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Cricket, style, football, singing and six-packs: Chris Gayle shares his life philosophy
Chris Gayle

As any bowler knows, the best way to approach Chris Gayle is to show no timidity.

So, Chris, aren’t you a dot-ball merchant with a limited array of shots? The gentle tee-hee of Gayle’s laughter comes before his reply.
 
“What a lot of people don’t realise is that Twenty20 is not about just going out there and starting to hit from ball one,” he says in a soft Jamaican lilt. “Sometimes you’re gonna wait a couple of deliveries – sometimes five or six. At times, you can go from the first ball. But you have to give yourself that chance as well.”

Gayle is the T20 Don Bradman (if the Don had had a penchant for Instagramming pictures of himself swathed in bling, sucking on a cigar, surrounded by sultry admirers): the undisputed master at what he does. He owns every first-class Twenty20 record worth having. Highest score (175*), most runs (7,466 and counting), fastest century (30 balls), most sixes (524 – more than double anybody else). The list could go on.

Yet, in contrast to many T20 hitters who have developed a 360-degree batting style – all scoop shots, ramps and switch-hits – Gayle is uncomplicated. His batting is based on astonishing strength and hand-eye co-ordination. Anything in his zone is brutally dispatched. Deliveries he doesn’t fancy are blocked or left. His high dot-ball percentage (around 42 per cent) is because, unlike a nervy T20 novice who feels under pressure to score from every ball, Gayle is happy to wait. He backs himself to come good, even if the scoring starts slowly.

Have sixes, will travel

As an approach, it takes nerves of steel. But like his compatriot Usain Bolt, Gayle’s breezy bravado is a shield to pressure. He has a reputation as cricket’s charismatic bat-for-hire, rocking up at a different venue each week. Whether it’s Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL, Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash, Jamaica Tallawahs in the Caribbean Premier League or Zimbabwe’s world-famous Matabeleland Tuskers, Gayle has made an impact on every domestic T20 competition – except England’s. Until now.

The 35-year-old has signed up for a NatWest Twenty20 Blast stint with Somerset. With Gayle’s name added to big guns such as Brendon McCullum, Shahid Afridi and Glenn Maxwell – plus domestic talent like Alex Hales and Jason Roy – the 2015 Blast has a healthy sprinkling of stardust. Gayle’s stay is brief – he’s here until mid-June – but he makes his debut today (Friday) against Essex. Catch him while you can; it’s more than many fielders get a chance to do.

How do you enjoy playing cricket in England, Chris?
“I honestly love playing cricket in the UK – apart from a bit of the coldness. I love the summer in England. It’s beautiful, it just doesn’t seem very long. But the fans are very, very receptive. Regardless of how much you score, they always give you a clap! [Mimics polite British applause] It’s a great atmosphere.”

Somerset don’t have the biggest ground. Will the windows be okay in the car park if you start launching sixes?
“A lot of people have said the same thing: ‘Chris – it’s a small ground. It’s a beautiful wicket to bat on. You’ll love it.’ I’m looking forward to the experience. I played there once before in a practice game on tour. It was a long, long time ago – but it was a flat wicket, so I hope it’s the same. I’ll try my best to hit it past any windows, for sure.”

You’ve been a Tusker, a Tallawah, a Royal Challenger – why has it taken so long for you to play T20 cricket in England?
“I should have played with Somerset in 2012, but things didn’t work out [Gayle made a return to international cricket]. So I’m very excited that I get the chance to repay the faith of Somerset now. This NatWest Blast is one of the only tournaments in the world I haven’t left my mark on yet. I’ve got to entertain the fans as much as possible.”

How do you keep yourself entertained when you travel so much?
“The travelling can be hectic, so you have to manage that and recover properly after a long journey. But, regardless of your situation, you try to enjoy yourself and just have fun. I’m that type of person. I’ll listen to some music, get some party vibes, whatever it is that helps you relax. When it’s a few days before a game, you can have a few drinks – but you don’t want to overdo it.”

With so much globetrotting, have you ever woken up in a hotel and been unsure where you are?
“Ha! That’s not happened yet. Maybe if I passed out and somebody had to lift me up and carry me to my room. Then I might wake up: ‘Where am I?!’”

What would you do in that situation?
“We’re lucky enough to stay at some fine hotels around the world – they really look after you, so it’s fantastic. I’m sure if you called reception to ask, they’d tell you where you were.”

When did you realise that Twenty20 would change the face of cricket?
“It was an eye-catcher from the start. Because the games started late, people could actually get the time after work to be able to watch a T20 game. And they don’t last that long – only three or three and a half hours. It fits into people’s schedules, you know? Since Twenty20 came about, a lot of new fans have started watching it around the world. People have become more cricket-friendly.”

What’s the secret of being a top T20 batsman?
“You have to try and put bowlers on the back foot, then you can dictate an innings. You can select the bowlers you want to target more than others, but it depends on the situation. It might be every bowler you’ve got to try and go after. Sometimes it will happen for you and sometimes it won’t.”

