August 16, 2011 by Paul Barnes
Welcome to another edition of The Blogcast. On this week’s show I’m delighted to introduce the debut appearance in the radio studio of Stuart Yule. Stuart brings his wealth of football knowledge and insightful analysis to the Blogcast and makes some very interesting points on the Scottish national team.
Joining Stuart with me in the studio is David Waddell. Fresh from the summer recess David is back and on top form with some hard hitting opinions to provoke the most compelling football debate online.
So sit back, relax and enjoy the show, and if you want to leave comment please feel free, we’d be delighted to hear from you.
April 7, 2011 by Paul Barnes
Welcome to another edition of The Blogcast, your new favourite sports podcast.
This week I’m joined in the studio by two new faces. Lyall Stuart comes packed with some unmissable hard hitting opinions on everything from under fire-football managers to the glorious traditions of The Masters. David Waddell likes to keep a close eye on all sports but is particularly well versed in tennis. David is also our resident bookmaker and will be giving you the best tips for this weeks sporting action.
Just click on the link above, sit back, relax and enjoy our company for the next 45 minutes.
You can also follow us on Twitter @paulibarnes
March 21, 2011 by Paul Barnes
January 2008 was heralded as the beginning of a new era in men’s tennis.
Novak Djokovic, the jovial Serb, lifted his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in Melbourne, ending a three year sequence of Majors dominance by Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal.
In doing so, he defeated French player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The significance of Djokovic’s victory was partly eclipsed by the remarkable run to the final of his unseeded opponent.
Collecting their hefty pieces of silverware at the end of the match, Djokovic, aged 20, and Tsonga, at 22, represented the changing of the guard. Britain’s Andy Murray was another whose name was being whispered as a possible contender to take over at the top of the world tennis tree.
In the two years following his maiden grand slam triumph, Djokovic failed to add to his Melourne title. Blighted by runs of inconsistency and niggling injury hiccups, his career looked to have stalled. 2009 saw him crash out the French Open and Wimbledon before the semi finals.
With confidence low and the gradual re-emergence of Federer and Nadal in reaffirming their positions as the world’s best, Djokovic plodded along in the “best of the rest” group, yet his game showed few signs of improving.
His record in the Mastes series remained strong, yet he seemed unable to replicate this form on the biggest stage.
It wasn’t until last year’s US Open that Djokovic kick started his tilt to become the world’s best player. Faced with the daunting prospect of Federer in the last four, Djokovic gave a rousing performance against the Swiss master, surviving two match points to storm through to the final in five sets. Nadal would prove a hurdle too high on this occasion, but Djokovic had proved to his doubters that he was, once again, ready to mix it with the best.
But perhaps the real turning point for the man they call Nole came in the shape of the Davis Cup just a few weeks before Christmas. Often derided by players with more interest in individual success, Djokovic has an exemplary attitude towards tennis’ premier team event.
In 2006 the LTA tried to seduce Djokovic into switching his nationality to allow him to play for Britain. This selfish and cowardice attempt was rebuffed by Djokovic, and just four years later he led Serbia to the Davis Cup final for the first time in the country’s history. Djokovic later spoke of his delight at having spurned the LTA’s financial incentives when he was just 19.
Djokovic, having enjoyed an extended Christmas break, picked up where he left off at the end of 2010 and claimed his second Major title with a comprehensive defeat of Murray in January’s Melbourne final. While Murray is now struggling to win a solitary match, Djokovic is enjoying the best sequence of results in his career, eclipsing Pete Sampras’ record of 17 consecutive wins.
On Sunday, in the blistering Californian sunshine, he battled past Nadal to lift the Indian Wells Masters title. Another epic contest, as it has to be to get the better of the Majorcan, Djokovic’s energy and stamina lasted the test of time and with the match tied at one set apiece, the Serbian annihilated Nadal in the final set, something of a rare oddity.
On the back of his triumph, Djokovic has ousted Federer from the number two spot in the world rankings, and few would bet against him leapfrogging Nadal before the year is out.
Eighteen straight wins, double major holder and undefeated this year: Novak Djokovic is finally fulfilling his promise.
February 22, 2011 by Paul Barnes
There can’t be many New Year resolutions that survive the month of January. Quitting the cancer sticks. Sweating Tennents lager onto a treadmill five days a week. Flipping 50p’s into an old jam jar every time a profanity slips out your gub. I’ve heard them all, but will power alone just doesn’t cut it.
