THE TOBY FOSTER SPORT COLUMN
By Toby Foster (@TobyFost)
“Will it take the total demise of cricket’s national popularity before the rest of the sporting world calls time on the proliferation of the paywall?”
For once, pundits, punters, the public, and even politicians all agreed on something.
Those astonishing scenes last week of Ben Stokes withstanding an Australian onslaught to hand England an unlikely win in the third Ashes test were captivating sporting high drama at its very finest.
So too was the ‘Super Over’ last month which ended with England triumphing in the Cricket World Cup Final by the tightest of margins.
The heroics of Stokes, Jofra Archer, Joe Root et al will have inspired a new generation of English cricketers, just as Flintoff, Vaughan and Pietersen succeeded in doing during the remarkable Ashes series of 2005.
In the past, other British successes have delivered similar upticks in public sporting enthusiasm. Sir Mo Farah, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Andy Murray and Adam Peaty (who is perhaps feeling left out with just an MBE to his name) have all captured the public’s admiration in their own ways with valour and victory.
David Cameron enthused about a ‘post-Mo glow’ being the legacy of the 2012 Olympics, and the 27 Gold Medals won by the UK at Rio 2016 were testament to the influence that a nation’s past glories can have on future performance.
That old adage really is true – success breeds success. As a small island, we’ve been punching well above our weight on the international sporting stage for many years, and the winning secret is keeping our youngsters consistently inspired; previous generations galvanizing future ones.
By the same token, failure has become a seemingly inescapable national habit in other sports. In international football, England’s senior side have endured over half a century of disappointment. Scotland, once a regular attendee at major tournaments, have failed to qualify for one since 1998.
Poor footballing performances in World Cups and European Championships are a cautionary tale for English sport as a whole if we cannot keep our inspirational wheel of success turning.
Integral to this cycle of motivation is for our would-be stars of the future to witness the triumphs of the country’s current sporting idols. Yet increasingly, TV coverage of top-level sport is being smothered away behind paywalls.
The Cricket World Cup Final was the first international cricket match to be shown on a terrestrial television channel for 14 years – and then only as a result of a last-minute deal between Sky and Channel 4.
Every other match in the tournament was only available to those willing to shell out on pricey subscription fees, which explains why public interest in proceedings was lukewarm until England reached the Final.
We saw the same evidence of the damage subscriber exclusivity does to our national sporting consciousness in the alarming paucity of countrywide interest in the current Ashes series – thankfully now ignited once more by the brilliance of Stokes.
But, whilst six million people witnessed England win the Cricket World Cup on Channel 4, only a fraction of that number were able to watch their startling triumph at Headingley.
Formula One finds itself in a similar self-inflicted unpopularity quagmire, as Sky now holds exclusive rights to show all but one of the live races as from this year. A sport which once proudly considered itself one of the most favoured in Britain is now slipping towards the ‘niche’ category.
The Ghost of Christmas Future for Formula One can be seen in how motorcycle racing – once seemingly ubiquitous on terrestrial TV – has now disappeared into near-complete obscurity after live race rights became the property of BT Sport.
Sky and BT should not be criticised for buying up coverage rights. After all, they have shareholders to satiate. And those of us who subscribe to either or both of their services know it would be churlish to pretend that the product they offer is anything less than first-rate.
But there is a balance to be struck. The relationship between free-to-air and subscription sports coverage should be symbiotic, not parasitic.
It is telling in itself that those in other countries are baffled by the willingness of Brits to shell out for live sport. In United States, the suggestion of TV audiences paying to watch an American Football game is tantamount to blasphemy.
That said, there will always be a place for pay-to-view sports channels in the UK. After all, terrestrial TV has neither the time nor inclination to broadcast every minute of every international cricket test series, or the practice sessions of each Grand Prix.
But those from households without digital subscriptions should still be able to taste the cream of English sport’s current bumper harvest.
