The Wintersmith takes grip in the Shire
December 20, 2010

The Wintersmith has well and truly taken a grip in the Shire, with an overnight temperature of minus 19˚C recorded in Pershore during the weekend.

Yesterday, as I trudged across the blanketed  fields down by the river, I half expected to catch sight of the Nac Mac Feegles,  with their  angry blue faces emerging from beneath the big snow, grumbling “Ach crivens!” and  “Oh waily, waily, waily!” .

All of which will mean absolutely nothing to you unless you are au fait with the wonderful Wee Free Men from Terry Pratchett’s stories of Discworld!

As I made my way via the footbridge over the frozen marina and eventually skated along the treacherous footpaths of Upton to pick up a few essential supplies from So Near so Spar, I couldn’t help wondering what my African friends would have made of it all.

I also admit to feeling just a little envious of my VSO Rwanda colleagues, who anytime soon will be setting off for their Christmas break on the spice island of Zanzibar. Even their 36 hour coach journey from Kigali to Dar es Salaam suddenly seems quite appealing!  

Early on Saturday morning I had risen early and watched as England’s bid to wrap up the Ashes, as an early Christmas present for a nation embarking on a winter of discontent, had been derailed down in Perth. It was bizarre watching the players toiling in temperatures of around 30˚C while snow flakes tumbled down outside the window.

It was never likely to happen for England at Perth, given England’s poor track at the WACA, and once a paper like the Guardian (who should have known better) began to indulge in premature gloating, having variously described the leading Aussie fast bowler as shocking, awful, mediocre and a malfunctioning liability, then he was virtually guaranteed to come back with a vengeance!

Mitchell Johnson, in that kind of form, and particularly on that wicket, is capable of dismantling any team in the world. His match winning performance has certainly lifted the Aussies and revitalised the series.

Although there is less between the teams than appeared to be the case in the first two Tests I’m still confident England can do enough at Melbourne and Sydney to retain the urn and I look forward to spending the early hours of Boxing Day morning watching, wrapped up in my dressing gown with a hot water bottle, watching the opening throws of the next instalment.   

On Saturday afternoon I had intended to make my first visit to the City Ground since the end of August but cried off due to the icy road conditions and forecasts of further snow.

The match survived the freezing conditions and Forest, playing their first game in three weeks, secured a comfortable 3-0 win over Crystal Palace, with new signing Marcus Tudgay scoring a brilliant debut goal, lobbing the keeper from 30 yards out. Let’s hope there will be more to come and, weather permitting, that the Tricky Trees can get their promotion push back on track over the Christmas and New Year period.

I did manage to catch the Cherry & Whites on Sky TV last night. Despite sub-zero temperatures at Kingsholm the  Amlin Cup game against La Rochelle went ahead, but Gloucester will wish it hadn’t. I’m still not quite sure how they contrived to lose a game (18-24) where they enjoyed 75% possession and territory.

Unfortunately their lack of precision at key moments lost them the game and  puts paid to any hopes of European success this season. 

It was also a game the players were desperate to win as a tribute to club owner and motor sports legend, Tom Walkinshaw, who sadly lost his battle with cancer last week.

All eyes will now be turning towards the eagerly awaited Boxing Day Aviva League clash with high-flying Northampton Saints. An ideal opportunity to bounce back in front of a sell-out crowd.   

Saturday was also Chris’s birthday. Like me she has reached that stage where she is less than enthusiastic about celebrating the annual reminder that she isn’t getting any younger.

 But she was somewhat cheered to find that she has the same birthday as Brad Pitt. I was more impressed that she shares the date with Christina Aguilera!

The 18th December also marked the 67th birthday of Rolling Stone, Keith Richard. Unfortunately time has not been too kind to the oldest rocker in town, who looks about 87, but then again he’s packed a bit in.

It was also a year to the day of two famous retirements; Sir Terry Wogan’s and mine, both of us having spent a lifetime in the entertainment business!   

The last year has absolutely flown by, particularly with spending five months in Africa, and that old cliché of the newly retired, “I don’t know how I found time to go to work,”  has certainly been true in my case.

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Tying Up Loose Ends…(150 up!)
November 27, 2010

I’m spending my final weekend in Kigali.

Yesterday morning I caught the 07.30 International Express  from Nyakarambi and at 10.15 I arrived at the VSO office. Two hours later I left, having completed my ‘exit interview’, claimed my final expenses and said my ‘goodbyes’ to the office staff.

Down town I called in at the Ethiopian Airlines office to confirm my flights for next Saturday. All sorted but I can’t say I’m looking forward to kicking my heels for six hours in Addis Ababa airport before boarding the 02.00 flight to Heathrow!

Earlier in the week, back in Nyakarambi,  I had met up with Msafiri bemoaning Arsenal’s mid week defeat in Europe. He also confirmed that he has acquired a vehicle to transport  me to the airport next Saturday morning.  I think he is going to drive me there, which is a really nice gesture, considering it’s a six-hour round trip and Saturday is a busy day for trade!    

