Not so jolly hockey

Stepping off the tube to cross the platform and wait for a connecting train to take me to Wembley arena last Sunday, I suddenly got hit by a wall of wet. An horrendous downpour had begun and I was in the way. It was my own fault as I had negated to wrap up in head to toe waterproofs for the January journey five steps across the semi-covered platform. It was around this time that I was overcome with a huge sense of gratitude that I was on my way to watch Indoor hockey and not the more popular outdoor version.

(My last expedition to spectate a hockey match I was equipped with thermals, hood, hat, another hood, coat, gloves, boots and umbrella. I also packed a flask of coffee and a handful of Quality Streets. This was Boxing Day, but trust me, the procedure has been perfected and replicated throughout the entire outdoor season, bar the Quality streets that I was lucky to get a hold of even on Boxing Day).

Anyway, by the time I was making my return trip having watched all four matches of the Super Sixes (national Indoor finals), I was thinking differently. I was thinking give me pissing rain and sand in my socks and proper outdoor hockey; this Indoor lark will never catch on.

Hockey isn’t played in bad weather. Rain, hail, sleet and snow doesn’t necessarily stop the game (anyone who has ever been to Raphoe knows there wouldn’t be a season if this was the case). Frost stops play. If a pitch is frozen, the game can’t go ahead because it is too dangerous so in England a scheduled break is enforced around the Christmas period to try to eliminate a backlog of fixtures needing to be arranged as a result of postponements.  To keep fitness levels from fading faster than Frosty the snowman many teams allow themselves to come indoors. With a smaller pitch and just six players instead of eleven, the game transpires very differently. It can be fast, it can be end-to-end and it can be a goal-scorers dream. Alternatively, it can be manic, it can be haphazard and it can be demoralising.

The Maxifuel Super Sixes finals at Wembley in front of about 5,000 supporters, is the accumulation of a short domestic season that has the tremendous incentive of playing in a grand arena with the bonus of being televised on Sky Sport.

The day consisted of the men’s semi’s, the women’s final and lastly, the men’s final.

Thirty goals were scored in the first two matches with East Grinstead finding the net a dozen times against Beeston. This set up a place in the final against Reading who managed nine in their semi win over Canterbury. East Grinstead dominated the final winning 7-1 and securing the title of National champions for the fifth consecutive year. With so many goals being scored there was quality on display. The game is designed to be fast paced with sideboards in place to keep the ball in play for longer. Ultimately players get tired so the goalkeeper has added importance. East Grinstead had an international specialist GK between their posts who conceded just five over the two games. They also had a team of goal scorers, which is something you need in Indoor. Each individual should know how to put chances away, nineteen goals shows this was the case.

Reading was in the final of the ladies section too, pitted against Sutton Coldfield who provided a brilliant subplot to the event. They last reached this stage of the competition 24 years ago and one of the game’s genuine stars played in both fixtures. Four-time Olympian and Barcelona Bronze medallist Jane Sixsmith; a household name the last time GB achieved a podium finish in the Olympics. Sixsmith continued to add to the record books by scoring her team’s second goal.

However this wasn’t enough to get hold of the trophy as on the day the difference between the two sides was current England and Great Britain sensation Helen Richardson who scored three of Readings four goals reminding everyone that see is one of the most gifted players of her generation.

Unfortunately, throughout the day there was little excitement in the air despite a whole host of well-known players turning out, old rivalries reignited and crowd entertainment during the intervals. There was a sense of inevitably once the matches got underway. In each fixture (excluding a brief few minutes of the women’s final when Sutton Coldfield levelled the scoring) there was no doubt which side was going to win. Indoor is not outdoor with a roof on, it is a different game. Specialist players display tight skills that they can perform in less space than it takes to swing a cat, but they are few and far between. This is because the season is short so players focus on the long form of the game. Despite goals galore, a London venue and hired in razzmatazz to impress Sky, I came to the conclusion that Indoor is much more fun to play than to spectate. Although much of this joy is giddy relief that you don’t have to spend an hour and a half in the driving rain straining to see beyond the end of your nose. Indoor is fun because it isn’t outdoor, because it is a novelty. Well played to each of the teams involved in the Super Sixes as well as England Hockey for producing a slick event. But it just isn’t hockey.

