Liam Beglan

Liam Beglan has 19 articles published.

AUTUMN INTERNATIONALS

in Features/Sport Insight

SOUTHERN BIG BOYS BACK ON EURO TOUR

NOVEMBER’S here and with the accompanying chill come the Autumn Internationals when rugby union’s southern hemisphere heavyweights, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, world-ranked 1-2-3 respectively, invade the British Isles with all guns blazing to remind uppity European nations just where the powerhouse of the sport burns brightest – the fulcrum that will never be extinguished despite the odd momentary flicker or two, an opportunity to reaffirm that any spark of an ascendancy-shift northwards is just another illusion, a dream destined to perish like so many before.

Reigning world champions South Africa embark on an ambitious and demanding schedule, starting with a visit to the Principality Stadium in Cardiff to lock horns with current Six Nations champions Wales, followed by a trip to Edinburgh to take on resurgent Calcutta Cup holders Scotland, and then it’s a repeat of the 2019 World Cup final, with Twickenham the amphitheatre, to go head to head with an England side thirsting for revenge, an opportunity to right that shameful 32-12 final collapse in Japan.

Memories of that tame surrender are still raw to this correspondent, having had a lumpy bet on Eddie Jones’ boys pre-tournament at odds of 8/1 to go all the way, and having disposed of the All Blacks in the semis, in my mind I had already banked the winnings, but, alas, for whatever reason England failed to turn up for the final and my once neatly folded and indexed betting slips finished up shredded, torn and tear-stained in the bin. Ouch, that pain still lingers!

South Africa start their tour of the UK buoyed by the summer series win over the visiting British and Irish Lions, a somewhat fortuitous 2-1 victory for the Boks that owed much to Lions’ coach Warren Gatland’s insistence on going head-to-head against the host’s power game rather than employ the famed running style that has long been the Lions trademark and has served them so well down the decades. Gatland’s strategy was obvious from pre-tour with the dizzying decision to leave Johnny Sexton, the world’s most creative flyhalf, at home in Dublin and then, inexplicably, as brutal onfield battle raged, to exile Owen Farrell, England’s fiercely combative captain, to the replacement bench.

With tough games over 14 days, opening with Wales on 6th November, eyeballing Scotland at Murrayfield a week later and then the Twickenham showdown, certainly no one can accuse South Africa of shirking any challenge on this tour, and a clean sweep for the Springboks over three of the home powerhouses would be catastrophic for the reputation of the Six Nations championship, unquestionably the world’s most popular rugby tournament.

Australia arrive in the UK for successive weekend dates with the same three opponents and despite enduring a double drubbing from the All Blacks in the recent Rugby Championship they still finished runners up in that tournament, comfortably ahead of South Africa, in the process beating the Boks twice, the team that had shattered England’s World Cup final dreams and shot down the British and Irish Lions – food for thought for the home nations, an Aussie hat-trick would be unthinkable, whilst the thought of sending the ultra-confident Wallabies, who all appear to be imbued with the “Crocodile Dundee” mindset, limping back Down Under with their didgeridoo between their legs, is very enticing indeed.

Reigning Rugby Championship holders New Zealand commence the European part of their tour with a mouth-watering clash with current Six Nations champs Wales at The Principality, followed by a leisurely trip to Rome to inflict more ignominy on whipping boys Italy, whose continued participation in the Six Nations has recently come under scrutiny following a disastrous run of 30 straight defeats since the Azzurri’s last victory, over Scotland, six years ago. With South Africa waiting in the wings as a possible replacement and making less than subtle overtures to be admitted to Europe’s beloved tournament, it’s way past time to get the House of Rome in order.

The mighty All Blacks then head to Dublin’s fair city to face an Ireland side who have promised much but ultimately failed to deliver on the big occasions – a monster test for the Men in Green to prove that this time there’s substance to the positive vibes emerging from the Aviva and not just another pipedream. An exciting  date with  France in Paris concludes the Kiwi tour and a brilliant month-long rugby extravaganza ends.

Sadly, rugby has joined football, boxing, snooker, darts and motor racing in selling the sport’s crown jewel events to the highest bidder, on this occasion TV coverage has been bought by an obscure internet outfit called Amazon Prime, and only the Ireland games can be seen on free-to-air terrestrial television. More money in the coffers but less audience – a scandalous short-sighted decision by the men in suits who know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Amazon Prime subscription costs a monthly fee of £7.99 to add to the sky-high Sky Sports and BT bills. No thanks, it’s time to pop down the pub and watch. Cheers!

ICC World Twenty20 – 2021

in Sport Insight

Sport continues to take centre stage as Planet Earth slowly struggles to break free from the deadly tentacles of the Covid-19 pandemic, and this month it’s Cricket’s turn to play a leading role in lighting the way on the rocky road back to normality with the start of the T20 World Cup in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Originally scheduled to take place in India, but postponed because of the plague and the emergence of the virulent “Indian variant”, the 7th ICC T20 World Cup has been switched to the Middle East, starting on 17th of this month, with the final due to be played on 14th November.

T20 cricket, by far and away the most exciting version of the sport,  came into being in 2003 and the inaugural T20 World Cup was played in South Africa in 2007 when India claimed the cup by beating bitter rivals Pakistan by just 5 runs in an exhilarating final in Johannesburg. Of the six T20 World Cup finals played so far, West Indies boast the most successful record with two victories, with one each for England, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Surprisingly, Australia and New Zealand still await a maiden World T20 cup final win – something the southern hemisphere heavyweights will be pumped to put right this time round. England have contested two finals, beating Australia in 2010, and losing to the West Indies in the last tournament, played in Eden Gardens Kolkata in 2016.

This year’s tournament sees the sport’s top eight qualified nations – England, India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, West Indies and, miraculously, Afghanistan, being joined by four qualifiers, two of which could be Scotland and Ireland, to form the Super 12, which is split into two groups of six. England face defending champions West Indies, Australia and South Africa in Group 1 which has already been labelled the Group of Death. Should Ireland qualify to join the group we could see a possible clash with England, an English side captained by Dubliner Eoin Morgan – not content with stealing football stars Jack Grealish  and Declan Rice from Ireland’s international youth teams, the “Auld Enemy” has gone and pinched their best cricketer as well!

