New York Knicks v Houston Rockets, 2 November 2016

It’s been a while since I did a blog post. Football hasn’t quite been the TV priority it’s always been – the BT Sport subscription hasn’t seen much use in particular. However, a recent trip to New York brought another of those opportunities that I really enjoy – a bit of sports tourism.

In this case it was the New York Knicks against the Houston Rockets – 48 minutes of basketball that, in the great tradition of American sport, took at least 2 hours. Madison Square Garden, or “The World’s Greatest Arena” was the venue, the not-that-long-ago renovated 19,000-seater about 2 blocks from our hotel.

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A little pre-game view of “the Garden”

My pre-match knowledge of either side extended to one point – that Carmelo Anthony played for the Knicks, and that as far as basketball players went, he was pretty good. After the fantastic pre-show razzmatazz, which featured the star of “School of Rock” on Broadway singing the national anthem and the Knicks City Dancers’ spectacular lighty-up suits dance number, it was time for the tip.

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Knicks win the tip…about the only thing they did all night.

The Knicks won it, duly made their way up the court and found 2 points. On their return in the other direction, the Rockets’ James Harden was left wide open for 3. In response to that three, New York failed to register after some over-intricate passing and a pretty relentless defensive press on Mr Anthony.

To say that that brief passage set the tone for the entire game might be oversimplifying things a little bit. But then, being a chap who knows very little about basketball, that seemed to be the constant error on the part of the Knicks for the remainder of the evening. The home side were over-elaborate going forward and prone to fairly glaring lapses in defence, where Houston players were constantly being left open for 3-pointers. Indeed, the crowd’s chants of “de-fense” when the Rockets were going forward almost seemed like a reminder to their team at times.

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Joakim Noah having a bash from the free throw line. And just for good measure, the chap sitting immediately to the right of the big KIA sign is Chris Rock; the lady in the white blouse and blue jacket a few along from him is Cate Blanchett. Courtside living up to its reputation.

Harden for the Rockets was the most impressive man on court all evening – his 30 points and 15 assists were by far the evening’s biggest contribution. Every time he got the ball, I was convinced he was going to shoot and score – he also had an excellent line in big beard. I was more impressed by Courtney Lee for the Knicks than I was with Anthony, though the latter did pick up 21 points to Lee’s 16.

From a playing point of view, for we amateur enthusiasts (Clare was, as ever, in attendance) at least, the most notable, though certainly not the most impressively skilful, point in the game came about midway through the first quarter. In quelling yet another over-elaborate Knicks attack, a Rockets fast break found Sam Dekker all alone at the New York end. Just as he made to shoot and seal an inevitable two points he dropped the ball, fell over and to cap it all, the ball hit him in the face on his way down.

Unfortunately for the home fans, that didn’t really set the tone for their opponents’ overall performance. The Knicks were behind from that opening 3-pointer from Harden, eventually losing 118-99. The fact that the Rockets hit 100 points by the end of the third quarter before easing off a little in the fourth perhaps demonstrates how dominant the Texans really were.

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Houston on the move in the second half

American sport, of course, is never just about the sport. The frippery that goes alongside – whether that’s some bloke shooting from halfway to win a new Kia (he missed) during a timeout, or a chap managing to paint a 10-foot picture of a former Knicks star player in about 4 minutes at half time, or the various t-shirt shootings – makes it worth the admission fee almost on its own. Not forgetting the bloody organ which seems compulsory at most American sports venues – if it was meant to be putting the Rockets players off, it didn’t really work.

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The Garden, resplendent in Knicks blue and orange.

And then Madison Square Garden itself is pretty special. I’d imagine there are a number of venues worldwide which might have something to say about the “World’s Greatest Arena” claim, but it is a rather impressive beast. The Chase Bridge, though high up, gave us an amazing birds-eye view of the action, as well as the Knicks City Dunkers (guys doing ridiculous slam dunks off trampolines) and the rest of the extra-curricular stuff. It’s quite a sight from the outside too – dominating Penn Plaza with only the Empire State Building in the background vying for your attention.

In all, another great evening of sports tourism, and a pretty memorable way to spend part of our last night in New York. It would be great to go back some day.