You must have put the panic into a few bowlers in your time. But what scares you?
“Not sure, at this point in time… maybe if you put a gun to my head. ‘Don’t do it!’ Nah, I’m good, man. Nothing to worry about really.”

Outside of smashing sixes, what other skills do you have?
“I’ve got football skills, man. I’ve got some moves in the legs like Cristiano Ronaldo. When I was growing up, football was my first priority. A lot of cricketers are passionate about football. You can use it in warm-up or in practice; it’s good fun and it gives you a buzz. Some cricketers like to show a few skills, pretend to be a footballer – but I am a footballer.”

Your friend Usain Bolt is also a big football fan. Which ability would you rather have: to run as fast as him or to sing like Rihanna?
“Who’s to say I can’t do both? It’s a challenge, but I can actually sing a little bit already. Maybe Rihanna and I will take to the stage and do a collaboration together. It’ll go platinum.”

Are you sure about this?
“I am, I am! She’s got a great voice, but mine isn’t bad. It’s close. Usain Bolt? I could beat him in a race – but only if I get his shirt, pull him down, then run past him.”

You are a laid-back character. Do you work harder on your game than people realise?
“I spend quite a lot of time in the gym. These days, people don’t be working out – so mostly I’m working out by myself. But I find it more enjoyable that way. I move at my own pace. I’m not too much into the running. My cardio is basically: go to the steam room and sweat. That’s pretty much it – that’s my work-out.”

Does that definitely count as cardio?
“Well, I do go to the gym a lot. I lost my six-pack – so I’m trying to build it up for now, so by summertime it will be out there. Ready.”

Excellent. What’s the news on your back? You’ve been nursing an injury for a while.
“It’s been on and off. The good thing about it is that we’re managing it as much as possible. I feel much better than where I was in the World Cup [in February/March], when it was really aggravating me. So I hope it goes a long way. I feel I’ve got more sixes in me yet!”

Are you going to play Test cricket again?
“It’s possible. My back meant I had to set it aside for now, but I need to work out when I can get back and play international cricket. Five days might be tough for me right now, but they’re aware of it and I’m looking forward to meeting with the West Indies coach. We’re going to have a chat about when I can get back to international cricket. We’ll see – but I haven’t retired from any format of international cricket. Let’s see what happens.”

You’re a snappy dresser. Do you have any style tips for Sport?
“Sometimes you should keep it simple: a well fitted T-shirt, jeans and sneakers.”

What? You rock a nautical hat, luminous waistcoat and mismatching flip-flops!
“Only sometimes! When you’re a personality, you can get away with a lot of things. People expect me to dress differently, so it doesn’t matter what I wear. I’ll always look good – I can tell you that. I’ve got the body for it, for sure.”

Some parting words of wisdom please, Chris: what lessons has life taught you?
“It’s all about experience. It’s very hard to get to the top. To climb a mountain is a struggle – but it’s so quick to slip back down. Sometimes, even though you feel you’re on top of the world, trust me: you must stay grounded at all times. You can hit rock bottom so hard, so fast, easily. That’s a thing I use in life. I’m a big personality – but I stay grounded. Respect people wherever you meet them. Have kindness in your heart. Always be willing to give back.”

The NatWest T20 Blast continues on Friday evening. For information and tickets visit ecb.co.uk/blast

Ahead of England’s World Cup group match with Mexico, winger Karen Carney tells Sport why a little craziness on the pitch is crucial
Karen Carney

Karen Carney isn’t the type to just hang around.

She’s a winger by trade, and has a lightning-fast turn of pace – but it’s not just that. In the 13 years since she made her Birmingham debut aged just 14, Carney has moved clubs four times, and even spent a year in the US with Chicago Red Stars. 

Last November, she became the youngest England player across the men’s and women’s game to reach the 100-cap mark when she took to the field against Germany at Wembley. Still only 27, she is now playing in her third World Cup. As we said, Carney isn’t one for hanging around.

Which is handy, because there’s not much time to rest at a World Cup. After Tuesday’s tricky opener against France, England face Mexico tomorrow knowing victory will leave them with a very good shot at knockout football. Having crashed and burned at Euro 2013 – two defeats and one draw meaning they finished bottom of their group – the only way is up for England’s women. And with the unpredictable Carney on the wing, anything can happen. 

You are the youngest England player to reach 100 caps – how special was that achievement for you?
“Yeah, I don’t think I realised how big or important it was until kind of after it happened. People were obviously speaking about it, but when you’re playing each game, you just kind of roll with it. It wasn’t until I actually received the award, and people talked about the players that I’m ahead of and so on, that I realised how big an achievement I’d accomplished. It was fantastic to do it at Wembley, too – in front of such a good crowd and playing against a top opposition [45,619 watched England lose 3-0 to Germany] made it all the more special.”

Do you still remember your first cap?
“Yeah, it only just seems like yesterday. I came on against Italy and managed to get a goal [scoring England’s fourth in a 4-1 victory]. That was amazing. I don’t know where all the time in between has gone, though. It’s been 10 years, but it has flown by so, so fast.”

