Venezia And Happy Endings

Paul Grech Tuesday, December 25, 2012 ,
As with any city whose economy is reliant on tourism, Venice has a strange relationship with its visitors.  The money that these bring is welcome but their presence - especially the noise and chaos they create - isn't.  Given that it once was a seat of power that controlled large parts of Europe, its current status as a piece of antiquity to be gawked at perhaps renders the tourists all the more irritating to the locals.

Not all tourists are the same, however.  Certainly not those who come with promises of restoring some of the city’s glory even if this comes through a football pitch.


Simon Kuper Interview

Paul Grech Friday, November 30, 2012 , ,
Goals scored and conceded. Points won.  Attendance figures. Up till a few years back those were practically the only statistics that made their way on to the football pages and in to the fans' consciousness.  Now it is a completely different story.  Clubs employ teams of statistical analyst, journalists regularly quote passes made, fans look at heat maps of individual players and apps churn out an apparently endless stream of statistics.  The shift in culture has been massive.

One who was at the forefront of this change was Simon Kuper who in 2009 teamed up with Stefan Szymanski to write " Why England Lose: And other curious phenomena explained" which was the first serious literary attempt at trying to determine the role and importance of statistics in football.


The Efficiency of Youth Systems

Paul Grech Monday, November 26, 2012 , ,

Every year, clubs release tens of youth players in whom they've invested years of coaching.  Some go years without seeing one of the players developed by their system make it to the first team despite the money the pour into their academy.

All this might seem a pretty inefficient use of resources, but it isn't.  That is what Simon Kuper, co-author of the brilliant book Soccernomics, thinks.

The rest of this article can be read at Blueprint for Football.

Hamilton Aiming To Be The Best

Craig Levein. Judging by how the post-game talk was dominated by whether the Scottish FA should replace him or not when Scotland lost to Belgium in the World Cup qualifying stage, a defeat that left them bottom of their group with just two points, you would think that pointing at the manager was all that was needed to identify the reasons behind this dire situation.

Yet, for all Levein's defects and mistakes, the fault lines of Scottish football lie much deeper than the manager's role. For a nation that once produced world class players like Kenny Dalglish and Dennis Law, Scotland now struggles to produce players who are even remotely close to that level.

There are many reasons for that, yet one of them has to be the lack of vision shown by clubs. Few have dared to be innovative; fewer still have been brave enough to build their teams around the players coming out of their system.

Hamilton Academical, however, are among those few. Their youth system attracted attention for producing James McCarthy, who made his debut for them before he had turned sixteen, and James McArthur whose debut came as a seventeen year old. Both players helped Hamilton reach the Premier League before being sold for significant amounts to Wigan.

The rest of this article can be read on Blueprint for Football where it was originally published or at In Bed With Maradona who requested to re-publish the piece.

Unexpected. But Nice.

When I set up Blueprint for Football, the over-riding desire was to get to talk about people, ideas and methodologies that I found interesting.  Of course, there was the hope that there would be an audience but that was more down to a desire to find others who shared this enthusiasm.

Praise and recognition certainly weren't expected.

Which is probably why I was so pleased when Blueprint for Football was named by as one of the "50 Football Blogs/Sites You Must Look At!".  It is nice to see the work I've put in being recognised especially given that we're being placed in a list that contains some of our own favourites like In Bed With Maradona, The Swiss Ramble and Two Hundred Percent.

Anyway, thanks to Scott over at The Footy Blog and check out the full list that he's compiled.


The Weight of Expectations

Paul Grech Thursday, November 1, 2012 , ,
Every time Raheem Sterling gets near the ball there’s instantly a shift in mood.  It might be barely perceptible, but even so the rising expectation is unmistakeable and un-missable.  When his speed and trickery then takes him past a defender, you can see the fans shifting to the edge of their seats, eagerly expecting further magic by the talented teen.

Sometimes what he tries comes off; sometimes it doesn’t. Occasionally he is overly ambitious, keeping hold of the ball when he should release it. Often he’ll create an opportunity that wasn’t there before, offering glimpses of pure talent that keep the excitement alive.

At least for now.  Eventually, however, there will come a period when those lost balls won’t  be written off as easily.  The good moves will be forgotten whilst the bad ones remembered.  For that is how it has always been and that is how it will always be.

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Sterling has been luckier than most in that he has come into a side struggling for creativity and been the one to provide sparks of brilliance.  He already has a bit of goodwill in store.

Yet the danger remains.  Within the space of a few weeks Sterling has gone from someone who is considered promising to a regular in the first team.  His performances have more than justified that transition but it bears remembering that he is still seventeen years old; sooner or later there will be a dip in his form.

When that happens, it will be interesting to see how he reacts.  It will be just as ineresting to see how Liverpool react.  Hopefully it will come at a stage where there is the luxury to allow him to move away from the spotlight and rediscover his form at his own pace.

That kind of luxury wasn’t afforded to Emiliano Insua.  By the time he left Liverpool, Insua was put forward as a prime example of the decline in quality within the squad; a player who wasn’t good enough but who was playing regularly.

Such a verdict was at odds with the one drawn just a few months earlier when he had first made it into the Liverpool team.  Then, his confidence when moving with the ball had been lauded as Insua was praised for being a thoroughly modern left back who was at ease when it came to supporting the attack.

What this initial analysis missed was his shortcomings as a defender. This was an area that he needed to work on but which in the beginning wasn’t really noticed.  Yet the more he played, the more he suffered. And, as a result, the more people picked up on it.

At that stage he needed to make a step backwards so as to rediscover his confidence whilst working to improve his positioning.  Yet Liverpool’s shortcomings in his role meant that he couldn’t really get this.  So Insua kept on playing and kept on struggling.  As the weight of expectations grew heavier on Insua’s shoulder, he sank ever deeper, so much that by the end Liverpool couldn’t give him away for free.

Eventually Insua would re-emerge as a fairly effective left-back at Sporting Lisbon, proving that although not as good as some had initially labelled him, he was far from the useless player many had written him off to be.

Perhaps more importantly to the narrative of this piece, Insua should be seen as a very important lesson on the danger of expecting young players to perform to the level, and with the consistency, of experienced ones.  His story, and that of many others, shows that whilst players need to play to develop, it is possible that they get to play too much for their own good.

This danger is further heightened by the amount of exposure Liverpool’s young players are getting.  With most Under 18, Next Gen and Under 21 games being televised, players are getting judged at an age when they are still developing. This point was touched upon by Steven Gerrard in Episode 2 of Being: Liverpool:

“The difference between when I was at the academy from now is that the fans already know about the kids at the academy. They watch them on the TV whereas when I was coming through no one knew anything about me, it was a surprise. Which helped as there was no pressure, there’s more pressure on the kids now as people are already aware of them before they get close to the first team. It is even more difficult now to get close to the first team.”

Difficult is, possibly, too mild a term.  Players are judged – often harshly and against unrealistic standards – far too early and are labelled well before they get anywhere near the first team.  Sadly such labels can be extremely difficult to shake off.

They don’t even have to be negative ones to hamper a player’s development.  A player who is scoring regularly for the U18s will be expected to keep that rhythm when he moves to a higher level.  If not, he will be tagged as someone who isn’t good enough for that level when in truth it might simply be down to a natural adaptation process.

Players who would otherwise be learning and playing in front of a handful of spectators suddenly are being asked to do so in front of a worldwide audience.  The expectations at each step are becoming increasingly harder to shoulder.

This article originally appeared on the 3rd of October 2012 on the Tomkins Times.


Book Review: Champions League Dreams

The day after it was announced that Rafa Benitez had left Liverpool, I came across an acquaintance – a long time Liverpool fan – who surprised me by saying “don’t tell me you’re sad to see him go! Benitez ruined Liverpool.”

It was a reaction that took me aback. Naturally I was conscious that there were many fans who wanted to see the back of Benitez and thought that he wasn’t the one to take the club forward, but it had never occurred to me that there might be people who felt that he had ‘ruined’ Liverpool FC.

Two years have passed since his dismissal and fans – including a good portion of those who wanted him out – are looking much more positively at his time at the club.  Time, and the failure to get anywhere near a Champions League spot in the meantime, has enhanced his reputation to the extent that when Kenny Dalglish was dismissed there were many who clamoured for his return.

If there is a positive side-effect of that demand not being met, it probably lies in the fact that he got to finish writing Champions League Dreams.

As the title suggests, the bulk of the focus of this book is on the Champions League and how Benitez managed to do so well in this competition.  There are insights, explanations and tactical talks as he explains in detail every game that his team played.  He explains how the much maligned zonal marking system was often, in fact, altered to man-mark individual players.  And he explains in detail why he took certain decisions, the formation for the final against AC Milan in 2007 being the main one.  It is all incredibly fascinating and a true learning experience.

