Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A Season to look forward to?

This past Sunday I went to Wembley for the Charity Shield despite saying like I do every year that it’s a waste of time. My £20 ticket price was the main reason for my attendance; that and the fact that I haven’t been to a game since Paul Scholes last minute header at Eastlands sent me into delirium.

United deserved to win but as the new season gets underway this weekend I’m struggling for things to look forward to. Here’s a cobbled together list of what I think will be of interest in 2010/2011:

1. Javier Hernandez

When United signed this kid from Mexico I was pretty sceptical. For starters recent young strikers signed to the club haven’t exactly been successes; Dong, Manucho, and to a lesser extent Diouf have hardly lit up Old Trafford over the past few years. Yet there is something different about this lad. His two goals in the World Cup filled me with some optimism, but then again so did Karel Porborsky. His movement looks fantastic and in 5 minutes on Sunday he did more than Owen managed in 45. What we didn’t see on Sunday was him play with Rooney. Whilst it was great to see Rooney smack in goal after goal last year, I can see his natural ability to link with players like he did with Ronaldo, to be of great benefit to Hernandez who appears to have a good eye for the target. This kid has potential. Plus he has the ability to kick the ball against his own face and still score.

2. People whinging about the league been rubbish because the standard has dropped

Last season I heard people complaining that the league was rubbish. The reason? The big teams were losing too many games and therefore the standard of the league had dropped. Whilst this may be the case, this doesn't make the league as a whole not good to watch. If anything it makes it a more entertaining league because it gives fans something to talk about. There was a point last season where Everton beat Chelsea and United in the space of three days at Goodison Park. Two years ago United and Chelsea took maximum points from those trips to Merseyside whilst a year later both could only manage a draw. It shows that the standard of the teams that are outside the so called ‘big four’ is improving, which is surely better for the league in the long run because it makes it more competitive. A more competitive league makes for a better, dare I say it, product as fans will maintain interest. Which, in a way, leads me onto my next point.

3. The Title Race

Six teams could win the league this year. That’s right, six. At the moment I have Chelsea as favourites but wouldn’t be overly shocked if United, Arsenal, City, Liverpool or Spurs go close. If Chelsea had of had a fit Michale Essien last season they would have won the league by nine points. Even though he is returning this year, the squad is continuing to get older and they have lost a creative player in Joe Cole who has great ability. Whilst United and Arsenal have added a couple of players, they are by no means world beaters who have taken the squad to another level. City have spent a lot of cash this summer and will compete whilst Spurs and Liverpool have added one or two players to the mix. I have Chelsea winning it from Arsenal, with United third and and City fourth just ahead of Spurs and Liverpool. But one team could blow that prediction out of the water.

4. Everton to continue their good form

Everton are a team that I would be keeping a close eye on next season if I were Spurs, City or anyone else who ends up in the fight for a Champions League place. If the team can stay healthy they can certainly make a push for fourth spot. Last season with a fully fit squad the Toffees had the third best form after 1st January, behind United and Chelsea, losing just two games. They seem to have fought off the advances for some of their best players in Arteta and Jagleika and are producing talent such as Seamus Coleman and of course Jack Rodwell who looks to be the real deal. David Moyes has put together a fantastic bunch of players, which may be lacking a little in depth but make up for that in spirit. They have a great chance this year.

5. Blackpool to beat Derby’s low points record

In 2008 Derby County managed just 11 points all season long and this year it will be touch and go as to whether or not Blackpool will beat that record. I don’t mean to have a go at Blackpool because in all honesty I don’t know enough about them to break their squad down bit by bit. What I do know about them is that they have an unproven manager at top level, no players with top flight experience and they already appear to be having money issues, as they have only just managed to pay bonuses to players for last seasons promotion. They are struggling to get their ground ready and already have had to switch one fixture around. No matter what pundits may say, off the field problems do have an influence on the pitch when teams are struggling; look at Pompey last year. Their one shining light looks to be Charlie Adam who from what I have seen looks fairly useful. They have to go to Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool by early October where they will surely take a hiding. Big defeats at grounds like that can have a huge knock on a teams confidence and they will find it very hard to come back from that.

And that’s about it. The lack of movement in the transfer market has meant that there are no huge big players going back to former clubs where feelings will run high and the atmosphere will be good. There haven’t been a huge number of managerial changes either. It’s been an incredibly dull summer. What the league needs is a couple of great games in the first weekend of the season. Spurs v City and Liverpool v Arsenal has the potential to do the trick.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Breaking 90

I arrived at the 17th tee at Hanbury Manor on Wednesday in fantastic spirits.

“So what club you taking?” says Keith, who I have known for no longer than the four hours we have spent out on the course.

“3 Iron as always” I say.

I strike the ball and it flies down the middle of the fairway. Boy did that feel sweet.

