Murray’s mind focus reaping rewards

I really enjoyed watching the recent Australian Open Men’s final, so I was interested to read on Wednesday (Feb 18) that Andy Murray has handwritten motivations he sometimes reviews while on court.

Photography: By johnwnguyen (Flickr: DSC_4111.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The Scot, like many British sports stars, seems to split opinion like marmite.

We know all about the women in his life: his coach, his mother and his fiancé, and we’re all only too well aware of the expectation placed on his shoulders since a young age. But what about the man behind the gruff exterior?

I’ve always been a fan of Novak Djokovic myself, and I remember particularly well a TV panel on BBC a number of years ago during which the Serb was asked why he thought he had done so well in comparison to his rival (before the latter had won any Grand Slam title).

Djokovic’s answer was unexpected, and very real. He simply said that he knew by doing well in tennis, he could ensure his family had food on the table and he would be able to look after them. He wasn’t being anyway disrespectful to anyone – it’s just that his reality was very different from Murray’s.

Novak has since gone on to prove himself to be the talent we all thought was possible and, in between, Murray has collected two Grand Slam titles of his own. Both men are also playing in the era of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, so it’s no easy feat!

When the 27-year-old first appeared on tour, Tim Henman was still carrying British hopes. Murray seemed physically and emotionally frail at times, and it was hard to know whether he was capable of overcoming the challenges.

He worked exceptionally hard, of course, but it was only after hiring tennis legend Ivan Lendl as his coach in 2011, that real progress was finally made. Olympic gold and a US Open title in 2012 signalled a breakthrough, and he backed it up with a much longed-for Wimbledon crown the following year.

Fast forward to this year’s final in Australia then, where everyone predicted a tight contest.

Murray’s physical fitness and strength has improved immeasurably since those initial final appearances in Melbourne in 2010 (v Roger Federer) and 2011 (v Djokovic).

His mental ability, so often a weakness, has also been worked on. Djokovic, we could see, was also not quite on the boil – so could there be an upset we wondered?

When Murray looks back at the match, he’ll realise that he managed to get his opponent on the ropes on more than one occasion; he failed, however, to deliver the knockout punch on a couple of occasions.

Djokovic produced some sublime tennis at stages, but though Murray literally had him physically wobbling around the court at one point, he couldn’t capitalise on those handful of points that would have made a crucial difference on the night.

At the highest level of sport, inches make all the difference. We saw Djokovic suffer physically for the first time in many years and haul himself through several games when it appeared his hopes could be derailed by injury. There was chat online and from the commentary team that the Serb could be faking it, but anyone who participates in sport will tell you that you just have to push through those horrible moments when your body is ready to give up, but your mind has other ideas.

Murray, too, had to fight his own demons – one of the reasons he brought Amélie Mauresmo on board – and though he didn’t succeed on this particular occasion, he can stand over his efforts.

Bottom line: we could all benefit from drawing up our own motivation list and reciting it to ourselves… even if we leave off the line about sticking to the baseline!

Andy’s on-court motivations

The romance of the FA Cup is not only dead, it’s long gone.

AFC Wimbledon and a small club from the seven tier of English football apart, there was little intrigue in many of the third round FA Cup matches. ‘Giantkiller’ headlines are long gone from the competition, as the Premier League’s continued evolution moves its clubs beyond the reach of even those just trailing behind.

Photograph: Wembley, Author’s Own

Sure, there is still the odd minor upset from time to time – but the finances of today’s game in the United Kingdom mean many of the top tier clubs can play a mixture of regulars, youths and those in need of getting 90 minutes under their belt, and still record a relatively easy win over whatever lower division side throws at them.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of passion, excitement and entertainment on display. Dover Athletic’s fixture against Crystal Palace afforded us the opportunity to reflect on just how far the London side has come recently. They won their match comfortably in the end – the hosts’ tired legs succumbing just enough to make the vital difference after a huge effort in the opening half. The fixture might not have been settled definitely until the hour mark; the result, however, never seemed in doubt.

We then switched our attentions to Manchester City, who hilariously fell behind at home to Sheffield Wednesday. The latter are a decent side and were always going to be tricky opponents that needed to be felled with care and precision. However, City piled forward in waves after going behind and once James Milner equalised, there was an immediate fear that a winner would duly follow.

Wednesday ran themselves ragged holding on and could genuinely feel hard done by when Milner’s second hit the back of the net in added time but there was such a feeling of inevitability about it that the commentary team on the day barely acknowledged their ‘brave’ efforts before sending them packing back to the Championship. City, in contrast, were ‘relieved’ to be through to the next round and simply glad of no significant headline coming from the Etihad Stadium.

On then to neighbours United, who made the trip to Yeovil. The tie – the viewers were reminded on numerous occasions – meant a huge deal financially to the home side, who had even commissioned a once-off jersey to commemorate the occasion. Social Media did question this specific idea; however, as anyone involved with a League of Ireland club knows, you have to make hay while the sun shines and, at least in terms of football, that’s a big Premier League team coming to town.

Yeovil’s efforts on the pitch were incredible. They made United look distinctly average in the first half – and it was this encounter, more than any other over the five days, that stood out as an example of what the FA Cup third round really means for football’s minnows today.

To beat a team well ahead of your league ranking, you need to have the perfect day and hope your opponents are not only off form and missing a few of their big talents, but that they’re also thrown further off course by playing against unknown faces, sometimes at a new ground and surrounded by a wall of hostile banter.

