Joe Thompson: Perennial Survivor, True Inspiration

It is enough to beat cancer once, at any age, however serious. To beat it twice before the age of 30 tests limits beyond which no man or woman should ever have to go.

Mentally and physically, the task of defeating cancer is known to be one of the greatest challenges we may ever face as human beings. For those who achieve victory, that on its own is enough for most. Joe Thompson went beyond that.

Diagnosed with nodular sclerosis Hodgkin lymphoma, one of the rarest forms of cancer, in 2013, Thompson’s football career, at least, looked to have come to a premature end. He was 24 at the time and one of the brightest stars in the lower leagues.

However, Thompson was made of sterner stuff and, gaining inspiration from tennis player Ross Hutchins, as well as Stilyan Petrov and Mark Halsey, all of whom recovered from cancer, the lymphoma went into full remission. Not only that, but Thompson returned to training and was given a contract at Bury in 2014.

That is inspirational in itself. Those diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma have an 86% survival rate but it significantly increases the risk of other diseases, ultimately resulting in it being just as lethal. As well as this, chemotherapy is famously draining for both body and spirit. Yet within two months of announcing his recovery, Thompson was back under contract in the football league. A box-to-box midfielder, he was evidently as hard as nails off the pitch as he was on it.

For over two and a half years, life resumed, Thompson flitting between League Two and the Conference with various clubs, not getting the game time he used to but playing a regular part. An emotional homecoming occurred in August 2016 when he returned to boyhood side Rochdale, the club where he began his career. However, life came crashing down once more less than five months later.

Diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma once more, Thompson found out on Christmas Eve, resulting in “so much anger,” as opposed to upset. This time it was a lot more serious and he immediately put football on hold once more. The monotony of chemotherapy returned once more alongside the knowledge that the adverse effects of the treatment may not be felt until some time afterwards. That was, at least, if he beat the disease once more.

Which, of course, he did, battle-hardened from the first fight. Thompson had made a second recovery by October of the same year. This time the wider football world took notice. He was invited to speak to youth teams across the country, his story touching those who often turn a blind eye to the lower echelons of English football. He started speaking within weeks of completing a course of isolating stem cell treatment which had weakened his body to the bone.

Thompson only realised the extent to which the world had taken notice when asked to speak to Manchester City’s youngsters. Pep Guardiola knew him, not only by name, but by his extraordinary tale. Thompson recalled how “all I could think was that this man has changed the game…and now he knows my story.”

Throughout the gruelling second spell, another man retained all his faith in Thompson both as a man and a footballer. I could lavish praise on Keith Hill all day for what he has done for my beloved Rochdale but sticking by Joe Thompson has proven to be his bravest and most successful decision to date. Never was there a moment when his contract may have been cancelled. Only a true optimist would do what he’s done, not just in the context of Thompson, but also in the defining, final day victory against Charlton.

Thompson had only made ten appearances since his return, still straining every sinew to return to full fitness. But when the moment came for changes, when Rochdale were in dire need of a goal, Thompson was the man he turned to.

He’s not a natural goalscorer, had had little impact when he was granted opportunities in the second half of the season. Yet he saw in Thompson a man who knows what it is to survive, to fight against the odds. That was the man to save him and his team.

Many will never believe in fate. I do now. Rochdale were dead and buried in February, eleven points from safety. At that point Thompson hadn’t featured in a single Rochdale victory. But the stars aligned.

For Joe Thompson is the ultimate, perennial survivor. A true sporting inspiration.

Messi? Ronaldo? Give me Iniesta

Come the end of June, Andres Iniesta’s contract with Barcelona will come to an end, terminating, perhaps, the greatest marriage between a player and his football club. Iniesta’s way is the Barcelona way.

His departure will ensure that only three of the regular starting XI, Pique, Busquets and Messi, will remain from the famous Guardiola vintage, the greatest club side ever to grace the planet.

Iniesta isn’t even retiring. But it feels that way. Since he was a twelve-year-old of only slightly smaller stature than the present, he has known nothing but Barcelona and I, personally, cannot remember a Barca outfit in which he has not featured. They simply go hand in hand: the pinpoint, efficient passing, graceful dribbling, ever-flowing movement, all contribute to both his and his team’s seemingly unfailing success.

