Sunday, 15 December 2019

Sports Review of the year 2019

Gareth Thomas is sluicing through horizontal rain and lashing winds on a 500-mile errand to deliver this year’s SPOTY trophy to Aberdeen. Epic stuff, raising serious dosh for some fantastic Sport Relief projects. I think they’ve missed a trick, though: stick a pizza hot-box on the back of his quattrocycle and surely it’s a Deliveroo sponsorship opportunity? Oven-ready, you might say. You can have that one, Boris - hope it blisters your lips.   

I’m not really here to give more ether-space to BoJo’s self-serving deceit. Instead I have an overwhelming need to shed the lead-lined cloak of despair that’s been draped over my shoulders since Thursday. Time to lighten the mood. Gareth’s journey reminds me that this has been a superb year of sport. One that’s worth a personal reflection here – albeit with less glamour and glitz than the Gary and Gabby show - because I won’t be lucky enough to enjoy another as much as this for a long time to come. 

Cricket is the only place to start. Specifically England’s heart-racing, nerve-shredding World Cup Final victory. Actually, no. Tennis is the only place to start. Specifically Djokovic’s history-making, record-breaking Men’s Final win. That both these monumental slabs of sporting endeavour played out on the same day and reached their breathless climaxes within minutes of each other is remarkable. 

Tennis gets my headline billing because I was there, alongside Mrs A, in the rafters of Centre Court, gripped by a rejuvenated Roger Federer repelling Novac Djokovic’s onslaught. I had never been to the Championships before, never set foot inside the courts, never mind watch the final of one of the Nation’s great sporting events. Mrs A enters the public ballot every year and has done pretty well for early round tickets, although she has missed out totally on plenty of tournaments as well. This February we were offered Men’s Final tickets. It felt like winning the lottery; and at a stroke silenced my cynical bleating about the best tickets in these ‘open’ ballots being creamed off by corporates and insiders. 

Remarkably, Mrs A’s business partner Steve bagged two tickets for the final as well. What odds? Too big even for my value punting principles. I would have scoffed at the chances of that ever happening. So much so that the four of us briefly wondered if we had been the victims of a sophisticated scam. 

Of course, the other consideration had been who would accompany Mrs A? In those previous years, she had gone with a shifting cast of friends. I had not been amongst them. ‘Erm, who will be your Plus-1, my darling?’, I had uttered on more than one occasion.  I was on best behaviour for flippin’ weeks.

Poncing around The All England Club was a hoot, ticking off the sights and then the four of us necking gin & tonics under hanging baskets, lounging on wicker chairs (with cushions!) and generally doing cats-that-got-the cream impressions. 

Mrs A is a die-hard Federette, and the scenes in our house on the preceding Friday when Rog won his semi-final were bordering on unseemly. Watching him in the Final was pretty much a sporting nirvana for her. It was indeed the dream match up.  

The two icons traded blows for hours and the balance of power ebbed and flowed with more regularity than the queues at the strawberry-and-cream stall. 

Federer had two chances to win in the fifth set on his own serve. Did he choke when lobbing what should have a crisp winner down the line tamely into the tram lines? possibly. That last set became a feat of endurance and stamina. Conversation around us turned to the possibility of a tie break – ‘…didn’t they bring in a new rule this year?’, ‘Is it a tie-break at 10-10?’ Well, 10-10 came and went and the sluggers on Centre Court carried on their prize fight. I was exhausted watching them. We reached 12-12 before the umpire announced the tie break. The fifth set had seen enough games for full sixth. This was the first Wimbledon singles final to be settled in this way. 

There is nothing like live sport and despite England’s Cricket World Cup Final taking place right then up the road at Lord’s, I had stayed in the moment in south London, determined to enjoy the spectacle. Sure, a few people around us had been updating us with the score regularly and there was some on-going low-level banter, but I wasn’t hanging off my sport app every few seconds waiting on ball by ball coverage. That would have been wrong. 

