Tag: Football

My Day At An American Football Combine

(*insert Ray Lewis-style speech*)

American football – which is either a source of collective discipline and team bonding, or a steroid-pumped glorified game of catch in lycra pants – is one of my interests set quite apart from my others. My desire to write things is linked to my tastes in music and their lyrics; my interest in playing dodgeball is backed up by my ability to go to Propaganda on a Friday night completely sober and still have a great time. But either because of its relentlessly mechanical focus, or the fact that like three people in this country care about it, American football is perhaps the most unique, qualitatively independent sport I’m involved in.

And, to make that difference even more apparent, today I went to an American football combine. A combine, for those of you uninterested in sports or un-American in nature, is a collection of individual events designed to test an athlete’s physical abilities in a vacuum; to see how fast player x can run, when stripped away of the in-game responsibilities of a receiver to catch a ball, or a defensive end to tackle a ballcarrier. American football is also one of the most specialised sports I know; every player on a handball team has to be able to throw and catch a ball, and block opposing attackers, but each American football position could be boiled down to a single attribute: quarterback – throwing, offensive guard – strength. These two things mean that an American football combine is one of the most surreal non-activities you can do as an activity: there’s eons of waiting for your turn in the 40-yard dash, then six seconds of action that measure one aspect of your physicality. Then more waiting, then five seconds at the vertical jump to measure another single aspect of you.

As a result, this is the only sport I play which actually motivates me to do gym work. Normally, I hate ‘working out’, preferring to actually play the damn games in question, but if my speed, or my catching, or my hips are to be tested individually (both in combines and in game scenarios), it’d pay to work on them as individual attributes.

But this combine wasn’t nearly as vacuous as that assessment suggests; from the coach introducing his Texan credentials by referencing both guns and Jesus in his opening speech to the relentless, military-style clapping that observes of drills did to encourage and motivate participants of drills, this was a weirdly human day. I felt part of a group of people I had no right to feel a part of, and even though the day was non-contact, and so lacked the I-hit-you-you-hit-me method of making friends quickly, I kinda bought into the coaches’ rhetoric of each player playing to not let their teammates down, as opposed to playing for their personal glory.

It’s probably telling that I’m an English student here, that I’ve taken an athletic event and turned it into a treatise on the mechanical versus emotive aspects of the human character instead of just telling the story of how I slipped on my first go at the 40-yard dash and posted a shite time, so sorry if that title prepared you for a post fetishising stopwatches and Cutters gloves. But I learned things today, not just about proper pass-deflecting technique, but about people.

I even got a snazzy wristband to prove it.

NFL Scouting Combine

Dynamic Sports Academy, the people who put this combine on

My Sporting History Is Embarrassing

(and you can never take this away from me me!)

I’m not very good at sports, but I like them a lot and am a fan of getting involved in things, rather than watch other people do them; the result of all this is that I do, and have tried to do, a variety of sports, with some enjoyment, and very little success, for the last eighteen years. And, just to break up the formatting of this blog, ‘m going to explain this sad history to you in a bullet-pointed list. Oh yeah.

– Football: My favourite sport, to watch and to play, has been my most tried; I played for about five different teams between the ages of 9 and 13, playing as a striker for one glorious season and scoring eight goals in ten games, but was cut from every side I played for. I spent five years at a Saturday morning show-up-and-play type thing that was great fun, and I made some awesome friends there, but eventually folded the week after I received my five-year award due to lack of funding. Then I played at a different, Tuesday evenings, show-up-and-play thing for four years, but then university got in the way so I had to stop. And my school didn’t have a team I could try out for, and the UCL team I did have a go at getting into rejected me because I can’t play eleven-a-side for shit. So now I play five-a-side at Powerleague every other weekend with some old school mates, which is uncompetitive but actually rather fun.

– Rugby: Another very fun sport to play; I did get a chance to play this at school, because it was compulsory, and captained my house B team to an impressive record of 5th, 6th, and 5th across three years of annual inter-house competitions (there were six houses but shut up). One year, I scored an awesome try from scrum half, passing it left from a right-wing maul and running behind the line to the left wing as the team advanced, so I could be the extra man over on the left wing to outnumber the defenders and score in the corner; and in another I kicked all the conversions and penalties, and ended up the team’s top scorer. But really this was very low-level stuff, and as the game became no longer compulsory as I moved up the school, I stopped playing it. And then I didn’t get to the UCL rugby trials because I was busy on both trial days, but I’m 99% sure I’d not have got a place anywho.

