Monday, 14 February 2011

Latus takes the Hayne train.

Again, dated, but what else is there to do at 5am.

By Wayne Gardiner, Press Association Sport
While Australia superstar Jarryd Hayne spent the weekend hogging the headlines Down Under following another supersonic display for Parramatta, back in Hull, rookie winger Sam Latus took further steps on his path to trying to establish himself as a first-team Super League player.
On the face of it, there is nothing to link the man they call 'The Hayne Train' and 20-year-old Latus, a former rugby union scholar now cutting his teeth with Hull KR.
But actually, there is.
In a bid to speed up his transition from the 15-man code to the 13-man one, Latus, and his older brother Jack, also on Rovers' books, spent a winter training with Hayne and his Parramatta team-mates.
The move was initiated by Rovers' analyst Andrew Webster, previously on the Eels' books himself, and it allowed Latus to learn the game off the likes of Hayne, FuiFui MoiMoi and Nathan Cayless.
His switch to the sport has been successful too, having played the past five games for Rovers since breaking into the first-team in a 16-16 draw at Huddersfield.
He scored his first senior try in Saturday's 49-24 win over Bradford and is more than happy that his hard work - including going to Sydney off his own back - is starting to pay off.
``Going over to Parramatta really helped me learn the game,'' he told Press Association Sport.
``It wasn't an easy switch from union but I've been going at it a few years now with the coaches. I've gradually learn the game and I'm really enjoying it.
``Going somewhere like that, with all their heritage, was a really good experience for both me and Jack and we have done out best to bring it back over here with us.
``While we were out there we got to train with Jarryd Hayne who had just come back from the World Cup where he had been playing with Fiji.
``He's been doing really well since then, he's someone I admire a lot and he's playing fantastically well at the moment.''
Latus' selection for the Bradford game was something of a surprise for many, after he endured a torrid time in the Hull derby the week before.
With Hull targeting his inexperience, he came up with a number of costly errors as the Robins lost 20-16.
But coach Justin Morgan retained his faith in Latus, who repaid him with a stellar show against the Bulls.
``A few things didn't go my way in the derby game but Justin, the coaching staff and all the players have been really good with me and kept my confidence up,'' he added.
``Justin showing the faith he did in me helped.
``I tried to be solid against Bradford and eradicate the errors from my game and to get my try was great.
``I've really enjoyed being in the first team. The players have made it a lot easier for me to fit in. They've been playing really well and and me being on the back of that has made it easier for me. It's been going great.
``I just want to keep going until the end of the season and if there's a space it will hopefully come my way.''

Ben Jones-Bishop re-run

After his hat-trick against Bradford yesterday, here's a re-run of a feature I did as part of my day job on Ben Jones-Bishop last summer.

It's a bit dated now but, hey, it's free, innit.

By Wayne Gardiner, Press Association Sport
Although Harlequins' recent form has been poor, there have been flashes of light for the London club - most notably the performances of rookie full-back Ben Jones-Bishop.
The 21-year-old is revelling in his first full season in the Engage Super League having moved to the capital on loan from Leeds, scoring eight tries in his 13 appearances for Brian McDermott's men.
It has not been all plain sailing for the Leeds-born player, though, with his career coming dangerously close to being in jeopardy when he fractured his skull playing against Wigan in April.
After initially complaining of a headache following a collision, the situation quickly became more serious for Jones-Bishop, who has defied initial predictions to return to the field this year, albeit with the help of three metal plates inside his skull.
``It sounds worse than it actually was,'' he told Press Association Sport. ``I clashed heads with Lee Mossop, one of the Wigan players, and I didn't think anything of it at the time, because I just had a little bit of a headache.
``I carried on until half-time and things had got worse and I was feeling the pain more. I had a word with the doctor and he made the decision to get me checked out. It was then that I discovered that I had fractured my skull, as there was a dent in my forehead!
``It had caused damage to my sinus passage and there was a big pocket of air just in behind my forehead. I had to have surgery and they worked on pushing the dent in my forehead back out by putting three metal plates behind it.
``As a result I've got to wear a scrum cap until the end of the season like Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech does, and then I'll have to decide whether or not to keep wearing it.''
Jones-Bishop made his return to action against Wigan 10 days ago, scoring a try as the Quins fell to defeat, before adding two more touchdowns to his tally in Friday's loss at Salford.
After such a horrific injury he could have been forgiven for approaching his comeback with some trepidation, although he admits that as it turned out, the pace of the game was the only thing to cause him any concern.
``I did feel a bit nervous before but once I started playing I was fine,'' he said. ``It was the pace of the game that troubled me more than anything, as my fitness was a bit off after six or seven weeks out.
``I tried not to think about the injury coming back, though, because you can't play your game that way. I've just got to get on with my rugby as though it never happened.''
Once he has seen the season out with the Quins, Jones-Bishop will return to Headingley to link up with a Leeds squad aiming to win a fourth successive Super League crown.
As a result, competition for a place in the Rhinos side is tough, something which will carry on into 2011 after they signed up seven more of their first-team stars on new contracts only last week.
That makes it even harder for Jones-Bishop to plot his route to stardom with his parent club, although he remains confident of making it in West Yorkshire.
``Even if you're not playing you're training with some great players and learning from them,'' he added.
``In my position you have Brent Webb, Lee Smith and Kallum Watkins and you have to be able to learn from them.
``I'm confident that when I go back there, and they've said they want me back, that I can work hard and hopefully get a chance.''

