If Chris Froome were to win this year’s Tour De France he would join a small but elite group of cyclists that have managed to win this event 5 times. Froome is far and away the greatest cyclist this country has ever produced but no matter how well he comes across on TV I am always left with the feeling that not too many people actually warm to Froome. Why is that? Maybe it is jealously or maybe it is the thought of him winning this year’s competition that is driving his rivals and the Gallic organisers into despair. The French never really liked Merchx or Indurian winning it 5 times but the thought of an Englishman winning for a fifth time is not only a problem for the organisers but also for the French public, who see this most prestigious of French sporting events being won year after year by foreigners. Should he win, Froome would he would have 7 grand tour titles 1 behind Anquetil, a thought that may be too much to bear for most Frenchmen.
Froome arrives at this year’s competition in high spirits have just won the the Giro d’Italia in brilliant style, he has also been cleared of any wrongdoing in last year’s Vuelta a Espana with regard to his asthma medication, this unfounded allegation that has hung around his neck like an albatross, leaving him in a state of stress leading up to the big event.
Currently holding the Tour De France, Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana titles, a feat that has only been accomplished by the fabled Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merchx, the pressure Froome will be under will be justifiably immense, so let’s hope he avoids any type of dirty tricks campaign that has been commonplace in grand tours over the years. Cycling has and I suspect always will be riddled with drugs scandals, Lance Armstrong tore my heart out when he admitted his guilt in the most famous humiliation the sport has ever seen. The sport needs good guys to win let’s just hope that Fromme is one of them.
I always feel that summer is kicked started with the arrival of the French Open, played at State Roland Garros it is the second event of the tennis grand slam, This year sees 122nd renewal of this most French of sporting occasions and for my money this is the best competition that tennis has to offer. Although the tournament will graced by the likes of Nadal, the only images I will have is of players like Borg Vilas and Panatta competitors of the highest order who gave the impression that they had just spent the night in Parisian nightclub not worrying about the big game that lay ahead.
But Roland Garros is not just about the performers is it also about the partisan Parisian crowd, who, will be immaculately well groomed and ultra-chic. But don’t be fooled because at some stage in the proceedings they will reveal their Bastille mentally exposing a high level of volatility at can be aimed at any player, male or female, demonstrating an unpredictability that can be very unnerving even for the strongest willed participant.
Named after a pioneering French aviator, the event is played on that famous red clay, the magic of this slow playing surface it is both challenging and physically demanding for the players. Although it has been won by performers from all over the world, competitors from a Latin background tend to excel on the dirt.
Roland Garros has been a graveyard for some truly great players such as Sampras, McEnroe, Newcombe and Connors all of whom have cracked under the pressure of playing on this testing ground and have seen their dreams of claiming the Coupe des Mousquetaires ( The Musketeers Trophy) perish and die on its centre court (now known as court Philippe Chatrier).
This year’s competition will throw up plenty of shocks and who will win is anybody’s guess but if Nadal were to win it that would some achievement. Bask in the Parisian sunshine and watch the coverage of the event on ITV with John Inverdale leading a team of knowledgeable experts, don’t miss it.
