Hardman's Thoughts

Pretty much everything…


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Everton Goalscorers

At the weekend, Everton beat Hull 4-0. In the process, they became the first Premier League side this weekend to have 15 different goalscorers. For a team apparently too reliant on Romelu Lukaku, this is definitely a positive sign!

Of course, the reliance is obvious when you look at the number of goals scored by each player. Lukaku has 21, the next best is four.

But how many of those 15 players can you name in 15 minutes? Click the link below to have a go!

//www.sporcle.com/framed/?v=7&pm&gid=10cf754849b4&fid=58d3a6dd6ea5a&width=580


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Three sports, three players, three hundred words

Romelu Lukaku has now scored more league goals than any other Everton player in the history of the Premier League. People are, ridiculously, making a big deal about it. Let’s put this into some perspective. He’s scored 61 goals, one more than Dixie Dean scored in the 1927-28 season (yes, football existed before 1992). Everton have been in the top flight since the PL was created, along with Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham. Their top goal scorers have 175, 180, 128, 147 and 97 goals respectively. Yes, Lukaku breaking Ferguson’s record is a little bit of history but that doesn’t mean we should be celebrating it.

Eoin Morgan scored another one-day century this week. Only seven players (four from South Africa) have scored more runs than him in the format this year, and only one from the same amount of innings. Our captain is fourth on the all-time list for English players, while the century in the first match against West Indies pulled him level with Kevin Pietersen. It means only Marcus Trescothick has hit more tons. Trescothick’s 12 centuries is well within reach, as is Ian Bell’s record of 5400 runs (Morgan is about 900 behind). England’s greatest? Possibly, at least until Joe Root catches up!

Andy Murray has remained at number one for the 18th week in a row. That makes it sound defensive, the truth is he’s comfortable there – at least until the French Open! Djokovic has points galore to defend at the next two tournaments – Indian Wells and Miami, where Andy lost in the third round at both last year. Andy won in Dubai last week as Djokovic lost to Kyrgios in Mexico. Djokovic will almost certainly still finish the year top of the pile, but March is a great chance for Murray to continue cementing his place in tennis history.


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The Struggles of Cricket

The walk to the crease is a long one. There is so much that can go wrong. Even before you get to the middle. Not easy on a good day, if you are a batter struggling with form, the walk can feel like a marathon. Every step will pose a new question, every breath a new worry.

When Jonathan Trott quoted stress as the reason for leaving the 2013-14 Ashes, he followed Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy as England players leaving overseas tours in the past ten years. But then, every sport has stresses. Every sport will produce struggles. If that’s true, why do more cricketers seem to stumble and quit at the highest level?

“I think the nature of the sport means that players are away on tour, or travelling a vast amount of the time.” Russell Discombe is a lecturer in Sport and Performance Psychology at the University of Winchester, working in cricket for the past 15 years: “Cricketers are used to living in hotels and having to make do with Skype or phone calls to loved ones for a large amount of the Summer, if not year round.”

The reality is, we’ve heard all this before. Why, despite years of coverage, does nothing appear to be changing?

Russell describes cricket as a “unique sport” when it comes to the length of tours, but believes the concerns do not stop with visiting foreign countries. He explains: “You are an individual within a team environment. You are part of the team, yes, but there is a lot of pressure for you to produce individual performances. It is also a lot easier [nowadays], with stats for example, for the media and fans to pinpoint players that might be letting the team down.”

The format hasn’t changed, the sport hasn’t altered, and therefore the problems still occur.

Does the combined pressure of being away from families for long periods of time and being out of nick in the public eye make cricket mentally a tougher sport than others? Russell pauses for a moment to consider that: “That’s a hard question to answer. The game is much longer so you might argue that this is more challenging than other sports.”

When this question has been approached in the past, the tendency has been to look at cricket and where cricket can go wrong, rather than compare it to other sports. A comparison with other team, and individual, sports could be necessary to understand as to why cricketers face more battles.

Again, Russell considered this for a minute before answering: “I think all of the on-field challenges are very similar. You still have an opposition doing their best to try and beat you, and you still need to be mentally prepared to perform.” This would imply there is something fundamentally different about cricket, which Russell goes on to explain: “Having said that the games can last for up to five days, so the ability to manage concentration – not switching on and off – is vitally important.”

