Better than? Less than? Different than? The WWE’s brand split dilemma

The brand split is back! For those who don’t recall in 2002 World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) split its roster between its two weekly shows RAW and Smackdown. For a time it was different and exciting – especially in the era of the “Smackdown Six*” and duelling General Managers Eric Bischoff and Stephanie McMahon – but eventually it fizzled out became less exciting and eventually just dribbled away ending in 2011. Now in a spectacular u turn the brand split is coming back (the draft takes place on July 11th and from the 19th Smackdown will go live – at least in North America). But why?

One difference between 2002 and now is that there is no storyline logic for the split. In 2002 kayfabe owners Vince McMahon and Ric Flair could not stand the sight of each other so the WWE board of directors decided basically to split the roster up so that those two would never have to work together. I thought this storyline reason for a brand split would be repeated when Shane and Stephanie McMahon were arguing over who should run RAW but instead Mr McMahon had them both run RAW and like David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the UK ‘s 2010-15 Coalition government have been working together better than anyone thought they would. So why the split?

To my mind the reason is sinister. The USA Network which televises RAW and Smackdown is unhappy about the latter’s ratings. But Smackdown’s ratings are probably low because the show is taped (in this internet era spoilers are inevitable) so why not have it live with the same roster for a while to see if that would work. What annoys me is that only the USA Network gets a say. Other channels that cover WWE (like Sky in the UK) don’t seem to get a say nor do the WWE fans. That could be a dangerous precedent if the USA Network wants WWE to do something the UK would not accept (say a return to TV14 or intergender matches although I think we are safe from both of  those). The point is the rest of the world deserve a say in WWE’s future. But that said how would I do the draft? Two points first. I’m not doing a draft for every wrestler in the WWE. Secondly this is what I would do not what I think the WWE will do.

1. The World title(s?) If it was up to me there MUST be only one World title in the WWE – the current WWE World Heavyweight Championship. In the last brand split eventually there were two World titles. The problem there was one (the WWE Championship) was regarded as superior to the other (the World Heavyweight Championship**). Another problem was two Championships with split rosters produced long boring reigns (Triple H’s 2002-5 “Reign of Terror” and John Cena ‘s 2006-7 reign come to mind.) Keep one title let the champion float between the two shows and when the title changes hands the deposed champion goes to the show his successor was exclusive to.

2. The mid card titles. Fairly straightforward. There is the US title and the Intercontinental title. One should become exclusive to RAW the other exclusive to Smackdown. I would send the Intercontinental title to RAW and the US title to Smackdown but it could easily go the other way around.

3. Tag Teams. One of the big mistakes WWE made in 2002 was to split up established tag teams like the Dudley Boyz and the APA. This was so unsuccessful the teams were reunited in less than a year. To my mind tag teams should both not be split up or drafted. Instead the Tag Team Title should be allocated to one show and all tag teams should be drafted to that show. If a tag team splits up its members get put into a new draft and can be picked separately or together depending on what creative has planned for them.

4. Women. This is the part I fear the WWE will cock up. The women’s Championship should be like the men’s. It should be one title and the champion should float between the two shows. But I would not put women wrestlers into the draft. The women’s roster in my opinion does not have enough credible wrestlers to be split in two – a relic of WWE’s policy of hiring models rather than wrestlers. With the full women’s roster having only to compete with half the male roster on each show in theory the women might have more than one feud on each show. What I fear WWE will do is either have the women’s title and all the women on one show – which means one show would be all male which is unacceptable in 2016 – or bring back the awful Divas title which they retired only in April. The only women in the draft should be Maryse and Lana who should be drafted with their real life partners the Miz and Rusev respectively.

5. The Cruiserweight title. That would leave one show with four titles and the other three.To balance this another title has to be created. I would not bring back the European title (too similar to the US and Intercontinental titles) nor the Hardcore title (unacceptable in the PG era.) The obvious one to bring back is the Cruiserweight title. I don’t know why they retired it in 2007 or why they buried the title by putting the belt on Hornswoggle. Yes really.

So if I was in charge the title picture would be :

Both Shows : World Heavyweight Title, Women’s Title
RAW : Intercontinental Title, Tag Team Titles
Smackdown: US title, Cruiserweight Title (Or vice versa).

But will the brand split work? I doubt it. And Eric Bischoff supplies the answer why. In his book “Controversy Creates Ca$h” (pages 152-56) he says when he was launching WCW Monday Nitro he had three choices. Be “better than” RAW, “less than” or “different than”. Bischoff did not think he could be “better than” RAW obviously he did not want to be “less than” so he decided to be “different than”. Which at least for the first couple of years he managed. But when he created (against his better judgement) a second WCW show “Thunder” he admitted ” “We didn’t do a good job of making it different, so it became less“. (“Controversy Creates Ca$h, page 271.The italics are Bischoff ‘s.)

And that is WWE ‘s problem. It is easier to make a show different from a competitor’s show than it is to make a spin off from your own show different. Smackdown is struggling just now because it is not different enough from RAW so it becomes less than RAW. WWE can’t afford to have one show be better than the other as the other show will be less than. They must make them different from each other. Different rosters on their own will not do that. Two possible ways of making them different would be to make one TV14 while keeping the other PG or how about relaunching WCW and renaming Smackdown “Tuesday Nitro?”.

