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Author Archive for Richard Williams

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Silverstone’s history is buried under a characterless concrete desert | Richard Williams

The grand prix circuit is now full of meaningless passion-killing twiddly bits and the biggest symbol of its failings is the misshapen Wing

A lot of tears will be shed this weekend over the potential demise of Silverstone as a grand prix venue in two years’ time, but they will not be universal. To some, the old second world war bomber base has outlived its era, ruined not so much by outdated facilities as by cack-handed attempts at modernisation. A glass pyramid might not have spoiled the Louvre courtyard, but the addition of the monstrous pits and hospitality complex called The Wing six years ago symbolises Silverstone’s failure to integrate past, present and future.

This week’s activation of a break clause in the contract between Formula One and the circuit’s owners, the British Racing Drivers’ Club, appears to signal the ending of a relationship that began in 1950, with the very first round of the inaugural FIA World Drivers’ Championship. The demands on the BRDC of the 17-year contract signed in 2009, and in particular the annual 5% increase in a hosting fee that started at £11.5m a year and is currently £16.2m, could yet be renegotiated. But Liberty Media, who bought F1 from a private equity firm this year, will be reluctant to grant Silverstone a reduction that might encourage other promoters to demand similar treatment.

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Mont Ventoux will cast shadow on Tour de France despite absence from route | Richard Williams

Giant of Provence may only glower in distance this time but 50 years since Tom Simpson died only 1,300m from stage finish at summit many will think of him

The riders of the Tour de France will not be required to climb the Mont Ventoux this year but they will find themselves unable to escape its shadow. Sometime in the afternoon of Friday 21 July, while pedalling through the vineyards and lavender fields of the Vaucluse, they will glance over to their right and see the Giant of Provence glowering in the distance.

There was a good reason for the Tour’s route planners to avoid the Ventoux this summer. On 13 July it will be 50 years since Tom Simpson collapsed and died at the roadside only 1,300m and a few hairpin bends from the finish line at the summit of the mountain. Ever since that day, images of the banks of scree lining the winding ribbon of asphalt have carried a certain sense of menace, even as they shine bone-white under the midsummer sun.

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Lions mastermind Carwyn James was a rugby visionary beyond compare | Richard Williams

The Lions’ only previous series triumph in New Zealand in 1972 was entirely due to coach Carwyn James

One warm evening in the summer of 1971 I got home from work with a copy of the London evening paper in my hand. Look, I told my girlfriend, it says here that the Lions are arriving at Heathrow tonight. Let’s go. So we climbed into the car and drove out on the M4 to the airport. We were not alone. The arrivals hall was already packed – but with people who had arrived from the opposite direction, which meant from Wales.

The singing had already begun. Cwm Rhondda, of course, and much else, while we waited. By the time the heroes had passed through the baggage hall and passport checks and started to emerge, people were standing on chairs and tables, creating an impromptu arena.

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Roberts and Solanke pass go but remain on the road of uncertainty | Richard Williams

Manchester City and Chelsea continue to produce and stockpile English players, but neither club seems keen to see the job through and select them

When Ron Greenwood remarked, while responding to criticism for dropping the young Glenn Hoddle from his England team in 1979, that “disappointment is part of football”, he was widely derided for appearing to stifle the expression of creativity. But Greenwood knew what he was talking about, even if he chose the wrong words at the wrong time. Beneath them lay a truth that comes closer to the surface as the rewards for success in English football grow ever more outrageous.

It’s a sad fact that young footballers sometimes have to gamble with their lives if they want to make the breakthrough of which they have dreamed since childhood. This is a very big summer for two young English players who faced each other in an FA Youth Cup final three years ago and have answered the challenge of negotiating a career path through disappointment, actual and potential, in different ways.

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How England paid the penalty again for an attack of the sporting yips | Richard Williams

When the Under-17s lost a final they had all but won with a couple of misses from 12 yards it again underlined that English football’s version of the yips needs a long-overdue cure

The yips can take more than one form. Usually we think of the phenomenon in terms of an individual submitting to a technical meltdown: a golfer seizing up at the sight of a six-inch putt, a tennis player suddenly incapable of tossing the ball up for a serve accurately, or a bowler losing the ability to land the ball anywhere near the cut strip.

