Roger Alton

Fifteen things we learned about sport in 2014

The problems of the Prem, Formula One's decisive 0.2 seconds, and more

Fifteen things we learned about sport in 2014
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It was the year of KP, Keano and the Kiwis; of Federer, Froch and Phil the Power (no change there then); of Sochi and Suarez; of Rory and Ronaldo; McCaw, McGinley and McCoy (as always). But it was also the year when we learned some very valuable things about sport.

1. For all the boasting about how good the Premier League is, there’s actually only one team in it — which is less than in Italy, Spain or France, or even poor old Scotland. The only country where anything similar is happening is Germany, where Bayern are running away with the Bundesliga, just like Chelsea here. Which only goes to show that Pep and José are, by a mile, the best coaches on the planet — though we knew that already.

2. Americans are not very good at golf, despite the sport being a national obsession. In fact if they don’t start playing a bit better, we will have to give them Australia, Japan, and Mexico for the Ryder Cup. On the US Golf Channel the commercial breaks are full of adverts for Viagra, which might be one reason they’re so rubbish at the game. Or just a sign that the broadcasters know their audience.

3. If someone is so difficult to share a dressing room with as to get Andrew Strauss, the most courteous and diplomatic of England cricket captains, to call him ‘a complete c***’ in an unguarded moment, he probably is — although maybe not a complete one.

4. The best No. 7 in English rugby hasn’t played an international match for five years yet was named European player of the year after helping Toulon to win the double. The RFU has allowed Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, to pick overseas-based players in ‘exceptional circumstances’. What could be more exceptional than a home World Cup next year? Steffon Armitage must be summoned immediately!

5. Rugby league is not for cissies: Sam Burgess had his cheekbone and eye socket fractured in the first minute of the Australian NRL final. He played on through the pain for the next 79 minutes and was made man of the match as his side won their first national title for more than 40 years. Can’t wait to see how he adapts to rugby union in his new move to Bath. Like Armitage, he could be essential for England’s World Cup effort.

6. The public absolutely love Alastair Cook. After a terrible winter and an indifferent start to the summer, the third Test in the absurdly over-crammed series against India was at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton and a lot was at stake for Cook. He was applauded all the way to the crease, he was then given a huge cheer as he got off the mark, a standing ovation for his 50, another as he came in for lunch, and yet another when he was out for 95.

7. The football World Cup will never quite be the greatest show on earth again, with or without the sight of Glenn Hoddle in his shorts. This one started out really well but caution took over by the knockout stages, the world’s two best players looked exhausted, and the final was largely forgettable. It was the best World Cup for a while, but ultimately no more than that.

8. The best European rugby team is Ireland: Six Nations champions and unbeaten in the autumn internationals despite the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll. They have a kind World Cup draw next year and should reach the semi-finals. Maybe we should all start learning the words to ‘Fields of Athenry’.

9. The Brits love their sport and are brilliant at laying on sport. The Commonwealth Games were a roaring success, and next year’s rugby World Cup is a near sell-out, even in such less than traditional hotbeds of the sport as Brighton. And 55,000 of us will willingly turn out for meaningless football friendlies at Wembley. When Spain play pointless friendlies, hardly anyone bothers to turn up.

10. Little things can mean a lot in Formula One. It took precisely 0.2 seconds for Lewis Hamilton to react at the start of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and accelerate past Nico Rosberg on pole. The race was then over, but it was still one hell of a fifth of a second.

11. It seems a long time ago but British women are still the world’s best at going down an icy mountain head first on a tea tray. Lizzy Yarnold’s win at the winter Olympics was Britain’s second gold and fourth medal in skeleton bobsleigh.

12. Breaking up can be good for you: when Rory McIlroy got cold feet about his impending wedding to Caroline Wozniacki in May, the Northern Irish golfer was in a relative slump. He hadn’t won a tournament for 18 months and his world ranking had slipped from No. 1 to No. 11. Dumping Wozza worked. He won his first tournament as a single man — the BMW PGA at Wentworth — then the Open Championship and the US PGA, his third and fourth major titles, added the World Golf Championship event in Ohio, played a big part in Europe winning the Ryder Cup and topped both the American and European Orders of Merit. The points gap between him and second place in the world rankings is now as big as that between No 2 and No 15. He is in a class of his own, on his own.

13. But not for everyone: Wozniacki’s tennis career remains in the doldrums. Her world ranking, though, which was No. 1 before she met Rory, fell to No. 16. She is now back to No. 8 after reaching the US Open final in September, her first major final since 2009. She seems a thoroughly good egg so let’s hope she does OK next year.

14. Ryan Moore is the best English jockey since Lester Piggott. Brilliant wins in Australia recently (in the Cox Plate and the Melbourne Cup) mean the whole world now knows. He gave up on the domestic championship here to go and ride around the world. He is stunningly good (but some of us have known that for years).

15. The mythic appeal of the Christmas truce football match 100 years ago shows no signs of diminishing (thank you, Sainsbury’s). Though one of the best pieces of first world war storytelling I came across was a brilliant little two-hander by John Burrows in a village hall in Lewes. It’s called Stony Broke in No Man’s Land, and an enterprising London producer should grab it forthwith.

City Snowman
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.
Written byRoger Alton

Roger Alton is a former editor of the Observer and the Independent. He writes the Spectator Sport column.

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