I don’t think the WWE will do either of those things. But unless they make the shows different from each other one will inevitably be better than” the other… which means the other will be “less than”. And neither WWE or the USA Network want that…

*The “Smackdown Six” were Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Edge, Eddie and Chavo Guerrero and Rey Mysterio. The six were some of the best wresters in the world and their matches in 2002-3 played a part in making Smackdown “different than” RAW. A lot of people said in fact Smackdown was in fact “better than” RAW in this period.

**In my opinion the World Heavyweight Championship was always inferior to the WWE Championship mainly because the World Heavyweight Championship belt was WCW’s “Big Gold Belt” which to me will always be tarnished by the fact that in 2000 both actor David Arquette and useless waste of space Vince Russo held it.

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Shame on sexist Eurosport UK

Two Champions League finals this week. The men’s Final is on Saturday between the two Madrid clubs Real and Atletico. But I’m going to concentrate on the women’s Champions League Final which will be played tomorrow in Reggio Emilia in Italy.*

Unlike the men’s Final which most people outside Madrid will agree does not feature the two best teams in Europe (most neutrals would have liked to see Bayern Munich managed by Manchester City bound Pep Guadiola play his old club Barcelona) the women’s Final features the two best teams Wolfsburg and Lyon (the only club that might have challenged this – Frau Bundesliga Champions Bayern Munich – were sensationally knocked out in the first round by Dutch club FC Twente). Since that event it seemed that only the draw could stop Wolfsburg and Lyon and the two clubs showed their superiority by crushing holders Frankfurt (4-0) and 2015 runners up PSG (7-0) respectively in the Semi Final first leg thus guaranteeing a Final place.

The talent in these teams is awesome. For Lyon : Ada Hegerberg, Eugenie Le Sommer, Amandine Henry, Wendie Renard…for Wolfsburg Lara Dickenmann, Ramona Bachmann, Alex Popp, Theresa Wullaert. And that is just some of the names. Sadly one of the best players of the lot Caroline Graham Hansen is injured again but even so there is enough talent on the field to excite any fan of football not just women’s football.

So what could happen? Heart says Lyon. There is a resemblance to Barcelona in their attacking talent and the way they steamroller minnows. Lotta Schelin, Hegerberg and Le Sommer are women’s football ‘s answer to Messi, Neymar and Suarez- a footballing “Murderer’s Row” of strikers who score ridiculous numbers of goals and scare the opposition witless. But… Lyon like Barcelona don’t dominate as much as the talent should suggest. Since 2008-09 Barcelona and Lyon have “only” won three and two Champions League respectively. Now that is hardly failure but even so… The reason I think Lyon don’t completely dominate the Champions League is the same reason France have not win an international honour. The French players – the core of the team – are talented chokers who miss a lot of chances. This is OK in the French League were Lyon are miles ahead of everyone but not against teams from the Frau Bundesliga which is the best league in Europe.

And that is why the head says Wolfsburg. Because if Lyon miss chances Wolfsburg have the quality – Bachmann, Popp, Wullaert – to punish a Lyon defence which is not used to being tested. Key player for Lyon is Hegerberg who scored 33 League goals this season (the second top scorer scored only 15). She is a far better finisher than the French players. If Wolfsburg stop Hegerberg a third Champions League win in four seasons is very much on the cards. And I’m going with my head on this one…

But there is a problem. If you want to see the match on UK television forget it. It is not live on UK TV**. That is unbelievable and ridiculous but true. The rights to the Champions League are with Eurosport. Now I’m certain that Eurosport International are showing the match to other countries but Eurosport UK are showing French Open tennis instead. On both their channels! That is just ridiculous. What makes it even more of a joke is that Eurosport UK showed first and second round and quarter final matches but not the Semi Finals or the Final. What other tournament is treated like this?

The UK government should intervene. Eurosport UK must be taken off air at once and replaced with Eurosport International. Long term when the men’s Champions League contract comes up UEFA must insist that any station that covers the men’s Champions League must cover the women’s too. It might cost them money – for example Sky in the UK are so sexist they probably won’t bid for the men’s Champions League in that scenario. But if UEFA cares about women’s football sacrifices have to be made. Also the likes of Manchester United should be told that if they don’t start a women’s team they are out of the Champions League until they do.

The fact that in 2016 the women’s Champions League Final is not on UK TV is embarrassing. Heads must roll. And it must never happen again.

*Since the Women’s Champions League began in 2009-10 (before that it was called the UEFA Women’s Cup) the Final has been played in or near the city that hosts the men’s Final. As the men’s Final is in Milan this year’s is being played near the men’s host city rather than in it.

**Former UK Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was once asked what he feared most and  replied “Events dear boy. Events”. Well events have overtaken this post. Eurosport UK have announced today(May 26th) that the Women’s Champions League Final is being shown live after all. I stand by the rest of what I wrote though. The Women’s Champions League should be included in a “package deal” with the men’s when the contract for the latter comes up for renewal.

