MARTIN SAMUEL: Sport can’t just let fans back for the money, it MUST be fun

MARTIN SAMUEL: Sport can’t just let fans back for the money, it MUST be fun


On a warm summer afternoon, there truly is no nicer spot than on the South Downs at Goodwood racecourse.

Blue skies and panoramic countryside all the way to the Solent estuary, champagne at the Kennels clubhouse.

It is not considered ‘Glorious’ for nothing.

During a warm summer afternoon, there is no nicer spot than the Goodwood racecourse

The racecourse is a staple venue for the racing calendar where fans turn out in their numbers

The racecourse is a staple venue for the racing calendar where fans turn out in their numbers

Except on August 1. You might want to give it a miss on August 1. That is when Goodwood will host one of sport’s post-lockdown test events. And what a test it promises to be.

‘There will be eight enclosures as we’re going to split the racecourse into much smaller areas with around 400 to 600 people in each,’ said Adam Waterworth, Goodwood’s managing director.

‘That’s how we’ll manage the social distancing and you will not be allowed to go from one enclosure to another.

‘If you’re in one of the enclosures behind the stand, you won’t be able to go to the front of the stand to view the racing.’ 

However, this year some fans attending will not be able to view a horse in action at Goodwood

However, this year some fans attending will not be able to view a horse in action at Goodwood

And we’ll pause there because you might be unclear on what is being said. He is not talking about going to the front of the stand as in the rails, or even the lawns.

He is talking about accessing sight of the course, to view the horses racing. To clarify: ‘You would have parade ring viewing and we’ll have big screens in place so that people in those areas can watch the racing from their enclosure.’

In other words, you could go to Goodwood and never see a horse break into more than a trot. Never see a race, except on television.

And the day is open only to Goodwood annual members, whose renewals cost £384. For that money, one imagines, folk must be quite keen. The sort of people who watch horses in the parade ring, maybe even the pre-parade ring, before heading to the course. As distractingly lovely as the scenery is, the race is probably quite important to them.

Pinch points. That is what Goodwood is trying to avoid.

‘Parade ring viewing and the rails and stands,’ Waterworth specifies, ‘By limiting where-abouts it means we won’t get people congregating in these areas as traditionally that’s where a lot of people want to go.’ Yes, and there’s a reason for that. It’s the point of attending.

Goodwood is being made very safe but what is being missed are the needs of racegoers.

Several enclosures have been cordoned off where fans can watch on big screen televisions

We know why racing wants to reopen for business, why all sport is desperate to get crowds back, but there must be enjoyment for the consumer, too.

Sport cannot just restart with crowds because it needs the money. It has to be somewhere fun to go. This was the point made about restaurants by Jeremy King, co-founder of the Wolseley.

Nobody wants to be proposed to across a plastic divider while a bloke in a hazmat suit pours the wine. The dining experience must satisfy two needs and sport is no different. There has to be more for the paying customer than a television and a brick wall.

This isn’t Goodwood’s fault. Waterworth may be front of house explaining but no racecourse administrator would devise a day in which patrons couldn’t watch the actual races live.

Everything about sport’s return, from cricket’s biosecure areas to football’s disinfected goalposts, comes with Government guidance and approval; so this must, too. Goodwood will be doing exactly as they are told.

Sport should bring back spectators for the fun of the event, not for the money

And if this strands you by the three-furlong post without a clue what is going on at the finishing line, that is a call made in Whitehall not West Sussex.

The fear must be that sport will lose its constituency. That if the planning is awry, the guinea pigs for these test events will lose their enthusiasm and take others with them.

In football stadiums, for instance, the suggestion is that fans’ departure at the end of the game will be staggered.

So everyone is potentially an away supporter — kept behind for the best part of an hour while the surrounding area is cleared.

What about night games, with people up for work or at school the next morning?

Maybe this is a price supporters are willing to pay but it may be an inconvenience too far.

If racing is no longer part of going racing, why go racing at all?