– Cycling: I’m a big fan of road cycling (the Tour De France etc) but my attempts to actually ride a bike have been stifled by my poorness, my reluctance to learn how to ride on the road which consigned me to riding laps of the same park for three years, and the healing of my knees after Osgood-Schlatter Syndrome which meant I could now run, which is so much less hassle than cycling.

– Running: Having said I could do running medically, I couldn’t motivate myself to do it regularly; my insistence on timing every run I did, and measuring my progress mathematically to the nth degree, meant I’d have a lot of days where I’d deem today’s run to be a ‘failure’ because I only beat yesterday’s time by ten seconds or, even worse, I was slower than yesterday. That, and the fact that I never found a running buddy and was so focused on measuring my progress that I ran the same, boring 5K course for a year, meant I kinda grew to hate it.

– Swimming: Although I never got to compete in swimming, I did enjoy it greatly, but was always stuck in the designated ‘crap’ group whenever we did it in PE, so I’d be flailing widths with a float while the rest of the class streaked gracefully through the water like dolphins on the other side of the pool; I’ve not been swimming in ears, as I’ve apparently suffered mental scarring.

– Tennis: Spent three years at a club getting really rather good, then stopped as I moved to secondary school and had no time; I deeply regret this, as my mate from primary school found time to stay at the club, and was a paid coach there by the time he was like 17. And oh how I wish I had taken a job when I was still at school to earn some frakking money.

– Karate, Dodgeball, and Handball: These are the three latest additions to the great list of Things I Approach With Great Enthusiasm But Little Actual Ability (a list of which ‘sports’ is only a minot category), and three things I’ve spent about five weeks doing here at UCL. I greatly enjoy all of them – Karate is like a gym workout with none of the mechanical repetition or steroid-pumped push-upers glaring at your lack of a six-pack; Dodgeball is as fun as it sounds, with enough strategy and technique involved, and beginners-welcoming tournaments, to make it a real sport rather than something for unfit kids to do in PE lessons while the others do actual activities; and Handball is just as fun, and deceptively tiring, as it looks, and is played by the sort of people who, at leat so far, are serious enough about their sports to make the matches intense, but aren’t the meat-headed dicks who probably like Return of Kings, and defended Sam Pepper, and played for the LSE Men’s Rugby team.

For instance, today I played my first match for UCL, in the men’s handball second team, as we valiantly lost 33-17 to Imperial College London, but both sides all went for a drink and a meal in a Mexican restaurant afterwards, which was unexpected but totally awesome. And it was that game – in which I played at Pivot, a position which seems to require as much upper body-strength as I’m prepared to use, but about 452% more upper-body strength than I actually have – that made me think of my past endeavours in various sporting arenas, and how they’ve tended to suck. But now university, with its beginners’ teams and first-timers tournaments, makes sports actually easy to get into, and even welcoming, as opposed to being some great closed circle of super-athletes and Nike tracksuit-wearing hardliners; sport has always been fun for me, regardless of what it’s been or who I’ve done it with, but now ‘sport’ is about liking the people you’re underthrowing a pass to, rather than just missing another throw to another target.

So here’s to sucking, but sucking with people who are acceptive of it!

(unless, of course, I manage to single-handedly lose a game or match for each of those UCL sports teams next week, in which case I’ll go for Parkour, Karting, and five-a-side Football next term!)

Women’s Football Is Intense, Man!

(watching picture-in-picture on a pixellated stream, however, is more impossible than anything else)

It’s an inevitable consequence of boundaries – sexual, ethnic or whatever – being removed or made flexible in our modern society, that people doing stuff traditionally considered ‘not for them’ will be compared to people who were once deemed ‘appropriate’ for doing those things, when it comes to doing them. This is a roundabout way of saying that women’s football will be compared, in terms of quality, entertainment value, etc to the men’s game, itself a roundabout way of me saying that I’m trying not to make these comparisons, and enjoy the sport for what it is – people playing football (that paragraph now has more roundabouts in it than the entire continent of Antarctica).

Basically, I just watched the nail-biting conclusion to the Women’s Super League season (a climax so heart-stopping that football journalists haven’t been able to formulate their reactions into coherent articles, and so there are no pages I can link you to) in which literally half the league could have won the title on the last day and where, for half an hour, three teams could have all been crowned champions by scoring a single goal. It was so engrossing that I stopped playing Football Manager, put my plans to read The Aeneid on hold, and actually drank some Diet Coke to keep myself sufficiently alert to the minutia of the changes in goal difference, points, and levels of understanding of BT Sport commentator Lucy Ward.