After November’s 3-0 defeat to Germany, you said there was a gulf between the two teams. Do you stand by that?
“I think when we played Germany and the USA, it’s probably the first time that England have played a real top opposition under Mark Sampson [who took over as head coach after Euro 2013]. No disrespect to the other teams we have played, but these are the leading teams in football. For us, it was a big test and a massive learning curve, and it was important that we played them. There was a gulf, yeah. But since then we have moved forward and learned a lot from that defeat. It should stand us in good stead at the World Cup.”

What can you learn from better teams?
“In qualification, we’ve been high-flying and scoring lots of goals [52 in 10 games]. But you don’t get that number of chances against the big opposition, so defensively you have to be a little bit more compact and ready for the Alamo to come at you – then you have to take your chances, too. It sounds obvious, but it teaches you that you can’t afford to concede because you might not get a chance to score.”

You played in America for a while. How different is the game over there?
“It’s a lot more physical, I’d say. When I went over there, the technical levels were higher in Europe. The Americans are still gifted, but it was their physicality I really struggled with. I learned from it, though, and it helped me.”

Does women’s soccer have a big following in the US?
“Yeah, I think so. Especially their national team – they’re like celebrities over there. Our game is developing over here now, though, and we are getting more recognition in the media and from people on the street. Hopefully we’ll start getting some plaudits and put in some good performances at the World Cup that will help.”

You have been to two World Cups. What do you tell the younger players in the squad to help them prepare?
“You just don’t tell them anything. From my experience, it’s better to just roll with it. The younger players have nothing to fear at that age – they’re just taking each game as it comes, so you want them to play with that free spirit. I’ve been to two World Cups and they were pretty huge, so you can kind of get the enormity of it from those previous experiences – they will experience that for themselves.”

Are you looking forward to this World Cup more now that you’re an even more experienced player?
“Yeah, I’ll just go with the attitude to enjoy it, because my first World Cup I was the young one and probably didn’t embrace it as much. Even the second one I was a bit too caught up in it all, and didn’t stop to appreciate what was going on. This time, I’m ready to embrace every moment and really enjoy it.”

France were always the tricky game, but it’s Mexico and Colombia next up. How much do you know about those sides?
“The scouting staff have done their research about who to watch, but we already know they’re going to be no mugs. You don’t get to a World Cup without being a good side, so they’ll be challenging. We might not know as much about them as France, for example, but sometimes that helps because you don’t overthink it.”

How much did this England team learn from the Euro 2013 disappointment?
“It was a tough tournament to be part of, but we definitely have learned from it and we’ve grown up from it. It’s just a case of saying: ‘Right, that’s about as bad it can be, let’s make sure we’re never in that spot again.’ This tournament will be just as tough, so we have to be resilient.”

Your former coach Marcus Bignot said you bring “five minutes of good work, 85 minutes of madness”. How’s that going?
[Laughs] “No, I don’t think I’m that bad. I think I show a bit more than just five minutes now. That was the way he had to manage me [at Birmingham], but I feel like I can offer the team more than just those moments. It’s a happy mix of the two, though – you’ve got to have a little bit of madness in you!” 

Karen Carney is on the #RoadToCanada, supported by Continental Tyres

A decade on from the greatest Ashes series, Freddie Flintoff talks ups, downs and life in the public eye
Andrew Flintoff

“It’s worth a few quid, Your Majesty. Have a flutter each way,"

says Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff. He’s telling Sport the story of how his life altered dramatically a decade ago this summer – one result being him receiving an MBE and chatting to the Queen about a racehorse he part-owned. How did it get on? “Ooh, it was running the next day at Carlisle,” he says, searching the memory banks. “I don’t think it came in, to be honest.” There goes the chance of a knighthood, Fred. “That went a long time ago.” A wry smile.

After a 2005 Ashes series that captured public imagination, it wasn’t just Her Maj who became aware of Flintoff. In one summer, he went from being well known in cricketing circles to joining the likes of ‘Becks’ or ‘Gazza’ for football, ‘Jonny’ for rugby union or ‘Big Frank’ for boxing – individuals so familiar to the British public that they can be identified with just a first name or nickname.

‘Freddie’ became a household name over an epic summer of cricket, during which England won a rollercoaster series 2-1 over a great Australia team featuring the likes of Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting and Glenn McGrath. Flintoff was 27, a larger-than-life all-rounder who bowled at express pace and bludgeoned with the bat. If captain Michael Vaughan was the brains of the team, Flintoff was its beating heart.

“It doesn’t feel like it ever even happened – it feels a lifetime ago,” Flintoff says now when asked whether the series feels 10 years old to him. “It’s a tricky one. People want to hear about it, but I can get a bit embarrassed by it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m pleased it happened. It was amazing to play in. But I’ve never sat down and watched the 2005 Ashes. I probably never will.”

How did Flintoff cope with going from being well known in cricket to being famous in just a few months? “It were different,” he says, evenly. “Paparazzi outside the house, people knowing who you was… But I’ve heard [famous] people whinge about it. I don’t have many gripes. Cricket is not like football, where it’s tribal. Everybody here tends to support England, so people are friendly. That’s one reason I’m not a big football lover. People stand in a crowd, shouting abuse at each other – grown men booing their own team! It’s not like that at cricket. And without the attention and the media, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. So it’s not something that I feel negative about.”

