26th September 2016
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Talking Sport … with Jim Tait

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There is no doubt what the biggest tale of the week is, although calling it the greatest sporting story of all time, as some have done, is something of an exaggeration.

The best thing about Leicester City’s incredible English Premier League victory, from a neutral point of view, is how the achievement has defied the odds.

Hardly anyone a year ago would have predicted that Leicester would even finish in the top half of the table, far less set the pace for virtually the whole season and ultimately triumph with two games left to play.

The huge spending power of the top clubs in the country suggested that the champions would be either Chelsea or Manchester City with Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool or Tottenham Hotspur joining them in the top four.

Others such as Southampton, Everton and Stoke, or even Newcastle and West Ham, would likely be competing for the remaining Europa League slot. Leicester, having successfully battled relegation last season, were expected to be in a similar situation this time round.

Claudio Ranieri, known as the “tinkerman” during a previous spell as Chelsea manager, was sacked by owner Roman Abramovich because it was not believed he had it in him to “win championships”. He has proved the oligarth wrong, in style.

For the past three decades, save for the brief emergence of Blackburn Rovers who also had money to spend, the destiny of the title has been fairly predictable. In the previous 20 years only four teams – Man Utd (11 times), Chelsea (four), Arsenal (three) and Man City (two) have taken the honour. Contrast that to the 1960s, when seven different teams emerged as champions.

Can others take note from Leicester’s achievement and mount a challenge to the leading sides next season? Here’s hoping they can.

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The outcome of the Hillsborough inquests, which found the South Yorkshire police guilty of gross negligence and that 96 football fans were unlawfully killed, after two years of evidence, will be an immense relief to the families of those who died.

Lessons have obviously been learned from the disaster, which was caused by the police sanctioning the opening of a gate at the Sheffield Wednesday stadium, being used as a neutral venue for the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

Over 24,000 Liverpool supporters had travelled to Sheffield for the match and many of them had built up outside the busy turnstiles. After “gate C” was opened about 2,000 fans flooded into the ground in a few minutes, entered the already-full terracing behind the goal and a massive crush occurred.

I have tremendous admiration for those who have striven for justice during the 27 years since the incident. That it has taken so long to come about – the inquest was the longest in English legal history – is a travesty for everyone involved and sadly many of them have not survived long enough to hear the outcome.

There could now be a criminal prosecution against the South Yorkshire police, and in particular match commander David Duckenfield. At the time he was a fairly inexperienced chief superintendent and has since been found to have lied about the opening of the gate.

I can understand those pushing for a prosecution, but am not sure that it is the best way forward. There are many things to be admired about what has happened since 1989. The general increase in safety at football grounds, the bond forged between football supporters in Liverpool and Yorkshire, the impressive solidarity shown to their rival team by Everton fans, and the general condemnation of the shabby coverage at the time by the Sun newspaper.

To me it seems that calling for more blood, now that the voice of the dead has finally been honoured, is an antithesis of the almost universal dignity shown by those involved in the terrible saga.

Although safety has made great strides since the Hillsborough disaster, football still has a long way to go. Crowd control often remains a problem, especially when large swathes of fans insist on standing when they should be seated, while obnoxious chanting is prevalent at many big matches.

I have to say, however, that attending an English game is usually a more pleasurable all-round experience than a similar venture north of the border.

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At a local football level the weather has again put paid to some early-season fixtures, with even one of the matches scheduled to be played in Whalsay called off because of a cancelled ferry.

With one pitch fewer in town this year, the Clickimin North surface rarely used except for winter rugby training and the availability of Seafield again depending on a dry summer, things are obviously going to be difficult.

The various country parks will be important over the coming season, and maybe the likes of Burra, Cunningsburgh and even Bressay could be looked at.

As far as the season goes in general many could have been anticipating a close competition, which helps to maintain the interest. The surprise victory by Ness United over Celtic in the Highland Fuels Trophy hinted that could perhaps be the case this year.

However, that hope has taken a dent with the subsequent hammerings handed out to Whitedale and Scalloway. To hear of 14-3 and 11-1 results does not exactly inspire anyone.

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My observations on snooker a fortnight ago were surely reinforced by what transpired during the World Championships in Sheffield.

Although the record number of centuries made during the duration of the competition was equalled, much of the play was interminably boring.

It was probably a good thing that Mark Selby picked up the trophy, as at least he occasionally offered a flicker of emotion. That certainly wasn’t the case with beaten finalist Ding Junhui.

There was one occasion, possibly at the quarter-final stage, when a player took about five minutes to make up his mind which shot to go for.

Perhaps a speed clock is not the answer in such a prestigious competition as this, but something definitely needs to be done to sort out the snails.

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Anyone who detests cricket may want to stop reading now, but two weekends ago I attended an English county match for the first time ever.

Surrey were taking on Somerset at London’s Kia Oval and it was a far cry from an international occasion at the ground, the 2,000 or so spectators on the Sunday giving the place an almost deserted feel.

The seating was almost all unrestricted, however, and there was an opportunity to wander through the museum and long room during the lunch interval.

Take in a superb century by Sri Lankan ace Kumar Sangakkara, a lightning innings by bright young English hope Jason Roy and a steady ton the following day by veteran Marcus Trescothick, who I’d given up hope of ever seeing play again, and it all added up to some excellent entertainment.

AboutJim Tait

Jim Tait is news editor at The Shetland Times.

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