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Introducing … Josh Still

Josh Still is on the eve of the biggest day of his life: his marriage to Tanya Hockley. The 23-year-old lives with Tanya down in Stone Cross, near Eastbourne, works for Conservative MP Nus Ghani, has degrees from LSE and Yale; and has a huge passion for sport. It was a wide-reaching conversation …

  1. How, when and where did you met Tanya?

Tanya and I met in America – I was studying at Yale, and she was on a placement there. We met at a mutual friend’s British-themed party, which is definitely something quirky to tell people

  1. What was the first thing you guys spoke about?

I don’t remember our first words, but I remember we spoke at length that night about the dissertation Tanya was writing about whether a robot could have a soul. I remember saying ‘what if humans don’t even have souls?’ I don’t know if I’d still say that now…

  1. Given what you’ve just said – do you consider yourself a Christian?

Yes, I’ve now been confirmed as such. That’s not to say I don’t have questions and doubts – I think that’s very normal, and signing up to dogma will never be my thing. I’ll also always be very sceptical of authority & systems that enable certain human beings to exercise too much power over others. There’s been too much of that in the church, and even the most cursory reading of what Jesus actually taught will tell you that’s not what he wanted. I think my faith is more personal to me – I don’t pay too much attention to what bishops & archbishops etc. are saying. Because while I say yes, I don’t think it’s the only way. I think all religions essentially do the same thing & ask the same questions, but that every culture & human society does/did religion in its own way. Maybe they all glimpse part of the broader truth?

  1. What advice would you give to people who are sceptical about the idea of religion?

I don’t want to tell people what to believe. I don’t think you need faith to be a kind and caring person, which is ultimately what matters. What I would encourage though is for people to always challenge the simplistic narrative that they’re fed. Our society & our media deride religious views as antiquated and irrelevant, which when you look into it more closely, isn’t really fair. As society modernises and becomes ever more capitalist and technologically driven, we’re becoming ever more anxious & depressed personally, and our jobs at work are becoming more insecure. We’re told that appearance; money and status are what matter. A tiny elite control so much of the wealth. Distrusting other people & being cynical are considered virtues. I think both as a society, and especially as individuals within it, we could use a bit more religion. It proves that there is a better way to live life, and gives us a message of hope and redemption.

  1. Has Tanya, or your experiences down on the south coast, directly impacted your thoughts on any other issues?

Yeah I think so. I’ve developed and matured as a person, no doubt. And intellectually, I’ve changed a lot as I’ve learned more about the world, but I think my core principles are the same. It’s just while I once thought that socialism was a good way of achieving them, and religion wasn’t, actually I think I got it the wrong way round. I now hate the idea of a government filled with people following their own agendas & interests telling me how to live my life & particularly if it’s ever run by the modern-day intellectually stunted left-wing activists that have decided that they know the right things to think, and so freedom of speech is now outdated. That will never be true. Different opinions are good, unpopular opinions will always be how you improve society & unpleasant opinions are the price that you pay for that. In the media, I always make sure I read the most controversial columnists from all viewpoints, because they’re the ones that have something interesting to say. I know I’m a bizarre mix really – I’m a contrarian religious advocate of the freedom of the individual who wants to leave the EU but let more refugees in. Which is crazily different, but I actually like that, and I look forward to seeing how my mind changes as the facts change in the future!

  1. What about the idea of marriage?

It’s good for us, and I like the idea of God blessing our union. Whether it’s best for everyone else is for them to decide, but I do find the modern trend of increasing divorce very sad.

  1. How do you think you will feel when you see Tanya walking down the aisle?

I’m sure I’ll cry. I cried on the train reading the end of a tale of two cities the other day, so I’m sure I will at the happiest moment of my life

  1. What are your plans immediately after the wedding?

Night at the ritz, 2 weeks honeymoon exploring America & being off work – sounds good to me!

  1. And then, general future plans – do you want the typical happily married with 2 kids and a dog or do you see you guys following a different path?

I’m not sure about the dog … But yeah, I’d want kids in a few years. I think it’s one of the most innate and powerful human desires that we have

  1. Do you have any ideas for names?

Yes, but I’m not giving them away yet!

  1. You’ve been to university on both sides of the pond, how did the experiences differ?

I think both could have been better. The academic systems were very different, and I found Yale’s harder – but maybe that’s because it was Yale! But I didn’t like the undergraduate drinking culture, nor the idea of what university is now – for middle-class people to get good jobs. It should be about education. And Yale was just too powerful – it owns like half of new haven, and their fees are ridiculous. But it pretends that if it can stop its students saying mean things about Native Americans, it’s all lovely and progressive. Absolute bull.

  1. For people who have never travelled there, just how different is America?

Well, we speak the same language & we have a shared history. So it’s closer to us than most European countries are. In a lot of ways, it’s the same but with different twists. But the cities look very different – the roads run in straight lines, there’s lots more cars and, of course, lots more ghettoes and racial segregation in a way we don’t understand here

  1. What is it like working for an MP? What are the most difficult aspects, and what are the more enjoyable ones?

I think the difficult and the enjoyable aspects are both to do with meeting people. MPs attract the local fools, who it’s never fun to deal with. But you also meet some incredible people too, which can be really quite humbling. And incredible when we can actually do something to help them.

  1. Do you still get a sense of wonder every time you walk into parliament, or is it now just your office?

It’s now just an office. And I hate that! I still do like taking people on tours though – if you’re ever interested (ed – I told him I was)!

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  1. Do you ever miss Nottingham?

Of course. I grew up there & love coming back. Most of my friends & family are up there too, as you know. I think Nottingham will always be a part of who I am. And Nottingham forest – a big club that wants to be successful, but doesn’t always succeed, and is small enough to be an outsider rather than part of the elite. I identify with that.