Yet at about the same time the tie-break began, the already fevered atmosphere round us went up a few degrees more with news of developments at Lord’s. ‘It’s gone to a Super-over’…. ‘what the fuck is a super over…?’ and such like. Having watched the IPL in the Spring, I was able to offer some clarification. ‘Yeah, one over, one bowler, you can lose one wicket, most runs wins.’ ‘Oh, Ok. Not fewest wickets lost then?’ came one reply. ‘Shhhhh, can’t you see there’s a game of tennis going on’, came others. 

Djokovic made short work of the tie-break, winning 7-3. The match set a new record for the longest final ever staged. Four hours and 57 minutes. Mrs A was gutted for big Rog, but he had left nothing behind today. An amazing match to have seen. 

Only as we were descending the stairs after the presentations did word spread that England had won. We met Steve and Di in a garden bar and picked over the events, washed down by Stella Artois and accompanied by the Metropolitan Police Force band from the bandstand. Steve had initially wanted to avoid the cricket result to watch it later. But there was no chance of that. The bar and grounds were buzzing with incredulity over matters at Wimbledon and Lord’s. This was a great day to be a sports fan. This is why we love it. 

That Sunday had been the apex of a stunning and sometimes challenging week. On the Monday we had travelled down to Southampton and had a night out with Daughter No 1 in advance of her graduation the next day. Proud, proud family moment. On the Wednesday I was in Deptford for a day of gruelling interviews recruiting to a Charity Director post, locked in a hot, humid, fractious room all day. 

All the while my mate and colleague AK and I had been having some heavy to- and fro- about the possibility of acquiring tickets for the England/Australia World Cup semi at Edgbaston on the Thursday. I had been very keen, but the prices were rising fast and I had all but ruled myself out – partly cost and partly logistics. AK had just missed out on some legit resale tickets because of IT grief and now he was negotiated some less-legitimate resale options. At one point he thought he offered up a pair for a reasonable price and then found out they were for the Old Trafford semi! On the eve of the game, a couple more sources hove into view. I couldn’t resist any longer and with time running out, we two, plus two of AK’s pals bought five tickets at more than double face value in a batch of two and three. The sellers wouldn’t split them. We would have to sell one or find someone else to come with us. In the event neither happened. I reckon we paid over £250 all in. Eye-watering for a tight-wallet like me. 

Was it worth the price? Every last penny. Undoubtedly. The day provided England with a thumping, ruthless win. The game was an absolute stomp, played out before a febrile crowd who never tired of singing ‘Sweeeeet Caroline….so good, so good, so good’. Mrs A, how I love that woman, had dropped me over at South Mimms service station at some brutal time in the morning, for AK to pick me up on the trip to Brum. Paul and Curtis were already aboard. There’s nothing like the banter before a big game between four grown men who sub-consciously revert to excitable teenager mode, jabbering wildly and making rubbish jokes. Or was that just me?

Arriving at the Edgbaston outskirts, we were up against the clock.  Curtis spotted a couple of young men ushering vehicles into a car park for a tenner a pop. We didn’t have time to mess about, so we drove in, dished out the brown-back and lined up the Astra adjacent to the other rows of saloons. We jumped up, gathered our stuff and then realised that this was less asphalt car park and more of your actual civic park. As in Birmingham City Council recreation space, onto which these Edgbaston entrepreneurs acting on no-one’s authority but their own, had just invited us to park for a straight tenner. We counted up the cars, shrugged and grudgingly chuckled at this neat bit of business. We also did a quick calculation that concluded there would not be enough wheel clamps in the city to do all of us…

After a bit of AK-led cloak and dagger, the four us were able to sit together in the Eric Hollies stand, where the atmosphere was typically raucus all day. Archer and Woakes were roared in, Warner and Smith were crucified, and Root and Roy was serenaded. My cricket expertise unravelled faster that an Archer missile: 
-       “England are poor chasers”, I said. They ran down the target of 224 with 8 wickets in hand, at over 7 runs an over with Jason Roy crashing 5 maximums. 
-       “Rashid needs to come off, he’s getting pulverised”, I said. He took two crucial, momentum-jarring wickets in his next over.
-       “Smith’s bang out of form in this World Cup”, I said. He knocked up 85 easy runs, before a sensational piece of work by Buttler ran him out.

