Monday, 22 March 2010

Reasons to watch the IPL: How many do you need?

Readers in the UK will be very familiar with the output of ITV. For those with either the good sense or the good fortune not to witness the televisual fare on the channel, ITV's programming is often so spectacularly piss-poor it almost looks like satire.

Every day millions of British people - among them your friends, family members and generally law-abiding citizens - take leave of their senses and tune into ITV's moronic chat-show/fly-on-the-wall-celebrity-documentary/regional-soap-opera formats. These are interspersed with intervals where advertisers really put the boot in, by demonstrating how brainless they think we really are. 

(A particular favourite at the moment is an advert for Just For Men, which requires no comment. Just watch it and weep.)

But, lo and behold, in the last week ITV have hit upon a winning formula - the Indian Premier League cricket. This is the first cricket shown free-to-air in the UK for nearly five years (since the 2005 Ashes, which was shown to much acclaim on Channel 4), and it's been a thrill a minute. The Cynical Challenge is truly chastened.

The IPL has its detractors: for the lack of quality it is perceived to encourage, for the damage it may wreak on cricket's power politics, even for its speed. But watching the first week or so of IPL coverage on ITV has been truly compulsive viewing. 

Partly that's because the channel has brought its own inimitable style to televising the tournament. The studio line-up of Matt Smith, one of a long line of mediocre British sports presenters (headed by Matthew Lorenzo - google him if you like) and, in his own words, a gay icon, and Bollywood actress Mandira Bedi, has all the chemistry of arsenic. Smith in particular has excelled, demonstrating that lack of knowledge is no barrier to employment. For more on this look no further than Barney Ronay's superbly funny article in Saturday's Guardian.

Fortunately there is more to the IPL than watching John Emburey and Graeme Hick battle for the title of most boring cricket pundit on TV. The cricket played in the tournament's first week has been, frankly, excellent.

Praveen Kumar bagged a hat-trick for the Bangalore Royal Challengers - with a slow yorker, a bouncer and an off-cutter - in their match against the Rajasthan Royals. Matthew Hayden showcased his mongoose bat, which everyone laughed at until he started launching balls into the stands. Hayden ended up with 93 from 43 in the match against Delhi Daredevils. And speaking of big hits, how about Irfan Pathan clearing the grandstand in Cuttack against Deccan Chargers?

Meanwhile, in answer to those who say Twenty20 is all about power at the expense of technique, it has been cricket's technicians who have led the way with run-scoring - in particular, Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis. To most Indians (and some English cricket fans too, I might add), Tendulkar is something akin to a deity - indeed, 'Tendulkar is God' was number one trending topic on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. But even with such a reputation, it has been astounding to watch a player score big in the IPL without going for "big" shots. Tendulkar has hardly altered his naturally patient game from the 5-day format to 20 over cricket, yet cracked a breathtaking innings of 63 off 32 against Delhi. Kallis, meanwhile, has allowed his figures to do the talking - 4 innings, 4 not outs, 264 runs scored. That puts the South African top of the IPL batting rankings.

The tournament has also given British viewers a firsthand view of some of the up-and-coming stars of Indian cricket. Particularly impressive in the early matches in 2010 have been a pair of batsmen, Bangalore's Manish Pandey and Saurabh Tiwary of the Mumbai Indians. 

Pandey made a name for himself last year, aged just 19, after becoming the first Indian to score an IPL century. He subsequently grabbed the headlines in India with an incredible catch in the final of the Ranji Trophy (India's domestic 5-day competition). This year Pandey has scored 120 runs at an average of 40, and is looking every bit a future Test star. Tiwary has recorded similar figures - 139 runs at 46.33 - and one innings of 61 from 37 in partnership with Tendulkar was reminiscent of India's current Test captain MS Dhoni. Tiwary, like Dhoni, plays state cricket for Jharkhand, and with his long straight hair bears more than a passing resemblance to him. Coincidence? I think not.

But if the young guns are less your thing, the IPL also gives viewers the chance to see former Test greats for possibly the very last time. At 40 you'd think perhaps we'd seen the back of Shane Warne, but there he is, still lugging his "bulky" frame around the field for Rajasthan. Leading the Deccan Chargers, and doing a fine job too, is 38-year-old Adam Gilchrist. And there's even room for a berth in the starting XI at Rajasthan for Damien Martyn, who was last seen in the 2006 Ashes series. Safe to say he won't be making a shock comeback in Test cricket though - he was out for 19 from 24 balls in his side's crushing 10 wicket defeat to Bangalore.