 

How to sort out English T20

Although the english cricket season started on April 10th the season starts for real this week. Tomorrow the first Test of the summer – England v Sri Lanka at Headingley – begins. While on Friday the  English domestic 20 20 competition – the T20 Blast –  starts. So where does the England Test team and the English domestic T20 competition stand at the start of the season?

England’s Test team come into the summer in good heart after their 2-1 win in South Africa in the winter. They play Sri Lanka in a three Test series followed by Pakistan in a four Test series. England are favourites to win both series but they cannot underestimate Sri Lanka after Sri Lanka ‘s famous series win in England in 2014. However back in 2014 England were still in turmoil after the Ashes series whitewash the previous winter while Sri Lanka still had the experience of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. But now Jayawardene and Sangakkara have retired and England are in a far stronger position than they were in 2014 they are clear favourites. What worries me about England is still the batting. Three of the top five – Alex Hales, Nick Compton and debutant James Vince – have played just 17 Tests between them. If England are going to keep improving and build on their South African success at least one of these batsmen must break out and establish themselves as Test class and reduce the dependency on Alistair Cook, Joe Root and allrounders Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes. The fast bowling attack of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Stokes and Steve Finn is the team’s strength and should lay the foundation for Test victories. England should aim to have an unbeaten Test summer which in recent years England have only achieved in 1990, 2004 ,2011 and 2013 but with Sri Lanka and Pakistan ‘s batting both fragile looking England have a chance of going through the Test summer unbeaten.

If only English T20 cricket was in such good health. On the field it is. Had Stokes bowled a better last over England would have won the World T20 in India last month. But England’s domestic T20 competition is a mess. First of all it goes on far too long. It starts this Friday (May 20th). The group stage does not finish until July 29th! We will have had an EU referendum, two Grand Slam tennis tournaments, five England Test matches and the whole of Euro 2016 happen before this bloated yawn fest of a group stage finishes. It takes 126 games to reduce 18 teams to 8…and seven to reduce those eight to one champion. Plainly nonsense…and it must change.

Some people want franchise/city teams in English T20 cricket but as I explained before (see previous post “Why the Big Bash Won’t Work in England”) city teams (for population reasons) and franchises (for reasons of tradition) won’t work. If you were creating English cricket from scratch you would not have 18 counties. But the fact is you do. We have to work with what we have.That doesn’t mean English T20 cannot be improved. It is a shambles. And to quote Adam Blampied of What Culture WWE “And I can do it better”.

First thing first. Reduce the number of games. Currently there are two groups of nine teams who play six teams twice and two once. Which makes fourteen games a team. Which is (a) too many and (b) an uneven and unfair schedule as some teams will play the best team twice and the worst team once or vice versa. The logical thing to do is have the nine teams play each other once which makes eight games per team (as in the Big Bash). It would mean that the total number of qualifying games would fall from a bloated 126 to a more sensible 72.

Secondly T20 has to be played in a single block in the season. India, Australia, South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand all do this. England do not. This causes two problems. It is hard to attract T20 specialists to England when the tournament is so long and there are long gaps between games. It also means that players have to switch from four day cricket to T20 cricket and vice versa which is ridiculous as they are totally different forms of the game. It is like playing tennis on clay, then grass, then back to clay then back to grass and here we go round the mulberry bush…

Some might say when do you play the T20 block? Easy. T20 is meant to bring to cricket the whole family especially school children. So why not hold T20 when school children are on holiday? They do this in Australia – the Big Bash is played in December/January which is summer holiday time down under – and England should do the same. In which case T20 would be played in late July/August (the T20 Blast group stage this year, as you might recall finishes on July 29th just as the school holidays are starting – genius by the ECB!)

Another problem is TV coverage. T20 in the UK is only on Sky Sports – a subscription channel. In Australia the Big Bash is on Channel Ten – a free-to-air (FTA) channel. Now one problem in the UK is that the five main FTA channels – BBC 1 and 2, ITV, and Channels 4 and 5 – will not alter prime time schedules of soap operas and reality TV in favour of cricket. But there is a way round this. Sky has a FTA channel – called Pick. If I was running the ECB I would encourage Sky to show one T20 game per round (a total of eight) on FTA Pick. In return Sky would be allowed to show all 72 games on their subscription service Sky Sports. Subscribers would be able to press the red button and choose which game they want to see – as Sky and BT Sport do with football ‘s Champions League. This gives cricket a FTA platform while also giving people an incentive to subscribe to Sky.

A T20 tournament played in a short block where children can watch and some games are on FTA TV is far better than the convoluted shambolic mess we have now. If they have the sense to get rid of Finals Day – when the Semi Finals and the Final are played on the same day which is far too long for the attention span of children who I repeat again should be the target audience of T20 – and replace it with a best of three Final series – that would be even better.

T20 cricket will never be as big as it is in India or Australia simply because the UK cricket fan prefers Test cricket plus the fact that unlike India and Australia cricket is not the number 1 sport here. But we can do better than the shambles of a tournament we have now. My plan would both preserve the current 18 first class counties while giving England a better chance of attracting the elite T20 specialists and producing a game that children – who I repeat should be the targeted audience – can watch during their school holidays. It is not perfect. But it is far far better than what we currently have.