For those still hanging in there come the end of February, it usually takes discipline, hard work, sacrifice and a dogged determination to mute your doubters.
I can’t be sure what Neil Lennon promised himself as the big hand embraced the wee hand at midnight on December 31st, but it was probably along the lines of “I promise to keep my mouth shut and let my team’s football do the talking.”
As we wave goodbye to February and step into March, Lennon’s New Year vows remain intact. 11 games played, 9 wins, 2 draws and no defeats, with his Celtic side conceding just five goals. It’s been a hugely credible 2011, combining a run which has booked his team’s place in the League Cup final, maintained their presence in the Scottish Cup and extended their lead at the SPL summit to eight points, with just 12 league fixtures to fulfil.
But perhaps most significantly for Lennon, and certainly for his band of hooped followers, Celtic have inflicted successive Old Firm league defeats on their greatest adversaries, Rangers. By twice reversing a morale sucking 3-1 loss at the hands of their city rivals on their own patch in October, Lennon has instilled belief and excitement amongst Celtic supporters for the first time since he took his place in the Parkhead dugout.
Yet it was all so different at the tail end of last year. The removal from European competition was followed by some insipid home performances in the SPL that appeared to show the first sign of cracks at the once fortress building on London Road. Some distasteful touchline antics and misjudged comments to the press heralded a six-match touchline ban for Lennon, and when his side travelled to Ibrox on January 2 there weren’t many Celtic supporters who envisaged such a bruising defeat of their neighbours.
But gradually, the team that Lennon has built almost single handedly (of Celtic’s starting eleven against Rangers on Sunday, only Scott Brown and Giorgios Samaras started in the defeat to Ross County last April) have established a togetherness, a fluency and a work ethic which has superseded all who have come before them.
So impressive is Celtic’s current form that when you sit back and measure the impact Lennon has had in his inaugural season as a coach, it is impossible not to praise his performance level thus far.
Some of his signings have been nothing short of a revelation. “Izaleftback? No, Izaguirre.” Few people had heard of this galloping, nimble Honduran before he checked into Scotland in the close season. Gary Hooper’s Scottish profile before signing for Celtic was reduced to a name on a team sheet in a Sunday newspaper sports section. There are, of course, a gluttony of other signings who have quickly embraced their flame topped manager’s ethos, but Izaguirre and Hooper have been particularly outstanding. The early form of Kris Commons, signed in January, continues to support the theory that Lennon has an ability to spot raw talent when it comes to player recruitment.
Beyond the signings, though, Celtic have benefitted from some bold decision making on the part of their manager. Hampered by the inability of some of his defenders to keep a clean sheet in the early stages of the season, Lennon refused to obsess over this deficiency and instead concentrated his side’s focus on doing what they were good at: going forward. While some managers may have choked their side’s attacking advances to concentrate on building from the back, Lennon instead signed a further attacker in January in the shape of Freddie Ljunberg. Defensive signings weren’t forthcoming, so instead Charlie Mulgrew was picked to hold the hand of Daniel Majstorovic in central defence. The former Aberdeen player has so far enjoyed great success tucking into a more central role. Such decisions, which may once have appeared baffling to the club’s supporters, now look decidedly shrewd.
It’s amazing to think that just 10 months ago the same club, coached by Lennon on a short-term basis, limped out of the Scottish Cup after a comprehensive defeat to Highland minnows Ross County.
Off the field, Lennon appears to be focusing his energies on coaching his team as they look to wrestle the SPL title from the hands of Rangers, where once his mind was on other things. As he awaits the outcome of his touchline ban appeal, referees have been off his agenda of late. Sports hacks have been scratching their heads for a golden quote, but even this has been side stepped by the Northern Irishman. Even his Twitter account has been inactive for over a month.
Lennon continues to divide opinion in Scottish football, and some of his outbursts earlier in the campaign were inexcusable. However, he appears to have cleaned up his act of late. One would suspect this has been on the back of the advice of some senior figures inside Parkhead. If there is anything at all that can be taken from this, it’s that his team and their supporters have built up some kind of siege mentality against all and sundry. This has manifested into a team who have recently shown an astonishing level of energy and commitment on the field, with some of their attacking play being a joy to watch.
