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Monday, 10 December, 2018

City keeper caper could cap a cracking year

Ten wishes for the dawning sporting year

England manager Gareth Southgate has some difficult decisions to make
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It's always good to wake up on New Year’s Day, check for a pulse and then realise it is a World Cup year, and hopefully by the end of 2018 there will have been enough superb action to ensure we don’t have a similar comically muddled Sports Personality vote to the one that took place last month.

Here are ten other hopes for the sporting year ahead.

1 People remember it is just sport
Yes, it’s serious but not as serious as, say, brain surgery or voting to potentially ruin your economy. People lucky enough to earn a good living out of sport should cheer up, and I’m looking specifically at you here, Mark Hughes.

The Stoke manager (correct at the time of going to press) looks even more miserable and surly than ever these days and was also responsible for one of the more surprising quotes of recent times when he responded to a media question about his position by replying: “Who else is going to do it?”

I yearned for the interviewer to ask how many names he was allowed to put forward but it didn’t happen.

Hughes would attract more sympathy for the current precariousness of his position if he lightened up a bit instead of being so chronically gloomy all the time.

2 Farewell to 24-hour declarations

Denis Coakley, take a bow. The Kildare trainer showed a commendable wider-world view that is rare among his profession last week with the following Tweet:
“There were 72-hour declarations for Ireland today - only 11 non-runners over three meetings and two were not time related (passport/no rider). Forty-eight hour decs would make Irish racing easier to sell for betting purposes and provide extra revenue yet there is huge resistance to it.”

Well said, that man. There is lingering resistance to 48-hour decs from British-based trainers as well but, as he points out, there are significant benefits to finalising fields two days in advance, and not only should Irish Flat racing move with the times, so should British jumps racing.

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3 Southgate relies on current form

I still mildly cheer on England in the major tournaments for which they qualify even though history has hammered home the futility of such support, and while the current squad looks significantly inferior to those of France, Spain and Brazil, there are some decent talents emerging who could make an impact in Russia this summer.

The worrying lack of quality in the key areas of central defence and defensive midfield will probably ensure England are home before the semi-finals take place, but the main hope is that Gareth Southgate bases his team selection on recent club form rather than old international performances.

Clearly, for example, Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland should be the only options in goal, but you couldn’t rule out the manager opting for Joe Hart because he was good for England a while ago.

No club manager would ever pick players based on what they did months ago and nor should Southgate.

4 We invest in grass-roots facilities
This is a depressingly vain hope, but one of the main reasons Britain comes up short in various sports is the shameful lack of facilities for youngsters.

Football pitches are disappearing at an alarming rate and those that have yet to be turned into housing are generally appallingly maintained. It’s not hard to detect a link between a lack of sporting success and a lack of places to practise that sport.

Drive through any small town or village in mainland Europe and you are likely to see a beautifully kept pitch with nets that haven’t been ripped to shreds by bored youths, and a recent visit to Australia made me well up with envy.

Local parks boasted gleaming facilities for a variety of sports and no shortage of people taking advantage of them.

It is good that lottery money funds elite athletes in various sports but more should be done to allow young people from all walks of life to get involved in sport by providing and maintaining decent facilities.

5 We see the first ever part-timer fast bowler
Wouldn’t it be great if a captain tossed the ball to a colleague better known for his batting prowess, as sometimes happens when he wants to try something different, and the part-timer ran in off a long run and sent it down as fast as he could?

Part-time bowlers are always either mediocre spinners or those who just lob it down there at low velocity but a half-decent line and length.

You never see them lining up a packed slip cordon before roaring in off a long run. Maybe Mark Stoneman or someone will surprise and delight us in Sydney this week.

6 Death to the VAR
While it is worrying that some people still believe decisions should be made after reference to video replays in football, it is heartening to see many of those who have seen it in action now acknowledge it is a woeful idea.

It has been kind of other countries to try it and see what a waste of time it is, and hopefully 2018 will be the year in which everyone accepts it is not worth sacrificing the game’s unique flow just to get a tiny number of wrong decisions right.

7 The jumps season starts to make sense
Every morning in Australia I would wake up, turn on my phone and try to make sense of what had happened overnight in England and Ireland.

This has been the most peculiar jumps season I can remember, with star horses flopping and the formbook generally making increasingly less sense.

Whether January and February will provide much clarity is open to question, but as things stand I have never approached a Cheltenham Festival with so little confidence.

8 Pundits leave Zaha alone
England have already foolishly allowed Wilf Zaha to go where he felt wanted by making Ivory Coast his national team, and now the ongoing vilification of this wondrous talent means one of the Premier League’s true stars is being unjustly harassed when he should be universally admired.

I’m all for a pundit giving a strong view but there has to be a degree of validity to it and Chris Sutton’s claim that Zaha committed the worst dive of the season against Manchester City was pathetic, embarrassing and utterly wrong.

Zaha gets clattered every game by opposition full-backs totally incapable of repelling him by fair means, and far too many ex-pros and journalists are guilty of following the herd and branding him a diver.

Of course, when he signs for a top-six club or, if they see sense, Barcelona there will be an almighty media U-turn and everyone will be fawning over him, but as things stand his treatment by the media is abysmal.

9 The dog’s dinner is sorted out
For decades there were Bags meetings and non-Bags meetings. You knew where you stood as a greyhound fan.

Now, a product war means it is increasingly difficult to follow which meetings are shown on which channels and by which bookmakers as SIS and the Racing Partnership have established rival services.

A victim of this shift in the landscape is the popular Sky broadcasts of big finals, which, as things stand, will not be happening this year. This has potentially catastrophic consequences for the open-race calendar with sponsors sure to be far harder to attract without the carrot of live Sky exposure.

It is fervently hoped something can be sorted out so the major events attract the backing that enables them to go ahead.

10 Ederson wears sky blue
If there is one thing above all else I want to happen in 2018 it is this: that on the first weekend of April Pep Guardiola uses Ederson as an outfield player against Manchester United.

By then the title is likely to have been won and Ederson, the goalie with the outstanding passing range, is allowed to play the last 20 minutes or so on pitch.

As the Brazilian hands his gloves to his replacement and, grinning like mad, pulls on the blue jersey, the camera should cut to Jose Mourinho just so we can enjoy the look of sheer outrage on his sour face.

Come on, Pep, make it happen.

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Hughes would attract more sympathy for the current precariousness of his position if he lightened up a bit
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