When WWE were nearly thrown off UK TV

Oh the summer of 2005 how I love you! Most remembered at the time for England beating Australia in arguably the greatest Ashes series in history the summer also had another famous UK victory against the odds when underdogs London won the right to host the 2012 Olympics over hot favourites Paris (and only delivered the best Olympics ever). Chelsea fans and Labour supporters will have bittersweet memories of that summer. Tony Blair’s Labour easily won its third General Election in a row – in stark contrast to the mess that party is now in outside London. While Chelsea won their first English League title in 50 years back in the days when the Premier League Champions played at Stamford Bridge instead of visiting on the last day of the season as Leicester will on Sunday!

Of course there was tragedy too. The day after London won the Olympic bid there were the terrorist attacks on the city (known as the 7/7 bombings). The British General Election of 2010 (page 19) claims that the bombings “marked, symbolically at leat, an abrupt end to the optimism of much of the Blair era”. While I don’t agree with that – Blair had shot his bolt with the UK electorate two years earlier – there is no doubt that the first terrorist attack on the UK by Al Qaeda had a serious effect on the country. On a less serious note it got World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) into such trouble they nearly got kicked off of UK TV and are still on probation till this day. How on earth could a UK national tragedy get WWE into trouble not just in the UK but in the US – so much so one of their wrestlers had to be booted out of the company for good at the age of just 23? Answer – a cocktail of arrogance, bad luck and like most sports organisations being out of touch with the real world.

The background is this. On 13 December 2004 WWE debuted a  new wrestler. He was an “Arab American”* Muhammad Hassan. The gimmick of Hassan and his manager Kosrow Daivari was that they were Arab Americans who had got on well with their fellow Americans until 9/11 but that after 9/11 their fellow Americans turned on them, discriminated against them and blamed them for the 9/11 attacks just because they were Arab Americans. They made some logical points that however were too intelligent for most American wrestling fans and therefore Hassan and Daivari became hated heels (wrestling jargon for bad guys). Hassan was placed into feuds with Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin (who said to Hassan and Daivari “I see sand people”- not WWE Creative’s finest hour) while suffering no pin fall defeats.

Then for some reason he was traded from RAW to Smackdown – a mistake in my opinion as Smackdown was on a broadcast (the US equivalent of terrestrial) channel United Paramount Network (UPN) which meant the audience for Hassan and Daivari  was potentially bigger than on RAW (a cable show) and the bigger audience something controversial gets the more people there are who could get offended. WWE had to be careful. They weren’t.

As soon as he got to Smackdown Hassan got into a feud with the Undertaker and a match between the two was arranged for the July Great American Bash pay per view. That same night (July 4 2005) Smackdown General Manager Theodore R Long made a match between the Undertaker and Daivari for that night’s show. Undertaker won easily – and then it all went pear shaped. Outside the ring Hassan kneeled down as if he was praying to Allah – and five men in masks, black tops and combat trousers ran to the ring and beat up the Undertaker. After that Hassan came into the ring and performed his finishing move on the Undertaker while the five masked men knelt down. The masked men then lifted Daivari up and carried him out of the ring a la a martyr’s funeral. What makes this more sinister is what  Hassan had said to Daivari pre match “You will be a sacrifice. But a sacrifice for a greater good”. It at least could be implied that this was acting out a terrorist attack and was rather sinister.

Note the date. July 4th. But Smackdown was not (and still is not) shown live. In those days Smackdown was shown on Thursdays in the US and that week’s Smackdown was broadcast on July 7th. Yes the day of the London bombings. Ah you say the Hassan “terrorist” angle would be edited out. Er no. It was shown in North America in full – with a “crawler” warning at the bottom of the screen. WWE claimed that it could not be edited out in time. They really should have asked UPN to delay the programme for a day in order to give them time to edit the angle out. Predictably – to everyone except WWE that is – there was an outcry and even the New York Post, TV Guide and Variety got involved. UPN panicked and told the WWE that Hassan would not be allowed to appear on their network again. So he was banned from Smackdown and Spike TV – the network that broadcast RAW – did not want him back on their show either. So he had to be beaten by the Undertaker at the pay per view and “killed off” with a last ride onto concrete. He was never seen again on WWE TV**.

Where WWE was incredibly lucky was that in the UK Smackdown was not on TV until Friday which gave Sky time to edit the angle out. But WWE made another blunder. They posted the footage on their website – including the UK. Even although the internet was not as prominent in 2005 as it is now enough UK fans saw it for it to be known what had happened and in the words of Ian Hamilton (in “Wrestling’s Sinking Ship : What Happens to an Industry Without Competition” page 172) “were up in arms”. Why on earth they put it on the internet is a mystery. They must have known UK fans used the internet in 2005 – unless they were so ignorant they thought we didn’t!