Ranked T20 number one in the world, England are among the favourites to lift the trophy for the second time, the Red Rose having gained the sweetest of victories when bashing the Aussies in the final in Barbados eleven years ago. Shorn through injury of the services of the world’s fastest bowler Jofra Archer and top all-rounder Ben Stokes, who is taking indefinite leave to rekindle his mental wellbeing, their first opponents are defending champions West Indies, whose light has dimmed somewhat from the stellar days of Lara, Lloyd, Marshall and Richards, but on their day the Windies are capable of scalping any side. Faltering giants Australia and South Africa follow, along with two qualifiers yet to be determined, all in all a teak-tough group, and should England qualify for the semis, Morgan’s men should not fear whichever teams emerge from the other group. The entire world, not just the world of cricket, will hope that the courageous band of men representing Afghanistan prosper in the heat of battle in Oman, but will the Taliban be watching and dancing in the streets!

My first recollection of cricket was when accidentally wandering through an open gate after a liquid lunch in Tunbtidge Wells and finding myself among a sparse scattering of spectators at a county cricket match, where nobody appeared to be watching the on-field action and quite a few appeared to be having a nap. I noticed one elderly lady nearby who was busily knitting, while a Yorkshire terrier lay sleeping at her feet.  In the distance I could see the players, all immaculately attired in brilliant whites, top and tails, I could hear the odd shout carried on the breeze, and thought to myself, how nice, how posh, how totally different to the shouts of abuse I endured while playing footy on Hackney Marshes every Sunday morning, and then I fell asleep, coming to two hours later.

At that time i thought cricket should be sponsored by Ovaltine as a bedtime drink to cure insomnia, but with the advent of T20 all that changed forever. Now, every ball bowled, every run scored, every target set is vital, tension-filled and often breathtakingly exciting – no chance of a nap now as the result is often in doubt until the final ball is bowled or the winning run secured. We’re blessed to have four weeks of exhilarating action to come, every match covered on TV, pub-friendly start times – lunch times and evenings. Howzat! I can’t wait!

Current odds: 

India 13/5, England 7/2, Australia 6/1, West Indies 7/1, New Zealand 8/1, Pakistan 10/1, South Africa 12/1, Bangladesh 50/1, Sri Lanka 66/1, Afghanistan 80/1, Ireland 500/1, Scotland 1000/1, Netherlands 1000/1, Papua New Guinea 1500/1, Oman 1500/1, Namibia 2000/1.

TV Coverage: Sky Sports / Highlights BBC1

Radio Coverage: BBC Radio 5 Live


Selected Group Matches (all times CET)
17th October
Bangladesh v Scotland  – 15:00
18th October
Ireland v Netherlands – 11:00
19th October
Scotland v Papua New Guinea – 11:00
20th October
Sri Lanka v Ireland – 15:00
21st October
Oman v Scotland – 15:00
22nd October
Namibia v Ireland – 11:00
23rd October
England vs West Indies – 16:00
27th October
England vs Qualifier – 12:00
30th October
England vs Australia – 16:00
1st November
England vs Qualifier – 15:00
6th November
England vs South Africa – 15:00

Ryder Cup to the fore as sport lights up road to recovery

in Sport Insight

As the planet slowly recovers from the ravages of the terrifying Covid-19 pandemic, sport once again leads the way on the rocky road back to normality as, immediately after the successful and entertaining but spectatorless Tokyo Olympic Games, golf takes centre stage when the War of the World – United States vs Europe – tees off in the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, Wisconsin, with the home side thirsting to avenge the 17.5-10.5 mauling suffered in the Paris debacle of 2018.

The Ryder Cup, named after English entrepreneur and golf enthusiast Samuel Ryder who hailed from Preston, proved to be an insurmountable task for the home nations in the initial years as the Americans, powered by immortals Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino etc, routinely and relentlessly brushed the opposition aside, often by embarrassing margins. I’m old enough to recall those dark days and how jarring were the patronising words of consolation and pats on the head proffered to outclassed opponents by successive Yankee captains at post-match victory celebrations, but in 1979 all that was about to change.

Golf was becoming very popular in continental Europe with the emergence of Spanish superstars, swashbuckling Seve Ballesteros, gritty Antonio Garrido, ‘El Niño’ Sergio Garcia, Captain Fantastic José Maria Olazabal, plus cigar-chomping Miguel Ángel Jiménez and German prodigy Bernhard Langer. With Europeans regularly scaling the summit of golf’s order of merit, and with Uncle Sam at last tiring of the cat-torturing-the-mouse routine that the competition had become, combined with TV stations’ complaints about the one-sidedness of it all, the call went up… the Ryder Cup must be opened up to the rest of Europe.

And so it came to pass – from 1979 stars from Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden strode to the aid of their beleaguered British and Irish colleagues and the effect was immediate, the Ryder Cup became a proper contest and the unthinkable happened – the Americans were being put to the sword, and for Uncle Sam, having grown fat gorging on the carcasses of inferior opponents, this was a hard pill to swallow. Of the 20 tournaments played since the change, Europe have won 11 to eight, with one tied.

Postponed for a year because of the plague, the 43rd Ryder Cup is scheduled to take place at Whistling Straits, Haven, Wisconsin, with the action set to detonate on Friday 24th September and ending two days later on the Sunday. At the time of writing, barring any more nasty pandemic setbacks, the three-day extravaganza is set to be played in front of a full hostile house of fanatical and very noisy golf enthusiasts. Memories of the spanking the Yanks suffered last time in Paris are still raw in the States – the then president and golf nut Donald Trump was reported to be incandescent at the result, it didn’t sit well with the Ginger Don’s moronic MAGA chant of Make America Great Again – and Team USA are desperate to avenge what they consider to be that shameful collapse.

