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Natural Selection

Words by Thomas Rutherford

Selection for your University sports team, in my experience, is unlike any other.  It certainly isn’t easy, yet it is also too easy for a select few. All of us sports enthusiasts obviously want to win when we take to the pitch, court or whatever may be your preferred terrain on a Wednesday afternoon. We train hard, prepare well and show commitment beyond what we can probably afford both economically and time wise. Plausible and professional you might say? Yes, but in the main, for many of you out there, it is all in vein.

Despite what most ‘elite’ athletes at our university might kid themselves into believing, sport at our level, where money in particular is at a premium, is amateur and seems destined to remain that way. So no matter how hard you might train, how good you are, or how ‘deserving’ you are of your spot in the 1st team, it is largely irrelevant. Why? Perhaps one of the main facets (not including the economic aspect) that marks the difference between a professionally run club and an amateur one is the way in which it is run. Committees are often close-knit groups of friends and then what perhaps is the most regressive consequence of a University Club is that the supposed 1st or ‘best’ team becomes another group made up of those friends on the committee. Fresher students, unless quite obviously a cut above the rest, get discarded into the second team and beyond. If lucky they might sneak a game on the bench. As for the rest, hidden talents become disinterested and anonymous with phrases like ‘politics’ ‘bias’ and ‘cliques’ being all too commonly used when asked why they don’t turn up to training anymore.

Of course, I’m being highly cynical and overly stereotypical, yet not without foundation. Having been part of three different sports here and living with a house of full of Rugby lads, I’ve become wise to the sometime dodgy and unfair goings on in a sports club. This isn’t to say I am criticising their processes, far from it. Quite understandably 1st team selection, all too easily, becomes a natural process. Put yourselves in a Captain’s shoes. Pick a 3rd year player/best friend who has put on a bit of timber, yet has got the experience and prowess? Or do you plump for an ultra-keen and lean fresher student who will add a lot more to the team than just experience? I’d tend to think that the majority of us would stick with our third year pal, simply because it’s easier. It would be a brave individual who would introduce an unknown entity at the expense of the popular, yet slightly portly postgraduate.

Therein lies the dilemma that officials across the sporting community face. At a university where at the moment, it has to be said, participation rules the roost, does putting the best possible team out on a Wednesday actually matter? After all the younger members of the squad will get their chance on the big stage in the future will they not? In my eyes, it does matter. True, Essex might not be renowned for outstanding sporting achievement, but this shouldn’t prove a stumbling block for any team who wants strive to be the best they can possibly be. Indeed, it is pleasing to see that even within the last three years, some clubs have adopted a more professional and winning culture within their ranks and success hasn’t followed far behind.

Sporting politics is a complicated beast. I’m a captain of a relatively small sport’s club and I can tell you it is probably more hassle than it’s worth. You want to please everybody and so in clubs where your teammates are often your drinking partners, becoming unpopular because of your Lombardian approach to team selection is sure to cause a few fallouts. But a few bruised egos and the odd drunken argument is surely outweighed by seeing your team improve and succeed on match day. Go on captains, be brave.

Few would argue that footballers deserve the exorbitant wages that many of them receive. Samuel Eto’o’s contract at mega-rich Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala sees the Cameroonian forward take home a fee in the region of £250,000 a week, and he is far from alone in commanding that sort of money. Carlos Tevez is currently making around that figure despite being on strike at Manchester City and despite playing for the relatively small time L.A Galaxy, former England captain David Beckham is rumoured to earn roughly $40 million a year.

Emmanuel Adebayor attracted column inches recently, with few praising his refusal to drop rumoured wages of £170,000 in order to join Tottenham Hotspur. Adebayor’s reasoning was simple – “We all play football to get money”. Perhaps not a quote designed to curry favour with the romantics, but one that is rooted in the realism that is lost on them all too often. While Adebayor is of course generalising, he is largely correct. After all, who would put in the commitment required of footballers for no reward? I am not suggesting for one moment that the sacrifices made by professional footballers are equivalent to the hundreds of thousands a week that many of them earn, but I can say with some certainty that few of us would turn such fees down if offered. There are vast, some would say outrageous sums of money floating around the footballing world and it is not the players who are to blame – if it was not going to them it would certainly find its way to less deserving recipients. The fact is that we, as fans are one of many groups indirectly responsible for making football the big business that it is today – all the players can be blamed for is having the nous to try to earn as much as they possibly can. No one would dream of criticising a friend for earning a promotion or pay rise, however undeserved, so why is it acceptable to shun the professional footballers who entertain us on a weekly basis for what is essentially the same thing?

