The Southgate Revolution: Are England actually World Cup contenders?

The Southgate Revolution: Are England actually World Cup contenders?

As an England fan, it was understandable to not be fully committed to being in World Cup fever going into the 2018 World Cup. Before the recent edition in Russia even started, the public was not afraid to show their pessimism with England’s hopes of a successful tournament, with the dismal efforts of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the hopeless exit in Euro 2016 to Iceland firmly on everyone’s minds. Even after that there was reason to be concerned, with the fiasco surrounding Sam Allardyce’s stint as England boss and international retirements from a number of key players such as Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney suggesting it was set to be another struggle in 2018.

But Gareth Southgate has somehow managed to turn around all of this negativity into something the public can get behind. Sure, they had an easy group compared to 2014 with Belgium the only true obstacle on paper, but even then this has been an excuse in the past. Remember 2010? England had an alarmingly simple group with only the USA as a potential threat, a group considered so straightforward that one newspaper had the headline “England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks” (Look at the initials) on their front page. But England still had to rely on a last group game win over Slovenia to qualify for the knockouts, and even then it wasn’t as plain sailing as we’d all like.

Coming into this World Cup however, all of this history has been left as history. Southgate has managed to drill into his players that whatever happened in the past is indeed in the past and there is no pressure whatsoever on them to rectify past failures, which is remarkable given half of England’s squad in Russia was involved in the humiliation against Iceland two years ago. There is also a refreshing openness within the group where they are not afraid to share their own strengths and weaknesses to benefit the team. Former England players such as Rio Ferdinand have admitted that this arguably held back England in past tournaments given they didn’t want to give their club rivals any insights, but this club mentality that Southgate has installed has created an environment based on trust and above all else, a team that gets along.

Southgate also actually has a plan on the pitch, which can’t be said about recent major tournaments. A set formation is in place and certain players are trusted to play in those positions, such as Kyle Walker at an unfamiliar right centre-back position. Any rational football fan will tell you that if the players know their role in the side, they will play to their strengths, and given the constant formation and position changes in the past, it’s no wonder why England haven’t performed on the world stage in a generation. But now England have this and they are reaping the benefits in Russia, and there is genuine reasoning to be confident.

So, how well can England do in this World Cup? The public are going ecstatic at England’s perfect start to this tournament, with beer spillages at an all-time high and “It’s Coming Home” becoming the nation’s adopted motto for this summer. For me, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be excited about this current England side. We’re playing entertaining football and bringing genuine fear into opposition defences, a breath of fresh air to previous incarnations of tournament squads. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ve beaten Tunisia and Panama, teams that we should be beating comfortably. A last-minute winner vs Tunisia can be excusable given it’s the first game of this new brand of football that actually means something, so any win is good enough. But Panama was always expected to be a walkover. I’m so convinced of Panama’s lack of quality that I’d be willing to put money on Leyton Orient beating them. They were THAT bad!

The true test for England, the test that will give an accurate reflection on how well England are performing, will be against Belgium. Two teams filled with quality both vying for the ultimate prize. If England put in a good performance, even if it’s not a winning performance, then there is definitely reason to be optimistic going into the knockout stages in Russia, and it would certainly convince me that England are one of the contenders, a mere dream two years ago in France for the Euros. This team can beat any team in the world on their day, that I have absolutely no doubt. But tournament football is so much different compared to friendlies. It’s about not only performing on the day, but about managing expectation, carrying the hopes and dreams of your nation to hopefully bring glory back home with you. Can England bring honour back with them from Russia? I think they already have done…

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VAR: Why all hope isn’t lost just yet

VAR: Why all hope isn’t lost just yet

The introduction of video technology in football was always going to be a contentious issue. As football in this country begins to reform, from the eye-watering prices for broadcasting rights to the possible winter break from the 2019/20 season, there was always going to be the call for video technology to be used in the sport to assist the referees, especially as it looks to be on equal terms of other major sports such as Cricket and Rugby Union.

The reaction to the trial period of VAR so far in English football has been quite the contrast to what it was initially brought in to do, although that is not all the fault of the technology itself. Before it’s introduction, there was a very high level of discontent at referees for their inability to act on certain decisions, with fans demanding that they be given extra assistance to ensure that the outcome of matches are not affected by the inadequacy of the referee in charge. However, since VAR first began to be used in-game in English football, it has resulted in fans being angry at the use of VAR in practically every contentious issue, some even reversing their previous concerns and wanting referee’s to have sole power on decisions, wanting the “human error” element to have a factor.

VAR, or an equivalent video technology, will be a very important element to the sport in the future, that I am sure of. But there has to be subsequent improvements away from the actual technology for it to be effective and for it to be respected amongst football fans. Referees have to be given adequate training for them to use VAR appropriately, as often they see VAR as their way out of personal embarrassment and scorning criticism. Taking examples from cricket and rugby, video technology is only used when it is near impossible for the umpires/referees to make an accurate and correct decision on the field of play, and football should seek to replicate that. At the moment, referees use VAR far too often than to what it was meant to be used for, they fail to acknowledge certain aspects of play that could influence decisions such as diving, and do we need to talk about the Juan Mata offside decision at Huddersfield again?

