Sport

On PED’s in sport.

(The following article is one I mostly completed last year but haven’t gotten around to posting until now… if there are any discrepancies in the context, that’ll be why. Still, I wanted to publish it here in case anyone finds interest in reading it. One can only hope.)

In 2016 we saw what was branded as another ‘summer of sport’, with Euro 2016 in June-July followed by the Brazil Olympics throughout August. With Russian athletes almost universally banned (at least until said ban was, to some extent, overturned on appeal) from this year’s Olympic Games due to alleged state-sponsored doping, and with numerous other instances of athletes in sports like tennis and MMA (mixed martial arts) recently caught using banned substances, the issue of performance enhancing drugs has never been more prevalent than it is now.

That’s not because more people are ‘cheating’ now than athletes of the past. On the contrary, I believe with the more stringent testing available today, the amount of athletes trying to manipulate the system has fallen. Yet at the same time competition has never been higher, with multi-million dollar sponsorship available for the best, most successful athletes, and without a doubt, as testing methods improve, so too do the range of drugs available that can slip through the system. It is a constant battle for testing methods to keep up with PED’s on the market.

I figured I would use this space to offer my thoughts on this controversial issue of performance enhancers. That’s what they are; my thoughts and nothing more. I don’t intend it to be a conclusive, in-depth article, but if what I write can help others think more critically about a certain topic, I can’t help but do it.

For me personally, the topic became prevalent again recently when one of my favourite athletes, Brock Lesnar, tested positive for a banned substance while training for, and on the night of, his UFC fight with Mark Hunt on July 9th. But this is not something I write as a ‘fan’ of someone or because I want to defend anyone who breaks the rules. Rather, it’s that I want others, people like you and I, to understand that this issue isn’t as cut and dry as most seem to think. It’s not always – if ever – a black and white divide between ‘cheating’ and being totally ‘clean’. Let’s talk about the reasons why.

Brock Lesnar tested positive for a banned substance after having been granted a 3 month exemption by USADA before his big fight.
Brock Lesnar tested positive for a banned substance after having been granted a 3 month exemption by USADA before his big fight.

As obvious as this may sound, there are many different forms and variations of performance enhancers out there. It’s not too dissimilar from the range of vitamins and supplements available; the line is drawn when the effect of a certain substance is deemed to give an unfair advantage over those who don’t take it. Whereas I think the line should instead be drawn with substances that endanger an athlete’s long-term health.

But that doesn’t mean I’m in favour of unfair advantages; quite the opposite. In simple terms, I think athletes should be given a list of legal substances they can use by their allocated governing bodies. These substances would be tested and approved beforehand, to ensure they aren’t a danger to the health of an athlete. Said substances would be available to use as each athlete sees fit.

Granted, this isn’t too different from what happens currently: athletes are given a list of ‘banned’ substances, and things are added to or removed from this list dependent upon how much of an advantage they give in terms of performance enhancement. But the policy on this is generally zero tolerance on anything that is seen to give said advantage. I think this leaves room for abuse by athletes who have the resources to ‘slip through the gap’ as such with the latest designer drugs – who would not be motivated to take such a risk if there were allocated drugs available to use for each athlete rather than confined strictly to the banned list.

This isn’t me trying to make excuses for those who break the rules. Think of it more as an argument for those who don’t; those who end up at a natural disadvantage just for sticking to their principles, for reasons they’ve had drilled into them – that all PED’s are wrong – and a way of removing the advantage given to those who simply have greater resources at their disposal.

It’s also an argument in favour of the integrity and enjoyment level of sport itself. The larger-than-life athletes of the past and present that people know and love, who’ve inspired millions with their feats, may not have been who they became were it not for performance enhancers. Of course people may feel aghast at even the suggestion their heroes would do such a thing, but how can you be sure they didn’t, aside from wishful thinking and their carefully constructed public perception?

If rules around performance enhancers continue to become more stringent – unnecessarily in many cases – sporting heroes of the future likely won’t be seen in the same light. The general aesthetic value and marketability of sport will inevitably go down. My argument is for the integrity of sport and evenly balanced competition across the board, not against it. We need more openness, better transparency, and most importantly, more easily accessible information on the PED’s we’re talking about, for the benefit not only of the public, but also the athletes who need to be aware of what they’re taking. You may think it obvious that they would naturally know what they put in their bodies and what exactly those things do, but bear in mind most top athletes have specialists taking care of this stuff for them; specialists whose success is tied directly to the sporting success and aesthetic value of their athlete.

These drugs have many different properties. They all affect your body differently. That effect often depends not only on the drug itself but on the type of athlete taking them and the sport in which they compete. Regulating bodies are still behind the game on this, but they know enough now to be able to offer some more flexibility that would perhaps help discourage those who abuse the system as it is.

Erythropoietin (EPO) is often seen as one of the more egregious examples of a PED by those who understand what it does. Many people will have first heard of it when Lance Armstrong was finally popped (after a long and generally convincing insistence of denial) by USADA back in 2012 for his use of it following a drawn-out saga lasting almost since Armstrong’s first Tour de France win in 1999. This was the highest profile case of our time, or at least at the time in 2012 (as there have been several other high profile doping cases since); as a result it has helped teach people some of the differences in PED’s and what they do. It also illuminated the unique position there is – and still remains – between the use of drugs in sport, and the drug tests used to catch these substances. For years people suspected Armstrong of some kind of cheating, yet he feigned innocence for as long as the authorities were unable to prove it, and those who supported him were always able to lean back on that until the curtain fell.