  1. Talking about Forest, just what can they achieve?

Quite a lot actually. I want you to shoot me if I ever become one of these fans that’s happy to accept middling along in 16th place for the next 5 years. Look at how sporting a city Nottingham is – we could sustain a PL club without question. And our squad, if they all stay fit, is definitely good enough to compete for the top 6. I want us to aim high. But we need to finally appoint a good manager rather than the dross we’ve had to put up with for most of the next 15 years, and then Fawaz has to back him with money and time, and hire people who know how to run the club and leave it to them. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Look at Wes Morgan, captain of a Premier-League winning side. He was in League One with us for 3 years so it shows you just what can be achieved. And we’ve produced players like Lascelles, who’s now a PL regular, and discovered Antonio, who is too. It can definitely be done!

  1. How do you feel about sport in general? Has it reached a point where it’s too based around money and winning or is it still an enjoyable spectacle?

Well, now I’ve stopped going to Forest so much, I find myself rapidly losing interest in football generally – which I think has sold its soul. But I think sport will always be a big love in my life, and I’m trying to get more into sports like tennis, rugby, county cricket, ice hockey etc. which have been far less corrupted by money so far. And I’m really enjoying it. Not to mention tennis, the best sport in the world, which is superb both for gender equality, and for the fact that only about the top 50 men and women in the world earn big money. Which I’m fine with, as they have insane ability. But the rest have to earn a living, so they’re more relatable for the fans.

  1. Finally, a bold question which I like asking people , how can we make the world a better place to live?

I don’t think there’s a set template. I think that everybody needs to do it in their own way. Take a look at yourself and discern what your calling is in life, and listen to the best parts of your nature, and you’ll know what to do. There’s a million and one different ways to help people and to change the world, and we need people to do all of them!

Josh and Tanya will get married tomorrow (14th May 2016) at St Luke’s Church in Stone Cross.

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Introducing … Emma Still

Emma Still, 19, has lost over four stones in a year. The only aspects of her life she directly changed were diet and exercising. However, it’s had a much greater effect on her entire life. It’s easy to say she’s happier; it’s more realistic to say she’s completely changed her entire perspective on life and health. She’s written a blog on her transformation, and it’s well worth a read.

  1. You mention self-esteem throughout the blog and I was wondering if there’s a connection between that and the weight loss. Namely, is that the reason this diet has succeeded where your others haven’t?

From my experience, weight loss and self-esteem do seem to have some sort of connection. I’ve always been happier and more confident when I’ve lost weight and miserable when I put on weight. Therefore, when I put on the 2 and a half stone in 2014 and was the heaviest I had been I was at my worst. However, weight loss isn’t the only contributor to self-esteem because I would still say that my self-esteem isn’t the best. I mean, I still find it difficult to talk to people I meet for the first time. You can’t depend on weight loss to boost your self-esteem because a lot of other factors contribute towards it. I think this diet succeeded where others haven’t mainly down to the fact that I felt like I wasn’t restricting what I eat too much. Yes, I cut out sugar amongst other things but there are so many alternatives that mean that I still eat almost everything I want to (especially brownies). My self-esteem was of course a factor because it was so low that I knew I needed to make a change because otherwise I would still be where I was today. It was gradually boosted over the course of the year down to the weight loss and a general love of my diet so it could well be the reason why this succeeded.

  1. A lot of this success is down to your change in diet. Which recipe book, and indeed recipe, is your favourite?

I have recently written a blog post on my three favourite bloggers/authors. These are The Green Kitchen, Anna Jones and Tanya Maher (Better Raw). They have each show me how to eat better whilst extremely enjoying what I eat and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be where I am now if not for them. I’ve included some of their recipes in my recent blog post. There are other bloggers that I love as well but I could list them forever so it’s best to ask me personally for the full list. My favourite recipe book is joint between The Green Kitchen and The Green Kitchen Travels mainly because they are awesome recipes whilst containing beautiful photography, which is important to me. However, my favourite recipe is very difficult for me to choose because I have so many recipes that I love. Anna Jones’ Tomato and Coconut Cassoulet in her book A Modern Way to Eat is pretty ace and I tend to eat it every week. I also love pizza and eat that every Friday night using the pizza dough from Honestly Healthy’s first book and then making the topping from Anna Jones’ pizzette. Quite honestly, I don’t think I have a favourite.

  1. Where is the best place to buy these books?

That would have to be Amazon because they always do discounts on these cookbooks as they were all the trend in 2015. However, Waterstones stock all the books as far as I’m aware and I love Waterstones as a store so they’re always good to support even if the books are a bit pricier.

  1. Can you explain your exercise regime in more detail (i.e., what does the interval run consist of, when do you run, do you do anything on top of running)?

I run three times a week (1×16 minute interval run, 1×30 minute, 1×35+ minute) – normally with at least a day break between each run. Usually, it’s a Monday, Wednesday and Saturday although there are times when I’m busy and can’t do a certain day so have to change it. The interval run consists of a 5 minute warm up jog followed by 1 minute sprinting then 1 minute jogging for the next 11 minutes. The 35 minute run we are gradually building up every couple of weeks so we can eventually run further and further. The other days I go walking for at least 10,000 steps which I have an app on my phone to track it. I wouldn’t enjoy the gym or many other forms of exercise so I don’t want to force myself to do them because I wouldn’t keep it up.

  1. What is your favourite form of exercise and what exercises would you recommend to novices?

Nowadays, I actually love running. At the beginning I absolutely hated it because it made me feel so unfit as I was out of breath after about a minute. I’m a very self-conscious person and didn’t want anyone to see me out of breath and sweaty. Now I can run 30 minutes without really breaking much of a sweat and I really enjoy being in the fresh air, as it tends to clear my head. I also love swimming but I don’t go enough because it can be quite expensive to go all the time. Plus, after losing 4 stone I can say that my swimming costume almost certainly won’t fit now!

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For novices, I recommend the couch to 5k by Change4Life because that’s what helped me. It’s a 9 week programme which builds you up gradually to be able to run for 30 minutes. It seems daunting at first but honestly, if I can do it then anyone can because as I said I could barely run for a minute at the start.