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Get her off the pitch

Somehow, considering it was first published in 2010, I only just got my hands on this book. The title has been a reminder in my phone for about a year, trying to spark me into pulling the finger out and actually buying it. Or, borrowing it from the library that I visit about six times a week. Lucky for me Santa Claus isn’t as tardy as I am. I (slash he) know what I like and I knew this would go down well.

The real stories of a female journalist with no interest or inclination towards sport being dunked head first into a world of plus-fours, googlies and uppercuts is definitely entertaining. Truss notes the mistakes she made, the unlikely situations she found herself in, at times due to her inexperience, the perils of the unglamorous press box, the historic fixtures she was present at and the segregation insisted on between some other journalists and her.

Written in a style that is funny, honest and easy to go along with, reading this book is effortless. Except that I have had to restrain myself from laughing on a few occasions. I nearly displayed teeth through a smile the other day on the tube but I managed to catch myself on just in time. The joy of the tale though for me, is that she did end up falling for sport. She was converted into a form studying, statistic laden, holistic nut because she went with it.

Good on her. I’m pretty jealous.

An England win to scream about

I had been keeping a watchful eye on the England netball fixtures list as I was really keen to see them play. The last time I was at an international was when the Commonwealth Games were held in Manchester. My mum had taken the bait I dangled in front of her in the form of a strategic parable unoriginally pilfered from Nikeee, “We should just do it mum, we’ll regret it if we don’t. We might not get the chance again” As a working mum of four children she was/is not one to pass up an opportunity to get the flock outta there; if the door was left ajar it was not one of the babes that needed watching for fear of running fugitive, it was mum.

Now that I’m living in London the thought had crossed my mind that I would have a better chance of going to a match as being in the host country is usually a benefit (this is the part were my fingers tighten into eagle-esque claws as I restrain myself from banging on about the price of trains/flights/petrol/Boris bikes). But netball seems to follow the pattern favoured by another sport not considered mainstream, rugby league, by chiefly staying out of chuffing London. Whether happily not breaching the inner circle of the M25 and being classified a minor sport in this country are related is a question for another time. Eight teams make up the Netball Super League (NSL) with the most southern side being Surrey Storm based in Guildford. There is a Welsh team, the Celtic Dragons that play their home fixtures in Cardiff. I make this point because as the NSL is the highest level for club sides they have a fan base or following in the region. A region that is near London therefore it is not unreasonable to assume that every so often a premier international fixture should be held in the capital.

World number one side Australia were the opposition for this three-match series being hosted in Bath, Wembley arena and the NEC in Birmingham. So to north London I headed along with 7,000 other spectators to witness if victory in the opening game the previous weekend was as a result of Aussie jetlag, wardrobe malfunction in terms of tying shoelaces together or simply lucky.

This is unfair; it is a redundant attitude of sporting fixtures between the two nations hanging around like a lazy koala bear up a tree on a sunny afternoon in Steve Irwin’s zoo. As it turned out, an experienced England side built on success garnered from the 2011 World Fast Net series win and a useful Test series in the southern hemisphere last year.

Remarkably, being in Brent, the whole night was a joy. I challenge anyone, fan of netball, sports enthusiast or not, to have felt differently. The match was tight, seesawing between the sides until the hosts edged clear in the final quarter and held on to win by 2 points. The crowd was loud, the wee girl squealing into my right ear from the first whistle should really have received some sort of grand recognition for superior lung capacity, or made to sign a medical contract so science could eventually benefit from exploring her unnaturally large lungs.

Coach Anna Mayes instilled a sense of confidence into her players so they trusted their significant abilities. The delight on the faces of the squad after the final whistle was exciting to see as this win meant a series victory over the Diamonds for the first time ever. The mood was summed up when two of the players literally did cartwheels and backflips in celebration.

Interest in netball is steadily increasing, as is the number of participants. There is no reason why this sport should not get significant media coverage; it has everything a finger-twitching journalist looks for in women’s sport– Pretty girls? Yes, High standard? Yes, Role models? Yes,  Success? Yes, yes, yes

If you have talent, you must use it

What is the right age to compete at the Olympics?