For the duration of the peak years of his career, Lance Armstrong duped the public, denying PED use despite accusations from those who knew what they were looking for.
For the duration of the peak years of his career, Lance Armstrong duped the public, denying PED use amidst accusations from those who knew the signs.

Now this indirectly leads us on to another brief point I want to make, and this may be the most pertinent one: PED’s are not magic pills. Sounds obvious enough, but it’s something the uninitiated seem to struggle with. Taking them does not suddenly give an athlete a free route into a final or mean they don’t need to put in hundreds of hours at the gym. Taking a few steroids doesn’t suddenly give a bodybuilder his toned physique or the ability to lift monumental weights.

The clue is in the name: they enhance what’s already there. If an athlete does not have the talent to begin with, or doesn’t want to bust their ass in training every day, then whatever PED’s they try taking, quite frankly, won’t have any more effect on their overall performance than a cheeseburger would. I’ve heard people say that athletes take performance enhancers because they’re sitting on their ass all day and can’t be bothered working out in the gym; please go and do some much-needed research if you think that way.

They don’t make you a superstar, they can’t give you talent; but they can help an athlete with talent become a superstar.

You may have a different opinion on all of this, and your opinion may be justified. As I always say, that’s fair enough. We should be having more conversations about this topic in general, whatever side of the fence you may fall on. As I’ve said, I’m not in favour of any athlete breaking the rules – if they do so without justification or reasoning, they should rightly be punished – I just think maybe those rules should be examined and questioned a little more. In most other areas that would be seen as healthy, but it seems in this area people get touchy about it.

Sport

The GAWA’s performance in France.

Norn Iron Euro 2016 pic 2.

If you’ve been paying any attention to football-related news this summer, or at least have friends who indirectly keep you updated, you’ll know it’s been a pretty big summer for the football teams of the home nations.

For Wales it’s not over yet, as they look forward to their first ever semi-final in their first tournament since 1958, after beating Belgium on Friday night.

Before that, they narrowly beat Northern Ireland 1-0 in one of the more underrated games in the last 16; a game that was set up thanks to a last minute Robbie Brady winner for the Republic of Ireland against Italy.

The Republic went on to give hosts France a bit of a scare as they also narrowly went down 2-1.

And of course we can’t forget England, who fell to what’s been called possibly their most embarrassing defeat ever against Iceland, who have 10% of their 300,000 population supporting them in attendance at Euro 2016. One thing’s for sure; none of us will be forgetting this tournament in a hurry.

Both sets of Irish fans have been honoured by the mayor of Paris for their unique, passionate contribution to the competition; Northern Irish fans in particular are responsible for popularising what’s been called the theme song of the tournament, “Will Grigg’s on Fire”, ironically about a player who didn’t even get on the pitch in any of the team’s four matches (wouldn’t have been fair on the opposition’s defence I suppose). It was said Northern Ireland were the only team whose fans have fans – though to be fair those Iceland fans are pretty unique too.

For our wee country, Norn Iron, to go out in the last 16 would have been expected going into the tournament; indeed we were delighted to even get there. The main disappointment I felt following the game against Wales wasn’t that we had went out, or that we hadn’t done as well as we could’ve hoped for; it was that the journey had now come to an end. The dream was over. But what a dream it had been while it lasted.

We went into the first game of our qualifying campaign, against Hungary almost two years ago (I’ve linked to it a few times before but hell, why not), having not won an away match since 2010. I remember that game like it was yesterday; Hungary going 1-0 up and thinking “here we go again”, then two goals from McGinn and Lafferty that came from nowhere in the last 10 minutes. Our form leading up to that match hadn’t been good; there was nothing to suggest what would come. Before we knew it we had won our first three qualifying games, two of them away from home, and the dream had begun.

Then, seeing us beat Ukraine on the big stage was unforgettable; the culmination of everything leading up to that point. We had proved we could win in France, with all eyes on us, rather than just make up the numbers and say we were “happy to be here” (I’m naturally a competitive guy so that would never have worked for me, haha). We had desire. We came to win. It was the most emotional football game I’ve ever watched, and the greatest result I’ve ever experienced. Unfortunately the only people I could share it with at the time were England fans who, through no fault of their own, were utterly incapable of comprehending what it meant to all of us back home.

The rest is now history. But every Northern Ireland fan will dare to dream once again when the World Cup qualifying campaign begins in September. I can say I’ve seen my country play – and win – at the European Championships; now I want to see them do the only thing that could possibly top it. I want to see them at a World Cup; and at this point confidence is high that we can make it to Russia in 2018. Should we somehow manage that, trust me: you’ve only seen the start of what our passionate fans can bring to the table. We’ll celebrate again like it’s our first, and our last.

Until next time, Norn Iron. You’ve done me proud.

Sport

Euro 2016 thoughts and preview.

Norn Iron Euro 2016.

Being a Northern Ireland fan living in England, one can perhaps imagine how disappointing it is for me to see that most others around me aren’t quite seeing Euro 2016 as a big deal in the same way that I personally do.

England, after all, qualify for most major tournaments, though the last few they have qualified for have either been underwhelming (2006, 2010, 2012) or downright disastrous (2014). Still, the feeling among England fans, even if they don’t openly state it, is that this kind of occasion every two years has become normal; an expected occurrence that fits appropriately alongside their team’s expected collapse under the pressure of media scrutiny.

This isn’t the case for Northern Ireland fans – indeed, it isn’t the case for the fans of most smaller countries that are not accustomed to this kind of opportunity; I imagine fans of Iceland, Albania and of course Wales are feeling a similar sense of anticipation right now. The last time our wee country qualified for anything like this was four years before I was born, in 1986; four years before that we had beaten hosts Spain on route to the World Cup quarter finals. We’re still the smallest nation ever to achieve such a thing – only Trinidad & Tobago were smaller in terms of World Cup participation, though they were unable to win a game or score a goal in 2006.