Concentration. It’s the buzzword of cricket psychology. Alastair Cook, England’s highest run scorer of all time, is renowned for his concentration whereas the opening partners he’s had since Andrew Strauss retired have all suffered from vital lapses in it at crucial moments.

Retaining concentration for one ball is a little thing, however, when repeated for hours on end can become a huge problem. It’s along this path where Russell believes cricket is fundamentally different to other sports.

“I do feel that there are a lot more organisational stressors placed on cricketers. Things such as travel, living in hotels, living with teammates, short contracts, training all winter indoors, the hectic schedule, switching formats etc. These can all impact on the mental health of the individual. They might seem like small things but after years of doing this they can be impactful.”

Short contracts are an interesting factor. Rarely mentioned in most discussions regarding mental struggles, Russell believes they bring uncertainty, explaining: “Unless you are a well-established player or international you might go through your career and not receive a contract longer than two years.”

This factor is made more worrying given Russell’s belief about when complications are more likely to manifest: “I think these issues can happen at any point during a career. However, I believe they are particularly prevalent during transitions within the game. Changing or uncertain times can certainly add pressure or worries to the players.”

Russell points out that depression can have a disastrous effect on a player’s career, adding: “It can bring careers to a premature end.” And that is a terrifying prospect, given that Russell believes not every sufferer is aware of his or her problems.

Why is this? “I think in general the public knowledge of mental illness is very poor, and there is a lack of awareness and stigma attached to mental illness.” Russell adds that more education is needed. He even makes hints during our conversation that this is necessary within the game itself.

A, not entirely unexpected, recurring theme during my chat with Russell was the issue of family. Touring takes the player away from their, sometimes young, family, and it is the family who has to deal with the brunt of the illness. This means a stress-related illness can have a negative effect on life at home.

“Mental illnesses don’t just affect the on-field performances; these issues encompass all aspect of the individual’s life.” Russell explains: “It can affect relationships, jobs/careers; sleep patterns, general health and fitness etc.”

On top of his lecturing, Russell is a coach at a local cricket club, where he also plays regularly. As part of these roles he has played with, and coached, many youngsters looking to make their way in the game.

I asked whether he thought the fact that cricket publically struggles with mental health is putting children off taking up the sport. In positive news, he wholeheartedly believes it doesn’t, but warns that more needs to be done.

“I feel that numerous younger players view travelling as one of the exciting ‘perks’ of the sport. They often don’t realise, however, that the novelty of it and being away from family can soon wear off. I think we could do more to educate younger players about cricket’s stressors.”

So, why do cricketers seem to struggle more than other sportspeople? When disclosing their troubles, Russell doesn’t believe that cricketers are necessarily more honest than other athletes. So, this could mean that the answer lies with the unique nature of the sport. This may lead to challenges that other athletes don’t face. While it can be said about most sports, the difference in cricket is, as Russell mentioned, the organisational stressors stemming from long tours and three formats.

From the travelling involved with international cricket, to the media pressures that come with being out of nick, to the short contracts handed out to the young professionals right down to just switching formats. Through the eyes of a psychologist, cricket’s problems are prevalent everywhere and at every level of the sport.

Russell clearly does not believe that cricketers are born more vulnerable to mental illness. However, for every bad shot, or every drop, the walk to the middle gets longer, the struggles, as Russell referred to, become greater. Yet, the question still remains – how do we help those who are suffering? Is the sport doing enough? How do we make sure that another promising career doesn’t come to a devastating, premature end?


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Ramble #15

The English are coming

Nothing quite splits opinion in the sporting world like the Indian Premier League. Similar to marmite, you either love it or you hate it. Personally, I’ve always loved it but have been disappointed with the lack of English players. 

That has now all changed. Traditionally, Eoin Morgan and Kevin Pietersen were regulars with Andrew Flintoff playing the first season. But outside of those three, who let’s be honest, are all pretty box office names, no English players were ever represented. 