Football is a career lacking in the security that many others can boast. All it takes is a bad injury, or even a period of poor form and the dream could be over. For many footballers it seems to be a case of earning as much as they can, while they still can – hardly a surprise when many of the financial difficulties encountered by careless ex-pros are taken into consideration.

It is all too easy to characterise footballers as mercenaries, but that doesn’t mean that it is correct. They are not thieves; they certainly do not force us to part with the cash that ultimately pays for their wages. While I am sure that there are some who have taken a few clubs for a ride, there are just as many and almost certainly more who simply want to earn as much as they can in order to provide a comfortable and secure existence for their loved ones. Cheesy? Of course, but who could begrudge them that.

Following my brief hiatus from these pages and the world being denied of my thoughts, upon which so much depends, I thought it only fair to share my pearls of wisdom with you this week when I could be treated with more seriousness following the removal of that hideous moustache from my picture in the last issue!

 

Again, many stories have been flying around the sporting world of late, the most shocking of which being the tragic death of Gary Speed. He was a much loved and highly respected player, manager and football pundit who has most certainly left his mark on the game which he loved. As much as it pains me to admit, the article by Mr Rutherford (see below) is a must read to see just how much his passing meant to at least one adoring fan.

 

You may also remember in my last Foulds’ thoughts I, with assured confidence, told you of Shaun Edwards “looking forward to new challenges within Rugby” which I again assured you meant he was nailed on to be the next England Rugby coach, well… I was wrong, truly and utterly incorrect in so much as his name barely got a mention. Oh well, on to the next one! So I can now tell you with absolute certainty that Martin O’Neil will be the successor to Steve Bruce at Sunderland. The man is without doubt one of the best coaches in the game and this could be a great way for him to get back involved within English football. Added to that, the foundation is already there at Sunderland to allow him to impart his own personality onto an already capable squad and take them to that next level, as he so successfully managed to do at Villa.

 

Back to the England Rugby scene again, and how about the ‘leak’ of the RFU’s investigation into what went wrong at the World Cup? It certainly raises a lot of questions about the attitudes of some senior players at the World Cup. I think this certainly exposed the amateur strain that is still very much prevalent within Rugby, which in relative terms is still very young as a professional sport. That players representing their country are so money motivated – it is claimed that one of the senior players bemoaned the loss of £30,000 having just lost in the quarter final – presents a sad image for young aspiring players to look up to. Playing for your country is a bout pride and honour, ok I understand that money is what makes the world go round, but I think it being at the forefront of their thoughts whilst on the rugby field can only ever be detrimental to their performance. With Christmas now looming, for me it means an extravaganza of festive sport, endless football but most importantly for everyone the Darts World championship, which I again can tell you Phil Taylor will win (his previous 15 world titles aiding my crystal ball somewhat!). So I wish you all the merriest of Christmases and look forward to seeing you all that little bit plumper next term!

In recent weeks, perhaps even more than usual, it seems that the spotlight has been centred firmly on British referees – or to be more specific, their mistakes. The main point of contention seems to be the ruling on dangerous tackles, with Vincent Kompany’s sending off against Manchester United sparking much debate over what exactly should constitute a straight red card. The masses call for both clarity and consistency from our referees – which on the surface seems simple enough. The reality of the situation however, is a little murkier.

 

Take Kompany’s much discussed dismissal, awarded for a somewhat overzealous, if largely successful tackle on Manchester United’s Portuguese winger Nani. This was no Diego Maradona handball, a glaring mistake of the sort to unite an entire nation. This was simply a contentious decision, one that collective fandom found it tellingly difficult to classify. Again, consistency is called for from officials, from a body of fans who have themselves struggled to come to a collective decision. Referees should of course be operating on a level above the average fan, but they are only human. Some decisions will always be ambiguous and this does not reflect on the quality of officiating.

 

It seems glaringly obvious that those calling out Kompany’s dismissal as somehow ‘spoiling the spectacle’ would be the same supporters crying out for more protection were their team’s star player to be damaged by a similarly crude challenge. Had Nani himself not so deftly sidestepped Kompany’s lunge, the nation’s best supported club could have been without one of their brightest talents for, potentially months.

 

Had that been the case it seems likely that those calling for clarity and consistency would shuffle quietly to one side – quite possibly to join a baying mob calling for Kompany’s head. Situations like these often seem to require a villain – the problem being that fans often forget that without the referees that they victimise there would be no football at all. It now seems an instantaneous reaction to question refereeing decisions, a clear sign that their authority has been heavily compromised in recent years, with the figures that were once seen as all powerful overlords of the game reduced to little more than sounding boards for the frustrations of fans, players and managers alike. Football is not in need of any more scandal, and for order to be restored referees must regain a power that seems to have been lost somewhere along the line. Clarity and consistency? I think it is perhaps more important that you practise what you preach – an adage that the football fans who barrack officials would do well to keep in mind.