  1. Exercising and cutting sugar out of the diet can be hard work. How did you keep going when it was easier to just stop?

Most people can’t go cold turkey like I did because you have to have a hell of a lot of will power to do it. I was completely desperate though on the borderline of being classed as obese and of course my high blood pressure. The way I dealt with getting rid of sugar, dairy, gluten and alcohol from my diet was to just remove the temptation from the house. I’m notoriously bad at feeding myself because I’m quite lazy so if I had bad food in the house then I would eat it, as it’s the easy option. The other way I combated my cravings was to find alternatives to everything I missed. Sugar is easily replaced with dates, honey, agave, maple syrup, coconut palm sugar and many others. I’ve reverted back to eating dairy and gluten because I can’t personally remove them completely from my diet. However, I’ve substituted milk for homemade almond milk, yoghurt for coconut yoghurt (which I either make myself or buy from the supermarket) and cheese can be replaced with nutritional yeast. The only dairy I eat is feta, goats’ cheese and halloumi and gluten wise I try to eat wholewheat products all the time. I drink alcohol rarely nowadays but I drink it on special occasions and if I fancy it then I’m not going to stop myself from drinking. I just don’t really want to drink it much anymore. I certainly don’t judge people who do – I’m really not preachy about my diet.

  1. Is it true that you’re difficult to feed?

When you look at my diet from an outsider’s perspective then it looks daunting if you’ve got to feed me. Honestly though, I’m really not that difficult to feed. Okay, I don’t eat sugar, processed food, most dairy and other things along those lines but ultimately day in day out I mainly eat very basic ingredients. My diet is plant based so if you buy in some fruit and veg or pulses like lentils and beans then you can feed me. I’m not a fussy eater so most likely I’ll eat what you give me. You don’t need to worry about feeding me but if you are then just talk to me about it – I’m very down to earth about my diet as I realise it seems really difficult to someone not used to it.

  1. What advice would you give to people who want to lose weight?

My advice would be to find what works for you. I can’t tell you how to do it because what has worked for me you may absolutely detest. You have to find your motivation to do something about it. However, you need to realise that life is more important than a number on the scales because you should start by being happy with the way you look. You’re never going to look “perfect” because there is no such thing. Like I could still complain that my stomach isn’t flat enough and that is how I feel sometimes but I’ve lost so much weight and I’m healthy so should I really be concentrating on one little flaw? No. So stop weighing yourself all the time and just aim on finding what makes you happy. I found a diet and exercise regime that I love and look where I am now.

  1. How big a factor was your “graduation” from school?

Quite frankly, huge. I’m an emotional eater and it’s fair to say my comfort eating may have been a cause for my weight gain. My two best friends left my school after GCSEs so when I got into sixth form I had barely anyone. I was completely isolated especially seeing as I had fallen out with a few girls a couple of years previously that had turned a lot of people against me. Of course, I was partly to blame for my isolation because I’m not the most talkative and I don’t like to force myself upon people so I didn’t try extremely hard at infiltrating a friendship group. It was difficult though because most friendship groups had been formed years before and they weren’t exactly looking for a new member. I spent my lunchtimes working or in the toilet (I know how sad that sounds but I didn’t feel like I had anywhere else to go) and I left any opportunity I could. No one really tried to involve me in anything and I’m pretty sure most people at that school either didn’t like me or were completely indifferent to me. They made me feel like I was worthless. The sixth form itself wasn’t exactly the best place either: too strict and too focussed on academic subjects. If I ever get successful then none of it is down to my school. In fact, I’m trying to completely disassociate myself with it. My self-esteem has massively improved since leaving in May and I can safely say I’m glad I’m shot of it.

  1. On top of this, you’ve started a photography degree. I know that this is very time consuming. You’ve managed to keep up the exercise, so how would you recommend that people stay active while working?

Some days it is difficult. I don’t eat the best I could; I haven’t done as much exercise as I’ve wanted to or something along those lines. It’s in my personality that I tend to beat myself up about it but my advice would be definitely don’t beat yourself up about it – don’t be like me. If there is one day that you have slipped then it isn’t the end of the world. If it is turning into more than one day then address the issue. You’ve got to be organised more than anything. I have to arrange my running around how my timetable for the week looks. Often, I get up early and do my exercise, which takes a lot of dedication but it’s worth it. It’s better to push yourself to do the exercise than to beat yourself up about it later. Also, I park a little way away from uni so I can go on a little walk before my lessons.

  1. What do you say to people who say photography isn’t a proper degree?

Erm, I’d probably swear at them? Haha no, I just think that is a very ignorant opinion. When people discovered I was going to do a photography degree whilst I was at school I got very judgmental looks and questions. The best was: oh so you’re going to just be taking pictures for three years? It’s not as simple as that. I want a career in photography so why would I take a degree in a really pointless subject that I’m never going to use again? It’s an important degree and an important job and people should stop judging people based on what they’re studying or what university they go to or what their job is. I couldn’t care less if you’re a doctor or an artist – both jobs are as important in our society. It’s more important that you’re a good person than what you do for a living. What I do isn’t “easy” either. It’s not just point and shoot like most amateur photographers do so please educate yourself on photography before telling me it’s not a proper subject and it’s easier than other jobs.

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  1. Finally, what does the future hold in terms of diet, exercise and job prospects?

The wonderful thing about life is that it will all probably change. I’ll find new foods that I love, new exercises that make me feel great and find a job that makes me happy. I can’t say what the future holds but of course I have some aspirations. I’m constantly discovering new ideas surrounding my diet so it will most likely change but not much because I think I’m content with the fundamental principles of it. Exercise wise, I would love to start swimming more when I have a bit more money coming in and of course I want to keep running and walking. I would also love to take up yoga and improve my strength a bit as I’m so weak to the point that I find it difficult to pick up saucepans sometimes. I also want to start meditating more to try and improve my self-esteem and general confidence. Concerning my job, I have always wanted to work for myself. I want my own business and be successful and happy with what I do. My main aspiration is to be a food photographer/stylist so my food blog is very important to me as it is definitely in the industry I want to break. I’ve started selling my photographs on Etsy as a mini start to launching a business so hopefully that’ll go somewhere.

