Category Archives: Sports

Persevered: At Home with the Murrays

Today’s guest blog is by Peter Burns, Sports Editor of Arena Sport. Here he describes a recent visit to Dunblane to visit the grandparents of two of Scotland’s favourite sportsmen.

I took a road trip to Dunblane on Tuesday, to a house near a now iconic tennis club, to meet the grandparents of two of Britain’s finest ever tennis players and current kings of the world.

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Jamie Murray with his copy of Persevered by Aidan Smith.

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Roy and Shirley Erskine, Jamie and Andy Murray’s grandparents.

Over coffee and shortbread – the latter now famous in its own right after Sir Chris Hoy was pictured with it at Wimbledon – Roy and Shirley Erskine talk tennis, of their immeasurable pride in the achievements of their grandsons Jamie and Andy Murray, and of an astonishing end to 2016 that has seen the two brothers claim the world number one spots in both doubles and singles men’s tennis. They talk of the seemingly boundless energy of their daughter Judy and her relentless schedule, of their equal pride in all the various branches of their family, and they are as welcoming, charming and warm a couple as you could ever hope to meet.
Midway through our conversation, Jamie makes an appearance with his uncle Keith to walk Roy and Shirley’s dog around Dunblane golf course, the second tee of which lies just yards from the bottom of their garden. It is a wonderful moment to meet the elder Murray brother, Davis Cup and multiple Grand Slam winner and now ranked as the best doubles player in the world alongside his playing partner, the Brazilian Bruno Soares.

But tennis is not the reason for the visit. Rather, it is the other great passion in the Erskine and Murray households – Hibernian FC. (Keith, though, rather inexplicably supports Partick Thistle.) With the recent publication of Aidan Smith’s fantastic Persevered: How Hibs Smashed the Biggest Curse in Football, I got in touch with Judy, who I knew had been at Hampden with her family in May 2016 to watch Hibs finally put an end to a 114-year quest for the Scottish Cup. But why such a strong Hibs connection and why this trip to Dunblane, copies of Persevered in hand?

Roy Erskine enjoyed a modest professional football career turning out for Stirling Albion, Cowdenbeath and . . . Hibs. Although tennis had been his great sporting joy, he was unable to pursue it to any serious level because his football career meant that he was considered a professional sportsman and was therefore ineligible to compete under tennis’s staunch amateur rules.

‘My playing career was nothing much at Hibs, to be honest,’ says Roy with a dry smile. ‘Almost non-existent. But they were the club with the biggest name and Jamie and Andy used to go through to Edinburgh to play for the Hibs youth team, so when you combine all of that you can see why we all became Hibees.’

‘We’ve actually just been down the to road to see Graham Stewart,’ adds Shirley. ‘He’s a silversmith and has been commissioned by William Hill to make a commemorative trophy for Hibs. It’s a beautiful thing in the shape of a thistle, with all the team’s names engraved on it along with the goal scorers and time of the goals.’

We laugh as we discuss the content of Persevered. This is no simple story recounting a victorious cup run or the story of a single season. Aidan Smith peels back the bandage on a cup-less wound that has festered for 114 years, prodding at the most agonising losses with insight and wit and yet all the while wincing at the pain. This is a story that revels in ‘Hibsing it’, a phrase coined by Hearts supporters to describe a team throwing away a promising position at a crucial stage and crumbling to defeat. It is a deeply personal story that is also universal; it’s both poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. And like the best stories, the ones you want to re-live again and again, it has a happy ending.

‘We had a wonderful day out at the final, especially after so many years of agony,’ continued Roy. ‘It can be tough at times to be a Hibs supporter, especially when it comes to the Scottish Cup. So it was very special to be there at Hampden – and what a finish to a game. Fairy tale stuff.’

The Erskines know a lot of about fairy tale endings, especially in 2016. While the year may be regarded around the world as an annus horribilis by many, there were certainly enough golden elements to redeem these past twelve months for both the Erskines and the Murrays.

In doubles, Jamie won the Australian and US Opens and was awarded an OBE. Andy, meanwhile, finished runner-up at both the Australian and French Opens before hitting a purple patch that began in the summer and saw him claim a second Wimbledon title before going on to retain his Olympic tennis crown and carry the British flag at the opening ceremony in Rio. He continued this magnificent form all the way to the end of the year to claim the world number one spot from his old rival, Novak Djokovic, at the ATP World Tour Finals – in the same week that Jamie and Soares also rose to the pinnacle of the doubles rankings.

‘Andy also, rather wonderfully, made us great grandparents,’ said Shirley. ‘And she is just beautiful.’

Many pundits have regarded fatherhood as a crucial ingredient to Andy’s mid-season surge that swept all before him shortly after the arrival of Sophie.

You’d think the Murray brothers would now look to have a break to take stock of their achievements. Not a bit of it.

