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June 11, 2014 / ultrafox1963

Spanish kings seek to retain place on throne

Will Spain lift this trophy again in 2014?

Will Spain lift this trophy again in 2014?

The wait is nearly over.

After weeks of media sniping at FIFA and the Brazilian infrastructure, football is set to reclaim centre stage as the 2014 World Cup begins in Sao Paulo.

The bookies – who will dominate our screens and billboards during the next month – have identified four main contenders for one of the most glittering prizes in world sport.

While others among the 32 competing nations, with varying degrees of justification, may also claim to be in with a shout, it will be a substantial shock if the eventual winners do not emerge from the leading pack.

The host nation will be very strongly fancied. Star striker Neymar will be eager to prove his worth on home soil after a somewhat-troubled season at club level with Barcelona. He will be ably supported by several other world-class stars, as well as one of football’s biggest and most passionate fan bases. However, better Brazil sides than this one have struggled with the weight of expectations and doubts persist about the squad’s strength of character. A semi-final defeat, possibly on penalties, appears to be their most likely fate.

Meanwhile Lionel Messi, the top player on the planet during the past four years, will be desperate to lead Argentina to glory and thus match the achievement of compatriot Diego Maradona in 1986. He will spearhead a strikeforce which also features Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria and will be the most formidable in the tournament. However the quality of the defence is somewhat less impressive and this area is likely to prove, once more, Argentina’s Achilles heel.

Among the European challengers, Germany will be looking to build on their showing in 2010 when they hammered both England and Argentina before succumbing in the semi-finals to eventual champions Spain. As ever, they will prove powerful, disciplined and organised opponents, but the lack of a genuine, top-drawer talisman may prolong the wait for their first major international honour in the 21st century.

So attention will focus on current champions Spain, who seem well equipped to mount a successful defence of their crown. Most of the key players from four years ago are still around, and their squad has quality, experience and depth in every area. The only issue appears to be whether coach Vicente Del Bosque is tempted to make unnecessary changes in order to maintain a balance between Barcelona and Real Madrid. If he can negotiate this particular political minefield, he will be well set to repeat his past triumphs.

As for England, the flaws that have plagued the side in past tournaments look set to recur. Once again, the squad is over-reliant on a misfiring Wayne Rooney, while the technical deficiencies that have been ruthlessly exploited by opponents in the past are still very much in evidence, even among the present squad’s so-called “young guns”. Although Roy Hodgson’s team may reach the knockout stages, probably at the expense of an equally-mediocre Italian side, an honourable exit, preferably not involving penalties, may be as much as we can hope for.

There are a handful of sides – Chile, Uruguay, Portugal, Belgium and possibly Ivory Coast – who have the capacity to cause a few upsets during the next four weeks, and perhaps even reach the last four.

One notable factor, which may help to boost TV ratings and maintain domestic interest even after England’s likely exit, is the presence of past and/or present Premier League stars in every one of the competing squads.

Leicester City fans will take particular note of the progress of winger Riyad Mahrez, whose meteoric rise through the ranks at Filbert Way after his winter arrival from France saw him elevated to the Algerian national side. In attention, former Foxes Max Gradel and Sol Bamba (both Ivory Coast) and ex-loanee Gelson Fernandes (Switzerland) will also be appearing in Brazil.

Whatever the outcome of the tournament, fans throughout the world will be hoping that it produces enough memorable moments to banish, if only temporarily, the cynicism, greed and negativity that too often tarnishes the beautiful game in the modern era.

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May 5, 2014 / ultrafox1963

Pearson with point to prove in Premier League

Leicester City - Reebok StadiumIt was a day that many Leicester City fans had feared would never arrive.

But the exile from English football’s top flight has finally, after ten gruelling years, been ended – and in some style.

City’s 1-0 win over Doncaster on Saturday takes the club’s tally for the season to 102 points – a club record and the biggest total at this level since 2010.

The euphoria among the Blue Army stands in stark contrast to the desolation and despair felt a year ago, when the Foxes were eliminated from the playoffs by Watford in the most excruciating of circumstances.

Those heartaches, and the many others that preceded it during the past dismal decade, can now be consigned to history. Instead, Nigel Pearson and his squad are now looking eagerly towards the future as they prepare for adventures in the promised land.

Many, both within and beyond the Foxes fanbase, had serious doubts about whether Pearson had the capacity to take this team to the top flight. But he has confounded those critics in no uncertain terms. Indeed, he now has the unique distinction of having both captained and managed teams to lift the Football League crown in the modern era.