There also needs to be the decision of taking the responsibility of VAR’s use away from referees. Football authorities should follow in cricket’s example and give one responsible individual the power to appeal certain decisions. In cricket this is the job of the captain, whereas the managers should be given this power in football. By doing this, the human error element will still remain as the referee may have failed to acknowledge a key decision, but the technology can still be applied to the situation. For this to work effectively, referees will need to be trained accordingly still as it will reduce the pressure on the officials to get every decision 100% correct, while it will continue to follow in other sport’s example and only use the technology in the very exceptional circumstances.

It is very easy, and at the moment justifiable, to be a critic of video technology in football as it has often been portrayed as just as error-strewn as the referees before it was introduced. While VAR was always going to face teething problems during it’s initial trial period as it naturally would, the consistent issues it has faced would only suggest that it is far from being adequate enough from being an effective part of the game immediately. However I still believe it can be a key part of the game in the future, and if it were to follow other sport’s examples of the application of their technologies, then there is no reason why VAR cannot be used in the future.

The Alexis Sanchez saga: Amateur from Arsenal…again.

The Alexis Sanchez saga: Amateur from Arsenal…again.

As I write this blog, it has practically been confirmed that Alexis Sanchez will be leaving Arsenal to join Manchester United with Henrikh Mkhitaryan moving in the other direction in a straight swap deal. This is after 6 months of supposedly intense contract negotiations by Arsenal in a desperate attempt to keep Sanchez from walking away from a free in the summer of 2018, which they frankly should have sorted out at least 12 months prior. Arsenal pulled out of a transfer at the last minute in August to move Sanchez on to Manchester City for £60 million, yet seem very keen all of a sudden to move Sanchez on all of a sudden in the January window in a straight swap that every man and his dog will tell you Arsenal are getting the worse end of.

It would be very understandable to point the finger of blame at Arsene Wenger, so often the figure of discontent in recent seasons regardless of the issue in question. But this Sanchez contract saga, indeed that of Mesut Ozil also, goes much further than simply the manager as any manager in the world in Wenger’s position would be doing all in their power to keep their marquee players at the club, even if the wage demands may be astronomical compared to their team-mates. They’d do it because they are the X-Factor players, the ones that take you from on the fringes of glory to reserving your seat on the open-top bus and give fans a reason to attend the games.

Yet Arsenal face losing a world class player for a pittance, when they could have got a decent fee in the summer. Arsenal’s board, as well as chief executive Ivan Gazidis, once again proved that their footballing prowess remains miniscule compared to their commercial and business interests, cashing out on Sanchez when they should have pushed a sale in August, trying to regurgitate as much of an investment as possible. The board’s sheer negligence of providing a stable football foundation shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given they tossed aside fan criticism of their role in the club, telling them to “Read the Daily Telegraph” if they wanted to see majority shareholder Stan Kroenke’s vision of the club, despite him being present at the AGM where the criticism was given.

It’s often a delicate case for the board room to intervene in the first team matters, especially at Arsenal where Arsene Wenger is obviously still held in very high regard. However given the substantial fee Arsenal could’ve got for Sanchez, it begs 2 questions. Firstly, why would you refuse to sanction a transfer for one of your players if you know you are going to lose a significant amount of money on it, especially if the player has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of renewing his contract. Secondly, if the manager of your club supported your decision to keep the player and actively used him throughout the season, why all of a sudden would you be willing to undermine the manager and begin touting said player’s services in the January window? The board should’ve taken the lead and sold Sanchez in the summer even if it meant undermining the manager, because it made financial sense.

Throughout the entire January window when Sanchez’s move has made the headlines, it has looked a sense of desperation from Arsenal. They know they made a mistake in not selling Sanchez in the summer, when the transfer fee would’ve been much larger and they could’ve sought out their ideal replacement, rather than one that happened to be available at the time. Although that should not be seen as a criticism for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who I personally believe is a very good footballer who has yet to flourish in the Premier League.

Despite this poor handling of the Sanchez contract situation, the transfer deal to move him to Manchester United remains a good one for all parties concerned. For Sanchez, he gets his move to the team that he believes can match his ambitions of winning major honours. For Mkhitaryan, he can start anew at a new team in the Premier League and rediscover his form that earned him plaudits at Borussia Dortmund. Manchester United get themselves a world-class player that moves them a step closer to competing again with the world’s elite, even if it is costing them an eye-watering £500,000 a week in Sanchez’s wages. Even Arsenal can find positives in this deal, closing the book on what was a horrific mismanagement of a player’s contract & managing to add a more than capable player in the deal at the same time.

I wish Alexis Sanchez well in the future. He produced some wonderful memories that will be talked about for many years to come at Arsenal, with his sensational goal in the FA Cup final in 2015 being a personal favourite of mine. As for Arsenal, the handling of this saga would not have won themselves any fans, even if they got a replacement in the deal. While the club proclaim themselves to be an ambitious club with an abundance of financial resources (SoccerEx listed Arsenal 2nd in the world in 2017 for financial value, only behind Man City), elite clubs simply do not allow their star players to run their contracts down, as their net worth would be astronomical in today’s market. This will be a lesson for the club, and I’m sure the club know it as well. But if they are as ambitious as they say they are, with new staff signings such as head of scouting Sven Mislintat & head of football relations Raul Sanllehi, they have to show it.