History, I feel, has been talked about enough. Though it’s something we can look back on with pride, it feels about time that new records were set in stone. And that’s what the next few weeks are all about; putting our generation in the history books as, at the very least, one of twenty-four participants at the 2016 European Championships in France. As for what we can do from here? Who knows… I optimistically think we have a chance of going quite far – but then again I have my fan’s hat on, which automatically disqualifies one from making a completely honest assessment – and at the least, I see us qualifying from our group and making the Last 16 stage. From there, it’s anyone’s game. We certainly fancy the quarter-finals, you can bet on that, and the bigger nations shall know by now that underestimating us will only lead to trouble.

Perhaps that may work against us. We’ll have to show even deeper qualities than what has already been on show during qualification. On that topic, I need to place on record here my frustration with a certain narrative being put out there in mainstream sports media. The narrative is that the expansion of the Euro’s from 16 to 24 teams has allowed teams such as Northern Ireland, Iceland, and Wales to qualify. I’ve been hearing this narrative primarily from BBC sports pundits for a number of months now, but it clearly overlooks the facts.

The fact is, Northern Ireland won their group. Again, they WON THEIR GROUP. Iceland narrowly missed out on top spot in their group, but did beat top seeds the Netherlands home and away in their qualification campaign. Similarly, Wales beat top seeds Belgium and went on a similar run which almost saw them win their group.

My point is simple: even if only 16 teams had qualified for this year’s tournament, Northern Ireland would have been one of them, likely Iceland and Wales too. No, the expanded competition is not to suit the smaller nations like us, as this mainstream narrative would have you believe. It is, in fact, to create a larger safety net for the bigger nations through which to qualify. Ironically, the Netherlands couldn’t take advantage of said expansion; the 2014 World Cup semi-finalists slumped to fourth in their group and couldn’t even manage a consolation play-off spot.

So let’s not kid ourselves that this expansion was to do smaller nations like us a favour; to say it was, is a disservice to a Northern Ireland team that won their group and have been on a 12-match unbeaten run since.

Anyway, this is also to say there’s been a lot written and spoken about Euro 2016 in sports media over the past few months, and I’m sure there will be much more to come. I don’t want to spend any more time making predictions or speculating on what the tournament has in store. Rest assured it’s going to be a BIG occasion for all of us. The time for talking is almost finished. Now I intend to go and enjoy it.

My pick to win Euro 2016: Belgium (narrowly beating Northern Ireland in a hotly contested final… perhaps)

Sport

Euro 2016 draw reaction.

Saturday evening was arguably the most anticipated night of the year (pertaining to the football calendar at least) for fans of nations like Wales, Northern Ireland, Iceland, and others who are not accustomed to regularly taking part in high profile international tournaments.

But on Saturday they all gathered in France for the Euro 2016 group stage draw. We knew this draw had potential to produce some intriguing ties, and it delivered. If you’re here you likely already know the details by now, but to recap:

  • England will play Wales in Group B. They underestimate Slovakia at their peril, while Russia have improved since a stuttering qualifying campaign, but on paper they should both have the quality to make the knockout stage.
  • Northern Ireland were drawn in Group C with world champions Germany, Poland and Ukraine. Two out of three of those sides are arguably the strongest from their respective pots, but to draw Ukraine from pot 2 was a nice stroke of luck that could provide the ‘Green and White army’ an opportunity to finish third in this group at the very least… while Germany and Poland would do well to remember our record against the bigger teams. I’m quietly confident.
  • Republic of Ireland found themselves drawn into this tournament’s “group of death” with Italy, Sweden, and Belgium, still ranked top of the Fifa rankings. A lot of people seem to be writing off Ireland’s chances here straight away, but I wouldn’t quite say that… they play Sweden in their first match; a crucial game they really have to win if they hope to advance. I’m backing them to do just that and make it out of this group to reach the last 16.
  • Group F – including Portugal, Iceland, Austria and Hungary – is intriguing in that it features un-fancied teams who have, to an extent, gone under the radar. Portugal were generally considered the weakest of the top seeds while Iceland, the smallest nation ever to qualify, are somewhat of an unknown quantity. Austria are my picks to win this group and surprise a few people at this tournament.
  • If France and Germany win their groups as expected, they’re set to meet in the semi-finals – so you can probably pencil that tie in right now. Whoever wins the ‘group of death’ will also be on this side of the bracket for the knockout rounds, but I’d easily back Germany against Belgium or Italy in the quarter-finals.
  • This does mean the other side of the tournament bracket appears more open. On the surface Spain look a safe bet to win Group D and make one of the semi-finals, but they are not the same team that won three tournaments in a row between 2008 and 2012; I’m expecting them to have a few issues navigating their group.
  • You can view the tournament bracket yourself right here.
  • Dare I say (though I know people often jump on you for suggesting such a thing), should England or Wales win Group B, either of them could be dark horses to make the semi-finals in what appears to be the easier half of the bracket.

Part of me does think it’s too early to be making firm predictions at this stage, but based on what we know and on where teams are at currently, here’s how I’d call the groups:

Group A: France winners, Switzerland runners-up, Romania to advance in third place.

Group B: Wales winners, England runners-up, Slovakia to advance in third place.

Group C: Germany winners, Northern Ireland runners-up, Poland to advance in third place.

Group D: Croatia winners, Spain runners-up, Turkey third.

Group E: Italy winners, Belgium runners-up, Rep. of Ireland to advance in third place.

Group F: Austria winners, Iceland runners-up, Portugal third.