New York Knicks 99-118 Houston Rockets

 

Premier League Preview 2016-17

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There will be some football here (Sunderland) in the Premier League this season

Given I’ve done one of these for each season since I started writing the blog, I thought I’d best keep that tradition up. As ever, I’m indebted to the good people of FourFourTwo magazine for their in-depth pre-season analysis – any wrongly formed opinions in this post are mine alone however.

Come 4:45ish on Sunday 21 May 2017, I think the Premier League table will look something like this:

1. Manchester City

2. Manchester United

3. Chelsea

4. Liverpool

5. Arsenal

6. Tottenham Hotspur

7. Leicester City

8. Everton

9. West Ham United

10. Stoke City

11. Middlesbrough

12. Southampton

13. Sunderland

14. Bournemouth

15. West Bromwich Albion

16. Crystal Palace

17. Swansea City

18. Watford

19. Burnley

20. Hull City

Attempting to briefly justify my choices, Manchester City have Pep Guardiola. And Pep doesn’t tend to not win things. They have also made a few lovely signings although £47m for John Stones is madness. I think Manchester United with Mourinho in charge will improve, though I’m still not convinced the Portuguese is a long-term solution for United. Pogba, Zlatan and Mkhitaryan are all fantastic buys. I enjoyed the cut of Antonio Conte’s tactical jib at Euro 2016 and he should do something similar with Chelsea, while having Jurgen Klopp at the helm for an entire season, and no European distractions, should help Liverpool back into the top 4.

Given the improvement of the sides around them, I think this might be the season Arsenal do the relatively unthinkable and finish fifth. Yet again they have failed to add players in the positions they need. Spurs had a fantastic season in 2015-16 even with the terrible ending, and they should be in the hunt for the top four again though finishing a touch short. Leicester will have a decent bash at defending their title but they can’t have the same luck with injuries and form as they did last season, and Kante is a huge miss. Everton, with new money and a new manager, should round out the top 8.

In ninth I fancy West Ham United, with their excellent manager and lovely (if terribly named) new stadium. Stoke meanwhile I reckon will make the top half – their addition of Joe Allen is a good one. Of the three promoted sides, Middlesbrough appear most capable of hanging around in the Premier League – Negredo and Valdes are fantastic acquisitions for a club that size. Southampton meanwhile will have the cliched “transitional” season, with a new manager and a new squad to attempt to knit together.

I think David Moyes will (and would like him to) recapture some of his credibility with a solid and not overly relegation-threatened season for Sunderland. Bournemouth’s capture of Jordan Ibe is particularly interesting and I fancy Eddie Howe to enhance his reputation that little bit more. West Bromwich Albion will be every inch the Tony Pulis side yet again – reliably dull and doing just about enough to stay up. I imagine Alan Pardew will continue, meanwhile, his record of oddly inconsistent seasons with Crystal Palace.

Just about staying up will be Swansea City – Francesco Guidolin’s first full season will not be easy. Going down I expect Watford to find the transition to yet another new manager a transition too much, with Burnley and Hull City not having the squad strength or depth to cope with life in the top division.

 

Hearts v Birkirkara, 21 July 2016

I’ve only been to one European match before. My dad and I went on a whim one night to see Dundee United v Trabzonspor in the second leg of a UEFA Cup qualifying round game in 1997. So, 19 years after my first, I was rather looking forward to my second ever European match.

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The obligatory UEFA “Respect” flags

 

Tonight was also my first visit to Tynecastle, despite the fact I’ve lived in Edinburgh for 12 of the last 14 years, and at the right end of town for the last two. And what a great wee stadium it is too. The atmosphere it can generate, even for a Europa League qualifier against a Maltese side, is rather impressive. My long suffering wife Clare and I were in the Wheatfield Stand, opposite the lovely Archibald Leitch-designed Main Stand, which is to shortly be demolished and replaced with a more modern structure.

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Tynecastle looking lovely in some July evening sunshine

To the game, and Hearts had taken a 0-0 draw from their away leg back to Tynie. Manager (and ex-East Fife player) Robbie Neilson had sent out a reasonably attacking side and it was Hearts who made much of the early running. Birkirkara’s plan was clearly to sit reasonably deep but to press the ball at every opportunity and hope to catch their Edinburgh opponents out.