A year in review: The 2017 F1 season

A year in review: The 2017 F1 season

The 2017 Formula One season ended with a somewhat passive finale at Abu Dhabi, with Valtteri Bottas taking his 3rd victory of the season in a race that had the end-of-term vibes to it, given both championships were sealed long before the race in the twilight had come around. The race had the Mercedes pairing of Bottas and Lewis Hamilton running away with it at the front, with Ferrari and Red Bull lagging far behind. A microcosm of the hybrid era you may think, although this season was far from the norm we grew accustomed to.

Mercedes were given an actual challenge for the championships by the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, and were made well aware of the threat of the Scuderia from the off, with Vettel beating Hamilton by 10 seconds in Australia. Unlike in previous seasons where a non-Mercedes victory was seen as a one-off or even from a mistake by Mercedes themselves, the challenge by Vettel and Ferrari was a bona fide threat that had troubled the Silver Arrows throughout the season. Tussles in Russia, Spain, Azerbaijan, and Belgium showed that Ferrari were more than a match to break the dominance that Mercedes had prided themselves over for the last 3 seasons. It was always going to be a difficult task for the Ferrari to overhaul the Silver Arrows however. With near bulletproof reliability from Mercedes, as well as the underperformance of Kimi Raikkonen, who despite his one-off shows of prowess such as taking pole at Monaco proved he is very much past his prime, Mercedes always seemingly had the edge.

Ultimately however, it was mistakes and errors by Ferrari themselves that cost them their fair chance at glory. A rash error of judgement from Vettel in Azerbaijan cost him a guaranteed podium finish at the very least. A chaotic start at the Singapore Grand Prix, a race they should’ve run away with given their technical advantage over Mercedes at the track, resulted in a double retirement for Ferrari for the first time since Mexico 2015, the first double retirement on lap 1 in Ferrari’s history, and the constructor’s championship gone in a flash. In Malaysia, a turbo failure meant Vettel had to battle from the back to finish 4th, while a spark plug failure at Japan meant the title was gone and Hamilton would win once more. A calamitous Asian leg for Vettel, and his wait for Title No.5 would continue…

Looking further down the field, there was a number of breakthroughs for drivers. Carlos Sainz had a season of tremendous success, consistently scoring decent points finishes for the team and single-handedly secured Toro Rosso 7th place in the championship over Haas, with a 4th place finish at Singapore being his main highlight of the season. His reputation improved drastically over the season, becoming a fan’s favourite and being tipped as a front-runner for the Ferrari seat when Kimi Raikkonen leaves the team. His efforts did not go unnoticed in the paddock, with Renault coming in to secure his services for the final 4 Grand Prix at the expense of Jolyon Palmer, and even managed to achieve a 7th place finish at his first Grand Prix for Renault in the USA. Make no mistake, Carlos Sainz is a phenomenal talent who will go a long way when given the right opportunity.

Another driver whom had a fantastic season was Esteban Ocon in the Force India. Considering it was his first full season in Formula One after his cameo at Manor in 2017, Ocon showed why he’s been touted as one of the future stars of the sport, and why Mercedes prefer him to Pascal Wehrlein in their Young Driver programme. In scoring points in 18 Grand Prix out of 20, with only an uncompetitive car in Monaco and a collision with Romain Grosjean in Brazil diminishing this record, Ocon proved more than a match for his team-mate Sergio Perez in the Force India. While he was involved in some notable in-race incidents with Perez, this did not damage his reputation as one of the most promising talents in the sport, and showed that he can perform from the get-go as long as the car is competitive. Given he’s been touted as Mercedes’ next driver-in-waiting, this season confirmed you can expect some great moments from Ocon in the future.

However, the struggles continued at McLaren-Honda in 2017. Like in previous seasons, McLaren were tormented by constant reliability issues with their Honda engine. It was calculated that Stoffel Vandoorne had over 1 mile’s worth of grid penalties because Honda’s package was so troublesome, while Fernando Alonso made his displeasure of his engine public through his humorous radio messages. It is a shame that McLaren have had to face such problems, because the chassis design was actually a very effective piece of kit. Solid results at Hungary and Singapore, tracks that are not dependent on engine power, showed that the car was decent, yet it was the sheer lack of power that Honda’s engine produced which was holding McLaren back. The relationship between McLaren and Honda reached breaking point, and McLaren decided to end their partnership only three years into a ten-year deal, choosing to use Renault engines from next season. It was supposed to be a match made in heaven given their past glories, but it turned out to be a nightmare scenario.

Away from the track, Liberty Media’s ownership of the sport showed signs of clear progression from the past incarnation under the stewardship of Bernie Ecclestone. Fan engagement is the crucial factor in Liberty’s eyes to pushing the sport to new boundaries, with social media platforms being utilised effectively for the first time in the sport’s existence, and a blessed relief for its eager followers. The street demo in London was an amazing success. Even without Lewis Hamilton’s attendance at his home event, relative newcomers to watching Formula One were captivated by the spectacle it brought to the heart of the UK’s capital city, and people genuinely enjoyed themselves. The ‘walk-on’ entrance to the United States Grand Prix, partnered by the dulcet tones of sporting extraordinaire Michael Buffer, transformed what was a very generic procedure in drivers taking to the grid, even if not everyone liked the concept. Even the sport’s logo has changed to a more modern approach.

All of this is a clear indication that Liberty wants to take Formula One into a completely new direction, away from the stagnant state it was in under Ecclestone’s rule. They want to create a sport which people can enjoy, a sport that is no longer “under-managed and under-invested in” as F1’s commercial director Sean Bratches quite appropriately puts it. Especially when the sport is moving towards Pay-TV deals such as Sky’s exclusivity deal in 2019, securing a fan base in these circumstances is crucial to a sustainable sport, and these initial steps are an encouraging foundation to build on.