Now, due to the uniqueness of this tournament bracket it’s tough even to call which of the third placed teams will be playing who in the last 16, so a part of this next stage is guess work – but then again this is all fantasy anyway. So let’s use a bit of imagination to predict the possibilities for the next stage…

Switzerland v Northern Ireland

Croatia v Slovakia

Wales v Poland

Austria v Belgium

Germany v Romania

Italy v Spain

France v Rep. of Ireland

England v Iceland

If I was forced to make a call on the quarter-finals from these possibilities I’d go something like this:

Northern Ireland v Croatia – Croatia to win after extra time

Wales v Belgium – Belgium to win

Germany v Italy – Germany to win

France v England – France to win after extra time

Final:

Germany to beat Belgium – Germany win Euro 2016 (?)

Sport

Looking forward to Euro 2016.

Euro 2016 Norn Iron pic 1.

I remember like it was yesterday; Northern Ireland’s first away win in four years in the first game of their Euro 2016 qualifying group – an unexpected 2-1 win at Hungary. That was fourteen months ago, and even with that (seemingly) one-off result none could have written the script that would play out over the following year as the team went on a run that ultimately saw them qualify for their first major tournament in my lifetime; the last time being at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Potential banana skins were narrowly avoided along the way – ironically it was the same team we beat in that opening game that almost returned the favour in a pivotal, nervous and dramatic game back at the start of September – and in my previous comments on this qualifying campaign I refused to believe they would actually do it. But they did, even doing so in style; with a game to spare and winning their group.

This may indeed have been a ‘once in a lifetime’ occurrence in itself, but fans all around the British Isles have been spoilt with other unparalleled successes for the home nations. Wales went on a similar run, beating Belgium along the way to end an even longer wait for tournament qualification – Welsh fans haven’t enjoyed one since 1958. England won all ten games in their group (a group admittedly barren of any serious challenge) and were the first team to qualify. The Republic of Ireland qualified for their second consecutive European Championship and will be hoping for a more successful one than when they lost all three games without scoring a goal at Euro 2012.

One could say this has bred a feel-good atmosphere between fans of all these teams – it’s easier to be friends when (almost) everyone’s doing well after all – and this feeling of friendly rivalry will hopefully result in a tournament that’s memorable for all the right reasons in France next year. The draw for the groups, which will be six groups of four teams, takes place on the 12th of December and I’ll be analysing that in closer detail when the time comes.

For now, the seedings have been announced and I’d like to do the whole ‘speculation’ thing. Who would I like to see in Northern Ireland’s group? What are the best/ worse case scenarios for the home nations? Is there a potential ‘group of death’ in waiting? Let’s have a look.

Seedings are as follows:

Euro 2016 draw pots, pic 1.

Now even though Belgium are currently ranked top of the Fifa rankings, if I’m being honest they’re probably still the most attractive draw in pot 1 as it pertains to wanting to progress. Stick Northern Ireland against Belgium and I’d be reasonably confident. Belgium have excellent individual players for sure but questions remain over whether they truly ‘gel’ as a team – and I’m not convinced they had an overly challenging qualifying group so their recent results may be slightly deceiving.

Italy are the standout team in pot 2 and most teams in every other pot will be hoping to avoid them. Pot 3 arguably looks even more dangerous with Czech Republic, Sweden and Poland lurking, none of whom will be comfortable draws for anyone. Meanwhile the top seeds will perhaps be looking at Wales and the Republic of Ireland in pot 4 with trepidation, having seen them beat Belgium and world champions Germany in their respective qualifying groups.

I’ve had the feeling for a while that Northern Ireland are going to draw hosts France. There’s no real reason for thinking that aside from some vague superstition, but if we end up with France, Germany or Spain I think we’ll embrace it. The big occasion and memories are the main reasons for being there after all, and those fixtures would certainly leave lasting impressions whatever the result. England and Portugal lie somewhere between those teams and Belgium, in that you know they’re going to present something of a challenge but they’re not quite in the top tier either…

As a Northern Ireland fan, Portugal are probably my least preferred draw in that first pot. With the presence of a special player like Ronaldo you can never quite be confident that you’ll beat them, while at the same time they don’t present the desired ‘marquee’ fixture one would like if you’re not going to progress further. I’m confident we could beat England, but the sickening feeling it would leave if they were to beat us instead makes me wary of saying I’d be comfortable with that draw. Save it for the quarter-finals or something like that and we’ll take them to penalties if needs be.

I’d imagine Wales and Ireland fans would take a similar stance on that first pot. It’s worth pointing out that the ‘bigger’ teams will perhaps consider both of them more of a threat than we are though; to what extent that psychological edge might come into play remains to be seen.

Taking current rankings into account, there are a few possibilities for a ‘group of death’ at this tournament: Germany/ Spain (pot 1), Italy (pot 2), Czech Rep./ Sweden (pot 3), and Wales (pot 4) would be the most potent combination in my eyes.

From England’s point of view, they’ll no doubt be hoping for a decent start to this tournament after the disaster of the last one (having gone out of last year’s World Cup without winning a game). Top priority for them would likely be avoiding Italy – who were in their group in Brazil – as well as the other home nations, all of whom would be strongly motivated to inflict more tournament misery on their frequently overrated neighbours. Best scenario for England would probably look something like this: Austria/ Ukraine (pot 2), Slovakia/ Hungary (pot 3), Albania (pot 4).

Iceland represent something of an unknown quantity in pot 4, as one can’t yet say whether their recent qualifying form will reverberate in France, but I’d imagine they wouldn’t be a comfortable draw for the English – they’d definitely be full throttle in that match, this being their first-ever major tournament. Worst case scenario for England? Italy (2), Czech Rep./ Sweden (3), Ireland/ Wales (4). I’d say they’ll be sweating should that kind of combination come up.