Emma blogs on WordPress, has a Facebook page for her photographs and an Instagram account which she updates daily (to go along with her Etsy account).

If you want to contact her for anything than email her at emma.still@btconnect.com.


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Hope for Home Nations?

When you ask people about the 1958 World Cup, most will mention the emergence of Pele or the first, and to date only, non-European team winning in Europe. Some will talk about it being the first appearance of the Soviet Union, or perhaps that it is the only World Cup where Italy failed to qualify. Yet, maybe the most interesting aspect about it was that all four countries in the UK qualified for the same tournament for the first time. It hasn’t happened since. Could it be about to happen again? The combination of extra slots available at Euro 2016 and an improvement in quality/belief of British sides has opened the door once more for that scenario.

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Wales haven’t graced a major tournament since 1958. The problem for Wales has never been in producing players, it’s been putting them together as a team. In their history they’ve boasted the likes of Southall, Giggs, Speed, Rush and Mark Hughes to name a few. Between 1991 and 1996 all 5 I mentioned there played in the same team but still couldn’t qualify for a tournament. For the 2004 edition of the European Championships, they reached a play-off but weren’t able to find a way past Russia.

Gary Speed was appointed manager in 2010 and he began a revolution, which has led to Wales being genuinely feared in qualifying competitions. While Allen, Ashley Williams, Ben Davies and Chester are all established premier league stars, they don’t exactly match the heights of previous teams. Where this one stands apart is the midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, easily the best British footballers of this generation. The big plus point for Chris Coleman, now the manager, is that all of his players are hitting their peaks at the same time. Speed’s young exciting side is now Coleman’s efficient outfit.

There are two problems for Wales. Firstly, they lack strength in depth, especially in attack. If they suffer a few injuries, the replacements are mediocre at best. Secondly, their lack of appearances on the world stage means they have a low FIFA ranking and hence keep getting hard groups. This time they have to deal with Belgium and Bosnia, both who were at this summer’s World Cup. That being said, a side containing their quality will challenge both sides, indeed they’ve already held Bosnia to a draw in Cardiff. Will they qualify? They just might, second place in their group will be between them and Bosnia so the 10th October next year should be the decider. If they lose that, a third place finish will at least give them the chance of sneaking in through the play-offs.

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Airing the thought that all of the Home Nations could feature at the same tournament usually brings ridicule and the accepted premise that Northern Ireland will never qualify. That stems from the lack of quality in the squad and the deserved low ranking. But again, Northern Ireland are a team on the rise. A lot of their players have played in the Premier League, and they have started UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying as good as anyone with 3 wins from 3 matches. The group contains Romania, Greece, Finland, Hungary and the Faroe Islands so qualification is very possible.

Will it happen? Well, I wouldn’t put any money on it. Despite the good start, including an incredibly impressive win in Greece, Romania and Finland are much better sides on paper than the Ulstermen are. But that isn’t to say it won’t happen. Strange things happen in football and we could see Northern Ireland appearing at their first European Championship and fourth major tournament (following World Cups in 1958, 82 and 86).

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Strangely enough, the only negative press surrounding the home nations has been with regard to English performances despite a 100% record. Roy Hodgson must hate weeks like the one he has just had. Club v Country debates, pointless matches and arguments over tiredness means it has been a loss-loss scenario for Hodgson and England. The most successful home nation have already passed the supposed biggest test of their group and the likes of Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia and San Marino will cause no problems going forward. Nothing is guaranteed in sport, however it would take something biblical to stop England crossing the channel and taking part at Euro 2016.

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Now it’s time for me to eat some humble pie. In March 2013 I wrote an article slamming Scottish football. I said they offered nothing to the world of football, the Scottish system was failing and its continuation was reckless. While I stand by my comments about the SPL, it is inconsequential; they are no longer a mess on the international stage. What changed then? Well, Gordon Strachan seems to have installed a level of belief in them, not only that they can win but they can do it while playing good football.

When the draw was made, Scottish fans must have taken a sharp intake of breath. Germany, Poland and Republic of Ireland lay in wait in easily the toughest of all the draws for the home nations. But, so far, the Scots are making a good fist of it. A narrow defeat in Germany has been followed up by a victory over Georgia and a respectable draw in Poland. They lie fourth in their group, level on points with the World Champions and 3 behind the front-runners Poland and Ireland. These four teams could perceivably be locked in a four-way battle for three spaces throughout this qualifying format and it has to be said that Scotland would be favourites to finish fourth.

Barring England, Scotland have been at more European Championships than any of the other home nations. Admittedly this isn’t hard when Wales and Northern Ireland have never qualified! Can they do it again? Like with Northern Ireland’s group, I fancy the quality of the other teams to shine through and it’ll be up to Scotland to match that. Poland have started really well, capped off with a victory over Germany, but do they have the stamina to keep that up? Playing Scotland and Ireland in the final week rounds off their campaign. Assuming Germany have won the group by then the battle for the final spots will go right down to the wire.

In Euro 2016 there will be 24 teams for the first time in history. Part of the reason for the increase was to allow middle-ranked sides to qualify and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are all in a position to take advantage. For me, it would be a real shame if England are the sole home nation representative. Wales should at least make the play-offs, Northern Ireland have put themselves in a great position to qualify and Scotland will have a chance right up until their final game. All four qualifying would be a massive boost to British football, and make the tournament extra special for us living in the UK. There is even a chance that Ireland could make it 5 teams from the British Isles.

However, we shouldn’t get too wrapped up in rekindling the spirit of 1958. Northern Ireland have a lot of work to do with a relatively weak squad, Scotland have a talented, hard-working side but have been placed in an incredibly difficult group while Wales have a tendency to mess things up. For all this hope and warranted optimism, there is still a real possibility that England, and possibly Ireland, are the only sides we will be supporting come France 2016.