Most of the praise during this period has, understandably, been lavished upon Lionel Messi’s equally minuscule shoulders. He can produce moments of magic where Iniesta, from a deeper role, is simply unable to.

Cristiano Ronaldo often receives similar compliments to Messi in terms of his ability to change a game in an instant. Yet for overall, consistent quality, I don’t believe that either of them, despite their impact on the game, can match Iniesta. He is a better footballer, while Messi and Ronaldo are the better players.

I’ll explain: Iniesta cannot match the physique and strength of Ronaldo, nor the blistering pace of Messi. However, these physical disadvantages just make his ability on the ball stand out more.

Messi’s range of passing is mong the world’s best but it cannot match the Spaniards. Similarly, Ronaldo is able to generate power where few others can. Iniesta, in spite of being diminutive in comparison, has guided some bullets with equal force (a certain injury-time winner against Chelsea springs to mind.)

He does not have the pace or acceleration to match the most lethal attackers. He does not have the broad shoulders and rugged aggression of the ablest of defenders. But he still glides past players, ball under a spell, as if standing still. It truly is magical. I am of similar height, build and, dare I say it, speed to Iniesta and can barely get past a 20 stone Sunday League defender, let alone the world’s elite.

Furthermore, he has made a name for himself as a match-winner even though his influence radiates from the centre of the pitch, outside the penalty area. Ronaldo and Messi will score more goals to win more games but without Iniesta, Barcelona and Messi would not have even been in a position to win a countless number of those.

In effect, it is his inferiorities which make him so spectacular. That and his ability to dominate the biggest stages, for both club and country. Messi has done it for Barcelona but never for Argentina, Ronaldo for Manchester United and Real Madrid but never Portugal, injury denying him the chance to do so in the Euro 2016 final.

Iniesta has done. Him and Xavi ran rings around Scholes and Carrick at Wembley in 2011. He has been a regular contributor to the never-ending story of El Classico. Most importantly, however, he has done it for Spain. Euro 2008 saw him selected in the official Team of the Tournament, at Euro 2012 he was the Player of the Tournament and man of the match in the final. However, neither of these achievements can equal the immortality-sealing winner in the 2010 World Cup final. In a game now famed mostly for brutality rather than brilliance, Iniesta stood out throughout, providing the killer blow with an expertly taken half-volley in the 116th minute.

He shouldn’t be capable of reaching such heights, achieving what millions dream of. Most players of his size are cast aside before they reach the median stages of junior football but little Andres stood out even then. A famous quote from Pep Guardiola to Xavi, Iniesta’s fellow playmaker-in-chief when Pep managed the Blaugrana, having witnessed Iniesta play for one of Barca’s youth teams in the late 1990s, read that “you’re going to retire me, but this lad will retire us all.”

I am a firm believer that talent can only be earned by practice (10,000 hours if you are to believe Matthew Syed.) Watching Iniesta, though, makes it too difficult to believe that what he does is not innate, does not come naturally. For his range, his vision, is unparalleled in the modern game.

Barcelona without Iniesta, even with Messi still at his sublime peak, will never be the same. Such has his impact been that the dynamic may be set to change forever. Like a Gerrard-less Liverpool or a Class of 92-less Manchester United.

He may play on, gilded offers from the United States and China surely beckon., and he may retain his unshakeable greatness for a few years yet. But once Spain are out, whether with a bang or a whimper, at this Summer’s World Cup, it will be era-ending



The weekend tip: The Masters

As racing continues to build up towards the Grand National next weekend, it is Augusta, Georgia which has taken centre-stage as an intriguing betting opportunity.

Patrick Reed takes a two shot lead over Marc Leishman into the weekend, the Australian, in turn, two clear of the rest.

The leader has now dined at American golf’s top table for a few years while Leishman finished 2017 in fine style, shooting up the World Rankings as he did so. They are worthy of their positions so far this tournament and, indeed, their prices in the current market.

However, their Masters records suggest they will begin to fade. Reed has never finished inside the top 20 while Leishman, although boasting a top 5 in 2013, had only made the cut twice in his first five appearances.

For me, there remains value in Jordan Spieth. He is 6/1 in spite of a disappointing 74 yesterday but that does not reflect the fighting spirit the young American showed.