When all’s said and done, the lineup of teams and possibilities for Euro 2016 actually looks quite intriguing. Whatever awaits for Northern Ireland, in the end no one’s really going to complain whoever comes out of the hat. Taking some time to speculate on these possibilities beforehand is all part of the experience; an experience that will take another step further next month. I’ll be back on the 13th of December, a day after the draw takes place, to reflect on the hands that have been dealt and offer my early predictions for the tournament.

Sport

Weekend preview: Euro 2016 qualifying.

Wales team pic 1.

This weekend international football takes centre stage again, as the Home Nations continue their respective campaigns to reach the European Championship tournament being held in France next year.

But first, let’s talk about those Fifa world rankings. They made news again this week as Wales found themselves ranked 9th, one place above England in 10th and, somewhat hilariously, above reigning European champions Spain (11th) and World Cup semi-finalists the Netherlands (12th). Furthermore Belgium – a team of great individuals who don’t necessarily make a great team – are still ranked second despite defeat to Wales in their last match and Romania, with whom Northern Ireland drew 0-0 in a damp squib last time out, are somehow up there in 7th.

Manager Chris Coleman has sensibly moved to reiterate that the rankings are basically meaningless (useful only for bragging rights among fans perhaps, and to make group draws more practical) and their real task as a team is to qualify for Euro 2016 next year – should they fail to do that from their current position, then they’ll be classed as failures regardless and no hypothetical ranking is going to be consolation for anyone in that case. I have nothing to add to that opinion other than to affirm its obviousness.

Tonight Wales (somewhat appropriately, considering said ranking) spearhead the Home Nations’ challenge as they travel to face Cyprus. Win, and they’ll be within touching distance of the finals. I’ve already said I think they’ll get there comfortably from this point and that task should go one more step towards completion this evening. Prediction: Cyprus 1-3 Wales

Moving on to Friday, Scotland and Northern Ireland take centre stage to play their part. Both of their fixtures, the former against Georgia and the latter against the Faroe Islands, are quite simply must-win if they want to sustain their challenge. Unfortunately both matches also represent potential banana skins. Scotland know this all too well as it was a defeat to Georgia in 2007 that single-handedly derailed their Euro 2008 qualifying campaign when they were in a similar position (indeed it was, at that point, even better) to the one they face now. However, Georgia themselves have been in an almighty slump since then – they’ve only won four matches between that win and now – and I don’t see Scotland slipping up this time. Prediction: Georgia 0-2 Scotland

Being a Northern Irish native, I of course would like to see them qualify most of all. I also harbour unpleasant memories of slipping up against supposed group ‘whipping boys’ in previous qualifying campaigns, most recently an embarrassing defeat to Luxembourg (in what was their first home win since 1972) and a draw with none other than the Faroe Islands themselves before that. So I’m not taking this game for granted, but I have to say I still fancy my home team to come out winners. The Faroe Islands have already won two games in this qualifying campaign, but those were against Greece – who seem to have fallen off the face of the earth – and I think they were rather deceptive results. Prediction: Faroe Islands 1-4 Northern Ireland

On Saturday, England play San Marino in perhaps the least interesting of the weekend’s fixtures. The English have arguably the easiest group and San Marino are frankly their easiest opponents. They’ll obviously make it seven wins out of seven, but as per usual I don’t think we’ll see truly ‘vintage’ England – pundits will still be using phrases like ‘workman-like performance’ and ‘efficient style of play’ by the end of the weekend… Yawn. Prediction: San Marino 0-5 England

Moving swiftly on, the action picks up again on Sunday with Wales at home to Israel. This could be the match where Wales effectively seal their place at Euro 2016 so expect a bit of a party atmosphere, providing they don’t slip up against Cyprus beforehand. Regardless, with the kind of form Wales have been in recently, beating Belgium last match day, one wouldn’t want to bet against them at home. Prediction: Wales 2-1 Israel

Monday sees two of the biggest games yet: Scotland vs Germany and Northern Ireland vs Hungary, both at home, both vital in determining where each team will finish in the group. Being at home, the Scots will no doubt fancy their chances against World champions Germany, especially since the latter hasn’t been in sparkling form during this qualifying campaign (having said that, they’re still on course to finish in the top 2). I have a feeling Scotland might just get something from this game, and I have a feeling Germany won’t be too displeased to get out of Scotland with a point either. Prediction: Scotland 1-1 Germany

Northern Ireland play the team against whom this qualifying campaign started in such surprising and glorious fashion. The Hungary team on Monday I feel will be a different one from then, their form having improved to the point where they themselves come to Belfast knowing a win could help them steal that coveted top 2 spot from under our noses. This is going to be a tough fixture to get through unscathed, no doubts there, and it is even bigger than the overhyped Romania match earlier in the summer. Kyle Lafferty will need to be more clinical in front of goal than he was in that game if we’re to be celebrating come Monday evening. Frankly I’d probably be content with a draw at this point (providing the Faroe Islands result pans out accurately too…) as it would mean retaining that top 2 spot going into the remaining two games. Prediction: Northern Ireland 2-2 Hungary

Finally, England host Switzerland on Tuesday evening in a slightly more interesting – if no less routine – fixture for the British media to try and excite themselves over. I do hope the Swiss come with the intention of taking it to England in an effort to make the group look less predictable – they were, after all, portrayed as the biggest threat in this group – but in the end I expect England to still have enough in a fairly typical home game. Hopefully we’ll get to see some new faces rather than watching Wayne Rooney run around half the pitch and ultimately praised for ‘working hard’. Prediction: England 3-1 Switzerland

Sport

2015/16 Premier League season preview.