The Americans, led by non-playing captain Steve Stricker, are odds-on favourites with the bookies to wrest the Cup back, and with eight Yanks in the top ten of golf’s official world rankings it’s not difficult to see why Uncle Sam’s Boys are confident that America is on the road to redemption, with victory assured in what is sure to be an ultra intimidating Whistling Straits battleground. The team is made up of the top six in the points table who qualify by right, the remaining six places are ‘captain’s picks’ where Stricker has the option to include players based on current form or previous Cup experience, like class act Phil Mickelson, who boasts an astonishing 12 Cup appearances. I fervently hope that old ‘Lefty’ makes it 13.

Team Europe consists of the top nine in the order of merit, with non-playing captain Padraig Harrington having just three picks, an unenviable dilemma for the popular Irishman – who to pick, who to leave out? Just as with Mickelson for the USA, my earnest hope is that Ian Poulter be one of Harrington’s choices should he not qualify by right. The mercurial Englishman comes alive when donning Team Europe colours – not a hint of Brexit negativity here – a fantastic fanatical team player who has never lost a Cup singles match, won five with one tied is the proud record of Hitchin’s favourite son.

Who will emerge triumphant on Sunday, 26th September? My heart says Europe but my head whispers USA. Spaniard Jon Rahm, who tops the world rankings, is head and shoulders Team Europe’s finest, Rory McIlroy occasionally shows signs that he might be about to rediscover some of his past zest, Tommy Fleetwood is flying and Tyrell Hatton has been a revelation this term, all signs that Team Europe have realistic hopes of hitting the 14-point target that, as holders, would see the Ryder Cup retained. It’s going to be an exhilarating three days, with every stroke live on TV. Don’t miss it!

Current odds: Team USA 4/7, Team Europe 2/1, Tie 12/1

TV Schedule of The Ryder Cup Action (Tee-off times to be announced)

Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Golf

Also excellent coverage BBC Radio 5 Live

Friday 24th – Morning 4 Foursomes – Afternoon 4 Fourballs

Saturday 25th – Morning 4 Foursomes – Afternoon 4 Fourballs

Sunday 26th – 12 Singles

England, Wales and Scotland set to star in spectacular Euros

in Sport Insight

EURO 2020, delayed for a year because of Covid-19 restrictions, will now kick off  on 11th June, sparking a month long celebration of the beautiful game, with the final scheduled to take place at Wembley on 11th July. For the first time, the finals will be shared between 11 countries, originally a one-off idea from UEFA to honour the competition’s 60th anniversary but, of  much more significance now as Europe slowly emerges from the ravages of the pandemic, an opportunity to spread the love of the sport that so unites the international football family.

Twenty-four nations are divided into six groups of four in the pool stage, with the winners and runners-up in each group, plus the four best third-placed teams qualifying for the last 16 knockout stage. With Wales, Scotland and England having qualified for the much anticipated and long-delayed extravaganza, Euro 2020 promises to be a blockbuster event for UK expats and tourists here in Gibraltar, evoking cherished memories of previous tournaments, particularly in this correspondent, when fondly remembering magical moments sitting in sun-baked Casemates Square, sipping cider in front of the Big Screen and letting tribal passion run free, unfettered, if only for an hour and a half!

Scotland and England have been drawn together in Group D and their pool clash promises to be a juggernaut affair, definitely not one for the faint-hearted, an irresistible force crashing against an immovable object, evoking memories of past epic football encounters between these footy-mad nations, the drama still powered by lingering echoes of centuries-old battlefield conflicts – think Braveheart, think Bonnie Prince Charlie, think Bannochburn and, on 18th June, think Wembley, when, pandemic permitting, tens of thousands of tartan-clad, kilt-wearing, wild-eyed, hairy-legged Scots, all united in single purpose – the rout of the Sassenachs – will march on England’s premier stadium to the haunting backdrop of Flower of Scotland and the intoxicating swirl of bagpipes. England, be warned, the Tartan Army is on the march and defeat is not an option.

Bookmakers appear to have dismissed any chance of tournament victory for either Wales or Scotland, as derisory odds of 200/1 and 300/1 respectively would seem to indicate, with England currently available at a very skinny 6/1 to lift the Trophy. Let’s take a look at how the three home nations have performed in past Euros, and run the rule over the chances of an at-long-last home victory in Euro 2020.


Grand National Set to lift spirits and Covid Gloom

in Sport Insight

The Grand National, the greatest horse race in the world bar none, takes place on Saturday April 10th, the last day of the Aintree Festival and, just like Cheltenham the preceding month, the much loved event will for the first time be staged behind closed doors as Covid-19 continues to exert its cruel, malevolent and deadly grip on people’s lives, loves and pursuits.

Certainly, the iconic three-day festival will be much the poorer deprived of the heaving throng of enthusiastic Scousers who annually come out in force to celebrate the Merseyside version of Royal Ascot but, at least, the “People’s Race” goes ahead, unlike last year when the plug was pulled as distress signals from the men in white coats to the men in suits resulted in the entire meeting being abandoned.

While gambling restrictions have been lifted in Gibraltar and it has been possible to have a bet in the Sports Arena in Casemates and Ocean Village for several weeks now, under Boris Johnson’s “roadmap to freedom” high street betting shops in the UK will remain closed until April 12th, two days after the festival ends, unfortunate timing for the bookies, a decision that is estimated will cost the industry north of £175m in cash betting as once-a-year punters and hordes of eager housewives will be unable to place their annual pound each-way on the famous race.

Another blow to the National is that the tiny turbo known as Tiger Roll, denied by last year’s abandonment of the opportunity to make history by becoming a three-in-a-row winner, having being first to the jam stick in 2018 and repeating the feat the following year – an awesome achievement that proved beyond even the legendary Red Rum – has been taken out of the race by owner Michael O’Leary, who reportedly was miffed that the handicapper had allotted his stable star 7lbs more weight to carry than when last successful in 2019.

I have two questions for Mr O’Leary, Ryanair’s abrasive boss – yes, Tiger Roll is getting on a bit, he’s 11 years, which in equine terms means pension pastures are on the horizon, he’s tiny, about the size of a pony, and weight can anchor even the strongest of steeds, but Michael, surely you must have a twinge of regret at your hasty decision to withdraw our little hero from the National after Tiger rolled back the years at last month’s Cheltenham festival, pulverising a field of top-class chasers to win unchallenged, thrilling the racing world in scenes reminiscent of  derring-do deeds from past immortals like Rummy and even “Himself”, the almighty Arkle, by some distance the greatest chaser ever to set hoof on the racecourse.