What Flintoff is ‘doing now’ encompasses a variety of TV and media work, plus a summer speaking tour named 2nd Innings. Springing from the rambling, genuinely funny podcasts Flintoff does regularly with his pal Clyde Holcroft, it’s designed to coincide with the 2005 Ashes anniversary – but that’s not the only topic covered.

 

“I don’t work too well to restraints.”
We can picture a group of former England captains and coaches nodding vigorously in agreement, even if Flintoff is referring to his show rather than his sporting career. “We have the premise of a plan, but we have room to talk about current things,” he explains. “Some of it’s cricket-based, but not strictly cricket – it’s the stuff I used to get up to on tour, in the dressing room.” 

“I did one of my warm-up shows in a theatre near here,” says Flintoff, sat in the Sport office near Waterloo. “The guy who ran the place had just put the show out to his mailing list, so it was all theatrical types in the audience. We get out there and I’m doing a story about my balls or one about taking too many Viagras… These people go and watch Macbeth! They like Shakespeare! And here’s me telling a story about bathing my balls. I had to work to get a laugh – but I enjoyed that, actually. We try and involve the audience as much as we can.”

Involving spectators was something Flintoff never struggled to do as an England cricketer. The 2005 summer represented a golden high for English cricket. Why does he feel the series captured the public imagination so well?

“A few reasons really. One, it was on Channel 4. We had millions of people watching. I think that was a massive thing, it being on terrestrial telly. That’s not a dig at Sky – they have put so much money into the game, and where would cricket be without that? But we saw the effect of terrestrial TV: the excitement, the audiences we were playing to. So it’s a tough one, that. Not a debate I’m even trying to get into. But, because it was on terrestrial TV, it meant more people watched.”

That Ashes was the last time an England Test series was broadcast live on terrestrial TV in the UK. Yet Flintoff is correct that the investment by Sky has, via the ECB, provided important funding for improving facilities and coaching at the grassroots of the game.

Even away from the ongoing ‘exposure versus investment’ debate connected to TV rights, however, Flintoff points out that cricket might always have struggled to hang on to the soaring public interest post-2005.

 

“That Ashes series was good and bad for cricket,”
he says. “The Aussies had one of their best ever teams and we’d beaten everyone in the build-up, so there was real excitement beforehand. Then it seemed that every game had something incredible about it – equally as good as the previous one, but in a different way. Cricket fans loved it. But people who had not seen much cricket before and got into it maybe thought: ‘Is cricket like this all the time?!’ They’ve not sat through a county game – here’s Leicester versus Derby! Here’s a Test against Zimbabwe! After that series, people were expecting a lot.”

It wasn’t just cricket’s popularity that came down to earth with a bump after that series. The England team’s form dipped, too, intertwined with Flintoff’s own struggles. The 2006/07 Ashes series down under saw a vengeful Australia whitewash an England side captained by Flintoff in Vaughan’s absence through injury.

“It wasn’t so much playing cricket that was the hardest thing in Australia,” says Flintoff of the 5-0 drubbing. “It was the state I was in at that point. Around 2005, I started getting injured. That was taking its toll, but I also took the whole series so personally. I perform best when I’m enjoying things. I think the captaincy and the pressure I put on myself brought out a lot of other things – a lot of insecurities – that had been festering away under the surface. It all seemed to come out.” 

A World Cup in the West Indies came hot on the heels of that series. England’s distinctly middling campaign is, rather unfortunately, best remembered for an incident where Flintoff tried to clamber into a pedalo after a boozy night out. He was stripped of his position as vice-captain and received a one-match England ban.

 

“I was thinking: ‘This is it – rock bottom,’”
he reflects. “After that World Cup, I stayed on in Barbados and I remember thinking: ‘Well, things can’t get worse than this. So what are you gonna do?’ 

“From a really selfish point of view, it was a nice thing to experience. Only when you reach that rock bottom – whether it be sport, mental health or your job – can you start to build yourself back up. You start putting yourself back together. Not just cricket, but also physically and mentally. I really enjoyed that process.”

Flintoff talks about mental health from a position of experience. He said this year that part of the reason he’s virtually stopped drinking is that “I suffer with depression, and it doesn’t help”. At what point did he realise depression was affecting him?

“I did a documentary for the BBC a few years ago about depression in sport,” he explains. “The idea was to overcome the stigmas around it. Hopefully, people watching who were struggling would see guys like Ricky Hatton and Steve Harmison talking about it and think: ‘You know what? It’s not just me. It happens to people.’

“When I was doing the documentary, listening to them speaking so candidly about it, I could identify with them. It was nice, actually, that I felt I could open up about it. I revealed a lot more about myself than I thought I was going to. It’s not a big deal. Going to a doctor about depression is like going to a physio with a bad leg. It’s not something people should feel worried or embarrassed talking about.”

If the winter of 2006/07 represented rock bottom professionally, 2009 was about redemption. Flintoff played his third and final Ashes series that summer, under the captaincy of Andrew Strauss.

