Category Archives: Sport

A spot kick to savour

18 months ago I was privileged to enjoy an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life… I have not blogged on it until now, as it took place during one of the most challenging periods of my life.

At a time that my wife was waiting for her diagnosis for breast cancer to be confirmed, I won an online competition with Vauxhall to represent my country (Wales) in a penalty kick shoot-out against Scotland at half-time during a football FIFA World Cup Qualifier between the same nations.

The weather was pretty rough before and during the game, but fortunately it was OK at half-time… although the lush grass at the Cardiff City Stadium was rather moist, and we were not allowed to wear boots on the pitch.

Penalty Takers
Penalty Takers

Wales were trailing 1-0 at half-time to a James Morrison strike just before the half hour mark, so the Welsh penalty takers amongst us were aware that it was down to us to lift the spirits of the home supporters by delivering with our spot kicks.  This was not going to be made any easier by the rowdy, enthusiastic,  and slightly inebriated tartan army that always passionately follow their team through thick and thin.

As we geared ourselves towards the big event, our preparations were disrupted by a mischievous Scotland and Stoke City player, Charlie Adam, who was warming up during the half time interval; and decided to prematurely start the proceedings by firing a spot kick in the nets that were purposely setup on the halfway line.

Adam’s antics was (unfortunately) not enough to put off Gordon Sheach, who was first up for the Scottish contingent, and expertly dispatched their first penalty.  His celebration of a simultaneous jump and air punch was enthusiastically welcomed by the Scots in the crowd; and the fact that his kilt decided to safely react to the earth gravitational pull was welcomed by the vast majority of the Cardiff City Stadium.

Wales’ first penalty taker suffered a miss-kick and was easily saved by the guest goalkeeper who was drafted in from the Wales youth setup.  This meant that after the first round Wales were trailing 1-0.

Scotland’s second penalty was confidently put away to make the score 2-0.

Then it was my turn to either bask in glory or crumble in humiliation.  It was my intention, that if I scored my celebration would consist of putting my finger to my lips in the direction of the tartan army to quieten our noisy visitors…. but in a rush of blood, I did this before taking the penalty… which just added further pressure to the spot kick.  I picked the direction to which I was going to place the kick and was grateful that the keeper went the other way.

IMG_00000047
My Penalty

So I was the first Welshman on the night to score against the Scots to make it 2-1, and I hoped that would spur on the professionals to step up a gear after the break.

The Welsh could only hope that the Scots were unsuccessful with their last attempt to give us the opportunity to draw the competition.

Our hopes were realised as the third Scottish pen was saved.

Then the last spot kick of the competition was scored, despite the keeper getting fingertips to the strike, and it ended 2-2.

My signed Wales Shirt
My signed Wales Shirt

I have to thank Vauxhall for that opportunity.  The prize included watching the team train at The Vale of Glamorgan Hotel and Resort, which acted as the FAW training camp; Vauxhall goodies, tickets to the game, the penalty kick experience; a Wales training top; and a signed Wales shirt (which I have had framed).

What was even better, was 2 goals from the remarkable Gareth Bale in the last 10 minutes to win the game for Wales.  The first being a penalty, and the second a wonder-strike that will be remembered by everyone who had the privilege to see it.

I was able to record the action on my BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, which I have been able to edit and upload to YouTube.  The footage is a little shaky, partly down to nerves and partly down to the sharing of the tablet between us Welsh representatives.

I’ve decided to post this now as my wife’s cancer treatment has now successfully ended and is in remission, and this will allow me to document the events for future posterity.

RIP Gary Speed : Sept 1969 – Nov 2011

Although I have 101 ideas on which to blog but just haven’t had the time to put fingers to keyboard, I feel compelled to pay tribute to and share memories of a man that has made a monumental contribution to not just Welsh football, but British football.

When I heard the news this afternoon whilst driving that football was mourning the passing of Gary Speed, I felt truly numb and physically sick; and when the fans tribute from the Swansea v Aston Villa game was broadcast on the radio I was moved to tears.

I have heard many supporters today say that they are devastated and distraught, and although I have been extremely emotional and dumbfounded by confusion and grief; the extreme emotions should be exclusive to those who knew Gary well, and my heartfelt sympathies go out to his family and friends.

The amount of tributes that I have seen and heard today are testament to a player that has never seemed to have fallen into the trappings of a playboy lifestyle that has often plagued professional footballers, despite his unquestionable talent and good looks.  I also know many stories of a man who was an excellent leader, role model and all-round good guy.  This doesn’t surprise me as he is a fellow Virgo like me.

My first “encounter” with Gary was during my first ever international match, Wales v Iceland on 1st May 1991 at Ninian Park.  He had already helped Leeds win the “old” second division title in the 89/90 season and this was his 5th cap.  To be totally honest, I can remember very little of the game itself except for the Paul Bodin penalty that ended up being  the only goal.

After this experience I became a staunch supporter of the national team at home, and saw Gary on loads of occasions run the midfield, as he was mister dependable.  When other big name players would pull out (or be pulled out) of Welsh internationals, you could always rely on Gary to be on the team sheet.  This is obviously how he became Wales’ most capped outfield player with 85 appearances, and could have easily surpassed “Big Nev” Southall’s 92 cap record if he hadn’t retired from international football earlier than he should have.

Being an Evertonian, one of my greatest moments in football was when they signed Speedo, who himself was a childhood supporter of the Toffees.  The reason why I supported Everton in the first place was that they had a few Wales players in the great squad of the mid 80’s.