Words by Josh Tait

Imagine the scenario: You’ve left school at 16, and walked into your dream job. You only have to work for half a day, get free entry into a football match every weekend, and you get paid a very handsome salary for the trouble. This job is the only thing you’ve ever wanted to do, and it becomes all you live for. However, by the time you reach the age of 35, you’re no longer able to this job, and you have to give it up. This job is all you’ve ever known, so what are you going to do now?

This scenario is a very sombre reality for thousands of former professional footballers and for a long time has simply existed, with barely a thought for how the last generation of footballing idols are now filling their time. That is, until recently, when former Bradford City and Hull City star Dean Windass dramatically confessed to the world that he has suffered from depression ever since hanging up his boots two years ago, and has twice attempted to commit suicide since the start of the year as he struggles to come to terms with life after football.

In an incredibly candid interview with The People, the 42-year-old, who had a reputation of being something of a hard man during his career, confessed to “crying every day for two years since retiring” and feeling “in a hole that I honestly didn’t know how to get out of.” In the interview, Windass also confessed to turning to alcohol and having a fling with ‘a girl from the pub’ which ultimately ended his 18-year marriage. He also admitted the sudden death of his father last April and the death of fellow professional Gary Speed in November had also affected him and left him feeling he had no way out.

Windass says there are hundreds of footballers in the same boat, and wants the Football Association and the Professional Footballers Association to do more to help, and also highlights the fact that because professional footballers commit their futures to the game at such a young age, many retire and have a hard time finding work due to a lack of qualifications and other working skills. “There is nothing to get up for in the morning. I do my run in the morning but at midday, what do you do? I think fuck it; I’m going to go for a pint.”

As a fan myself, I have the utmost respect for Windass for being so open and honest about the struggles that he has been facing. For him to open up like this shows a real strength of character, and I think it is fantastic that he is being so candid about how is he feeling. He was an inspirational character for whatever club he was at in his playing days, and I genuinely hope that his strength and courage in speaking out about his depression will open the door so that both he and other former professionals facing similar struggles are able to get the help they need to get their lives back on track.

 

Words by Bruce Halling

So here we are again at the start of a fresh term all raring to go both academically and in your sport, right? Erm, whilst I’m sure we all start with the best of intentions in the New Year, them moment you step onto those training pitches on a freezing cold Monday evening is never a good one. Still, we’ve all got leagues to win and Derby Day too so there’s no letting up just yet.

Away from the bubble of University sport there has been plenty to talk about so far in this New Year. A big talking point at the moment is the outburst of information relating to depression in sport in the wake of Gary Speed’s tragic death. With the recent release of Freddie Flintoff’s ‘Depression in Sport’ it really highlights to the public the susceptibility of sports stars to these mental breakdown’s that you would not necessarily associate with someone earning money through their dream job. However, the pressures that all sportsmen are under is immense and I for one think it’s fantastic that sport is becoming ever more candid in exposing these realities to a naïve public which is otherwise ill-informed on such issues. I would highly recommend Bruce Halling’s article below for a more insightful look into the effects of depression from a man that it wouldn’t necessarily be expected.

Back out on the playing fields/courts and British tennis is back in the news again. When I say British tennis, obviously I mean Andy Murray’s quest for his first Grand Slam title in the Australian Open, although the other 5 British competitors did get some coverage after all being knocked out in the first round! As for Murray though, he has brought in the expertise of a new coach Ivan Lendl on a rather part-time basis. Now it seems to me that all Murray ever uses a coach for is to vent his somewhat pent up anger when playing like a classic Brit and folding to the pressure, however Lendl (known in his playing days for his ruthlessness) can hopefully bring an edge to Murray’s game to finally get him over the finish line. Anyway, the hard court is always his best shot so let’s keep our fingers crossed and see.

I can’t finish without mentioning the start to the most hectic part of the football season; the January transfer window. With inflated player prices and keen buyers with innumerable blank cheques in the pockets this annual circus is always a fun time for me and may be even more so with QPR’s new owners being openly willing to splash the cash, although it could be somewhat misguided with, at one point, talks of buying Wayne Bridge and his heft £90k a week salary. Still, anything to wind John Terry up, right?

So the best of luck to you all with the latest of your fresh starts and I hope you’re all building up to the inevitable thrashing of UEA come Derby Day!