It’s not too late to re-enter the little warrior in the race Michael and, for once, enjoy a rare chance to bask in the warm glow of public acclaim and affection rather than continue to suffer the slings and arrows that daily assail you. And my second question, any chance that when lockdown is lifted and normality resumes, would Ryanair be interested in taking over the Luton slots vacated by the collapse of Monarch? Just like Tiger Roll Mr O’Leary, it would be a sure-fire winner!

The three-day Aintree Festival, one of my favourite meetings, is not all about the Grand National, it provides an opportunity for recent Cheltenham winners to strut their stuff, to showcase their talent in search of further glory, and for the Prestbury Park vanquished, a chance of redemption – like PAISLEY PARK, who could only finish third for us in the Stayers Hurdle, to get back in the winner’s enclosure, and once again I’ll be lumbering the poor beast with my tenner when he lines up in the Liverpool Hurdle on the Saturday (4.40 CET), as I’m convinced Paisley wasn’t 100 per cent last time and compensation awaits popular owner Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth.

And so, on to the daunting conundrum that the Grand National poses, the most demanding test of man and beast – a maximum field of 40 runners competing over a distance of 4 miles and 514 yards with thirty fearsome fences to be negotiated, the best known being Valentine’s, The Chair, Canal Turn and Becher’s Brook, so called because Captain Martin Becher, riding in the first Grand National, was unseated and nearly drowned in the brook.

At the time of writing, entries for both races have not been finalised which puts picking the winner as elusive as finding that old needle in a field of haystacks. However, undaunted and forever the optimist despite repeated reversals, I’ve got a horse that I feel certain is sure to give us a good run for our money – CLOTH CAP, trained in the Cotswolds by National Hunt elder statesman Jonjo O’Neill and owned by Trevor Hemmings, surely the luckiest of men, as the apple of his eye attempts to win him the great race for the fourth time. The 8-year-old gelding has been very impressive in its last two races, winning at Kelso and Newbury and, carrying a feather weight of 10st 5lbs and my tenner, already I can hear the commentator screaming his name as he jumps the last in front and sails past the elbow on that famous Aintree run-in to claim victory and the thick end of a million quid. It’s on the Big Screen at the Arena in Ocean Village – don’t miss it!

Brexit and Covid combine to threaten Cheltenham Festival

in Sport Insight

CHELTENHAM National Hunt Festival 2021 commences on Tuesday, 16th March and ends 28 races and four days later on the Friday, when the blue riband of steeplechasing, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, takes centre stage. Unfortunately, at the time of writing it appears odds on that pandemic restrictions mean the festival will proceed behind closed doors, no full-throated roar from the packed stands as the horses jostle for position pre-race, no hats and racecards tossed triumphantly in the air as horse and jockey strain every sinew on the tortuous uphill finish to be first to the winning post…sad to relate …yes, but at least the iconic event is going ahead, albeit under heavy restraint.

The festival, the jewel in the crown of the National Hunt season, is once again set to enchant the racing public as, midway through March, it opens up its treasure chest of exciting equine stars to the global sporting spotlight that every spring illuminates the Cotswolds town’s glorious centuries-old salute to the Sport of Kings.

But this year, my beloved festival is under a cloud, accusatory fingers are pointing, the charge being levelled is that last year’s event, attended by crowds totalling north of a quarter of a million over the four days, racing fans from all corners of the British Isles and beyond, had converged cheek to jowl, to make the annual pilgrimage to celebrate the crème de la crème of steeplechasing and, indulged, sated and by then allegedly stricken with the deadly virus, had returned home as Covid-19 super-carriers, unleashing death and desolation on family, friends and neighbours.

That’s the damning verdict tapped out by social media keyboard warriors and an army of self-appointed, ill-qualified rent-a-quote experts – last year’s Cheltenham Festival, one of the most exciting and enjoyable ever, has been condemned as a major contributor to the spread of the deadly disease. Whatever the truth of that charge, it has to be remembered that the global reaction, both medical and political at the time, was one of profound ignorance and utter confusion – Commander-in-Chief Donald trumpeted that the virus was ‘a hoax’ and, in the Ginger Don’s opinion, could be cured just by swigging a couple of glasses of bleach! Thank you for that diagnosis Dr Trump, now please disappear quietly into the sunset.

Alas, it’s not just the pandemic that threatens the festival – Brexit looms large as another dark cloud hovering over the meeting, throwing up miles and kilometres of new bureaucratic red tape, including extra veterinary checks, travel restrictions and prohibitive VAT increases, that calls into question the very participation of the Irish contingent. Cheltenham without the Irish, equine and human, would be akin to a Shakespearean tragedy – a modern day Romeo Without Juliet and must not be allowed to happen. The unintended consequences of divorce from the EU become more apparent daily, an indisputable fact surely, even to the most blinkered Brexiteer, harsh reality replacing fevered fantasy, as Morrison’s empty supermarket shelves and rising prices bear testimony.

Enough of the darkness and doom, come with me as we launch Operation Cotswolds, another shot-in-the-arm attempt in our quest to lift the gloom and hopefully in the process, lighten bookmakers’ satchels. Ever the optimist despite repeated reversals, my cunning roadmap to riches revolves round a modest wager on each of the following five races – my favourite festival five, enough for a Super Yankee. For the uninitiated that’s the name of a combination bet and most definitely not a compliment to the unlamented and lately departed Trump. The alternate name for the bet is a Canadian!

The Arkle  

(Tuesday 16th, 3.10pm CET)

THIS is the race that launches talented juveniles on the trail to greatness, and whilst it would be tilting at windmills to suggest that today’s cast contains a candidate that could be remotely compared to the immortal steed the race commemorates, it has produced stellar winners in the recent past who have gone on to hit the heights, like Altior, Sprinter Sacre and Moscow Flyer. Top of this year’s class come the exciting pair, SHISHKJN, trained in England by Nicky Henderson and Irish raider Energumene, trained by Willie Mullins. Henderson and Mullins have each won the race four times and I’m siding with SHISHKIN to give Hendo outright bragging rights to this event. Current odds are a bit skinny at Evens, but it does look home and hosed.