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Who wants a BJ?

Having stood on the Elland Road terraces for 20 of the 25 years of my life, it has become apparent to me that the majority of our fans like a scapegoat.

Those to wear the donkey's saddle have varied over the years, ranging from Michael Duberry (justified) to Jermaine Beckford (laughable). Regardless of talent, attitude, creed or colour, Leeds fans and probably fans of most other clubs, love to have an out ball, a go-to man when the chips are down. When you're 1-0 down at home on Tuesday night (and there have been a lot of those this season), there seems to be an intrinsic need for our fans to vent their spleen at someone.

When Beckford's goal earned us promotion against Bristol Rovers, he was finally relieved of the tag that had stuck with him for the best part of two years. His subsequent move to Everton ensured that he was safe for a long time to come. Without him in the team, everyone was in the clear and there didn't really seem to be anyone to blame.

The squad had cruised towards, and then scrapped for, promotion together and were, on the whole, a likeable, close-knit group who had finally restored a semblance of pride to our crest after a good few years in the doldrums.

And then.

"Johnson rejects Leeds offer."

"Leeds midfielder turns down new contract."

This was of course the news that midfielder Bradley Johnson had apparently shunned a new deal with Leeds. And off it went.

"How dare he smack the badge on his shirt," said one poster on the message board WACCOE, while other comments ranged from "he's shit anyway" to the predictable "no-one is bigger than the club."

Now. For one thing we don't know if he has refused to sign a new deal and secondly, I don't think he is "shit", which is this the whole point of this blog, really.

Johnson is in his third full season with Leeds now, but you could say that only since the August of last year has he made much of a contribution.

One of a number of players signed in the breakwater between Dennis Wise and Gary McAllister as the club panicked over throwing away a top-two place, Johnson, who moved from Northampton, had a relatively promising start although found himself lumped in at left-back for the play-off final against Doncaster.

The following season he quickly changed to the old schoolboy joke of left-back in the changing rooms and was farmed out on loan to Brighton. Rumours raged as to why, with some keyboard warriors claiming he had text Premier League managers from McAllister's mobile, asking them to sign Fabian Delph, the teenager that had taken his place in the squad.

Johnson scored goals for fun during his spell with Brighton, and a "Get Johnson back" campaign quickly spread as McAllister floundered from one Paul Telfer to another Mansour Assoumani.

Eventually, McAllister left the club and in came Simon Grayson, who decided to call Johnson back and give him another chance. What sticks out for me the most during his initial return, though, was his horrific 35-yard strike that flew into the stand with about eight seconds of our play-off defeat to Millwall remaining.

The next season, our promotion season, he was a different man. He had seven goals by October and made the left-wing spot his own. His strength looked to have improved, his heading was imperious (it needed to be as a standard tactic was Shane Higgs kicking to his wing) and for my money, he was starting to look like a real player.

The goals dried up for the rest of the season, a thunderous header against Norwich proved to be his last, (if you discount a dubious scuff against Yeovil) and I once saw him referred to as Bradley "South Stand upper" Johnson in relation to his hammer of a shot that had all of a sudden lost its direction.

But again, in my opinion, his performances remained high despite his drought - he was utterly exceptional at Old Trafford - and played a key role in getting us out of the division.

This season he's carried on in the same vein, running hard, strong, shooting wildly (sometimes more accurately as three goals so far will testify to) and essentially working his nuts off.