The lesson is this - watching the IPL is rewarding on a number of levels. Great cricket from great players, young and old, in a format accessible to all. Besides, even if you don't like the cricket, you can still derive perverse enjoyment from watching ITV's often laughable coverage. And what's not to like about that?

Monday, 15 March 2010

A Crash Course in Russian Football: Part 2

"One man's meat is another man's poison", as the saying goes. That's actually not true at all. Neither vegetarians nor hardened carnivores would enjoy a nasty dose of E. coli from rotten beef. No, a more accurate message is perhaps this - sometimes even our favourite things can leave a lot to be desired.

Following on from Friday's Part 1, providing some background to Russia's Premier Football League, The Cynical Challenge spent the weekend watching the opening weekend of Russian football fixtures. And as I've already made clear, watching the Russian Premier League, in my book, is right up there with tea and dark chocolate digestives as one of my favourite spare time-fillers.

Sadly, though - and this is where the opening paragraph of this blog comes in - the first round of matches in the Russian Premier League did little to whet appetites. In the eight matches played this weekend there were a mere 11 goals. 

There were admittedly some highlights among this rather paltry number. Zenit St Petersburg's Portuguese international Danny, once the subject of a £20 million inquiry from Chelsea, scored a lovely solo winner against Krylya Sovetov. Terek Grozny's Andrey Kobenko proved that you don't need to be Brazilian to score a spectacular lob. And Rubin Kazan's fans proved they have a sense of humour, suggesting in a chant that rivals Krylya Sovetov Samara, who are suffering from well-publicised financial problems, ought to try Ebay for a solution. 

[Note: There's a hidden message to the Ebay chant - in Russian the company's name also sounds like the f-word...]

But, as much as The Cynical Challenge aims to champion Russia as one of the more exciting championships in European football, the games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were for the most part akin to watching grass grow. Which is funny, really, as one of the things which would have improved the spectacle across the Russian Premier League would be a bit of decent turf. Defending champions Rubin, for example, played on a pitch at their Tsentralny Stadium which was something out of the World War I battlefields. 

Even where the football had no need for grass - in Spartak Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium for example, which has a synthetic pitch - the icy conditions detracted from the spectacle. Blizzard conditions (watch the first couple of minutes of this video) during the first half of Spartak versus Dinamo really proved the old Russian adage that "snow is pretty, but it freezes your feet". I hate to sound like a broken record, as I've referred to this numerous times, but if there was ever an argument for maintaining the Russian football season in summer it was this weekend's round of matches.

The good news, though, is that things will improve. Pitches will thaw and players will get up to speed, and the Russian Premier League will soon be back to its combative, close-fought best. Because the truth about the Russian championship is that any one of perhaps six teams have a good chance of winning it. 

Winners in 2008 and 2009, Rubin are again going to be a tough nut to crack. They easily dispensed with title rivals Lokomotiv Moscow on Sunday, winning 2-0 in Kazan. Back in October Rubin beat Barcelona in the Champions League group stages, demonstrating that, though they lack big name players, they are a hugely effective unit. Since the Barcelona victory they have lost their one star player, Argentine forward Alejandro Dominguez, who opted to move to Valencia during the winter. But the addition of experienced Turkish striker Fatih Tekke and Israeli midfielder Bibras Natkho should allow Rubin to maintain their excellent run over the last few league seasons.

Despite the setback away to Rubin, Lokomotiv are themselves looking good for a spot among the top three or four. Ukrainian international Aleksandr Aliev, who was one of Dynamo Kyiv's brightest talents, has arrived at Loko along with Brazilian forward Maicon, both of whom should provide more firepower. They slot in alongside Uzbekistan-born Nigerian Peter Odemwingie, formerly of Lille, and Russian international winger/forward Dmitry Sychev. Add into the mix the persistent rumours that Tottenham Hotspur striker Roman Pavlyuchenko might return to Russia to join Lokomotiv in the summer, and the squad have among the best attacking line in the division. Expect plenty of goals from them.