Benitez also talks about the lead-up to certain decisions.  One such instance is the decision to sign Fernando Torres after a list of strikers had been drawn up. Another deals with what led to the failure to sign Simao Sabrosa.  Both put light on previously unknown details and there are plenty more such instances. Yet do not expect any criticism of the people that many feel let him down during his time at Liverpool – the likes of Hicks and Gillett or Christian Purslow – and although they do get mentioned it is often cursory.  Nor does he talk about the split with Pako Ayesteran. The impression is that he feels that such matters have little place in a book about football.

Although unwittingly, he also highlights his own genius when, for instance, he explains that in 2005 he started the game against Juventus with the players instructed to adopt a tactical shape for the first few minutes and then changing it hoping to gain an advantage when his opponents didn’t react to that change.

Indeed, the overwhelming sensation at the end of this book is awe over Benitez’s management.  Not just of games but of everything.  At one stage he mentions his often publicised love of the game Stratego and how he spent a couple of days obsessively drawing up strategies on how to handle each situation so that he never lost another game.  The thing is, that is how he handled every minute detail, looking at getting information or a strategic advantage.

When Liverpool beat Manchester United 4-1 at Old Trafford, he started telling any journalist who would listen a step-by-step guide on how to beat them in the hope that they would report it and some other manager would adopt the system, getting United to drop points.

That is how Benitez works, obsessively looking into each detail to see what can be done to improve it and gain an advantage.  That is what comes out of Champions League Dreams, which is more of a manual of how a great manager works than a mere biography of his successes.

This article originally appeared on the 15th October 2012 on the Tomkins Times.

Places to Go, Things to Do: National Museum of Archaeology

What is It?
As the name suggests the National Museum of Archaeology houses a large number of archaeological artefacts which date back to our island's Neolithic period but not only.

Why Go There?
Unfortunately, for a lot of people history is something learned (or suffered) through books during long hours at school.  Even worse, it is something that is learned purely because it is an academic requirement.

Yet that is not how it should be.  History teaches us about ourselves and unless we know of our past we cannot really say to know ourselves.  Above all, history doesn't have to be boring and with a bit of effort it can be brought to life. Visits to museums, like the National Museum of Archaeology, helps teach the young (and not so young)  the way of life of people from past societies.

What is There To See?
On display at this museum are the earliest tools used by the prehistoric and early historic people to facilitate their daily tasks; representations of animal life and also human figures, both elements showing the great artistic skills of the dwellers of the island at the time also giving an insight on their daily lives.  The real kind of history, if you want, as opposed to the two dimensional one seen on books.

However, the real stars of the show include the ‘Sleeping Lady’ from the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, the ‘Venus of Malta’ from Hagar Qim, the bronze daggers from the Tarxien Cemetery, the sarcophagus from Ghar Barka and the Horus and Anubis pendant from Ghajn Klieb

When to go there...
The museum is open every day from eight in the morning till seven in the evening with the last admission being at quarter past six. It is worth subscribing to Heritage Malta's mailing list to be informed of any special events being held and which might be of interest.  One such instance will be on the first of November when an event called Trash Archaeology is being organised. Here, those taking part will be shown how to distinguish important archaeological facts from what seems to be mere trash.

If there is a budding archaeologist in your family, make a note of the Excavate event being held on the 3rd of January.  Those children who take part will be shown how to excavate on a miniature archaeological site going through the whole process from taking photos to drawing plans to extracting artefacts and remains up to labelinglabelling and packing, all while taking careful and meticulous measures.

Where Is It?
The National Museum of Archaeology is housed in the Auberge de Proven├že, in Republic Street, Valletta.  Meaning that, if you go to Valletta, you cannot really miss it.

How Much...
Adult tickets costs €5 but there are concessions for senior citizens (those aged over sixty) who can enter the museum for €3.50.  Children tickets cost €2.50 but this applies for those who are aged over five years with younger children being able to enter for free.

And another thing...
Heritage Malta organises a number of open days and special events.  Events for the coming months include an exhibition entitled "A journey through Peasant Costumes" to be held at the Inquisitor's Palace along with a number of events scheduled to be held in Gozo such as the "Model Making of a Traditional Maltese Boat – Luzzu".  The best way to keep informed on what is being planned by Heritage Malta is by liking its Facebook Page.

This article appeared on the Autumn 2012 issue of Growing Up in Malta.

Getting to Grips With Technology

Having toyed with the idea for a couple of months, at the start of the summer I bought myself an iPad.  Actually, that statement is incorrect: I bought an iPad.  Because if there's anyone who barely ever gets the opportunity to use this toy, it is myself.
Indeed, if there is anyone who actually 'owns' it then it is the kids.  Of course we try to limit its use as much as possible but if it is being used then it most probably is by them.

A part of me is fascinated with how quickly they got to grips with it.  Even our toddler can recognise his games and 'play' them and for me it is astounding that this gadget can be handled even by an eighteen month year old.

Of course, part of the iPad's (and other tablets) main attractions is that it can offer up a seemingly endless list of games (a good deal of which are for free) so it is easy to understand why the kids wouldn't let it out of their hands if it were up to them.  It is also why there are a few base rules that we've set: there are no electronic gadgets when we're eating, likewise when we go out, they cannot download (or view) anything without  my express permission and time during which they can use it is limited.

It is this latter rule that more often than not is the sticking point.  "Can we play with the iPad?"  "No, you've already played enough."  "Ufff..." (...often accompanied by pouting lips and stamping of feet).  This is a conversation that for the past few weeks has been getting played out over and over again.  Which, if you're tired after a day at work, isn't the type of conversation you can have (especially repeatedly) without ending up either overly frustrated or else angry.

That's not to say that it is all bad.  A lot of games are educational and they actually do help in the children's development. You can actually see them learning and, if you know which games to get them to play, you can see their problem solving techniques getting sharper and sharper.  Sometimes, they can see solutions to problems that leave me stumped.

Yet there remains that nagging doubt that perhaps we're trading their social skills for a few minutes of peace.  Because if there is one universal truth about this gadget it is that it cuts you off from the rest of the world (something which, for all the social media sites that there are, is true for most of modern technology).  Try getting an answer out of a kid (or, for that matter, an adult) who is engrossed watching something on television or the computer if you want to test the validity of that statement.

Naturally, as parents this worries us.  We worry not because they're using the iPad but because they're forgoing other alternatives.  And I'm not referring to important stuff here - study for instance - but also doing things we traditionally associate with kids such as drawing or playing with their toys.

Then again, is it really that different to my own experiences as a child?  I remember eagerly awaiting for 2 o'clock in the afternoon during the summer at which point an Italian station used to transmit a movie.  Most of the time I spent reading, going to up to three libraries during a week.  Tellingly, I remembered being extremely bored as well.  The only difference is that today there is so much more entertainment for kids that is readily available.

The truth, perhaps, is that iPads and such gadgets present parents with a modern twist to an old problem: teaching your kids to find a balance in their life.  There are times when you can play and others where you have to work.  And there are times where you can play with one thing and others when you should be exploring new things to see whether you come across something that gives you greater enjoyment.

Traditionally, I'm not sure that we've (as a society) really fostered that balance.  Study has always been king as evidenced by the huge decline in the number of young adults practicing sports at around the ages of fourteen.  But it is possible to study without sacrificing other hobbies.  If we want to raise well rounded individuals who are capable of managing their time so that they can lead a life that fulfills them, then we need to change that. iPads or not.

This article appeared on the Autumn 2012 issue of Growing Up in Malta.

Bursting the Specialisation Myth

Paul Grech Friday, September 14, 2012 , ,
There is something terribly saddening in the way fans tend to talk of young players at their clubs.  The finality with which verdicts are delivered, and their brutality, is often of an incredible harshness especially considering that it involves individuals who are still in their teens.  It leaves you in no doubt that even at this level most fans see that success as the only objective.  Anything else is rubbish.

What is even worse is that some clubs act in the same manner.  Education delivered to the players is minimal with little care being given to whether enough attention is being given.  There is little empathy when players are released or an attempt to help them sort their future.  All that matters is whether that player will make it at the club and, if not, whether he is good enough to be sold on to someone else.  That is what defines success for them.

Yet that shouldn’t be the case says Dr. Martin Toms, Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham.  “It is my firm belief that we should measure success not by the number of kids who make it to a high level from the club, but that it should be done on a basis of legacy and enthusiasm.”

“The best argument for success is around numbers of kids from all levels who want to be involved, have fun and play the game, so the best indication of success is that these kids are involved the next year.”

“Clubs (at whatever level) have a moral obligation to act as safe, nurturing environments for all levels, talent and participation.”