Starting with consecutive 6s before another bogey at the 7th, he was four over for his front nine and wayward off the tee. However, he didn’t drop a shot coming in, picking up birdies at the two par fives and if his first round is anything to go by then expect Spieth to shoot back to form. Put simply, he seems to nave an affinity with the course.

More value can be found in PGA Champion Justin Thomas. This is only his second Augusta appearance and his early tee-time on the Thursday did not help his chances as the late starters enjoyed slightly favourable conditions.

His second round was different. Twice chipping in for birdie, Thomas shot a 67, second only to Reed on the day, climbing into a share of 6th. A repeat performance would see him close further still and his 11/1 matches his starting price at the beginning of the week.

Finally, I look to Louis Oosthuizen, the man with a “grand slam” of runner-ups. He was defeated only by a moment of magic by Bubba Watson in 2012 and although his overall Masters record is not stellar, there have been signs that Oosthuizen could well be lower than -2 to this point. He has winning experience in major championships too after victory in the 2010 Open and that will come into play if he remains in contention. 50/1 looks vast.

(Personally would love to see Rickie Fowler win his first major as I don’t believe there’s a better advertisement for golf than his off-course demeanour and his devil-may-care approach on it.)

A recap and a look ahead

I know I said there wouldn’t be too much personal waffle on this blog. However, in the last week I have performed in a band for the first time.

For someone who had never played an instrument as of six months ago, I fell that this is an achievement worth celebrating. We sounded good as well (so our friends in the audience said).

As such, my priority for the week was rehearsing alongside the grind of university and the hopelessly accelerating excitement that the Cheltenham Festival is only three days away.

It is fair to say my mood is a good one. Not least because just one hour before this post, Manchester United defeated Liverpool.

The aspect which stood out from that game was football intelligence. At the top of the goalscoring charts, Harry Kane is renowned for his awareness in the penalty area, while Mo Salah frequently relies on his pace and trickery. They contrast nicely in their personal battle for the Golden Boot.

That is not to say Salah is not a player who uses his brain. You cannot score the amount of goals he has without using your head. However, him, his team and his manager were outthought at Old Trafford and although they had much of the ball in the second half, United’s tactics earned them the win.

Juan Mata is always a player who’s brain is calculating the action around him but it was noticeable in this game that he adapted his position and role to impact the game where the ball was being played. He was the right-winger but seeing the ball repeatedly shift down United’s left, he became a more fluid attacking playmaker.

Ashley Young, up against Mo Salah, was another example. Given that he is not a natural left-back he showed remarkable nous. Most defenders would show Salah onto his right-foot, understandable given the power of his left but his pace simply blasts defenders away. He would have run around Young all day given that option.

What Young did instead was get himself directly in front of the ball, standing Salah up, giving him no time. This was one of very few games this season where the Egyptian was ineffective.

Football ramble over and on to the racing. With every race now past the six-day declaration stage, we have a greater understanding of who may be running where.

Most intriguingly, the race of the century could occur on the Wednesday. Altior and Douvan, two giants amongst equines, look set to clash, Nicky Henderson’s unbeaten chaser heading the market.

A clash between those two alone would hark back to Kauto versus Denman but throw in Min to the mix and you have a race that could potentially surpass those clashes between Paul Nicholls’ warriors.

For clarification, this is not a tip, but I like the chances of Min. He ran no race over Christmas but was imperious on his latest outing and jumping has improved him. He was sprinted out of sight by Altior in the 2016 Supreme but he will be fitter and more race-ready than his rivals.

The Champion Chase is only one of twenty-eight races too. This is why it is the greatest show on turf. Fingers crossed for a few winners.

This week’s talking points: VAR, VAR and VAR

Okay VAR has not been the only point of discussion for this week. Snow (and lots of it) have put paid to more or less all racing fixtures for this week, while for the 152nd season in a row, fans across the country are asking whether Arsene Wenger should still be in a job.

So…should he be? Arsenal are numerically closer to the bottom of the league than the top even with West Brom six points, and four taxi stealers, worse off than everyone else. They are ten points adrift of the top four with as many games remaining and lost to a team from Sweden that didn’t exist when the Frenchman took the helm at Highbury.

On the opposing side, Wenger has a contract until the Summer of 2019, which will cost a fair amount to terminate, while their Europa League challenge is still afloat and hosts a more realistic chance of returning to the Champions League next season.