And then the story.
What's worth noting is that the initial story claimed that Grayson was planning an overhaul of his squad that would spell the end of Johnson, Neil Kilkenny, Andy Robinson and Tony Capaldi. Now, I know we all wish we were still seeing Capaldi's hopeless positional play at Elland Road, he left the club via a side door in January. Story credibility at a low.

Now, though, fans are less forgiving of the wild shooting and the stray passes. Last night's game with Hull saw him give away a free-kick that led to Hull's opener, equalise, miss a chance to put us 3-1 up and then score an own goal to make it 2-2 with a lack of concentration from a corner. It never rains eh, Bradders?

His hero to zero moment couldn't have come at a worse time, with fans already scrutinising his every money-grabbing-fuck-off-if-you-dont-love-leeds move.

But I don't subscribe to that. I want Johnson to stay, even if it does involve a slight budge in wages. He's become part of the fabric of the modern club, a key player in the promotion side and a vital component in the current renaissance we're having.

He's already said he wants to stay and I personally think his contribution is under-rated. For my dollar, he does a lot of work for the team off the ball and at times can be akin to a human wrecking ball with his strength and his ability to almost smash his way through defenders.
Don't forget as well that he's only 23. There could be more to come. There might not be, but I think we need to try and find out.


I don't expect many to agree with this, but, let me know what you think of Johnson and who our of the others out of contract you'd want us to keep. Is Johnson worth a new deal and, if he wants more money, is it worth bending the budget for him? If he is going to go, who do you want to replace him?

Let me know in the comments below or get in touch with me via Twitter here.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Too many Cookes?

Back in January, just before the start of Super League 15, those nice people from Hull FC took myself and a few other journalists that cover the club on a regular basis out for a meal. It was the day after Hull had beaten Hull KR in a pre-season friendly and those present from the club including CEO James Rule, coach Richard Agar and captain Sean Long were in good spirits.

It was a get-to-know-you type of evening, common around sport and journalists, with the theme very much "here have some cheese and biscuits but if you write anything nasty about us we'll break your teeth". It was good fun and a very welcome gesture.

After dinner we retired for coffee, where, rather than thanking them for paying for my crab I told them that I thought they were wrong not to be thinking of re-signing Paul Cooke. Now I didn't say this out of context. It wasn't in the middle of a game of charades or even Twister. Cooke, now with Hull KR after his acrimonious departure from Hull in April 2007 had played a less-than peripheral role in the previous day's game, looking ever more like a shadow of the man who had won the Challenge Cup for Hull in 2005.

Agar and Rule were discussing the game and I, a long-time admirer of Cooke's abilities, told them they would do well to take another look at him. He still had another year at Hull KR, but it was clear that his time there was already borrowed and, an offer for his services might well prompt Hull KR to open the exit door for him.

As it was, the pair, far more knowledgable than I, ignored my words and Cooke eventually left Hull KR to join his old mentor John Kear at Wakefield. Kear has developed a reputation for doing a job similar to the one Sam Allardyce did at Bolton, as he has proved to be an expert at getting the best out of players who, for whatever reason, are on the last of their nine lives.

Unfortunately, though, even Kear was unable to coax the best out of Cooke, now 29, and the player is now without a club as most sides begin regrouping ahead of the 2011 season.

Because of the intensity of his relationship with Hull FC - he made over 200 appearances for them and was their main playmaker before his defection - rumours have consistently spread that he was 'set' or 'poised' for the most spectacular of returns to his former employers, with some fans suggesting that Cooke himself is the man behind the rumours.

Whether or not he harbours dreams of pulling on a black and white shirt again, the odds were vastly extended, nay made worthless, on Monday night when Rule released a hard-hitting statement saying there was "no future" for the prodigal son with the club.

So where does Cooke go from here?

If you're a Hull FC fan you probably don't care and, I expect the majority of Hull KR fans feel the same after a largely ineffective three years with them. But let me indulge myself slightly.

When I first started out as a rugby league reporter back in late 2004, early 2005, it was covering Hull FC. The side were in transition between Shaun McRae and Kear, and, at the fulcrum of the side was Richard Horne at scrum-half and Cooke at stand-off. Both academy graduates, they made their debuts as 16 and were now established first-team players.

Horne was the poster boy of the side, the local boy done good, the nippy support runner, the try-scorer. Cooke was the moody, broody stand-off, but everything that was good about the team came through him. His range of passing was like nothing I had seen from anyone else in the Hull side, the same with his vision.