City have dominated the division to an extent rarely witnessed in recent seasons, defeating 21 of their 23 opponents at least once during the campaign. With local rivals Derby County and Nottingham Forest among those left trailing in their wake, the club now look set for a prolonged period of regional supremacy which will secure its long-term future for generations.

Banishing the cliques, egos and loose cannons that had previously been a barrier to progress at the club, Pearson was able to realise the dream of City’s Thai owners, whose generous backing helped to make his achievements possible.

With crowds of over 30000 expected on a regular basis next season, and boardroom backing to spend significant sums in the transfer market, the incumbent manager has advantages that no other City boss has enjoyed in modern times.

The Championship trophy has often been a poisoned chalice in recent years – the previous four managers to hold it have all been sacked within months. However Pearson is confident that his charges can make a real impact in the top flight and prevent him from suffering a similar fate.

Indeed, should the Foxes re-establish themselves as a competitive Premier League force, as happened during the Martin O’Neill era when the club’s resources were far more limited than now, an even more glittering prize may lie in wait for Pearson.

At some stage within the next two years – perhaps even as soon as this summer – the question of a successor to Roy Hodgson as manager of the England team is likely to arise.

The media, and much of public opinion, will expect his heir to be a home-grown product. Yet the pool of domestic managerial talent does not run particularly deep at present.

Tim Sherwood, the current highest-placed English manager within the Premier League, was never likely to be more than a stopgap at Tottenham, while both Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce, despite boasting a wealth of top-flight experience, carry far too much off-field baggage to be regarded as realistic contenders.

Should the vacancy arise in the coming weeks, perhaps in the wake of yet another World Cup failure, Steve Bruce, who has taken Hull into the Premier League and onwards into Europe, would probably emerge as a front-runner for the post.

However the prospect of Bruce in such a prominent role would not exactly quicken the pulses of many fans who have endured the grim, functional fare served up by his sides during the past decade and beyond.

The clamour would soon arise for someone capable of producing more flair and creativity. Could Pearson fit that bill?

Right now, this would be a tall order for a manager who, at the age of 50, has yet to record a single victory in the Premier League.

Two years from now, however, things may look different, particularly if Leicester manage mid-table respectability in the top flight, perhaps in conjunction with the type of cup run enjoyed by Hull (and in recent seasons Stoke and Swansea too).

The quality of the current squad should not be in doubt. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel has already distinguished himself at international level, while players like Danny Drinkwater, Anthny Knockaert and Jamie Vardy will all be eager to prove themselves as Premier League assets.

Pearson seems set to dispense with the traditional attritional approach adopted by previous City managers following elevation to the top flight, as he seeks to create a side which is capable of winning hearts as well as points.

If his aim is true, his long-held dream of occupying the Wembley hotseat could yet be turned into reality.

March 14, 2014 / ultrafox1963

Iconic, idiosyncratic and influential – Tony Benn 1925-2014

Tony Benn - as devoted to his pipe as he was to his family, country and party.

Tony Benn – as devoted to his pipe as he was to his family, country and party.

Much of Britain has been plunged into mourning with the news that Tony Benn has passed away at the age of 88.

The son of a Liberal cabinet minister (who subsequently joined Labour), Benn attended Westminster School and Oxford University before serving in the RAF during World War 2. He followed his father into politics and was first elected to Parliament at the age of 24 in 1950.

Benn was brought up in a world of privilege and understood its meaning and effects perfectly. He was never afraid to denounce it – which is why he was so hated, feared and reviled in his prime by the powers-that-be.

He was the first person in British history to REFUSE a place in the House of Lords. Upon succeeding to a hereditary peerage, following the death of his father, he spent years and many court cases trying to give it up. Eventually his campaigning brought about a change in the law and he was re-elected to the House of Commons in August 1963 – the first MP elected in my lifetime.

Benn served in several Labour cabinets between 1964 and 1979. However the careerist ethos that prevailed – then as now – among his fellow Labour MPs at the time did not always sit well with him. He fought successfully for a referendum on the EEC (later the EU) – another first in British politics – though the outcome didn’t quite go as he planned, with a majority of two to one against withdrawal.

His ideas and principles , particularly those calling for increased public accountability, earned him legions of followers and admirers. But they also aroused the undying enmity of the Murdochs, Rothermeres and their ilk, who took every opportunity to demonise and vilify him, and the causes he espoused, in the pages of their publications.

Sadly, there were elements in the labour movement, and the upper reaches of the Labour Party, who were only too willing to do the bidding of these anti-social forces. They conspired to deny him the deputy leadership of the party in 1981, and the consequences of that bitterly-fought contest would help to deny Labour office for many years afterwards.