Yeah, it’s that time again. The start of August usually signifies a few football-related things – all Irish sides out of Europe, Celtic the only Scottish representation left in Europe but making hard work of it along the way, the three promoted sides labelled ‘relegated’ before a Premier League ball is kicked – and this year has been no different. There’s something weirdly fun about predicting how teams will do before the season begins, especially when you’re under some illusion that you might actually know what you’re talking about, hence why I come back each season to continue doing it.

So let’s get right into it then – here are my thoughts on the 20 Premier League teams and how I think they will do this year:

Arsenal

Arsenal have so much quality throughout their side – whether it be Walcott, Cazorla or Sanchez up front; Ozil, Ramsey, Wilshere (who, as of writing, will miss the start of the season with an ankle injury) and Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield; or new goalkeeper Petr Cech, who many believe will spare them points in games where previously they’d have been lost; they’ve rightly been giving pundits the feeling that this season they could, just maybe, go all the way and win the league title.

Will Arsenal be celebrating again at the end of the season, or will it be another anticlimactic end to the story?
Will Arsenal be celebrating again at the end of the season, or will it be another anticlimactic end to the story?

The main thing holding some of us back from making said prediction is that we’ve been burnt before; a couple of times in the past four seasons I’ve predicted Arsenal to finish runners-up only for them to underwhelm and settle for 4th. Will it really be any different this year? I think it could be. The side showed hints of a new steel in the Community Shield match against Chelsea last week; if they can become more consistent in grinding out those kind of results as well as handing out the occasional pummelling, Arsenal could be sure bets to push this season’s champions all the way.

Whether they quite have what it takes to reach the next level yet, remains to be seen. They’re probably a decent shout to win the FA Cup for a third year running… By most other clubs’ standards, of course, that kind of sustained success is something they can only dream of; the question is how long it will be before that alone – with another top 4 finish – is no longer considered good enough for this particular club’s fans? My prediction: 2nd

Aston Villa

On the other hand, some people appear to be overrating Aston Villa’s chances this year, despite them having a below average team (for this level at least) that has lost rather than gained significant names on the team sheet over the summer transfer window. Star striker Benteke has – as expected – gone to Liverpool; a move manager Tim Sherwood showed a hint of bitterness over, while club captain Fabian Delph also sealed a move to Manchester City, curiously only a week after saying he would stay at Villa. Surely the signs aren’t good?

My general feeling is that Villa’s exploits in the FA Cup last season (in which they reached what turned out to be an anticlimactic final for them), along with a manager whose confident, straight-talking demeanour (rather than his past achievements) has led to pundits believing that while they may remain a bottom six side, they’ll likely also stay clear of relegation. I’m unconvinced. Last season began with me saying their Premier League status would soon come to an end, and their ‘achievement’ last year from a certain point of view (finishing 17th and surviving by just 3 points), rather than convince me otherwise, has only reinforced that feeling. This season, I think they could run out of ideas fast. My prediction: 19th

Bournemouth

There is something of an air of optimism surrounding Bournemouth’s maiden Premier League campaign which wasn’t quite there in the same way with the fairy tale stories of Blackpool (in 2010/11) and Burnley (last season), both of whom similarly defied the odds to gain promotion – though while everyone would have loved to see them survive, no-one truly expected them to.

Bournemouth come into the league with a strong reputation, but now the team has to show their potential on the big stage.
Bournemouth come into the league with a strong reputation, but now the team has to show their potential on the big stage.

Conversely, when one looks closely at Eddie Howe’s team and how they performed last season, it’s not hard to see why so many people are genuinely expecting them to stay up: their style of play and philosophy is reminiscent of the best of both aforementioned sides. They have the attacking flair of that Blackpool side, without appearing overly haphazard in defence. Like Burnley, they seem determined to secure the club’s future rather than take financial risks to survive at all costs; similarly, their manager comes highly rated and will surely be a huge factor in making the team believe they can do themselves justice in this league just as they shined in the one below. And they did indeed shine in the Championship, winning it with a stylish mix of clean sheets and (lots of) goals. For Bournemouth not to survive would mean they haven’t performed to their best, because at their best I think there’s not just three worse teams than them in this league – there’s around four or five. Though there may be some bumps along the way and it could take them a while to settle into their stride, I’m backing them to stay up. My prediction: 16th

Chelsea

Without doubt any side with Jose Mourinho in charge is never going to be too far off the winning line. For me, though, there are a few question marks hanging over them this season. Were it not for the Mourinho factor, would anyone really be convinced by the signing of Radamel Falcao after his underwhelming (and that’s putting it nicely) stint at Old Trafford?

Part of what people consider Mourinho’s genius is also how he has played the media in the past – consistently taking the pressure off his own players and putting further pressure on his opponents with subtle jibes in their direction. I think it is only a matter of time before his rivals wise up to this and his traditional tactics begin to work against him. Arsene Wenger got the better of him in that Community Shield match – over the course of a full season is a different story, of course, but I trust Mourinho isn’t going to have everything his own way this year, and Chelsea may stumble in some areas where we wouldn’t otherwise expect them to.