However, their two 3-0 defeats to Manchester City this week have shown just how far they’ve fallen from the top. Furthermore, as Gary Neville so ruthlessly pointed out in his coverage of the League Cup final, the players seem disinterested. In the past, when these criticisms have been levelled at the Gunners, the players have rallied and finished the season with a flourish. It may only take one more abject performance or adverse result, particularly against a supposed weaker team, to finally bring Wenger’s 21-year reign to an end.

And what of the snow? Although meteorologically anomalous and disappointing that we’ve welcomed in March surrounded by pearls of white not luscious emerald green, it could not have come at a better time of the season for punters. The Cheltenham puzzles are already pieced together with only a very brave few disadvantaged to have lost some very (very) last minute preparations. All it has done is make the countdown to the Cotswolds that tinier bit more exciting (because it couldn’t possibly be much more exciting anyway.)

Now we arrive at VAR. BT Sport’s referee in office, Chris Foy did his absolute best to clear up what was actually going on. VAR, contrary to popular belief, is not only used for “clear cut mistakes” but for big events, i.e. goals. That is why Tottenham’s first “goal” against Rochdale was looked at and subsequently disallowed.

That, in itself, is not a fault. In fact, they probably should all be looked at in the interests of fairness. However, first and foremost, the decision was wrong. Llorente was holding McGahey’s shirt but that act was being reciprocated prior to their involvement in the goal. The first foul was by the Rochdale defender and so, surely, either the goal stands or a penalty is awarded.

The second issue has already been widely discussed and it has never been so prominent as in the giant surrounds of Wembley Stadium, where tens of thousands of fans were left in the dark when VAR was consulted. None of us have a clue what is going on when the assistant referee is making his decision. Many critics have stated it and I will back them up: we need to learn from rugby and cricket and ensure complete transparency.

Similarly, it takes an age. Paul Tierney was forced to add on five minutes to the end of the first half due to the bungling of VAR. It killed the atmosphere and distracted, to my chagrin, a very big day for Rochdale football club.

If it is to be used at the World Cup in Russia this Summer, there needs to be vast improvements to the system. It should be persevered with in order to lessen the pressure on officials and it will ultimately be a success. But that should not be hard to achieve in the very near future. Over to you FIFA.

Weekend talking points: Cue Card, Kane and clutch under pressure

I really enjoyed this weekend.

To kick it off, Team GB had their most successful day ever at a Winter Olympics finishing with three medals. Within those was a second straight gold in the Skeleton for Lizzy Yarnold.

Later that Saturday, my big tip Waiting Patiently got the better of Cue Card in the Ascot Chase, continuing my 100% record for my naps. 2 from 2, will it be 3 from 3 on Saturday?

And finally, to cap it all off, my marvellous minnows Rochdale secured a Wembley replay against Spurs in the most dramatic circumstances.

A consistent theme in each of these events is pressure and performance under the stress that comes with it.

Yarnold is a perfect example of someone who produces on the big occasion. Lying second and needing a fast time to secure gold, she set a track record when others, such as Round 3 leader Janine Flock, crumbled.

The combination of Cue Card and first Joe Tizzard, then Paddy Brennan, have consistently produced over 8 years at the top. The 2015 King George springs to mind when he wore down Vautour, as well as all three of his Betfair Chase victories. Even in defeat this weekend it must be remembered that he is now a 12-year-old and still put up the sternest resistance to a young pretender who is now favourite for a Grade One at Cheltenham.

In the football, two men showed the composure required at the top level in two very similar moments. First there was Harry Kane, on for just ten minutes before being tasked with what looked like a match-winning penalty. What came next was just about the perfect penalty, rifled into the bottom corner with tremendous power. Let’s hope he can reproduce that kind of spot-kick for England in the Summer (or maybe hope that he doesn’t have to.)

The other man  was journeyman striker Steve Davies. It is indicative of his ability to handle this kind of pressure that neither captain Ian Henderson. nor manager Keith Hill, believed he would blow the opportunity when it came his way. It was by no means easy, the ball needing a delicate chest down before a first time finish. Both were immaculately executed.

Pressure defines sporting occasions like those we witnessed this weekend. It was fascinating that when it was at its very highest, it was overcome with even greater skill.