Still at least the UK press hadn’t got hold of the incident so all WWE had to do was not make any more mistakes and let the affair die down. But they could not even do that right. Once UPN had banned Hassan they really should have pulled him out of the pay per view match with the Undertaker and found a substitute (Randy Orton would have been the obvious replacement or bring in a wrestler from RAW like Kurt Angle). But instead they kept Hassan in the match. Incredibly they showed the beat down on the Undertaker in the promo for the match. Even more incredibly Hassan was carried to the ring by the same five masked guys who had beaten the Undertaker up. And even more incredibly it was shown live on Sky Sports in the UK!***

Now the shit did hit the fan. Sky got reprimanded by Ofcom (for the benefit of anyone reading this who is not from the UK Ofcom is our TV regulator – our Federal Communications Commission (FCC) equivalent). Sky understandably were furious. Especially as the WWE had been running some awful angles at the time – Hot Lesbian Action, Katie Vick, WWE owner Vince McMahon fighting his own daughter on pay per view and a one legged wrestler – Zach Gowen – being pushed down a flight of stairs in a wheelchair (Sky cut that out too). Sky in effect put the WWE on a “suspended sentence” saying if the WWE did anything else offensive their UK TV contract would be terminated. Frankly the WWE had done so many offensive angles in the previous three years they were lucky to keep their contract.

This whole mess was an example of sporting arrogance at its worst. As Dave Meltzer put it on his website “they (the WWE) live in a bubble in Connecticut where there is nothing but wrestling and the real world doesn’t exist”. Substitute Zurich for Connecticut and soccer for wrestling and Meltzer could have been writing about FIFA. How they did not know after the London bombings that that angle would offend is a mystery.

I think the Hassan affair (along with the Chris Benoit murder/suicide and Linda McMahon’s (Vince’s wife) US senate bids) led to the current PG WWE era that wrestling fans consider safe. But you can’t blame the WWE for playing safe. Remember if they do anything offensive they could blow a lucrative UK TV contract.  They think ” better safe than sorry “. And that is the price the WWE are paying for taking a totally unnecessary risk back in July 2005….

*Ironically the man who played Hassan – Mark Copani – is not Arab American at all. With that name it is no surprise that he is Italian American.

**Copani was sent down to the WWE development league to alter his gimmick but he was released on September 21 2005 probably because he would always be associated with the Hassan character. He then retired from wrestling aged 23 an innocent victim of the whole sordid mess. Ironically he was heading for a major push and was going to win the World Heavyweight Championship at August’s SummerSlam pay per view had the affair not happened.

***That was when I first saw the incident (I did not have the internet at the time). I was horrified. If I had known WWE would show that I would not have taped the event. I suspected – and still do – that if a US city had been bombed on July 7th that angle would have never seen the light of day. To my mind it showed arrogant contempt for the UK. I know people who have never watched WWE again and one friend of mine wanted whoever wrote the angle sacked and McMahon hung. Whether anyone other than poor Copani was sacked I don’t know.

Key games in the Leicester miracle (part 2)

This is part two of my list of key games in Leicester City’s amazing Premier League title winning season. I will list what were in my opinion the key games (not all Leicester’s) from the second half of the season (January 2nd – May 2nd).

1. Tottenham 0 Leicester 1. This game won by a goal from unlikely scorer Robert Huth was important first because it ended a slight wobble (no goals in Leicester’s last three League games) and second it was an away win against the team that turned out to be their main rivals for the title.

2. Leicester 3 Stoke 0. Important because Vardy ended a six game goalless streak and this win took Leicester back to the top of the table where – as it turned out – they would stay.

3. Arsenal 0 Chelsea 1. Arsenal could have knocked Leicester off the top spot the very next day. But their fragile temperament was exposed again. An early red card for Per Mertesacker and a goal by Diego Costa gave outgoing champions Chelsea the “double” over Arsenal and raised question marks about Arsenal’s ability to sustain a title challenge.

4. Leicester 2 Liverpool 0. Two goals by Vardy – one a goal of the season candidate – gave Leicester revenge over one of the two teams to have beaten them in the League and maintained their three point lead.

5. Arsenal 0 Southampton 0. Another bad night for Arsenal. They huffed and puffed but ran into a great performance from Saints keeper Fraser Forster. Arsenal were now five points behind Leicester and to their fans horror were below bitter rivals Tottenham in the table.

6. Manchester City 1 Leicester 3. This was the game. The game that made people sit up and take Leicester seriously. A seriously impressive performance with two goals by Huth and one by Mahrez put Leicester five points clear at the top. City would have gone top had they won but this game led to the end of their title challenge.

7. Arsenal 2 Leicester 1. Heartbreak for Leicester. 1-0 up and playing well until Danny Simpson was sent off. Even so Leicester looked like hanging on for a deserved point until sub Danny Wellbeck scored in the fifth minute of injury time. Arsenal celebrated like they had won the League – even taking dressing room selfies! A kick to the solar plexus for Leicester who now faced a real test of character.

8. Manchester City 1 Tottenham 2. This game showed that Tottenham were for real. Goals by Harry Kane and Erik Lamela gave Tottenham a huge win a “double” over City and meant there were just two points between Leicester, Tottenham and Arsenal at the top of the table. The heat was on…

9. Leicester 1 Norwich 0. And this was one of the key games of the season. Leicester struggled for 89 minutes and looked like dropping two points. But instead substitute Leonardo Ulloa scored to give Leicester the ugly, late 1-0 win that Ferguson’s Manchester United and Mourinho’s Chelsea specialised in. Wins like this win titles.