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Questions arising from the events of January 2014

Welcome to my latest feature on this blog – a round up of the key issues thrown up by a month in sport (and hopefully music sometimes). The format is relatively simple – a quick paragraph stating my person of the month followed by 4 or 5 important questions which I will try to answer. I’ll start by asking myself the questions but, as the months go on, hopefully I can persuade one or two others to provide me with some. 

The stand out player this month was Stanislas Wawrinka who helped himself to his first Grand Slam title before helping Switzerland reach the quarter finals of the Davis Cup. The new world number 3 is discussed here, as well as other points raised from the first month of the year.

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How many slams will Wawrinka win?

The Australian Open 2014 was won by Stan Wawrinka, merely a couple of months after the slam-less former British #1 Tim Henman said he couldn’t win one. In the process, Stan became the first man to beat both Nadal and Djokovic at a Grand Slam proving that this victory was no fluke. He has risen to world number 3 and with a game that should suit all surfaces; this victory looks unlikely to be his last.

A few factors are at play in trying to explore the answers to this question. Firstly, during the final in Melbourne, Wawrinka looked like the world’s best player. He pushed Nadal to the brink of retirement. Besides the supposed injury, Nadal looked completely fed up as winner after winner showered his side of the court. There is some debate as to whether Nadal was actually injured or not but either way, it points to Wawrinka winning more slams. Another positive will be his clay court form last season, meaning he should be able to challenge at the French Open – especially if it Nadal is injured! Djokovic showed a surprising lack of form, Murray’s recovering from back surgery, Federer is falling, Del Potro doesn’t look in a state to win a slam and the likes of Berdych and Tsonga aren’t good enough. Yes, Wawrinka should win another slam but he is 28, meaning that his best days are going to only last for the next four or so years therefore limiting the number he can win. I can’t give a definite answer to this one but I’ll be very surprised if he retires with less than 3.

How far can Great Britain go in the Davis Cup?

Although technically being confirmed in February, the last day of January laid the solid foundations upon which Great Britain’s amazing win over the USA was built. Of the three singles matches played, GB won all of them including a very special 5 set victory for James Ward over Sam Querry. Andy Murray played well on clay, destroying Donald Young and fighting through a tough tie against a resurgent Querry. An added bonus was the performance of Colin Fleming and Dom Inglot in the doubles, who lost in four sets to the Bryan Bros. This was a very spirited performance and gave Leon Smith yet more doubles pairings to choose from.

Into the quarters of this tournament for the first time since 1986, they will face Italy which is very likely to be played on clay again. Italy have two strong clay-court singles players in Fognini and Seppi  but Murray has winning records over both on clay, indeed he hasn’t dropped a set in either of his matches. While Ward has shown himself to be a competent clay-court player, the best we can realistically hope for is him to take one to five sets meaning that the tie will come down to the doubles. Call it blind faith but I reckon we have enough strength in depth in that department to put together a side that can win that rubber. In the semi-finals we should face a Switzerland side comprising of Roger Federer and the aforementioned Wawrinka. This tie should be one step too far however should Andy have a good weekend; our doubles strength may well see another victory. My heart says we will get to the final before losing to France however my head says the semi-final is the best we can hope for.

What was the most important transfer in the window?

Despite the dreadfully boring deadline day, where a failed transfer was the biggest headline, the window on a whole brought with it some interesting transfers. The stand out was Juan Mata joining Manchester United, which is sure to bring Van Persie goals and United victories as a result. Leaving Old Trafford, on loan, was Wilfried Zaha – who joined Cardiff. He’s the type of player who can change a game coming off the bench and his pace plus desire to do well to impress Moyes should see him being a huge success in south Wales. Fulham and Nottingham Forest did well in general, signing much needed defensive, midfield and forward quality and experience, which they will hope see them stay put and rise divisions respectively.

However, none of those were what I see as the most important bit of transfer business this window. That was Yohan Cabaye leaving Newcastle to go home to France, and join Paris St Germain. Whenever I’ve seen Newcastle this season, he’s been the stand out player for them and it was no surprise that their good run in form came as he was integrated back into the first XI. To highlight his influence, when he was on the bench at Goodison Park Everton ran riot and scored 3 goals. When Pardew brought him on, Newcastle scored two and were unlucky not to draw. Newcastle, who should have been looking to press for Europe, could now find themselves in free-fall.

Is it possible for England to recover from their nightmare tour of Australia?

This tour to Australia was the worst in English cricket history. Losing twelve times with only one victory to write home about was as unprecedented as it is demoralising and simply heart-breaking. Many words and tweets have been written about this subject and I’m sure that the whole cricket community will talk about this for years.

England will recover, because everyone does after defeats. Defeats are part and parcel of sporting contests and a side should be based on how they recover not how they lose. England have usually recovered well from losing series in the recent past however with Andy Flower leaving, there is a certain cloud of uncertainty hanging over our side this time. In many ways, a T20 World Cup may not seem like the best tournament England could hope for so soon after a humiliating defeat however it gives a chance for the side to play without real pressure and try and find some enjoyment. But the truth is, we are likely to lose badly out in Bangladesh. We need a summer of confidence building in the test arena, which is why I’m glad Sri Lanka and India are the visiting teams. Neither usually play well in England and it will be a chance to have a long and hard think about our new test spinner as they don’t usually play big roles in such series in England (unless they are of Graeme Swann quality –which none of the current bunch are).

As a final point, massive congratulations to Charlotte Edwards and her team who retained the Ashes. Despite a disappointing end to the tour, this is a strong unit with a mix of youth and experience and could dominate Women’s cricket once more.


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Does continuing to watch sport defy logic?

Spectator sport is wonderful. It can cause great highs and great lows, and usually does both in the space of 90 minutes. Most sports, the good ones, aren’t scripted – no-one should know what is happening at any point, sport is technical and it is skilled. To succeed in sport you need confidence, ability, concentration and dedication – the last one becomes important when watching it too. I don’t support teams that dominate their sports, at least not in this era, which means that the lows happen more often than the highs – and that sentence would imply that watching sport does indeed defy logic. But is it as simple as that? I want to explain to you in this article how I felt when my favourite sporting moments happened, and relate them to how I felt when the lows happen.