Two disparate sports are showing the way in this regard – tennis and darts. Both have sold most of their marketable rights to subscription channels, yet each chooses to keep a big tournament free-to-air; the Wimbledon Championships have been a fixture of the BBC schedules for decades, whilst darts’ UK Open is enjoyed by fans on ITV4.
Whilst tennis and darts forego potentially lucrative contracts to keep part of their sports available for all to watch, they benefit in the long run through the numbers of new paying fans who only discover the sport via its terrestrial accessibility. The viewership of Sky’s Premier League Darts has skyrocketed of late, whilst Amazon has boosted its Prime subscriber numbers owing to their acquisition of US Open tennis rights.
Those two sports have reaped the rewards of utilising free-to-air as the shop window it can be.
Will it take the total demise of cricket’s national popularity before the rest of the sporting world calls time on the proliferation of the paywall?
Reflections on a frenetic transfer window
Despite two of football’s ‘Big Six’ clubs doing virtually no business at all, the summer transfer window still produced surprise signings aplenty.
By securing the services of teenage Italian striker Moise Kean for £30m, Everton appear to have landed themselves the bargain of the window. Kean, Italy’s youngest ever international goal-scorer, arrived onto the European scene with style at Juventus during the tail end of last season, and possesses both the physicality and technical prowess to excel in the Premier League.
A succession of strikers have failed miserably to emulate former Toffees talisman Romelu Lukaku, but Kean should be well-equipped to follow in the Belgian’s size 14 boot-steps.
Tottenham fans are rightly satisfied with how their window panned out, but were perhaps easy to please, having endured over a year without a single new signing whatsoever. Tanguy Ndombele, the powerhouse French playmaker, is a superb addition to their ranks, as is Giovani Lo Celso.
But what about Spurs’ third major purchase – £25m Ryan Sessegnon from Fulham? Having looked a class apart as a 16-year-old when bombing down his left flank in the Championship, Sessegnon’s fledgling career hit a snag when Fulham were promoted to the Premier League. Last season, the young Londoner was found badly wanting against superior sides. Of course, he was still only a teenager, but that never stopped Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ainsley Maitland-Niles from excelling in the top flight!
There is certainly still a capacity for improvement with Sessegnon. But as it stands, Spurs have dished out a huge chunk of change for a player whose only experience in the Premier League is one of struggle and sufferance. Mauricio Pochettino is going to need every scintilla of his youth-development nous to transform him into a European-quality full-back.
At the top of the shop, Manchester City strengthened yet again with the £60m addition of Rodri as a long-term replacement to the aging Fernandinho. Pep Guardiola’s assertion that City ‘could not afford’ to sign Harry Maguire was nothing short of laughable- especially considering that their purchase of right-back Cancello took their summer spending to an eye-watering king’s ransom of £130m.
Conversely, Liverpool have inexplicably declined to follow the most well-worn adage in football: ‘the time to strengthen is when you are ahead’. Other than the free transfer of Adrian from West Ham as a to replace Simon Mignolet as #2 goalkeeper, the European Champions chose not to make any other additions. Given that the Reds could end up playing 67 fixtures this season, the squad that was pushed to its physical limit in the previous campaign may now find itself overwhelmed without the much-needed reinforcements which failed to materialise.
A buy which catches the eye outside the top six is Ravel Morrison at Sheffield United. This isn’t the first time that Chris Wilder has opted to give a second-chance to an unsettled player (though 26-year-old Morrison is surely on at least his eighth second-chance). He has done so in the past at the Blades with Ched Evans, and at Northampton with scandal-hit former Leicester goalkeeper Adam Smith. As a tough talker and authoritative man-manager, Wilder could be just the right man to get the mercurial Morrison back on song.
Premier League predictions
Now that the opening tranche of fixtures are done and dusted and the international break is underway, the time has arrived to make a few educated guesses at how the Premier League will play out over the next eight months.
I backed Liverpool for the title last season from the first to the very last match, though they were ultimately edged out by the tightest of margins. This year, the extra quality which Manchester City have added to their already behemothic ranks will give the reigning champions a decisive edge.