Champion Hurdle 

(Tuesday 16th, 4,30pm CET)

MY DREAM since boyhood is that one day I would own the winner of my favourite race, the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, unlikely to be realised of course, barring Lady Luck changing her habit of a lifetime and for once, smiling rather than scowling on me. The runner in this year’s race I would most like to call my own is defending champion EPATANTE, owned by legendary Irish gambler JP McManus, whose billionaire financial status is a tad dissimilar to mine. No private plane to the racecourse for Liam, just flights of fantasy and a stroll on Shanks’s pony to the pub and Arena in Casemates or to watch the drama unfold on the Big Screen at Ocean Village. The dream this time is that EPATANTE retains her title and repays my ten pounds vote of confidence. Current odds are 3/1.

Queen Mother Champion Chase (Wednesday 17th, 4.30 CET)

THE Queen Mother, the two-mile speed chase involving the fastest jumpers in the world, where fences need to be negotiated at up to 40mph and a mistake could catapult the jockey clean out of the Cotswolds, is the highlight of the second day of the festival. This year’s renewal sees the short-priced favourite Chacun Pour Soi, another graduate from the Mullins academy, travel from County Carlow seemingly with victory already assured. However, I will be looking to dual winner of the race ALTIOR, trained by Henderson, to rediscover his imperious form of a season ago and regain the crown. Current odds are 8/1.

Stayers’ Long Distance Hurdle (Thursday 18th, 4.30 CET)

THE STAYERS’ is one of the most popular races of the festival, mainly because of the numerous times it has been won by the same horse – Big Buck’s won it four times, Inglis Drever was a triple victor, Baracouda and many others were multiple winners. A simple and profitable betting strategy proved to be backing a previous winner to repeat the feat, and it’s one I’ll be following this time around when lumping 2019 winner PAISLEY PARK with my tenner. Current odds are 3/1.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

(Friday 19th, 4.30 CET)

CHAMPION festival trainer Willie Mullins had never won the great race until Al Boum Photo triumphed in 2019, and having retained the Cup last year the classy Al Boum is the pick of many form experts to make it three in a row, replicating a feat that the incomparable Arkle accomplished 55 years ago. However, I’m looking elsewhere for the winner and my tenner each way will be entrusted on last year’s unlucky runner-up SANTINI to avenge that narrow defeat and keep the prize at home. Current odds are 14/1, a must-have each way price, provided trainer Nicky Henderson can get him to the post fit and well and the talented beast cuts out the jumping errors. 14/1 …. what a Friday finale that would be.

See you at The Arena (pandemic permitting) – the cider’s on the bookies. Cheers!

Getting to know the opposition

in Sport Insight

QUALIFICATION for Qatar 2022 World Cup Finals kicks off next month when Gibraltar, drawn in Group G, play host to Norway and Netherlands, those two games sandwiching an away trip to Montenegro, with Turkey and Latvia completing this tough six-team group. Pandemic permitting, the nation that tops the table when qualifying finishes next November will have booked their ticket direct to the finals, with the runners-up advancing to the playoffs for a second chance to join them on the plane to Qatar, the first time the tournament will be staged in the Middle East.

Gibraltar hopes have been buoyed by recent confirmation from UEFA that their home games, in this their second World Cup campaign, can be played at Victoria Stadium, unlike their first foray into the global competition – Russia 2018 – when the Rock were required to play their “home” ties in the vast, almost empty Portuguese Faro stadium, a rather soulless, eerie experience, nothing like the frenzied but friendly atmosphere created at the Vic in previous international and club encounters, notably on nights when Switzerland, Ireland, Denmark and Glasgow giants Celtic and Rangers came calling.

Fresh from the Rock’s remarkable achievement of promotion to Division C in the inaugural UEFA Nations League, Julio’s “Gibraltarian Warriors” will not lack for confidence in embarking on this ultra competitive qualification odyssey. In addition to charismatic coach Ribas, who has engendered a special family togetherness in the squad, there is the never-say-die spirit of “Captain Fantastic” Roy Chipolina, the creative quality of midfield dynamo Liam Walker and the goal poaching power of Lee Casciaro, lionhearts the entire squad, all dedicated to achieving the impossible, but, alas, cold reality decrees that qualification for Qatar 2022 will be a dream too far, but hey, there will be fun and maybe even glory nights on the way.

When Gibraltar was warmly welcomed into FIFA’s football family on 13th May, 2016, it wasn’t an event just about opening up world football to the Rock, but also about opening up Gibraltar to the world. Gibraltar is a picture postcard destination with a first class but sadly underused airport, practically every person on earth has heard of the Rock, but not that many have visited, and now international football is providing opportunities for footy fans from all over the globe to put that right, sit in the sun and quaff cider in Casemates Square, hit the casino tables, roll the dice and explore the delights of Ocean Village, while Gib’s footy fans reciprocate by rocking up to exotic destinations, like wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, tip-toe through the tulips in Amsterdam and spend drunken nights in Dublin.

Gibraltar’s Group G campaign, labelled the Group of Death, commences with a Viking visit from Norway on 24th March and concludes on 16th November, again at Victoria Stadium, when familiar foe Latvia provide the opposition. What a finale that night would be should the impossible have come to pass, with Julio’s boys still having something to play for – most unlikely of course, but it’s nice to dream!

Coronavirus protocols may have relaxed somewhat come the last week of March, the impressive rollout of the vaccine and responsible social distancing may by then have put a check on this ghastly

pandemic, perhaps sufficient for the lockdown to be lifted, Victoria Stadium and the pubs given the green light to reopen, deprived and parched footy fans free once more to quench their thirst and toast their heroes as they rub shoulders with visiting football greats. Who knows, maybe travel restrictions may be lifted in time to join Julio’s army on battlefields abroad!

Let’s take a quick glance at the opposition….