CSKA Moscow enter the new season with high expectations. Last season was one of turmoil in the coaching department for them, having been managed first by Zico and then by Juande Ramos before finally opting for a Russian speaker, Leonid Slutsky. Results have picked up and CSKA remain in this season's UEFA Cup, but they have also lost enigmatic Brazilian striker Vagner Love, who has finally grown tired of the Russian winter and departed for home club Fluminense. They have been boosted, however, by the signing of Japanese international forward Keisuke Honda, who scored the winner on his league debut against Amkar on Friday, and the return to form of former Liverpool man Mark Gonzalez.

Speaking of Liverpool rejects, one of the Russian league's most high profile signings was Andriy Voronin, who departed Anfield for Dinamo Moscow in January. Voronin played the full 90 minutes in Dinamo's 1-0 away win at Spartak on Sunday, and his side look a good outfit under an excellent young manager in Andrey Kobelev. Dinamo have the league's second pair of identical twins (after CSKA's Berezutsky brothers), the dynamic wingers Kirill and Dmitry Kombarov, while in midfield the indefatigable Dmitry Khokhlov, who had spells with PSV Eindhoven and Real Sociedad in the '90s, continues to pull the strings. Despite finishing eighth last year, they are this blog's outside tip for the title.

After losing manager Dick Advocaat, with whom they won the league and UEFA Cup in 2007, Zenit St Petersburg started the season with an easy 2-0 win over stricken Krylya Sovetov. New coach Luciano Spalletti has a big job on his hands, not least in keeping his bald head warm throughout the cold months, but his squad is taking shape. Fatih Tekke departed, to be replaced by PSV's Serbian forward Danko Lazovic, and he will team up with burly Russian international Aleksandr Kerzhakov, once a UEFA Cup winner with Sevilla. But most important to Zenit's cause is the return from injury of playmaker Danny, and if he remains fit the club will be around the top spot this year.

The final word goes to Spartak Moscow. For those unacquainted with the Russian league, they are the Manchester United of Russia, in the sense that they are the best-supported club in Russia, and are loved and loathed in equal measure. Hugely inflated ambitions have meant the club has gone through a string of managers over the last ten years, has alienated good players, and as a result has largely underperformed. Now, under former Celta Vigo and Real Sociedad player Valery Karpin, the club at last looks set for a tilt at the title. Alex, a Brazilian midfield playmaker, provides the team's craft, while a Brazilian forward pairing of Welliton, last year's top scorer in the Russian Premier League, and Ari, a new signing from AZ Alkmaar, will be among the goals. The club's potential downfall, as ever, is infighting - Spartak's fans are, paradoxically, incredibly loyal and infuriatingly fickle in equal measure, and the slightest hint of disquiet in the ranks could tear apart their season.

So that's my pick of the six potential title-winners in the 2010 Russian Premier League. I defy you to find another league of 16 teams where so many clubs have a genuine chance of success. So sit back, wait for the sun to come out, and enjoy what could be a seriously close title chase.

Friday, 12 March 2010

A Crash Course in Russian Football: Part 1

It's a chilly -8 degrees C in Moscow, with heavy snowfall forecast for Sunday - so what better than to kick off the new Russian Premier League football season?

Yes it's that time again. No sooner have Russian sports fans witnessed their country's dismal performance at the Winter Olympics (they finished just sixth in the overall medal table, having won only three golds, leading to President Dmitry Medvedev effectively sacking Olympic Committee chief Leonid Tyagachev) than they can pick themselves back up again with an icy dose of springtime football.

This weekend sees the first round of matches in the 2010 Russian Premier League, starting with today's match between CSKA Moscow and Amkar Perm, kicking off at 4pm GMT.

Rather than looking forward, though, The Cynical Challenge is going to start by looking back. After all, to most people at least, knowledge of Russian football is a luxury (and a dubious one at that), rather than a necessity. So, like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, or the fat one out of Pie in the Sky in The History Boys, I'm naively going to attempt to take you on a journey of discovery through what I regard as one of Europe's most interesting football leagues. Besides, I'll be returning to Russian football periodically throughout the season, as it's personal hobby horse, so pay attention.

This blog began with observations about the weather in Moscow, and that's a theme we should return to. The Russian Premier League begins in March and ends in November - sensible, you might think, given Russia's well-known meteorological extremes during the wintertime. Well, 2010 may actually be the last full season in which we see football in Russia being played in sunshine. 

As I have written more extensively elsewhere, the Russian Premier League is seriously considering playing games throughout the winter, in conditions which can plummet below -30 degrees C, accompanied by huge snowfall. For now the plans are embryonic, but watch this space on that story.