When looking back on this season in the future, it may not necessarily stand out amongst the crowd given a Mercedes car won the Championship for the fourth year in succession. However, the back story behind it is a fascinating legacy that will hopefully flourish for years to come. Will drivers such as Carlos Sainz and Esteban Ocon use this season’s glories to push further forward in their careers? Will Liberty’s initial progression prove to be the building blocks of producing a truly global sport for everyone? Will a team step up their development and be a match for Mercedes all season long in 2018?

Only time will tell.

Lewis Hamilton: Finding Motivation

Lewis Hamilton: Finding Motivation

It will be interesting to see how Lewis Hamilton prepares mentally for the future, and where he can find the motivation to carry on setting the standard in the sport. Looking back at his 3 previous title attempts, he had an extra reason to push him towards the title. In 2008, he won the title a year after he came within a point of clinching his maiden world title at his very first attempt, in the most agonising of fashions with mechanical issues crippling his attempts at the final Grand Prix of 2007 in Brazil. He showed his mettle when he needed it most, proven by his last-corner, last-lap escapade with Timo Glock to sensationally steal the title from Felipe Massa’s grasp, showing that it isn’t over until the chequered flag. 2014 saw a complete revival of the technical regulations, leaving his Mercedes team well ahead of their competitors in terms of performance. An open goal he had to take given his 5 years of championship anonymity, and one he took despite the year-long battle with his team-mate Nico Rosberg for the title.

In 2015, there was the silencing of the doubters. He had the clear fastest car in the field, he had a team-mate that ran him close to the title the year previous, and he also had critics who believed he wasn’t showing his full potential. How did he answer these critics? By comprehensively beating his team-mate Nico Rosberg in the championship, winning more than half of the season’s races, and only failing to finish off the podium twice the entire season. Decent.

Looking at this season, he came into it with another point to prove. After being beaten by Rosberg to the title in an exhilarating finale at Abu Dhabi, he knew that his main challenger over the last 3 seasons wasn’t going to be a problem, with Rosberg retiring from the sport. Despite this, he faced a great challenge with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel for the crown, with Vettel himself having something to prove against his long-standing critics since his Red Bull days. It wasn’t a bulletproof season by any means. The very poor weekend in Monaco, together with Hamilton struggling to match the front-runners in Russia, Austria and Hungary, showed it wasn’t plain-sailing for the Brit. For once, Hamilton’s Mercedes looked vulnerable to the competition, yet it was his consistency and opportunism that helped him pull clear of his rivals, sealing glory with a sensible albeit mechanically-hindered performance in Mexico.

And here lies the conundrum for Hamilton. He’s taken Michael Schumacher’s record of all-time pole positions and almost certainly guaranteed recognition as the best qualifier in Formula One history. He’s won Championships in varying different scenarios, whether it be proving the doubters wrong or beating a rival in another team. He’s even managed to win the championship without mechanical issues forcing retirements at crucial stages of the season, as has been the case this season. No matter what scenario, he’s managed to come away from that an even better driver and with a world title to prove it. But what will encourage him from now on? Will it be to match Schumacher’s race win and title records? Because given the strides Mercedes’ rivals have shown in 2017, that will be a very big challenge indeed. Aside from Schumacher’s records, there is nothing distinctive that Hamilton can aim for that he hasn’t already achieved.

However, Hamilton has not leaned towards any suggestions that his motivation will be changed because of his latest title feat, with his immediate comments after winning his fourth world title being: “Four is a great number, but I want number five now”. We now have a Lewis Hamilton that has nothing to prove and everything to gain. He doesn’t have to worry about the strains of an intra-team rivalry because he’s beaten that. He doesn’t have to worry about holding off rival competitors because he’s beaten that. For Hamilton, it’s all about seeing how far up the statistical tree he can climb before he decides to depart from the sport, and his form and own comments suggest he’s got a while yet at the top.

Lewis Hamilton is without question an all-time great in Formula One. He’s almost certainly a Top-5 of all-time and I wouldn’t begrudge you if you had him in Top 3 or even Top 2. He went from marketable athlete 5 years ago to becoming THE product of Formula One that everybody outside of the sport looks out for, recognises and appreciates. With the Hamilton-Vettel rivalry blossoming this season, and the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo once again proving their worth at the top-end of the sport, it will be very interesting to see how Hamilton curtails these threats using all the credentials he has prided himself over in his success.

Sky F1: A narrative pushed too far?

Sky F1: A narrative pushed too far?

It’s fair to say Formula One hasn’t had the easiest of weeks, given it’s had to deal with the repercussions of the incident between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, and the backlash by many towards Vettel. Many fans have moved on since the incident, while many more chose to move on after Vettel’s hearing with the FIA over said incident, in which he received no further punishment. Despite this, much of Sky Sports’ coverage at this week’s Austrian Grand Prix has focused on the aftermath of this incident. A driver relationship has been scrutinised over and over, as if there is an obligation to delve into the fine details of this and find something to dig at, a desperate attempt to create a narrative for this season.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s fair to say Sky have made Lewis Hamilton the poster boy of their coverage, and it’s hardly a surprise given there is no restrictions into how a private media organisation such as Sky sways in order to appeal to an audience, just take BT Sport’s coverage of MotoGP and their favouring of British riders as proof of this occurring in motorsport. But for Sky desperately trying to make an issue of a non-issue, especially an issue that was proven to be over by the FIA’s own standards, can only be detrimental to Sky’s own coverage.