One other slight caveat to bear in mind is whether the Champions League might be occupying the back of their minds, the winning of which remains the one feat Mourinho has not yet accomplished with his ‘beloved’ club. If they’re not Premier League champions in 2016, you can bet they won’t be far away from the European crown instead. My prediction: 3rd

Crystal Palace

Alan Pardew has replicated Tony Pulis before him by reinvigorating Crystal Palace and giving their fans belief that rather than fight relegation every season, they can look forward to pushing for a place in the top half. Not only do I think they’ll get there again but, in Pardew’s first full season in charge, I’m backing them to improve on last campaign’s 10th place finish. My prediction: 8th

Everton

Looking at Everton now, my slight worry is that they appear to lack the mental ‘steel’ we associated with them under David Moyes. I’m not so sure they will bounce back from last season’s underwhelming campaign with quite as much vigour as others seem to expect. However, they’ll surely be good enough to get back into the top half of the table. Everton fans may ultimately feel unsatisfied with that bearing recent history in mind, and manager Roberto Martinez could find his job security waning by the time we get towards the end of the season. My prediction: 9th

Leicester City

People are rightly looking at Leicester with trepidation – the team have lost the two main factors lauded for the dramatic surge of form that saved them from relegation last season. Those are: former manager Nigel Pearson along with inspirational and experienced holding midfielder Esteban Cambiasso. In Pearson’s place is the wildcard of Claudio Ranieri, who has a reputation best described as unconvincing in most pundits’ eyes. But perhaps his eccentric style could turn out to be the perfect fit for the club.

Ranieri's reputation has suffered in the ten years since his Chelsea days, but Leicester represents an opportunity for him to make a name for himself in a more positive way again.
Ranieri’s reputation has suffered in the ten years since his Chelsea days, but Leicester represents an opportunity to make a name for himself in a more positive way again.

Doubts will remain over Ranieri’s long term potential as manager, but I think Leicester will do more than enough to stay up once again – their development from here should also be entertaining to watch. My prediction: 14th

Liverpool

Ah, Liverpool, who almost seem to be falling into the Newcastle category of being notoriously difficult to predict as of late. I would like to say Brendan Rodgers’ team will restore some respectability to their reputation of being among the league’s ‘bigger’ clubs this season; although I do think they’ll push the top 4 closer and for longer this time around, I simply can’t yet have full confidence in them to get there.

Their new signings, Benteke and experienced midfielder James Milner in particular, do instil more optimism and should at least be a bigger hit than those they ended up with last season (hey, they can’t exactly fare any worse than Balotelli in his first year at Anfield). I do get a sinking feeling that the selling of Sterling to top 4 rivals Man City could be the one that comes back to haunt them the most, but at that kind of money (£49million) they’ll probably feel, for now, it was worth the risk. My prediction: 5th

Manchester City

On paper and in terms of financial clout Man City are arguably the best-equipped team in the league and should, in theory, be most peoples’ picks to win the title, especially with further signings to come (one would assume). So why aren’t they?

Possibly because they ended last season feeling a little stale and out of ideas when it came to retaining their Premier League crown from the year before. A drop off in form led people at one point to doubt even whether they’d achieve a top 4 finish, with Liverpool hot on their heels. Despite that dodgy period when they were clearly far from their best, they recovered to finish as Chelsea’s closest challengers, above Arsenal. This year, their only major signing is that of Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling after a protracted transfer saga that has perhaps distracted some from considering the impact and invigorating effect he could have on the team.

Sterling has been embroiled in a lot of media attention recently, but if he performs on the pitch for Man City like he once did for his former club, that will no longer matter.
Sterling has been embroiled in a lot of media attention recently, but if he performs on the pitch for Man City like he once did for his former club, that will no longer matter.

The Man City squad, though, will not want last season to set the trend – and rather than falling off further, I think this team will be more fired up than we’ve seen in recent times to prove they’re a better team than they’ve given themselves credit for up until now. Last year we saw a lot of slip-ups in games they should arguably have gotten something from; I don’t think that will continue happening in 2015/16. It may not be the popular consensus right now, but Manchester City are my champions for this season. My prediction: Champions

Manchester United

I’m no more convinced by Louis Van Gaal’s supposed managerial expertise now than I was last season. On paper their squad doesn’t look as strong with the loss of flopped strikers Falcao and Di Maria, but with Rooney given a freer role up front he’ll be keen to make up for that himself. If Liverpool start the season strong then Man United may find they have a real dogfight on their hands to retain their place in the top 4 – I still don’t think yet they’re strong enough to become genuine title challengers again, and only recent history (pre-Ferguson retirement) makes pundits verge towards overrating them. They’re just not the same intimidating team we knew a few seasons ago. My prediction: 4th

Newcastle

Newcastle are typically difficult to predict aside from thinking, ‘well, at least they can’t do any worse’ than their almost catastrophic collapse in the second half of last season. A change of manager and a few other changes in personnel will freshen up the dressing room and should ensure a more comfortable season (I say not with total confidence); whether the quality of their current squad can stretch to much more than that is still uncertain. Voices from the board room are making it clear that they’re willing to invest for improvement on the field at least… and something tells me they’re not quite done with business yet either.

Will Newcastle's players and fans find themselves smiling again this season?
Will Newcastle’s players and fans find themselves smiling again this season?