Hearts’ first opportunity came about halfway through the first half, a lovely cross from the right producing an overhead-ish kick from Jamie Walker who was rather unlucky to see his shot come back off the crossbar. Sam Nicholson, meanwhile, was having some joy cutting in from the left hand side and he won Hearts a penalty with ten minutes to go to half-time. Prince Buaben’s effort was weak with the away keeper, who was pretty dodgy otherwise, easily getting down to his left. It was telling listening to the Jambos on the way home stewing over their recent lack of success from the spot which appeared to be a hangover from the previous season.

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A wee bit of first half action

Half time arrived with no score for either side, and the home crowd somewhat frustrated, particularly with the missed penalty. Hearts hadn’t created too many openings and they were a little sluggish in moving the ball forward. Their opponents were playing a fairly canny game and I must admit I thought Birkirkara’s pressing game would peter out in the second half. It didn’t.

A mere 10 minutes into the second half, Hearts were a goal down and staring at a European exit before the end of July. A set piece from near the halfway line was punted into the home penalty box. Three or four failed attempts by Hearts to clear their lines came and went before the ball fell to Christian Bubalovic, who finished well past Jack Hamilton.

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A second-half set piece for Hearts

Urgency but also anxiety then came from Hearts. Firstly Sam Nicholson cut in beautifully (again) from the left and was very unlucky to see his shot come off the crossbar. A few minutes later, Arnaud Djoum spooned his effort over when he should have scored, as the Maltese side’s defence foundered following a home set piece.

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The away support

Minutes after home boss Robbie Neilson brought on Juanma to chase the game, the cliched sucker punch was struck by Birkirkara. A swift counter attack found right back Edward Herrera, whose calm finish was greeted with (understandably) sheer joy from the away side and their 56 travelling supporters.

Following the second goal, Hearts finally upped the tempo and one of their most fluent attack moves of the night ended with Djoum’s cross being beautifully met by Connor “leapt like a” Sammon’s head – there were 17 minutes for Hearts to find two goals to take them through.

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A sliver of sunshine causes some sight issues for a few fans in the main stand.

Unfortunately, nothing more came for the home side. There was no lack of effort but a lack of quality and cutting edge, with too many passes being either required before the ball made it to near the away penalty area, or simply going astray. The home support will no doubt look back on that penalty miss in the first half as the turning point in the game and indeed the tie – the Maltese side were jumping for joy at full time which showed the scalp they believed they had taken. An ignominious early European exit for yet another Scottish club side, sadly.

What I will say though, is that Tynecastle is a great place to watch a game of football. As a curious observer with a bit of a leaning to the home team, I’ll definitely be back.

Heart of Midlothian 1-2 Birkirkara (Sammon; Bubalovic, Herrera)

Birkirkara win 2-1 on aggregate

Euro 2016 – The Final

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The Stade de France, venue for the final of Euro 2016 (among other games) – photo by Liondartois

Well, from the semi final predictions anyway, I was almost bang on. France v Portugal will tonight contest the final of the 2016 European Championships. For now I’ll give some brief thoughts on the match ahead, with perhaps a longer post about the tournament itself later. Although, as I think I’ve mentioned before, the Scottish football season restarts next Saturday (16th) with a lovely heap of Scottish League Cup matches.

Firstly to the all-important prediction – I’m going to go for:

France 2-1 Portugal

I’ve thought since the start of the tournament (maybe other than the first 45.5 minutes of the semi against Germany) that France would win it, so I’ll stick to my guns. Portugal, having been Greeced in 2004, appear to be trying to Greece the tournament itself with their largely unadventurous football and (understandable) over-reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo.

I am kind of hoping the football gods have some say in the outcome too. Last time France were in a final on home soil, they were the neutral’s favourite in a match at the Stade France against a Portuguese-speaking nation with a Ronaldo in their side. And of course they won that 3-0. Plus ça change, as our cousins over the Channel might say. I’m hoping for a similar outcome tonight.

The one caveat I would have on my thoughts for tonight is the French defence. While they managed to just about prevent the Germans from scoring in the semi-finals, they have conceded goals to Iceland (2), Ireland and Romania (1 each) so far in this tournament. If Portugal can provide Nani and Mr Ronaldo with the supply they need, that might be the point where France concede goals. What I’m almost certain of is that Portugal’s plan will be to try instead to frustrate the French attack and then hit the hosts on the break.