NETHERLANDS

Population: 17.15m

Capital: Amsterdam, (Parliament and Government based in The Hague). Stadium: Johan Cruyff Arena, Amsterdam (Capacity 55,500)

Fifa World Ranking: 14th

Head Coach: Frank de Boer

Previous Gibraltar encounters: None. 

Match Dates: Gibraltar vs Netherlands – 30th March, KO 20:45 CET / Netherlands vs Gibraltar – 11th        October, KO 20:45 CET

The Netherlands, the nation that brought “total football” to an enchanted world, iconic names over the decades, Van Basten, Cruyff, Kluivert, Neeskens, van Nistelrooy, still elicit goose bumps. No one of that calibre in the current squad, save perhaps captain Virgil van Dijk, but a single point from the Dutch masters would be a huge achievement for Gibraltar.

When in Amsterdam: Three-course dinner for two (no alcohol) will set you back around £70. A small bottle of beer costs £4.50.


LATVIA

Population: 1.92m

Capital: Riga

Stadium: Daugava Stadium, Riga (Capacity 10,460)

Fifa World Ranking: 136th

Head Coach: Dainis Kazakevics

Previous Gibraltar encounters: Two friendlies, a win apiece – Gibraltar 0-5 Latvia (29th March, 2016); Gibraltar 1-0 Latvia (25th March, 2018).

Match Dates: Latvia vs Gibraltar – 1st September, KO 20:45 CET / Gibraltar vs Latvia – 16th November, KO 20:45 CET

Honours shared in the two previous clashes and Gibraltar will have realistic prospects of gaining points from both these games.

When in Riga: Three-course dinner for two can be had for a reasonable £36, while a bottle of beer is available for just £1.50.


NORWAY

Population: 5.33m

Capital: Oslo

Stadium: Ullevaal Stadium, Oslo (Capacity 28,000) Fifa World Ranking: 44th

Head Coach: Ståle Solbakken

Previous Gibraltar encounters: No previous meetings. 

Match Dates: Gibraltar vs Norway – 24th March, KO 20:45 CET / Norway vs Gibraltar – 7th September, KO 20:45 CET

Tough opening opponents, a draw would be a great result.

When in Oslo: Expect to pay about £78 for a three-course dinner for two (no alcohol) and a small bottle of beer costs a wince-inducing £7.75.


MONTENEGRO

Population: 622,157

Capital: Podgorica

Stadium: Podgorica City Stadium (Capacity 15,225).

Fifa World Ranking: 63rd

Head Coach: Miodrag Radulovic

Previous Gibraltar encounters: None.

Match Dates: Montenegro vs Gibraltar – 27th March, KO 15:00 CET / Gibraltar vs Montenegro – 8th October, KO 20:45 CET

The Balkan territory could well prove to be a fruitful points source for Julio’s boys.

When in Podgorica: A three-course dinner for two is a very palatable practical giveaway at £23, especially washed down with a £1.70 bottle of beer.


TURKEY

Population: 82.3m

Capital: Ankara

Stadium: Ataturk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul (Capacity 76,760)

Fifa World Ranking: 32nd

Head Coach: Senol Gunes

Previous Gibraltar encounters: No previous meetings.

Match Dates: Gibraltar vs Turkey – 4th September, KO 20:45 CET / Turkey vs Gibraltar – 13th November, KO 18:00 CET

Very tough opponents where any points return would be a huge bonus.

When in Istanbul: Three-course dinner for two is a very reasonable £30 and a bottle of beer can be yours for £2.30.


2021 Sport

in Sport Insight

2020, the year that gave birth to horror child Covid-19, the nightmare virus-spewing pandemic that has claimed millions of lives worldwide and continues to leave a trail of death and desolation in its wake, has been consigned to history, banished to register in the annals of infamy alongside the birthdates of past apocalyptic disasters, the Plague, Spanish flu and both world wars.

But now there is light at the end of this dark tunnel, and no, it’s not an express train thundering towards us but the dawn of a new year, bringing with it the hope that salvation is at hand, Operation Vaccination has begun and normality may be about to resume. There is now the real prospect that the public’s love affair with sport will soon be rekindled as iconic stadia throughout the world throw open the doors to welcome back fans so cruelly deprived by lockdown and restricted access of pursuing their passion in the desperate year just gone.

Religion was once described by Karl Marx as ‘the opium of the masses’, well Karl old boy, that may have been true in your day, but today, in the west at least, churchgoing is very much in retreat and has long been overtaken by sport as the favoured drug of the masses, and this year the faithful can feverishly indulge their habit, with the sporting calendar of 2021 unveiling a truly breath-taking array of glittering events across all disciplines, including football, boxing, golf, cricket and the rearranged Olympic Games.

FOOTBALL

FOOTBALL sees the start of qualification for FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, and Gibraltar fresh from their astonishing promotion in the Euro Nations League – a phenomenal achievement by charismatic Julio Cesar Ribas’s “Gibraltarian Warriors” that has largely not received the credit it merited – have been drawn in Group G where they can look forward to home and away ties with Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, Montenegro and old foe Latvia.

Whilst it’s disappointing that the group does not contain any of the home nations – England, Scotland, Wales and either of the Irelands would have been a huge attraction – the Rock can look forward to fun-filled nights when Norway and Netherlands come calling, on March 24th and 30th respectively, the Vikings and the Dutch football fans, believe me, know how to properly party and Ocean Village will definitely rock that week, reawakening warm memories of great nights like the recent visit of the Republic of Ireland in the Euro qualifiers, and on the club side, Glasgow giants Rangers and Celtic, the latter expedition entered football folklore as “The Shock of Gibraltar” when Lincoln Red Imps unforgettably derailed the green and white hoops!

Gibraltar is a picture postcard destination, with a world class but sadly underused international airport that through increasing participation in football is now really being opened up to the world, and while all of mankind have heard of The Rock, not that many have stopped here until now. Long may the visits of discovery continue and the fervent hope is that come March, with the help of the vaccine, freedom of travel will have been restored, the Covid-19 pandemic will be extinguished and the horror of the past year will begin to fade. Hang fire though on binning the face masks, the adornments have transformed many of my acquaintances at the QuarterDeck Tavern into visions a lot easier on the eye than is the norm!