As a young man who lived 200 miles away from Liverpool, I never got much opportunity to get to Goodison Park; so I had to wait until 12th April 1997 to see Gary in an Everton shirt whilst playing Tottenham.  I wasn’t disappointed either, as I was there with mates who were Spurs supporters and I correctly predicted that Gary Speed would be the first goalscorer.  It was a trademark Speedo header in the 11th minute, and as it was the only goal it ended up being the winner.  Gary went on to be a great Everton captain, and I was very sad to see him go to Newcastle a year later.

I am privileged to have met him on a couple of occasions whilst I was working behind the scenes at Manchester City on matchdays.  The most memorable was on 18th September 2005 when Bolton were the visitors to Eastlands.  Man City completely dominated the match but were unable to find the net.  Then a handball by Richard Dunne gave Speedo the opportunity to slot home a 93rd minute penalty to win the game.  As I was working in the press room on that particular day, and had post-game responsibilities to guide players and managers to the awaiting press; I had a quick chat with Gary as I tried to persuade him to come out of international retirement and he signed my programme.  This sort of behaviour was against club policy on my behalf, but I couldn’t miss the chance to talk to one of my all-time heroes.

I thought Gary’s appointment as Wales team manager was inspired.  Mark Hughes had already proved that although someone may have little managerial experience; a huge knowledge of the game, a passion for your country and the respect of players and other managers was a great foundation for moulding a successful national team.

I am sure his passion and enthusiasm was infectious and this was evident in how he got very young players to move up an extra level and play the kind of football not seen in the national team for many years.  And even though he got off to a shaky start results wise; everyone could see what he was trying to achieve and his aim of winning the hearts and minds of Welsh football supporters was certainly starting to pay dividends.

Even though Wales now have to face the 2014 World Cup qualifiers without their inspirational manager; we now have to find someone in the same mould, with the same drive and belief; so that the players can make the ultimate tribute by qualifying for a major championship.

I would also like to see the Football Association of Wales organise a memorial game in the Millennium Stadium of a Wales team (made up of past and present players) against a team of other footballers that Gary has played with or managed; the proceeds of which to go to his family and / or any nominated charities that were close to his heart.

The biggest disappointment is the apparent manner of his death.  It goes against everything that I know or have heard of the man; and when I think of the likes of John Hartson’s fight to battle cancer, it just seems like an awful waste of a life.  I hope I and others find the strength to live my life to the fullest and to overcome any difficulties I may face without feeling the need to end it.

Patriotic, passionate and £10 worse off… or am I?

I am currently sitting on a train bound to London from Cardiff in anticipation to deliver a presentation for work tomorrow morning. This is a trip many Welshmen (and women and children) will have made today as we are now only 3 hours away from the kick off in the Wales v England Euro 2012 qualifier, which is being played at Wembley Stadium.

This is a huge game on so many levels, but the main reason is bragging rights… if you’re an Englishman, for the next few days or weeks; but for a Welshman, for years to come.

I have conducted research on my family tree for a few years, and if I go back only a few generations I realise that I have hardly a welsh bone in my body, with only one line of Jones’s to hang my patriotic hat onto… but my blood runs red, literally and metaphorically. I have lived my life accepting the stereotypical jokes, on the chance that on a few occasions I can wallow in pride when Welsh success shows its face. I hope I am able to find a nice bar close to my hotel where I can watch the game tonight.

I believe Wales have a better than fair chance of getting a result, although the draw is probably the best outcome I can expect… but this is not going to dissuade me from having a birthday bet on a welsh win, especially at odds of 21/1.

We have a group of attacking players with the likes of Bale, Ramsey and Ledley, who could potentially open up any side in the world; but I am also wary that we have always been susceptible to soft goals at the back. We cannot afford to be complacent when you have the might of the English midfield and forwards breathing down your necks.

It’s not just the football that the Welsh have to look forward to, but a Rugby World Cup which we are going into with a little bit of confidence. With 2 out of 3 wins in our warm up games (even if the win over England was a tad unconvincing, but none-the-less satisfying), we can go into our opening game against South Africa with some belief that we can win. South Africa, although world class, will know that Wales have got the talented players to punish them, especially if they are playing anything less than their best. The Springboks have only just managed to beat Wales on their last 3 meetings, and this is (in my opinion) a stronger Welsh squad.

So, in honour of my heart-over-head driven confidence, I have decided to add a Wales rugby win to my bet at odds of 5.5/1…. So now my bet double with a £10 stake has potential winnings of £1,145.

As I would be more than happy with £1,000 I have decided that the £145 (in the unlikely event of a double win) will be donated to charity. The charity that I have in mind is the John Hartson Foundation.

Fronted by the former Wales big man himself, this is a charity that devotes itself to raising awareness of testicular cancer, an illness that John himself has battled to rid himself of.  Follow John on Twitter.

It is also the chosen charity for the other big England v Wales soccer match that is taking place this week. It’s the legends game that is being played at Pride Park, Derby on Thursday evening (Live on ITV4).

Past players and celebrities from the 2 countries will be trying their best to out-do their opponents whilst raising money for this worthy cause… and whatever the result I will be making a small donation on the night. The line-ups for both teams are mightily impressive, but as a Welshman who was brought up on 80’s and 90’s soccer it is step-back-in-time to the days of Hughes, Rush and Saunders et al.

It’s taken an hour to compose this blog and register my bet, and now all I can do is look forward to a feast of international sport over the coming days and weeks, and hope for great results for the Welsh.

GORAU CHWARAE CYD CHWARAE / CYMRU AM BYTH