You can go onto Sky Sports’ website and can see a story over whether Hamilton and Vettel refused to shake each other’s hands after qualifying in Austria, despite there being video footage proving otherwise. It’s as if they want there to be an issue between the pair, tension like what we’ve seen so often in the past with Sky with the intra-team rivalry of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Sky can only go so far in pushing this specific agenda before it turns away viewers, and for the benefit of the sport in this country, that may have long-term problems.

Currently there is a viable alternative to Sky’s coverage of F1, this being Channel 4. However, Sky will eventually gain exclusivity rights over F1 coverage in the UK in 2019, and this comes with an element of responsibility. Yes, it is perfectly acceptable for a British organisation to slightly favour British drivers in the sport, as I’m sure the German & French media do to their respective drivers. Yet to paint certain drivers in a bad light, like we’ve seen with the seeming vilification of Vettel after the Baku incident and its aftermath, is such an irresponsible move for an organisation that will eventually have to lead by example in promoting F1 in this country.

While the ‘hardcore’ F1 fans won’t think twice about subscribing to Sky’s coverage, there is also has to be an appeal to the casual viewer that may plan on watching given there will be no free-to-air alternative for these casual viewers to watch, unless you include “legal” sources. It is already a given that F1 viewing figures in this country will decline should the planned exclusivity deal with Sky go ahead, and this is without considering the casual viewer, not to mention the never-ending saga into the future of the British Grand Prix.

Sky Sports has the potential to define the future of Formula One in this country for a generation. While many (including myself) have expressed concerns over the exclusivity deal, it needs to show itself as a leading partner of F1 & that starts with giving everyone in the sport a fair share of the credit. Of course as a British organisation appealing to a British audience, it is acceptable to focus on the British drivers in the sport. However, to create pantomime villains like we’ve seen so often with Sky, like with Vettel and Rosberg, will only frustrate the fan base. Cracks are already very visible from those aware of the tricks that Sky try to slyly (or not) pull, and this will only deepen further once the pay wall takes full effect in 2019.

Carlos Sainz: The push to glory

Carlos Sainz: The push to glory

When you think of drivers in Formula One who go beyond the ability of their car on a regular basis, you think of the same names every time. Fernando Alonso with his poorly powered McLaren-Honda car, Nico Hulkenberg with his Renault in a team rebuilding to become a force once more, and even Esteban Ocon in the Force India given his lack of experience at the pinnacle of motorsport. But one driver that doesn’t get nearly enough credit that he deserves in my opinion is Carlos Sainz, and let me explain why.

It’s often said that a driver’s main rival is the driver opposite him in the garage in his team-mate. With Sainz’s Toro Rosso team-mate in Daniil Kvyat, Sainz has comfortably come out ahead of him so far this season, with a number of brilliant performances including a 6th place in Monaco where he successfully held off Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in the process.

In a team that should be amongst the least successful in the sport given the lack of performance Renault engines has compared to Mercedes power, Carlos Sainz has almost single-handedly carried Toro Rosso to a solid mid-table position in the constructor’s standings, even challenging Williams for 5th place. From a driver standing perspective, it looks even better from Sainz’s perspective. He is ahead of both Williams drivers in the championship, including F1 veteran Felipe Massa. He is only 6 points behind Esteban Ocon in the Force India and only 16 behind Max Verstappen in the senior Red Bull team!

It is obvious that Carlos Sainz has demonstrated his immense talent so far in his career, and many are saying he is ready for the step up into a top team challenging for podiums, wins and even championships. But this step up may not be as simple as first thought. Red Bull have chosen to promote from within for many years and it would be foolish to say that Sainz isn’t top of the list should there be the need to recruit a new driver. But the Red Bull pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen already have contracts for the 2018 season, so they’re not going anywhere soon unless Ferrari follow through with the rumours and try and pick up Ricciardo, although this is unlikely.

There have also been rumours of Ferrari going for Sainz. Again, this may prove difficult given Red Bull don’t want their rivals to take their top talents, but then again Ferrari may choose for someone more experienced to come into the team. While Valtteri Bottas may not be under contract at Mercedes next season, it would be expected that he would receive another deal given his solid performances so far in 2017. The only viable option of an “upgrade” would be for Sainz to go to the factory Renault outfit, but the competitiveness of the team next season would be guesswork at this stage.

I remember saying in a previous article of mine that Daniel Ricciardo’s career was at a crossroads in 2015, with greater clarity needed to show what direction his career was going. Carlos Sainz has exactly the same problem. While Sainz may have time on his hands (He only turns 23 in September), he has a golden opportunity to stake his claim as a future F1 great if he can forge the right career path. But as has been discussed, this won’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Unless Ricciardo decides to become team-mates again with Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari, the Red Bull door is firmly closed for the 2018 season.

Sainz doesn’t have to act immediately, but he would benefit massively if he was able to establish himself at the top of the sport before he tries to take it by the scruff of its neck. There is zero chance of him claiming any glory at Toro Rosso while he is there, but there may be the slightest chance if he pushes forward at a top team. Hopefully he will get the chance sooner rather than later, otherwise he may become another “What could’ve been”.