The car was still there and clamp-free when we returned. We all tried (and possibly failed) to keep AK awake at the wheel on the homeward leg. I’d finally run out of crap banter, having hit the buffers in my attempts to offload onto them some Wimbledon Mens Singles Final tickets I’d happened upon. Don’t tell Mrs A. Another stunning ‘I was there’ day in a once-in-a-lifetime week.

There were more golden moments of cricket nectar to hoover up in late Summer. As if a World Cup was insufficient, we had an Ashes series in which to indulge. The scorebook tells you that we failed to win back the urn, but a hard-fought draw was miles better than a series defeat. Stokes has had quite a year. It should be enough to lift the SPOTY gong tonight. But his 135 not out to win the Third test – back at Edgbaston - was the best individual performance I’ve seen anywhere all year. All decade. Words really do fail when something as extra-ordinary as that innings happens. Proper tingle-y.

Mrs A and I had been at a family celebration in Halifax and drove over to spend the rest of the August Bank Holiday with my Dad. The weather was superb and we had toyed with the idea of going out for the afternoon. And then the Stokes show began in earnest. Dad and I were hooked to the telly, broken only by me running outside to update in gabbling tones a mildly curious (at best) Mrs A. I don’t get back home as much as I’d like and being with Dad to cheer England over the line was special. 

A few weeks later, Bryn and I had tickets for the Sunday, 4th day of the 5th Test at the Oval. Until a few days before, it was uncertain whether we would get any play. I had an additional concern borne of enthusiastic participation in Keith’s stag do the very night before. We came through on both counts. The Ashes had gone, but we had a great chance to level to series. The day went almost perfectly to plan: a baking hot September day; quick England runs to set up the Aussies chase; and then regular wickets to keep them on the back foot.

I say ‘almost perfectly’ because Matthew Wade’s tenacious century took the game late into the day. Bryn had tickets to see Muse that night over at the O2. He cracked at about ten-to-six with three wickets left to take, and bolted for the exit. Inevitably, they fell almost the moment he left. In fact he was barely out of the ground when Matthew wade departed LBW and the spinners cleaned up in the next three overs. ‘Don’t ever tell anyone I left early, Davoski' texted Bryn. Quick as a flash, I replied, “No worries, mate. Your secret is safe with me”. 

Just one final cricket footnote. I won our Fantasy Cricket League this year. The comp has been running for over 20 years now, but I hadn’t got my hands on the trophy for about a decade. This may be the last outing as Nev is refusing to look after the stats anymore. The thing doesn’t work without his genius touch. Anyway, if it is to be the last renewal, I’m glad I was at my cocky, insufferable best in May at the Epsom Oaks meeting when I told both Nev and Bacchy that I would be winning the League this year, no question. I am obviously not going to enlarge here on all those other rash predictions that did not come to pass. It’s my blog after all. 

Which brings me to horseracing. Having rattled on for about four pages, this glorious sport gets only one unworthy paragraph. But I’m running out of time. The Cheltenham Festival, the Oaks meeting and the Sandown Tingle Creek meeting were the undisputed highlights. Top events in the company of some great, loyal, long-standing mates. I had good Cheltenham and Oaks betting campaigns. In the Barley Mow I may have been the only one cheering home Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup; but at Epsom there were many shouting for Annapurna (Oaks) and Defoe (Coronation Cup). These all came in at big prices and I do love celebrating a value winner. Outside these  glorious moments, the punting has been average to poor and I’m enduring a shocking run at the moment. It was nice to get out to some quieter venues during the year, too: with CB-D at Lingfield and with the fam at Southwell. Let’s here it for the gaff tracks! 

What else? Well, I loved watching the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup and there were some stand out moments in the World Athletics, bizarrely held in Doha. Dina Asher-Smith and KJ-T were superb. But if there’s any justice, Gareth Thomas is powering up the A80 to Aberdeen right now with the trophy and a couple of slices of Pepperoni pizza for Ben Stokes. For my money, he deserves it for his World Cup performance; for that Edgbaston innings; for rebuilding his career after public order offences; and for shouting down some of the worst gutter-press reporting about historic family news I’ve ever seen. 

Speed ye well Gareth. 

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