“It was bittersweet,” he says looking back. “I’d had surgery 12 times by then, but the Test at Lord’s was the one moment for me, when I took those wickets in the second innings. I got up that morning and I couldn’t get out of bed, the missus was helping me get dressed. I went to the ground and had me jabs [painkilling injections] in me knee, but the day had a strange sense about it. I knew it was my last time playing at Lord’s – that I was never gonna set foot on this ground again in a Test. I had to make it count.

 

“I said to Straussy: ‘There’s gonna be a real uncomfortable situation if you try and take the ball off me.
I’m gonna bowl all day, until my arm falls off.’”

Flintoff grins. “I started bowling, and it was strange. I realised it was the best I had ever bowled, but also the best I was ever gonna bowl. 

“Realistically, my knee was knackered. I saw a surgeon before that Test and he wanted to operate on me that day. I would miss the series, but I might prolong my career. After what happened in 2006/07, I had to play – but it finished me off. That was it. For me, my career really finished at Lord’s. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it again. So the celebration is a little bit embarrassing – but I was just taking it all in, one last time.”

Flintoff’s trademark ‘I am an Ashes colossus’ celebration (chest puffed out, arms spread, chin jutting) does seem at odds with a man who seems slightly shy when asked to discuss his own glories. Flintoff is happier talking about those he respects, like his 2005 captain Vaughan. “An amazing liar,” he says. “Whatever the situation of the game, no matter what he was feeling, he always had a calm authority about him.”

He’s also a big supporter of the current England skipper. “The only thing I got right as England captain is playing Alastair in his first Test,” he says of captain Cook. “I liked him right away. I’ve been England captain and I know how hard it is. You don’t get everything right – or in my case very few things right – but it’s so important to have the team behind you. And everyone backs Alastair.”

Flintoff is unequivocal on Cook, less so on an old teammate from that great 2005 side: one Kevin Pietsersen.

 

“What’s Kevin like to play with? I found him difficult at times
– but I was difficult at times. He wouldn’t be in the top 10 most difficult England players I’ve played with, by any stretch. He’d be nowhere near it. But he’d be in the top three best. Some of the characters I played with when I first started – Kev is Mother Theresa compared to some of them. Those players were nowhere near as good as him yet they carried on 10 times worse – and now they pontificate about the game.”

What about this summer’s Ashes? Flintoff is more worried about England’s bowling than the batting. “My only concern is pace,” he says. “I’m a huge Stuart Broad fan. He’s taken more than 280 Test wickets and he’s only 28. That’s amazing. But he needs to bowl quick. There’s no point having Stuart Broad bowling 81 or 82 miles per hour. There’s lads in county cricket who do that all day. But we saw in the West Indies that, when he bowled at 90 miles an hour, he can change the complexion of a game by taking wickets. I’d have him bowling shorter spells, just four or five overs – quick – or I’d look at someone like Steve Finn to come in and do it alongside him.

“But I like the position England are in. There’s talent in our batting – Jos Buttler is someone I’d pay to watch – and everyone has written us off, so we can just go out there and have a go. What have we got to lose? I like England in that situation. I don’t think we’re favourites, but I do really think we can nick it.”

Flintoff beams as he talks about the Ashes, seeming much more comfortable with cricket than he once was. Like many ex-pros, he struggled immediately post-retirement, admitting that he didn’t want to be around the game as the feeling of missing it was too raw. 

“I like watching cricket now, I enjoy talking about it,” he says. “I wouldn’t have said that three years ago.”

He’s even made a couple of Twenty20 cameos in the past 12 months, whacking a few sixes for Lancashire Lightning in last summer’s T20 Blast before a trip to the Big Bash in the winter. He claims to be done with playing for good, but a new-found gym habit means he looks leaner and healthier now than at times during his career. Given that he wasn’t renowned for a spartan lifestyle off the field, does he ever wish he’d fallen in love with all this health and fitness stuff sooner?

“Not really,” he says cheerily. “Here’s the thing: I enjoyed it. Other people look at my record and say I should have done better, but I got to play for Lancashire and England. As a lad from Preston, who went to school on an estate, I exceeded all my expectations. What people forget is, there’s no average for fun.” 

 

Photography by Jon Enoch

Ahead of England’s World Cup opener, star striker Eni Aluko talks new managers, old problems and rapidly growing ambitions
Eni Aluko

You probably know the name Eni Aluko.

You’ve probably seen her face plenty of times, too, for the Chelsea and England striker is one of the highest-profile female footballers in the country. Not too long ago that would have meant little. But now, Aluko and her England teammates head to the World Cup in Canada with names and faces familiar to more people than ever before. 

“I have noticed quite a sharp difference in terms of profile,” says Aluko when we meet at Chelsea’s Cobham training base. “Mostly because I’m very busy. If I’m not playing then I’m doing media stuff. But it’s nice to see that people want to know what female footballers have to say and hear our stories. Men’s football is everywhere you turn; you can’t get away from it. So people are crying out for new voices and new faces. Women’s football can provide that.”