10. Manchester United 3 Arsenal 2. Another disaster for Arsenal embarrassed by 18 year old Marcus Rashford who scored two and had one assist on his Premier League debut. Arsenal were now five points behind Leicester and in trouble.

The next three games were all on one night – March 2nd. Leicester had been held 2-2 by West Brom the previous night and Tottenham had a chance to go top of the table while Arsenal and City had a chance to make up ground. Incredibly they all lost.

11. West Ham 1 Tottenham 0. West Ham were the seasons spoilers and were at it again. On a raucous night at Upton Park a goal by Michail Antonio prevented Tottenham from going to the top of the table.

12. Arsenal 1 Swansea 2. Of all Arsenal’s flops this was the worst. Swansea prioritising their relegation six pointer against Norwich on the next Saturday fielded a weakened team lost an early goal and still grabbed a famous victory. The natives at the Emeriates were getting seriously restless.

13. Liverpool 3 Manchester City 0. City had beaten Liverpool in the League Cup Final the previous Sunday but Liverpool gained instant revenge with a crushing win. City were now ten points behind Leicester and after this incredible night Leicester’s title win started to seem – to quote WWE star Randy Orton –  “destiny”.

14. Tottenham 2 Arsenal 2. The biggest most hyped North London Derby in years produced a result that suited only Leicester. Tottenham should have won and gone to the top of the table – they were 2-1 up against ten men – but Alexis Sanchez’s late equaliser gave Arsenal a point. Instead of being top Tottenham ended the day five points behind after Leicester won 1-0 at Watford (Mahrez of course!)

15. Leicester 1 Newcastle 0. Leicester had one piece of luck towards the end of the season. They usually played before Tottenham so if they won the pressure was on Tottenham to catch up and if they slipped up Tottenham still had to win to take advantage. But on this occasion Tottenham played first. They won putting the pressure on Leicester. Add to that Newcastle – hitherto a shambles – had a new manager in Rafael Benitez and new managers sometimes give struggling teams a lift. But a brilliant bicycle kick goal by Shinji Okazaki restored Leicester’s five point cushion.

16. Liverpool 1 Tottenham 1. A point at Anfield is usually a good result but as Leicester were grinding out 1-0 wins Tottenham really needed a win. They played before Leicester this weekend but instead of cutting the lead to two points they only cut it to four. Next day Leicester had yet another 1-0 win – this time over Southampton. They were seven points clear with six games to play…

17. Leicester 2 West Ham 2. At half time Leicester were 1-0 up – Vardy again – and all was going well. Then Vardy got himself sent off for diving and everything changed. West Ham – who had played spoilers all season – scored in the 84th and 86th minutes to stun the King Power Stadium. But in the fifth minute of injury time Leicester were awarded a controversial penalty. Ulloa cooly converted to turn a morale denting defeat into a fighting draw. But Tottenham looked seriously impressive at Stoke the next night the gap was now five points and talismanic striker Vardy was suspended for two games (the extra game was for dissent after his sending off). The pressure was back on.

18. Leicester 4 Swansea 0. Leicester got a lucky break – an error by one of the best defenders in the League Ashley Williams who gave the ball to Mahrez of all people! – but once in front they played like Champions to score their biggest league win of the season. Tottenham had to catch up again…

19. Tottenham 1 West Brom 1. And they couldn’t. They took the lead in the first half but could not increase it and the longer the game went on the more nervous Tottenham got. When the equaliser came it was not a surprise. This meant if Leicester won at Old Trafford the title would be theirs…

20. Manchester United 1 Leicester 1. Which they could not do. But considering they fell behind had Danny Drinkwater sent off and they were playing a United team who had to win to help their own Champions League ambitions this was a good result. Captain Wes Morgan scored the goal that meant Tottenham had to win at Chelsea or the fairytale would come true.

21. Chelsea 2 Tottenham 2. And we know what happened here. Tottenham 2-0 up at half time looked like they would make Leicester have to beat Everton on Saturday to win the title. But like Liverpool at Crystal Palace on another May Monday night in 2014 they lost the lead and the plot ending the game with nine players being booked. And to show how amazing football is Chelsea’s equaliser was scored by last season’s player of the year Eden Hazard who had a terrible season just like his team. He had not scored a Premier League goal until Chelsea’s game at Bournemouth the previous week – Chelsea’s 34th game of the season. But his strike with seven minutes to go completed the fairytale and made him a Leicester hero.

So ends the story of what must be the most amazing story in football history. The Champions of Europe’s big five Leagues are Juventus, Paris Saint Germain, Bayern Munich*, either Barcelona, Atletico Madrid or Real Madrid, and Leicester City. It still does not seem right. But congratulations to Claudio Ranieri and his Leicester players. Whatever happens now they are in the history books for ever and will never be forgotten…

*Bayern have not yet clinched the German title but five points clear with two games to go a win at Ingolstadt on Saturday will clinch the title for Pep Guardiola’s team.

