Greatest Sporting Moment” was judged to have been the last-ball run-out that gave the England cricket team their World Cup final win over New Zealand. Three prizes for the cricketers, then. I wonder if the broadcaster noticed the irony of this, though Lineker did refer lamely to “live cricket” – he could have said “any cricket” – “returning to the BBC next year with the Hundred” competition.

The Sports Personality of the Year programme has a tasteful “In Memoriam” sequence – which I do not recall being present in my earlier watching – which, like its counterparts at the Oscars or the BAFTAs, causes us to reflect on the loss of some of the prominent participants of previous times. It was appropriate to remember the likes of Gordon Banks, Niki Lauda and Bob Willis. The programme’s producers also did well to extend this coverage to include non-players such as the journalist Hugh McIlvanney and to remember that it not only the long-retired who have passed on. Sport itself produces casualties in active competition: in the last 12 months, these have included the American boxer Patrick Day at the age of 27 (who was included in the roll-call) and the Belgian cyclist Antoine Demoitie (aged 25).

Returning to my earlier (parochial) theme, the programme’s rugby league coverage comprised half a dozen photographs in the “In Memoriam” sequence and a total seven seconds of action (three tries in the Super League Grand Final and the men’s and women’s Challenge Cup finals) in one of the breathless round-ups of the year’s events. But there were no references to punch-ups or early baths.

In general, I think Sports Personality of the Year was more or less what I had expected. It covered a glitzy sports awards ceremony with contributions from dancers, high profile pop singers (Lewis Capaldi and Emili Sandé), royalty (the Princess Royal) and, coming from Aberdeen, a local-born sporting hero (Denis Law). It was a flagship BBC presentation and, therefore, had a recurrent undertone of worthiness, its collateral themes including racism, physical disability, mental health and social deprivation. But that’s fine. This is society – and sport is part of society.

Lest We Forget

11th November 2019

In “Kings, Queens and Poets” (5th May 2019), I mentioned that, when a young boy studying my mother’s football pools coupons at our home in Leeds, I had thought that Heart of Midlothian and Queen of the South were the most romantic names of the clubs in Scotland.  That particular blog reported on a visit to watch the latter in Dumfries in an end-of-term relegation battle in last season’s Scottish Championship.  On Saturday, I caught up with Hearts.

The Wikipedia entry for Hearts states that 16 players from the club enlisted en masse in a new volunteer battalion – later to become the 16th Royal Scots – raised by Sir George McCrae in November 1914.  They were joined by hundreds of supporters as well as players from other clubs in the initial “Footballers Battalion” of the First World War.  The seven first-team players who lost their lives in the conflict are commemorated at the McCrae’s Battalion Great War Memorial in Contalmaison and the Heart of Midlothian War Memorial in Haymarket, Edinburgh.

I alighted at Haymarket Station on my way to Tynecastle Park to watch Hearts play St Mirren in the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership.  This was an appropriate weekend for me to see the home side play for the first time: it is 101 years ago today that the guns fell silent.

Hearts have played their home fixtures at this venue since 1886.  It is a neat rectangular ground with a capacity of just over 20,000 following the completion of the newly built Main Stand two years ago.  The size of the average home crowd – around 16,500 in this league season to date – means that it feels suitably full; on Saturday, the main gaps were in the Roseburn Stand to the right, where the 700 or so St Mirren supporters had not taken up their full allocation of seats.

Even this early in the season – for both teams, this was only the 12th of the 38 matches in the league programme – there was an air of relegation battle about the encounter.  The two sides began the day locked together at the foot of the table – with the hosts in the higher place only on goal difference – both no doubt fearing the prospect of a long winter’s struggle ahead.  (The next two sides above them – St Johnstone and Hibernian – were meeting at the same time).