In Blog Notes 31 I had previously highlighted the lunacy of the football’s January transfer window which I thought was joke, however, this year again we have surpassed ourselves with Liverpool paying around about £75 million for a very average player, in the shape of one Virgil Van Dijk. No matter how nauseous this type of transfer makes me feel, it pales in comparison to the £20 million that Everton have paid for serial failure known as Theo Walcott. I have always believed that Sam Alladyce’s career has been grossly overrated and now he has just confirmed it, by signing Walcott. Earlier in Blog Notes 59, I revealed the precarious position Jack Wilshere had placed himself by going out on loan to Bournemouth to resurrect his career, a career that Arsene Wenger now believes warrants the captaincy of a very overrated Arsenal side. Did Walcott heed this warning when left for Bournemouth, no chance, Walcott, very much like the rest of the overpaid prima donnas who pontificate around the greediest league in the world, probably spends his time listening to his agent or the normal hangers on that surround any premier league player (or any professional footballer for that matter) I really don’t know who is to blame for Walcott’s pathetic failure to fulfil his potential, perhaps it’s the fault of Sven Goran Eriksson who blew smoke up Walcott’s backside at a young age, and then stood back and watched a highly promising career dissipate and fall apart, although I suspect that Theo does not see it like me, wake up boy this is a reality check, unbelievably he still thinks he can make the England world cup squad, the boy needs psychiatric help and I don’t mean in the shape of Gareth Southgate, let’s be honest what does venerable Theo bring to the party, well he has a nice turn of pace which, he invariably uses, he has a nice range of tattoos (a staple for any premiership player) and it looks like he suits a beard. Apart these attributes I am seeing precious little of anything else, will big Sam be able to turn him around I would like to think so, but, realistically I cannot see it, Theo should have been a very good player, instead he is just another one of the many players around that just take the money and run. What a tragic waste of talent.
With this being my 100th blog I thought I would write a piece on my favourite player of all time, Graeme Souness. Some people may be dumbfounded with my choice as Mr Souness has gained in my opinion a rather unjust reputation of being a bit of an acquired taste. At his peak the moustachioed Souness would strut around grounds such as Anfield and Hampden Park like he owned the place, controlling each game with a steely determination whist spraying a sparkling array of passes around the park. He was demanding, arrogant, aloof and ruthless, possessing an inner strength which all great players demand of themselves, such was his influence during his time at Liverpool that when he left in the summer of 1984 to join the Italian club Sampdoria, the Liverpool forward Michael Robinson felt that half the changing room had gone. Others were not quite as complimentary with fellow Scottish international Archie Gemmill saying that if Souness “was made of chocolate he would eat himself”. Despite his unwavering self-belief in his own ability Souness was never able to establish himself in the first team at Tottenham Hotspur, dismayed by the lack of opportunities at Spurs, Souness would leave the bright lights of London behind him for the grit and grim of Middlesbrough a city hardly paved with gold, but a place that would shape his destiny for glory. At this point it is probably fair to say that Souness could have ended up on the scrapheap, fortunately for Souness his career was probably saved by two men, Jack Charlton and Bobby Murdoch. Charlton was an old school hard man that pounded the need for discipline into the young Souness whereas the highly underrated former Celtic midfield general Murdoch showed him how to perform to the highest standards on the pitch, they turned Souness into the consummate professional and you cannot underestimate how influential these two individuals would be for Souness. He left Middlesbrough for Liverpool in 1978 for a then record fee between English clubs, at Liverpool he would now mix with players that had the same hunger and desire that burned like acid in his belly, it took him a while to settle into his new surroundings but once he adapted, he would quickly establish himself as the best midfield player in Britain. Now in his pomp he cut a ferocious figure with his slide rule passing aligned to his merciless tacking, no one was going to stand in his way and if they were he would wreak terror and destruction to anyone that would try and knock him off his pedestal. With Souness at the helm Liverpool tore across Europe defeating anyone that stood in their way, if you wanted to play them they would play you, if wanted to kick them they would kick you back, at this time they were so superior to anything else around it was frightening. When he left Liverpool in 1984 for the riches of Italy I was devastated and things would never be the same. The Italian lifestyle was made for Souness and although he enjoyed a successful period at Sampdoria, the lure of becoming player/manager at Rangers would prove irresistible and would see him return to these shores for the start of the 86-87 season. To say his time at Rangers was explosive would be an understatement to say the least. He set about creating the Ibrox revolution changing the face of Scottish football forever, with his ambition now at its zenith like his time at Liverpool he neither asked nor wanted any quarter to be given by anyone, he constantly clashed with the Scottish authorities who did not like the way he wanted to transform the Scottish game. It didn’t make any difference he was now a mission from god and woe betide anyone that got in his way. He retired from playing in 1989 at the age of 38 to concentrate on management something that he embraced with a varying degree of success, but never reaching the heights of his playing career. These days Souness works as pundit for sky sports and given the right occasion he can still be as abrasive and confrontational as he was as an awe-inspiring player. Souness played for Scotland in three world cups, won a host of European and domestic honours with all of the clubs that he played for and for me he is the greatest Liverpool player I have ever seen, he may not have been the most popular player to wear that famous red shirt, but them again that was never going bother him, he was all about winning and was prepared to go to any lengths to succeed in his quest for fame and glory, the sight of him leading out that great Liverpool on a European night still makes the hairs on the back neck stand up, so there you have it blog number 100 the very great Graeme Souness or should I say Renoir with a razor blade.