Under the pressure of fighting for seven trophies this season, Liverpool’s squad will simply be stretched too thinly, battling on too many fronts. I expect them to comfortably finish second, but try as they might, the Reds will not be able to keep pace with City.
For the sake of the Premier League and competitiveness in English football, I hope I am wrong about this.
As for the closest pursuers of the Big Two, Arsenal look the most likely suspects. It will be another tenacious and attritional battle with Tottenham for that third position, but with the rock-solid reliability of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goalscoring, a real depth of quality in midfield and a newly-strengthened defence, the Gunners will get the better of their old North London rivals this time around.
Tottenham will round out the top four, ensuring a fifth successive season of Champions League qualification. Tanguy Ndombele could be the driving force behind their campaign, and we know that Harry Kane will score goals aplenty, but can he keep himself out of the sick bay for a whole season?
The psychological hurdle is still a factor at Spurs. For every match during the last campaign in which they showed mental fortitude, there was another where fragility was the order of the day, resulting in a string of poor defeats unbecoming of a title-challenging team. Recent performances against Aston Villa and Manchester City, in which Spurs came from behind to get results, have gone some way in assuaging fears over their resilience. But after their ignominious 1-0 home loss to Newcastle, it remains to be seen whether the business they have conducted this summer has completely resolved last season’s unreliability.
The battle for fifth place, and the Europa League spot which comes with it, seems unusually open this year. Manchester United will be favourites, but their form has come and gone under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and I suspect that victories will continue to come in fits and starts for them throughout the season. United have not signed capable ready replacements for Romelu Lukaku and Ander Herrera, and the confidence brought by an impressive 4-0 opening day win over Chelsea was undermined by an embarrassing defeat at Old Trafford to Crystal Palace a fortnight later. When all is said and done, I remain unpersuaded that they are a significantly improved side from last season.
With United and transfer-banned Chelsea both facing potentially challenging seasons, it might be a long time before we see a better opportunity for an aspiring club to break into the Top 6 and snatch a European qualifying spot from one of the big guns. Wolves, whose ambitious owners have already spoken of their desire to compete in the uppermost echelon of English football, look capable of pushing for that target this season. Everton and West Ham, who have both spent big over the summer, will also have their eyes on the continental prize.
But the best-placed club to challenge for a place in the league’s leading half-dozen is, once again, Leicester City. Brendan Rodgers has at his disposal the most promising quartet of midfielders in English football. James Maddison, Hamza Choudhury, Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans are all young, creative, energetic and passionate for the cause. Couple that midfield with the title-winning experience provided by Leicester’s old stalwarts, not least Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel, and the return of European nights to the King Power Stadium no longer seems an unfathomable prospect.
Finally, the toughest prediction of all – the three losers in the relegation battle. As a Northampton supporter, I will always have respect and admiration for Chris Wilder after the magnificent work he did at my club. Having met and interviewed him, I can also testify as to his good nature – and there is also little doubt that Wilder is one of the best British coaches around. But he faces an uphill struggle at Sheffield United. They simply have not strengthened enough, and after witnessing their pedestrian performance at a recent preseason friendly, I came away with the impression that the Blades will not survive in the Premier League come the end of this season.
Norwich are in a similar boat and will likely go down too. Despite the tactical prowess of boss Daniel Farke, they look woefully underequipped. Much has been made of the surprise success of Teemu Pukki up front, but similar noises were made about Jermain Defoe’s net-hitting potency at Sunderland three years ago – and the Black Cats still went down.
The final place in the drop zone is very much up in the air, which ought to make for a nail-biting season for those associated with a number of clubs. The usual suspects are Brighton, Southampton and Newcastle, who all had their own troubling flirtations with relegation in the previous campaign.
It is hard to know what is more impressive here – invincible wonderhorse Enable’s heroic win in the King George Stakes at Goodwood, or master commentator Simon Holt’s spine-tingling call.
You be the judge, but both are indisputably the best at what they do.
— At The Races (@AtTheRaces) July 27, 2019