Let’s start with Everton, as the highs and lows with Everton happen more frequently – something called the Everton Way (which I wrote a blog about here: http://weonlysingwhenwerewinning.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/the-everton-way/). After watching us lose 3-0 to Wigan at Goodison in an FA Cup quarter final I never wanted to return to Goodison, I never wanted to see them again. I pay good money to go watch Everton play, both for my season ticket and train travel from Nottingham and none of it felt worth it then. A week later, I had returned and that day we outplayed and beat the champions of England. That time I wanted to be at Goodison every day and I would realistically pay as much money as I needed to just to watch Everton play. That in itself can be construed as fickle and it probably is yet it’s the beauty of sport. The greatest Everton moment in my life came when we got to the FA Cup final in 2009. I woke up early that day, as early as I had on my birthday or Christmas as a youngster, simply because I was unbelievably excited. We had beaten Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester United on the way to the final, I was wearing my new shirt (with Pienaar on the back) and I was so hopeful that we wouldn’t disappoint. No football match has ever affected me emotionally as much as that one did. Taking the lead after 30 seconds seemed too perfect and so it proved when Drogba and Lampard scored for Chelsea either side of the half time interval. That night was a sad one for me, the disappointment after losses like that is as great an emotion as the hope before it was.

Another day waking up early to watch sport came on the 15th September 2011. This time it was county cricket and Lancashire were potentially one day away from winning our first outright Championship title since 1934. Realistically however, it was never going to happen – we had to beat Somerset at Taunton, a ground famous for producing draws, and hope that an already relegated Hampshire dug deep and batted the day against a rampant Warwickshire. There wasn’t much hope that morning if I’m honest, but by lunch it was more promising. Carberry was producing heroics for Hampshire and we were doing what we had to down in Somerset. By tea that tiny speck of hope was growing, Hampshire were doing more than I had expected but our relentless surge towards victory had been slightly halted. Gary Keedy then produced a wonderful piece of fielding to run out Somerset’s last batsmen, possibly his only run out in his long career at Lancashire, and we needed 211 runs to win that match. At some point Sky changed their coverage to our match and we watched as Horton, Moore, Brown and Croft led us to a famous victory which coupled with Hampshire’s continued resistance against Warwickshire meant we won the title. I’ll never forget the pure joy I felt when we won that. I wasn’t there but it felt like I was, I can’t begin to imagine what the players were going through. As defending champions, we suffered relegation. There were a few reasons behind this, the weather, a fragile batting line up and bowlers not taking as many wickets as they had done the season before but none of that made the feeling any easier. When your team gets relegated, it is one of the worst feelings you will ever endure. In most scenarios in life, these feelings are usually followed by not repeating that incident ever again, for example if you are in a relationship where every day feels like a drag then you shouldn’t carry it on much longer so you feel better. However, sport is different. If you are a true fan, once you get attached to a team or person then you can’t just stop this. Sure, you can protest against something you don’t like but that is different. The point I’m trying to make is this: when we got relegated, no part of me ever wanted to stop following Lancashire and no part of me ever considered not watching them again. That in itself appears to defy logic.

I could carry on with more examples (specifically Jenson Button’s world championship in 2009 compared to his struggles now and, my favourite sporting moment, Andy Murray’s US Open win compared to the many near misses) but I don’t want to bore you (plus I hopefully will write a blog detailing my favourite sporting moments to date at some point) so is there another side to this? One way to look at it is biologically. Endorphins released when you experience highs physically outweigh the emotional response you feel when a low happens. This is to say that you feel happier and these feelings last longer when good things happen as opposed to the sadness felt when low. I’m not a biologist, nor am I a psychologist and I don’t know the proper explanation for this but I can give you my take on it. In my view, our bodies and minds are tuned to believe that raw, absolute emotions are a drug. We feed off both great happiness and immense sadness which produces various emotional responses. My belief is that sport can produce the happiness needed for these emotional responses to occur but not total sadness. I believe that losses in sport are precisely just that, and every vaguely emotionally secure and rational person can understand that most sport teams and people lose at some point. However, victories take on a new level possibly because wins justify faith, they justify the belief that all the pain was worth it.

So then, does continuing to watch sport defy logic? If you are reading this as someone who doesn’t like or “get” sport then you will probably think so. Why would you put yourself through such pain if the nice moments are few and far between? But to sport lovers, it just isn’t that simple. I almost feel sorry for people who don’t like sport simply because they don’t feel the high you get when your team or player wins a big game. Part of the reason betting exists and thrives in sport is due to this emotional response to victories. I guess what I’ve been trying to say all along is that rationally, it isn’t logical to continue watching but emotionally it is perfectly natural. This extends to continuing watching if things aren’t going the way you want them to. On many a occasion I could have left Goodison or turned the TV off because we were losing yet I haven’t done it much because any sport (but especially Tennis and Cricket) has a funny way of turning instantly and the hope that it might keeps you watching, the same way that the fear it will change when going well grips you. I never once lost hope that one day Andy Murray would win a grand slam and that belief meant that when he did, the feeling was immense. Sport is painful, sport is unforgiving but sport is also a healer, sport is brilliant. 


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Can Andy Murray’s reluctance to play in the Davis Cup be justified?

This weekend Great Britain took on Russia in the Davis Cup in Coventry. The result was a surprise victory and one that meant GB returned to the brink of being in the World Group (also led to me writing a blog about the importance of it). However, it was also another tie without GB’s top player Andy Murray. There is a lot of debate about whether or not Murray should play these kinds of matches and so I’ve enlisted the help of a fellow writer, forestjosh, on our We Only Sing When We’re Winning blog to look at the arguments.