‘Andy’s off to Miami to do his pre-season training block and I’m heading off to Florida next week to do mine,’ explains Jamie. ‘Then I’m going down to Bogota for Christmas with my wife’s family for four days, then it’s back to playing.’

Isn’t the idea of getting back on the treadmill of the tour and all the training and travelling an exhausting prospect?

‘No, I can’t wait. I’ve had two weeks off since the world tour finals and it’s probably the longest I’ve had off . . . well, ever. I can’t wait to get a racquet back in my hand. I get restless if I’m not playing and I’m really looking forward to this training block.’

I’ve heard about these training blocks. They sound horrific. How can you look forward to something like that?

‘Jamie just loves tennis,’ explains Roy. ‘Always has done. He can’t get enough – Andy’s the same. And they know that if they’re going to enjoy it they have to put in the work.’

That, perhaps, is in itself a little window on how you get to number one. Perseverance has been the hallmark of Hibs’ 114-year quest to regain the Scottish Cup, it has adorned banners at Easter Road and around the country, there is a pub in Leith named ‘Persevered’ and Aidan Smith entitled his latest work thus. And it is a word that is as apt as any to describe the success story of the Murray family.

There is a lot ahead for the Erskines and the Murrays in 2017. But first there is Christmas – and some quiet time by the fire to sit and relive a glorious season for the men at Easter Road – one that will be remembered and cherished for many years to come for all fans of Hibernian FC, among them a certain pedigree sporting family from Dunblane.

Peter Burns
Editor, Arena Sport
December 2016

Diego Costa – The Art of War

Look below to get a sneak peek at some extracts from our brand new biography of Diego Costa!

 

pp.5

“The family moved to São Paulo when I was 14 and my brother started to go out partying at night,” recounts Costa. “I wanted to give up football so that I could earn some money. My dad would give me a couple of notes here and there, but it wasn’t really enough and sometimes I had to stay in because I couldn’t face going out on a date and letting the girl pay.”

Costa took a job with his uncle and the pair of them would drive a truck to the Paraguay border, where they would stock up on goods to sell in the Galería Pagé shopping centre.

Costa explains: “Whenever my uncle met anyone from football, he would mention my name. He’d say, ‘I’ve got this nephew who’s super-talented…’ But I didn’t want to play football if it stopped me earning money, especially since my uncle tended to pay me more than I’d actually earned, and I had no living costs because I stayed with him at the time. I saved up and bought myself a motorbike so that I could visit Lagarto, although my mother did everything she could to get me to sell it.”

Uncle Edson, however, had a stubborn streak and was to play a key role at this stage in Costa’s career. He insisted on taking his nephew for trials and eventually one club expressed an interest. Barcelona Esportivo Capela de Ibiúna was owned by a local businessman whose policy was to invest in young players. The team’s matches were therefore well attended by scouts.

“We had to play in a competition in Minas Gerais. I wasn’t keen because I wanted to work but my uncle insisted that I go and told me that he’d pay me anyway. So I went. Although in the end he didn’t pay me after all!”

 

pp.7

“[Costa’s agent] Jorge Mendes tells me that he spotted him in the Taça de São Paulo, a tournament they play in January down there,” says Jesús García Pitarch, the man responsible for later bringing Costa to Atlético in his role as the Madrid club’s director of football. “It is an under-18 tournament and the final is always played in the Pacaembú [Corinthians’ stadium]. It’s a huge event and a big party for the whole city. Scouts and coaches from the big clubs always come to the final, but even in the early stages you see unbelievable players and there are a lot of clubs who do very well out of it. Even though Diego managed to get himself sent off in the first match – remarkable! – he had already caught someone’s eye.”

“I remember that I shouldn’t even have been playing that match because I had already been suspended for four months for slapping an opponent and then giving the referee a bit of lip when he showed me the red card,” recalls Costa. “I’ve no idea if someone had been pulling strings behind the scenes, but I ended up playing anyway.”

After the final whistle, a representative of Mendes approached Costa and talked about the possibility of playing in Europe.

“The minute I came off I talked to Mendes’ representative and they signed me up to go to Sporting de Braga. I didn’t hesitate for a moment because I knew that Jorge was behind the offer and that he was pretty much the best in the world.”

The idea was less well received at home. “When I signed for Braga, my dad and uncle took the contract to São Caetano, who offered the same deal for me to stay. My dad was worried that I would end up like the boys who are offered the chance to play in Europe only to be let down at the last minute. But I had given my word and in the end he started to believe that the Braga offer was genuine.”

 

pp.184

The second leg of the League Cup semi-final ended with Chelsea on their way to Wembley and the final, but their star striker on his way to a three-game ban and the first sign that he had not completely subjugated the devil inside. While he had still yet to be red carded, Costa twice appeared to stamp on opponents – Emre Can and Martin Škrtel. He was also involved in a typically Costa-esque confrontation with Steven Gerrard and, before any of it, should have had a penalty when Škrtel brought him down.