From plummeting temperatures to plummeting budgets - the winter of 2009/10 will go down in Russia's footballing annals as one in which financial conditions got a little out of control. Obviously the high-profile cases of Portsmouth and Chester City in England, and the travails of many clubs in the Netherlands (starkly described this week by Ernst Bouwes) have made stories of financial mismanagement rather de rigeur in the footballing press.

Having said that, Russia's example is an interesting one. Over the winter one club, FK Moskva, have had to fold after their corporate backer pulled the plug, and another, Krylya Sovetov Samara, have been bailed out by a combination of regional and national government, and big business.

You might ask why Samara were saved and not Moskva. The answer largely depends on how much of a cynic you are, and this being The Cynical Challenge I'll give you my frank appraisal. Pure economics played its part, but there were important political reasons for sacrificing Moskva and sparing Samara.

Firstly, the numbers game: Moskva were a Moscow-based club, and in a city already groaning under the collective weight of four other clubs (Spartak, Dynamo, CSKA and Lokomotiv) there simply wasn't a market for a fifth in a league of 16. In fact, if you look back as recently as 2005, the Russian Premier League actually contained seven sides based in the Moscow region, so clearly a tipping point was reached. FK Moskva were regularly playing to crowds of less than 10,000 last year (this in a city of 12 million inhabitants), despite having qualified for the UEFA Cup the year before, which tells you all you need to know about the club's fan base.

But the political side is more intriguing. It's certainly seen as being in the Russian government's interests to develop cultural or leisure institutions outside the Russian capital. Samara, home to Krylya Sovetov, is a city on the Volga some 900km south-east of Moscow. With so much power, wealth and opportunity concentrated in both Moscow and St Petersburg, the risk is that the millions of Russians living outside these centres, including those in Samara, may become disaffected.

To that end money has been poured into Krylya Sovetov to save them, ensuring one of the few national beacons emanating from the city of Samara, its football club, remains an ongoing concern. This is not a trend confined to Samara. In recent years sides such as Rubin Kazan (Tatarstan), Terek Grozny (Chechnya), Spartak Nalchik (Kabardino-Balkaria), Luch-Energiya Vladivostok and Tom Tomsk (Siberia) have all experienced promotion - and in Rubin's case title success - in the Russian Premier League, thus expanding the geographical reach of the championship. It also helps keep those who live in Russia's poorer regions happy.

And continuing in that vein, replacing the now defunct FK Moskva in the Russian Premier League are Alania Vladikavkaz, from the North Caucasus republic of North Ossetia - a region you may remember as instrumental in the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008. 

Spare a thought for Alania, by the way, who were informed of their promotion less than two months before the start of the season. The have since gone on the kind of spree to make even Victoria Beckham blush, picking up 14 players, but look worryingly unprepared for the season ahead.

And that moves me nicely on to the part where I talk about the coming Russian Premier League season. But I won't be doing that until Part 2 of this series, coming up on Monday. For now, class dismissed.


If you would like to read more about the ideas in this blog, especially the point that politics looms large over the Russian Premier League, you may also want to take a read of Marc Bennetts' excellent Football Dynamo.

Monday, 8 March 2010

The biggest waste of resources in British sport

Back in 2002 the bodies of thousands of soldiers serving in Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armée were found in a mass grave outside Vilnius. They had perished during Napoleon's hubristic, gruelling eastward advance in 1812, with the purpose of conquering Russia.

Another bleak and depressing tale of shattered ambition arose over the weekend in the Lithuanian capital. Great Britain's Davis Cup team were defeated 3-2 by Lithuania in their Euro/Africa Group II tie in Vilnius, a result nothing short of humiliating. Excuse, if you will, the rather graphic metaphor - but The Cynical Challenge doesn't quite know whether to remove one's cap and pay respects at the graveside, or to stick another knife in the corpse.

Actually that's not true. It's definitely time to put the boot in.

For once, though, the target of ire shouldn't be the players. There have been times in the recent past when Great Britain's Davis Cup players have shouldered responsibility in defeat. One thinks particularly of Alex Bogdanovic, the loser of six live singles rubbers in Davis Cup matches. Despite being the current British number 2 singles player, 'Boggo' has not been selected for a Davis Cup tie since 2008, thanks largely to what has been seen as a suspect attitude. And he has an awful nickname, though that's less his fault.

