News Blog

Plan B

7th March 2022

It had been some time since I had seen a match in the Scottish Professional Football League (Annan Athletic vs Elgin City in January 2020) and even longer since a game in the Scottish Premiership (Hearts vs St Mirren in November 2019), so on Saturday I travelled to Easter Road in Edinburgh for the encounter between two clubs – Hibernian and St Johnstone – that I had not previously viewed in the flesh.

The Scottish league season is three-quarters of the way through. At the start of play, Hibs were in 5th place in the league table and one of no fewer than six teams covered by only four points between 4th and 9th. With only 4 matches to play before the “split” into the top and bottom 6s (for the last 5 games), there was clearly an intense battle to secure a place in the upper tier and, possibly, a qualification for one of next season’s European competitions.

St Johnstone were not part of that group. Following last year’s success in securing both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup, this season has been a disappointment. The side began the day second from bottom in the table, some 7 points adrift of third-from-bottom Aberdeen. Their main objective for the remainder of the season would appear to be avoiding ending up right at the foot of the table (in the place occupied by Dundee, one point behind with a game in hand), which would bring automatic relegation. Second-from-bottom would secure a hazardous play-off tie against one of the Championship sides.

On the train journey across from Glasgow to Edinburgh, the other seats at my table and all four seats at the one across the aisle were taken by a group of St Johnstone supporters: young lads, perhaps aged 15 to 17 or 18. Their chosen beverages included alcoholic and energy drinks and they were loud and, at times, uncouth, but the aggression of the main protagonists was directed at others within the group, rather than outsiders such as me. Towards the end of the journey, when I engaged those seated at my table in conversation, we had a pleasant chat about football and sport in general. The lad opposite me said that he didn’t know much about cricket, but was aware that a famous cricketer (Shane Warne) had died the day before. He was also impressed that Hibernian had priced his ticket at just £5: good for the club, I agreed, if it were seeking to boost attendance by younger supporters.

My intention had been to secure my entrance to the match at a visit to the ticket office just outside the ground. To my surprise, it was locked when I tried the door. On enquiring with a nearby steward, I was told that the game had sold out. It was not just the Under 18s who were paying £5 for a ticket; apart from those in the hospitality boxes, everybody was. After walking to the other end of the ground, I asked another steward whether there were any returned tickets on sale. “You could try the ticket office”, she replied. I knew then that my anticipated afternoon of watching Hibernian vs St Johnstone would have to wait for another day.

Of course, I do have a track record for attempted sports-watching that has gone slightly awry. The washed-out days at cricket matches are understandable. Less so, perhaps, attempting to watch a rugby union fixture in Bristol at the wrong ground, with the game already having been postponed, and with the added bonus of risking life and limb to cross a busy highway in the process (as reported in Still An Ordinary Spectator).

Fortunately, on Saturday, there was still time for a Plan B. And a good one it was too. A £10 taxi ride took me across the city from Easter Road to Inverleith in plenty of time before the match between Edinburgh Academical and the Currie Chieftains in the Scottish Premiership – rugby union (sponsored by Tennent’s) rather than football (sponsored by Cinch).

I had been meaning to visit Raeburn Place for some time. As I have reported before – “The First Rugby International”, 27th March 2021 – the ground has a unique place in the history of the sport as it was the venue for the Scotland vs England encounter in 1871 that commenced the 150-plus years of international rugby. I had previously been informed that there was a stone monument in the grounds to commemorate the event. What better opportunity to seek it out.

I made enquiries about this in the clubhouse before the game when I button-holed one of the club’s members, who turned out to be Paul Arnold, the captain of the Third XV. He introduced me to the club secretary, John Wright. Like me, John is an exiled Yorkshireman – in his case, from Bradford – and we had a great discussion about the fierce club rugby that was played in that county in the 1970s. Paul told me that he wasn’t exactly sure where the monument was, but, from our vantage point on the balcony of the impressive clubhouse, he pointed out the general area on the far side of the grounds that he thought to be the most likely.

I have to say that, although both Paul and John were in demand from other club members in the remaining minutes before the kick-off, they were both hugely supportive in their responses to the slightly odd request made by a complete stranger. I was left with the strong impression of a welcoming and friendly rugby club.

For both sides, the match was the last one in the regular Premiership season prior to the Top-4 play-offs. As Currie had already emphatically secured the top spot and, likewise, the home side were already guaranteed of at least 4th position, it might have been supposed that this was something of a dead rubber.

That was certainly not the case. There was a full commitment from both teams with the visitors taking the early initiative, when a powerful forward surge brought a try for Gregor Nelson. The Accies responded when a long flat pass from fly-half Vincent Hart put the second-row forward Struan Whittaker on a try-scoring run, only for Currie to retake the lead and head into half-time up by 12-7. Thereafter, Currie were always in control of the match, taking leads of 19-7 and 24-10 before two late home tries narrowed the final score to 24-20. The forward battle was an interesting one: Currie had by far the better of the line-outs until late in the game, whereas the Accies’ ascendancy in the scrum became more pronounced as the second half progressed. I thought that the game’s most influential player was the Currie flank forward and captain Fergus Scott who, in addition to his tackling stint, provided regular examples of skilful link play in his handling of the ball.

I must admit to having missed Currie’s third try early in the second half. At that stage, I was some distance from the pitch on the far side of the Edinburgh Academical sports ground searching for a stone monument in the general area that Paul Arnold had suggested. I met with success. The writing – in upper case – on the stone is not easy to discern, but I can confirm that it reads:

1871 1971







The monument is currently at the edge of a large pile of rubble on which, on this occasion, a group of small children were playing. I do hope that, at some stage, it might be recovered and given its proper prominence nearer to the clubhouse so that the Raeburn Place site can combine the modernity of its splendid clubhouse with this reference to its rich history.

The result of the Edinburgh Academical-Currie match means that the final placings of the (rugby union) Premiership’s Top-4 have been decided. One of the semi-finals in three weeks’ time will be hosted by Currie at their Malleny Park home ground in Balerno – when the visitors will be Edinburgh Academical FC.

Meanwhile, as the rugby match was coming to a close, Hibernian and St Johnstone were playing out a 0-0 draw at Easter Road. The lads from Perth would probably have been pleased with the outcome, although Dundee’s draw at Motherwell means that it is status quo at the foot of the (football) Premiership table.


28th February 2022

I had had some previous experience of being a sports spectator at boxing events – the Oxford versus Cambridge Varsity Boxing Matches of 1977 and 1979 to be precise, as reported in An Ordinary Spectator – but that had been a long time ago and, of course, those contests featured amateur combatants. Last Saturday evening was somewhat different: Josh Taylor versus Jack Catterall at the OVO Hydro in Glasgow.

This was a fight for the Super Lightweight World Championship with Taylor’s WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO titles – acquired at various times over the last three years – all on the line. In other words – cutting through the alphabet soup – the winner would be the undisputed world champion at the weight limit of 140 pounds (10 stones or 63.5 kg). It was the first time that all 4 versions of a championship title had been at stake at a fight in Britain.

Although Catterall was the more experienced professional boxer – and unbeaten in 26 fights over 10 years – Taylor was the clear pre-bout favourite. On the morning of the fight, the bookmakers’ odds on his win were 14 to 1 on, compared with the challenger’s price of 13 to 2 against: a marked difference for a two-horse race. Moreover, Taylor – also undefeated in an 18-bout professional career since winning a gold medal (in the Hydro) at the 2014 Commonwealth Games – had the anticipated advantage of a vociferous home support, given his Prestonpans birthplace. Catterall, from Chorley in Lancashire, knew that he was entering hostile territory.

The Taylor-Catterall fight was one of no fewer than 11 on the card. The first bout was in the early evening, but the main protagonists were not scheduled to “ringwalk” until 10pm – as determined by the satellite television schedule, of course. Moreover, in what I gather is the normal way, the final details of the running order on the undercard were not announced until Saturday morning, apart from the Featherweight contest between Roseisy Ramirez of Cuba and the Irishman, Eric Donovan.

I took up my seat – an excellent view from the front row of the second tier – at about half past five, by which time the first fight had already taken place. Although there were perhaps only a couple of hundred spectators in the arena at that time – like me, no doubt, determined to get full value for money (in my case for a £60 ticket and £22.44 in other charges) – it was noticeable that the noise level was already high, principally in support of the Irish Super Welterweight, Keiron Molloy, who won his first professional fight in the second round. I asked myself what the volume would be like for the main contest, when the Hydro’s full 11,000+ capacity – many lubricated by a lengthy session of beer consumption – was in place.

The dramatis personae of the undercard performed in front of us: a combination of the inexperienced taking their first steps on the professional ladder and the occasional journeyman pugilist. This contrast was evident in the Cruiserweight contest between Scott Forest, also in his first professional fight, and Erik Nazaryan, a veteran from Georgia with a 49 per cent success rate from 57 previous contests: the former won when his opponent retired in the second round.

There was certainly a variety in the fights on offer. There were impressive wins for Bilal Fawaz and John Docherty, respectively a Middleweight and Super Middleweight, the latter with the only straight knock-out of the evening in overcoming Jordan Grant. In the only women’s contest, Ebonie Jones, in her second professional fight, and the 40 year-old Effy Kathopouli stood toe-to-toe and slogged it out for 6 rounds: the draw was a fair result, I thought.

Later, two Glaswegians, Nick Campbell and Jay McFarlane, disputed the Scottish Heavyweight title that had lain vacant for over 70 years. Campbell seemed to take control in the 6th round with a succession of head shots that, somehow, McFarlane – at just under 20 stones and attired in a kilt – managed to walk through. McFarlane then launched a spirited counter-attack to the accompanying support of the growing numbers in the crowd. However, when Campbell launched another fusillade in the next round – and McFarlane again remained upright – the referee stepped in to end the contest. The general consensus around me was that this had not been before time.

The main supporting bout was the Ramirez/Donovan contest. The Cuban is highly regarded as a candidate for further honours and, after an evenly fought start, the fight ended with a technical knock-out in the third round, when the Irishman was pinned on the ropes and succumbed to a crushing body punch. This was the second occasion on which a shot to the body – rather than the head – had ended the fight. The Czech boxer Jaroslav Hriadel suffered the same fate against the well-supported Kurt Walker from Northern Ireland and was clearly in some pain afterwards.

All major sporting occasions have their own rituals and, of course, Saturday evening’s events at the Hydro were no exception. The arena was in constant darkness – I couldn’t read my notes in front of me – but the ring was clearly illuminated by the overhead lighting with other beams of light flashing across the ringside seats. The boxers made their individual entrances down the walkway to the ring accompanied by the music of their choice. Not surprisingly, Eye of the Tiger (from Rocky III) featured a couple of times, though I was more impressed by Ebonie Jones’s choice of Nancy Sinatra singing These Boots are Made for Walking.

All the contestants on the undercard seemed to adhere to the sport’s acknowledged codes of conduct. There was a uniform touching of gloves at the start of each fight and, occasionally, at the end of a round. The defeated boxers congratulated their victorious opponents. Of course, the vanquished were then faced with the return journey back up the walkway to the changing room: a lonely walk with their own thoughts, I would guess, though each was chaperoned by a member of the security staff. Thankfully, on this occasion, all were able to walk back unaided, albeit with clouded heads (Grant and McFarlane) or aching ribs (Donovan and Hriadel).

I made an effort to focus on each of the undercard’s defeated fighters as they made their way back up the walkway. I wondered about the circumstances of the individual journeys that had brought Malam Varela from Portugal, Miroslav Serban from Kromeriz in the Czech Republic and Damian Esquisabel from Santander in Spain – amongst others – to this place at this time. All three of these particular fighters are now in their early 30s. In their preparation for their appearance at the Hydro – and their casual dismissal by a chattering crowd impatient for the main event – they had endured the training, the sacrifices and the pain of a brutal and unforgiving sport. With their stars apparently on the wane, what would their futures bring?

The arena was nearly full by the time of the Ramirez/Donovan contest. When this finished earlier than scheduled, there were about 25 minutes to fill before the Taylor/Catterall showdown. It was not wasted. This was party time in Saturday evening Glasgow and the house DJ knew his market: Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, the 1970s Euro disco Yes Sir, I can Boogie (now appropriated by the Tartan Army of Scottish football supporters) and Queen’s Radio Ga Ga as well as a couple of club anthems with which, I must confess, I was not entirely familiar. Interestingly, he also played the Oasis track Don’t Look Back in Anger, which I thought might have been deemed provocative, given the band’s shared regional roots with Josh Taylor’s challenger. But that was looking for subtleties that didn’t exist. The singing and dancing revellers belted out the song with gusto.

The musical interlude ended with Amy Macdonald leading a rousing rendition of Flower of Scotland. Again, I wondered about the subtext. I’m sure I was not the only one to register that to have “sent him homeward tae think again” might be applied more immediately to Jack Catterall and his supporters, rather than a long-dead English king. I have to say, though, that – aside from the occasional isolated exhortation for Taylor to smash the English bastard – there was no great sense of a Scotland/England conflict, and nor had there been in the week-long pre-match hype on the television sports news channel. One of my neighbours told me that Taylor has a sizeable support base in England.

And so to the main event. Catterall entered the arena to widespread – and predictable – booing, apart from the cheers of a group of supporters on the far side from me. Taylor was preceded by an entourage that proudly hoisted the four championship belts that he possessed. My earlier question was answered shortly afterwards. When the MC came to make the formal announcement of Taylor’s name to the crowd, his words were drowned out by the huge roar.

Here – as an aside – I must own up to another confession. When I was very young and occasionally watching the boxing highlights on television, I did wonder for some time why so many boxers came from Southport. Perhaps it was Harry Carpenter’s diction in presenting the action on the BBC’s Sportsview. The word is southpaw, of course, and it refers to the fighter leading with his right hand and with his right foot forward. I had a wry smile when I saw both Taylor and Catterall take up this stance.

It was evident from the first bell that, contrary to what was implied by the pre-match odds, these were two evenly matched fighters. Whatever his status as the underdog, Catterall was certainly not intimidated by either his opponent or his surroundings. Neither man gained control in the early rounds as the contest regressed into a scrappy affair with little fluid movement and a great deal of holding and grappling. I thought that Catterall decisively took the 6th round, the end of which marked the mid-point of the bout’s scheduled duration. I also sensed that Taylor’s supporters around me were becoming worried at his lack of clear dominance and the prospect of an adverse outcome. This concern was then amplified in the 7th when Taylor was cut below the right eye and the following round, when he was temporarily floored.

Both boxers incurred the wrath of the referee: Catterall was publicly warned for excessive holding in the 10th round and then, at the end of the 11th, Taylor was similarly penalised for striking his opponent after the bell. At the end of contest, both my immediate neighbours – a middle-aged man attending with his adult daughter and a younger man celebrating a mate’s birthday – were distinctly pessimistic about Taylor’s chances of getting the judges’ verdict.

It was a split decision – 2-1 – which, in his announcement of the result, the MC knew how to exploit for its full dramatic effect. The first scorecard was read out in Catterall’s favour and the second for Taylor. The marks of the third judge were announced, followed by “… and still undisputed…”. As at the beginning, so at the end: the crowd’s roar drowned out the rest of the MC’s proclamation.

It was a roar of triumph, but also – I suspect – an expression of relief. As it turned out, my neighbours’ assessments had been fully in tune with most independent analysts, including those who had maintained their running blogs throughout the contest. The Sky Sports blog stated that Taylor had been “outskilled and outmanoeuvred by Catterall, who has been relentlessly good” and that the judges’ verdict was “unbelievable” and “absolutely staggering” and the MainOnline called it “a truly shocking decision”, whilst the Irish Times diplomatically suggested that “not everyone will be happy with that result”.

The furore has continued since the end of the fight. Yesterday, Sir Lindsay Hoyle tweeted his opinion that “it was a disgraceful decision… the result is a travesty of justice”.

I was aware that Sir Lindsay is a keen follower of sport (notably rugby league), but I did wonder why the Speaker of the House of Commons – no less – should take such a public interest in the judges’ controversial decision. However, it did not take me long to determine why he should move away from his usual position of strict neutrality. Sir Lindsay Hoyle has been the Member of Parliament for Chorley since 1997.

The Eagles and the Acorn

17th January 2022

The first round of the 2022 Rugby League Challenge Cup – or the Betfred Challenge Cup, to reflect its gambling industry sponsorship – was played this weekend. 14 ties were contested, involving amateur clubs, with the winners joining 10 of the semi-professional League 1 sides in the next round. The Championship and Super League clubs will enter later in the competition with the final scheduled for the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium at the end of May.

The Edinburgh Eagles versus York Acorn RLC tie was played in the spacious grounds of the Royal High School in the suburb of Barnton in Scotland’s capital city. Beforehand, I had wondered if it might be something of a mismatch. Whilst the Eagles had a distinguished pedigree of Challenge Cup participation, their qualification was through virtue of winning the 5-team Scottish National League in 2021. By contrast, the visitors will play this season in the highest tier of the amateur game in England – the Premier Division of the National Conference League – having won promotion last year.

The early passages of play suggested that my concerns were justified, as the Eagles were 0-10 down after 5 minutes. With their first set of possession, York engineered a three-man overlap on the right-hand side to run in a straightforward try. Then, when they next had the ball, some accurate passing and determined running produced a second try near the Eagles’ posts. At that stage, it looked as if York had a clear advantage in the speed of their play-the-balls and the ease with which their confident passing was stretching the Eagles’ defence.

However, the home side did not capitulate and indeed, for the remainder of the first half, the play was much more evenly balanced. A neat grubber kick by half-back Alex Williams led to confusion in the York rearguard and a try for Roserutabua Tawanayavulala, and it was only just before the interval that York scored again to give themselves some breathing space with a 16-6 half-time lead.

The match was watched by a few dozen spectators, mainly on the clubhouse side of the ground. I viewed the action from the grass bank than ran alongside the opposite touchline, on which I was able to move with the play as it ebbed and flowed. I did take a time-out to sit on a concrete step near one of the corner flags for my lunchtime snack – it had been a 1.30pm kick-off – and was rewarded when this third York try was registered right in front of me.

The game took an unexpected turn in the opening minutes of the second half, when the Eagles scored two converted tries to take the lead at 18-16. The first of these followed a sweeping move involving 5 or 6 players and then a long run by Orisi Waibuta over a combined distance of about 80 yards: a brilliant try, which I suspect won’t be bettered by many others in this year’s Challenge Cup competition.

As the try-scorers’ names indicate, the Eagles’ cause was aided by the presence in their match squad of several Fijians – members of the British Army, I was informed by one of the home officials – who brought a distinct physicality to their running and tackling. It seemed to me that, at that stage, the York side was somewhat rattled and, no doubt, also rather perplexed after the flying start that they had made to the game.

But it was now the visitors’ turn to re-group. With the bustling prop forward Adam Endersby leading the way, they manoeuvred themselves into position to score a couple of short range tries against a tiring defence, aided by the Eagles conceding repeat sets of possession following a couple of needless penalties. This time, as the daylight faded, the lead that York Acorn built up was not to be overturned. They came away with a victory by 38 points to 24, the reward for which will be a home tie in the second round against the London-based Wests Warriors.

It was an afternoon well spent. The match was played without scrums (as a continued Covid precaution) and, given the considerable additional demands that this places on players’ fitness, I thought that both sides did well to maintain their levels of energetic commitment for the game’s full duration. It was soundly refereed, the official maintaining a zealous (but appropriate) approach to any tackle involving contact with the head. And it also seemed to be played in a good spirit, the only bout of brief fisticuffs occurring right at the very end, when, for some reason, the red mist seemed to descend on three or four players following the final tackle.

As noted, the journey’s end for this season’s Rugby League Challenge Cup – its 125th anniversary year, as it happens – will be at Tottenham, rather than the usual Wembley (where the final will return to in 2023). For most followers of the competition, that journey began – metaphorically at least – at the weekend at the grounds of amateur clubs across the heartlands of the sport: Leigh, Castleford, Hull et al. For a select few of us, it began at the Royal High School in Edinburgh.

Cricketing Role Model

27th December 2021

Ray Illingworth, who died last Friday at the age of 89, was my most significant cricketing role model. Here, I draw on a couple of short passages from An Ordinary Spectator to describe the impact that he had on this impressionable young cricketer in his early teens.

At the time of the 1968 Headingley Roses match, I was thirteen:

“The match… followed a similar pattern to the corresponding game of two years earlier. Yorkshire bowled Lancashire out cheaply and then built up a big first innings lead, this time to win by an innings. For me, the striking thing about the Yorkshire innings was how, after a couple of the front-line batsmen had made big scores… the middle order also weighed in with some heavy scoring.

Ray Illingworth was a key figure here: the test match off spinner who could come in at number eight, as he did on this occasion, and play shots like a number three or four. I had the same impressed reaction to his dual skills, with bat and ball, as I had had with Ken Taylor’s ability to play more than one sport at a high level.

Illingworth’s case was closer to home, however: my position in the [school] under 13s team was as an off-spinning batsman who also captained the side. I was not to know at that time – although, like everybody else, I did not have long to wait – that Illingworth’s prowess as a captain would also be revealed”.

Illingworth’s departure from Yorkshire to Leicestershire later that summer was given due prominence in the Yorkshire Post, which was apparently content to give near-equal weight to world geopolitics and the machinations of the county cricket club in presenting the main news stories. The front page headlines for the 21st August edition were “4.00am: Russians invade Czechoslovakia” and “Illingworth can go, says Mr Sellers”. (The timing of the pronouncement by the chairman of the Yorkshire CCC selection committee was not given).

In August of the following summer, the 37 year-old Illingworth captained his new county against Yorkshire in a John Player Sunday League match at Scarborough.

“I watched Illingworth closely. He batted at number 7 and made a quickfire 30. He bowled when he thought it was the right time and the Yorkshire batsmen would not score heavily off him. He positioned himself in the field so that he was not called on to do any acrobatic fielding. He switched his other bowlers cleverly and moved his fielders around so that the favoured scoring shots of the Yorkshire batsmen were cut off.

Through his leadership, Leicestershire were always in control of the match and they won without being seriously threatened. Illingworth was the epitome of a professional cricketer, schooled in the Bradford League and the hard Yorkshire changing room of the 1950s, and, to me looking on from the stand, it showed”.

Elsewhere in An Ordinary Spectator, when I report on my recollections of watching Bobby Moore play an immaculate game for West Ham United against Leeds United in a League Cup tie at Elland Road in October 1971, I note the parallel characteristics of the contemporary leaders in England’s premier sports:

“…both captains of their country; both with a mastery of their respective sport’s essential skills; both in full control on the field of play…”

Ray Illingworth and Bobby Moore. Did we realise at the time how lucky we were?

Raymond Illingworth 1932-2021. RIP

Reversal of Fortune

5th December 2021

Having won all their first 11 fixtures, Lasswade RFC are the clear leaders of the Tennent’s National League Division 3 – the fourth tier of amateur rugby union in Scotland – and are firm favourites to take the league title. The battle for the second promotion place is being closely fought, however, with four clubs – West of Scotland, Berwick, Howe of Fife and Hillhead-Jordanhill – currently in the mix. Yesterday, I went to Burnbrae to watch West of Scotland play Howe of Fife: second versus fourth at the start of play.

I had wondered about the sustainability of West’s league position and not only because their nearest challengers all had games in hand. Some of their 7 wins had come in high-scoring matches, in which they had impressively come out on top (38-28, 31-24, 38-32), but their 4 defeats had been in matches against the other sides in the top 5, when they had conceded a total of 227 points. In the reverse fixture in September, Howe of Fife had beaten them 82-10.

In the re-match, West could not have made a better start. At the first ruck, a charged down kick led to a five-metre scrum from which the captain, Scott Cochrane, forced his way over the try-line. Howe responded with an impressive try of their own mid-way through the first half, courtesy of their skilful and speedy back division, but a second West try and a penalty goal gave the home side a 17-5 lead as the game entered its final quarter of an hour.

At that point, it looked as if the West pack had given them the upper hand. They had the advantage in the set scrums and, following the lead of Cochrane and his second-row partner Gareth Reid, were able consistently to make good ground with the well-rehearsed catch-and-drive at the line-out. These tactics were ideally suited to the conditions: the ground was heavy following a prolonged period of wet weather though, thankfully, the rain held off during the match itself.

However, the contest was then turned on its head. Howe registered two tries in five minutes – one of which was converted – to draw level at 17-17. Apart from the occasional dropped pass, the visitors’ backs remained a significant threat, none more so than the teenage full-back, Gregor Smith – a consistently dangerous runner in broken field – whose 70-yard break ultimately led to his side’s levelling score. The momentum of play running strongly in their favour, Howe must have sensed the win.

But it was not to be. The West forwards re-asserted their control and laid siege to the Howe try-line for most of the remainder of the game. The defence held out until the final play of the match – the electronic clock, showing that the 80 minutes were up, was shining brightly on the scoreboard – when a cynical offside in front of the Howe posts led to a yellow card for the perpetrator and a straightforward penalty kick for West to take the honours. A reversal of fortune, indeed, after events in September.

It turned out to have been a very good round of matches for West. The respective games involving Lasswade and Berwick were postponed and Hillhead-Jordanhill managed only a losing bonus point. West have consolidated their second place in the league table, therefore, though there is much of the season’s rugby still to be played.

West of Scotland versus Howe of Fife was the first rugby union match I had been to see since Otley played Caldy 21 months ago (“Let’s Keep It Up, Otley”, 6th February 2020). The weather was cold and damp, though there was a brief period when the late afternoon sun seemed to illuminate the trees down the main road to the left of the clubhouse. I had a full (and dry) view from the top of the main stand. The players were committed and disciplined, cheered on by their respective bands of supporters and guided by a sympathetic referee (Rob McHenry). It was an enjoyable afternoon of Scottish club rugby.

Twins’ Success at the Emirates Arena

29th November 2021

The Scottish Open Badminton Championship has a proud history. The tournament dates from 1907 and is the third-oldest in the world, the All-England Badminton Championship having been established in 1899. Yesterday, I attended this year’s Finals Day at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow.

The early years of the tournament were dominated by the Englishman, George Alan Thomas (the 7th Baronet Thomas), who won a total of 28 titles – including the Men’s Singles on 11 occasions – in the period to 1926. (He was also a British chess champion and a lawn tennis quarter-finalist at Wimbledon). The men’s title did not leave England or Ireland until 1951, when Eddy B Choong of Malaysia was the first overseas winner.

The only Scottish winner of the Men’s Singles has been Robert McCoig, who took the title 4 times in the 10 years to 1968. However, local success has been seen more recently in other events. The reigning Men’s Doubles champions – from 2019, as last year’s tournament was cancelled due to Covid-19 – were Alexander Dunn and Adam Hall, whilst Kirsty Gilmour won the Women’s Singles in 2017 and 2018.

Although it is part of the European Tour, the Scottish Open does not have the scale of prize-money – and therefore drawing power – available to higher ranking tournaments around the world. However, this does not diminish the competitiveness – and unpredictability – of the tournament. In the Men’s Singles event, in which two of the seeds dropped out before the tournament began, the other six had World Tour Rankings (WTR) between 28 and 63, but only two of these reached their allotted places in the quarter-finals and neither of these progressed any further. Across the 5 events as a whole, the 20 semi-final places were taken by 9 seeded and 11 unseeded competitors with 11 countries being represented.

The tournament took place over four days, the first two of which had crowded – and efficiently organised – itineraries. 176 matches were played on five adjacent courts on Thursday and Friday – from 9.00am until late in the evening – in order to reduce the 216 singles or doubles entrants in the 5 competitions down to the 40 who would contest Saturday’s quarter-finals. (The Badminton World Federation website – – was an excellent source of information on the tournament’s progress and there was also full coverage on YouTube).

In the Women’s Singles, the number 1 seed was Kirsty Gilmour – 19th in the WTR – but she dropped out of the event after only two points in her first-round tie. The beneficiary of her misfortune was Wen Chi Hsu of Chinese Taipei, who then did not drop a game on her way to taking the title, her win yesterday being over Line Højmark Kjærsfeld of Denmark, who was the number 2 seed (and 18th in the WTR).

The Men’s Singles final was between two Malaysians – Ng Tze Yong and Soong Joo Ven – neither of whom had conceded a game in their four earlier matches. It was the former who, 70 years on, followed in the footsteps of his compatriot Eddy B Choong. I was struck by the powerful leaping smashes of both men, though the match lost some of its rhythm in the second game as a result of the frequent stoppages to sweep parts of the court following a stumble by one or other of the players. For some reason, this seemed to occur far more frequently in this match than any of the others.

There was domestic interest in two of the Doubles finals: the English pair Callum Hemming and Jessica Pugh were in the Mixed Doubles and the Glaswegian twins Christopher and Matthew Grimley in the Men’s Doubles. Both pairings were successful. For the Scots, the decisive moment came when they saved a game point in their first game against the Malaysians Junaidi Arif and Haikal Muhammed; the next two points gave them the game 22-20 and a lead that they did not relinquish. (Unfortunately, The Herald – a national newspaper based in Glasgow – could not find room in today’s 16-page sports section to report on the locals’ success nor those of any of the other title winners).

Needless to say, the home victory was enthusiastically received by the spectators in the Arena (apart, perhaps, from the small group to our right displaying the Malaysian flag for the distant camera). Even in this match, however, the crowd was quietly respectful of the play on both sides of the net with the lengthy rallies prompting deserved rounds of polite applause interspersed with the occasional lone “Come on boys” directed at the home favourites.

None of the first 4 finals went to a third (and deciding) game and my reading of the form book – albeit as a badminton spectating novice – suggested that Women’s Doubles final might also only require two games. Not only were the Canadian pair of Rachel Honderich and Kristen Tsai the number 1 seeds, but they had been relatively untroubled in their four wins earlier in the event, registering their 168 points against only 89 conceded. This indeed turned out to be the case. Their opponents Anna Ching Yik Cheong and Teoh Mei Xing (also of Malaysia) put up a brave fight, but the Canadians were very impressive, both players showing both power – particularly the tall Honderich from the back of the court – and subtlety.

On the Saturday, the average duration of the quarter-final and semi-final matches (excluding one in which a competitor retired injured) was 41 minutes, the range extending from 22 minutes to one hour 8 minutes. There is little time for rest and recuperation – mainly a short break once 11 points had been scored in a game and a two-minute interval at the end of a game. The players must therefore combine the speed and agility required for the flurries of rapid action with the tactical nous to manoeuvre their opponents around the court and the stamina of middle-distance runners. (In the case of another Dane, Amalie Schulz, this might be long-distance runner: she played – and won – four matches on the Friday).

The high tempo with which the matches were conducted was firmly encouraged by the umpires. On one occasion, a player was stopped from going to the courtside to wipe his face with a towel and there were other instances when either the server or receiver was told to get ready more quickly. It was noticeable, however, that, on the few occasions when the players were unhappy with line calls, there was absolutely no dissent or disrespect shown towards the officials. The decisive calling and signalling of the line judges no doubt played a part in this.

As with all such occasions, the apprentice spectator quickly becomes familiar with the rituals and routines: the umpire’s formal introduction of the players to the spectators; the short yells of some (though not all) of the doubles players – a call and response, it sometimes seemed to me – immediately before and/or after a point; the short lifespan (a few points usually) of the shuttlecocks prior to a player politely asking the umpire’s permission to take a new one from the courtside stock…

To these could be added the ceremony of this particular Finals Day: the players’ entrance into an arena temporarily cast in semi-darkness; the parade of the winners and runners-up (accompanied by Scotland the Brave) to collect their trophies and medals; and, poignantly in these Covid-related times, the finalists’ presentations of those medals to themselves or each other.

About midway through the afternoon, on my return from a coffee break, I asked the friendly steward registering the number of spectators on her hand-counter what her current total was. The answer was just over 300. The day’s events drew to a halt just before a quarter to five. As I left the Emirates Arena, I therefore joined the early leavers from the Celtic-Aberdeen soccer match that had kicked off at 3.00pm and was drawing to a close no more than 200 yards away at Celtic Park. I realised that the attendance at that game would have been over 50,000.

I knew that I had had an interesting and enjoyable afternoon; I hoped they had too.

Of course, we always need to be careful when interpreting headline numbers. The attendance inside the Emirates Arena might have been below the 500 or so that the organisers had perhaps been hoping for. But, as noted, the 2021 Scottish Open Badminton Finals Day is available in its entirety on YouTube. And by mid-day today – 24 hours after the start of the first match – it had registered 181,000 views.

Same Time Next Year (Perhaps)

19th November 2021

I had a ticket for the match scheduled for this evening – a good one too, Category B for £70.

Today should have seen the first semi-final of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) with, if the seedings had worked out correctly, Australia playing New Zealand at Elland Road in Leeds. However, following the withdrawal from the tournament of the two countries’ rugby league authorities on 22nd July, the RLWC Board announced on 5th August that the event would be postponed for a year until the autumn of 2022.

The chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC), Peter V’landys, stated that: “[W]e must put the best interests of our players and officials first. Protecting them is our absolute priority. In the current environment, the risks to the safety, health and wellbeing of the players and officials travelling from Australia to participate in the tournament this year are insurmountable”.

For some, the immediate reaction to the Australia/New Zealand announcement – apparently done by app to the RLWC organisers with a few minutes notice before a confirmation deadline – was one of apoplexy. The Chairman of the Rugby Football League, Simon Johnson, stated that it was “selfish, parochial and cowardly”. One has to suppose that relations between the sport’s principal international administrators will be more than a little strained for some time to come. However, with most of the dust now having settled, it is interesting to consider the overall circumstances of the postponement of RLWC 2021.

Mr Johnson – and others – were quick to point to the inconsistency with the approaches taken by other Australian sportsmen and women and their administrators. For example, it had been an Australian, Ashleigh Barty, who had won the Women’s Singles Title at Wimbledon in July and both Australia and New Zealand were about to compete in the Olympic Games in Tokyo (where Australia would eventually come 6th in the medal table with 46 medals, including 17 golds). The latter comparison is perhaps more easily defended, as the Olympic athletes were only in Japan for a relatively short time and obliged to leave within 48 hours of completing their event. More damning comparisons are with the Australian rugby union side, which has played Scotland and England at Murrayfield and Twickenham over the last two weekends and will meet Wales tomorrow, and the New Zealand All Blacks, who have included matches in Cardiff and Ireland on their autumn tour.

I was interested in the initial take on all this by Phil Gould – a respected and influential commentator on rugby league in Australia (and, formerly, a highly successful coach at club level and for New South Wales) – whose interview on Channel 9’s Wide World of Sports programme the day after the Australians’ withdrawal is accessible on YouTube. Gould referred to a daily infection rate of 30,000 new cases in the UK – it had actually averaged over 41,000 in the previous two weeks – and, in relation to the sport, the fact that a number of Super League matches had been cancelled in 2021 because of Covid-19 outbreaks within clubs.

Gould then noted that “[I]t will only back them [the players] up into next season. We had a short preparation for this season. We can’t do it again. Just postpone it”. He then expanded on this line of thought: “By the time they come back and quarantine and then they have 8 weeks break [part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the Australian authorities and players]… they don’t start training until February. Can you imagine what that’s going to look like next season… the quality of our competition?”

This is revealing, I think. It adds weight to the argument that, whilst there can be no doubt about the Australian authorities’ desire to safeguard the health of the players under their jurisdiction, the impact of their country’s Covid-19 restrictions on the pre-(2022) season preparations of the National Rugby League (NRL) clubs was also a key factor in the decision to withdraw. In its extreme form, this argument has been presented by some as Covid-19 being used as a smokescreen by the Australians to preserve the timetable of their domestic season. The Chief Executive of RLWC 2021, Jon Dutton, has referred to the “competing priorities from others” as a key reason for the postponement of the tournament.

In the period after the Australia/New Zealand announcement but before the RLWC 2021 was officially postponed, Dutton stated that the decision on whether or not the tournament would proceed this year was 50:50. At that point, it might have seemed that there were arguments for and against going ahead as scheduled; in reality, however, I suspect that the die had already been effectively cast.

One option might have been to plough on regardless. To say, in effect: ok, Australia and New Zealand are absent, so we will find two more teams instead (and make a virtue of the fact that it is a global competition). The next two teams in line might have been the United States and Serbia.

An alternative had been to field a team from the Australian and New Zealand players currently featuring in the Super League. At first, I was against the latter idea, thinking that the tournament should be for national teams only, but then I remembered that there is a good precedent. In the 2000 RLWC, my father and I had attended the match between Scotland and the Aotearoa Māori at the Firhill ground in Glasgow: a “good, hard-fought game” as I recorded in An Ordinary Spectator (which the Māori won by a single point).

In the event that RLWC 2021 had continued on schedule, England would have been the top seeds for the tournament. Had they then won it, the predictable response would have been “but Australia and New Zealand weren’t there”, to which an appropriate counter-reply might have been “whose decision was that?” However, there is little doubt that the absence of Australia and New Zealand would have hung over the tournament with consistent references to this being made in the media coverage. (Since Great Britain last won the World Cup in 1972, there have been 8 such tournaments. Australia have won 7 of them; the other – in 2008 – was won by New Zealand).

On the plus side, there would have been opportunities for the sport accruing from the fact that the absence of Australia and New Zealand would almost certainly have meant that two other countries would have reached the semi-finals that otherwise would not have done so. Let us suppose that one of those had been France, currently placed 8th in the world rankings. This would have given scope for a major promotional boost to rugby league in the country and something to supplement the recent successes of the Catalan Dragons in reaching the Super League Grand Final and the Toulouse Olympique XIII in winning promotion from the Championship.

Other factors might also have played into the thinking that the 2021 RLWC should have proceeded as planned. One was obviously the enormous amount of preparatory work that had been undertaken, not only for the Men’s event but also for the Women’s and Wheelchair tournaments. Moreover, unlike the Euro 2020 football tournament and the 2020 Olympic Games, the organisers were not certain that they could simply move things forward by 12 months without any great difficulty; some of the arrangements – the use of football grounds for the major matches, for example – were not guaranteed in a year’s time. (In the event, only 5 of the planned 61 fixtures across the three tournaments have been affected in the re-scheduling for next year).

Related to this is the pride of place that the 2021 RLWC organisers had obtained within the television schedules; the BBC had signed up for extensive coverage of all three tournaments in a period in which there was relatively little competition from other sporting events. In 2022, the autumn sports schedule will be more crowded with the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (which are scheduled to end on 8th August) and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar (which kicks off on 21st November). This has still provided a window for coverage of the postponed RLWC – the 3 tournament finals of which are now scheduled for a year today (19th November 2022) – but it is not yet clear that there will be the same amount of attention from the national broadcaster.

Against this background – and given the precise circumstances of the withdrawal by Australia/New Zealand – it must have been tempting for the 2021 RLWC organisers to have sought to confirm their pre-eminence in matters relating to the tournament, rather than seeming to have had its fate at least partly determined by the pre-season training schedules of the clubs in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL).

It was here that the matter was resolved, however. Yes, the NRL clubs hold the cards as far as the participation of the Australian and New Zealand national sides are concerned (via the NRL’s obvious influence on the ARLC). But they are also the employers of the core of other national sides which, whilst they might still have entered the tournament, would have been substantially weakened if their NRL-based players had not been allowed to participate. It was the undermining of the full-strength sides from the Pacific Islands – Tonga, Fiji and Samoa – that, in addition to the complete absence of Australia and New Zealand, dealt the fatal blow to holding the RLWC this year. (There would also have been significant absences of players drawing on their heritage to represent Greece, Italy and the Lebanon). In the announcement of the postponement of the tournament, the RLWC organisers referred to the “non-release of up to 400 players, match officials and staff members from the NRL competition”.

It is the case, of course, that any discussion of the postponement of the RLWC must acknowledge the vastly different approaches to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK and Australia/New Zealand. The day before the official postponement of the tournament, the official number of deaths in the UK of those who had contracted Covid within the previous 28 days reached exactly 130,000; in Australia and New Zealand, the corresponding figures were 925 and 26, respectively. In contrast with the UK’s apparently ever-changing set of regulations governing social distancing and (especially) overseas travel, Australia and New Zealand have attempted to maintain what have effectively been national bubbles – especially once the Delta variant of the virus took hold elsewhere – with, within that constraint, several strict lockdowns in the major cities.

Although it was the case that the UK initially saw much faster rates of take-up of first and second vaccinations, Australia and New Zealand have now caught up. As of yesterday, according to the three national statistics offices, the proportions of the populations aged 12 and over in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, who had had the second jab, stood at 80.1 per cent, 82.9 per cent and 82.1 per cent, respectively. In the meantime, the infection rate in the UK remains high: it averaged over 36,000 new cases each day in the first half of this month. Who is to say that the Australian rugby league authorities did not make the correct decision?

It is clear from the world’s near-two year experience of dealing with Covid-19 that making accurate predictions about its future incidence and mortality rates is very difficult. The RLWC has been postponed until the autumn of 2022, but, at this stage, we cannot be confident about what impact the pandemic will still be having on the state of global health in 12 months’ time. More specifically, can anyone guarantee that the Australian and New Zealand rugby league authorities would still not be arguing that the risks to the health and safety of the players and officials travelling from Australia would be “insurmountable”.

One final thought – and another regret – with regard to the postponement of the RLWC 2021. In the union code, the much-hyped event of the summer was the British Lions three-match test series in South Africa (which commenced a couple of days after the Australia/New Zealand withdrawal). It is generally agreed, even by the keenest supporters of the 15-man code, that, as spectacles, the first two matches in this series were absolutely awful, both sides seeming to rely entirely on kicking the ball to gain ground and compete for possession in the opponents’ half of the field. The third match was little better. (The former Scotland coach, Matt Williams, spoke for many when he referred to “a horror series”). What a shame that the advocates of the league code have not had the opportunity to spotlight their sport this year by making the comparison with their brand of international competition and its much higher incidence of running with and passing the ball.

Let’s hope that opportunity re-presents itself in a year’s time.

Batsmen and Batters

4th October 2021

Oh dear.

I fear that, for some, this essay might appear to have been written by an anti-woke curmudgeon who has no tolerance of progressive thinking. That has not been the intention.

Should I be fortunate enough – courtesy of good health and fine weather – to watch Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance in action for Yorkshire CCC next season, it will be the case that their principal roles in the team will have changed. This is because the Marylebone Cricket Club – the custodians of the Laws of Cricket – announced towards the end of last month that, with immediate effect, their skills will be employed not as batsmen, but as “batters”.

It is the case, of course, that women’s cricket is making rapid strides. This has been aided by the increased media coverage being given to international matches and, this year, the introduction of a women’s competition in The Hundred that ran in parallel with that of the men. This is a healthy and hugely welcome development.

It is against this background that the MCC has decided that the term “batsman” represents an unacceptable gender-specific term that does not sit happily with the direction of travel of the game and of the wider society. Its official statement in announcing the change was that “MCC believes in cricket being a game for all and this move recognises the changing landscape of the game in modern times”. Hence “batter”, which has now been written in the laws applying to all forms of the game.

In her accompanying statement, Clare Connor – the new President of the MCC – drew on her experience as Director of Women’s Cricket at the England and Wales Cricket Board: “Where the game is now, an eight year-old girl doesn’t want to be a batsman, or a policeman, or a postman, or a fireman – why would she want to be anything that has the word man in?”

I think this is a mistaken approach – for three reasons.

First, although the word “batter” might sit happily with “bowler” and “fielder” (though, even then, “fieldsman” was commonly used until relatively recently), the word is unattractive, if not downright ugly. I know that it was formally employed in the promotion of The Hundred – and uniformly used in the consequent hype of the television coverage. However, I have to say that when its usage was then transferred to the BBC’s evening test match highlights programme – especially by Michael Vaughan – it jarred horribly. As reportage on the highest level of the game, it was the equivalent of the fingernails being scraped down the blackboard.

It is here that the MCC’s official statement is particularly revealing. It refers to the last redraft of the laws in 2017 when it was agreed, following consultation with key figures in women’s cricket, that the terminology would remain as “batsman” and “batsmen”. It then goes on to say that “[t]he changes announced today reflect the wider usage of the terms “better” and “batters” which has occurred in cricketing circles in the intervening period”. I am having difficulty interpreting this as anything other than The Hundred tail wagging the game as a whole’s dog.

This leads to the second reason. The synonyms for “batter” include “bludgeon”, “pummel”, “abuse” and “clobber”. Its all-embracing use in a cricketing sense is inappropriate. Ok, it might apply to Liam Livingstone hitting the ball over the Football Stand at Headingley, but there is surely far more to batting than that.

During my lifetime, the great batsmen have included Graeme Pollock, Tom Graveney and David Gower – to name but three. To my mind, they were not “batters”. They played with elegance, grace and panache. They were craftsmen. They were batsmen. Kumar Sangakkara, VVS Laxman, Zaheer Abbas…

And so back through the earlier generations. To give the retrospective label of “batter” to Victor Trumper, KS Ranjitsinhji or Wally Hammond – and countless others – seems to me to reveal a disturbing lack of respect for the game’s history. (And this from the MCC, let us not forget). Was Herbert Sutcliffe a batter? I don’t think so. Besides, what do I now do with his How to Become a First Class Batsman, purchased when I was in short trousers for three shillings from his sports store in Leeds?

My third reason is a practical one. There are several sports – for example, tennis, triathlon, darts, show jumping and eventing – in which men and women compete for the same prize in the same arena. It makes sense for gender-neutral terminology to be applied in these spheres. But cricket is not one of these sports. The men’s and women’s games are separate, as emphatically demonstrated by The Hundred’s double-headers.

Accordingly, I can see no reason why the nomenclature used in the laws of the game has to be exactly the same in both cases. Put simply, why not “batsman” and “batswoman” – to be used, as appropriate? The latter might initially seem a little clunky, no doubt, but that is surely a function of its unfamiliarity. (I note, incidentally, that, in American court and field sports, “linesman” and “lineswoman” are each widely recognised terms for the relevant officials).

I recognise that I am swimming against the tide with all this. In cricket, the “third man” fielding position and the tailender batting as a “nightwatchman” will surely be the next to go. Indeed, in the case of the former, I’m already surprised that it has survived the combination of Harry Lime selling adulterated penicillin in post-war Vienna and Kim Philby being denounced as the next in line of Soviet spies following the defection of Burgess and Maclean.

I also fully acknowledge that the interests of the “eight year-old girl” identified by Ms Connor should be taken into account. I would like as many eight year-old girls – and boys – as possible to take an active interest in the game. But this doesn’t prevent me from putting forward a point of view from the perspective of a different member of the cricket family: the 60-something, who has followed the game for half a century and who played it for 20 years, but whose interest is now waning and/or moving elsewhere.

Of course, it’s only a word. “Batter” for “batsman”. So what? Nobody will die as a result of the change.

But, for me, it all represents another tear in the fabric. It’s another (small) step in the current journey of English cricket that appears to be characterised by the search for transient populism, the abandonment of subtlety and tradition, and the easy recourse to dumbing down. And, after all this time, I’m afraid that it’s also a further strain on my attachment to the game.

Still, here’s hoping for 2022. I look forward to watching Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance at Headingley or Scarborough and being reminded that they are – that they remain – two really good batsmen.

Queen’s Drive

12th September 2021

This year, I have been a regular viewer of the evening television highlights of cycling’s three Grand Tours – Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España – via the Eurosport, ITV4 and/or Quest channels. The quality of the respective presentations has varied – notably the editing and post-race analysis – but each event has been good to watch over its gruelling three-week duration. I am probably no nearer than I was at the beginning of the summer to donning the Lycra and sitting on a bike myself, but I do now know a little more than I did about the tactics of a breakaway or the timing of a sprint finish.

(An aside. When the various 2021 Sportsman of the Year accolades are being awarded, I suggest that those who decide these things look beyond the Olympic Games and Euro 2020 to consider the case for the Dutch cyclist, Fabio Jakobsen. Just over a year ago, he was near to death in a Polish hospital following a horrendous crash at the Tour de Pologne. The catalogue of the injuries he sustained makes for very grim reading. At this year’s Vuelta, he won the Green Jersey for the race’s overall points competition. A heroic and uplifting story).

ITV4 has been the broadcaster of the AJ Bell Tour of Britain, an eight-day race that ended today. (Another aside. My search on Google revealed that AJ Bell is a “public limited company that provides online investment platforms and stockbroker services”). It has to be acknowledged that the Tour does what it says on the tin – the start was in Penzance and the finale was in Aberdeen – albeit with some sizeable jumps between stages. Yesterday, the penultimate stage was of 195 kilometres from Hawick to Edinburgh and I duly took up a place to watch the final stretch down Queen’s Drive at the foot of Arthur’s Seat.

As with my journey to the football match in Cumbernauld earlier in the week (“A Commitment Made Good (Partly)”, 9th September 2021), I drew on the resources of public transport to make the journey from Milngavie. This can be risky at weekends. I had known that there would be a replacement bus service at the start of the trip (though I hadn’t anticipated that the driver would lose his way on the short journey between Bearsden and Westerton stations and start making his way back to Milngavie), but it was a surprise when I reached Queen’s Street station in Glasgow and learned that the flagship train service to Edinburgh would also involve a replacement bus from Linlithgow.

As the bus crawled down the A8 through Corstorphine on the outskirts of the capital, I was anxiously looking at my watch and fearing that I would arrive at Queen’s Drive to see the peloton disappearing into the distance. However, to my relief, it turned out that I had about 25 minutes to spare before the first riders came through.

My vantage point was just inside the last kilometre at the start of the final slight incline that led straight up towards the finishing line. This had been my intended spot: it enabled me to see the riders as they came around the long curve of Queen’s Drive and then head into the distance. As if to recognise my neat bit of scheduling, the dark threatening clouds overhead started to be replaced by the bright sunshine that would last for the remainder of the afternoon.

I waited next to a couple in late middle age who were both cycling and walking enthusiasts. The man told me with some pride that the cottage they had hired as the base for a walking holiday in the Pyrenees had been on the route of this year’s Vuelta. In common with some others around me, he had been following the progress of the day’s stage on his mobile phone and he told me that the numbers in the breakaway had been whittled down to five, though none was in contention in the General Classification to win the overall Tour.

The leaders passed in an initial group of three – Matt Gibson, Yves Lampaert and Matteo Jorgenson – followed, after a few seconds, by Davide Ballerini and Pascal Eenkhoorn. The peloton swept by about a minute and a half later. (The Belgian, Lampaert, was the eventual winner). Whilst acknowledging that I was not witnessing a severe mountain climb or a frenetic sprint finish, I did think that there was something smooth and elegant about them all.

All the riders were greeted by warm and polite applause from the spectators behind the barriers on both sides of the road, the clapping seeming to complement the soft purr of tyre on road. This support was replicated for the stragglers who came in a little later – perhaps delayed by a crash or a “technical” (which, I understand, usually means a puncture) – including the young rider from the Great Britain team who, at the foot of the incline, inadvertently followed one of the support cars down the wrong road before being redirected on to the correct route.

Not surprisingly, many of the spectators – including whole families – were dressed for the part in their cycling gear, most of whom, in turn, had brought their own bicycles. It is not difficult to sense that this sport is healthy (in both senses) in Britain and one, moreover, that encourages participation as well as spectating.

Many of the spectators remained for some time after the race, hoping to catch a glimpse of the riders as they returned to the team buses, which were parked not far from where I had watched the race. The area was cordoned off to respect the current Covid-19 regulations, but this did not prevent Mark Cavendish – Britain’s greatest sprint cyclist – from patiently working his way along the line for a series of selfies with his fans before he boarded the Deceuninck-Quick-Step bus. He did this for several minutes: an impressive effort, I thought, from someone who must have been close to exhaustion after another demanding 4½ hours in the saddle.

As with all cycling competitions on the road – and particularly the various Tours – there was a large entourage of accompanying vehicles: organisers’ car, team directors’ cars, cars racked with spare bicycles, police motorbikes, ambulance, and so on. In addition, the staffing requirements on the route are significant, of course, with each potentially dangerous item of street furniture requiring someone to man it and wave a warning flag. After the race, I passed the group of police outriders – is there are collective noun? – as they gathered together by their vehicles near the entrance to the Queen’s Gallery of Holyrood Palace. From the north country English accents that I overheard, they were clearly drawn from across the country.

I waited for a few more minutes before crossing Queen’s Drive to look back at the views. The team buses – their sponsors’ names and riders’ photographs prominently displayed on the outside and appropriately led by Jumbo-Visma – started to leave for Stonehaven in preparation for today’s final stage of the Tour. I decided to re-cross the road and head for the Starbucks on the Royal Mile for (as it turned out) a flat white coffee and a slice of chocolate caramel shortbread. One of the officials in high-viz jackets was manning the crossing point. “You can cross now”, he said, his back to the traffic. I waited. “You can cross now”, he repeated, as if both surprised and impatient at my non-movement. “There’s a bus coming, mate”, I replied, as the vehicle containing the combined ranks of Deceuninck-Quick-Step – including Cavendish, no doubt – sped towards us.

Today’s stage from Stonehaven to Aberdeen was won in a sprint finish by another Belgian, Wout van Aert of Jumbo-Visma. This gave him the overall victory in the 2021 Tour of Britain by six seconds from Britain’s Ethan Hayter.

A Commitment Made Good (Partly)

9th September 2021

I reported last year (“Unfinished Business at Petershill Park”, 22nd August 2020) that the 2019-20 UEFA Women’s Champions League quarter-final between Glasgow City and VfL Wolfsburg, which had originally been scheduled as a conventional two-legged affair the previous March, had been an early casualty of the coronavirus in the sports spectating itinerary that I had planned for 2020. (The match was eventually played 5 months later as a one-off fixture in San Sebastian, which the German side won 9-1). As its title suggested, I ended that particular blog with the acknowledgement that I had some unfinished business with the Glasgow City club and the hope that, at some future date, I could take in a match at its home ground at Petershill Park in Springburn.

I have now – partly at least – made good on that commitment. This season, Glasgow City have been playing their European fixtures at the Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld and yesterday afternoon I attended the club’s 2nd round 2nd leg tie against the Swiss side, Servette FCCF (Servette FC Chênois Féminin).

From my starting point in Milngavie, it knew from a previous visit – for the Clyde versus Stirling Albion fixture in the Scottish Professional Football League 2 in May 2016 (recorded in Still An Ordinary Spectator) – that it would be a train journey and then a bus ride to get to the stadium. The latter was provided at no cost to me, thanks to the largesse of the Scottish Government (and the UK taxpayer). Moreover, in order to attract a sizeable home support, the Glasgow City club had decided on a free entry policy for the tie. I was reasonably confident, therefore, that the afternoon’s spectating would provide good value for money.

It was a very hot day and I was glad to take my place in the shade at the back of the main stand. The view beyond the stand on the opposite side of the ground gave me a sliver of Broadwood Loch to the left and, in the sun-drenched middle distance to the right, a lengthy stretch of the Kilsyth Hills.

To reach this stage, Glasgow City had had to play two first round matches – against Birkirkara FC of Malta and BIIL Shymkent of Kazakhstan – though the travel requirements had been relatively light: both matches were played at Broadwood last month.

There was all to play for in the Servette tie. The first leg had finished 1-1 and the reward for the winner would be a place in the group stage of the tournament’s last 16. As Glasgow City are number 16 in the UEFA rankings, they would have been the favourites, given that Servette are at 71, though the latter rank is perhaps distorted by the Geneva-based side’s relatively recent appearance on the European stage.

In the event, it was clear from an early stage that these were two evenly matched sides. In the first quarter of an hour, both teams kept their defensive shape and there was a competitive edge in midfield. It was something of a surprise, therefore, when a long clearance down the middle by the City goalkeeper, Lee Alexander, was flicked on by Niamh Farrelly and Priscila Chinchilla was able to take advantage of a clear run on the Servette goal and coolly register the first goal. “Route 1” it might have been, but with some skill attached.

The match was decided in the ten minutes on either side of half-time. Just before the break, Alexander – who otherwise had a fine game – lost concentration for a moment and picked up what the Dutch referee judged (correctly, in my view) was a back-pass from one of her defenders. The result was an indirect free-kick to Servette on the line of Glasgow City’s six-yard box.

The whole of the City team took their places on the goal-line as the Servette players, Sandy Maendly and Jade Boho Sayo (who is generally known as Jade), stood over the ball. After one false start, in which a couple of City defenders prematurely charged from their line, Maendly tapped the ball forward and Jade drove it emphatically into the roof of the net. My immediate reaction was that this had been a well-rehearsed routine: the two Servette players had not rushed the opportunity, but had kept their cool and taken full advantage of the lifeline presented to their side.

The second – and decisive – Servette goal came three minutes after half time. After chasing what looked to have been a fairly innocuous-looking clearance down the right wing, the centre-forward Marta Peiró Giménez won the ball and released Amandine Soulard into space from which she delivered a cross to the far post, where it was attacked by Daina Bourma. Alexander made an excellent save but, unfortunately for City, the ball rebounded from the crossbar to the supporting Maendly, who headed it home.

These Servette players all gave impressive performances: Giménez played a tireless striker’s role, on several occasions skilfully holding the ball up for her supporting colleagues; the right-back Soulard was a feisty competitor who, in front of her goal in the second half, produced a couple of timely defensive headers from threatening City crosses; in the midfield, Maendly delivered a series of well-weighted passes and, with one exception, a number of dangerous in-swinging corners from Servette’s right-hand side, which the City defence consistently found difficult to deal with. Maendly would probably have been my choice as player-of-the-match, though it would have been a close-run contest with Chinchilla who, in addition to her well-taken goal, was a continual threat to the Servette defence with her close control and sharp acceleration.

The draining conditions did not prevent both sides from demonstrating the speed of their counter-attack. In the first half, after the visitors had made a hash of a short corner, Chinchilla won the ball and released the pacy Ode Fulutudilu for a long run on the Servette goal. It was defence-to-attack in a matter of seconds. It took a smart save from the goalkeeper, Ines Pereira, to prevent the scoreline reaching 2-0: a decisive moment, one feels, in retrospect. Near to the end, the roles were reversed and a run and pass by Jade led to Elodie Nakkach squandering a chance in front of a near-open goal. I had expected that the demanding conditions would mean that the overall pace of the game would slow dramatically in the second half, but this was not the case: a tribute to the players’ fitness and the timing of their coaches’ substitutions.

As with the men’s counterpart, the players in the UEFA Women’s Champions League are drawn from around the world. By my calculations, 15 different nationalities were represented in yesterday’s two match-day squads. From the Glasgow City team, Chinchilla and Fulutudilu are Costa Rican and South African internationals, for example, whilst their opponents Pereira and Jade have represented Portugal and Equatorial Guinea, respectively. There was still room for domestically produced talent, however, with 4 Scots and 3 Swiss in the starting XIs.

One obvious area in which the men’s and women’s tournaments differ, of course, is in the financial rewards. The Herald reported yesterday that the winner of the Glasgow City-Servette tie could look forward to £345,000 in prizemoney for reaching the group stage. This might represent less than a week’s wages for Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United, but it would have been a sizeable windfall for the budget of Glasgow City FC.

It was a very good afternoon’s entertainment. The crowd – a few hundred perhaps – supported their team to the end, recognising the efforts and skills on show. We were a mixed group – male and female, of all ages – with a sufficient number of young girls for one to be confident that the groundwork is being laid for the next generation of women players. I also have to say – at the risk of appearing unduly prim and proper – that it was nice to attend a professional football match that was not accompanied, in the stand, by the usual tribalism, foul language and lack of respect for the opposition.

The focus of Glasgow City will now be on the domestic agenda and the attempt to qualify for next season’s European competition. For these matches in the Scottish Women’s Premier League, it will be back to Petershill Park.