After Branislav Ivanovic’s header at the start of extra-time had won it for Chelsea, video footage of his clash with Can was reviewed and a three-game suspension enforced. Shortly after news of that punishment came in, Costa was sitting down with Rob Draper of the Daily Mail. It provided a rare and in-depth analysis by the player of his own style of play, best summed up by Costa himself as “going to the limit”.

“As far as what happened on Tuesday, the main thing is when I get home and I can sleep knowing I’ve not done anything wrong, because I never meant to do that and it was not on purpose,” he said.

“And you can clearly see that on the video. But it is a suspension. I have to accept that, I have to take it. Obviously I feel sad because I’m not going to be able to play or to help the team. But I have to accept and respect it.

“I’m not saying I’m an angel — I’m no angel. You can see that. But every time I play I will play the same way because that’s the way I am. That’s what I need to do in order to support my family. That’s my bread and butter; also that’s what I need to do for this club, for the fans and for all the people involved in this club.

“On the pitch I will always be like that. That’s my character and I will always compete. I’m a different guy off the pitch – as you can see – but on it I will not change.”

Diego Costa

Six Nations: Round 2 at Murrayfield

As Scotland prepare to face Wales in round two of the 2015 RBS Six Nations, we delve into the rich history of the Scotland team as recounted in BEHIND THE THISTLE: PLAYING RUGBY FOR SCOTLAND by David Barnes and Peter Burns.

Here some of Scotland’s all-time greats recount their experiences playing against Wales in the Five and Six Nations.

Behind-the-Thistle

1951

DONALD SCOTT

In 1951 we beat Wales 19–0 at Murrayfield. Their team had eleven players who toured with the British Lions in New Zealand the previous summer, and they had thumped England a fortnight earlier. The game was played in front of a record crowd at that time. They stopped letting people in, then hundreds more surged through a gap in the railings and climbed over the walls and turnstiles. The game was delayed for a little bit, and lots of supporters were brought in and sat on the grass in front of the schoolboys’ enclosure, which meant that opposite the West Stand you had the touchline and then supporters only a couple of feet back. It was quite intimidating – you felt like you were in a real cauldron.

Springboks_Scotland_1951_620_395_s_c1_top_topThe first-half had been pretty tight and we were piling on the pressure at the start of the second-half but only leading 3–0 when their fullback, Gerwyn Williams, sent a clearance kick in my direction. I was standing there ready to gather it when I heard [No. 8] Peter Kininmonth’s voice saying, ‘My ball!’
Well, he was my captain and he was bigger than me, so I decided to leave it to him. He caught the ball, pivoted and sent over the most perfectly struck drop-goal I had ever seen, from 25 yards out close to the touchline. I think he’d played in the back division at school – so might have dropped a few goals back then – but he was 6’ 4” and had moved into the forwards. His kick was the turning point and we went on to beat them 19–0.

1963

GEORGE STEVENSON
scotlandwales1963I played in the famous match against Wales in 1963 when there were 111 lineouts. The Welsh scrum-half, Clive Rowlands, just kicked to touch every time he got the ball. I think that was one of the first times I played on the wing for Scotland and in those days the winger put the ball in at the line-out. I touched the ball more that day than I had ever touched it in any match before, but it was only to throw the ball in after Rowlands had kicked to touch again. Wales won 6–0. What a dreadful game. They changed the rules after that, making it illegal to kick direct to touch unless you were in your own 22.

1971

79652578CHRIS REA
When we played Wales at Murrayfield in 1971 it was considered to be one of the great matches of that decade. It was so fast and the lead changed hands eight times. I’ve never known noise like it. I was in the centre with John Frame, while Jock Turner was at stand-off, and we had to shout right into each others’ ears but you still couldn’t pick up what each other was saying. That was one of the reasons why we lost a try right at the death. It was our throw-in at a line-out in our own 25 and Billy Steele got the wrong call, he couldn’t hear in that incredible noise level. They wanted the ball to the front, but he threw to Delme Thomas at the back. Gerald Davies scored, and then, of course, John Taylor added two points from the touchline, with what was described as ‘the greatest conversion since St Paul’s.’ I’ve never been so heartbroken. We were all just devastated. But looking back at it we were privileged to be involved in one of the greatest matches of that decade. And Wales at that time were the best side in the world, so to have almost beaten them was a great testament to a Scottish side which didn’t have a lot of success at that time – although I always felt the side was a lot stronger than our results suggested.