Fast forward to a few minutes later… “Lads, can anyone see my ball?, Seriously where the hell is it?” The search continued for ten minutes before I gave up and took a drop. My fantastic back nine was about to be blown to pieces.

I am a man who will readily admit that I go through what I guess you could call obsession phases. In the past they have included what have been dubbed my friends at work as “man crushes” on David Villa, Wesley Sneijder and a minor fatherly crush on Tom Watson (although it pales in comparison to a work colleague who says he is the best man on the planet). I do the same thing with TV shows. At present I am currently flying through episodes of Seinfeld on a nightly basis, despite having seen them all and I’m sure in a few months I will move onto some other show like Mad Men or Curb Your Enthusiasm. These are usually just phases and to an extent I am going through one with Golf at the moment. I've been here with Golf before, although it feels a bit different this time around.

Last Sunday I played Silvermere, a lovely little course near Woking in preparation for a corporate golf day at Hanbury Manor, a course that had previously hosted the English Open in the late nineties. As always we were playing twilight and were due of at 5.30. We planned to make it there for 4.45 in order to get in some time on the range; however for some reason we didn’t bother and managed to get ourselves onto the course 20 minutes earlier. The problem here being that I need time on the range in order to get rid of all the rubbish shots that are bound to feature in the round if I don’t do so. So, on we rushed and sure enough it was terrible. I fluffed the ball off the first tee, managed to smack the second shot into the adjacent driving range, and fluff two more before eventually sinking a putt for a ten. A TEN ON THE FIRST!! It could only get better. Well it sort of did. A five on the par three second wasn’t great but as we went on things did get a little better and I started to hit the ball reasonably well; until we reached the eighth. Now the eighth hole is a dogleg left par three that is the hardest on the course apparently, although to be honest it isn’t hugely difficult, just long. I hit a decent tee shot and an average second shot to leave myself around 90 yards to the pin; however I had low hanging branches that made the shot a lot harder. I took out my seven iron and tried to punch it in. It looked great and as the ball zipped towards the centre of the green and my hopes of a par putt looked nailed on, but the ball didn’t stop. It kept rolling and rolling and fell off the back of the green leaving me with a nasty chip. When I tell you I got an 8, I don’t need to tell you that the chip didn’t work as planned. Two bad putts on the par three ninth brought more misery and after that it was dreadful. And not just for me either, my mate Joe had a shocker as every ball he hit seemed to have a magnet towards a bunker.

I came off the course after hitting 106, seriously considering taking lessons if I was going to get any better. I am 110% sure that I am one of millions of amateur golfers who has gone through the same emotions. Rather desperately I purchased a Tom Watson DVD called lessons of a lifetime. As a guy who has used the interlock grip his entire golf life, it didn’t fill me with much confidence that Tom said I should use the overlap grip. What the hell I thought, nothing else is working. I went to the range the night before and after a few shockers the ball started to do what it was supposed to. I remained very cautious however; hitting the ball on the range and hitting the ball on the course in front of a group of lads that you don’t know and are more than likely to be silently judging you (because let’s face it that’s what I would do) are two very different things.

I arrived at Hanbury Manor more in hope than expectation. The place is comfortably the best I have ever played and looked magnificent. You never realise how well kept private courses are kept in comparison to public courses. This was like golf pornography. Inspired by the magnificent surroundings I played the best I had all year. With my new grip intact the ball simply flew off the club.

Sure there was the odd shocking effort but as I approached the par five 9th I had hit 43 and was full of confidence. A rather stray five iron meant that I had ended up in the first of three beaches. I proceeded to go in all three of them before ending up with a nine and a score of 51 on the first nine. What followed was seven holes of the most consistent golf I had played all year with putts been sunk from all sorts of distances. And then I arrived at the seventeenth.

This was a 440 yard par five that looked reasonably straight forward. A decent tee shot was needed to avoid having to go over some water on the right hand side to reach the green. What happened to the ball I still can’t figure out. Maybe it travelled into another dimension or something. Or a seagull picked it up and flew off with it. I was so worked up about it but still managed to smash my dropped third shot towards the green leaving myself an approach over a bunker to land it on the putting service. However still feeling a sense of injustice I went over not just the bunker but also went over the green and half way down the hill at the back. The resulting 8 meant my anger levels were at an all time high as I drilled my tee shot off the final hole into the sun glistening lake. This was like Van Der Velde all over again and after managing to calm myself somewhat, I finished with a 6 meaning I had hit 100 dead on.

Coming off the course I was gutted. All I could think of was that ball. That damn Nike 3 ball. On the drive home I spent two hours driving through central London and managed to gain some perspective. On Sunday I had played awful. Today was, by my own standards, great. Two bad holes aside I had played the best all year. And now I am more determined than ever to get better at this game. I have set myself a target for the year. Nothing ridiculous, the aim is to break 90. This is my new obsession. And this one will not be a fad. Coulsdon Manor on Sunday awaits.