When Benn lost his seat in Labour’s catastrophic 1983 general election defeat it was a grievous blow to him and the party, not least because this cleared the way for Neil Kinnock (whose motivational qualities were rather less extensive) to assume the party leadership.

But a by-election in Chesterfield the following year gave him the chance to make a glorious return to the Commons. Though a student at Essex University at the time (where I was involved in my own election campaign – which I gladly sacrificed) I became one of thousands who worked in his campaign and help him see off the challenge of the SDP and their media backers.

Within days, the National Union of Mineworkers came into conflict with the government. As the newly-elected MP for a mining area, Benn was tireless in his efforts on behalf of his constituents, speaking at meetings all over the country in their support, and championing the NUM cause in Parliament and elsewhere when the elected party leadership often appeared embarrassed, even ashamed, in doing so.

Sadly the defeat in that struggle led to a ferocious counter-offensive by Kinnock and his allies which set the left back years, and helped prolong the Tories’ period in office. Benn found himself increasingly marginalised in Parliament and in his own party, but his powers of oratory ensured he would command an audience wherever he travelled.

Years after his retirement from Parliament in 2001(in order, as he famously put it, to “spend more time in politics”) he underwent a nationwide tour with folk singer Roy Bailey which played to packed houses all over the country.

Although he was revered by generations of socialists, and will remain so for many more to come, Benn’s dignity, steadfastness and generosity earned him respect from across the political spectrum, including the present occupants of Downing Street. Those who met him, as I did on several occasions, recognised that his company was a great honour and pleasure.

Benn survived the era of “New Labour” – which he and many others rightly regarded as an abomination, and resisted many attempts to forsake the party to which he remained devout throughout his adult life.

His faith was rewarded in 2010 when the party, via an electoral process which he had championed and pioneered several decades previously, elected Ed Miliband as leader. This action has already brought profound political effects upon party and country alike during the past four years, and will continue to do so for many years to come.

As with Nelson Mandela and Bob Crow, Benn may have left us, but his spirit, together with the ideas and principles that he lived by, promoted and defended, will live on forever.

February 20, 2014 / ultrafox1963

City Show The Character Of Champions

 

Riyad Mahrez turns away after netting Foxes' equaliser

Riyad Mahrez turns away after netting Foxes’ equaliser

Goals from Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez gave Leicester City a crucial point in a tempestuous, topsy-turvy clash at East Midlands neighbours Nottingham Forest last night.

The result leaves the Foxes 8 points clear at the top of the Championship table with 15 games of the regular season remaining. It also extended their run of unbeaten league games to 12.

City fielded the same starting list as in the previous game with Watford 11 days previously with Moore being forced to settle for a place on the bench despite recovering from injury. Forest, meanwhile, suffered a blow when ex-City defender Hobbs, a key figure in his side’s 2-0 win at Filbert Way in November, failed a pre-match fitness test.

Large swathes of empty seats remained in evidence as the sides kicked off – illustrating the failure of the home side’s ticket and pricing policy. The decision to cut the allocation for visiting fans, from 4700 two seasons ago to just 2000 last night, looked even more questionable.

Forest pressed strongly in the early stages, and had the better of the early chances as Schmeichel denied both Paterson and Collins. At the other end, City had opportunities from set-pieces but were unable to make the most of them.

However, the visitors took the lead on the half-hour mark when Morgan’s speculative through-ball caused needless panic in the home defence. The ball ran loose to Vardy who coolly despatched it into the unguarded home net.

The joyous mood among the travelling hordes was not to last, though. Only seven minutes later, a Reid corner was not fully cleared and Paterson’s header caught the City defence unaware to force the equaliser.

Within seconds, Vardy almost restored the visitors’ advantage, but was denied by a fine save from Darlow. As the action switched to the other end, Morgan dwelt far too long on the ball and was dispossessed by Mackie. His panic-stricken lunge conceded a penalty and earned himself a booking, although many home fans (and their manager) argued the punishment should have been more stringent.

Nevertheless, Reid sent Schmeichel the wrong way from the spot to give Forest a half-time lead.

The home side had the better of the early second-half exchanges, but City should have been back on terms on the hour-mark when Drinkwater set up Nugent from close-range only for the striker to miscue his effort wide.

Seconds later, the league leaders suffered a further setback when Konchesky’s badly-mistimed challenge on Mackie prompted referee Anthony Taylor to issue a red card.

However Forest seemed reluctant to exploit the advantage of the extra man, preferring to sit on their lead.