Also, in a rare television interview at the end of last season, owner Mike Ashley claimed the club were going to start taking the cup competitions more seriously going forward. If they do that, Newcastle are real dark horses to pick up the League Cup or FA Cup – I’d consider backing them to win one of them this season. My prediction: 13th (and a cup)

Norwich

To me Norwich actually look the strongest and most prepared of the promoted clubs to survive in the Premier League. Alex Neil is a fine young manager and the team seems in good hands under him. Form does count for something too, and if the club can replicate how they ended last season’s Championship campaign, even for a portion of this one, then they should be fine if not extraordinary. Furthermore, they have a good proportion of players with recent Premier League experience, with the club having been here just two seasons ago; that will work in their favour if they are indeed to surprise some people by staying up rather comfortably. My prediction: 15th

Southampton

I don’t see Saints maintaining the same kind of consistency they showed last season, when they spent the first third of the campaign challenging at the top end of the table. This year, they have a Europa League run to contend with as well; that experience along with a comfortable mid-table league position should be enough to keep Southampton fans content… though they’ll perhaps be expecting even better things again the following season. That raised level of expectation is something Ronald Koeman is going to have to manage within his squad as well as outwardly with the fans; he is a skilled manager and one would hope the club’s owners don’t let him go on a whim if they just miss out on a third successive top half finish. Given time, Saints do have the potential to be an established top half club in the near future – but a season of consolidation on the way there is no bad thing. My prediction: 12th

Stoke City

The signing of highly rated Dutch midfielder Ibrahim Afellay alone makes it worth keeping an eye on what Stoke achieve this year. They’ve added to a squad that (as I correctly predicted this time last year) finished 9th last season – though for some reason I don’t feel they can finish quite that high again this year.

Their new signings could take a bit of time to settle to their new surroundings (going from Barcelona to Stoke City might be a bit of a culture shock) and admittedly, one or two question marks still remain over Mark Hughes despite the fantastic job he has done with this team in the past year and a half. He can return them to the top half again in future, provided he is given more time to establish his own little legacy at this club. Maybe at some point they have the potential to go even further than that, but right now, I sense yet another season of mid-table security. My prediction: 11th

Sunderland

Looking at Sunderland’s opening fixtures, they have a tough start in the Premier League this season. Unfortunately that’s not exactly what you want as a club coming off the back of another close escape from relegation the year before. Sunderland are once again firm favourites with me to struggle, though I understand the sentimental affections some have for their manager – who would undoubtedly love to retire knowing he had again helped Sunderland secure safety. I’m afraid I don’t see a fairy tale ending to this particular story… My prediction: 20th

Swansea City

In contrast, Swansea have been rising in estimation by anyone’s standards, and I think their upward tilt is set to continue this season. Garry Monk has a stable set-up at the club; they’re consistently playing well and have an incredible self-belief that makes them think they can beat anybody. Whether it’s winning at Old Trafford or getting a point at Stamford Bridge, even those teams who consider themselves to be in the title race know a fixture against Swansea is no guarantee of anything. Dark horses to snatch a European spot this year. My prediction: 7th

Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs have become the typical ‘best of the rest’ team of the Premier League; not quite good enough to consistently get a top 4 spot, but enough quality to secure at least the next available place in the table. At this point, if I was in charge of Tottenham, I would try to win the Europa League above all else; not only is it a precious trophy (for most clubs, those don’t come around too often), but the winners are also granted entry into the Champions League.

Will Harry Kane help fire his team to further success this season, or will they be known as the 'nearly men' once again?
Will Harry Kane help fire his team to further success this season, or will they be known as the ‘nearly men’ once again?

Spurs are one of the few English teams who can go into the competition feeling confident that they aren’t otherwise in any danger of relegation; what is the worst that could happen? If league form were to suffer as a result and they finished in mid-table, they’d be better for challenging the top 4 again next season without the added distraction. Regardless, I think Tottenham have the quality to maintain their hold on the top 6 this year. My prediction: 6th (and possibly Europa League winners)

Watford

Watford are as much an unknown quantity as any promoted club we’ve seen before, which has led many to doubt whether they’ll gel together in time to make a team capable of surviving in the Premier League. But this works both ways; I think Watford, rather than being a disorganised mess, could take a few teams by surprise. Sure they won’t be great (not yet, anyway), though I’m fairly confident they’ll just about do enough to stay up – even if it does require a ‘great escape’ towards the end. My prediction: 17th

West Bromwich Albion

In Tony Pulis, West Brom have a respected manager who’s never been relegated. This has led most people to overlooking them as relegation candidates this season for largely the same reason they consider Chelsea as sure bets for the title – managerial reputation. However, I look at this team and the first thought that comes to mind is ‘below average’.

In addition it is looking like they could be losing prize asset Berahino in this transfer window… so I don’t have a lot of confidence in West Brom this season I’m afraid. They say Pulis is the man who’s never been relegated – but as we know, records are made to be broken, nothing lasts forever, and a variety of other cliches mean Pulis and his team could be set up for a fall. Furthermore, let’s recall Pulis’ curious departure from Crystal Palace around this time last year as a warning that even he may not last the season if, say, he begins to have disagreements with the club’s board as we get close to the January transfer window. An interesting season in store for West Bromwich Albion – and I fear that might not be in a good way. My prediction: 18th

West Ham

West Ham’s decision to pretty much throw away the Europa League was, for me, nonsensical. I understand not wanting the ‘distraction’ of an extra cup competition which could include long trips, but to treat Europe so flippantly, especially when you already started your campaign extra early (at the beginning of July) to get through the first rounds of qualifying, is a little insulting to other clubs who would relish such an opportunity. Didn’t someone remind them the winners of that competition also now get a Champions League spot?

Nonetheless, I get the feeling that West Ham and new manager Slaven Bilic could surprise a few people this season. They’re a club, rather like Newcastle, with a bundle of potential that one feels is just waiting to be tapped into; and I think Bilic may just get them playing in a fresh way that surprises at least a decent proportion of their opponents. While I may not agree with his throwaway attitude towards Europe, such a decision does show uncompromising shrewdness, especially when it seemed to pay off so well with an opening day victory over Arsenal. If West Ham do achieve a top half finish, I doubt many of their own fans will be complaining either – if they even remember their fleeting European adventure come next May. My prediction: 10th