BOXING

HOPES are high that the eagerly awaited contest between the two best heavyweights on the planet, both British, clean-cut Anthony Joshua who hails from Watford and self-styled King of the Gypsies Tyson Fury, the complex Mancunian who constantly courts controversy by publicly endorsing and socialising with notorious Irish and Scottish gangsters.

Eye-watering cash in the region of half a billion pounds have been floated for the clash, with late summer the suggested date, Wembley Stadium in front of 90,000 the venue, pandemic permitting. However, should social distancing still be required, money-no-object Saudi Arabia is on standby and very keen to host the mega event. If Riyadh be the chosen site, it will be interesting to see how the Saudi police cope with the Gypsy King’s army of raucous beer-loving fans.

It’s all in the hands of boxing promoters now, a breed that inhabit the same integrity-free zone headed by merchant bankers, football agents and, especially, world leaders – the current dodgy trio of Trump, Boris and Putin being prime examples – but whenever or wherever the extravaganza is staged, it ain’t gonna be cheap for boxing fans!

GOLF

THE 43rd Ryder Cup clash between the United States and Team Europe, postponed from last year due to the pandemic, will now take place at Whistling Straits, Haven, Wisconsin on September 24th- 26th, where the Yanks, still smarting from being walloped 17-1/2 – 10-1/2 by the Europeans in Paris in 2018, will be hoping to avenge that rout and, borrowing the puerile slogan of the unlamented ex- Commander-in-Chief Trump, ‘make America great again’! Sadly, Uncle Sam’s boys are favourites in my book to regain the Trophy at what is sure to be a very hostile bear pit atmosphere at Whistling Straits. I do hope I’m proved wrong!

CRICKET

ENGLAND, who have dominated this version of the sport for the past couple of years, will fancy their chances of lifting the T20 World Cup due to be played in India, starting 18th October with the final scheduled for 15th November. Captain Eoin Morgan’s side have been very impressive recently with series victories over South Africa and Australia and confidence is high that this squad can claim the Cup for the second time, with reigning champions West Indies very much in decline, hosts India can emerge as the main threat to the Poms.

TOKYO OLYMPIC GAMES

POSTPONED from last year due to the pandemic, the Tokyo Olympic Games will now take place from 23rd July to 8th August. As a kid growing up, I was fascinated every four years by the Olympics, especially the boxing and athletics, but now some of the lustre has been lost with repeated drug scandals tarnishing the great event. The highlight for me this time will be the performance of Dina Asher-Smith, the immensely talented and likeable 25-year-old from Orpington, in the ladies sprints. Gold medals await the delightful Dina!

2020 A Year Of Tears, Fears And Glory

in Sport Insight

When historians sit down to put pen to paper to document Sport 2020, the focus will certainly not be to celebrate herculean triumph on the playing field, nor to laud David vs Goliath derring-do or die epics, but, sadly, to chart how the calendar has been cruelly decimated by Covid-19, a fearsome unseen plague that leaves death and desolation in its wake as it continues to rage throughout the globe, with all human beings – every single one of us included – a target, caught clearly in the crosshairs of this terrifying stealthy virus!

Blithely unaware of the horror to come, the year started off in usual fashion, with Darts supplying the first world champion, Scotland’s colourful Peter ‘Snakebite’ Wright, becoming the oldest first-time winner of the PDC World Darts Championship when, just three months shy of his 50th birthday, he surprised defending champion Michael van Gerwen 7-3 in the final at London’s Ally Pally on new year’s day. Hairdresser Fallon Sherlock caused something of a stir in this beer-bellied alpha-male dominated sport when the  girl from Milton Keynes, not just female but blonde as well, became the most successful member of the gentler sex in history by reaching the third round of the tournament. The ailing BDO version held at the 02 London a fortnight later, saw the emergence of an even more ancient first-time champ, when 58-year-old Wayne Warren beat Jim Williams 7-4 in an all-Welsh final.

Tragedy rocked the world of sport to its core when basketball superstar Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash in California on January 26th, the 41-year-old legend perishing along with his teenage daughter Gianna and seven others.

In February, no surprise to see Novak Djokovic successfully retain his Australian Men’s Tennis Open title, the super Serb eventually emerging victorious over Austria’s Dominic Thiem after a five-set thriller, while in the Ladies event America once again provided the winner, but on this occasion it was not Queen Serena who reigned supreme, but Sofia Kenin who claimed the prize for the Yanks, the 21-year-old from Florida, via Moscow, fighting back from a set down to floor France’s Garbine Muguruza.

Earlier, the 2020 Super Bowl for once justified the hype, with Kansas City Chiefs ending a 50-year hiatus when they outpointed San Francisco 49ers 31-20 in an all-too-rare entertaining final at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. An estimated TV audience north of 100m witnessed the extravaganza, where a 30-second commercial cost an astonishing $5.5m.

So then enters March, yes, roaring in like a lion, but in this desperate year most definitely not departing like a lamb – Covid’s heavy black clouds were hovering, the chatter was of impending lockdown and, sadly, lacking the vision the year 2020 should suggest, I prayed that my beloved Cheltenham National Hunt Festival would be allowed to proceed unimpeded. My prayers were answered, and 278,000 horseracing fans from all over the British Isles and beyond, mingled cheek to jowl, enjoyed four sumptuous days of equestrian excellence, then sated, and infected, some returned home to friends and neighbours, blighting towns and villages and spreading the virus far and wide. It hardly seems important now that Irish wonder trainer Willie Mullins’ Al Boum Photo retained the Cheltenham Gold Cup, while Nicky Henderson won the Champion Hurdle with Epatante, owned by legendary punter JP McManus.

Sanity slowly trickled through however and lockdown was eventually decreed – the nation’s favourite race, the Grand National, was cancelled, and later the Derby was run behind closed doors. Epsom’s iconic race was won in runaway fashion by Serpentine at 25/1 and the blue riband  prize crossed the Irish Sea to the stable of eight-time winning trainer Aidan O’Brien in County Tipperary.