And while I’d love to close my laptop after watching these games, and try to imagine the despair of the Chelsea and Birmingham players, and elation of the Liverpool ones, I keep comparing the end of the season to similar events in men’s football. While Manchester City’s first title win was stunning, scoring twice in stoppage time to beat QPR and take the league lead from Manchester United, other seasons have ended less dramatically, such as United winning the league the following season with all the difficulty of an eighteen-year-old playing rugby against a ten-year-old without legs.

Perhaps there are reasons for this that involve the sports themselves; the money involved in men’s football, both regarding commercial benefits and investments into professional contracts and training regimes, has elevated the sport to the levels of Greek Mythology, where athletic demi-gods pit their awesome might against each other, while we mortals have to watch from the stands, in awe of their multicoloured boots and hamstrings resilient as rock. Conversely, women’s football appears to be played by human beings, who make poor passes and get caught out of position, and whose fans are geographically local enough to ensure that Manchester City home games are played to the sound of ‘Cit-eh!’ being shouted in an appropriately Mancunian accent.

Also, the expansive nature of the men’s game – i.e. at twenty-team league – means that there are defined strata within that league; the title challengers, top-four hopefuls, Europa League contenders, mid-table Capital One Cup runners, relegation candidates, and Burnley Football Club are all separate divisions within the league. As a result, there are many storylines to follow over the season, but only one or two teams ever have a shot at winning the damn thing, meaning that the interest in the other eighteen sides amounts to ‘will our season be a failure, yes or no?’ as they don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of a league victory. Conversely, the tiny eight-team league of the WSL means everyone is basically in the same boat; Arsenal’s manager resigned at the start of the season, but they still finished fourth; Liverpool were 6-1 outsiders to win the title today, starting in third, but walked away with the trophy, and the only link to Greek gods is the Mercury-like messenger dispatched to shift the trophy from Manchester to Liverpool, although they probably didn’t have winged sandals.

The finale of the WSL may have also been more interesting for my own selfish reasons; as someone who thinks that gender is a meaninglessly superficial social construct, intended to marginalise half the population for the selfish aims of the other half, and ideally that anyone who entertains the existence of a meaningful gender divide is not any more intellectually developed than reindeer vomit, I’m always going to be more enthusiastic about things that invert this hierarchy than I might be for things that reinforce or simply don’t challenge it (and I know this is probably a bit sexist on my part, so I guess I’m reindeer vomit then).

But whatever the reasons, I’ve had a bloody great afternoon. And whether men or women are playing, isn’t that the point of sport in general? Roll on England Women vs Germany women at Wembley next month!

Nostalgic Shopping

(at Sports Direct, no less)

Today I signed up for a crap-load of societies for the coming year, some of which I’ll probably leave after the first taster session. But I am excited for the football and rugby societies, because I greatly enjoy the former, and used to greatly enjoy the latter. And while I lack technical footballing ability, and my rugby ability resembles a ferret valiantly body-checking a group of cement trucks, my biggest concern has been the kit.

Namely I’ve just shelled out over a hundred quid on footy socks and gumshields.

But buying this stuff has brought back some of the pleasant memories of eleven year-old James, who optimistically frolicked through OPRO stores and school sports outfitters, picking the coolest-looking (and invariably most expensive) things from the shelves for his inevitably awesome athletic career.

Yeah that happened.

But now my expectations are lower, and I’m looking forward to scraping into the seventh team through a combination of injury, luck, and bribing the captain with the use of the fridge I have in my room; its alcohol-storing potential exceeds my athletic potential.

Either way, I’ll keep you posted on my sporting endeavours.

Also, I wrote this on my phone, which is awkward, so sorry for the shortness.

Pod Fail!

(that title doesn’t refer to an apocalyptic-style explosion or collapse of one of the pods at the London Eye, which would have been far more dramatic)

I have an insulin pump on my body (that I refer to as the ‘pod’ due to its poddish shape) that releases insulin in small doses throughout the day; insulin moves sugar from my bloodstream to my muscles, keeping my blood nice and unsweetened (a bad thing) and my muscles nice and energetic (a good thing).

However, today the pod came off, while I was playing football in weather best described as ‘eyeball-meltingly hot’ (or at least ‘adhesive backing-meltingly hot’), so I wasn’t receiving insulin; in theory, my blood sugar level shouldn’t have risen, as I was running around so I;d be using up that sugar in my blood anyway, and the theory was correct – I was a healthy 5.7 at the end of the game. However, it’s likely that my muscles weren’t getting the energy they needed to function, which could explain my rather lacklustre performance in the second half, as well as my lack of fitness and general inability to kick a football five years to a target.