The Baku fallout

The Baku fallout

As I write this piece, the FIA have just announced that they are re-opening the investigation into the incident between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton that occurred at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. While Vettel may have received a 10-second stop-and-go penalty during the race, the FIA have decided to investigate the incident further to understand whether Vettel’s actions deserve further punishment. This is a strange move, not only because of the punishments they have already issued Vettel in the stop-and-go penalty as well as 3 penalty points, but because of the potential ramifications it could have on the Drivers and Constructors championships.

While a race ban may not be completely off the table, it would be a remarkable course of action to issue should the FIA choose to do so, at least that’s what I think anyway. A decision to ban Vettel from racing at a Grand Prix would give Lewis Hamilton a free shot at taking 25 points in the championship, essentially free points as Vettel can’t do any damage limitation should he win. Given the driver’s championships are more often than not, decided by the slimmest of points margins, especially when more than one team is involved as has been the case this season, any decision including a race ban could possibly dictate the direction of the championship. That’s a bad precedent that I’m sure the FIA do not want, and I’m sure Lewis Hamilton & Mercedes would not want either should they eventually win their respective championships.

I’ve seen some reactions on social media where many are comparing this decision to investigate further to Michael Schumacher’s disqualification from the 1997 World Championship, where he was found to deliberately crash into Jacques Villeneuve at the European Grand Prix in an attempt to determine the final championship standings in his favour. This incident and Vettel’s has stark comparisons, most notably Vettel’s collision with Hamilton had little bearing on the championship nor was it Vettel’s intention to do so. Moreover, Schumacher did not receive any form of penalty until he was summoned to the FIA meeting after the championship had been concluded, whereas Vettel did receive penalties both in the race and on his racing licence.

Thankfully, Formula One is not used to these situations because they do not happen very often, with the last race disqualification for racing behaviour being Takuma Sato at the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. However this incident was always going to trigger a seismic reaction given Vettel’s indifferent popularity among the British supporters, not to mention his championship rivalry with one of the sport’s all-time leading figures in Lewis Hamilton.

I’m struggling to see any justification for re-investigating the incident, let alone issuing Vettel with further punishment. Any further punishment will likely be met with an appeal from Vettel & Ferrari, if not to the FIA then to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A very similar incident occurred in MotoGP not too long ago, where Valentino Rossi was issued 3 penalty points for deliberately causing a collision with Marc Marquez, forcing him to start from the back of the grid at the final race of the season. Although Rossi’s subsequent appeals proved to be unsuccessful, it set a precedent that many still believe is felt in MotoGP today. Marquez is still “unforgiven” for his part in the incident, with his popularity amongst some Rossi fans still non-existent today. This decision to penalise Rossi had a huge impact on the direction of the championship, regardless of whether the penalty was justified. It was a championship ultimately decided in the court room and not on the track, and you can’t help but think that it would be exactly the same if Vettel does receive further punishment. Let’s hope it does not come to this situation.

 

Vettel vs Hamilton: It’s on…unfortunately

Vettel vs Hamilton: It’s on…unfortunately

The 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix turned into a sensational race whatever angle you look at it from. Daniel Ricciardo coming from an early pit-stop, near retirement due to brake issues and leaving him second last, to have a complete reversal of fortunes to win comfortably. Valtteri Bottas, like Ricciardo having to come from the back of the field after a Lap 1 collision with Kimi Raikkonen, stole 2nd place on the line from…Lance Stroll of all people, benefiting from the chaos to claim a simply incredible debut podium finish, becoming the youngest podium finisher in Formula One history at 18 years and 239 days old in the process. Lower down the field, the Force India pairing of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon once again having dramas between each other for the second race in succession, and a McLaren-Honda scored points. Huzzah! (#HondaOut)

But this race won’t be remembered for Ricciardo’s brilliant comeback. Nor will it be for Stroll’s moment to shine. It will be remembered for the incident between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, two perennial rivals that have seemingly finally been able to battle head-to-head despite them both being in their 11th full season in the sport. When Vettel collided with Hamilton as the safety car was coming back into the pits, there was a sense of provocation, a belief that mind-games were being played with a ‘brake-test’ from Hamilton’s part, and an incensed fury from Vettel’s part that resulted in him gesticulating beside Hamilton’s car before bumping wheels, inadvertently or not is up to personal opinion.

But this wasn’t the case at all. The FIA decided Vettel was entirely at fault for the collision, deeming it to be ‘dangerous driving’ and resulted in a 10-second Stop and Go penalty for the Ferrari driver, ending any chance of a crucial victory that would’ve bolstered his championship hopes. Not only that, but the FIA after the race released telemetry of Hamilton’s speed at the time of the incident, showing there was no reduction in speed, no ‘brake-test’, that Vettel was adamant about. A damning justification that left Vettel with what looked like the entire F1 community at odds with him.

But we’ve seen this before, also involving Hamilton. When Nico Rosberg made contact with Hamilton at the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix, not only did it end Hamilton’s race but it also made Rosberg a scapegoat. It made a friendly rivalry between team-mates turn into “war”, as if it became a no-holds barred street fight where it was every man for himself, or at least that’s what the British media made it out to be. Despite Rosberg being his normal charming self for the remainder of his career, there was always a small minority that branded him a cheat, still not forgiven for that moment despite it having zero bearing on the final championship standing.