Hearts had already taken some action to address their poor start to the season by relieving the respected Craig Levein of his managerial responsibilities.  This occurred 12 days ago, though the timing was somewhat curious as the side’s next fixture had been the Betfred League Cup semi-final against Rangers at Hampden Park (which was subsequently lost).  Austin MacPhee is holding the managerial reins for the time being.  (Hibernian sacked Paul Heckingbottom as their manager last week).

The St Mirren manager, Jim Goodwin, is – for the time being anyway – probably on slightly safer ground, as he was only appointed last June.  (He had been in charge of the Alloa Athletic side that I had seen play in a Scottish Cup fixture last autumn: “Recreation Park”, 26th November 2018).  Hitherto, his team had revealed a sound defence – only Celtic and Rangers had conceded fewer goals in the Premiership – but serious deficiencies in relation to their attacking prowess: only 5 goals had been registered in the league prior to Saturday’s game.  I was expecting a low scoring encounter.

But what do I know?  There were five goals before half-time and the final score was 5-2 to Hearts.  And it could have been more: both the respective goalkeepers – Joel Pereira and Vaclav Hladky – made outstanding diving saves in the closing minutes.

As the scoreline suggests, Hearts had the advantage of a more potent forward line.  The man-of-the-match award went to Uche Ikpeazu – a powerful and skilful player – who had a fine game on the right-hand side of the attack.  However, I thought that the afternoon’s most influential participant was his partner, the experienced Steven Naismith, who swept in the first goal at a corner after six minutes and whose headed flick-on led to the Hearts second after St Mirren had equalised.  It was also his weighted pass that provided the space in which Jake Mulraney, the Hearts substitute, could advance and curl his right-footed shot to Hladky’s left for the final (and best) goal of the match.  More generally, Naismith – who is one short of 50 caps for Scotland – was active throughout the match in cajoling/encouraging/berating/advising (delete as appropriate) his colleagues: it was a timely audition, should Hearts decide to take the player-manager route.

I was flanked in my seat in the Main Stand by two friendly Hearts season-ticket holders.  The longstanding supporter to my left had made his regular journey from the Borders town of Lauder.  He was concerned about the number of soft goals that Hearts had conceded this season, of which St Mirren’s second – when a long punt upfield found the Hearts central defence totally absent, leaving Danny Mullen to calmly stroke the ball past Pereira – seemed to be a good example.  Even at 4-2 up with 15 minutes to play, my neighbour was casting nervous glances at his watch, but he was able to relax a little after Mulraney’s fine strike.

The conversation with the supporter on the other side revealed an impressive pedigree of sports-spectating, including rugby league in Leeds and soccer in Toronto.  He was very knowledgeable about the Hearts players present and past: Jamie Walker is just back from a long injury break and Jake Mulraney is “incredibly fast”, whilst Pasquale Bruno – an Italian who played for Hearts for two seasons in the 1990s (and who received loud cheers when he was introduced to the crowd at half-time) – had been a very physical and aggressive player.  (Wikipedia somewhat coyly refers to Bruno’s “occasional outrageous outbursts on the pitch, as well as his tendency to pick up cards”).

The game ended.  I shook hands with my neighbours as they departed.  On the outside the stadium, the Hearts badge shone brightly on the Main Stand in the darkness of the late autumn afternoon.  The home supporters made their way contentedly down Gorgie Road.  Elsewhere, Hibernian’s 4-1 win at St Johnstone meant that it had been a double success for the Edinburgh clubs.  They are now 8th and 9th in the league with Hamilton Academicals and the two Saints clubs below them.  It is still tight, however, and the season’s course is only one-third run.

I read the impressive match programme on the train going home.  The front cover displayed a field of poppies against a background of the stadium and under the heading “Lest We Forget”.  Inside, there was a notice complementing an announcement that had been made a couple of times during the afternoon.  The annual Haymarket Remembrance Service – conducted by the Club Chaplain and attended by the first team, reserve team and members of the board – was to take place yesterday, beginning at 10.45am.

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