Despite the fact Roger Federer won his 18TH grand slam title the frozen northerner found this year’s Wimbledon was a rather insipid affair, what with Sue Barker’s constant fawning and Andrew Castle’s slimy commentary the BBC really need to take a long hard look at their sports coverage, as it appears to be looking rather tired and dated. God, the amount of times I was told that Roger Federer is the greatest player of all time begged belief, Roger is great there is no doubt about it, but the greatest of all time, sorry, better than Laver, Borg, McEnroe, Sampras, Gonzales, Kramer, Budge and Tilden then the answer has to be firm no. All of Federer’s titles have been won in the open era of tennis which has only been around since 1968, thus severely restricted the careers of players of the calibre of Gonzales Kramer, Budge, hell, when Tilden turned pro in 1930 he had won 10 grand slam titles without appearing at Wimbledon every year, never mind Roland Garros or the Australian. Borg’s 11 Grand slam were all achieved in very short space of time before he left the sport at the tender age of 26, if he had played on who knows what he might have won, now I know what you are thinking which is that the frozen northerner just does not like Federer which is far from the truth, it is that I just think there have been better, I need to be convinced by Federer and I am not, oh and there’s another thing, Budge and Laver can argue about, Grand Slams, they are the only players to win all four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year with Laver doing it twice. Furthermore the likes of Laver and co nearly always competed in the doubles and mixed doubles at these major events making their task of consistently winning the singles titles just that little bit harder. What makes these kinds of assessments so difficult is that there is very little footage of the early great players and there aren’t too many people around who can remember Tilden or Budge, or even Ellsworth Vines, who the very shrewd Jack Kramer though was the greatest player ever to lift a racket. People like Kramer, Dan Maskell and Bud Collins spent the life constantly assessing players and their expertise greatly outweighs my rather limited knowledge. However, for me personally no one is ever going to get past Laver, who for me was pretty much incomparable, Borg would probably be my number two with the despised McEnroe at number three. The BBC commentary team can wax lyrically as long as they want about Roger who is truly great, it’s just that he is not the greatest.
In the early 1980’s the frozen northerner spent most of his summer holidays on the Costa Del Sol, the main objectives of these holidays were to obtain the perfect tan and drink copious amounts of San Miguel, both of which were normally achieved. When the frozen northerner returned home he had to have in his possession at least one brand new polo shirt, normally it would a classic Lacoste, but for our intrepid traveller there was another polo shirt that had to be purchased and that was the Ellesse polo shirt. These polo shirts may have been standard issue in the Metropolis but in the darkest north east of England they were nigh on impossible to find. During this period of time there were few pretenders around trying to steal the crown that had been worn effortlessly by Lacoste since the beginning of time; they mainly came from Italy and included the aforementioned Ellesse, as well as makes such as Fila and Tacchini (I tend to think the iconic Fred Perry was on the backburner at this time but please correct me if I am wrong). Walking down South Parade in Whitley Bay on any Saturday night you were indeed swimming with crocodiles, there were that many men wearing Lacoste so, wearing Ellesse made you a bit different which, I suppose was the aim of the game. Founded in Perugia in 1959 by Leonardo Servadio the brand name Ellesse derives from the initials of original owner L S, with its easy identifiable tennis ball logo Ellesse sportswear was worn with distinction mainly by famous tennis players such as Boris Becker, Mats Wilander and Chris Evert, they may have looked good but you weren’t go to buy the shirt because of these players you were going to buy it because of one man Guillermero Vilas. The big serving Argentinian left hander, looked more like a member of Menotti world cup squad than a tennis player, with his long flowing locks he would easily have fitted in perfectly into a forwardline that included Luque and Kempes but chose tennis instead. The “young bull of the pampas” always looked great in Ellesse especially at the French Open at Roland Garros, on the clay which was his preferred surface, you were never going to look as good as him but it didn’t stop you dreaming. Sadly, Ellesse was taken over by in 1994 by the Pentland group, an investment that was bad for all parties concerned, the company slipped into decline which saw Ellesse gradually lose its place in highly competitive polo shirt market which was rather tragic. Now with the release of its heritage line, Ellesse is trying to make a comeback, I doubt it will make it back to those glorious days of the early 80,s there is just too much competition around producing a better product (stand up Fred Perry) I would love them to do well, but without Vilas they are going to struggle get back to the top.