Read the rest of the interview with Dr Martin Toms over at Blueprint for Football.

Making Second Chances Work Better Than the First

Paul Grech Friday, September 7, 2012 , ,
Those of Paul McCallum, Quade Taylor and Michael Chambers might not be the most familiar of names apart from, perhaps, to the more avid among West Ham and Crystal Palace fans. Simeon Jackson and George Elekobi might be more widely known but, even so, they're not exactly household names.

For the people at A.S.P.I.R.E. however, every one of those names signifies a success story; a player whose career they managed to kick-start.

A.S.P.I.R.E (Academic and Sporting Inspired Routes to Excellence) is a football and education programme for 16 -18 year old males which is based in London (and, as such, is not to be confused with the Qatar foundation that bears the same name). The programme was set up in July 2002 to enable young people to pursue their dream of playing professional football whilst also enjoying the advantages of furthering their education whether that is in a vocational or academic capacity.

"Ten years ago I felt that young players were being overlooked once they had gone past the age of sixteen and not in the professional academy system," Gavin Rose, a man behind a lot of what goes on at A.S.P.I.R.E., explains as he talk about what led to the academy's existemce.

Read the rest of the interview with Gavin Rose over at Blueprint for Football.

eBook Review of ‘Shankly: The Hard Road Back’

Paul Grech Thursday, September 6, 2012 , ,
It was an unfortunate piece of coincidence that on the weekend in which Bill Shankly would have turned ninety nine, results on the pitch brought up one of the worst periods during his tenure as Liverpool manager.

By picking up just one point out of a possible nine the current Liverpool team matched the results of Shankly’s 1962-63 side that also achieved such a total (the coincidences do not end there: on both occasions the point was achieved through a 2-2 draw with Manchester City); a total that every Liverpool side had bettered since.

The similarities, however, end there.  When the league season kicked off in August of 1962, Liverpool were making a return to the top flight after an absence of eight seasons.  The man who had taken Liverpool up was, of course, Bill Shankly after he had built a side capable of dominating the Second Division.

During the weeks leading to that first season back, Shankly had embarked in what was (and probably still is) an unusual venture: for fourteen weeks he had written a column on the Liverpool Echo going into incredible detail about how that team had been built and promotion achieved.

These columns have now been reproduced in a unique book that offers an insight into Shankly’s early Anfield days and the mind of the man who built the modern Liverpool.

Unearthed by The Kop Magazine, ‘Shankly: The Hard Road Back’ tells the story of how the great Scot turned the Reds’ fortunes around in his own words.

Published over a 14-week period in the summer of ‘62, Shankly revealed his Anfield battle-plan in unprecedented detail in the Football ECHO – revealing everything from his tactical thinking and transfer discussions in the boardroom to how he trained his players and sought out opponent’s weaknesses.

Indeed, hindsight proves just what a great visionary Shankly was.  His belief in the importance of fitness extended beyond what was commonplace at the time.  Training was split up so that each coach handled different groups to take into consideration different work loads and individual requirements.  Similarly, every detail of the training routines was planned in advance to ensure that the players got the utmost benefit from the routine.

Shankly’s attention to detail – a trait of any successful manager – was such that before a game at Sunderland he tried to measure when the sun went down behind the goal to determine which was the best side of the ground to kick-off towards!

There are also glimpses of his legendary motivational abilities.  When talking about the young players at the club he states that “I brought to Anfield a number of boys who attracted my attention as youngsters out of the ordinary”.  You can imagine James McKenzie, Robert (Bobby) Graham, George Scott, Gordon Wallace, Philip Tinney and Tommy Smith reading those words and their self-belief going up by a couple of notches.

Of those players, two – Graham and Wallace – eventually enjoyed varying degrees of success in the first team whilst Smith went on to become a club legend.  The investment of time and effort Shankly had put into the identification of these players paid off.  Although he does not say so in the articles, a bit of subsequent research (such as this interview with George Scott) shows just what a personal interest he took in these players.

Yet these articles also hold evidence that even the great man sometimes got it wrong. One of the players he bought during the season was Jimmy Furnell.  The goalkeeper was described by Shankly as a “player in whom I had been interested in for longer than this particular season” and his faith in him was such that he was immediately given the number 1 shirt which he retained till the end of the season.

Furnell, however, failed to live up to the expectations that Shankly had for him and midway through the following season he would be replaced by Tommy Lawrence.

Shankly: The Hard Road Back is only available as an e-book.

This review was originally published on the Tomkins Times.

[Featured Article] Growing Up in Malta Magazine Autumn 2012 Issue

Paul Grech Saturday, September 1, 2012 , ,


The 200% Pre-Season Previews: Liverpool

Paul Grech Sunday, August 12, 2012 , ,
For the third year running, Liverpool start a new season with a new manager in charge.  After the misguided appointment of Roy Hodgson and then the return of Kenny Dalglish, it is now up to Brendan Rodgers to try and deliver the progress that has failed to materialise under his predecessors. Even so, those that he has been asked to fill are pretty big shoes.  Dalglish’s dismissal was messy to say the least.  Having seen the club’s owners getting rid of Technical Director Damien Comolli on the eve of an FA Cup semi-final, Dalglish limped on till the end of the season under a cloud of uncertainty until he was called over to America and told that the manager’s job was no longer his.

Not that the dismissal was unexpected. Having spent an excessive amount of money on the likes of Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Jose Enrique, Liverpool were expected to deliver a far better result than the eventual dismal eight place finish. Then again, Dalglish can point to some attractive football played during the season where results didn’t exactly reward the performance. He can also point to a League Cup won (the club’s first trophy in seven years) and an FA Cup final appearance that could have been turned had an Andy Carroll header not been incorrectly adjudged not to have crossed the line. Yet FSG had seen enough to decide that Dalglish wasn’t the man to deliver their vision. So much that main owner John W. Henry later insisted that not even an FA Cup final win would have kept Dalglish in a job.

In truth, there was never the feeling that Dalglish was Fenway Sports Group’s ideal candidate. Only the spectre of relegation forced them to turn to him in the first instance and when he oversaw an upturn in fortune, they found themselves without any choice apart from appointing him. Put in that light, it is encouraging that they opted to act decisively by removing Dalglish and went for the kind of young manager that they had wanted in the first place. Yet, at the same time it is difficult to read into the subsequent decision against appointing a director of football, something that has always been considered as being central to their philosophy.  Rodgers – and apparently a good number of the managers they did speak to for the post – made it clear that they couldn’t work in such a structure and the owners were talked out of it.

Hearing Rodgers talk, it is easy to see why the people at FSG were impressed.  He is respectful, charismatic, intelligent and with an attractive vision of how his teams should play football. Of course, there’s more to Rodgers than talk. His Swansea side was a revelation last season, comfortably staying in the division thanks to an attractive brand of football based on ball possession and heavy pressing.  His side outplayed Liverpool both at the Liberty Stadium and at Anfield – tellingly, in front of a watching John W Henry – as they did against a number of top sides. The development of players under his charge was equally impressive, something that will also have been noticed.

Early impressions have continued to build on that positive image and calmed, at least temporarily, those who either saw Dalglish’s dismissal as being too harsh or wanted to see the return of Rafa Benitez.  One of Rodgers’ first acts as a Liverpool manager was to change the ‘This is Anfield’ sign that hangs above the tunnel leading out to the pitch, whereby he put back the sign that stood in place until 1998 and which had first been installed by Bill Shankly.  It might in many ways be a trivial act but that kind of focus on details and nod at tradition resonates with the fans. It is also the kind that raises expectations, something that both Rodgers and Henry have been trying to diminish them. Qualification for the Champions League, which was described as the minimum requirement for Dalglish, is not being expected and there seems to be an acceptance that it will take time for him to deliver that.

The club’s recruitment has also reflected that change. Whereas last summer Liverpool spent big early on, this time round they’ve been much more measured.  Gylfi Siggursdon, immediately identified as one of Rodgers’ targets, went to Tottenham after Liverpool  failed to match his wage demands whereas Fabio Borini, at 21 and costing £11 million, is just the type of transfer Liverpool seem to want to target. In paying £15 million – and taking so long to do so – to get Joe Allen it would appear that Liverpool spent more than they wanted but he was a player that Rodgers knew well and will be confident that he can mature into a player who will more than justify that fee.

Rodgers has hinted that Liverpool will be bringing in more players before the end of August and they are needed especially with experienced players like Maxi Rodriguez, Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy leaving.  Who those players might be is unclear especially since the people identified to head to remodelled scouting team – David Fallows and Barry Hunter – have been placed on gardening leave by their previous club Manchester City and will only be in a position to start their job later in the year. How much money is available is just as big a question. The clumsy attempt at pushing Andy Carroll out of the club has been followed by huge hints that Daniel Agger might be allowed to leave if a big enough offer came in.  The rumours of that latter deal have raised the first signs of friction since Rodgers took over with most fans being against it happening regardless of the size of the offer.