Key games in the Leicester miracle (part 1)

The unthinkable has happened. Leicester City who started the season at 5000-1 to win the Premier League title, were favourites for relegation pre season and whose manager Claudio Ranieri was rated favourite to be the first Premier League manager to be sacked have won the Premier League. In my opinion the biggest shock in sport since Nottingham Forest won the title in 1978 (see previous post “Leicester’s success recalls another East Midlands Miracle”). I know you get shocks in sport. But they are usually in one off Cup ties or fights (ie Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson or Holly Holm beating Ronda Rousey). But Leicester’s success is in a gruelling 38 game August to May marathon. There are no shortcuts to winning the title. Whoever wins it thoroughly deserves to. And Leicester do.

But how have they done it? I decided to pick out in my opinion what the key games were in the season (not all Leicester games).  This is quite a long list so I have split it in two. In this part : The key Premier League games in the first 19 rounds of matches (August 8- December 29).

1. Leicester 4 Sunderland 2. Must start with Leicester’s first game. Expected to achieve nothing but try and avoid relegation Leicester roared into a 3-0 lead in the first 25 minutes (two from Riyad Mahrez and one from Jamie Vardy a sign of things to come). The game finished 4-2 and can be called a declaration of intent. No one was paying attention for on the same day this happened…

2. Chelsea 2 Swansea 2. Enough has been written about this  game already but Chelsea’s failure to win and the Mourinho/Carneiro shambles was the first sign of a key early season event.  The implosion of the reigning champions. Arsenal fans enjoyed it. Until the next day…

3. Arsenal 0 West Ham 2. In a season of shocks the first one. Arsenal were convinced the signing of Petr Cech from Chelsea was the key to winning the title but his debut was poor and a West Ham team including 16 year old Reece Oxford produced a famous away win. Not their last either.

4. Manchester City 3 Chelsea 0.The first heavyweight clash of the season turned into a catch-weight contest. City were awesome Chelsea were awful. City looked like they would take advantage of Chelsea’s implosion and romp away with the title…

5. Chelsea 1 Crystal Palace 2. It’s one thing losing away to Manchester City but to Crystal Palace? At home? A sign that things were going seriously wrong for Chelsea.

6. Leicester 3 Aston Villa 2.This game defined two seasons. Since their first day win Leicester had won one and drew two without people noticing. When Villa were 2-0 up with 18 minutes to go it looked like Leicester’s unbeaten run was over. Instead goals by Ritchie de Laet, Vardy and Nathan Dyer propelled Leicester to a sensational victory. Leicester gained confidence, Villa lost it. In my opinion the key game of the season for both Leicester and Villa who went down without a whimper.

7. Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0. A sign of Arsenal’s mental fragility. The Gunners allowed themselves to be provoked by Diego Costa losing both the game and two men throwing doubts yet again on their ability to cope with the pressure of a title race.

8. Stoke 2 Leicester 2. Leicester up to their old tricks again. 2-0 down at half time but yet another fightback brought goals by Mahrez and Vardy and showed Leicester’s “never say die” spirit.

9. Manchester City 1 West Ham 2. City had won five out of five scoring eleven and conceding none. They looked unstoppable… until West Ham who had already won at Arsenal and Liverpool caused more mayhem going 2-0 up. City pulled one back before half time but their aura of invincibility had gone and did not return.

10. Southampton 2 Leicester 2. And again. By now Leicester had lost a game (2-5 to Arsenal) and people thought the bubble had burst. At St Mary’s they went 2-0 down (again) and fought back to claim a point (again) with Vardy scoring two (again). Leicester sending a message that they never give up!

11. Leicester 1 Crystal Palace 0. Vardy scored again (for the seventh game running) but this is more significant for it being  Leicester’s first clean sheet in their tenth game. Ranieri rewarded his players with pizzas!

12. Manchester United 0 Manchester City 0. A terrible game but I’ve mentioned it as it showed that the Manchester clubs – who had won four of the last five titles – were not the force they were and the title race was wide open…

13.  Chelsea 1 Liverpool 3. …Especially as Chelsea were not recovering. Jurgen Klopp’s first great result as Liverpool manager kept Chelsea marooned in the bottom half and piled the pressure on Mourinho.

14. Newcastle 0 Leicester 3. An easy win over a pathetic Newcastle with Vardy scoring for the tenth successive match equaling the Premier League record. I’ve mentioned this game as it was the day Leicester went top for the first time (November 21). Still they wouldn’t last long surely…

15. Stoke 2 Manchester City 0. And they didn’t. Held by Manchester United despite Vardy setting a Premier League record by scoring for the eleventh game in a row they lost top spot to the other half of Manchester. But the next week a terrible performance by City gave Stoke an easy win and if Leicester won that afternoon they would return to the top..

16. Swansea 0 Leicester 3. Which they did. Despite Vardy failing to score a hat trick by the brilliant Mahrez sent Leicester back to the top and cost Swansea manager Garry Monk his job. Still they had not beaten a big team said their critics…

17. Bournemouth 2 Manchester United 1. Although United were near the top of the table their performances had been poor and they had just been knocked out of the Champions League. An embarrassing defeat to Premier League new boys Bournemouth piled on the pressure on Louis van Gaal and United’s title ambitions faded away.