I was delighted to log on last night and find that Forest have pulled off two superb loan signings, Marcus Tudgay, a decent striker from Sheffield Wednesday, and Aaron Ramsey, an exciting and precocious midfield talent from Arsenal. Ramsey is recovering from a nine month lay off following a very nasty injury but hopefully during the eight matches, he is available for, he will help Forest cement a place in the top six of the Championship.

It’s less good news for Dexter Blackstock, a striker who I have a lot of time for, who will be out for twelve months following his injury in the latter stages of our win at Cardiff. At least the ‘acquisitions panel’ have moved quickly to replace him.

It’s less good news on the ‘Ashes’ front where England might struggle to come away with a draw from the First Test, down under. The pre series hype was never going to favour them. We don’t wear the ‘favourites’ tag very easily and the Aussies were never going to roll over despite what the media wrote.   

Hopefully things will turn around, as one of the things I’m  looking forward to on my return  is a few late night/early morning sessions of play courtesy of Sky Sports.

There was a rather surreal feeling this morning, sitting in my T-shirt sipping coffee in the ‘Isimbi’ bar as CNN announced severe weather and snow alerts across the UK. As long as it doesn’t interfere with flights I don’t mind, but below freezing temperatures will come as a bit of a shock.

It’s umuganda today so I’m confined to the hotel this morning, hence the opportunity to update the blog, at some length!  According to the stats this is my 150th posting, which is quite amazing. I have to admit I have rather surprised myself at managing to keep it going for that long.

Given this landmark posting and the weather conditions back home perhaps I should have followed the time-honoured Dandy and Beano format of coating the title font with snow and wishing all my readers a somewhat premature Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Anyhow I think at least celebratory lunchtime drink is called for. It’s warm and bright here in Kigali, the bars are opening up now and I think I’s better make the most of it!

The Oval and red buses on the Harleyford Road, my dear old thing!
August 23, 2010

Congratulations to Pakistan for winning the 3rd Test at the Oval. It would have been easy for them to have given up on the series following England’s relatively straight forward victories at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston; both played of course at a time of traumatic devastation and loss of life resulting from the terrible floods back in their homeland.

Now a revitalised Pakistan team probably fancy their chances of levelling the series, with the final test being played at Lords (starting on Thursday) where, with the exception of last year’s Ashes test, the home side have invariably struggled in recent series. 

This defeat for England, who appear to be in danger of believing they are a better team than they actually are, has probably provided a timely wake up call ahead of this winter’s Ashes series down under.  

It was good to see Alistair Cook battling his way back into some kind of form and reaching a somewhat fortuitous but confidence boosting century. However if we are to mount a realistic challenge against Australia and retain the Ashes, Peterson, Collingwood and Strauss need to follow suit and rediscover their batting touch at Lords

I always look forward to the Oval Test Match, traditionally the last in an English summer – but why not so this year? This seems to be yet another strange decision by the ECB, hard on the heels of playing a test match on a building site at Edgbaston!      

The Brit Oval, as it is currently called (for sponsorship purposes), has been sympathetically developed in recent years, whilst maintaining its original pavilion, and is still overlooked by the  gasometer, an iconic landmark at this south London sporting venue.

It was the Oval, not Lords, that staged the first ever test match in England 130 years ago. In September 1880 a 3 day match was staged against the men from down under which England won by 5 wickets with Gloucestershire’s, legendary, Dr WG Grace making a top score of 152 in the first innings.       

The Oval will forever, in my mind, be associated with the image of red London buses shuttling up and down the adjacent Harleyford Rd, as regularly referred to by veteran Test Match Special commentator, the bespectacled, cravat wearing, and claret quaffing Henry Blofeld.  

Sadly, forgetful, eccentric old Etonian, Blowers with his trade mark catch phrases such as, “My dear old thing”, doesn’t get too much air time these days, in the ‘new look’ TMS commentary box, more is the pity.

To go off at a tangent, it was Henry’s father, an old school friend of author Ian Fleming, who is said to have been the source for the name of James Bond’s adversary and head of SMERSH, Blofeld, seen here played by actor Donald Pleasance who bears an uncanny resemblance to Blowers!         

Meanwhile back at the cricket, the first test match I recall following with any degree of interest was at the Oval in 1964; the final match in an Ashes series. I watched on TV, in black and white, enthralled as the late great Yorkshire fast bowler FS (Freddie) Trueman had Neil Hawke caught at slip by Colin Cowdrey to become the first English bowler to take 300 test wickets.   

A year later, during a family break in Surrey, my late uncle took me to the Oval for an afternoon to watch England play the final test of a three match series against South Africa. It turned out, due to the anti apartheid sporting ban which shortly followed, to be the last time South Africa would play a test on English soil for 29 years.