1974

ANDY IRVINE
Ian McLauchlan’s first game as captain was against Wales in 1974. He took over from PC Brown, even though Peter was still in the team. I liked Peter as captain, but the Mouse had this aura about him that just gave you confidence – he was so aggressive and he always led from the front. As we prepared to run out of the tunnel and onto that famous Murrayfield pitch, he pulled us all in tight and gave one of the most inspirational team-talks I have ever heard. It was real power and passion and it still sends a shiver up my spine to think about it.
We were heading out to play on our home ground against a team that Scotland hadn’t beaten since  1967 and contained nine British Lions, all of who were true greats of the game. Before you go out into battle, those are the kind of words you need to hear – they burn away the apprehension and the fear and ignite a fire in your soul. With a guy like the Mouse leading you in the battle, you were ready to take on the world. We fizzed down that tunnel and we unleashed hell on them.

IAN McGEECHAN
Gerald Davies always used to say that he wished he had been a fly on the wall during the Mouse’s team talk before that game. He said the way we came down the tunnel and the ferocity of our performance was incredible and you could see the Mouse’s influence over the way we played and took the game to Wales.

1982

ROGER BAIRD
We stayed down at the St Pierre Hotel just outside Bristol before the Wales game in 1982 and did all our preparation there. Jim Telfer’s team-talks were legendary, even at that stage. I’d had him in the B team, and it was worth getting picked just to hear what he was going to come out with next. On this occasion it was just after the SAS had swung in through the windows at Whitehall to end the Iranian siege – so that was the theme. We were going to be like the SAS. We were coming from Bristol, going into Cardiff, going to kick the shit out of them, and get the hell out of there – and it all went to plan.
It wasn’t a bad Welsh side, they were coming to the end of their great spell, but there were still some fantastic players there – Gareth Davies, Ray Gravell, Elgan Rees. Fortunately, we got the bounce of the ball, and things just seemed to click for us that day.

1999

GORDON BULLOCH
Momentum is everything, and we got the 1999 Six Nations off to the best start we could possibly hope for against Wales with John Leslie scoring that try within 10 seconds of kick-off. We had decided beforehand that we wanted to use the kick-off as an offensive weapon – whereas now they tend to use the restart to establish field position. We also knew the right winger, Matthew Robinson, was coming in for his first cap, and with a huge atmosphere the last thing he would want was to get stuck under a high ball.
So it was a planned move for Hodgey [Duncan Hodge] to kick it that way and fortunately it came off – Shane Howarth came forward to cover for Robinson but it was just too far for him to take it comfortably before John snatched the ball away from him and galloped home unchallenged to break the record for the fastest try in the history of international rugby. It gave us such a huge boost. When something you have worked on earlier in the week comes off it is great for confidence.

2009

MIKE BLAIR
The Wales game was a bit of a confidence killer. It was the first game of the Championship Scotland+v+Wales+RBS+6+Nations+6UBZE4mUhFGland after the autumn series and the way that both Edinburgh and Glasgow were playing in the Magners League and the Heineken Cup, we genuinely thought that we were dark horses for the Championship. We were missing Euan Murray and Nathan Hines, but we still had a strong squad and Geoff Cross, who came in on the tight-head for his first cap, had been playing really well for Edinburgh. It was a fairly demoralising debut for him in the end. About twenty minutes in, he chased an up-and-under clearance kick and knocked himself out on Lee Byrne’s knee as Byrne leapt to take the ball. We all watched the replay as a team afterwards and you can see that Geoff was just charging up field, thinking that the ball was probably going to land about 30 metres further away than it did. It was a fairly sickening impact to have to watch in slow-motion. He was stretchered off and given a yellow card at the same time for dangerous play.

GEOFF CROSS
Starting that game for Scotland was one of the proudest moments of my career and I remember everything about that game – for the first twenty minutes, anyway. I remember the huge emotions I felt during the anthems and the tears rolling down my face; I remember preparing for the _45457004_byrne_face_huwkick-off and focusing all my thoughts on doing well in the scrums and at the lineouts, winning the contacts and collisions and sticking with our planned shapes of play. I remember everything until I ran into Lee Byrne’s knee. It was hugely disappointing that I made a poor decision but there was no point getting too worked up about it. It’s a game and these things happen. You make mistakes and you just have to move on from them. It was my first cap so I was very pumped up and it affected my decision-making.

MIKE BLAIR
Shortly after Geoff had gone off Lee Byrne scored – and they scored again a few minutes later. Our scrum was struggling because we were still a man down and Wales won a strike against the head and after a few phases Alun-Wyn Jones went over.
We were 3–16 down at half-time and the second-half was no better than the first. Jamie Roberts was huge all day for them, cutting great lines and busting through tackles. Leigh Halfpenny went in at the corner and ten minutes later Shane Williams was scoring for them again. It was a shocker.
We did manage to salvage some pride when Max Evans stepped through Shane Williams’ tackle and shimmyed inside Lee Byrne to score. It was a cracker. But the game was already long gone by then.
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Well, let’s all hope for a better result on Sunday! #backingblue