At the latest auction, taking place as I write, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Alex Hales, Jason Roy, Tymal Mills, Chris Jordan and Jonny Bairstow joined Eoin Morgan in putting themselves forward. Only Hales and Bairstow haven’t been sold, with Ben Stokes becoming the most expensive overseas player. 

With Jos Buttler and Sam Billings being held on by their franchises from last year, the vast majority of England’s T20 outfit will now be plying their trade on the biggest T20 stage of all. And most of them can expect to be regular overseas picks for their franchises.

The most important two will be Stokes and Tymal Mills. Mills was a priority for Royal Challengers Bangalore, who were willing to spend as much as possible to get him. He’s a T20 specialist, with genuine pace which will suit the tracks in Bangalore. He can’t play first-class or 50-over matches so the England set-up will be delighted he was wanted. The more games he plays in this environment, the better for England. 

And I’m delighted that Strauss has convinced the England bosses that the IPL is the way forward. Played in front of consistently big crowds, the teams can only field four overseas players per match (but can have a max of nine in their squad). Therefore, the competition for places is high. The English contingent will have to be at their absolute best in every training session to secure those all important places, while competing with huge names such as Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers and Trent Boult. But while these players would have expected in the past to breeze into the side ahead of English players, it is no longer the case. 

Our revolution started with the Bayliss/Strauss/Morgan trio of leaders. It showed potential with a surprise appearance in the final of the Worlds last year and now it’s affirming itself on the world stage with the level of demand in English players at the IPL auction. The competition may not be your favourite, but the sudden acceptance of English players can only be good for the game in this country. 


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Joel Robles

Whisper it quietly, but Everton have been performing quite well recently. We sit pretty atop of the form table over the last five games and fourth in the table concerning the last ten.

There’s a mixture of reasons for the fact we’ve only lost one game in those ten. Firstly, our central midfield has become a pillar of strength, with Koeman spoiled for choice amongst new signing Morgan Schneiderlin, young star Tom Davies, the ever-consistent Idrissa Gana Gueye, improving Ross Barkley, livewire James McCarthy and the experienced Gareth Barry. We found success while Gueye was on international duty using a 5-3-2 system, but the Senegalese rock’s return has seen an indifferent return to the 4-3-3 with Barkley on the wings rather than in the centre. Hopefully the, by all accounts, lacklustre draw away at Boro is the end of that.

Secondly, and what I want to focus this blog on is the improvement at the back. Mason Holgate and Ramiro Funes Mori have come in to replace Phil Jagielka, and Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman appear more at home as wing-backs rather than full-backs but neither of those changes have made the biggest difference.

That, instead, lies with the goalkeeper. First choice at the start of the season, Marteen Steklenburg got injured in the Merseyside Derby, and was replaced by Joel Robles. Many Everton fans, myself included, as harsh as this sounds, were relieved because, quite frankly, Stek is a liability and Robles is something of a rock.

In his ten matches this season, nine in this current run, one against West Ham earlier, Joel has kept six clean sheets. He’s conceded seven goals. Ok, so seven goals in four games isn’t a great record but looking individually at the goals it’s hard to pinpoint any of the blame on Joel.

In 16 matches earlier this year, Stekenlenberg conceded 20 goals and only kept two clean sheets. He became a little bit of a hero against Manchester City with two penalty saves, but that was more of the exception than the rule.

With Joel between the sticks, our defenders look much more solid. And that allows our attacks to be more fluid. Which, unsurprisingly, has led to better results. Joel makes an average of 3 saves per match, Steklenberg only 2.1. Joel’s seven goals conceded in ten matches is the fewest of any goalkeeper to have reached double figures for appearances this season. There’s no question that Joel deserves to be, and should be for a very long time, Everton’s number one.

Personally, I’m a massive fan of the Spaniard. When Everton were collapsing last term, he was conceding three or four goals every time we played away. And yet he was consistently our best player. Without him, our goal difference last season would have been negatively astronomical. That went unnoticed by most, so I’m glad he’s now starting to prove himself with a decent defence who actually want to play for the manager.

And just to top it all off, his celebrations are boss.


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Saltire-ra?

Following an overdue victory at the latest World T20, how can Scotland use the experience to propel themselves towards a brighter future?

