Saturday, August 20, 2011

Farewell Keano

He's left England. He's moved to California. He used to get £52,000. Now he gets $86,500. He's also going to play alongside England record-holder David Beckham. Not too bad for a boy from Tallaght. At 31, with his career slowly coming to an end, Keane has opted to swap life in the dour-weather England for the glitz and glamour in the USA. Now some may assume that he's being selfish and that it's his EIGHT (yes eighth) "childhood club", but there are nothing but positives from his perspective. I mean, how often does it occur that you're offered a job in the Golden State?  

I'll miss him being in England. Ever since I was a young 'un I've always kept an eye out for Keane and how he gets on, goal-wise. One of my first memories of Robbie was when he was playing for Leeds back in the early noughties. He'd made a mockery of the opponents offside-trap and was through on goal with just the keeper to beat. Instead of just the typical 'knock it past the keeper' approach, Keane stepped it up a notch and scooped the ball over the on-rushing keeper into an open net. I remember just sitting there, scratching my head in awe. 'How the hell did he do that?' I asked my brothers. No response.

He continued to renew my interest and by the 2002 World Cup he was in full flight. Here's the scenario: Ireland were one-nil down with just seconds to play when Irish right-back Steve Finnan launched a hopeful punt up-field, fingers crossed that somebody would flick it on. Niall Quinn came to the rescue and knocked it down for Robbie Keane who stole in behind the German defence and steered the resulting shot in off the post.

Goals for Ireland and his 'childhood' clubs came and went, but another one of my favourites (and one of the lesser known ones) was during his first spell at White Hart Lane. He had received the ball from a throw-in - the throw-in was deemed to be awarded to the wrong team originally (Spurs) - on the byline and, in the midst of a 180º spin, half-volleyed the ball over the opposing defender, before a fake shot pull-back against the next. He then had the simple task of a one-on-one which he finished in an ice cold manner. Watching it over, I reckon it was one of those 'you had to be there' moments because nobody seems to truly appreciate it when seeing it on Youtube. I still do, mind you.

On the international stage, Keane is and always has been Ireland's go-to-guy for the best part of a decade. When Ireland needed a goal - he was there. When teammates needed a shoulder to cry on after missing out on qualifying for a tournament - he was there. Even dating back to his debut in 1998 - which he capped off with a brace - Keane has always been a first on the team sheet. A lack of options up-front has seen Keane retain his  place year-in, year-out, and he's definitely made the most on what's been on offer, notching up his 50th and 51st international goals against Macedonia back in June. It's an incredible record for an incredible man. Those two goals saw him climb above world-beaters such as Samuel Etoo, Thierry Henry and Didier Drogba, and take his place among some of the finest international  goal-scorers we've seen grace the game. Another six goals for Robbie and he'll have overtaken Brazilian legends Zico and Romario, and Gabriel 'Batigol' Batistuta.   

Seeing him struggle to even make the Tottenham match day squad last season killed me. For years he was one of the most prolific strikers inside England and last season, with 'Arry at the helm, Keane began just two games, and made a further 5 appearances as a substitute. He was loaned out to West Ham in order to help them beat the drop, even scoring on his debut away to Blackpool. Constant injuries made sure of the season being one of his worst in England to date, and he returned to Spurs on an even sicker note, with West Ham being relegated with 2 games yet to play. His end-of-season record read played 22, goals 2. That, for a proven, successful Premier League striker with years of experience was fairly woeful.

Then, this summer, a move presented itself to Keane so appealing he couldn't turn it down. Tottenham received a deal from MLS outfit LA Galaxy on August 15. Terms and a fee were agreed in record time as Galaxy were battling against the international deadline day clock. They had to make sure Keane signed by 11:59 EST and with a few hours to go, they had their man. Upon joining, Keane made the foolish mistake of claiming it was a "dream move", leaving himself open to ridicule.

What I'm trying to say is, I'll miss Keane. I'll miss the way he'd celebrate a goal by tumbling in iconic 'robin hood' fashion, or the way he'd bring that dreamy wife of his on holidays with him. Keane was always one of my favourite footballers - due to the fact he was Irish? Perhaps - but seeing him move to America cuts all off ties of me being able to watch him on a regular basis. It'll be hard but I think I can manage, especially as he'll hopefully continue to break records for the Irish international team.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

An Interview With Duncan Alexander

We're back, and what better way to begin a season than an interview. But hold on a sec, it ain't no player. I'm not that popular yet (although I would like to be sometime in the future) but it is someone who runs a sports business that is highly regarded as one of the best stats centres in sport. From athletics to volleyball, they cover everything and anything that goes on statswise in between. This past summer I managed to persuade the head of Opta Sports Duncan Alexander to agree to do an interview with the FD. So without further adu, here he is:

1. Hi Duncan, first of all for those who've never heard of Opta
Sports, would you care to explain to the reader what it is your
company does?

Opta are Europe’s leading sports data company. We’ve been collecting football data since 1996 and have the biggest & best database of sports info there is. We work with professional clubs, the media and the betting industry to provide content and analysis in whatever format they require.

2. As Britain's leading football statistician you must be up to your
Eyes in stats. What's a typical day like for you in Opta Towers?

I head up the whole range of content delivery for the UK. That could be something like data feeds to power a website or Chalkboards or creating bespoke features and analysis for television or the national press. Ultimately you’re working with sports data every day and looking for angles and stories that will shine an objective light on the game.

3. Is understanding maths an essential component for working at Opta?

Depends on what your role is really. An understanding of statistics helps enormously, particularly the concept that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. That said, you could be Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting but if you don’t have a robust knowledge of football then you’ll not be any good. A love of the game and an understanding of the trends that are shaping it are key.

4. Opta Sports recently decided to share their information to the
public mainstream when they opened their first twitter account,
OptaJoe, in June 2009. Gathering over 100,000 followers within that
two year time period, do you think Opta have surpassed their

Twitter has been a massive success for us, helping us to connect directly with fans and help the public understand what it is we do. The response we get when there’s an OptaJoe quiz, for instance, are huge.

5. Does Opta have plans to expand their horizons for the new seasons
to the various leagues in Europe / worldwide?

We are always looking to expand the leagues and sports that we cover. We recently became official data suppliers to MLS in America and may look to analyse some South American leagues soon. We already analyse every game in the top-flights in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France as well as international club competitions and international tournaments.

6. Your twitter bio tells us that you're a Wycombe Wanderers fan. How did that come about? 

My grandfathers supported Wycombe and Chelsea respectively and I got to choose which team to support. More chance of getting to Wycombe games so I went with them, a decision I have yet to regret.

7. What's your most memorable moment whilst donning the colours for the Chairboys?

The standard WWFC answer is the famous FA Cup run of 2001 but I think winning 2-1 at Maine Road in 1999 tops it for me. I had lived in Manchester for three years and seeing my team beat City in a league game was almost beyond comprehension. Can’t see it ever happening again, put it that way.

8. What's your favourite sporting event in the calendar year (doesn't have to be football by the way)? 

The Tour de France by some distance. I’m a big fan of pro cycling and while there are races that are often better than the Tour (the one-day classics, the Giro D’Italia), the sheer size and intensity of the TdF gets me over-excited every year.

9. Since the inception of Opta in 1996 the company's gone from strength to strength to unparalleled strength. What's next on the agenda for Opta Sports?

We have seen a big change in the way that sports data is viewed over the last decade or so. Originally seen as ‘too-American’, statistics are now being used widely by clubs, the media and fans to achieve greater insight. Opta will keep trying to develop products & content that enables people to analyse football, rugby, cricket and many other sports in ever-greater depth but still in an accessible way.