You can’t help but get the same feeling from the Hamilton-Vettel collision that we just saw in Azerbaijan. Two seemingly friendly rivals turned into bitter enemies on the brink of breaking point despite it being nothing more than an error of judgement from Vettel. We’re also seeing the same characteristics from the British media, desperate to create a narrative from this moment and paint Vettel as the heel, and fuelled by Hamilton’s post-race comments where he claimed Vettel “disgraced himself”.

The reaction from fans has only reflected this portrayal. Many during the race were calling for a disqualification for his actions, although the reluctance by race stewards to issue drivers with the black flag (We haven’t seen one for dangerous driving since 2005) suggests this was more complicated than many people think, while many more were demanding Vettel receive a race ban for these actions. While the FIA have further issued Vettel with 3 penalty points, risking a ban from the British Grand Prix should he commit similar actions at the next Grand Prix in Austria, this still hasn’t been well-received by the die-hard Hamilton fans, perhaps reminiscing over the rivalry between Hamilton and Rosberg in the previous 3 years.

Vettel deserved his penalty at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, as well as the 3 penalty points applied to his licence. It may have been an error of judgement, but it was a massive over-reaction to what he believed was a misdemeanor by Lewis Hamilton. But if you are still wishing for a friendly rivalry between the pair, like the one that Hamilton himself was hoping for earlier in the season, it’s fair to say that is very much gone away. Even if the two are together in a positive atmosphere, the media spin will always relate back to that moment in Azerbaijan, where the ‘boiling point’ was at its peak temperature and when it got ugly. We’ve got our narrative for the rest of the season, perhaps longer.

Becchetti’s Managerial merry-go-round

Becchetti’s Managerial merry-go-round

Something a bit different for you today. I talk about all of Leyton Orient’s managers under the maniacal stewardship of Francesco Becchetti. Enjoy!

Russell Slade

Coming off the back of an incredibly successful 2013/14, Orient looked in very good shape under Slade. Fans were happy, players were happy and at the beginning Becchetti was happy to have Slade in charge. However, it turned very bizarre very quickly. Unlike the previous freak season, Slade and his teams usually start very slowly, this season being no different however this wasn’t acceptable in Becchetti’s standards. He was told by Mauro ‘I’m good at my job, honest!’ Milanese that he had a game to save his job, and a rejected approach by Cardiff despite the ultimatum rubbed salt into the gaping wound. As a result, Slade walked away from a club where he was adored and the club has deteriorated ever since.

 

Mauro Milanese

A familiar name to the QPR fans out there, as their former left back comes in to replace Slade. He was at Orient before, signing rather extravagant names for Orient’s stature on rather extravagant wages. One case of this is Andrea Dossena. Remember him? The guy who scored that free-kick for Liverpool to beat Man Utd 4-1 at Old Trafford? That Dossena. Signed by Milanese on a £7,600 per week wage, TRIPLE the wage of any player that narrowly lost in the play-offs the season before, but I digress.

Milanese as manager was about as useful as using a fork for soup, winning two games in his 6 week tenure as manager before he was also given the boot. Oh, and his attempts at claiming wrongful dismissal at Orient also revealed his attempts at unlawfully signing kids for the Orient youth team without parental consent, while making an earner himself. Classy.

Fabio Liverani

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Anybody who played the early incarnations of Pro Evolution Soccer on the Playstation may recognise this name. Liverani came in when Becchetti wanted to make Leyton Orient a brand in Italy and what better way to do that than bring in a 3-time appearance maker for the Italian national team. The only problem about that? He couldn’t speak a word of English. Aided by then goalkeeper coach and future professional recruitment bullsh*tter Rob Gagliardi in translation, Liverani tried to reverse the O’s fortunes and keep them in League One.

It didn’t help when Liverani decided to bring on loanee Ryan Hedges for 45 minutes the day after he’s completed a full 90 for the Wales U21s. It didn’t help when he dropped another loanee Luke O’Neill entirely from the matchday squad for a game despite being named man-of-the-match the game before. It also didn’t help where he persisted on playing Gianvito Plasmati up top and allowing established club icon Kevin Lisbie go out on loan. Things did not improve and Orient were relegated to League Two 12 months after being two penalty kicks away from the Championship, swiftly followed by Liverani’s sacking. Unbelievable.

 

Ian Hendon

But never mind, Becchetti had learned that he needed an experienced manager who knew the lower leagues inside out. Step forward Ian ‘He’s one of our own’ Hendon, a manager with bags of experience. Well…if you’re counting a 16-month spell at Barnet, then sure he’s experienced.

It was looking good for Hendon initially. Won the first 5 league games of the season and got fans confident on winning the league at the first time of asking (I was so confident I put £20 on it!). But alas as we have realised over the years, it’s never that simple at Orient. Performances started to slip, drawing more games than Mourinho’s United side, and the team had to endure a ‘morale-boosting’ trip to the Marriott hotel.

Cue chants of “We’re f*cking bored” at the home game vs Exeter and Hendon was shown the door by Signore Becchetti. He may have been one of our own but Hendon was eventually on his own.

 

Kevin Nolan

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Wait a second. THE Kevin Nolan? The Premier League midfielder who had over 400 appearances in the top-flight? That Kevin Nolan? Yes, after training with Orient to keep his fitness levels up, Nolan saw an open door for the most precarious managerial job in England and thought “I want some of that!”, eventually being appointed player-manager.

