Hardman's Thoughts

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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.


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How 2017 Will Finish (Part II)

This is a little later than I planned it to be, however, it’s nice to be writing about our predictions for the year to come while watching some live tennis! The Australian Open has started, Andy Murray is safely through to the second round, as are Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori, albeit after five set battles.

And it’s because of the beginning of the Australian Open that I’m going to change the usual order of this post. Rather than start with our top 10, I’m going to give you who we think will win the slams first.

Last time, we looked at the women – this time it’s the turn of the men. Will Andy keep his World Number 1 ranking? Do we think he will break his Australia hoodoo? How will Roger Federer fare after his long injury? These are just a few of the many questions following the ATP tour this year.

Grand Slams:

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The usual suspects feature heavily here – with most of us thinking Murray and Djokovic will win the most slams. Josh has gone for a very plausible four winners from four slams, and he and his sister have gone for Milos Raonic to win his first slam.

Australia is split between Djokovic and Murray. The logical answer is still Djokovic, however, three of us think now is the time for Andy to find a way past the Serb down under. Both have challenging but winnable draws through to the final.

At the French, none of us think Murray can win. Instead, Charlie, Emma and Josh have gone for Novak to defend his title, with James saying Wawrinka can win there again and me going for the romantic Rafa victory. It’s more in hope than expectation, but if Rafa is going to win another slam, it has to be this year and it has to be the French

Moving onto Wimbledon, and three out of five think Sir Andy can defend his title. James reckons Djokovic will get much further than he did last year, with Josh picking Milos Raonic to go that little bit further than he did last year.

The final slam of the year is once again split between Murray, Djokovic and Raonic, with defending champion Wawrinka getting one selection (Josh). Charlie’s picked Andy to win the final two slams of the year – does this mean he reckons he’ll hold onto that number one slot?

Before we find out, let’s take a look at the bottom five of our top ten…

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Considering Emma and Josh reckon he will win a slam, it might surprise some people to see Raonic as low as 7th in Charlie’s top 10. Clearly the Canadian has to do more to impress Mr. Marriott! There are so many stories on this table that it’s hard to know where to start. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal only feature on two each, although that number may increase as we go to the top five.

Grigor Dimitrov, who last year looked set to miss out on his bags of talent, has snuck onto the bottom of the top ten for Charlie, Emma and I. That is, for me at least, a reflection of his great form at the end of last year, which, as it happens, he’s carried into this.

On the whole, we clearly see this year as a big shift in tennis. Added to Dimitrov are consistent appearances for Nick Kyrgios, Alex Zverev and Dom Thiem. The five of us think those four are here to stay, is that going to be the case?

Charlie and James have Berdych remaining in the top ten, most of us have Marin Cilic there and Emma has David Goffin rounding out the elite. That shows that we still think those names aren’t going anywhere fast.

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If the bottom five contained a lot of names, our top fives contain only a few. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka are in all five of our top fives with Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori in four.

Replacing Kei in Josh’s is Alex Zverev. Josh has been a long time admirer of the young German and thinks that this is the year he makes his mark on the sport. A top five finish at the end of 2017 will surely spell the way for a number one in the not-so-distant future.

Rather than seeing Cilic’s end of year 6th as the culmination of a great year, Charlie reckons it was just the start for the Croat. He climbs to fourth for Charlie.

Unsurprisingly, the two people who have backed Raonic to win a slam have him finishing third and the three that didn’t have Wawrinka (or Nishikori in James’ case). None of us have Andy holding on to the top spot. The reason for that? I think, for most of us, it’s a case of believing that both will have stellar years but Djokovic will reel the Brit in towards the end of the year and claim the number one ranking back sometime after the US open.

And talking about the end of the year…

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Will Andy defend his London crown? Well, it’s a resounding no from us five! Charlie and James have returned to Djokovic, Emma reckons we saw enough from Raonic in the semi-final last year to suggest he can win the event and I think Wawrinka is owed a title at the year-end event. Josh is going for a debut victory for Alex Zverev. Probably the boldest prediction of the lot, it’s one definitely worth keeping an eye on.

As for the wildcards, there are some interesting selections. Two Americans, a Croat, a Russian and yes, that is a British flag you see. As a reminder, our wildcards are real outside picks to end the year in the top ten but people who, should everything fall into place, have the potential to.

Jack Sock is now ranked 20th, however when we chose these he wasn’t so is a legal choice. The 24-year-old American has been talked about for a number of years, but has had more success in the doubles in the past. At the end of last season, he decided to focus more on singles, a decision that was widely considered a wise one. If there is a year for him to break the top ten, it’s conceivable it’s this one.

The British number two, Kyle Edmund (46), looks the world to be a future top tenner. With so many weapons and composure beyond his 22 years, Edmund can challenge the best on his day. Impressive wins towards the end of last season convinced me to punt for the next British star.