Well obviously it depends on the sport – despite his keenness to get anyone and everyone into sport ahead of the Games, even Lord Coe hasn’t managed to persuade too many from the 50+ demographic to take up pole vaulting. Even gravity would be against him in this endeavour. Neither has there been an increase in the number of teenagers bouncing down to the local archery range for practice of the quiet, repetitive variety that requires optimal concentration. I’m not saying they can’t do that, most of them chose not to.

The textbook path for a talented athlete to follow would look like this

Chapter 1 – Start young, be active, try different sports out, play some games

Chapter 2 – Decide what you like, practise, get good

Chapter 3 – Compete in junior competitions, do well, progress to senior level

Chapter 4 – Break records, win titles, make money, retire

Not all athletes take this route though which is what makes sport so appealing. Talk to players in the same team and they won’t have come off a conveyor belt to reach where they are let alone athletes from different sports.

Take the GB Eventing team selected for the London Olympics – the youngest member is Zara Phillips (or should that be Tindall?) who is the Queen’s grand-daughter and 14th in line to the throne. This athlete would have all the pony power she wanted to hack around her choice of landed estates. She, naturally, has good pedigree as both her parents represented their country at past Olympics.

The oldest member of the equestrian team is Mary King, (surely soon to be Dame Mary). The 51 year old grew-up in Devon but none of her family rode. She borrowed a pony that belonged to the local vicar who her father worked for. She did all sorts of jobs to feed her horsey habit including a delivery girl for the butcher’s and a gardener. Her fierce determination got her a position of head girl at notable stables and since then she has competed and won medals at British, European and World Championships as well as 4 Olympic Games.

These stories are so unorthodox they have become orthodox. There is no right and wrong direction to the top (unless you are Ben Johnson or Marion Jones, or Eric Moussambani). As the Dwain Chambers saga continues, a tale that is destined to be more than a trilogy of volumes,

The story of another sprinter comes to light, and not just as a subplot. Adam Gemili finished second to Chambers at the GB trials in Birmingham last weekend but had already achieved the Olympic A-standard ahead of this meet.

The teenager only began to take athletics seriously in January having been on the books at Chelsea FC and Dagenham and Redbridge. He forgot about football (heaven forbid) and ran 10.08 seconds inGermanyto make the Olympics a possibility. This is the second fastest time by a European in 2012 so his name was added to the list being rewarded with a summer jolly toStratford. As he is still 18 he can compete at the World Junior Games in July before trying his luck against men the following month. Why wouldn’t he? He will have a whole month more experience by then and fearlessness is the mark of the young and the brave. Although the world and its mother, and presumably Gemili’s mother too, think that as long as Usain Bolt can wait for the B of the bang, he will win the 100m, there is no reason why he shouldn’t turn up. It will make a man out of him, there’s no time like the present.

The secret to Frankies success….

If the old adage of horses for courses is true, does the same apply for jockeys? Yesterday Frankie Dettori provided the jewel in the crown at Royal Ascot when he steered Colour Vision to victory by half a length in the Gold Cup. Remarkably, this is the fifth time the Italian has weaved his way to the front of the field in this marquee race. How did he do it again? Surely he is old, past it? Maybe it was divine intervention, an unworldly gift, the aligning of the galaxies. Or maybe it was the mans instinctual determination to stick two fingers up to those who doubted him, advising him to retire when basically, he doesn’t want to?

Horse racing is a technical sport. Two athletes are involved, they both have to be in the best physical condition and they need to work together to be successful. Don’t underestimate or dismiss the role of a jockey in the partnership; they aren’t merely passengers. The fitness, agility and strength necessary to produce the best performance from a hot-blooded, highly-conditioned animal with expectation from trainer, owner and punters, silently yelling, screaming and shouting anxious glares and nervous scowls at you in the betting ring beforehand and voraciously vocalizing the same sentiments when you get on to the track.