That Aluko’s voice has been so in demand is not surprising. A recently qualified lawyer, she delivers the same creativity and intelligence in conversation as she does on a football pitch – where she has become one of England’s brightest stars since making her senior debut at the age of 17. Now 28, and having been to two World Cups with England, Aluko will be one of the most experienced members of manager Mark Sampson’s squad when the Lionesses begin their campaign against France on Tuesday.  

Aluko is acutely aware that the upsurge in fame for both her and the women’s game also increases the pressure on the team.

“If we do well in Canada then the women’s game is going to sky-rocket even further than it has done,” she says. “But at the same time, if we don’t do well, we’ll get what happens in the men’s game where you are being hung out to dry in the press. We have to expect that and not think it’s going to be plain sailing. It’s added motivation for us to do well.”

England returned from their previous major tournament, the 2013 European Championships, having failed to win a single game – a performance that  led to former manager Hope Powell being sacked. Two years on from that disastrous campaign, Aluko says much has changed. That claim will face a stern test from the first whistle of England’s campaign.

England’s first game in Canada is against France – the same side that knocked you out of the 2011 World Cup quarter finals on penalties. It’s not the easiest start.
“It’s not, but I’m almost glad we’re playing France first because it’s like: ‘Welcome to the World Cup.’ It’s a big game. We know they’re an extremely technical team with incredible speed on the wings, and they have come so close in previous tournaments [that 2011 semi final was their best performance] that I’m sure they’ll be really motivated and look to start off on a good foot against us. But I believe that, if we’re ready and prepared, we can win that game.”

It will be England’s first major tournament under Mark Sampson. Can you compare the build-up you have had with when Hope Powell was in charge?
“He’s very different in the sense that he’s rotated the squad a lot coming into the World Cup. A lot of other teams and nations will start playing their strongest XI in the build-up, but Mark hasn’t done that. He has kept players on their toes. There’s a lot of competition for places, but to win a World Cup you need everyone performing at their best. He’s a firm believer in utilising the squad for different games, knowing that different opposition pose different threats. I think that’s been the big difference in his preparation compared with Hope – everyone in the squad has played a lot of minutes.”

Rotation didn’t hold you back in qualifying [England were unbeaten in 10 matches, scoring 52 goals and conceding just one].
“It was a fantastic campaign because, with a new manager, we had a lot to prove as players. He also had a style of play he wanted, which was very attacking. The way we qualified is going to put a lot of other teams on notice that we are able to play that way. We have been a bit more conservative in our past few games, but you’ve got to have a few strings to your bow going into a World Cup because it’s not going to be one-dimensional. There are many ways to win and we have to be ready for that.” 

Those performances were a world away from England’s display at the 2013 Euros in Sweden. What do you put that down to? 
“We were just in a very stagnant place as a team. Hope Powell was a very good coach, but other teams had sussed us out. We played the same way, with the same formation and the same players – and maybe some players were a bit complacent. They weren’t challenged in the same way they are now. Mark has brought in so many different players and has given young ones an opportunity. It makes other people hungry and creates healthy competition that brings the best out in people. I don’t think there was a lot of that going into 2013. But I think that [the Euros performance] had to happen for us to say: ‘Right, what do we need to do to get to the next level?’ Every team goes through that; it’s part of the modern game. You need new voices and to be pushing the boundaries and changing things.”

You weren’t surprised Powell was subsequently sacked, then? 
“I was, because it was such a big change after she’d been manager for 15 years. But I wasn’t surprised there was a recognition that there had to be a change, because the media pressure was huge. All eyes were on us and so, had there not been a change, I think there would have just been too many people waiting for another failure. That media pressure should be there, though. We represent England. If we’re not doing well, people have a right to say it needs to improve.”

Have you had to get used to that increased scrutiny as the women’s game has gathered a greater following and received wider media coverage? 
“I wouldn’t call it scrutiny. I can still walk down the street and not feel like I’m on edge, which is something I don’t think a lot of male players would be able to say. In terms of what we do as role models, though, I think there is an awareness that has to come with being a female footballer now. The media don’t need any excuses to create a story about something, so we have to be aware of what we’re saying and what we’re tweeting. Other than that, it’s nice to be able to live normally and do what you love.”

You made your senior debut for England more than a decade ago, in a 2-1 win over the Netherlands in 2004. Do you remember much about the experience? 
“I was 17 and I was so scared and nervous. I remember just kicking the ball away every time I got it. But I actually learned a lot from that experience because I was so disappointed with myself. It was a bit of a reality check for me to make sure that didn’t happen again, and that whenever I put on the England shirt I try to actually relax a bit and play football rather than being so terrified of the experience.”

When you were growing up, what sort of reaction did you get when you told people you were a footballer?  
“I was never ashamed of playing football, but I was always freaked out by people’s reactions. I never really knew how to communicate it. I found it easier to say I played tennis because there was Venus and Serena Williams, who were identifiable black females who I could relate to and people thought it made sense. When I said football, it just didn’t click for a lot of people.”

When did that change? 
“When I started playing for England. When you tell people you play for England, they go: ‘Ooh, she must be really good then.’ All of a sudden what was a negative reaction to me being a footballer became positive because I played for England. So I started to own it a lot more and embrace what I was doing.”