A few weeks earlier in Nottingham, I had excitedly visited my local Trent Bridge cricket ground to watch a live test cricket encounter for the first time. The sun beat down as I sat, full of anticipation, perched on a hard slatted wooden bench in the unreserved seating area, at the boundary’s edge, on the Fox Road side of the ground. On any other day splinters in a numb bum might have been all I recalled, but on this occasion I was lucky enough to witness one of the best ever test innings.

South African batsman Graham Pollock strolled to the wicket and treated the crowd to a display of elegant left-handed stroke play which lifted him into the pantheon of all time cricketing greats. He caressed the ball to the boundary 21 times in an innings of 125 off 145 balls in 138 minutes. I was memerised (as were the English bowlers and fielders) and have never seen anything to better it since.

The English Patient
June 30, 2010

English football requires radical surgery if the national side is to recover and ever thrive again. It has been said before (after every major football championship since ’96) and it is being shouted from the rooftops, by the media once again, after Sunday’s dismal and embarrassing exit from the 2010 World Cup. But will those in power listen?     

The obvious and likely response, to the debacle of the last few weeks, is likely to see Fabio Capello heading out of the door but to be replaced by who? The current consensus seems to be that we’ve tried two overpaid foreign managers who didn’t deliver so let’s go back to an English manager; someone with in-built national pride who can communicate more easily with the players and sing the national anthem with gusto!  Remember Steve McClaren? He was supposed to fit the bill, but might have done better auditioning in the West End for ‘Singing in the Rain’!

I don’t think changing the coach/manager is the answer. They should stick with Capello, who has a better track record, at club level, than any of the other likely candidates being touted around. If he can’t revive the English patient then I suspect nobody can.

Do we really believe cheeky chappy ‘Arry Redknapp or big Sam Allardyce are going to turn the national side around? Just look at their career records!  Roy Hodgson, who has international experience as a coach , might be a better choice but he has opted for the lesser of two evils by joining another ailing English patient, Liverpool!

In my book, the best British club manager by a mile (and I haven’t forgotten the Scottish knight here) is Martin O’Neil. However Martin is Irish, intelligent, outspoken, doesn’t suffer fools gladly and would only take the job on his terms, so nothing going for him then!      

I think we should stick with Fabio for the next couple of years and involve him in a full top to bottom enquiry into the state of the ‘English game’  involving both the FA and the Premier League. The key questions are  simple and blindingly obvious. Do we want a successful national team or the mediocrity we have just endured?  If the answer is yes, how do we balance the needs of the national team, with the needs of the clubs and the money-making machine which is the Premier League?

The fans should also have an important say. Is the average football fan prepared to put the quest for a successful national side (once every two/four years) before that of the club side they follow, week in week out?

Needless to say the questions are much simpler than the solutions, but perhaps we need look no further than the example set by the Germans, who I’m sure would have beaten us (perhaps not so easily) even if Lampard’s ‘goal’ had been given.

The domestic Bundesliga is not as interesting or entertaining as the English Premier League, German club sides with the exception of Bayern Munch  have a modest record in the Champions League and yet whenever a major international tournament comes around the national side is always well conditioned, technically adept, tactically astute and monotonously successful (as we know to our cost) being three times winners of the World Cup and the European Championship.

Mind you, I do fancy Argentina to beat them in the quarter finals!

I suspect nothing radical will happen and in four years time the English patient may well be on the way to the morgue, whilst the Premiership coffers grow fatter and fatter!

The ‘golden generation’ has come and gone without ever looking like it would deliver, in Germany 2006 or Spain 2010. If we are serious about future international success the ‘new generation’ (worryingly thin on the ground) has to be given the right opportunities and conditions within which it can develop and flourish.

At the very least the following should now be seriously considered:

  • Reduce the number of Premier League teams to 18
  • An agreed minimum quota of English qualified players in every first team squad
  • An agreed minimum quota of English qualified players in every starting line up
  • The Carling Cup to go, or be officially downgraded to a competition which develops young home-grown talent   
  • A mid-season winter break in January

Now let’s leave the footballers in their misery for a while and turn our attention to the summer sports where we continue to enjoy a degree of success.

The England cricket team have now tied up the 50 over series against the Aussies and now well and truly own the bragging rights, having beaten them in all three forms of the international game during the last twelve months. Let’s hope their good form continues throughout the forthcoming Test series against Pakistan as they prepare for this winter’s Ashes tour.    

All eyes now turn to Wimbledon where tennis fans have enjoyed the recent glorious weather, oblivious of the trials and tribulations in South Africa, and Andy Murray has seemingly glided through to the quarter finals without dropping a set. HM popped in for her first visit since 1977, when Virginia Wade won the ladies’ singles – the last British champion! Could history repeat itself 33 years later, but this time in the men’s singles?