Manager and players alike have to get their tactics and approach absolutely spot on. In a game where the smallest of mistakes can result in disaster, the lower division sides just don’t have the physical fitness, skills and players to mix it with the biggest of the Premier League sides any longer. They cannot rely on boggy pitches to slow their opponents down or engage in an arm wrestle to ensure victory. TV money has not only moved football’s biggest names in another realm, it has also moved Premier League clubs into another stratosphere of competition.

The saving grace was, of course, the respective performances of Blyth Spartans, who were 2-0 up against Birmingham City before losing 3-2, and that of fan-owned AFC Wimbledon.

For the latter, despite being defeated by the one and only Steven Gerrard, Monday night’s game showed what being in the 3rd round of the competition still does provide smaller outfits: huge spotlight, the opportunity to showcase your football club to your own local population that are drawn in by a big name draw, as well as an opportunity to tell the world exactly what you stand for – benefits that are not too dissimilar from a League of Ireland club competing in Europe…

In the Dons’ case, the club backed the ‘Justice for the 96’ campaign and refused to move the fixture from their home ground though it could have meant a bigger financial windfall. To put the latter into context, one of Rochdale’s backroom staff described the TV income from their third round game (circa. £25,000) as being ‘huge money’ for his club.

On the night itself we were treated to anecdotes about the AFC Wimbledon players. ‘Great run from Sean Riggs, who wants to be a tattoo artist I believe’, while Adam Barrett was the man that missed the third round draw because he was wrapping Christmas presents. This is a football club, remember, whose founding trust was told starting again and forming AFC Wimbledon was “not in the wider interests of football”.

Yes, commentators, pundits and supporters alike all profess a love for the ‘beauty’ and fairytale stories of the FA Cup year in year out. Yet weakened line ups and its timing directly after the intensely busy Christmas fixture list suggest that the big players are just happy we can settle down to the real business of vying for silverware now that the heart-warming and ‘back-to-grassroots-football’ third round ties are out of the way.

‘Gluten-free’? Let them eat cake…

I read a series of articles in the Irish Independent over the weekend about coeliac disorder and how the ‘gluten-free’ trend in food right now is having an impact on the lives of those who can’t (rather than doesn’t want to) eat gluten.

I first started having problems with my stomach in my late teens. I was tested for coeliac disease amongst other things, and every test came back clear. I would inevitably be put on some course of tablets or other, which would settle things down for a little while, only to suffer another flare up once again before too long. There was even talk about more serious procedures if I couldn’t find a way to manage things through my diet.

By ‘flare up’ I mean feeling absolutely ill and like you needed to be sick after eating too much gluten in one sitting, or too many smaller quantities in close proximity. I don’t mean feeling ‘full’ or ‘uncomfortable’ after eating white bread like I hear so many people complain about; I mean a swollen, painful stomach, intense reflux that could last a day or two and cause restless, sleepless nights. I mean cramps and gurgling noises that suggest you haven’t eaten in a week. All of which can be acutely embarrassing when you’re around people not in the know.

I haven’t always been very careful about what I eat, but – for the most part – keeping a decent eye out on things and having the odd crisp sandwich or biscuit is enough to maintain a relatively even keel. I know when there’s trouble brewing, and I’m experienced enough with it now to know that I need to avoid the temptation of fresh bakery aisle in Lidl!

I attended the Allergies Expo in Cork with my Mum, who had gone to great lengths over the years to help me, late last year. It was amazing to see all the new allergy-focused brands springing up around the place, and it’s great to see that some of these were founded and are based in Cork too.

I’m lucky that I live close to a great Supervalu at the moment. Their range of gluten-free product has never been better and Dunnes, Tesco and others have been making great strides too. Like the people featured in the Indo articles, however, I find there has been a downside to the latest gluten-free drive.

If you eat well – meat, fish, fruit and vegetables – then you should have the staples of a very solid and nutrient-rich diet. The growing number of friends and acquaintances that have professed themselves to be eating ‘gluten-free’ now surprises me. I don’t believe it’s a healthier lifestyle choice for the individuals involved, and I really and only smile and nod when they share their ‘advice’ on how it works for them.

The reality is that gluten-free products usually cost significantly more, and staying or eating with friends is more than a little awkward. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve rolled up to a friend’s house only to be presented with lasagne for dinner or some variety of pasta or other. I’ll always eat away – manners can be a terrible thing – and I feel even worse when thoughtful friends go to the trouble of getting in gluten-free food while I’m staying and I feel obliged to tuck in even though it’s easier (and cheaper) to abstain for a couple of days.

Like all trends, I’m sure people will move on to another area of focus in time. ‘Gluten-free’ products still contain grains, flour and other items that people might like to avoid – they’re just different ones, ones that don’t elicit an ugly response for some of us.

Speaking to a nutritionist recently, she explained that one of the biggest difficulties with diagnosing coeliac or gluten-intolerance is that in an attempt to make a connection, we often reduce foods in a certain category (gluten, diary etc.) and when we feel better for having done so, we go to get medical confirmation of an allergic to a substance we have actually removed from our diet anyway…

Excluding any readily-available food element from your regular diet is never easy, no matter what, so if people want to do it for their own personal reasons, off with them. However, for those of us that need to be strict with our diet rather than preferring to be strict, we’re suddenly being lumped into the fussy eaters club when most of us would love nothing more than be able to eat pizza, or bread, or beautiful freshly-made penne pasta covered in a fresh pesto dressing*.

*begins to drool just a little

So, next time you hear ‘gluten-free’, remember: it’s not a choice for some of us!

Football, life and everything in between

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