After your first World Cup in 2007, you spoke out about England players being paid £40 a day for the five weeks they were at the tournament. Was that an outpouring of frustration?
“It was about making people aware of the situation; of the fact that we make a lot of sacrifices to play for England. And to ask: ‘How are we going to change this?’ But it was also frustration at the fact football is a performance sport. If you do well, you should be rewarded. It’s not always about financial reward, but when you’re in a situation where players are losing out to represent their country, that’s not right. It doesn’t make sense. Players shouldn’t be financially worse off for representing their country – they should be financially supported.”

Did your law studies mark you out as the team’s spokesperson on such things?
“I’ve always been the one to be diplomatic but honest about the situation without trying to criticise anyone, because women’s football was at a stage – and still is, to an extent – where it doesn’t necessarily make a lot of commercial money in the same way as the men’s game. But it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. You have to pay players well to be professional, so that it can get to that point. It’s about the authorities and the FA realising that, and I think they do now. We are a lot better supported these days. We have central contracts and players can call football their job. All that started back then, though, when there was a greater awareness about it – as a team, we had to say certain things.”

This will be your third World Cup, after China in 2007 and Germany in 2011. What are you expecting from it? 
“Just qualifying for China was amazing because it was the first one we’d been to in 12 years. And 2011 was a massive World Cup, because there were sell-out crowds. But I read that an estimated 400 million people are going to tune into this one, so in terms of women’s sport I think people are just more interested. By virtue of that, it’s going to be the biggest World Cup yet. Players are more professional now, too, so the parity is going to be better, even with some of the smaller nations. It will be the hardest one yet, but it’s a really exciting time for women’s football.”

What sort of impact do you think it would have here if England do well in Canada?
“It’s scary to think about it. In terms of fans coming to games, I like to think that it would be a hot ticket. That, after the World Cup, people will want to get season tickets to clubs, and turn out every week to watch England players in their local teams. There will be a lot of commercial money coming into the game and brands will start investing in the game. Clubs will hopefully invest more, too. The likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool have recognised that having successful women’s teams can only help their brand. Off the back of a successful tournament, I hope that investment increases, contracts get better, academies are built and young players can be paid better. All the things that come with success on the pitch.”

No pressure then? 
[Smiles] “No pressure. But pressure is what we have to get used to. You can’t go into a World Cup expecting anything else.”

Snooker’s most outrageous talent on punching, cooking and why Ronnie: The Movie could be in the works
Ronnie O’Sullivan

Snooker’s most outrageous talent takes our very special Q&A...

Snooker aside, what sports do you like?
“I enjoy my running, but I’ve also recently taken up boxing.” 

Don’t you worry about your hands, Ron?
“Nah. Four or five years ago, I probably would have worried more about damaging my hands. But I’m 39, so worrying purely about snooker – well, it’s kind of secondary. I just like to play for fun now, so it’s important that I enjoy other stuff away from the table too.”

Is there any sport that makes you turn off the TV?
“Rowing, rugby, cricket, hockey. All them type of sports. I don’t really get ’em. If I understood them, I’d probably have more of an interest. But I’ve been brought up on boxing, football, snooker. It’s just a bit culturally different.”

Who’s the best snooker player you’ve faced?
“John Higgins is the best all-round player I’ve ever seen, and that possibly ever will be. I can’t see anyone matching his all-round game. Stephen Hendry was the best potter and break-builder, though, and he had so much bottle. Under pressure, he played his best snooker. They’re the two best I’ve played.”

What’s the strangest request you’ve ever had from a fan?
“Nothing too strange. The usual: signing autographs, will you say hello to my mum on the phone… Although that’s quite strange I suppose – wishing someone you don’t know a happy birthday! I don’t mind, though.” 

Do you have any hidden talents outside the sporting arena?
“I can cook a bit. I’m into fish, rice and salad at the moment – but I can cook lasagne, shepherd’s pie, curries. Most things, really. I do a lovely roast. I think anything that you’re passionate about, you can become good at.”

What’s your favourite TV show?
“Big Brother. Watching people, the dynamics between them – I love it.”

Who’s your closest friend in snooker?
“Definitely Jimmy White. He’s been like a father figure to me over the years. I’ve worked with him so much and he’s always given me solid support and advice. I owe a lot to Jimmy.”
 
Who would play you in a film?
“Rowan Atkinson.”

Someone a bit younger might be needed. Has anyone ever actually approached you about making a film of your life?
“I met Gurinder Chadha, who directed Bend it Like Beckham, at a do. She didn’t know who I was, but once I started chatting to her she was really intrigued by the ups and downs of my life. She said: ‘I want to make a film about you.’ I’m not one to push things, so I’ve kind of left it, but she’s always sending me little messages about it. So that might happen.”

Have you ever been starstruck?
“It’s a funny one, starstruck. Not really too often. But then I see Perry Groves just now, and obviously he was a big Arsenal player. I loved watching him when I was younger. Yeah – I suppose I was a bit starstruck!”