In 2005, his try off a Horne pass won Hull the Challenge Cup as they beat Leeds 25-24 at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. At the time, he had the game at his feet. And maybe that was the problem. When I interviewed him after that game he said that it had been "a long time between drinks" for Hull, and, he knew that he would never have to buy a drink again in the city. A modern-day hero, for my money, there was no real incentive to achieve again. The work was done.

That did not show immediately, though, and, in my opinion, Cooke's form in the 2006 season remains amongst the best I have seen in the seven years I have been on the rugby league beat. Peter Sharp took over from Kear in April and changed the side's style of play to an expansive one with Cooke in the engine room. Kirk Yeaman and Gareth Raynor, the side's left-sided centre and wing pair, went on the Great Britain Tri-Nations tour largely thanks to the tries he laid on for them. He was quite simply a joy to watch. His goal-kicking was another exemplary part of his game. There was no Jonny Wilkinson-style clasping of the hands. He was languid and didn't care. Over it went.

In the off-season between 2006 and 2007, with Richard Swain having stood down from captaining the side, I asked Cooke if he wanted to replace him. "It would be an honour," he replied. Three months later he had tendered his resignation from the club, revealing he had never signed a contract, and happily skipped down the A63 to pen a three-and-a-half-year deal with Hull KR, the club he had supported as a boy.

The move caused the most unbelievable chasm. The two clubs verbally sparred in the media, while one radio station was banished by Hull having broken the story in the first place. The shockwaves were felt throughout the sport.

Personally, it was a good time for my career. Cooke agreed for me, through the agency I work for, to release a statement from him explaining why he had made the move, and the story remains one of my proudest hours. Later that week I covered a lengthy press conference with him where he said he had moved to Hull KR for "rugby reasons" and asked the Hull FC fans to understand.

They didn't.

So what went wrong. Why, over the course of three years did Cooke's career not just hit the buffers, but go considerably backwards? He remains the best British stand-off I have seen in my time covering the game, but now he is without a club. His best games for Hull KR were reserved for the derby games with Hull FC. Beyond that, he was anonymous, and with due respect, players simply not good enough such as Chaz I'Anson were preferred to him in the number six shirt.

As I've referenced, I've always had a lot of time for Paul and, as many of my colleagues will testify to, I've never been shy to bang the drum to push his name forward, even going as far as telling the club he had quit that they should re-sign him.

Earlier this year, however, a piece I did with him about the Hull derby, where he was praising both clubs, was picked up by the Hull Daily Mail and sexed up with the headline: "The derby is special, even without me." The next day the Wakefield press officer called me to say Paul was furious and wanted a head on a plate. Touchwood, I'm yet to lose my noggin box.

Despite that, though, I still have a lot of time for Paul and it genuinely saddens me that his career has reached the point where another club have to release a statement distancing themselves from him.

Of course, the Hull fans, or some of them at least, still harbour a lot of hate towards him. Even if they didn't, the signing of Joe Westerman to play Cooke's position, means they probably don't need him anyway. I hope someone does, though. I don't know if I can see him playing in the Championship, and I hope a Super League club somewhere can find a reason to give him a 10th life.

He's not a murderer or a terrorist. He's a rugby league player. And a bloody good one at that. His talent demands more success. I hope his mind does too.

And as for me, I'm already looking forward to next year's pre-season feed, but I think I'll be keeping my mouth shut next time and ordering the humble pie.


Let me know what you think of Paul Cooke and what you think he should do next, either on here or on Twitter. And by the way, if you've managed to get to the bottom of this then you probably like your rugby league, so why not tune into Yorkshire Radio who have 50 live games next season. Follow them here on Twitter. They're good lads. Honest.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Better dead than red? It's home time, Alan.

It started with a kiss. Or at least it might as well have done.

The first time us Leeds fans were introduced to Alan Smith was at Anfield in November 1998. We were trailing the home side, then under the coalition management of Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier, 1-0, and David O'Leary, our then popular boss, threw on Smith, a local rookie, for his debut.

His first touch quickly became part of our modern-day folklore. A sweet drive into the bottom corner after David Hopkin (yeah, I know) had seen a shot charged down. Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink then added a quick brace and Evans was shown the door and the Liverpool culture of the bootroom boys was over. For Leeds, a whole new love affair was beginning.

12 years, over 500 games and Seth Johnson later, the story is somewhat different.