They were to be given cause to regret such caution. As the game entered the closing minutes, Drinkwater was pushed by Paterson in the Forest area to give the visitors a lifeline. With no Nugent, Konchesky or Wood on the field, the veteran Phillips assumed responsibility for the spot-kick.

Although Darlow pulled off a superb save, the ball ran loose for James to cross and Mahrez applied the finishing touch for his first goal in English football.

Forest pressed strongly for the remainder of the game, but the visiting defence held firm, with Wasilewski particularly impressive, and the final whistle arrived with City having safely sidestepped another potential banana skin.

As against Watford, the side were a long way short of their best, but once again its spirit and resilience saw it recover from a losing position to claim a point.

If these qualities are maintained during the run-in, it is surely a question of when, rather than if, City will be crowned league champions.

January 11, 2014 / ultrafox1963

Free-scoring Foxes destroy Derby again

 

Photo (c) sportsmole.co.uk

Leicester striker David Nugent – scourge of squirrels and Rams alike!

Last night’s Championship encounter between Leicester City and neighbours Derby County was billed as a clash of the Championship heavyweights.

In reality, though, it turned out to be an embarassing mismatch.

The visitors proved utterly unable to deal with the onslaught of pace and power unleashed by the ferocious Foxes, who moved seven points clear at the top of the league after a comprehensive 4-1 victory.

City were dominant in every area of the pitch. Only an outstanding display by Rams keeper Lee Grant, and some wayward first-half finishing, prevented the margin of victory from being even wider.

Home striker David Nugent was the star of the show, with two goals and two assists. After an indifferent first half of the season, he is now showing more regular signs of the form which earned him an England cap in 2007.

Ironically it was Steve McClaren, the manager who awarded him that honour, now in charge at Derby, who felt the full force of his might.

McClaren’s pre-match taunts about City’s perceived potential mental weaknesses were answered in the most conclusive of terms.

Indeed, he left Filbert Way in a state of deep concern about his own side’s ability to last the pace in this season’s promotion challenge.

As so often in recent times, Derby were outclassed, outplayed and outfought by City, who completed their third double over the Rams in the last four seasons.

And on last night’s evidence, it may be some time before the visitors have the chance to improve on their woeful record at this venue, where they have now lost seven and drawn three of their ten visits.

The fact that the Championship’s top-scoring club were unable to force a save from home keeper Kasper Schmeichel until the 90th minute of the match is a testimony to the sterling work of the home defence.

City skipper Wes Morgan led his side magnificently, giving no sign of being plagued by off-field tensions over new contracts. In front of him, Danny Drinkwater – newly-crowned Championship Player Of the Month – was again imperious in midfield, while Lloyd Dyer and Jamie Vardy harassed and tormented the Derby defence throughout the entire game.

The victory extends City’s run of consecutive league victories to five – the same number as achieved a year ago, before a horrendous slump that saw just 3 wins in the last 17 games.

But the City squad this time around has far more strength, depth and resilience.

And while last season’s run was mainly against teams in the lower reaches of the division, this one has largely been achieved against fellow promotion contenders.

Queens Park Rangers, Reading and now Derby have now all been despatched by a side eager to banish the memories of last season’s heartaches.

However, no-one at the club – least of all manager Nigel Pearson – is under the illusion that the task of securing promotion is as yet anywhere near completion.

There are still 21 games of the season remaining and 63 points to be played for.  Many potential banana skins still lie in wait.

With three out of the next four games away from home, City know that the gap between themselves and the chasing pack is still far from insurmountable.

But if this side can maintain the quality it has so regularly displayed in recent weeks, the prospect of landing the first national league title in the club’s history will move ever closer.

January 10, 2014 / ultrafox1963

League Leaders Face Key Test

Return of the Mac - Steve McClaren is back at Derby, 12 years after leaving for Middlesbrough

Return of the Mac – Steve McClaren is back at Derby, 12 years after leaving for Middlesbrough

Leicester City have the opportunity to move SEVEN points clear at the top of the Championship with a win over East Midlands rivals Derby County this evening.

The Foxes will be looking to continue the momentum established after four successive league victories during the Christmas/New Year period.

But the visitors, rejuvenated since the arrival of new manager Steve McClaren three months ago, will be looking for a victory of their own to maintain their own promotion challenge.

The sides have already met twice this season, with Leicester prevalent on both occasions. A Lee Grant own goal separated the sides in a tense, scrappy encounter at Derby in August, while a Danny Drinkwater goal earned the Foxes victory in a League Cup clash the following month.