Nagpur, India, 12th March 2016. Scotland were playing Hong Kong in front of an almost empty stadium in the World T20. Both teams had already been eliminated from the tournament and rain had reduced Scotland’s run chase.

Scotland, donning bright pink shirts, required four to win from 13 balls with Sussex batsman, and part-time spinner, Matt Machan facing Hong Kong’s spinner Nadeem Ahmed. Machan, not wanting to hang around, placed his back knee on the crease, put his front foot forward and sent the ball over midwicket to end the match with a six.

For most of the world, it had nothing riding on it. For Scotland, that six was the shot that sealed their first ever victory at an ICC tournament. At the 20th attempt. All those involved with Cricket Scotland were delirious.

Machan came to the crease after Matthew Cross, Scotland’s wicket-keeper, was dismissed. Matthew made an important, brisk 22 that sent Scotland to the verge of victory: “I think the biggest feeling was relief that we had won our first World Cup game. I think it was a matter of when, not if, and we had deserved to win.”

Malcolm Cannon has been Scotland’s CEO for just over a year, hence that tournament was his first in the role. He recollects: “The tournament was a great learning curve and opportunity for Associate members.”

The tournament saw eight nations split into two groups of four, with one from each progressing to the next round, when the test nations joined. The early matches, those involving the Associates, were all played in less than a week.

The format meant that every run was crucial, every dropped catch fatal. In their second match, Scotland found themselves 20 for four. The pressure of the situation had told.

For Matthew, the experience brings back a mixture of emotions. He describes playing in India as “great”, but adds: “The only disappointing aspect was having won the original qualifying tournament [to get to India] to have to go through another qualifying group.”

Malcolm acknowledges this, but still sees the tournament as a success for his nation: “Scotland got themselves into winning positions in all three games and got over the line in only one – frustrating or not this is progress.”

At all major tournaments, Associate nations usually come in and leave with their heads held high. There are the occasional drubbings, but in most matches they provide more of a test than most people think they will.

In the 50-over edition, it is usually Ireland who produces the biggest splash – who can forget flame-haired Kevin O’Brien’s inspirational knock to dispatch England in Bangalore?

For T20, the traditional giant-killers have been Netherlands, but in 2016 it was the sport’s newest nation that picked up the mantra. Playing an aggressive, no fear form of cricket, Afghanistan won many friends as they toppled test nations Zimbabwe and eventual champions West Indies.

Eight runs. Two fours. For Netherlands, that was the difference between progression and an early flight home. Their captain, Peter Borren, gave an emotional press conference after the tournament, which included a plea for more opportunities. He went on to say: “There is a lot of money in cricket. [It’s] just not really being spent on expanding the game.”

More money would lead to more opportunities. But, with the money that Cricket Scotland receives, Malcolm has an idea about where he intends to spend it and how it will improve Scotland’s quality of cricket.

“We have a strategy, which we published in January this year, looking to grow the sport at grass roots level, growing the number of girls and women involved in the sport significantly and improving our world standing in both the men’s and women’s game.”

The strategy is focused very much on improving the stature of the sport within Scotland. Statistics on participation levels of sports played in Scotland are hard to come by, but a survey by SportScotland in 2008 found that only one per cent of 8-15-year-olds play cricket once a month. For girls of that age, that figure drops to 0.5 per cent.

While slightly out-dated, it proves there is a lot of work to be done to improve the profile of the sport. How does Malcolm intend to get more youngsters active?

“We are working with clubs and schools and recently won the Global Development Award from ICC for our schools and clubs programme. We are also raising the noise level around both men’s and women’s cricket through traditional and social media all the time.”

Their programme includes support to cricket clubs from professionals, and a scheme to improve local facilities. There is clearly a drive to recruit more grassroots cricketers.

Malcolm already believes they have some “very strong” prospects in the next generation, with his vision looking to provide a better structure through which to nurture Scottish talents.

At the professional level, Malcolm hints at the potential for expansion, but the desire to become a Test nation is never explicitly stated. And then, how easy is it to improve when you’re not reaping the rewards of being a full member?