Hundreds of think pieces exist as to what went wrong with Leeds United, who was to blame and why it all happened. One of the unfortunate byproducts of our ungainly and ugly fall from grace was the loss of our own bootroom boys. The academy on which our Champions League dream was built was dispensed around the country in a cut price sale not seen since the days when MFI used to open on January 1.

Jonathan Woodgate, bored of 'horseplay', left for Newcastle, bizarrely spent a season with Real Madrid and then rocked up at Tottenham where he has been making the most of their physio's table ever since. Paul Robinson, the man who single-handedly kept our goals against column in single digits against Barcelona went to Tottenham, had a to-do with a divot in Croatia and is now well-respected at Blackburn. Steve McPhail is still opening cans of beans on his left foot (Eddie Gray) at Cardiff after an unfortunate battle with cancer, and Ian Harte is at Reading after a nomadic few years that have taken in Sunderland, Blackpool, Carlisle and Levante.

At the higher-end of the market Harry Kewell is on a peacekeeping mission in Istanbul with Galatasaray, or so he'd tell you, previously wearing the number 19 shirt, his old number at Leeds, in a bid to build bridges between the two clubs after all that went on. Good luck with that one, H.

And that leaves Alan Smith. Smudger. The one-club man, the heartbeat of the team. The man who cried on the field at Bolton after our relegation from the Premier League was confirmed. The man who, in what remains our last home Premier League game, scored a penalty against Charlton, kissed his badge and was carried from the field in tears. The local boy done good. The successor to David Batty who was the successor to Billy Bremner as the heart and soul of the team. Or so we thought.

Within weeks of our demise, Smith was photographed at Manchester United's Carrington training ground, with David Gill on one side and Sir Alex Ferguson on the other, dotting the Is and fisting the Ts on a four-year contract with the one club he had said he would never, ever, sign for.

For those of you that are wondering why this was such a big deal to Leeds fans, let me explain. Yes Manchester United have won 18 titles and three European Cups, play in front of 76,000 and claim to be the biggest club in the world and yes, we have most recently been torn a new one by Cardiff, but, believe it or not, we are rivals. A hatred exists. While the on-field rivalry has had to take a back seat over recent times (apart from this), historically, the blood runs deep. We sing songs about them and they most certainly sing songs about us.

So, our poster-boy local hero signing for them was a pretty big deal. Even though we knew our relegation meant our stock was pretty low, the last thing we wanted to happen was our captain to confirm it so publicly by betraying everything he had said and done in the past by making the short journey over the Pennines to find a new badge to kiss.

And kiss it he did. One massive smacker, right on that Red Devil that adorns their shirt. Another dagger to the heart. (NB. Fellow Leeds nut Andrew Haigh claims this didn't happen - I think it did!)

Opinions on Smith had rarely been split during his time with Leeds. Sure, some preferred his strike partner Mark Viduka (I was firmly in that camp), but there was no denying Smith's effort, his passion and his commitment, even if he was, for a striker, light on goals. But, after his defection, the percentages started to alter. There were apologists who said he "had no choice" and had to go, and that his waiving of a loyalty payment was a sign of how much he cared for the club and how one day, he would return.

To the majority, though, he was dead. Toast. He had never played for Leeds and most certainly never would do again.

As he started his career with Manchester United quite spectacularly, scoring goals from all over the place, our stock continued to fall. We replaced Smith and Viduka with a collection of bargain basement strikers such as Michael Ricketts, Nathan Blake, Julian Joachim and Danny Cadamarteri. Despite a play-off final appearance, we eventually landed in the footballing wilderness of League One, and the "Where's Yeovil?" t-shirts that the club had printed up for sale only added to the delight of the rest of the country.

Obviously, we are in slightly better health now. Thanks to the astute management of another Leeds fan, Simon Grayson, and largely thanks to the goals of Jermaine Beckford and Luciano Becchio and the invention of Robert Snodgrass, we are back in the Championship and one lucky/good/miraculous season away from a return to the promised land.

This season, our first back in the second tier, we started well but have lost five of our last six, including a shellacking by Cardiff on Monday night. The general consensus is we can score goals, but we can't stop them. Eddie Gray, now a respected media pundit for the club feels we have no leaders and no talkers. We need a midfield hard man, a general and a captain. I like Jonny Howson, our 22-year-old stand-in captain while the real skipper, Richard Naylor, is rested/dropped/injured/out of form, but, one feels he needs to be able to focus on his own game rather than having to drag us out of this current sticky patch.