Books in the English language, on the greatest footballer of all time are few and far between, hold on I hear you say, books on Pele, Maradona and Messi are numerous and plentiful but as great as these players are, none of them can hold a candle to the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano. Just how great this player was is often overlooked because he really played before the television era began. So, when Ian Hawkey recently produced a book on the great man, it had to bought and read immediately. Although I enjoyed the book I have to say it would not make my top ten of sporting books. Whilst the book explores Di Stefano’s experience as both a player and a coach, it is his time as player that I was most interested. Although he had a loan spell at Huracan early on in his career and a spell at Espanol at the end, it is his time at 3 clubs River Plate of Buenos Aires in Argentina, the Colombian club Millionarios of Bogotá and last but least the Spanish team Real Madrid (who he transformed in to the biggest football team on the planet) that really interested me. his time at Real Madrid has been well documented, but the other two clubs not so much. River Plate whether you like or not was the place that established him as great player, playing alongside the likes of Rossi, Pedernera and Labruna he developed his game to another level, success came quickly resulting in 2 Primera league titles in 1945 and 47 with his club as well as the 47 Copa America with Argentina. Although this was a golden period of Argentine football, it has to said the Argentine FA was consumed by greed and corruption, that forced their better players to head the rebel Colombian League. I feel Hawkey’s book has missed an opportunity here to explore just disastrous this was Argentine football, which saw them miss 2 world cups and the chance to be recognised as the leading football nation in South America, the repercussions of which are still being felt today. Di Stefano time at Millionarios was spent under the guidance of their President Alfonso Senior Quevedo, a man who you could argue created the first galacticos, (an idea pinched by Santiago Bernabeu and used to this day by Florentino Perez) his side nicknamed the “Ballet in Blue” dominated the Columbian League during Di Stefano’s time there. Quevedo was man ahead of his time, relentlessly chasing trophies home and aboard turning them into the football equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters, when the toured Spain and played against Real Madrid, Senor Bernabeu was captivated by the brilliance of Di Stefano so much so that he knew that if Real Madrid were to come become great, then this was the man that was going to transform them. The rest as they say is history and Hawkey’s book adequately covers his Madrid years, discussing the tug of war with Barcelona for player’s signature, his glory days at Madrid, his partnership with Puskas, his tragic exit,his return as a manager it’s all there. Di Stefano had peerless career that no great player can match in terms of success and longevity, the only downside in his professional life was in the World Cup in which Argentina refused to play in twice in 1950 and 54 which, they could have possibly won, when he eventually got to play in the world cup he was badly hampered by injury and could not do himself justice. Di Stefano was an awkward, stubborn individual, who was not easy to get along with, but one thing always comes shining through and that was his hunger and desire to be the best at times. Hawkey’s book could and should have been a lot better, but having said that I did enjoy it, should you buy it, I would have to say yes if only for the fact it will expose you to the greatest player that has ever lived, Alfredo Di Stefano.