This is likely to make for a relatively boring final. I’m hopeful for something more entertaining, but not necessarily expecting it. The fact that this coincides with the Wimbledon Mens’ Singles Final and the British Grand Prix (if you like that sort of thing) makes for a Sunday of tidying, throwing stuff out and then sitting in front of the telly for hours. Lovely stuff.

Euro 2016 – Semi Finals

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The Torre de Belem in Lisbon. Which I’ve mostly put here because (a) it is nice and (b) it’s in Portugal

After another reasonably dismal showing in my latest round of predictions (well, 50/50), it’s time for another mercifully brief Euro 2016 post.

Before I begin, I must leap unashamedly on to the bandwagon and say (a) how delighted I am that Wales are in the Euro 2016 semi finals and (b) how wonderful their performance was against Belgium on Friday night. Hal Robson-Kanu’s turn for goal number two was, patently, a piece of genius, while Chris Coleman has to be given enormous credit for the work he has done with his team.

Anyway, on to the predictions, and this time I’ll even go for scores just for the hell of it:

Portugal 1-0 Wales (AET) – as with last time I hope I’m very wrong but I think this might be one (probably quite boring) game too far for the Welsh. Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies’ suspensions will be particularly telling in contributing to the end of the Welsh adventure. And I really hope it isn’t Cristiano Ronaldo who gets the winner, as then that win will, as ever, be all about him (and his various abs).

France 2-1 Germany – neither side has particularly convinced me, particularly at the back, but I think France’s attacking prowess should just about see them through. Antoine Griezmann in particular seems to be improving as the tournament goes on – that and the home backing for the French might (if I’m right) see a repeat of that gloriously ill-tempered Euro 2000 semi-final, but this time in the final.

I’ll be back again for the final, and then perhaps a wee round-up of the tournament. Brilliantly, East Fife’s season starts again a week on Saturday (!) at home to Dundee in the League Cup group stage. Lovely.

Euro 2016 – Quarter Finals

“Well don’t be sad, cos 5 out of 8 ain’t bad.” Meat Loaf (get well soon) almost sang that very song (if he’d then simplified the numerator and the denominator). I got five out of eight Euro 2016 quarter-finalists right – I should have known that England would have played like England and that Italy would have been very much Italy.

As well as my invention of a new childrens’ TV/book character based on this week’s football (“Joe Hart’s Jelly Hands” already has a nomination for a Children’s BAFTA), I’m aware that this week has been in the news somewhat for other non-football reasons – for now I’ll leave these well alone.

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Joe Hart – look at his lovely hair

So, in no particular order, I think the quarter finals will finish up thus:

Poland will beat Portugal – and I’ll have lost a £5 bet;

France will beat Iceland  – even thought I’d love it to go the other way;

Germany will beat Italy – clearly I’ve still not learnt my lesson from the last 16 – added to the fact that Germany have never beaten Italy in a knockout match at either the World Cup or the Euros;

Belgium will beat Wales – though again I’ve be delighted if Coleman, Bale and Owain Fon Williams make it through to the last four.

I’ll be back for the semis midweek.

 

Euro 2016 – Last 16


Well that was a rather good group stage. 4 British Isles sides through is a particularly marvellous outcome – rather jealous as a Scot that we didn’t have the opportunity, but I have no doubt we’d have still failed miserably. 
I’ve just had the pleasure of watching Ireland beat Italy, for the first time since I last watched Ireland beat Italy in 1994. Even Roy Keane was happy!

Anyway, given the last 16 is complete, I thought I’d have a go at predicting the outcome of these matches.

So in no particular order:

England will beat Iceland

France will beat Ireland (sadly)

Wales will beat Northern Ireland

Germany will beat Slovakia (even though the Slovaks gubbed them in Augsburg a few weeks ago)

Poland will beat Switzerland

Spain will defeat Italy

Belgium will beat Hungary – after Hungary’s fantastic performance against an Airwaves coloured Portugal though, it’ll be a tough gig for Belgium

Croatia will beat Portugal

Think I got about half of the group qualifiers right – will report back again after this little lot. As for the expanded tournament format, I’m mostly enjoying it. While there has been a dip in quality, there has been an equal increase in drama and the performance of the home nations (and Ireland) has been particularly great. The fact that one of Wales and Northern Ireland will be in a European Championship quarter finals is fantastic – it really is hard to beat a summer international tournament.