On the pitch, it was hardly flawless from Nolan’s Orient but he got them playing a hell of a lot better than we’ve seen at the club for a while, winning a whopping 7 of his 15 games in charge! However, off the field there was problems with Nolan and Becchetti. Becchetti removed Nolan from managerial duties to focus on playing while Nolan wanted the vice versa if anything, while rumours of Nolan’s work ethic away from the club didn’t do him any favours, Nolan was to never appear for Orient ever again.

Not to forget Nolan drunkenly trying to start a fight with youth players at the end-of-season Star Man awards. Oh dear!

 

Andy Hessenthaler

A bit of context is needed here. When Hendon was in charge, Becchetti decided to infiltrate the technical area in a drunken tirade (Surprisingly common at Orient). What happened next? He ended up kicking then-assistant manager Hessenthaler up the backside, getting himself a £40,000 fine and six match stadium ban. Yet Hessenthaler got the manager’s job 4 months later!

Like Nolan, Hessenthaler won 7 games in a near identical record to Nolan. The start of the 2016-17 season wasn’t terrible by any means although having to watch Gagliardi’s greatest Football Manager hits on the pitch every week became an eyesore for every fan going. Again, rumours of interference and a *cough* strenuous relationship with Becchetti resulted in Hessenthaler’s dismissal in September, 6 weeks after the beginning of the season. Gone in the blink of an eye.

 

Alberto Cavasin

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Where the bloody hell did this one come out from?! Alberto Cavasin, an Italian manager who couldn’t speak a word of English (Sounds familiar doesn’t it?), and a manager who hasn’t managed a club since being relegated from the Serie A with Sampdoria back in 2011, ended up trying to steer HMS Orient away from the lower end of the league. Did it work out? This is Orient, so of course it didn’t. This was a man who actually believed that Zan Benedicic and Jens Janse had an ounce of footballing ability, a man who had to use ex-Middlesbrough defender Gianluca Festa’s son to translate for him in training and at post-match interviews, and a man who somehow managed to make performances even worse than under Hessenthaler earlier in the season.

So after a measly 53 days in charge, a period which covered 2 wins in 10 games and included a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Sheffield United, Cavasin was too shown the door. At least he left us with a parting message, which was nice of him.

 

Andy Edwards

At this point, Becchetti clearly couldn’t be bothered scouring the depths of the Italian Lega Pro for the next Antonio Conte wannabe, so he plumped for someone who knew the club inside out in Andy Edwards. Did fortunes change? Not a chance. Orient’s manager was a man who learned his coaching craft in the youth team, a developer, a nurturer. He wasn’t used to telling Ulrich N’nomo that you have to shoot to score and not do stepovers every 10 seconds. He had his rare moments of glory as well, like his wins over Crawley and Accrington as well as the latest of last gasp equalisers at home to Cambridge, but like his many predecessors it was to no avail.

When Edwards resigned to take a role at the FA’s youth setup, there wasn’t much anger in the voices of O’s fans. He earned his respect amongst the fans, especially as the club was in the midst of a serious crisis. I’d imagine in the future when Orient is back to becoming a dominant force in E10, Edwards would be welcome back with open arms by the fans. Andy Edwards: Brilliant youth team coach, not so brilliant first team manager. I’ll leave you with this ‘fun’ fact about Edward’s reign as manager…

He won as many games as Cavasin. I bet you didn’t know that one!

 

Danny Webb

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Some say he was an estate agent from Romford, some say he was a Billericay used car salesman. All we know is that Danny Webb was next in the hottest of hot seats at the Orient. Chosen by his proximity to Becchetti at the time and not for managerial experience, Webb was given an impossible task. No funds to buy any players, seeing first teamers exiled and even forced out of the club and a reliance on youth teamers to keep Orient in the Football League.

But he got the players working hard, something Orient fans haven’t seen since the Nolan era. Results wise, he got was expected considering the vast majority of his team was playing youth team football at the start of the season. There weren’t good moments, like the 5-0 massacre at Accrington Stanley on a Tuesday evening, the 3-0 defeat at Crawley which I insist is the worst performance I’ve ever seen from an Orient side (Bold claim given I’ve watched a 5-1 home defeat to Yeovil!), and the frantic finger-pointing that we’re used to seeing on Strictly Come Dancing.

However given our plight, the good moments were incredible. A 4-0 battering of Newport County on a rugby pitch is up there (especially as Newport fans were chanting about Webb’s coat being from Poundland), but THAT Valentines night in Plymouth, coming back from 2-1 down after 88 minutes to win is up there with Cox’s free-kick vs Peterborough in my greatest Orient moments. Webb even stood up to Becchetti’s madness! It may have resulted in him handing in his resignation, but at least he tried.

Danny Webb: The closest thing we’ve had to Stella McCartney at Brisbane Road. Although I did like his suit number at the Grimsby game.

 

Omer Riza

And now we’re left with Omer. Trying to save a club depleted of morale and wage, many points behind the dotted line of survival and an even more increased reliance on youth team players (practically senior pros at this point). An impossible job if there ever was one. But he tweets regularly about his ‘lions’ and also seems a really nice guy, so there’s always a positive!

It’s hard to judge Omer’s time as manager because he was given a rowing oar to try and steer HMS Orient away from the iceberg. Anything he tried was only for pride, but amazingly we had that even more in the end than we did at the beginning of Becchetti’s reign.