Promotion pressure deflates Brentford 

Thomas Frank, the Brentford manager, said his team were enjoying the pressure of the promotion race — right up until the moment it actually arrived. When Brentford were chasing down West Brom, they were unbeatable — eight straight wins as Slaven Bilic’s side faltered. 

Finally, the moment came: West Brom lost to Huddersfield, and Brentford needed only a draw at Stoke to assume an automatic promotion place. They lost.

Further evidence that it was ridiculous to decide promotion and relegation issues on presumed form. Across two divisions, the EFL did not play the quarter of the season that truly matters. Brentford were cruising until they had to walk one game in West Brom’s shoes. Nothing about the pressure of the run-in should ever be presumed.

Thomas Frank fell at the first hurdle when his Brentford side had to beat Stoke on Saturday

Thomas Frank fell at the first hurdle when his Brentford side had to beat Stoke on Saturday

Not so easy now for Manchester clubs 

Much like the road to the FA Cup final, the route to European glory for the Manchester clubs is not as straightforward as presumed. 

Playing Real Madrid in front of a full house with a fit Sergio Aguero is a very different proposition from the one that confronts Manchester City in the Champions League last 16 now — an empty stadium, probably no Aguero and Madrid high on winning LaLiga. Suddenly, that 2-1 first leg lead does not seem quite so formidable.

Manchester City are showing the sort of form that will see them eliminated by Real Madrid

Manchester City are showing the sort of form that will see them eliminated by Real Madrid

As for Manchester United, as good as through to the Europa League quarter-finals, a seemingly soft draw contains hidden dangers. Istanbul Basaksehir, who lead Copenhagen 1-0 from their first leg, have just clinched the Turkish league — only the second team to break the dominance of Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas since 1983.

It is a success built on several Premier League old-stagers, including Robinho, Gael Clichy, Martin Skrtel and Demba Ba. None of them would make United’s team, but Basaksehir’s relative obscurity disguises a genuine threat.

Rugby is right to put player safety before identity issues 

World Rugby has come to a decision. It is a sensible decision. It is the safest decision. Now let’s see if it flies in 2020.

After six months of consultation, scientific analysis and research, World Rugby have reached the conclusion that men are not women on the sports field, even if they identify as such.

It is incredibly hard to say that now. The modern consensus is that a person can be whatever gender they choose and to argue otherwise is hateful.

That’s no use in rugby, sadly. In rugby, if everyone gets to pick a side, someone could die. So decisions must be made that go against the grain. World Rugby convened a meeting in February to begin work on reconciling trans issues and player welfare, specifically whether a person transitioning or identifying as a woman could participate safely in women’s rugby.

World Rugby made the sensible decision in choosing not to allow transgender women to play against women

World Rugby made the sensible decision in choosing not to allow transgender women to play against women

The conclusion was they could not. A person who has gone through male puberty retains significant physical advantages over a born female, even if taking medication to lower testosterone.

This equates to being stronger by 25-50 per cent, heavier by 40 per cent and faster by 15 per cent. And, potentially, that is dangerous.

At this point of discovery, modern sensibilities are of less importance: a 38-page draft document taking into account the views and work of scientists and medical experts estimated a ‘20-30 per cent greater risk’ of physical injury for females tackling any player who has experienced male puberty.

The report also reveals testosterone suppressants result in ‘only small reductions in strength and no loss in bone mass or muscle volume’.

This, for now, should be the end of it. World Rugby has said it will continue funding research into new evidence and will review any that emerges. No ban is in place yet, either. The paper has merely been sent to unions for feedback. Indeed, one can almost feel the contortions as World Rugby try to be fair and inclusive. Yet, in a sport with such extreme risk attached, that has been forced to confront fatality and life-altering injury, surely player welfare sits above all.

As it should in other sports, such as mixed martial arts, that could benefit from World Rugby’s thoughtfulness and concern. This is not about transgender exclusion. The proposals also recommend that transgender men — a person assigned female at birth — should be free to play men’s rugby. Inclusivity, however, meets its match in player welfare. Safety is more than an identity issue.

Leeds will not be making up the numbers 

It is not just good news that Leeds are back in the Premier League. More importantly, they intend to compete.