If that transfer does come true, however, it will be the first real adoption of the ‘Moneyball’ approach that has been mentioned so frequently since FSG took over.  Having appeared pretty regularly last season for the first time in years and done extremely well in the European Championships, it might be felt that Agger’s value might never be as high as it is now especially if one of the injuries that has plagued his career were to flare up again. That much is evident in the way that Liverpool handled the news that another player – Luis Suarez – was the target of a sizeable bid. Contrary to Agger, selling Suarez was never contemplated and instead he was offered a new improved contract.

It was a significant deal as Liverpool try to ensure that their best players are tied to long term deals.  This core of players – Pepe Reina, Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson, Stephen Gerrard, Lucas Leiva and Luis Suarez – are good enough to do much better than they have in recent seasons and with the level of supporting cast being raised then they can hope to finish the season closer to fourth place than they have of late. The problem at Liverpool is the lack of quality throughout the squad.  Typical was the situation that cropped up last season when Lucas was forced to miss out half a season through injury.  Dalglish was forced to turn to Jay Spearing, a player who loves the club and always tries his hardest but who struggled terribly to show the quality needed at this level.  It is the same in other key areas.

It will be such shortcomings that will hold Liverpool back.  Cups will continue to be their best shot at glory although how much importance will be devoted to them is doubtful given that Dalglish was dismissed despite getting to two cup finals.  The league, and progressing there, is undoubtedly infinitely more important and that is the metric against which Rodgers’ season will eventually be measured.

This article was originally published on

Learning from the Kenyans

Paul Grech Wednesday, August 1, 2012 , , ,
There are few instances in sport where one nation has so consistently produced champion athletes at all levels as Kenya have done. Inevitably, such sustained success leads to questions as to what is at the heart of it.  Key in the words "Kenyan Long Distance Running" into a search engine and you will be faced by tens of articles trying to answer that question.

Adharanand Finn is one of those who have made such an attempt, spending a year in Kenya which he subsequently chronicled in the excellent book Running with Kenyans.

For Finn and for many others those queries are borne of the desire to replicate such success in the field of athletics.  Yet it would be foolhardy to believe that a system that has produced so much talent doesn't have traits that could be replicated by other sports.

And, although what parallels exist aren't always immediately obvious, there is plenty to learn for football.

Read the full discussion with Adhanarand Finn over at Blueprint for Football.

[Featured Article] Growing Up in Malta Magazine Spring 2012 Issue

Paul Grech Thursday, March 1, 2012 , , ,


The Marathon Man

Paul Grech Sunday, February 26, 2012 , , ,
For hundreds of Maltese runners, the Malta Marathon has become an annual appointment with a sport they love.  For hundreds more it has been the inspiration to pick up running shoes and go out running.

Only one man, however, can claim to have been there from the start and that man is Charles Darmanin.

As the runners line up at the starting point next Sunday, Darmanin will be doing so for the 27th time and if he crosses the finishing line in Sliema he will become the only one to have successfully completed all editions of the Malta Marathon.  Others were there with him 27 years ago and have continued running but he is the only one who is still doing the full marathon.

The longest serving active athlete at St. Patrick's Athletic Club, Darmanin’s first race for the club was way back in 1964 as a 9 year old.  Some feat, considering that the club itself – the oldest in Malta – will be celebrating the 50th anniversary from its foundation by Fr. Michael O’Meara in 1962.

Charles remembers the first two editions of the Malta marathon quite well. At the time, running such long distances was a novelty for Malta and it wasn’t easy to know how to properly prepare for it.  "I was in London a few weeks before and got pair of ‘Dunlop’ branded shoes for that first marathon,” he recalls.  “I thought ‘if the name was a good brand for Car Tyres then it must be also be good for running’.  How wrong I was! My feet ached for weeks after the event".

In 1990 took part in the first Malta International Challenge Marathon, another event that he has completed every year since whilst a year later Charles and his wife Antoinette became the first Maltese couple to complete the Malta Marathon.  In 1993, after 7 self-coached Malta Marathons he set the 2hrs 58mins time that is considered a bench mark time for the marathon.

The following year he improved his time in the marathon to 2hrs 56. Then at the age of 40 in 1995 he did his best time ever in the marathon of 2hrs. 51min.  That year he also became a qualified coach for the International Athletic Federation and started coaching a number of athletes in long distance running. Also in 1995 he completed the only 100krun that ever took place in Malta and did a personal best of 36min 18 sec in a 10 k race.

For Charles his best experiences came when he sacrificed his time in order to run and encourage the athletes he was coaching.  The worst experience, on the other hand, was when he came near to not completing the marathon three years ago when he had cartilage pains in his knee. Another time, in the 5th marathon, he pulled a leg muscle on the 21st mile but again he managed to jog to the finish line.

In the 2003 marathon he was guiding and running with six first time marathon runners. The toughest challenge for him was to keep the group together so he made them stop at fixed points to relieve themselves, since it would have been very difficult for someone to make up lost ground if one lost a couple of minutes. At the seventh mile a young English lady who was keeping pace right behind them and when they approached their pre planned 'pit stop' they made a sharp left turn into a side path with the lady following suit. "Obviously we all stopped in a line to take care of our business and for a few seconds this lady just stood there before she realised what we were up to. She turned red in the face laughed out loud and turned back to continue her race".

Asked once whether the marathon was hard and his reply was  “of course it is hard, if it wasn't hard everyone would do it!”  A phrase he once read made a particular impression with him and it goes that ‘when you're feeling anxious on that starting line thinking with doubts in your mind about seeing the finishing line, just keep in mind the 9 in 10 people who never run at all, the 9 in 10 runners who never enter races, and the 9 in 10 racers who never enter marathons.’ 

It is a phrase that he recounts to all the athletes he coaches along with a quote by the late Dr. George Sheehan ‘winning is never having to say I quit’.

"Nowhere is that truer than in running a marathon, where you win simply by not giving up on yourself," Charles adds.  As someone who has been there every year, he’s the living example of that philosophy.

This article originally appeared on the Times of Malta edition of Friday, 24th February 2012.


Sports Book Chat: Glenn Stout

Paul Grech Wednesday, February 22, 2012 , ,
There are few writers who are as capable as Michael Lewis at spotting interesting sport stories just outside of the mainstream and fewer still who can match his ability of bringing these stories to life.  Lewis, who came to prominence (at least as a sports writer) through Moneyball and who also wrote the book on which the Oscar winning The Blind Side is based, is above all an exceptional interviewer who manages to dig deep enough to get to the soul of his story.

Lewis, as you can tell, also happens to be one of my favourite sports writers and when you like someone's writin as much as I do his, you're not going to be satisfied with an occasional book. And it was this thirst to get to more of his writting that led me to the Best of American Sports Writing, an annual collection of the best sports writing from America and where invariably Lewis always features.

Yet a book that was bought specifically for Lewis' piece opened up a whole new world of fantastic writers and stories.  It was also a book that brought to my attention Glenn Stout who happens to be the series editor.  Although his own writing is not featured here, Stout does write the a preface to every issue and invariably always manages to make this an interesting read, which is no mean feat.

In turn, this led me to look out for more of his work and I discovered an incredibly talented writer who has written a multitude of books on a whole range of topics.  It also brought me into contact with a man who is always willing to talk about writing and help out when advice is sought from him.

What led you to become a writer, specifically a sports writer? Was that always an ambition for you?
Into adolescence all I ever wanted to be, or thought about being, was a baseball player, a pitcher, but at a certain point I began to realize that probably wasn’t realistic.  I don’t think I ever thought seriously about being a sportswriter, at least when I was young.  I came to writing through poetry which I started reading when I was 13, 14 years old, and was just blown away by the emotional power of words.  It changed my life.  By high school I was pretty certain I wanted to write.  Even though I was taking journalism in high school and writing for the school paper, I saw myself as more of a creative writer and went to college on a partial scholarship in creative writing, writing and studying poetry.  Of course there are no jobs for poets, so after college, while floundering around, I consciously tried to combine my interests in writing and sports.  I did get a few interviews for small newspapers as a sportswriter, but I had no real background, no clippings, and didn’t get hired.  Instead I worked in construction, sold baseball tickets by phone, painted, was a security guard, library aide, etc., ending up in Boston and listening to a lot of rock ‘ roll.