Jon Lester is one of the stranger variations. A recent issue of Sports Illustrated carried a long and absorbing feature on the 33-year-old left-handed pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, who mysteriously lost the ability several years ago to throw the ball to first base. Facing a batter, he was as effective as ever. Turn him 90 degrees left, and he was like a man trying to find a target while blindfolded.

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Vote Paris and keep the Olympics out of Donald Trump’s sticky little fingers | Richard Williams

The IOC has the choice of Paris or Los Angeles to host the 2024 Olympic Games and both have relatively sensible proposals

With the contest for the right to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games down to the last two contestants and nearing a final verdict, there may be several good reasons for giving Paris the right to stage the 2024 Olympics while postponing the return of the Games to Los Angeles until four years later. The most compelling of them must surely be that such a decision would put the Olympics out of the reach of Donald Trump’s sticky little fingers.

The two-term limit of the recently inaugurated US president will end in 2025 – unless, that is, Trump decides to follow the example of Julius Caesar and declare himself dictator perpetuo. He might even emulate Caligula by pronouncing himself divine before presiding over the Games on a golden throne. And then why not go all the way? In the Olympics of 67AD, Nero awarded himself an entry in the 10-horse chariot race. Having persuaded the organisers to insert the event into the schedule, Trump could then invent a local rule forcing all competitors who are not heads of state of the host nation to blindfold their horses.

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Red Bull will need all its energy to overcome Uefa ownership rules | Richard Williams

RB Leipzig will join Red Bull Salzburg in next season’s Champions League, leaving the drinks company’s CEO Dietrich Mateschitz with a big problem

In any professional sport, what could be more necessary than a rule preventing one person or organisation from owning two teams? The potential conflicts of interest are obvious. One team could be used to help the other by, for instance, rolling over when they met at a crucial point in the battle for a championship, or by obstructing a third party in order to favour a stablemate.

Formula One used to have a rule like that, but it was a distant memory by the time Dietrich Mateschitz came along. The man who bought the recipe for a caffeine-based drink from a Thai businessman and relaunched it in 1987 as Red Bull was already a multibillionaire by the time he decided to add a second F1 team to the one he had launched in 2005. That first team, built on the shaky foundations of the unsuccessful Jaguar team, was immediately renamed after the drink. When he bought the struggling Minardi team a year later, he rechristened it Toro Rosso – Italian for Red Bull, of course – and set it up as a kind of finishing school for young drivers working their way through the Red Bull junior scheme, giving him a source of talent for the top team. (We need only to mention the names of Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen to see how successful that strategy has been.)

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Is leaving Wembley early just part of the matchday experience? | Richard Williams

What does it say that decision not to stick around and continue to see what happens? Something about the way we watch modern football

It was a sight to make the heart sink. With 10 minutes left on the referee’s watch – plus, as it turned out, four minutes of time added on for stoppages – football fans at one end of Wembley were fleeing through every available exit with hardly a backward glance. From the helicopter camera showing the outside of the stadium, they resembled water pouring out of a colander and sluicing into a gutter.

Fourteen minutes in which to turn around a two-goal deficit in one of the biggest matches of the season, for which adult spectators had bought tickets priced from £30 – yet still the fans of Tottenham Hotspur were leaving the seats they had occupied with such optimism barely an hour earlier.

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Faceless, failing club owners could learn from Juve’s dazzling dynasty | Richard Williams

The Agnelli family (and Roman Abramovich) point the way forward for those in charge of Arsenal, Blackburn, Coventry and Leyton Orient

What kind of people do you want to have running your football club? That’s the question fans of teams as different as Arsenal, Blackburn Rovers, Coventry City and Leyton Orient are asking themselves. Whether faltering just out of range of ultimate success or threatened with a plunge into oblivion, those supporters are turning their anger on owners they see as variously incompetent or delinquent.

For fans of Juventus, the answer is simple. As Paulo Dybala wheeled away after scoring the first of his two beautiful goals against Barcelona in the Italian champions’ stadium on Tuesday night, the TV director switched to a shot of celebrations in the directors’ box, where Andrea Agnelli, the club’s president, was sharing hugs with a small group including his second cousin, John Elkann.