We need an experienced head, someone with fire in his belly, someone who will run through the proverbial brick wall to protect our biscuit-like back four.

We need a Bremner, a Batty, a Smith. Only one of them is available.

While Smith's career at Manchester United started well, it ended with a whimper after a horrific leg break and, after realising his goalscoring days were over he rebranded himself as a midfielder, went off to Newcastle and has spent the last three years there, going from regular starter to bench warmer to Carling Cup starter.

Now, this is where my plan comes together.

Like all couples that do love each other really, a time comes when, after seeing if, to quote Alex Ferguson, someone's cow is better than the one you already have, you have to decide if you want to be with each other again. And, while I never thought I would say this, ever, this is our time to see if Alan Smith still loves us.

I don't want it to be this way. We don't need him, but we do. We need someone who can give us what he can give us. The fire, the legs and the running. The snap in midfield, the shouting, the bawling and the tears. I wish there was someone else. I wish, somewhere in this country, this continent or on this planet, there was a player, in our price range, that could do that. But, at the moment, all roads seem to lead to Rothwell. To Smith.

Let's not make any bones about this, though, he needs us as well. He turns 30 today (Thursday October 28) and is currently a bit-part player at a club that have had their fair share of financial troubles over the past couple of years. What would he rather do? Make another 40 or 50 appearances for Newcastle or come home, put the armband on and lead what he always claimed was "his" team back into the top flight, restoring some credibility in the process.

Yes, he said he'd never sign for them and yes he kissed their badge, but what better way to kiss and make up than putting his club, my club, back where they belong.

It certainly wouldn't be the most popular move. Even I have said previously that I would rather catch malaria than cheer Smith in a Leeds shirt again but, the way I see it a the moment, we need to stay in this division, and eventually we need to get back into the Premier League. I'm not sure if Amdy Faye is going to make that happen. I want Jonny Howson to make that happen, but he needs someone to help him do it. Smudger is that man.

Simon Grayson was at Newcastle for their game with Arsenal last night and saw Smith show what he could do for us. So come on guys, get your heads together and make something happen.

Alan, you've seen the word and had some fun but now, it's time to come home. No hard feelings eh?


Feel free to let me know what you think of my ramblings below and, if anything I say may be of interest to you, then check out the work of my friend and colleague, Jonathan Veal, who blogs and tweets about football in South Yorkshire.

Also, you can follow my views on Leeds United and plenty of other things on my Twitter account here.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Why I'll always love L'Boya

As 205 long-suffering followers will testify to, I like using my Twitter account. Most of my 5386 (at the time of writing) tweets are of no use to anyone. Pro-Leeds United, pro-Jermaine Beckford and lots of Millie Clode-based voyeurism.

I use my account to follow plenty of people too, one of whom is the respected football journalist Henry Winter of the Telegraph. I admire his work and, particularly like his apparent soft spot for Leeds.

However, one of his recent tweets caught my eye and prompted me to write this blog.

In the wake of the Wayne Rooney rumours last weekend, Winter said, via his Twitter account that he should be forgiven because, unlike Joey Barton and Lee Bowyer, he wasn’t a lost cause.

And that got me wondering. Why do people think Bowyer is a lost cause? What are your memories, thoughts of Lee Bowyer?

For most of you it will be his unsavoury on-field fight with then Newcastle team-make Keiron Dyer, or his snarling, red face as he not-so-politely told referee Jeff Winter what he thought of him after he sent him off during Leeds’ 2-1 win at Arsenal in August 2002.

Beyond that, there was his and Jonathan Woodgate's trial, or his conviction following an altercation in a London branch of McDonalds.

But, as a season ticket holder at Elland Road since 1999, my views of him are somewhat different and it frustrates me as to why he is seeing out his days with a reputation as a kicker at Birmingham, rather than being given a ticker-tape send off.

As a year nine, 10 and 11 student. Bowyer was my hero. My God. As a pupil at a Catholic High School, I ranked him above the big man upstairs.

He epitomised everything that was good about supporting Leeds United. No-one likes us; no-one liked him in particular. And, even as the general mood towards our side softened as David O’Leary’s ‘babies’ threatened to win the Champions League, Bowyer remained the outcast. The proverbial black sheep.

And with that the fans took to him like no other player I can remember. While he will not have fond memories of the two trials he and Jonathan sat through, Leeds fans, or at least this Leeds fan, look back on that period with a romantic tint in the eye.