Argument against Murray missing Davis Cup ties (forestjosh):

The obvious line of argument to take when arguing this case is that representing your country should always be perceived as a sacrosanct honour. But, as I am one of the least patriotic people around, I will avoid this demagogic reasoning. Instead, my claim is that Murray’s excuses for not playing in the Davis Cup are dishonest, and that his true motivations for doing so expose a side of him that, as his fan, I would prefer not to see.

The Davis Cup is scarcely a major commitment. Two singles matches (and possibly another doubles match) spread over 3 days, 2 or 3 times a year. Considering that the elite tennis player is capable of, in Masters’ tournaments playing 7 matches in little more than a week, and in Grand Slams frequently playing 4/5 hour marathons at the highest of intensity, the Davis Cup seems a stroll in the park by comparison. Yet Murray continues to repeat that he cannot play Davis Cup due to fatigue, which appears spurious. All the other leading players play the Davis Cup far more frequently than Murray, who has not appeared in the competition since 2011. What is so uniquely grueling about his schedule? As I’m not his trainer, I may be completely wrong about this, but my suspicion is that the fitness issues are a façade.

Instead, Murray’s reluctance to play Davis Cup can be largely attributed to the lack of prestige involved. In September, the British team face a play-off to return to the World Group. Suddenly, Murray’s interest is piqued, and he now claims to want to play in that tie. This rings hollow, as he hasn’t been remotely interested in being a team-mate of James Ward, Dan Evans et al. during the lean times of the past two years. These guys have battled heroically for their success this year against quality opposition, and deserve far better than the disdain Murray has shown them. If the maxim ‘no man is bigger than the team’ has any more merit than any other empty slogan, Murray must commit fully to the team, rather than cherry picking the matches where he can enhance his own status.

There is a financial element in play here as well, as the appearance fees for the Davis Cup are negligible. It appears that Murray will not countenance violating his rest period when remuneration is not on offer, but when it is, a different story emerges. Murray has recently signed a lucrative deal with Globosport to play exhibition matches over a 3-week period during the off-season. In other words, this multimillionaire is foregoing his best chance of a prolonged rest period in order to earn even more money, while claiming he cannot play Davis Cup due to a ‘crazy schedule.’ In his lack of commitment to the Davis Cup, Murray is coming across as a mercenary with little regard for his lower-ranked teammates. As a longstanding admirer of Murray’s, it is illuminating to catch a glimpse of a totally different, and somewhat unpalatable, aspect of his character; all thanks to the Davis Cup!

The truth is that Murray’s attitude to the Davis Cup is primarily hurting himself. This is the archetypal case of knowing the price of everything, and the value of nothing. John McEnroe saw his Davis Cup triumphs as some of the proudest moments of his career, given that his success was as part of a team. Ilie Nastase even claims that he would have given up both his Grand Slam titles to overturn the pain he felt losing a Davis Cup final. As a Romanian, Nastase was inspired by the chance to leave a legacy and achieve something none of his compatriots had previously managed. Admittedly, even with Murray, Britain aren’t going to win the Davis Cup. But there is a chance we could become a fixture in the World Group. Murray has only ever lost 1 singles match in the Davis Cup. (admittedly he hasn’t played as many as he should.) Jonny Marray and Colin Fleming are one of the better doubles pairings around. If Murray were to change his attitudes, we could revive British interest in the Davis Cup and, building on our recent heroics, become seriously competitive again. Maybe a successful Davis Cup team could even stimulate greater interest in the sport and lift British tennis out of the doldrums. Right now, Murray is our only player in the top 200 male singles’ rankings; a national embarrassment. Wouldn’t it be great were Murray to take a step towards remedying this, rather than only thinking about himself?

 

Argument for Murray missing Davis Cup ties (gazzaefc):

In 2012, only Roger Federer from the elite group known as the Big 4 played any Davis Cup matches. Admittedly, Nadal was injured for the semi final and final of the competition but Djokovic wasn’t for the first round or quarter final – he chose not to play. In 2011, Djokovic only played one singles match (he retired hurt) as well as a doubles match (which he lost) and neither Roger Federer nor Rafa Nadal played in the entire 2010 competition. My point is that none of the big 4 have dedicated themselves totally year on year to play this competition. Murray has played fewer ties than any of them over the years but I will delve into those reasons later on. The reason that no-one ever focuses on the playing record of the other 3 could be because their countries are blessed with almost unlimited talent. If Novak doesn’t play for Serbia than Tipsarevic or Troicki will play, Spain can use the likes of Ferrer, Almagro, Grannollers, Verdasco and co (plus in the past they’ve had Ferrero, Robredo etc) and Switzerland have a solid top-20 player in Wawrinka. So Spain, Serbia and Switzerland miss their star players but they can usually still win most ties, Great Britain don’t have that luxury. They all miss Davis Cup matches, Murray’s absences get noticed more because of the lack of depth in British tennis.

The Davis Cup doesn’t involve many matches in a year – usually 3. Of those, Andy would only play 2 singles matches per tie, so why doesn’t he play? Part of the reason could be the scheduling of the tournament. The first tie used to be held around March which clashed with the start of the Masters tournaments. It has now been moved to early February which suits players better, but GB got a bye in that tie this year. The second tie, as it was this year, is in April. This is right before the clay court season and so most players are preparing for that. Murray said that he sat out this tie against Russia because he believes he has a genuine chance of winning the French Open. Playing two hard court matches in Coventry while changing your game to play clay would be less than ideal, so this reason makes sense to me. The third tie is at the worst possible time for the top players – it is the weekend after the US Open. The US Open is the last slam and the centre court at Flushing Meadows doesn’t have a roof meaning that any adverse weather (and there usually is in New York) pushes the Men’s final back to Monday. If Murray got to another final this year and it was a gruelling 5-setter, as last year, after a tough 2-week tournament – the last thing anyone would want is an important team competition, on a different continent just 4 days later. If the Davis Cup wants the top players to play, then it should look at its schedule.