This time around, though, like Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae, hell, like Jedward in the X-Factor, the British players can retain some pride in a losing effort. Credit goes to doubles pairing Ken Skupski and Colin Fleming (rather dubiously dubbed 'Flemski' by the press), who breezed through their rubber in four sets. 

Meanwhile the performances of 19-year-old Dan Evans and his 23-year-old counterpart James Ward were courageous and at times promising. But as the BBC's Jonathan Overend points out in a frank interview in the aftermath of the defeat in Vilnius, it was not for lack of effort that the pair lost out over the weekend's singles rubbers. It was lack of quality that did for them.

Ultimately, responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the LTA. Britain, Andy Murray aside, has consistently failed to produce players of a good enough calibre to defeat teams like Lithuania. Never mind Lithuania - it should never have come to this. Britain should be producing players able to come through previous ties against stronger teams - the likes of Austria, Poland and the Ukraine. 

Instead, the LTA has shown unbelievable hubris. As has been pointed out by many, the LTA's annual budget for producing talent is over £40m; the Lithuanians had a mere £90,000. But after a series of damaging defeats across East/Central Europe which make Operation Barbarossa look like a cakewalk, Britain now languish one match away from Europe Group III and some unwelcoming ties against the likes of Armenia, San Marino, Moldova and Malta. As a tabloid might put it (and who wouldn't love to see this in print?) Vilnius was truly GB's Stalingrad.

Appearances suggest the LTA is currently operating the biggest waste of resources in British sport. It earned £29.2m in 2009 in profits from the Wimbledon Championships. A further £14m was earned in sponsorship and commercial partnerships such as that provided by AEGON, who as an insurance company who ask their customers to "rely on our resilience and experience to help them plan for their financial futures" should really have spent their money more wisely. According to the LTA's 2009 annual report, the organisation has also secured a further sum of up to £26m over the next four years from Sport England - a public body which draws from tax revenues. Yes, that's right, your money is being spent on this failure, and plenty of it.

And where does it go?

£40m has been spent on the new tennis centre at Roehampton, south-west London, which opened to great fanfare in 2007. It has 22 courts, which is good, and a hydrotherapy unit, which is probably not an entirely necessary facility for producing tennis players. Either way, it has been criticised in some quarters as, well, a bit of a waste, not least in the Daily Mail, in its own imitable (but on this occasion pertinent) way:

The LTA spent £500,000 last year financing its elaborate canteen at Roehampton's National Tennis Centre, which is five times the annual budget for Lithuanian tennis. As [Dan] Evans could testify, all the five-star nutritional dishes in the world are not much help when you are faced with a deciding rubber against a hungry East European feeding off constant adrenalin refills from hugely patriotic support.

Not sure if that reference to "a hungry East European" isn't a tiny bit racist, mind.

And then there's the six-figure salaries to top coaches, £2.2m per annum by some estimates to men such as Paul Annacone, Peter Lundgren and Brad Gilbert, none of whom have really cut the mustard. In Lundgren's case, a rather embarrassing episode in 2007 culminated in the Swede, who had previously successfully coached Roger Federer and Marat Safin, being placed on gardening leave before being moved on.

The millions of pounds being spent with no end product is a diabolical misuse of valuable assets. The contrast could not be clearer, coming in the wake of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, where Amy Williams won gold in the skeleton despite the British Olympic Association having received only £6.5m investment in winter sports in the last four years.

The first decade of the 21st century taught us that money helps sport and athletes to thrive. I give you Chelsea FC as a case in point. The second decade has already revealed, through Portsmouth FC in particular, that hubris, mismanagement and financial excess in sport are liable to be severely punished. The LTA is no exception, and heads will roll.

Monday, 1 March 2010

A Shocking Tackle - but not a Malicious One

Aside from Manchester United's victory in the Carling Cup and "Handshake-gate" at Stamford Bridge, the weekend's sporting headlines were dominated by the shocking injury suffered by Arsenal's 19-year-old midfielder Aaron Ramsey in his side's match against Stoke on Saturday evening.

I have no intention of amplifying the morbid fascination of many in the media, by publishing or providing links to footage of the incident. For those who haven't seen it, a description will suffice. In the 65th minute Stoke's Ryan Shawcross won the ball in the middle of the field. Shawcross took a heavy touch a couple of yards in front of him, and in attempting to retrieve the ball dived at pace into a challenge. Ramsey, arriving a split second ahead of Shawcross, flicked the ball away from the Stoke man's path, and was on the receiving end of Shawcross's outstretched foot.