I came to sports writing late, when I was 27, 28 years old.  In 1986, while working at the Boston Public Library I stumbled across a story about the Boston Red Sox manager committing suicide in 1907.  No one had ever really researched the story before and I did, burying myself in microfilm.  Long story short – despite the fact that I had never written a non-fiction story since high school, I put together a pitch for the story and submitted it to two magazines.  One – Boston Magazine – responded.  The editor invited me to his office, talked to me about the story for an hour, and then gave me the go ahead.  As I was walking out the door he asked “You can write, can’t you?”  I said I could.  A week later I turned in the story, he bought it and asked me what I wanted to write about next.  I blurted something out and I was off.  I’ve never been without an assignment since, often specializing in history.

What words of advice would you share with budding sports writers out there?
The same advice for any writer in any genre:  read everything you can – poetry, fiction, and non-fiction - write as much as possible, develop a wide range of experiences and skills, don’t give up and be patient.  Younger writers today want everything to happen instantaneously.  Focus on the work and if you are good enough, and lucky enough, the rest will come.

Do you ever re-read your own books?
Parts of them, because sometimes I have to mine them for information for my next project, or to remind myself that yes, I really do know how to write.  It’s funny, but sometimes I have absolutely no recollection of having written what I have.  I’ll read something I wrote and in a panic think, “Did that really happen?  Is that true?”  Then I’ll look it up and find out, yep, that’s how it happened, but I have no memory of ever having written it.   I guess that’s’ what happens after publishing upwards of a couple of million words.

I saw somewhere that you read poetry outside Fenway Park at the opening day of every season. How did that come about, if it is at all true? And for how long have you done it?
In the mid 1980s, before I had published anything,  I was just looking for ways to combine my interest in baseball and writing.  I had collected a bunch of baseball inspired poetry, and written a bit myself, so I borrowed a small battery powered amp, put on an old uniform, loaded up on Bloody Mary’s and stood outside Fenway beneath the left wall and read poetry for three hours.  People seemed to enjoy it – or at least were amused –I found it incredibly energizing, and a few newspaper and radio and TV reporters did stories on me.  The next year I sent out press releases, and got more coverage.  I ended up doing it for nine years in a row, and actually met people through doing that who later hired me to write for them.

You've written about a whole range of subjects: how do you choose which ideas to follow through into books?
I try to find a balance between what interests me and what has commercial potential, but it has to interest me first, because if I am not interested there is no way I can interest a reader.  I don’t want to be bored while working, so I enjoy trying different projects and subjects and styles – oral histories, biographies, histories, anthologies, juvenile, columns, features, essays, blogs.  The last thing I want to do is write the same book, or the same kind of book, over and over.  Recently I’ve started consulting with authors who need help with book projects and was surprised to find that not only did I enjoy it, but I was good at it.  I am a working writer and I do this full-time, so I have to be open to possibilities, but I try to be selective as well.

Can you tell us something about your latest book Fenway 1912?
In many ways it is the best thing I have ever, ever done.  It completely recasts the early history of the park and makes other early histories obsolete.  I love finding out new information about something people think they already know everything about.  For a place that is so beloved, there was a staggering amount of false information floating around about the place and its origins, from a construction and architectural viewpoint, had never been explored.  I tell the whole history of how and why the park came to be built the way it was built, then tell the story of the Red Sox first season in Fenway Park, and how Fenway had a dramatic and profound impact on their performance right through the World Series, which was one of the most memorable in the history of the game.  Even the most knowledgeable Red Sox fan or baseball fan will learn something new on almost every page, yet I think the book is still accessible to the casual fan.

Judging by the subject I guess that you must have been pretty happy at the decision to renovate Fenway Park rather than build a new ball park.
To a point, because the new design, which I called “Fakeway” was really horrible.  But there are aspects of the renovation I find troubling.  Fenway is unaffordable today, and I find the amount of visual and aural pollution in the park due to a constant barrage of advertisements very distracting.  Fenway is a radical different place today than it was even ten years ago.  It has not been preserved, really, in any sense, but ironically has evolved that it now shares more in common with the retro parks it inspired – like Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards – than it does with the Fenway Park I grew up with.  But change is the nature of Fenway Park.  It has survived because it has constantly evolved and was never put under glass like an antique.  Change was present even in its first season .  The biggest change in the history of the park took place in September of 1912, when the park was added to accommodate them 1912 World Series.

You're also writing a series a books for kids, Good Sports. Is it more difficult to write for a younger audience?
Not for me, not any more.  For a number of years I was the non-fiction ghost writer for the Matt Christopher series of books, and wrote thirty-nine 20,000 word sports biographies of people like Derek Jeter and Mia Hamm, so I am accustomed to writing for that market and switching back and forth, even on the same day.  The work itself is not all that dissimilar to writing for an adult audience.  The research is the same, and the writing standards you try to reach, but the focus is a bit different.  The writing is more descriptive and direct.  The goal of the series is to encourage reading and provide interesting stories for kids that can provide a lasting lesson.

You've been the series editor of the Best of American Sports Writing series since 1991 (happy anniversary, by the way).  How did that come about?
It was pure serendipity.  An editor with Houghton Mifflin came up with the idea, and happened to ask an agent if she knew of another agent who might have a client who would be interested in serving as series editor.  She primarily represented cookbook writers, but had recently agreed to represent me on a book project I was trying to sell.  She told the editor she had a client who was perfect.  And I was.  I had read been a huge reader of literary sports writing, worked at a library and had access to material, and was an established magazine journalist, yet I was independent and didn’t owe anyone anything.  The editor asked me to put together a sample of the kind of stories I would select for such a book, I did, and he liked them.  I’ve been doing this ever since.

What exactly is your role in the BASW series? What does a series editor do?
My main duty is to survey publications and solicit submissions over the course of each year to put together a group of about seventy-five stories which I give to the guest editor, who then selects about twenty-five stories for the book.  I spend a few hours each day looking, and send submission requests each year to hundreds of magazines, have a facebook page for the book, a comprehensive e-mail list, maintain submission information on my website (, and in short do all I can to make sure I see and read worthy material.   But the guest editor is also welcome to include stories that have not been pre-selected by me.  Then I have to write a foreword to the book, the contributor biographies and some busy work.  It’s not a fulltime job – and neither does it pay like one – but it is rather constant.  At this point, however, it is part of the fabric of my life.

Have there ever been stories that you felt should be included but weren't? And the other way round?
Oh sure.  But on average the guest editor usually picks about 70% of the same stories I would have selected.  The only disagreement I really have is when a guest editor abuses their position and allows nepotism or personal relationships to affect their choices, rather than selecting stories entirely on merit.  Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often.

Has the emergence of blogs, with too many people writing without really considering how they're building their story or argument, diluted the quality of sports writing?
I don’t know if diluted is the right word, but blogs have expanded the range of writing in way that in some ways are good, and some ways not.

Do you consider blogs for the BASW?
I do, and have ever since they began appearing.  I believe our first selection from what today could be described as a blog appeared in the book in 2000.  I don’t care what the source is - I only care about the quality of the writing.

Do you take any measures to ensure that you do not have a bias towards a particular sport?
Not really.  If we select the best stories that seems to work itself out.  We’ve never dropped a story because were “too heavy” on one subject.

How is each editions' editor chosen?
My editor and I discuss it.  I always advocate for writers who have had success not just in newspapers or magazines, but also in book form.  I resist efforts to select a guest editor who is not best known as a writer.

I hear that this year's editor is going to be a woman. How exciting a development is that?
It’s about time, although on several occasions in the past wo0men have been approached and have turned the offer down.  In general, about ten percent of the work in BASW each year has been written by women, and I am an enormous advocate of women in sports – including my juvenile work, no American author has written more book titles about female athletes than I have.  My biography of Trudy Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel Young Woman and the Sea, might be the best book I’ve published to date, and my juvenile series, of which the latest title is Yes She Can! Women’s Sports Pioneers, is getting a terrific reviews.

Finally, what's in the pipeline for you?
By the time Fenway 1912 appears in the fall I hope to have another big project in the works and hope to continue my juvenile series Good Sports and spend some time supporting that through school visits – two more titles are finished and scheduled to appear this year.  The first title I worked as a consultant should also appear later this year, and I know the author and his editors are very pleased, so even though my role is somewhat hidden, I am excited about that  - it is an important book about an important subject – not sports.  And then every once in a while I’ll get a phone call or an e-mail asking me to work on something I’ve never thought of, and I’m about due for one of those calls.  I also have my own blog going,, and have recently started to realize that I’m something of a role model for younger writers. I try to be responsive to that and when I think I’ve learned something worthwhile, or have something to say that is not appropriate for another outlet, I make use of that.

This article was originally featured on the August issue of Swinging Balls.