Karen Khachanov (52). I’ll forgive you for not having heard of the Russian. He’s 20, and hasn’t gone past the second round of a Grand Slam before. But, no matter, Josh saw enough of him last year to pick him as his wildcard. I’ve heard Josh rave about him multiple times, and I’m excited to see how high he can go.

Ever since Borna Coric (59) defeated Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, big things have been expected of him. In 2016 he won his first two ATP titles, and has reached the third round of the French open twice. He is another top tenner in the making, and this might well be his year, or maybe a year too soon.

Don’t let Taylor Fritz’s world ranking of 93 fool you into thinking it’s an awful choice by Charlie. The 19-year-old American is the youngest player in the top 100 and has already reached an ATP final. While many assume 2017 is a year too soon for him, who’s to say he can’t have a run in one of the slams and truly surprise the elite?


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Four Years Old

Hardman’s Thoughts is four years old (technically it was on Monday, but I missed that!). Four isn’t seen as a significant birthday and won’t warrant mention on most sites, however, it feels like a major thing for me.

Four years ago I was lost at Uni, unsure what I was doing there and seeing my life fade into obscurity in front of my eyes. I knew I liked watching sport, I knew I had an insane amount of knowledge on sporting events and I had a feeling I’d be pretty good at writing about it.

Back then, Hardman’s Thoughts started as a side project for me – with most of my attention focussed on We Only Sing When We’re Winning. That blog meant a lot to me. It gave me experience at writing, showed me I shouldn’t be nervous about putting my opinions on the internet and led me down a path I’m only just beginning to explore.

WOSWWW got thousands of views because of an article Josh wrote, and through that we created a podcast. That podcast wouldn’t set the world alight, but it was fun to record and always something to look forward to on otherwise dreary Sunday nights.

When the whole blog started fading, others were created – but none have been as successful as Hardman’s Thoughts. HT is a drop in the ocean compared to what WOSWWW did with Josh’s article, but with very little publicity and even less know-how on WordPress or Social Media, I feel I’ve done fairly well.

In these four years, I’ve had 3,527 views, with 1,461 coming in the last year alone. I’m proud of that. It shows that my writing is interesting enough for people to click on, and even sometimes controversial enough to debate.

I was going to highlight my favourite articles, but since I’ve started this I’ve realised I actually can’t think of my favourite! I’m proud of a lot of them, but most lose relevance over time.

Furthermore, it’s insane to think that in those four years I’ve completed my masters. Firstly, that’s not something I would have considered when I set this up and secondly, definitely not one in Sports Journalism. It feels appropriate that ten days following the fourth birthday of my blog, I graduate.

So Happy Birthday Hardman’s Thoughts, and a massive thank you to everyone who has ever viewed, read or commented on this site. It stopped the boredom of a Physics degree, and then gave me confidence that I was as good as other people on my Sports Journalism course.

This is not the end. I see this as merely the beginning. I have huge plans for this space, not just carrying on what I do – but explore other journalistic areas and expand my influence.

So, here’s the crux of this post.

I’m going to set up a spot (once a month to start with) for guest blogs. Ideally, I’m looking for a 300-word article on something relatively controversial, preferably to do with sport. If that sounds like something you are interested in, please drop me a message on facebook or twitter. I’m dead excited to explore thoughts and opinions which are not just my own, but friends and family too. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even get a debate going!


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How 2017 Will Finish (Part I)

First of all, happy new year to all my readers (12 days into it…). Hope you all had a lovely festive break, and going back to work isn’t too taxing! 

As is now tradition among my friends, we’ve been predicting the tennis season to come. Last year went … well … decent, I suppose. If you want a more detailed look, take a glance at these articles. A couple of us are hoping for much better years this time around!

Joining me in casting our eye across the year in tennis is once again James Doan, Josh Hockley-Still, Charlie Marriott and Emma Still. I’m delighted to announce that all of us will be providing predictions for both men and women, and this blog will introduce you to our tips for the WTA tour.

As usual, we’ve simply given our year-end top 10, the winners of the Grand Slams and Tour Finals (Istanbul for the ladies). As a little extra this year, we’ve also named a player who isn’t likely to break into the top 10 this year, but who we think has the potential to should they find form.

More on that later. Firstly … which women grace our top 5 come the end of the calendar year?

womentop5

Every Williams is Serena, none of us have said Venus for anything

Last year, the unthinkable happened. Serena Williams didn’t finish the year as number one (the first time since 2012), as Angelique Kerber stormed to two Grand Slam titles and deserved to finish top of the pile. The biggest question going into the 2017 season is whether the German can hold onto that position, or will Williams (or indeed someone else) nab it off her?