18. Leicester 2 Chelsea 1. A significant game as Leicester gained their first win of the season against one of the “big five”. Vardy and Mahrez scored in a game which is also significant for the fact Chelsea finally sacked Mourinho after this defeat. They only lost two more League games after this but it was far too late for them.

19. Everton 2 Leicester 3. Notable for the fact that this clinched Leicester top spot in the table on Christmas Day. But everyone thought they would come down with the decorations….

20. Southampton 4 Arsenal 0…Especially when Leicester lost at Liverpool on Boxing Day. If Arsenal won at Southampton they would go top. But they crumpled to a humiliating defeat that caused more questions about their ability to sustain a title bid. They would end 2015 top when Leicester and Manchester City drew 0-0 but still with lots of questions to answer.

21. Manchester United 0 Chelsea 0. The Premier League’s fallen giants showing how far they had fallen. It was clear after this game that the duo who had won all but two of the titles since 2005 were not going to win it this season and that the door was wide open. Even for little old Leicester…

Part two coming up….

Sturgeon must accept the will of the people

At 10 PM on Saturday it will be the first anniversary of that exit poll. The one that revealed that far from being the deadlocked Parliament that everyone was predicting, the 2015 UK General Election would see the Conservative Party easily defeat Labour by 316 seats to 239. As we now know the exit poll everybody mocked underestimated the Conservative performance rather than overestimated it as they got 331 seats and were able to form a (small) majority government. Labour went into turmoil, Ed Miliband resigned and to everyone’s astonishment Labour elected an obscure left wing backbencher Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

This Thursday sees the first big electoral test for the UK parties since last year’s General Election. The main elections are for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and the London Mayoral election. And although Labour are the main opposition party the elections will probably not go well for Labour. In Wales a YouGov poll suggested that their vote has gone down from 42% to 33% in five years. They would still be the largest party in the Assembly but would lose their majority if that poll is right (a big if after last year). In the English council elections it’s reckoned they will lose 150 councillors. This is because in 2012 – when these elections were last contested – the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was at peak unpopularity and Labour’s performance was the high water mark in the Ed Miliband era. Even if Labour improved from last year they probably won’t reach their 2012 vote share hence the probable losses. Their best hope is London. In 2012 Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson won the election more on personal than party appeal. He is standing down having became an MP again last year. Labour candidate Sadiq Khan is favourite to beat Conservative Zac Goldsmith and if he does not Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership could be in deep trouble (as I wrote in previous post “Can Corbyn Become Prime Minister?”). If Khan does win the UK press is so London centric Corbyn could use the win there to bury bad results elsewhere (as Prime Minister David Cameron did with Johnson’s win in 2012).

One thing is certain. Labour won’t be getting good news from Scotland. Last year Labour went from 41 Scottish MPs to 1. They won’t suffer as much this time if only because the Scottish National Party (SNP) had already wiped out most of Labour’s Holyrood seats back in 2011. Opinion polls have the SNP at 49% to Labour’s 23% (compared to 45% SNP to 32% Labour in 2011). While the SNP vote seems to have plateaued at 49% – they got 49% of the vote in last year’s UK election – there is no sign of it falling. So the result is widely seen as a formality.

And as a result this election has been dull. Really dull. A 24 hour Bellathon would be more exciting. So would be watching the 20 most boring 0-0 draws in Premier League history. So would watching paint dry. And grass grow..

At least until last night. At the last Scottish Leaders debate the election came at least partly to life. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had claimed in the press and on TV that if she is reelected on Thursday she expected another Scottish independence referendum in the next five years. For those who don’t know or remember the Scottish independence referendum was held as recently as September 18th 2014 and Independence was rejected by 55% to 45%. Yet with incredible arrogance she wants a second referendum!

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie summed it up perfectly ” As soon as they don’t get the result they want, they want to do it all over again. Did they not get the message? We want to stay in the UK. I would even claim that you are anti-democratic”.

Spot on. And here is the hypocrisy. Next month the UK has a referendum on whether or not we should stay in the European Union (EU) – I’ll get to that subject in another post. The last time we voted on our European membership was in 1975 – 41 years ago. Why on earth is Sturgeon talking about an another independence referendum so soon after the last one while we had to wait over 40 years for a second vote on Europe?

There cannot be a second independence referendum without the approval of the UK government. Prime Minister David Cameron should make it quite clear that a second independence referendum is not on. He should also make it clear that if the SNP try to pull a stunt like Catalonia in Spain did and hold an illegal referendum that Sturgeon will be arrested and the Scottish Parliament will be shut down.

In 2014 the SNP called the independence referendum “once in a generation”. The WWE called the Rock v John Cena match at Wrestlamania 28 “once in a lifetime”. The Rock and Cena fought again at Wrestlamania 29! But the WWE is entertainment and you don’t expect promoters to tell the truth. But we still (perhaps naively) expect politicians to be honest. The SNP said that the referendum would be “once in a generation”. A generation is NOT two years. The people of Scotland rejected independence less than two years ago. Sturgeon must say there will be no referendum in the next five years. She must accept the will of the people of Scotland.