And this is all a bit of a mouthful to explain to people who don’t know anything about diabetes, after playing football for two hours, and who are seriously contemplating impaling me with a railing for dropping out of their balanced game to make it four-on-five. Coupled with my heart pain, back strain and cut across a big toenail that I suffered during the game, all of which I will invariably brag about either on this blog, or to my grandchildren that such injuries were sustained in a World Cup final, it was a bit of a rough afternoon.

And now I’m going to have a lie down and play Madden 15, which just arrived today; I’m not ready for such stress yet.

Following Football Through Fantasy Football

(I hope to god that Everton keep a clean sheet tonight; I’ve got Baines and Coleman in my team)

This is the first season I’ve played Fantasy Football in a meaningful sense; he other time I tried it, I got bored after one game and let my team rot unchanged for the rest of the season and I didn’t log on to the Fantasy Football site again. And while watching football is undoubtedly rendered more interesting – I’m rooting for Everton against Arsenal even more than usual, and I backed West Ham against Newcastle earlier simply because Weimann is in my team – it does mean I only really care about players in my team. For instance, I didn’t know the result of the Chelsea game, only that Fabregas got an assist, which is relevant for me.

This means that I’m not really enjoying the league as much as I did in the past; I’m more aware of results, but only those involving eleven players, across about seven teams, a week; I may have ignored Stoke’s awesome comeback against Liverpool last season if I didn’t have those team’s players scoring me points, and some of the most entertaining matches can be those between ‘weaker’ teams, where both have the freedom to play an attacking game, instead of being forced to defend against superior opposition as they often are – these players are often ignored too, because they do not command as high a price as their more illustrious peers.

Also, the game becomes far more mathematical; Aaron Lennon is influential in Tottenham’s tactical setup, but because he scored few goals and provides few assists, his impact in Fantasy Football may be lesser than his impact in real football. This is a key reason why I’m not the best at fantasy in the world, but I like to think I know a thing or two about football – I can pick a team for a real game, but not one that’ll get shedloads of points in a system EA Sports decide is representative of a player’s quality.

Perhaps the judgement to make, therefore, is that playing Fantasy Football can make you more aware of the league, and provide extra motivation for following certain teams, but it can be misleading in its presentation of players and teams. I suppose it just reinforces the only accurate thing we can ever learn from watching professional sports – it’s much harder than it looks.

Women’s World Cup Qualifiers – 21/8/14 – Wales 0-4 England

(England had a Wale of a time last night)

A rampant England side dismantled a Welsh defence that was a shambles on set pieces, securing their place at next year’s World Cup in Canada with four first half goals. Shown on the BBC, and called by Lucy Ward and chronology’s Johnathan Pearce, England were fluid going forward, effective from set pieces, and took advantage of a defensive Welsh game plan that was too rigid to allow for a comeback whose catastrophic weakness at set pieces undermined the discipline and effectiveness of the Welsh defence in open play.

England

Although Wales essentially handed the game to England, the visitors weren’t underserving of their 4-0 win. Eniola Aluko tormented the Welsh defence, operating both as a striker and a left winger in Mark Samson’s narrow 4-3-3, getting in behind Welsh defenders Dykes and Kylie Davies all evening; one counter-attacking Sanderson pass in the 40th minute hit Aluko, who was able to win a corner simply by exploiting the gaping space between the Welsh full-back and centre-half. She scored an excellent technical volley, and was physically strong too, ensuring she could find space between the Welsh midfield and defence – their 4-4-1-1 system was unsuited to their defensive strategy – and hold possession, acting as a pivot for the attack; had more direct players like Katie Longhurst and Gemma Davison playing up front, space could have been exploited with runs from deep played in by Aluko.

Fara Williams was also exceptional, serving as the link between midfield and defence, and switching play from flank to flank, which was especially effective against the compact Welsh defence. Her corner led to Laura Bassett’s 43rd minute goal, and was the epitome of her accurate passing all game. But both England standouts embodied Samson’s tactical fluidity throughout the game: Aluko swapped places regularly with Duggan and Sanderson, sometimes lining up as a narrow front three, and sometimes as two strikers and a number ten, exploiting either the space between the Welsh defence and midfield, or the spaces in the corners left by narrow full-backs; and Williams started as one of two deeper midfielders in the first half alongside Nobbs, but moved alongside Carney in the second, giving England two midfield playmakers that the Welsh found impossible to mark.