Scotland’s status within the game is a consideration when setting future targets, however Malcolm doesn’t see it as a hindrance: “The ambitions, while a stretch, are achievable as they focus on realistic targets which are not attached to being a Test-playing nation, but more on developing our footprint on the global game through the greater amount of contextual cricket played at all levels in the shorter formats.”

And that vision has been handed a boost at the ICC conference in July, hosted by Cricket Scotland in Edinburgh. A revamp of the ODI structure was on the agenda, with a 13-team league over three years discussed. While Scotland aren’t guaranteed a slot in this, at least to begin with, it opens the potential for playing more regular matches, including away ones, against Test nations.

At this stage, Matthew thinks the idea has merit and that Scotland would “deserve to be there”. However, he adds: “It’s more a question of whether the big teams would co-operate.”

Edinburgh’s agenda also brought to the table the tantalising prospect of two divisions for Tests. Peter Borren could be grinding out a draw in the Caribbean, as Ireland blow Bangladesh away in overcast conditions during the first morning in Dublin. Scotland, initially at least, would be waiting in the wings for their chance to shine in white.

“The ICC has some very exciting plans to introduce more context to all three formats of the game, and we are wholly supportive of these ideas.” Malcolm tells me: “These proposals enable existing members to play more cricket and to be ‘promoted’ up the ranks while exposing existing full members to potential ‘relegation’.”

This new push for globalisation seems to have been a direct result of the failings of the World T20. Along with Peter Borren’s comments, Irish captain William Porterfield told a press conference: “It is a shame that the ICC at the top level insist on cutting teams … It doesn’t happen in any other sport. Every sport grows.” He went on to claim that Associates’ requests fall on deaf ears.

It’s a statement that Matthew agrees with, ruefully admitting Scotland play “nowhere near enough games against the top ten teams”.

However, just a few months after the World T20, Porterfield got his wish. Barring injury, he will become the first Irish captain in history to lead his nation out at Lords, as early as next summer.

What about Scotland then? Is a similar event on the horizon for them? If it is, Malcolm is keeping it secret.

“We work closely with the ECB on England and England A fixtures. We will be playing England in 2018 in Scotland.” He goes on to tease that the future tours programme “should offer all nations some exciting opportunities”.

This is important, as all the talk about growing the game at the grassroots level will be futile if the professional sides can’t get regular cricket. Fixtures are crucial, including regular playing time for their cricketers.

So, how many fixtures would Scotland play in an ideal world? Malcolm is unsure: “It’s still to be decided what the ideal amount of international cricket is – there are vast discrepancies even between full members.” The tone of his answer suggests that he feels Scotland could benefit from more.

In Nagpur, on Scotland’s fateful night, Matt Machan took a couple of wickets before hitting that winning six. He’s one of the few members of the side to turn out regularly for a county at grounds up and down England.

With a stint at Nottinghamshire behind him, Matthew is currently on Essex’s books. He was enthusiastic when I asked him if he would recommend the system to young Scottish players: “Playing against different and professional opposition every week improves you and brings different challenges.”

Malcolm is also a fan of the system: “We feel this is a good way for our players to get high-quality games and coaching in a well-tested structured environment.”

Matthew has felt the effects of the different coaching: “Training with Scotland is more specific to our certain roles within the team, whereas county training is a bit more relaxed and guys are usually given the freedom to train what they feel they need to.”

It’s quite clear to see how, with Matthew being an all-rounder, the two methods have been beneficial to him.

When pressed about how they will get more players through the system, Malcolm can’t see things changing much from how they are, stating: “We will work closely with counties over the coming years.”

Currently using the system to his advantage, Matthew has plans to play regular county cricket, aiding his attempts to help Scotland win more matches.

Currently, only ten nations play international cricket at the highest level. In a world with over 200 countries, the potential pool of recruitment for cricket is low. With the popularity, and global nature, of sports such as football continuing to grow, cricket is in real danger of being left behind.

With continued impressive performances on the international stage, and a renewed emphasis on equal opportunities from captains, this year feels groundbreaking for Associate nations.