The result - Ramsey suffered a fractured tibia and fractured fibula. He underwent a successful operation on Saturday night, though Arsenal are thus far refusing to provide a timescale for the player's return to action.

Given the seriousness of the injury, unsurprisingly public discussion of the incident has been dominated by immense sympathy for Ramsey, something to which I feel moved to add. Ramsey was one of the players The Cynical Challenge picked out as one to watch in 2010, and it is cruel that we are to be deprived of such a talented individual for what may be a long time. More than that, though, the idea that a young man should suffer so terribly in the line of sport, or entertainment, is a sobering prospect for any football supporter. One only hopes he can make a full recovery and will return to top-level football as quickly as possible.

But questions have also been posed about whether Ramsey has been unlucky, or whether Shawcross's challenge was unnecessarily violent and reckless.

Given the club's recent history of such injuries - Abou Diaby and Eduardo have suffered similar leg fractures in the last five years - Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger was forthright in his opinion that this was no mere unfortunate accident:

This is a young player who has been kicked out of the game. I'm shocked, that wasn't football. If I have to live with that, I don't want to be involved in the game...This is the third player - Eduardo, Diaby and now Ramsey – we've lost to tackles that are unacceptable, and spare me the articles tomorrow about how nice Shawcross is because we had all that with Eduardo.

Wenger is entitled to vent his fury, especially in the immediate aftermath of a game. But in the cold light of day many football fans are adopting similarly emotive rhetoric - often at the expense of a fair reading of the incident. Arseblog, for example, offers this thought:

I believe that these three injuries are a direct consequence of the 'Arsenal don't like it up 'em' ethos which has become conventional wisdom in recent years. 'They don't like being kicked', the implication that the wimpy foreigners can't take it. And it has been peddled across the football world by reporters, TV pundits, radio commentators, Sky Sports presenters and anyone else you can think of. 'Arsenal don't like it up 'em', as if Arsenal were somehow unique in this. Let me tell you, nobody likes it 'up em'.
I'm not sure that's an accurate depiction of the Ramsey incident, nor in fact the notorious tackle by Birmingham's Martin Taylor on Eduardo two years ago. Speed and momentum are what turned these challenges from bone-shaking to bone-breaking, and given that the Premier League is played at such a high tempo - something it is lauded for - it is clearly a factor in the relative prevalence of such injuries on these shores.

Besides, bad tackles - indeed, tackles seemingly worse than Shawcross's, and with obviously greater intent - occur all the time in the Premier League, in league and non-league football, and in football leagues across Europe and the world. Only rarely do they result in injuries as bad as Ramsey's. One can only deduce that Arsenal have been really unlucky.

If there is any single odious act of violence on a football field it is not this kind of high impact, mis-timed tackle. More, it is the calculated use of the elbow to the head of an opponent. There were a spate of incidents of this kind in the English leagues in the mid-1990s, the worst of which saw Wimbledon's John Fashanu fracture the cheekbone and eye-socket of Tottenham Hotspur's Gary Mabbutt. As recently as 2008 Sheffield United's Chris Morgan dealt a similarly malicious blow to Ian Hume of Barnsley, resulting in the latter receiving a fractured skull. If anything deserves mass vilification, it is this kind of incident.

Having said that, it is easy to understand why fans react so vociferously to incidents such as the Shawcross tackle on Ramsey. As noted concerning the waves of sympathy for Ramsey, it is the shocking nature of the injury which provokes such emotive criticism of Shawcross, Stoke and the euphemistically-termed "no-nonsense" approach of certain teams and individuals. Quite simply, witnessing such incidents shocks (in the medical, as well as the more general, sense) football fans. It jolts us from our comfortable armchair view that athletes are playing their part in theatre, and reminds us that they are putting their bodies on the line for our entertainment.

This reaction is fanned - unintentionally, perhaps - by the wall-to-wall coverage of the incident. Footage, stills and photographs of the tackle have been pervasive since Saturday evening. They are shocking and sickening, and it is no surprise that this provokes an emotional response.

But emotion and reason do not make for easy bedfellows. And for a reasonable assessment of the Ramsey-Shawcross tackle, we need to dissociate the shock of what we witnessed on Saturday from the realities of sport. As hard as it may be to accept, the physical rough-and-tumble of a sporting contest can lead, on occasion, to such outcomes as Ramsey's injury. Mercifully, though, such incidents remain rare.