I don’t think I’m over-egging the situation when I call some of the football he played during the 2000-01 season as perfect. I have never seen a player play as well over the course of the season as he did during that campaign. He scored 15 goals from midfield and, I’m so tragically sad, that I could probably recall all the goals now.

It wasn’t just the goals, though. It was the spirit, the drive and the way he connected with the fans. That once-in-a-decade bond that fans have with certain players. When I see the banners that adorn Old Trafford with Roy Keane’s name on them, it makes me annoyed that Bowyer is no longer idolised on in the Elland Road Kop. There should be banners and songs for him when fans choose to walk down memory lane.

It is hard to talk about Bowyer’s time with Leeds without mentioning ‘the trial’. The first thing worth pointing out is that he was acquitted of all the charges brought against him. It’s become the fashion, though, for pundits, fans and observers alike to just assume that he was found guilty.

Nope, he was acquitted. Just like Steven Gerrard, the England captain was earlier this year.

Bowyer, though, was banned from playing for England. During that 2000-01 season there was no better player, let alone midfielder, in the country than Bowyer. He was not allowed to be picked for England and, staggeringly, there was no place for him in the PFA Team of the Season.

The fact that Teddy Sheringham walked away with the PFA Footballer of the Year for that season was a joke. It was Bowyer’s prize.

Throughout both trials he did not train with the side. He trained alone in the gym of his hotel near Hull Crown Court. He arrived at night games by helicopter and went on to single-handedly win us a Champions League game against Anderlecht with a last-minute winner. He had only arrived at the ground minutes before kick-off.

The trial ended in the December of 2001. Bowyer was cleared of any charges, but was soon hit with a fine from the club on the basis that his involvement in the night out was worthy of the punishment. Bowyer refused to pay it and he went on the transfer list.

The subsequent game at home to Everton remains one of the most memorable of my Leeds supporting life. We were top of the table at the time, and Bowyer watched the game from the TV gantry. When Robbie Fowler scored one of his two goals on the night, the players ran as one and picked out Bowyer. The fans sang his name all night and a banner was passed around that read: “Losing Bowyer means losing the title – it’s your choice.” We lost the title, but the sentiment remains.

Two days later Bowyer was off the transfer list. He played against Newcastle the next day and opened the scoring in front of the Newcastle fans who were housed in the South Stand. Bowyer went utterly ballistic after scoring. He almost clambered in to the away end such was the vitriol with which he celebrated.

The Newcastle fans, never short of an opinion, had spent the last 12 months revelling in singing “Bowyer’s going down” – the anthem that had been sung at every ground in the Premier League.

But, that was it. That was the end of the fairytale for Leeds fans.

Bowyer remained in the side for another 12 months, scoring the odd goal, crunching into the odd tackle, but the spark, the magic, the love had gone. Things were never the same again.

A move to Liverpool came close to happening, before he was eventually offloaded to West Ham in the early spring of 2003. And with it, a legend left Elland Road. A short-term legend, granted, but a legend nonetheless.

He was never given the chance to have the send-off he deserved, for the fans to sing his name with unbridled passion one last time. Peter Ridsdale, out infamous chairman, had overseen the sale of ‘the crown jewels’ and fans bemoaned the loss of Woodgate and Harry Kewell, but never Bowyer.

He was snuck out of a side door. Ridsdale is remembered for the goldfish in the boardroom and the champagne wages he paid to Seth Johnson. But I will never forget the way he saw Bowyer, the player the closest to the fans, out of the club, and essentially made it look as though he had wanted to go.

The fans that celebrated his last-minute winners against AC Milan and Anderlecht, those that saw him hit the winner on a Wednesday at Villa Park, those that named him as the Player of the Year in 2002, would never have wanted him to leave. And this particular fan thinks that he never wanted to leave either.

So it annoys me when respected commentators rubbish Bowyer’s career, labelling him as a lost cause. He’s made mistakes, granted. Maybe a couple more than he should. But for his place in the history of the Premier League to be glossed over, almost scrubbed out is grossly unfair.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Sticking up for 'ull

For anyone that knows me, works with me or follows me inane Jermaine Beckford and Millie Clode-related ramblings on my Twitter account then you will know that the sport of rugby league means a lot to me.

Taking my beloved Leeds United out of the equation, it is by far and away my favourite sport and, the game that in my job as a sports journalist, the one that I love covering the most. I've been bombing up and down the M62 for the last six years covering the sport, taking in some pretty special matches, witnessing some wonderful players and some pretty awful ones (Gary Carter from the Sun will tell you how much critcism I used to give the Crusaders' Mark Dalle Cort).