The winner of the ICC Intercontinental Cup will play the lowest ranked Test team for the chance to become the 11th Test nation. It’s a carrot gladly gobbled up by nations hungry for the chance to progress. But it wasn’t enough. Edinburgh offered another light at the end of the tunnel; the wheels of revolution had begun to roll.

This year’s World T20 was initially a poisoned chalice for the Associates. They had next to no time to make their mark. At the time, the next World T20 wasn’t scheduled for another four years.

When Matt Machan hit that six over mid-wicket, the Scottish players went crazy on the bench. As Matthew explained, it was probably an outpouring of relief. But if any of them were thinking about their future, their country’s future, they might have considered one where that six was the last taste of major tournament cricket they would experience. Back then, it felt like a possibility.

Through moments like that, Borren and Porterfield and the reaction to the passion of the Associates, the ICC have announced the next World T20 will take place two years earlier than planned. They’ve even expanded it to allow more Associates the chance to impress.

Matthew wants to play in more World Cups, and the ICC finally look ready to commit.

Nagpur, India, early March, a half empty stadium. It wasn’t the most glamorous of settings. On the surface, it was proof that the Associates don’t bring in the crowds. Scratching underneath, however, reveals two countries locked in a battle of importance for eras to come.

Machan’s six altered the course of Scottish history, and potentially the Associates’ future.

It just might drive a generation of Scottish cricketers to an endgame where they don’t play to survive; they compete to thrive.


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The Return of Jose Baxter

If you gave me a million years to think of things that could happen to Everton in this transfer window, I would never even have considered the possibility of a return for Jose Baxter.

Yet that is what is being claimed in many newspapers this morning. That the 24-year-old will, at the end of the year, receive a 12-month contract with the Blues. It’s a genuine report, as the articles contain quotes from U23 manager David Unsworth, the man behind the deal.

The deal isn’t, according to Unsworth, a first team contract – Baxter will link up with the U23s, and is free to move to a league club during or following the contract. It follows a stint where the young striker has been working with our charity, Everton in the Community. Baxter’s career highlights include becoming the youngest player to ever play for Everton, fading into obscurity with Oldham and later Sheffield United (interestingly, signed by Unsworth there too) before two drug bans have left him outside of football.

It’s fair to say that the twitter reaction to the news hasn’t been 100% positive. I’ve seen a few people following my stance, but most people are claiming that this is a bad deal for Everton. I don’t see why.

They say that he’ll hold back the development of a proper prospect, yet I doubt that’s the case. Unsworth’s U23 are doing incredibly well and we’re talking about a man who in the one game he managed with Everton’s first team started Pennington, Dowell and Davies and brought Kenny off the bench. I think it’s incredibly harsh to accuse Unsworth of potentially holding players back – after all, he’s the one actively pushing for further opportunities for his squad.

Secondly, they say it’ll block first team players getting back to fitness with the U23s (due to the quotas on the number of players over 23 allowed to play). That would be the case if there was a limit on the number allowed in the squad, rather than on matchdays. It’s simple, if we have a rare time where more than 3 over 23-year-olds are unfit, then Baxter won’t be involved. That’s a non-issue.

The benefits of those are both for the club and the player himself, admittedly mainly the latter. But what I find most amusing is that the fans who are moaning the loudest tend to be the same fans who berate clubs for not showing loyalty to fans, managers and players.

This is a fine example of loyalty. Here is a player who has become lost, returning home to regain fitness, get regular playing time and have an opportunity to decide what he wants to do with his life. Let’s be clear here: there’s no future for Baxter in Everton’s first team. I see this deal as a free pass, the perfect chance for Jose to reboot his career, or change it completely.

There are many rumors flying around, one suggests he has been studying accountancy. If that’s true, is this not then going to give him the financial support he needs to complete that and find a job elsewhere? If that doesn’t go well, this will allow him to get a more permanent contract with lower league clubs. I severely doubt Unsworth will allow him to rot in the U23s for much longer than a year.

But above all that, this deal is exactly what I want Everton to be doing. Looking after their own, helping young people who have strayed from where they should be and offering a comfortable and familiar surrounding for rehabilitation and reignition.

It was strange news to wake up to, but I see it as a positive step and I’m fairly proud of my club for doing it.