I feel that it was this fluidity that really won the game for England; Wales couldn’t man-mark Williams out of the game after half-time because of Carney’s new position, and their defence was overloaded by the English front three, supported by aggressive runs from Stokes and Alex Scott as full-backs.

Yet England only scored once from open play, and that was Sanderson’s 44th minute header to make it 4, by which point the game was finished; England had a lot of possession – 71% by the 53rd minute – in promising areas, but the exchanging of positions from the full-backs, front three and Nobbs running from midfield left few players in and around the Welsh six-yard box to actually turn goals into chances. It’s no surprise that the first instance of a striker playing centrally – Sanderson’s run between the Welsh centre-halves – immediately led to her goal; Wales were constantly weak at defending centrally, as evidenced by England’s goals from a corner and free kick, and this could have been exploited more.

Wales

But this minor criticism is nothing compared to Wales’ glaring weaknesses; while Samson’s fluid tactics were spot-on, Jarmo Matikainen’s tactics were far too rigid, playing a deep, narrow 4-4-1-1, with too much space on the wings to be exploited, and a lack of a specialised holding midfielder –  neither Fishlock nor Green looked totally comfortable so deep in their own half – meant England had plenty of space in front of the back four to exploit. The Welsh counter-attack was also non-existent, with the wingers Bleazard and James too narrow to get on the end of clearances, and even the attackers Wiltshire and Harding were dropping deep to close down Williams and Carney, often leaving just the England centre-halves and goalkeeper in the English half.

Wales were also poor individually; goalkeeper Nicola Davies – who is a corporal in the RAF, apparently – kicked poorly all game, gifting possession straight to Williams in the England midfield, who looked like the best holding midfielder in the world without having to make a tackle, simply because she could win every second ball and every clearance totally unchallenged. This also opened up Jordan Nobbs to run at the Welsh defence as a box-to-box midfielder, instead of sitting as a holding midfielder, because Williams could control that area by herself. There was also a lack of clinical finishing from Wiltshire, who Lucy Ward called Wales’ best player, and it is telling that the hosts’ best performer was a midfielder who was overrun in defence and only had three poor shots, two of which came from English lapses in concentration rather than anything the Welsh created for themselves.

By far the biggest problem, however, was the Welsh inability to defend set-pieces; Carney’s opening goal was a looped ball into the box, untouched by everyone, that bounced into the net from 35 yards. Although Nicola Davies was unsighted by bodies in the way, the cross entered her six-yard box, an area that she should be dominating; also, her view was blocked by an unmarked Aluko who missed her header – she would have scored herself if she timed her jump better – meaning that Wales, as a team, failed to mark the English goal threats. The third goal, Bassett’s tap-in, came from a corner that passed over everyone in the box – Davies’ lack of aerial command on display again – and fell to the goalscorer’s foot at the back post where no Welsh defender was positioned.

What’s infuriating for Wales is that they stifled England in open play quite well, often reducing the visitors to long shots from Jordan Nobbs which, while threatening, were nowhere near as dangerous as the prospect of Duggan, Sanderson, and Aluko running in behind the defence. Also, a deep cross from full-back Dykes led to a clear shot for Wiltshire (which she hit straight at Bardsley), suggesting that Wales could be at their best when going back to front quickly, and exploiting England’s attacking full-backs, and lack of height and physicality in central midfield, which left Bassett and Houghton exposed in the penalty area.

But Wales played poorly for the majority of the game, and England weren’t so much exceptional, as they were skilled in exploiting their opponents’ weaknesses; England will be looking forward to a trip to Canada next year, while Wales will now literally have to do it on a cold Wednesday night in Ukraine.

Wales (4-4-1-1): N Davies; Dykes (Lawrence 58), K Davies, Ingle, Cousins; Bleazard, Fishlock (c), M Green (Hawkins 52), James (J Green 88); Wiltshire; Harding

Subs not used: Dando, Wynne, Quayle, Keryakopolis

Cards: None

Goals: None

England (4-3-3): Bardsley; A Scott, Houghton (c), Bassett, Stokes; Nobbs, Williams (Kirby 62), Carney (T Scott 67); Sanderson, Duggan, Aluko (Taylor 60)

Subs not used: Chamberlain, Greenwood, Stoney, Dowie

Cards: None

Goals: Carney 16, Aluko 39, Bassett 43, Sanderson 44

Attendance: 3,581

Referee: E. Mitsi