Lennon deserves great credit for what he has achieved on a limited budget after inheriting a substandard team. But as he said himself after the 3-0 thumping of Rangers on Sunday, the title race is far from over.
If his passion and drive continue to flourish, there’s no reason why his New Year resolutions can’t continue until the end of the season.
January 29, 2011 by Paul Barnes
It’s called the deltoid. To you and me it’s called the shoulder muscle. When Andrew Murray first achieved prominence in the summer of 2005 the soft tissue surrounding the top of his arms was just that. Soft, weak, underdeveloped and fragile.
The same man, now Andy Murray, was pictured on the Melbourne Park practice courts this week. He was stripped to the waist, seeking a light pink tinge that is fluent of most Scots earthed beneath a glimpse of Mr Sunshine. But now those shoulder muscles have swollen up, roaring ferociously with a very British stubbornness. Given the pressure he now finds himself under from his millions of fans back home, it is somewhat understandable that he has beefed up just in time for what could be his golden moment, given the burden he now carries on those 23 year old shoulders.
He heads into tomorrow’s Australian Open final having conceded just two sets in the tournament thus far. His form has been nothing short of exceptional. With a new found sense of brutality that has been lacking in recent Grand Slam tournaments, he has diminished the hopes of opponents with the minimal of fuss, his consistent yet at times eccentric style of play proving far too much for those with far less ability.
In line with the progressive difficulties that a major tournament poses, his sternest test in Melbourne came in his previous match when he faced Spain’s David Ferrer in the semi-final. Ferrer, an unbelievably fierce competitor, gave Murray the run around, chasing down every ball from the warm up to the hand shake. The Spaniard’s experience propped his head up at times when the match was swaying towards Murray. Undeterred by the tangible resistance posed by the scoreboard, Ferrer fought hard when he seemed down and out, at times salvaging a break point deficit to remain in the match.
Yet the difference, in just under four hours, was the man from Dunblane’s ability to win the big points, the crucial points, the turning points. Two of the sets were decided on tie-breaks, both of which were won comfortably by Murray. In these moments, having battered felt for all his worth over the best part of an hour, the last thing he would want to do is succumb to poor concentration at six games apiece.
Such an affliction has bruised Murray in previous Grand Slam finals, losing a crucial tiebreak to Roger Federer in the Rod Laver Arena last year. In those days his temper, at times, looked to get the better of him. His tempestuous relationship with his racket often distracted his head from the task in hand. Often manifesting into complete self-destruction, his anger and lack of self-awareness on the court hindered his tilt at a major title.
Murray, by no means an angel on court, has often been culpable of an audible profanity, a sulk, a tantrum or an umpire gripe. It’s tempting to draw comparisons between Murray and Harry Enfield’s fictitious teenage brat, Kevin.
But experience provides an appreciation of patience and concentration, and besides a second set wobble against Ferrer, Murray focused sufficiently to glide through to the final.
His opponent come Sunday will play with the hand he has chosen that day. In Novak Djokovic, Murray faces a man whose performance just cannot be predicted. It seems odd to question the Serbian’s threat, but here you have a man who at times has a game unequalled even to the great Federer and Nadal, but on other occasions drops his wrists and prods at the ball with an apathy befitting of a man who would rather be anywhere else. But an enigma Djokovic is not: he won here in 2008 and has quite rightly affirmed his position this year as the third best player in the world.
Rankings count for little in a one-off match of such prestige, though. If Murray can keep the head and stick to what he is good at, he is more than capable of etching his name on the winner’s trophy.
To be successful though, however ludicrous it may sound, Murray must play with the arrogant dismissiveness of a young buck wreaking havoc at the top table. His tenacity, petulance and burning belly get the best out of him. A calm demeanour is not in his make-up. Instead, he must come out fighting, using his serve and groundstrokes to choke Djokovic into baseline errors.
Ultimately, Murray must win the big points. In such a tense finale at least one tie-break is almost inevitable. The Scot will take great heart from his ruthless display against Ferrer in their first-to-seven mini battles, and if history is to repeat itself he must atone for a sluggish start in previous outings.
Millions will be watching in Britain and the world over to see if Murray can attempt to disperse the Nadal/Federer monopoly of titles in recent years. His shoulders are primed, muscles rippling. Come 8.30am on Sunday, he will feel the full weight of a nation’s expectancy.