Another point based on the scheduling is that playing the Davis Cup could harm Murray’s chances in the slams. I mentioned that in 2010 both Federer and Nadal didn’t play the Davis Cup – that year they shared the slams between them. In 2011, Djokovic played one Davis Cup singles match and in 2011 he won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open as well as becoming world number 1 and having an incredible winning streak at the start of the year. I would rather Murray wins slams and reach number 1 than play Russia in Coventry.

Between 2008 and 2010, Great Britain dropped from the World Group to the third tier of the Davis Cup. They were playing players ranked outside the top 200 in the world, sometimes even in the 500’s. Playing at this level teaches Andy nothing whatsoever; you can’t even say it is match practice because it is essentially a walkover. Instead, he did the right thing by letting Evans, Ward etc play them – allowing them to gain skills from these matches. If Murray had played in all of these ties we would have won them all but we would have gained nothing. If Murray had played in them, we would have reached the World Group in 2012 but if then Murray had picked up an injury and couldn’t play in the first World Group tie, we would have been smashed 5-0/4-1. Now, Evans and Ward have experience of facing big players in this tournament and can draw on that. We will still probably lose a match like that but it might be closer (for example not in straight sets). The experience they have gained will be invaluable and it has improved them as players – something Murray wanted to happen.

Murray will most likely come in to the side now we are on the brink of the World Group. His time out of the side hasn’t got good press but he’s done it for the right reasons, giving youngsters experience and refining his game so he could win a slam (which worked). The big players have all missed Davis Cup ties recently, just Murray gets more press because he’s British and we have less depth in quality of our male tennis players.


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Drawing a blank for cricket?

0-0 draws in any sport don’t tend to be exciting affairs and in cricket it usually means there has been a fair bit of bad weather. While bad weather did occur during the series between England and New Zealand, the main reason why this series was a 0-0 draw was because of England producing some fantastic cricket while having their backs against the wall. For the most part, New Zealand dominated and were unlucky not to come away with a famous victory. A test series in which no-one wins even one test don’t usually get remembered but I have a feeling this one might. I have a feeling this one will prove to be a good omen for cricket.

In recent years, Test cricket has threatened to divide into a two tier system. Teams such as West Indies and Sri Lanka have decided to focus on improving their one day sides (a system that has worked for both with final appearances and a trophy for WI) while Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and New Zealand have been obviously out of their depth against the bigger teams. The remaining teams have proven time and time again that they are a class above the opposition and have swapped the world number one ranking between Australia, India, England and South Africa. Pakistan, like they always do, blow hot and cold but have given the “Big 4” (to use a horrible football term) a scare in more than one series (and in fact bamboozled England in the UAE). I’m not saying that the other teams haven’t had their moments, Sri Lanka managed to draw with England in Sri Lanka and West Indies will feel that a 2-0 loss in England wasn’t the worst result but the point remains that England still got something from those series. Plus, England in Sri Lanka was never likely to be a series which England won.

New Zealand, on the other hand, is where England should excel. It has the most swing bowler friendly conditions outside of England while still allowing tracks which the batsmen like. We had just beaten India in India, Cook was scoring runs, Pietersen was back in the side and Broad had just managed to find some bowling form. A bowling attack of Broad, Finn and, the key man, Anderson should have been more than enough to see off the inexperienced Kiwi’s batting line up. Add that to a batting line up that consisted of 2 of England’s greatest Test century scorers, the best wicket-keeper batsman in the world and a new star finding his feet in a troubled position and the omens were good. Oh, how differently it has transpired. We nearly lost the series, mostly down to our first innings batting but the bowlers need to take some stick here too – they didn’t bowl enough balls in the right areas to ask questions, especially of the openers. New Zealand can build on the success they very nearly had in this series if done in the right way and if they can then it might well inspire the smaller nations to follow suit and start taking Test match cricket seriously.

It’s going too far to say it will bring about a change in the world order but it will definitely make the other countries believe. In an ideal world, Test cricket will be a competitive 10 team competition where all 10 teams could win series at home and have a chance away from home. We don’t want to see whitewashes in every series that gets played against Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and New Zealand – we want to see these nations pushing the bigger nations to the limit. We want to see England, Australia and India (SA are miles ahead at the top right now) sweating under constant pressure from “smaller” teams – make them produce their best cricket in those situations, just like England did today. Wins in series like those will give these teams confidence and losses will make the bigger teams buck their ideas up.  There shouldn’t be such a thing as an easy Test series, and I’m glad New Zealand have gone some way to removing that idea. As an England fan, the series in New Zealand felt somewhat pointless to me a few months ago – of course we were going to win 3-0 and have a few innings victories. Even people in New Zealand felt that was the case, and so it’s been a massive, possibly even nice, surprise for us all just how well NZ have fared. I’m not saying it’s been fun to follow, because it really hasn’t been, but it is nice to see teams fighting against the odds. More than that, it feels important for both teams. England know what to work on in preparation for the Ashes and I think and hope this will install some believe into New Zealand. From what I’ve seen and heard, McCullum has captained NZ fantastically well and given that I think he is a wonderful player, I’m chuffed for him. They were in disarray after the whole debacle with Ross Taylor and South Africa so it’s even nicer to see them fighting back when you consider that.

I’m not saying this series will be the start of an era which Bangladesh and New Zealand conquer, far from it. In fact, I’m not even sure that any of what I’ve said in this article will happen. Bangladesh, West Indies and Sri Lanka may not be inspired to take Test cricket more seriously, they may not get a boost – it may take a series victory for them against a big nation for that to happen but this victory could set the ball rolling for that, and I believe it might. Like I said in the opening paragraph, 0-0 doesn’t seem like a groundbreaking series but New Zealand deserved more than a draw in the first test match and completely outplayed us in the third. This is for all intense and purposes a walloping. England will be walking back to England with red faces and deservedly so. Despite the draw in Auckland, it’s bad for England (although maybe we’ll see a backlash in the summer) but it isn’t bad for cricket. Nobody (excluding Ireland) wants a two tier system and the way this series has panned out proves that Test cricket isn’t as irretrievable from that destiny as we all thought.