Inter Managing a Downturn

Paul Grech ,

As Giampiero Gasperini exited his Inter job after only three league games, the complaints were eerily familiar.  Even though he kept a dignified silence there were plenty eager to point out that Inter had not made available the kind of players capable of playing his favoured 3-4-3 formation.  His own tactical rigidity and the strange reluctance to play Giampaolo Pazzini precipitated his demise yet such an outcome had looked almost inevitable ever since the defeat against Milan in the Italian Super Cup.

Eight months earlier, Inter had parted ways with another manager in similar circumstances. Rafael Benitez may have lasted longer than Gasperini but he too was disillusioned by Inter's summer activity.  Benitez wanted to freshen up the squad with the kind of hard working flank players that he favours but was told that there wasn't any money available.

A couple of weeks after he left, they brought in Andrea Ranocchia, Giampaolo Pazzini, Houssine Kharja and Yuto Nagatomo.

It was arguably even worse for Gasperini.  For most of the summer he had to live with daily rumours about Wesley Sneijder's impending departure whilst days before the transfer window came to a close he saw Samuel Eto'o leave.  When reinforcements did come in the form of Diego Forlan, it was with the caveat that he couldn't play in the Champions League until next February because an appearance in the Europa League qualifiers with Atletico Madrid, something that the Inter management only picked up when it came to registering their Champions League squad. Hardly the ideal way to prepare for the new season.

And so it is that they've now turned to their fourth manager in fifteen months a statistic that raises interesting questions about what kind of planning is going on at the club.  Gasperini was appointed only after Inter failed in attempts to attract Guus Hiddink or Andre Villas Boas and, even so, his was an extremely surprising choice.  The only thing that qualified him for the job was his availability - he was out of a job - because otherwise he was a bad fit both tactically and in character.  Indeed, his past as coach at the Juventus primavera weighed heavily against him.

But Gasperini cannot be blamed for any of that.  The same, however, cannot be said of those who actually made the decision to go for him.

Whenever the argument about the validity of having a sporting director crops up, one of the arguments in favour is that it helps bring about continuity.  Not at Inter, however.  The people that were looked at as possible managers had widely differing outlooks making it look as if the search was a haphazard one fuelled by the hype behind each potential candidate rather than a deep seated belief that their philosophies would translate well to the squad Inter had.

Then again, Inter is a strange case.  Their sporting director, Piero Ausilio, is a virtual unknown who was promoted into the role last December having previously headed their youth academy.

Instead the man with the real power seems to be Marco Branca.  His is a particular story, that of a striker who managed to achieve more than his talent would suggest was capable.  Serie A winner with Sampdoria in 1991 he spent just over two years at Inter in the mid-nineties scoring twenty three goals in fifty two games.  Inter and Sampdoria were just two of the thirteen clubs he played for during his career, including an injury plagued spell at Middlesbrough.

Then in 2002, just months after he had retired from playing activity, Branca was suddenly appointed as head of Inter's scouts.  A few months later and he became their technical director and that is where he has stayed ever since.  It is unclear what qualified him for such a rapid rise.

Inevitably, however, Branca's role only came under scrutiny since Jose Mourinho left and results started going downhill.  Those who have come to his defence  point to his presumed role in building the multiple title winning squads for Roberto Mancini and Mourinho himself.  But this too is unclear.  At the time there was also club legend Gabriele Oriali who played a key role in player acquisition.  Tellingly, Oriali left Inter a few weeks after Mourinho, forced out after Benitez demanded that Amadeo Carboni be placed in his role.

It is impossible to say whether Inter would have been better had they retained Oriali.  Owner Massimo Moratti's determination to drastically cut back spending - last January's binge excluded - cannot be underplayed and the loyalty displayed to the players who won them the Champions League has led to an ageing squad of players who feel entitled to play.

Inter aren't the first club that has struggled with continuity and having dominated the Italian scene for half a decade, a period of transition was inevitable.  Whether those charged at ensuring that such a period is as short as possible are up to the task, however, remains to be seen.

This article originally appeared in the November - December 2011 issue of Late Tackle magazine.


An Englishman In A Small Town

Paul Grech Friday, February 17, 2012 , ,

Gharghur is very much a typical Maltese town, with a multitude of narrow winding lanes all leading to a main square that is dominated by a huge church. Although the setting is unique and spectacular – built as it is into a disused quarry – Gharghur is also typical in that it now boasts one of the synthetic pitches that thanks to UEFA’s and FIFA’s money are replacing gravel ones all across the island. It is at the clubhouse adjacent to this pitch that I meet Ben Perry Acton as he and some of his Gharghur FC teamates pass the time before training kicks off by watching a rerun of one of the previous weekend’s Premiership games. English football has always had a massive following on the island, a heritage of the island’s colonial past, and there’s blanket coverage of all the games in the Premiership and even some from the Championship.

“I do yeah, every week!” is the enthusiastic reply about whether he follows Blackpool, one of his former clubs. “It is the first score I look for every weekend. I’ll never stop following Blackpool.” “Last season was brilliant as well as a bit devastating.  I think that Blackpool was every neutral’s favourite team.  They were a small club but had a lot of heart, they were entertaining to watch and very,very unlucky to go down.”  Other than Blackpool, Perry Acton played for other clubs, among whom is Bolton, yet these do not seem to have a similar hold him like the Tangerines and with good reason: his grandfather Bill Perry not only played for them but also scored the winning goal in the 1953 FA Cup final.

Ben Perry Acton (left) together with his FA Cup
winning legend grandfather
“He was one of the nicest men I’ve come across.  If you spoke to him you wouldn’t say that he had won an FA Cup.  He never spoke about it ever.  He loved his golf and was a family man. He was someone I really look up to and admire.  I loved him to bits and he’s greatly missed." Having such a famous grandfather did not put additional pressure in the form of heightened expectations. “No it didn’t put pressure at all,” he insists.  ”He came to watch a game to see me do will, not to shout this or that. People knew that I was a different player and to be honest if I was half the player he was that would be brilliant.  There was no added pressure growing up. “He was immense.  He took me to my training session and came to watch all the games. He gave me a lot of advice – not all of it in good ways! – but he knew what he was talking about and I took it all on board.  To this day I can remember what he told me. He was a great influence.”

It is clear that the prospect of following in his grandfather’s footsteps must have been a huge ambition for him.  Making, one would imagine, the decision to leave football a more difficult one. “It was in one respect.  I played for Wigan and Blackpool.  After being released by Blackpool, my confidence was knocked quite a bit.  I carried on playing with a team called Cliterhoe which is a side in the North West Counties and slowly started rebuilding my confidence to build my way up again.”  But then came the decision to leave. ”I’ve been coming to Malta with the family every year: my mum and dad have a holiday home in Sliema.  And I’ve been saying it every couple of years that I wanted to move over.  Then me and my girlfriend decided that time was right.  Not specifically because of football but because I love the island and everything about it.  It is so laid back  and we just thought that there was nothing to lose and to just go for it. When I moved here, my first intention was to find a club.  I went on trial with a couple of Premier League clubs – Hibernians and Sliema – but nothing came of them.  And then Pieta were interested and signed for them. Then, after a season, I moved to Gharghur. I love it here, I love the club, the people.  I live in the town even so it is nice."

The football itself has been good with one major difference.  ”I think that it is the pace.  It is a lot slower over here but you expect that.  The physical side is probably the same, you still get the odd shove in the back.  But mainly it is pace which is quite a lot slower. ”Fitness hasn’t been an issue.  I regard myself as being quite fit and I thought that I’d be one of the fittest at the club – which I probably am – but the rest aren’t far behind.” It was here that he enjoyed the highlight of his career so far, promotion as champions from the Maltese Third Division after they were down by two goals in the title decider. ”Oh, it was brilliant,” he says, eyes lighting up at the memory. “The town loves its football.  With the game and how dramatically it ended as well as the celebrations after the game, everything was brilliant.  Afterwards there were fireworks in the village, everybody was partying and it went on into the early hours of the day.  People still talk about it and everybody is still buzzing about it.  We got a new training complex and it put them on the map a bit.  Nobody put Gharghur as a force to be reckoned with.  We were a hard working bunch and it was all down to determination. Everything about the day was brilliant and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”

Talk eventually turns to the lack of Englishmen playing abroad. “In England you’ve got so many opportunities and so many clubs that you can go up and down the country to play.  That said, I definitely tell anyone who might be thinking of going to play abroad to go for it.  It is brilliant to experience different styles of play and to play in different countries.”  ”It can only benefit you.”

With a relatively short winter and sun shining almost all year round, Ben laughs when it is suggested that it shouldn’t be much of a problem to sell the idea of playing on the island to his fellow countrymen of whom there seems to be a shortage. ”I do think that there’s space but whether they want to come to Malta is another story,” he reflects.  ”For people who have been here, Malta is not the place most people would pick to go play in.  Especially among English players who look for more high profile destination.  I’ve told a few friends but up to now none of them have taken me up on my offer!”