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USA’s Dawn Staley completes her CV and career opportunities continue to knock | Richard Williams

Three-times Olympic gold medallist has progressed from a brilliant point guard to NCAA championship-winning coach with the South Carolina women basketball team and will take charge of the USA Olympic side at Tokyo 2020

Among the small handful of warm memories from the Atlanta Olympics, Dawn Staley stands out. Her combination of gnarly competitiveness and glorious skills – a repertoire of feints, no-look passes and behind-the-back smuggles (her “signature play”, she said) – made the little point guard of the USA women’s basketball team a compelling figure as she and her colleagues swept to victory.

At the time she was a woman playing what many still saw as a man’s game. In later years I was reminded of her playmaking skills while watching Marta, the great No10 of the Brazil women’s football team, and of her focused aggression when Nicole Adams became the first woman to win a gold medal in the Olympic boxing tournament.

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Tiger Woods’ toils go on but magical Masters moment of 1997 still resonates | Richard Williams

Watching Tiger Woods now is a struggle but the 20th anniversary of his first Augusta triumph stirs memories of a first-day tee shot that signalled his greatness

The morning at Augusta National had been spent following Lee Westwood, an early starter in the first round of the 1997 Masters. At 23, the Englishman was making his Masters debut. Just to remind him of where he was, his drive off the first tee flew into an enormous sand trap, setting up a double bogey.

Four hours later, as a chastened Westwood was signing for a five‑over‑par 77, news was coming in from the front nine about a worse catastrophe that appeared to be about to engulf an even younger player. Making his much anticipated professional bow in a major tournament, the 21‑year‑old Eldrick “Tiger” Woods had taken 40 strokes to complete the first half of his opening round, his imminent humiliation forcing its way to the top of the day’s agenda.

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Tiger Woods’ toils go on but magical Masters moment of 1997 still resonates | Richard Williams

Watching Tiger Woods now is a struggle but the 20th anniversary of his first Augusta triumph stirs memories of a first-day tee shot that signalled his greatness

The morning at Augusta National had been spent following Lee Westwood, an early starter in the first round of the 1997 Masters. At 23, the Englishman was making his Masters debut. Just to remind him of where he was, his drive off the first tee flew into an enormous sand trap, setting up a double bogey.

Four hours later, as a chastened Westwood was signing for a five‑over‑par 77, news was coming in from the front nine about a worse catastrophe that appeared to be about to engulf an even younger player. Making his much anticipated professional bow in a major tournament, the 21‑year‑old Eldrick “Tiger” Woods had taken 40 strokes to complete the first half of his opening round, his imminent humiliation forcing its way to the top of the day’s agenda.

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Arsène Wenger has been living on borrowed time at Arsenal for too long | Richard Williams

Left unchallenged at the club the manager continues to survive only because of former glories and careful husbandry

The football club Arsène Wenger might have managed – and still might – did him a favour this week. Just 24 hours after his Arsenal team stumbled out of the Champions League, defeated 10-2 on aggregate by Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain stole the headlines by crumbling in the face of a Barcelona assault that amounted to one of the greatest sporting comebacks of modern times.

By comparison with that feat of willpower and dark arts, the story of Arsenal’s surrender faded into relative insignificance and Wenger’s bitter criticisms of the referee will now be of interest only to the authorities. But they should refrain from punishing him. He is already being punished enough.

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George Best film misses the target but his genius still shines through | Richard Williams

The ante has been raised on sport documentaries in recent years – the Best film needed more footage of its dazzling subject and fewer talking heads

Exactly half a century ago, the 20-year-old George Best was on his way to collecting a medal for a championship that would be his second and Manchester United’s last for 26 years. And of all the first-hand memories of Best in his prime, one that remains startlingly vivid is the noise of the crowd.

Not the Old Trafford delirium that greeted the goals and the darting dribbles but the sound at an away ground whenever he received the ball: the sudden low growl of apprehension from home fans fearing the imminent demolition of their hopes, a strange half-hush pierced by the squeals of girls expressing the kind of ecstasy previously known only to fans of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

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George Best film misses the target but his genius still shines through | Richard Williams

The ante has been raised on sport documentaries in recent years – the Best film needed more footage of its dazzling subject and fewer talking heads

Exactly half a century ago, the 20-year-old George Best was on his way to collecting a medal for a championship that would be his second and Manchester United’s last for 26 years. And of all the first-hand memories of Best in his prime, one that remains startlingly vivid is the noise of the crowd.