Andrea Radrizzani, the chairman, is looking to extend Marcelo Bielsa’s contract until 2022 and will improve the squad. ‘We have a strong foundation, like Sheffield United, but need to do something in the transfer market,’ he confirmed.

It is the right attitude. Promoted clubs such as Norwich, who treat the Premier League like tourists, do little for the competition. Having invested in a world-class manager, Leeds will have a go — as they should.

Leeds United will be ambitious when they make their long-awaited return to the top flight

Leeds United will be ambitious when they make their long-awaited return to the top flight

Another one gone as Pozzo just carries on 

Without knowing what passed between Nigel Pearson and Watford owner Gino Pozzo, it is difficult to judge the decision to sack him. Emotions run high in the aftermath of football matches, but it is hard to believe Pearson and his employer couldn’t have patched matters up, had there been will on both sides.

The numbers suggest Pearson did a reasonable job. Watford looked relegation certainties when he took over on December 6. They had eight points from 15 games, were seven from safety and three behind Norwich. 

Nigel Pearson did a reasonable job at Watford which makes his sacking a curious decision

Nigel Pearson did a reasonable job at Watford which makes his sacking a curious decision

Pearson has amassed 26 points from 21 games, at an aggregate of 1.23. Project that over a season and Watford would sit on 46.74 points, safely mid-table. Maybe Watford’s owners expect more. The rate they burn through managers suggests a perpetual air of disappointment. Slavisa Jokanovic won promotion but left at the end of that season, Quique Sanchez Flores finished 13th and was replaced, Walter Mazzarri sat six points clear of the relegation zone but it wasn’t enough. Now three managers have gone in a single season.

Could it be that Watford’s playing of the transfer market isn’t as smart as the club assumes? That these finishes, these struggles, are not underachievement, but a reasonable reflection of their status? Marco Silva had the right idea; he tried to sack Watford for Everton before they could do it to him. Given Pozzo’s track record for scapegoating the manager, if future appointments also use the club as no more than a stepping stone, who can reasonably blame them?

Rowett proving his worth at Milwall 

Millwall have narrowly missed out on the Championship play-offs this season. Gary Rowett has done an excellent job, again, having taken over with the club 17th and fearing relegation. 

Rowett was on the brink of the play-offs at Birmingham when sacked unjustly, lost a play-off final with Derby and the sole blemish on his coaching career has been the struggle to turn Stoke round after relegation. He is not alone in that, mind. Like Chris Wilder at Sheffield United, however, Rowett appears destined only to get a Premier League opportunity if he delivers it himself.

Huddersfield’s double vision after Cowley sacking 

Incredibly, Nigel Pearson’s dismissal was not the most surprising of the weekend. That was at Huddersfield, where Danny Cowley went two days after saving the club from relegation by defeating West Brom. When Cowley and his brother Nicky arrived in September, Huddersfield had won once since November 25, 2018 and taken one point from 27. 

Somehow, they stayed up with a game to spare. Cowley’s record of 50 points from 36 games delivers an aggregate that would place them in the top half of the table, over a season. And he’s gone.

Huddersfield sacked manager Danny Cowley after a difference of opinions in recruitment

Huddersfield sacked manager Danny Cowley after a difference of opinions in recruitment

In his place, Huddersfield will deploy an expert in civil litigation services. That’s Phil Hodgkinson, Huddersfield’s owner, who is reported to want a greater say in recruitment strategy. 

There will be a manager, too, possibly Carlos Corberan, who has been working as assistant to Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds. But Hodgkinson’s reluctance to put his faith in those who saved the club from a fall through the divisions is telling. 

Cowley said after the West Brom win that Huddersfield needed more working-class British players to give the club a connection with the fans. ‘We have a different vision for how our ambitions can be achieved,’ explained Hodgkinson. As a civil litigation services expert, he would know.

Stokes switches things up for England 

Ben Stokes made the slowest century of his career in England’s first innings, then his second fastest 50 in England’s second. Both were tailored perfectly to the needs of his team. That’s a player.



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