Both sides bowed out of the FA Cup last weekend against Premier League opposition, but will have been reasonably satisfied with the spirit shown during those defeats.

For the Foxes, David Nugent was again on the scoresheet during the defeat at Stoke, the first time this season that he has found the net from open play in successive games.

Meanwhile Derby midfielder Will Hughes displayed frequent flashes of the talent which has attracted the interest of several leading top-flight clubs, as his side went down 2-0 at home to Chelsea.

Tonight’s visitors will be looking to improve on a dismal record at Filbert Way where they have failed to win on each of their previous nine attempts and have lost on each of their last four visits.

Derby’s away form in the Championship this season has been exceptional, with eight wins and two draws so far. Their only defeats came at Nottingham Forest and fellow promotion hopefuls Queens Park Rangers.

The arrival of McClaren, who succeeded Nigel Clough following the defeat at the City Ground, has given the club a real lift. Widely regarded as the region’s poor relations earlier in the season, the Rams now entertain genuine hopes of a return to the top flight for the first time since their ignominious exit in 2008.

McClaren’s achievements are all the more remarkable in that they have mainly been produced by the signings made by his predecessor. He will now hope to strengthen his side’s position further by adding to his squad during this month’s transfer window.

Indeed, were it not for a sponsorship deal which has seen the club’s home rebranded as the iPro Stadium, McClaren could have been described as the man who brought the pride back to Pride Park.

The presence of the Sky cameras, together with increased ticket prices following the designation of the game as a “premium” fixture, mean that the crowd is unlikely to reflect the importance of the clash to both teams.

However, if the Foxes show the form that saw them clinch victories over Reading and Bolton in the previous two home games, they will be confident of securing their tenth home league win of the season, and taking another step towards clinching the Championship crown.

A full, EXCLUSIVE, report of the match will be published here at 12 noon on Saturday January 11.

December 6, 2013 / ultrafox1963

The greatest statesman of our time

A nation united in joy President Mandela congratulates Francois Pienaar at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

A nation united in joy – President Mandela congratulates Francois Pienaar at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

I was at home watching snooker on TV when I received the news on my Twitter feed.

Nelson Mandela, revered by generations as a global icon, had passed on at the age of 95.

This event, while not entirely a shock (Mandela had been battling illness for several months), serves as evidence that even the most gifted of human beings is unable to escape the ravages of mortality.

Yet rather than mourn his demise, we should use this occasion to celebrate an extraordinary life lived by an extraordinary man.

Mandela was born on 18 July 1918, four months before the conclusion of World War I. Although the great world empires were engaged in savage slaughter during that time – including against each other – one point of general agreement between them was the idea of racial supremacism.

In some parts of the world, such injustices would persist in law for generations afterwards. Indeed, Mandela was unable to enjoy basic freedoms – which many in more developed countries take for granted – until well into his eighth decade.

His epic struggle to attain those liberties has been extensively documented. Ironically, his death was announced at the London premiere of the film Long Walk to Freedom, based on his autobiography.

Mandela understood, appreciated and ultimately harnessed the power of sport to promote social cohesion. A keen boxer in his younger days, he drew inspiration from listening to Muhammad Ali fights on the radio during his years of imprisonment.

He also sanctioned the idea of sporting isolation to draw attention to the plight of his people – a move which helped to hasten the end of apartheid and the advent of a new, non-racial “rainbow nation”.

Yet once elected to office in April 1994, no-one worked more tirelessly to bring South Africa back into the global community than Mandela, who was instrumental in bringing several major sports tournaments to his homeland.

The image of him, sporting a Springbok jersey, embracing the successful home captain Francois Pienaar at the climax of the 1995 Rugby World Cup is one of the most powerful of the 20th century.

This event was a signal to the world of Mandela’s sincerity in upholding his lifelong vows to bring harmony rather than hatred between his country’s ethnic groups. Where lesser leaders – including some close to South Africa’s borders – chose to wreak vengeance on former oppressors, Mandela instead took the path of tolerance and forgiveness.

Although he did not succeed during his presidency in eradicating disease, poverty or inequality within South Africa, he leaves it in a far more secure state than it was a generation ago.

Mandela transcended race, religion, nationality, perhaps even ideology. His central themes of courage, hope and humanity will endure wherever and whenever the values of democracy, diversity and equality are cherished.

If proof of his global legacy was needed, it came on the steps of the White House. Barack Obama, the first US President of African heritage, paid Mandela a generous and fully-merited tribute, citing him as a central source of inspiration on his journey to office.

Millions around the world will have a similar story to tell. And we’re determined to keep his flame burning.