The vast majority of our predictors don’t view Kerber as a one-season wonder. Only James hasn’t got her holding onto that ranking, and even then he has her in second. Even if most of us don’t have Serena climbing back to number one, three keep her in second – therefore implying she isn’t going anywhere fast. Josh, henceforth known as the bold one, has her lying down in fifth. Does he see 2017 as the start of a decline for the great champion or merely a blip? No matter, time will soon tell if he is right or not.

Charlie, James and Josh believe Simona Halep will climb to third. Radwanska, Keys and Pliskova also feature heavily. Josh has the latter finishing second, and maybe we should trust his judgement on this – after all, he has seen the Czech star play live. Defending French Open champion Garbine Muguruza and current World Number Five Dominika Cibulkova only get one pick each.

A couple of years ago, names such as Azarenka, Kvitova and Sharapova would have been dead-certs in the top half. Now, due to differing circumstances, none appear. Will they in the bottom half?

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What I like most about that table is the bravery of our predictors. All of us have at least one shout which could either be great, or awful. Suarez Navarro, Svitolina, Wozniacki, an injured Kvitova and still on maternity leave Azarenka. They are all bold, and definitely names to follow over the course of the season.

The rest of the bottom five looks fairly similar to the end of 2016. Cibulkova and Muguruza are more common in this grid, with British number one Jo Konta in four of the five top tens (James being the most patriotic, Charlie the least).

Madison Keys, who will miss the Australian Open with an injury, features in all of our top tens, but in very different places. Charlie and James have her staying in 8th, Josh has her in 6th, Emma in 4th and I’ve placed her 3rd. I may be wrong, but that for me is a sign that she has the potential to do very well, we just disagree on whether this is the right year. Arguably, the same could be said for Muguruza.

Will our top ten predictions be reflected in our Grand Slam winners?

womengrandslams

Straight off the bat, you can see why James thinks Serena will be reclaiming her number one ranking! The calendar Grand Slam beckons for the American … or does it?

The Australian, starting next week, reflects our top ten quite nicely actually. Everyone who has Kerber retaining her number one ranking have her taking some momentum to defend her title.

At the French, most of us see a return to the Serena-Slams, except me. I’ve gone for Halep, but placed her in my bottom half. The reason? That’s exactly what happened to Muguruza last year! 2017 feels like the year Halep will win her first Slam. If she doesn’t, you have to question whether she ever will.

Wimbledon is again split between Serena and someone who has never won a Slam. Radwanska gets backed once again by Charlie, with Josh rooting for the Pole as well. The rest of us see Serena’s dominance at SW19 continuing for yet another year.

Emma and I have gone for Pliskova to win in America. Last year, the Czech beat Serena Williams in straight sets in the last four, before losing to Kerber in the final. Her victory over Serena showed that America suits her style, and she’s ready to make the jump. Josh has gone for Halep to break her Slam hoodoo, with Charlie and James sticking with Serena.

Interestingly, four of us have Kerber to finish as the World Number One, yet none of us predict her defending her US title.

womenextras

The same names feature in Istanbul – no-one has Cibulkova defending her title, nor does anyone think Serena will triumph (possibly due to her poor attendance record in recent years).

Now to introduce the wildcards. There were two rules when picking them: 1. they couldn’t have featured in anyone’s top ten, 2. they can’t currently be inside the top 20. The reason for a wildcard was to name someone you aren’t brave enough to place inside the top 10, but wouldn’t be surprised to see them at the end of the year.

I’ll start with world number 22 Kiki Bertens, Josh’s choice. The 25-year-old reached the semi-finals of the French last year, played a key role in Netherlands’ run to the semis of the Fed Cup and rose to the brink of the top 20.

Emma has plumped for Croat Ana Konjuh. The world number 35 reached the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time in her career at the last one in New York, and at 19 years of age has plenty of time to go deeper. She’s long been tipped for success in the sport, and was runner-up in the opening tournament of the year last week.

American Coco Vandewegh is who James has gone for. She’s 25, currently sits at 38 in the rankings and has only reached the quarters of a Slam once (2015 Wimbledon), however, she has the potential to climb the rankings quick.

My pick, the Latvian 39-ranked Jelena Ostapenko is next. I first heard of her when she was given a wildcard entry to Wimbledon in 2015, aged just 17. I watched her first match when she blew away Suarez Navarro to claim her first top ten win. I thought there was real potential there, and although there’s nothing to show for it just yet, this year might be hers.

This time last year, Belinda Bencic featured in almost all of our top tens. The young Swiss star looked certain to start taking the sport by storm, but was plagued by injuries and has fallen to 48th in the world. Nevertheless, Charlie thinks she might get it back together this year and climb to the top ten. Can the 19-year-old do it, or is the gap too big and is it a year too soon?

At the end of the year, we will return to these rankings, using a similar scoring system to the one successfully trialled last month. At the start of next week, keep an eye out for the male predictions.