You’re a very fit fellow these days, but what’s your guilty pleasure?
“Food, or maybe the odd cigarette. What I don’t do is live my life by: ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ It’s about controlling your urges and making sure they don’t control you.”  

Enter Ron’s Big Win for the chance to win a new skyrise apartment in Canary Wharf. www.ronsbigwin.com

Since winning Olympic gold in 2012, Helen Glover has been the only constant in an unbeatable women’s pair.
Helen Glover

When Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won Team GB’s first gold medal of the London 2012 Olympics, many people were hearing their names for the first time.

The pair had not lost a race throughout the 2012 World Cup season, but had won no major titles and were overshadowed by a host of better-known names in a stellar British rowing squad. 

Fast-forward to the 2015 European Championships, which begin in Poland on Friday, and Glover and Stanning represent one of the most dominant forces in world rowing. They have not lost a race since 2011, but the journey to this point has not been without its dramas. After London 2012, Stanning returned to her day job as a captain in the Royal Artillery, leaving Glover to win world gold with new partner Polly Swann in 2013.

Stanning’s subsequent return in December that year meant difficult decisions had to be made about the future of the British women’s pair. 

“It’s the brutal side of sport,” says Glover with a deep sigh. Despite finishing the season unbeaten alongside Glover, Swann was ousted. Stanning returned to the pair in 2014, and they have hardly looked back since. They broke a 12-year-old world record to win gold at the World Championships last August [pictured, above, when they went three seconds quicker than the time set by Romania in 2002]. But, says Glover, past performances count for little when there is an Olympics looming large on the horizon.

Do the European Championships have any bearing on qualification for Rio?
“No, but they are a good taster as to how likely Olympic qualification will be for each crew. The Europeans is also our first chance to get an idea of how we’re doing internationally. Because we race only three or four times a year, and only in the summer, there’s around 10 months of the year when you don’t have a clue what anyone else is doing. People can change so much over the winter that the previous time you raced them has no bearing on the next time. From what we’ve seen online from other countries, though, it’s definitely going to be a much tougher year.”

Given your dominance, is it important for your motivation to think that way? 
“It’s important to keep yourself on your toes, but I’ve always known this would be the year when people would put pressure on us and look to become dominant over the major medals leading up to the Olympics. It was roughly this time four years ago that people were starting to build their momentum for London. And it didn’t matter what they had done in previous years – it was about this time that the pressure started to build and people started to get a sense of what their Olympic performance was going to be like.”

With Heather Stanning returning to the Army after London 2012, what was the post-Olympic period like?
“The first time I experienced any kind of uncertainty was going into 2013, because I didn’t know who I was going to row with or what boat I was going to be in. Before, I knew what I wanted – and that was to row with Heather in a pair. But it was actually quite nice. Even though I felt like I was under more pressure and it was stressful, it actually made me feel quite empowered. It showed I could overcome problems and not just rely on one formula that I know works. If Heather had just come back and not gone away, it would have been easy – and probably what I’d have chosen at the time. But now I’m glad it happened the way it did.”

How tough was it for you to see Polly Swann ousted when you and she had enjoyed so much success in 2013? 
“It’s so tough. It’s the brutal side of sport. When you go into professional sport you say: ‘That’s just part of it.’ But when you see it happen to someone you’ve worked so hard with and like so much it’s heart-wrenching. I just had to stay as impersonal to it all as I could and let the coaches make the final decision. Polly’s an incredible athlete and I know that whatever boat she goes into she will improve it – but yes, it’s a really tough side of sport.”

You started the year by winning the women’s singles title at the GB Rowing team’s winter assessment. How does that compare to the pair?
“It’s very different. I used to be a runner, and it takes me back to my athletic days. It takes an almost selfish, ruthless mentality. Whereas as soon as you go in the boat with anyone else, it’s much more of a teamwork kind of thing. A lot of people who are good in crew boats aren’t good in a single, and vice versa. But I think the reason I’ve managed to have a bit of success is because I have done some training in a solo sport and know how to get the best out of myself.”

Which is how, exactly?
“It’s about being good at self-talk. Everyone can train really well. But, when it comes to racing in the single, it’s the people who can convince themselves they can push that bit harder. You have to be able to big yourself up, but also be quite hard on yourself. I’m not afraid to tell myself it’s not good enough and I need to do more, even though that can be tough after five minutes of hard racing when you still have two minutes left.” 

When was the last time you didn’t win a race? 
“The last time Heather and I lost in our pair was in 2011, when we came second at the worlds. We’d had a really good season and won every race, but when we got to the worlds we both got a stomach bug. We were absolutely gutted at the time, but I think it was actually a good thing for us because it was the year before the Olympics and it meant that there was no pressure on us.”

But you have been quoted as saying you want to get to Rio unbeaten...
“To be unbeaten would clearly be an ideal situation, but it’s not essential. You could win every single race for the next year but, if you lose in Rio, those races don’t matter. I would much rather get beaten now, learn something and come away as the Olympic champion. It would be really tiring to try and not let myself become vulnerable. I’d get to Rio and be wiped out. So I’d be lying if I said the unbeaten run wasn’t something I’d love, but my logical brain knows it’s not the thing I have to focus on.”