The lockdown and later restrictions continue to have a massive impact across all sport – Golf saw the cancellation of The Open and the remaining majors were rearranged to be played behind closed doors, with all three being won by Americans, Colin Morikawa won the USPGA, Bryson DeChambeau the US Open and Dustin Johnson, golf’s number one player by some distance, running away with the Masters. The Ryder Cup between the United States and defending champions Europe has been postponed and rescheduled to September next year.

Rugby union saw England narrowly win the Six Nations Championship, pipping France on points difference, while little Exeter Chiefs stunned the sport when taking Europe’s Heineken Champions Cup, triumphing in a contest containing the continent’s heavyweights, Saracens, Racing Club, Clermont and Irish giants, Leinster and Munster.

Football saw Liverpool eventually crowned Premier League champions for the first time, a prize richly deserved, as the Reds under charismatic coach Jurgen Klopp, played fast, free-flowing football, evocative of the Dalglish and Keegan eras. It may be 30 years since Liverpool last won the league, but judging by the way the Scousers have opened their defence of the championship, they have no intention of relinquishing the title cheaply.

My abiding football memory of 2020, however, is the astonishing achievement of tiny Gibraltar, unbeaten and comfortably topping their group of the UEFA Nations League, victory and a draw over both their opponents, San Marino and Liechtenstein elevating inspiring coach Julio  Cesar Ribas’s “Gibraltarian Warriors” to Group C, where they can look forward to crossing swords with higher class international competitors, and possible opponents could include Turkey, Northern Ireland and Bulgaria. Exciting times await!

On a sombre note, death came calling, claiming stellar sport stars: Motor Racing lost Stirling Moss, Football bade farewell to England and Leeds United legendary duo Jackie Charlton and Norman “Bite Yer Legs” Hunter, while there will be intense competition to be chosen as custodian of the sticks in Team Paradise with the arrival of England master ‘keepers Peter Bonetti and Ray Clemence, along with Northern Ireland’s Harry Gregg, the hero of the Manchester United Munich air disaster. Giants all, on and off the pitch, the world is now a poorer place.

Regular readers will be aware of my agony and ecstasy love affair with the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, a race where, astonishingly, I’ve tipped the winner on more than one occasion, and this year I’m entrusting my tenner with the Alex Ferguson partially owned CLAN DES OBEAUX to succeed once again – sorry Fergie! Get on, and if my flights to the UK and Ireland for the festive season don’t materialise, as now seems likely, I’ll be delighted to meet any of you guys in front of the Big Screen at the Sports Arena in Ocean Village on the day to watch the great race.

Finally, may I warmly wish you all a very Happy Christmas, a prosperous and, above all else, a safe 2021.

Corona thwarts Tiger Roll treble bid

in Sport Insight

And may yet scupper Liverpool’s first Premier League title

CORONAVIRUS currently ravaging the global population, wreaking death and desolation across the cosmos, has claimed its first equine casualty, the world’s favourite and best known horserace bar none, the Grand National, that spectacular steeplechase so beloved of millions has fallen victim to the terrifying Covid-19 plague, the men in suits pulling the plug on the meeting after listening to the advice of the men in white coats that it would be foolhardy to allow a quarter of a million racing enthusiasts to mingle cheek to cheek at the iconic Aintree three-day Festival. A body blow for Merseyside, but worse was to follow with the deadly virus also triggering the suspension of the footy season just as Liverpool, for the first time, were about to be crowned Premier League champions, and are now facing selfish calls from certain clubs, motivated by naked self-interest, that the season be aborted and declared null and void.

So sadly the Aintree Festival, one of my favourite race meetings of the year, is another Corona casualty, further platforms to showcase their talent denied to recent Cheltenham victors seeking more glory, or opportunity for the Prestbury Park vanquished seeking redemption. Alas no Liverpool Ladies Day, always a joyous Friday gathering of the city’s finest females, beauties of all shapes and sizes, uncomplicated, tittering, some tottering, hanging out, eschewing Pimm’s for pints, no Royal Ascot ice maidens here, lovely girls, all determined to have a good time.

But above all, the cruellest blow is that tiny Tiger Roll has been denied the opportunity to rewrite Grand National history by winning the great race three times in a row, the doughty County Meath warrior had been installed as short-priced favourite to emulate mighty Red Rum by completing the National treble in consecutive years, despite being lumbered with top weight by a soulless handicapper who had the discretion, but refused to lighten pony-sized Tiger’s load by what could have proved to be a vital few lbs – a man-made blow to the chances of the history seeker, before the attempt was totally erased by what is also increasingly looking like a man-made intervention, Covid-19, the ghastly virus that is now catastrophically raging out of control across the entire planet.

All is not lost though in Tiger’s quest to rewrite the Grand National history books, his ebullient trainer Gordon Elliott recently stated in a BBC Radio 4 interview that the 2021 renewal will be his stable star’s main objective, and at 11 years, age will be no barrier to the chances of the equine phenomenon achieving the impossible – three Nationals in a row, a feat that proved even beyond the King of Aintree, the legendary “Rummy”. Here’s hoping we all survive the Corona pandemic and are still around to witness and celebrate the great day.

On the football front, calls to have this season’s Premier League campaign voided, abandoned and start again in August as if PL 2019/20 never happened, are wicked and shamefully selfish. Liverpool, currently an astonishing 25 points clear of their nearest pursuer with just nine games left to play, have been a joy to watch all season, their brand of football exhilarating, evoking memories of the golden Dalglish era, and to deny the Reds their first title since the abolition of the old First Division must not be permitted to happen.

Whilst calls to start afresh next August are deplorable but somewhat understandable from clubs fearing relegation and being shown the red card that bars entry to the bottomless PL treasure chest, it is comments from media celebrities like Good Morning Britain’s Piers Morgan, nurturing his insatiable quest to court controversy and keep his bloated ego firmly in the public eye, that cause intense irritation. “Motormouth” Morgan, an Arsenal fan like me, declared that although it’s tough on Liverpool, the season should be abandoned as though it never happened, and kick off a new campaign in August! No Piers, No, Premier League 2019/20 must be completed and the Reds afforded the opportunity to secure the few points needed to ensure that the championship crown ends up where it so rightly belongs – the Trophy Cabinet at Anfield.

0 £0.00
Go to Top