Not the Old Trafford delirium that greeted the goals and the darting dribbles but the sound at an away ground whenever he received the ball: the sudden low growl of apprehension from home fans fearing the imminent demolition of their hopes, a strange half-hush pierced by the squeals of girls expressing the kind of ecstasy previously known only to fans of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

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Italy still producing prize managerial exports from its winning system | Richard Williams

Coverciano outside Florence has been the nerve centre of the Italian game for almost 60 years and the reverence in which it is held by many seems to have had a positive effect on plenty of its graduates

As long as he doesn’t blow it, and nothing in his record suggests that he will, sometime within the next three months Antonio Conte will become the fourth Italian manager to lead a team to the Premier League title. Remarkably, that quartet – in which he would join Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Claudio Ranieri – will have claimed the English championship in four of the past eight seasons.

No English-born manager, of course, has won the title since Howard Wilkinson in 1991-92, the year before the Premier League was launched. No Frenchman since 2003-04, no German, Spaniard or Dutchman ever. So this is a considerable distinction for Italian football, and for the work done at Coverciano, Italy’s national technical centre. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the success of these four men is that they give no impression of having been moulded by a single system.

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Italy still producing prize managerial exports from its winning system | Richard Williams

Coverciano outside Florence has been the nerve centre of the Italian game for almost 60 years and the reverence in which it is held by many seems to have had a positive effect on plenty of its graduates

As long as he doesn’t blow it, and nothing in his record suggests that he will, sometime within the next three months Antonio Conte will become the fourth Italian manager to lead a team to the Premier League title. Remarkably, that quartet – in which he would join Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Claudio Ranieri – will have claimed the English championship in four of the past eight seasons.

No English-born manager, of course, has won the title since Howard Wilkinson in 1991-92, the year before the Premier League was launched. No Frenchman since 2003-04, no German, Spaniard or Dutchman ever. So this is a considerable distinction for Italian football, and for the work done at Coverciano, Italy’s national technical centre. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the success of these four men is that they give no impression of having been moulded by a single system.

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F1 needs brains, not just Brawn, to end Ecclestone-induced malaise | Richard Williams

Bernie Ecclestone left many problems when he was removed as Formula One chief executive but most pressing is the need to improve the actual racing

Let’s face it: anything is better than Bernie Ecclestone, who used to say that money didn’t matter but was “just a way of keeping score”. Nobody believed him. The cash he extracted from Formula One over four decades of close involvement paid for the vast ski chalet in Gstaad, the villa on Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda, the ranch in Brazil, the executive jet, the lifestyles of his remarkable daughters – one living in a £75m house in Kensington Palace Gardens, the other in a $85m mansion in the hills above Los Angeles – and a £740m divorce from their mother. Not to mention the €100m paid into a German court in 2014 to avoid a trial on a charge of bribery, which still left him with a fortune estimated at more than £2bn.

So money mattered, just a bit, and Ecclestone became the living symbol of a sport that seemed to have more than it knew what to do with. The first time I interviewed him, on the eve of the 1982 season, he was inhabiting a London penthouse with double-height rooms across the river from Tate Britain. He told me that the sport would bankrupt itself within two years if a cap were not put on its expenditure. As would become increasingly apparent, Ecclestone’s motive for telling other people to spend less money was the belief it would mean more of the stuff for him.

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Graham Taylor obituary

Football manager whose superb work with Watford and Aston Villa was undeservedly overshadowed by his England careerGraham Taylor deserves to be remembered as the football manager who enlivened the English game between 1977 and 1987 by taking Watford, a…

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Sport in 2016: a dichotomy of soaring highs and desperate lows | Richard Williams

From the Olympics to Euro 2016 to the death of Muhammad Ali, 2016 has been a rollercoaster ride that will not be forgotten, for the right and wrong reasons

It was somehow typical of 2016 that on the morning after Andy Murray accepted the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award for a third time in his career, the focus should switch so joltingly to a man whose strategic brilliance had produced an avalanche of Olympic medals and the first British winner of the Tour de France, but who was now seen trying to persuade a sceptical House of Commons select committee that his team had no involvement with doping.

Related: Andy Murray’s Sports Personality treble shows how he has won over the nation | Kevin Mitchell

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