This article originally appeared on TwoHundredPercent.

Il-Valuri Ta’ Sportiva tas-Sena

Paul Grech Sunday, January 8, 2012 , , ,

Matul dawn il-granet, fil-posta tal-gurnalisti sportivi jibdew jaslu l-envelopes li fihom ikun hemm il-polza tal-vota ghal edizjoni ohra ta’ l-iSportivi tas-Sena.  B’hekk ikun inghata bidu ghal process li jwassal ghal l-ghoti ta’ wiehed mil l-aktar unuri ewlenin ta’ l-isport Malti u, ghal dawk li eventwalment ikunu rebbieha, it-twettieq ta’ holma.

Bhal kull unur simili iehor, dak ta’ l-iSportiv tas-Sena huwa meqjus bhala c-coff sabih li jintrabat mal-memorja ta’ xi success miksub min dawk li jkunu qed jircevuh.  Il-valur tieghu jinsghab propju fil-fatt li huwa jkompli jivvalorizza dak is-success li jkun inkiseb.

Izda ma dan l-unur hemm marbuta wkoll responsabilta’, dik li ggib ruhek b’tali mod li tirrifletti l-hatra tieghek bhala l-ahjar sportiv jew sportiva.  Huwa dan il-prezz ta’ l-attenzjoni li tintefa fuq l-individwu mar-rebh.  Mhux xi prezz oghli, imma xorta wahda wiehed li mportanti li jithallas.

Propju dan ppruvat taghmel matul dawn it-tnax-il xhar Danica Spiteri.  Maghzula bhala l-iSportiva tas-Sena lejn tmiem Jannar li ghadda, hija mil l-ewwel kienet konxja tal-piz partikolari li dak il-mant kien igib mieghu.

“Kemm ilni involuta fis-xena tal-isport, dejjem harist lejn l-isportivi tas-sena b’certu ammirazzjoni u li dawn l-isportivi ghandhom jkunu ta’ unur ghall-pajjizna kif ukoll ambaxxaturi tal-isport f’Malta.”

“Allura, il-fatt li f’2011 jien kont onorata b’dan it-titolu, fl-opinjoni tieghi tant preztiguz, ridt li nkun persuna ta ezempju lil kulhadd. Ippruvajt li intejjeb ir-rizultati li nikseb fil-kompetizzjonijiet f’Malta, kif ukoll barra minn xtutna.”

“Ridt inkun mudell ghat-tfal, u nghaddi messagg li l-edukazzjoni u l-isport jmorru id f’id. Dejjem accettajt meta kelli xi talba minn xi tfal tal-iskola, li jixtiequ jaghmlu xi progett tal-isport dwari u dwar li-sport tieghi. Niehu gost niltaqa personalment ma dawn it-tfal, peress li naf li jkollhom certu ammirazzjoni lejja.”

Huwa attagjament responsabli, mhux biss lejn l-unur li hija nghatat imma wkoll lejn l-isport taghha.  Ghaliex sieheb fis-success ta’ kwalunkwe atleta hemm ukoll l-isport li fih ikun qed jikkompeti.  Meta n-nies iharsu lejn Danica Spiteri Bonello ma’ jarawx biss l-iSportiva tas-Sena imma jaraw it-tri-atleta li ntaghzlet bhala l-iSportiva tas-Sena.

“It-triathlon ibbenefika minn dan l-unur specjalment ghax kien iktar espost ghan-nies,  u saru jafu iktar fid-dettal x’inhu l-isport tat-triathlon,” hija tirrifletti. “In-nies qed jirrealizzaw li t-triathlon mhuwiex sport li hu mpossibli biex tiehu sehem, allura qed jattira numru sostanzjali ta’ nies, iktar minn qatt qabel.”

“Fil-fatt, fl-ahhar kampjonat nazzjonali ta’ din is-sena kien hemm, ghall-ewwel darba, l-fuq minn mitt atleta jiehu sehem. Dan jawgura tajjeb ghall-isport li hu tant ghall-qalbi.”

Familja Ikbar
L-imhabba ta’ Spiteri Bonello lejn l-isport taghha, wiehed li ilha tiehu sehem fih ghal sbatax-il sena, hija profonda.  Mhux ta’ b’xejn li hija tiddiskrevi l-komunita’ tat-triathlon bhala “familja”.

”Dak li jghogobni fit-triathlon f’Malta,” hija tispjega b’entuzjazmu. “Is-sens ta’ familja u hbiberija li hemm, u dawn il-fatturi qed jattiraw hafna nies godda, kif ukoll qed jzommuhom fl-isport. Ix-xena tat-triathlon f’Malta hija b’sahhitha ukoll, peress li n-numru ta’ nies jikkompetu dejjem qed jikber iktar ma jghaddi z-zmien.”

Naturali, ghalhekk, li hija tixtieq tara l-familja tikber haga li generalment tfisser iktar tfal.  Izda din hija kemmxejn problematika.  “Nies jiehdu sehem qed jizdiedu, izda problema wahda hemm: nuqqas ta’ tfal f’dan l-isport. It-tfal kollha jiehdu gost jghumu, jigru u jsuqu r-rota, igifieri l-problema m’hijiex hemm.”

“Nixtieq li jsiru iktar tlielaq apposta ghat-tfal, biex ghada jkun hemm iktar atleti zghar tajbin f’dan l-isport.”

Din hi problemi reali ghaliex minghajr generazzjonijiet godda ta’ atleti li jisfidaw il-dawk li gew qabilhom, difficilment jista’ jghola l-livell.

Anke’ jekk il-livell ta’ prestazzjonijiet u rizultati ta’ Danica qed jgholew xorta wahda.

“2011 gabitli hafna unuri u successi iktar minn qatt qabel,” hija tghid, mhux bi ftahir imma bhala stqarrija ta’ fatti. “Il-fatt li stajt nitharreg barra minn xtutna, m’atleti ta livell tajjeb ghenitni hafna. Irnexxieli nikseb zewg rekords nazzjonali, kif ukoll hadt sehem f’diversi tlielaq fl-Ingilterra, fejn kien hemm konkorrenza qawwija ta nisa, u dejjem dhalt mall-ewwel ghaxar postijiet.”

Is-sena tant gabet mumenti sbieh li ghaliha difficli tghazel l-aqwa wiehed. 

“Ma nistghax nghid li hemm ‘l-ikbar’ success, peress li kelli diversi tlielaq tajba.  Gejt it-tielet fil-kampjonati tat-triathlon tal-pajjizi z-zghar, lewwel fl-age group fl-ironman ta Notthingham fejn ksirt ir-rekord nazzjonali b’nofs siegha, it-tieni fil-kampjonat nazzjonali tat-triathlon ta’ Yorkshire & Humber gewwa l-Ingliterra, ksirt ir-rekord nazzjonali – li, ncidentalment, kien wiehed li waqqaft jien stess fl-2006 - fuq id-distanza tal-isprint triathlon b’kwazi minuta u rbaht il-kampjonat nazzjonali ghall-10 darba.”

Esperjenzi Godda
Din il-lista ta’ successi tirrifletti l-fatt li matul is-sena hija kienet qed tghid u titharreg barra min Malta.  U dan gid biss jista’ jaghmel.
Courtesy of West Yorkshire Sports

“Il-fatt li stajt nitharreg vicin t’atleti ahjar minni, uhud minnhom li huma atleti professjonali u champions tad-dinja, ghenet hafna, kemm mentalment, kif ukoll fiskament,” tikkonferma hija stess. “Meta saqsejt biex nitharreg ma dawn l-atleti qaluli li rrid diga nkun kapaci naghmel certu hinijiet fl-ghawm u l-giri biex semplici nista nattendi t-tahrig taghhom. Il-hinjiet li jirrikiedu huma l-ahjar hinijiet tieghi! U b’dawn il-hinijiet, gieli kont inkun l-ahhar wahda tal-grupp waqt it-tahrig! Dawn l-atleti jtelqu fil-qasam professjonali madwar id-dinja.” 

“It-tlielaq fl-Ingilterra huma differenti minn ta’ Malta. Il-korsa dejjem kienet wahda ftit difficli. Anki l-fatt li hemm iktar nisa jikkompetu jghin. Ghall-bidu l-Inglizi ma tawx kazi, imma issa diga bdew jindunaw li nista ntihom kedda. Fil-fatt kien hemm wahda li fil-bidu tas-sena kienet ghaddietni b’xi hames minuti, issa ergajt tellaqt maghha fl-ahhar tal-istagun u irnexxieli nilhaqha fl-ahhar tar-rota. Bdejna l-girja flimkien, u irnexxieli nghaddiha fl-ahhar ftit kilometri tal-girja, u hadtilha it-titlu li qabel kien taghha, tal-kampjonati ta Yorkshire u Humber!”