The physiological strains have the potential to be enormous, as they can be in many other sports. But this isn’t anything new for Dettori, he is used to such anticipation. What is not normal is the disappointment of not being entrusted a ride. There was a time, not long ago, when he was the number one pick. However, in 2012 he was overlooked for the Oaks and couldn’t get a chance in the Derby at Epsom either. At 42 years old he has been dethroned by a younger model in Mickael Barzalona, who has already won the Derby and the Dubai World Cup at the age of 20. These elements collided to hurt Dettori. For a man who has achieved so much and still believes in his own abilities, this is understandable. Winning the showpiece event again at Ascot proved that where there’s life, there’s hope. Dettori rightly pointed out in a post-race interview that although his own ride, and the horse that came second, ridden by Barzalona, were both from the Godolphin stables, when he is out there racing, it is every man for himself.  He might be the darling of the winners enclosure with his cheeky smile and spectacular flying dismounts, but don’t be distracted by the theatrics, this is fighting talk from a fiery Italian.

Come On Football – Catch yourself on

FIFA, UEFA, FA, Ronald McDonald, Kate Middleton, please, anyone with a modicum of power stop this embarrassing hash that is the lack of goal line technology in football. The man with the wand has proved far from magic as the extra official refuses to make a decision.

Any Englishman who tried to justify the Ukraine goal by regurgitating the Frank Lampard/World Cup fiasco should bury his head in shame. Much drivel was spouted during post match interviews and phone-ins last night claiming that because Jorge Larrionda didn’t allow the goal against Germany two years ago that was somehow tough luck for Ukraine in 2012, in the Euros, a competition they are hosting, in a game were England were out played, when Rooney headed in a goal from three feet out after it had taken at least two deflections and skidded off the turf on the way across the box. As I’m sure St George would agree, two wrongs don’t make a right. Look at Ashley Cole’s hair for example. The right side is as daft as the left side and together, his style is wrong, as far away from right as James Milner is from winning the Golden Boot award.

Football needs to catch on and catch up.

Sport that’s good in bed

When I was younger and still living at home I thought the best Christmas, Birthday, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, deceased dog anniversary day present would be a subscription to Sky Sports, with added everything. This notion continued with me long after I left home although obviously it was effectively suppressed by the reality of having to pay for it myself, coupled with the relief that I could legally and dutifully get into a pub and watch from there (even this isn’t a barrier anymore as I discovered a local bar has placed a widescreen TV facing outside so smokers can still follow the sporting action while comfortably and simultaneously killing their insides).

I do feel like I’m missing out sometimes though especially in light of the rapidly depleting ‘free’ coverage provided by the BBC, or when the big draw of the weekend isn’t horse racing or, bizarrely, yachting as shown on Channel 4.

That was until I gave radio a chance. I knew how excellent it could be as I had listened to the excitement of the Ryder Cup from Celtic Manor being lived out over the airwaves, but it had slipped my mind somehow. Maybe in the blaze of psychotic Olympicism or overdone, wall to wall to ceiling to floor coverage of Euro 2012, including official, and unofficial pants.

My subconscious is definitely tuned in like a satellite dish to attract signals from significant (self definition) sporting events. I’m able to wake from my sleep just when the action gets good enough to make you sit up straight. It happened when Alistair Cook reached his double century during the 2010 Ashes Test in Brisbane and the internal Sky Plus reminder worked again a few nights ago. I rolled over in bed and pressed the radio on just as Graeme McDowell was teeing off from the 17thhole at the Olympic club course in San Francisco needing to birdie the final two to be in with a chance of winning the US Open for the second time. This was more pertinent as McDowell is a favourite of mine being from Northern Ireland, despite his motley Yankee twang. He reads the green right on the second last to sink a tricky putt from 12 feet before practically jogging to the 18th like a celebratory Darren Clarke would head towards the 19th. GMac must have had a trademark motivating cliché enter his mind as he makes his way to his ball, 25 feet from the hole, needing a birdie to force a play-off with American Webb Simpson. It doesn’t sink the same way the clichés do and as his attempt drifts left his opportunity of winning this Major twice in three years slips away too. That isn’t the only thing drifting, as I have heard all need to know, as Rio Ferdinand should say, “at the end of the day, it’s night”. No trophy for McDowell to curl up in bed with but enough sporting delights to send us both dreaming. Thanks to the wonder that is the wireless.

Cringe or revel? What a dude. Classic GMac by Gmac