Covering the game has introduced me to some great people and helped me come across some truly great journalists, whose level of ability I can only aspire to. I include my 'mentor' Ian Laybourn very much in that bracket.

Now, more by default than anything else, I find myself on the 'committee' of the Rugby League Writers Association (memberships now being taken etc) and have done by level best to get on as well as I can.

However, one aspect of 'the game' still frustrates me slightly, and that is the ignorance, or what I perceive to be ignorance, that some sections of the media and the sport have towards the two Hull sides.

Throughout the six years I have been covering the sport, I have mainly followed the fortunes of Hull FC and Hull KR, two bitter, bitter rivals but both from a city that lives and breathes rugby league. The progress that Hull KR have made since their elevation to the Super League has been impressive, with coach Justin Morgan doing something of a 'Sam Allardyce' in quickly bridging the gap between Division One and the top flight.

They are now a stable top-eight club and, with a couple of handy signings over the winter, they should have enough to go deep into both competitions next season.

Likewise Hull FC, who are main crux of what I have on my mind.

I have covered all but a handful of every one of their home games for the last six seasons and have been lucky enough to follow their fortunes at close hand. I witnessed John Kear build a side that won the Challenge Cup in 2005, only to be sacked six months later, and then was blessed enough to see what I consider their best side of the last decade, the one coached by Peter Sharp, go all the way to the Grand Final in 2006.

I have fond memories of that time, probably allowing how good my own life was at the time to influence my memory on how good a side they were, but still. Sharp was a fair coach and a great guy to boot, and his captain and close friend Richard Swain remains the best player I have ever seen in the flesh.

Since Sharp headed back to his now infamous house on Manly beach in May 2008, the club had bobbed around in the bottom three of the ladder - until this year. Richard Agar, schooled under Kear and Sharp, is now the head honcho and, despite numerous criticisms from the punters, has taken them from two 12th-placed finishes (admittedly under his leadership) to what will be a top-four finish if they beat Leeds this weekend.

They have actually manned the top four for the majority of the season. That's right, don't adjust your monitors. They have. You might not know it, though. Why? Because those of you that follow the game on Sky or in some quarters of the media may not know that, as it has often been portrayed this season that Wigan, Warrington, St Helens and Leeds have made up the top four. Not so. That may be the case on Saturday night if Leeds win at Hull (this fixture surely a dream for the RFL), but I personally don't think it's fair the way the top-four has been advertised this season.

I have seen at first hand how hard Agar and his staff, not to mention his players, have worked this season to engineer an eight-place swing. Granted, their last three appearances on Sky haven't helped them (licked by Wigan, Warrington and Wakefield), but had the Sky cameras been present at their stunning comeback-win over St Helens, they would still be raving about it to this day.

But, I digress. The Super League Dream Team is announced next week and, while the majority of us can guess at a number of the players, there are still a lot of places that should be up for grabs, although I don't necessarily expect them to go to, in my opinion, the most deserving candidate.

Hull KR's Clint Newton has been outstanding this season and, with 12 tries in his last 12 games, has a better scoring record than a number of the backs I have seen banded about in various members of the media's sides. Likewise, the young Hull KR forward Liam Watts has been ridiculously good this year and I would challenge anyone to find me a more improved forward in the competition.

I fully expect Hull's Tom Briscoe to land one of the wing spots and rightly so, as he is a genuine talent. Strong, great under the high ball and a lethal finisher, he could surely hold his own in the NRL one day. The hardened Australian pair of Mark O'Meley and Craig Fitzgibbon have been magnificent for Hull too, although I don't envisage either will break the Warrington/Wigan strangehold that is likely to dominate the pack. The duo came with injury warnings and, while they have missed some games through various problems, their contributions have been immense.

Likewise that of Willie Manu. The Tonga forward could well be lining up for England in the Four Nations at the end of the season, so at least someone recognises what a fine player he is. I don't expect him to oust Joel Tomkins or Ben Westwood, but just so people know, he is out there.

So what's the point of this ramble? Well, I'm not too sure I know, but I started it with the intention of trying to point out that Rugby League does exist to the east of Xscape on the M62 and that despite what you may be told, both sides are in pretty reasonable shape. And, while you may not hear the names Newton, Manu, Watts or even Lovegrove and Houghton mentioned when the various awards are handed out over the next month, please don't think that they haven't had good seasons. Because trust me, they have.