“Tlielaq hekk jghinu hafna biex intejjeb il-livell, peress li rrid nibqa naghmel l-almu tieghi sakemm nghaddi l-linja fejn tintemm it-tellieqa.”

Barra l-esperjenza ta’ kompetizjoni differenti, Spiteri Bonello pruvat ukoll esperjenzi differenti fi hdan id-dinja tat-triathlon.

“Varjanti tat-triathlon, bhalma huma xi ‘cross-country’, jew ‘off-road’ jghogbuni hafna. Dawn jirrikiedu livell ghola ta’ kapacita atletika u sahha (fitness) milli kieku qed tigri jew taqdef bir-rota fit-triq, peress li hemm iktar strapazzar fuq il-gogi u l-muskoli.”

“Niehu gost naghmilhom, izda naf li l-‘off road’ fuq ir-rota m’hijiex is-sahha tieghi. Izda mill-banda l-ohra, tlielaq ta’ dan it-tijp jghinu biex intejjeb il-hila tieghi fuq ir-rota.”

Filwaqt li harsa lejn il-passat hija normali meta tkun qed teqleb sena gdida, importanti li l-attenzjoni ma’ ddurx min fuq l-isfidi li jkun hemm fil-futur.

“Iva, dejjem insib skopijiet godda biex nimmira, u hemm xi pjanijiet, imma dawn jirrikiedu tahrig intensiv, kif ukoll ghanuna finanzjarja,” hija tghid dwar l-ambizjonijiet taghha. “Dwar records ta’ Malta, kollha qieghdin f’ismi, allura l-ikbar ghadu tieghi huwa l-arlogg u s-sahha fisika tieghi. Imma dejjem nipprova li kull sena nkun iktar b’sahhti mis-sena ta’ qabel.”

“Hemm il-kampjonati tat-triathlon tal-pajjizi z-zghar, fejn nerga nimmira ngib il-medalja tad-deheb lura lejn Malta. Nixtieq niehu sehem fi tlielaq internazzjonali, izda s’issa ghad m’hemm xejn fiss.”

Inevitabilment, ghal atleta li jkun ilu fl-isport tieghu daqs Danica Spiteri Bonello, jqumu mistoqsijiet dwar pjanijiet iktar fit-tul taghhom.  Specifikatament jekk hemmx xi hsieb ta’ rtirar.

“S’issa m’hemm l-ebda hajra li nitlaq dan l-isport bhala atleta, avolja ha nidhol fi 17-il sena tieghi nikkompeti f’dan l-isport li huwa iktar minn nofs hajti!” hija r-risposta taghha. “Niehu gost li xorta ghadi kapaci nkun fil-quccata tul dan iz-zmien kollu, izda fl-istess hin nhewden kif m’hemmx iktar atleti li jistaw jilhqu l-istess hinijiet tieghi.”

“Imma sakemm jasal dak iz-zmien, inkompli nghati kedda lil shabi l-atleti!”

Dan l-artiklu deher inizjalment fil-harga tal-GENSillum tas-Sibt, 7 ta' Jannar.


L-Ingliz Li Qed Jghin il-Progress ta’ Gharghur FC

Paul Grech Friday, January 6, 2012 , ,

Ghal snin, l-uniku unur li Gharghur FC kienu jissieltu ghalih kien dak ta’ l-aghar tim f’Malta.  B’sensiela ta’ kampjonati jghalqu bihom fil-qiegh tat-Tielet Divizjoni, huma kienu jbaghtu biex jtemmu l-istagun b’iktar min ghaxar punti.

Is-sitwazzjoni bdiet tinbidel lejn nofs l-ewwel dicenju ta’ dan il-millenju biex, wara rebha ezilaranti fuq is-Siggiewi, l-Gharghur gew promossi bhala champions tat-Tielet Divizjoni l-istagun li ghadda.

Fost il-protagonisti ta’ dik il-promozzjoni kien hem mil-winger Ingliz Ben Perry-Acton.  Isem li ma jfisser xejn ghajr ghal dawk midhla tat-tim min dan ir-rahal izda li warajh hemm storja nteressanti. 

Dan ghaliex nannuh, Bill Perry, huwa leggenda tal-klabb tal-Blackpool ma min huwa laghab kwazi erba’ mitt loghba fejn skurja mija u dsatax-il gowl.  Fost dawn il-loghob kien hemm il-finali ta’ l-FA Cup fl-1953 fejn huwa skurja l-ahhar gowl tat-tim tieghu, dak li kkonferma rebha ta’ 4-3 fuq il-Bolton.

“Huwa kien wiehed mil l-iktar nies twajba li qatt iltqajt maghhom,” jghid Perry Acton dwar in-nannu famuz tieghu.  “Jekk titkellem mieghu ma kontx tkun taf li huwa kien rebah l-FA Cup jew li kien skurja l-gowl rebbieh.  Qatt ma’ kien jitkellem dwar dan.  Ghalih l-iktar haga mportanti kienet il-familja u huwa ragel li nhares lejh b’ammirazzjoni kbira.”

“Ghalija kien influwenza immense.  Huwa hadni ghal l-ewwel sessjoni tat-tahrig.  Kien jaghtini hafna pariri tajba u sal-llum ghadni niftakar dak li kien jghidli.  Kien influwenza kbira.”

Ben u Bill Perry bil-flokkijiet tal-Blackpool
L-influwenza ta’ nannuh tidher ukoll fl-ghazla ta’ klabbs ta’ Perry-Acton li wara li kien beda mal-Wigan inghaqad mal-Blackpool.  Eventwalment, pero’, gie deciz li huwa ma’ kienx jilhaq l-aspetattivi tal-klabb u l-kuntratt tieghu ma’ ggeddidx.

Dik id-decizjoni kienet wahda difficli ghalih biex jaccettha.  “Ma nghidx lit lift l-interess meta l-Blackpool ghazlu li jnehhuni, imma l-kunfidenza tieghi hadet daqqa.  Komplejt nilghab ma’ tim jismu Cliterhoe u l-kunfidenza tieghi regghet bdiet gejja lura.”

Dan, pero’, ma kienx bizzejjed biex izommu fir-Renju Unit.   “Ilhi nigi Malta min meta kont zghir.  L-genituri ghadnhom dar ghas-sajf f’ta Sliema u ghalhekk konnha nigu ta’ spiss.  Ghamilt sentejn nghid li rrid nitlaq mil l-Ingilgerra sakemm gurnata minnhom jien u t-tfajla tieghi iddeciedejna li kien wasal iz-zmien ma’ naghmlu dan il-pass.  Hsibna li m’ghandna xejn x’nitiflu u gejna noqghodu hawn.”

Ghalkemm huwa ma kellux illuzjonijiet li l-futbol setgha jatigh xoghol, huwa xorta prova jsib tim ma min jilghab. 

“Mil l-ewwel kelli l-hsieb li nsib klabb.  Mort ghal prova ma’ numru ta’ timijet tal-Premier bhal Hibernians u s-Sliema imma ma hareg xejn.  Imbaghad kien hem mil-Pieta li wrew interess u nghaqadt maghhom.  Ghamilt stagun hemm u mbaghad sena ilu nghaqadt mal-Gharghur FC”

Kien zwieg felici ghaliex temm l-istagun b’midalja ta’ champion madwar ghonqu.

“Kienu ta’ l-imgienen!” huwa jghid dwar ic-celebrazzjonijiet li segwew din il-promozzjoni.  “Il-villagg kollu jhobb il-futboll u l-mod drammatiku li biha ntemmet il-loghba (Gharghur rebhu 3-2 war l-hin barrani u wara li kienu 2-0 min taht sad-89 minuta)  kompla zied il-livell ta’ ecitament.  Il-festa ta wara kienet  inkredibli b’kullhadd kuntent, bil-loghob tan-nar u celebrazzjonijet li baqghu sejrin sa’ kmieni filghodu.  In-nies ghadhom jitkelmu fuqha s’issa u l-villag kollu ha spinta l-quddiem.”

Dan l-istagun il-Gharghur FC sejjer tajjeb fit-Tieni Divizjoni u ghadu fl-FA Trophy li jhalli f’Perry-Acton hajja t-tama li jirrepeti s-success ta’ nannuh ghalkemm fuq skala ferm izghar.

“Ghandna skwadra tajba b’tahlita ta’ zghazagh u esperjenza.  Ma narax ghalfejn m’ghandniex nkunu promossi.”

Il-verzjoni originali ta’ dan l-artiklu dehret fuq il-GENSillum ( 
Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer