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Gary Neville takes aim at Premier League defending, media mania and London restaurant prices
Gary Neville

Gary Neville is a man of many talents: musician, hotelier, England coach and the sharpest football pundit in the business – and a business that deals largely in blunt trauma, at that.

Sport meets the former right-back a few days after he accompanied The Charlatans on guitar for a few songs at a gig on the rooftop five-a-side pitch of a hotel he co-owns with other members of Manchester United’s all-conquering Class of ’92. The hotel stands in the shadow of Old Trafford, but Neville has done a brilliant job of emerging from that shadow in the four years he has been working on Sky’s football coverage.

“That’s what I intended to do,” the 40-year-old tells us towards the end of a typically open and honest interview about the past and future of the Premier League.

You picked Kevin Keegan’s meltdown as one of your three biggest Premier League moments. Does coverage of the game focus more on characters now than it used to?
“Football has always been about characters. If you think back to [Brian] Clough and [Bill] Shankly, and all the great characters and managers before the Premier League, I don’t think it’s just been since the Premier League. What happens now is that the big moments are always captured, so there is no escape for any player on the pitch doing anything; there is no escape after the game for managers. Every facial expression, everything they write is captured. What that probably means is there is less character in some of the things… there are less surprising things said now than maybe [there was] 15 or 20 years ago, because everyone is a little bit more careful – a lot more aware of image. One bad interview as a manager can cost you; one bit of ill discipline by a player off the ball and you can be banned for 10 matches.”

Is there too much scrutiny on players now? Take Jack Wilshere being fined for swearing on Arsenal’s FA Cup trophy tour...
“When Jack Wilshere swore on a bus ride, I actually thought it was one of the best things I’ve seen from a football player in the past five or 10 years. If I was a manager of players that all had that passion... Alright, they’d obviously been out the night before. But the reality of it is we cry out for players to have passion, and yet we are quite critical of them when they display passion.”

You were no stranger to that kind of passion.
“There were moments in my career where I… overstepped the mark. I actually challenged every FA charge I had, so that’s the difference. Jack apologised and took the punishment!”

Is part of the problem that there’s so little access to players these days, and so much space to fill? Everything is therefore blown out of proportion, which only makes players more reluctant to speak to the media.
“I think we’ve gone through a period – my genuine feeling is that players were probably friends with the press maybe 25 years ago. “when jack wilshere swore on a bus ride, i thought it was one of the best things i’d seen from a player in the last 10 years” I think it got to a point of deep mistrust through the 1990s and 2000s, and I think what we’re now seeing is actually a higher expectation on players – that, actually, it’s part of your job. So we’re coming out the other side. I think the fan now is less interested in the juice and more interested in the detail, and I think the trust is coming back.”

But take the recent headlines about Raheem Sterling (laughing gas) or Jack Grealish (drunk on holiday), for example. What incentive do those players have to ever speak to the media?
“The reality is that you’ve got to separate the two – you’ve got to separate what happens in your private life and what happens in your professional life. You’re dealing with two very different sets of press, and they’ll still know that they have to speak about football when they get to their clubs and their country.”

Do you think Raheem Sterling is worth £50m?
“If you asked me: ‘Is any player worth £50m?’ I’d say no. But the reality of it is every player is worth what someone is willing to pay. Do you think your fillet steak is worth 25 quid when you go to a restaurant in London? I go to London, I pay £28 for a rib-eye steak. Do I think that’s worth it? No! I can get one for five quid in a supermarket! Is anything worth anything? The whole world has gone mad – football has seen the greatest increase [in terms of the perceived value of everything] that people are aware of, but people never complain about motor racing or baseball or basketball, tennis, golf. But football, maybe because it’s seen as a working-class sport…”

Has money been the biggest change in the past 20 years?
“No. It’s a big change, but other changes are as big: sport science, fitness, the increased presence of agents, the changing of the way players learn and how managers have to approach them compared to 20 years ago. Boots, the science behind football kits...”

Have we reached a peak in terms of fitness and the quality of players at the top level?
“No. No. That’s like saying the world 100m record will never be broken. It will. Science will never stand still. Ultimately, players will run further, they’ll run faster. Skill has never changed, but what I think the modern player is able to do now is perform their skill at a quicker speed, because the nutrition and sports science knowledge base is so much greater.”

Would you support more technology to help referees? How would you like to see it used?
“I would be in favour of more. I like the idea of a challenge rule. Not every decision, but I like the idea of a captain being able to challenge – it would have to be the captain, because the manager could have a member of staff in the stands coming down to him. I like tennis, I like cricket [where players can ask for a television review] – I think it works, it adds drama and I like the idea of adding a bit more drama. Where I do see a problem, and I can see people’s argument, is that it’s not implementable at grassroots level.”

Would you wait for the ball to go out of play?
“I don’t think so. I’d say it has to be an instant challenge, within three or four seconds. Because if you wait a minute, the communication will come from the crowd or from the analysis guy. Sendings-off and penalties you could almost always do, because the game is stopped anyway.”

What are the tactical trends of recent years?
“We’ve seen a lot of teams trying different systems, all the time. Certain teams settle on a system, but other clubs change theirs every week. The biggest trend in the Premier League is a lot of clubs copying Barcelona by the way they split their centre-backs to what I would call a ludicrous degree – five yards off the touchline. I’m watching players who haven’t got the ability to pass it five yards dropping five yards off the touchline and thinking they can play it out from the back, with goalkeepers who aren’t capable. When you have [Marc-Andre] Ter Stegen in goal, or [Victor] Valdes, with Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets, I get it. But you do it with some of the players that I’ve watched do it in the past three or four years, and it’s an absolute nonsense. That’s my little dig…”

Has that contributed to higher scorelines?
“Managers, players, coaches, teams and fans all want more risk, and I genuinely believe that the standard of defending in the past three or four years in the Premier League has been reflected through the performances of our teams in Europe. This is not just an old defender who’s retired, whinging. We have a massive problem at the moment with the standard of our game – it’s a different level in some European teams than at Premier League level. Look, it could be cycles – we will come out of it, I’m sure. But we’re going through a really poor period.”

That’s coming out of quite a defensive era, probably kick-started by Jose Mourinho...
“And Rafa Benitez, yeah. The reality of it is, if you don’t defend well, you’re going to find it very difficult to win the European Cup. I think Jose Mourinho is starting to bring it back, to a level. My hope was he was going to go away and blitz the Premier League by 25 points, and then everyone else thinks: ‘Right, I’ve got to go away and get up to that standard.’ That’s what could happen in this next couple of years. I think him being in the league is a big positive, I genuinely do. I think Louis van Gaal being in the league is a big positive, because they’ll push each other.”

Has the way we watch football changed?
“Fans do want to know why a goal happened now. They want to know who was out of position, who was at fault, and why. Why did the team get outpassed by 56 per cent to 44 per cent, when they didn’t the week before? Broadcasting puts analytical stuff back into the game as well – some of the camera angles that we have with Sky, there’s no football club that could possibly have the material that we have. Maybe Manchester City have that level of technical support.”

So what do you look out for when you’re doing a co-commentary or analysis?
“Patterns. That’s all I look out for: patterns. If something happens once, I forget about it. But if I see patterns – a player doing a certain thing, a unit doing a certain thing, a certain player playing a certain type of pass all the time. It’s quite simple. One word.” Why can’t all the other pundits do that? “You need to go and ask them.”

Gary Neville’s biggest Premier League moments

“One has to be the Steve Bruce header [in added time, giving Manchester United a crucial win in the 1993 title run-in] against Sheffield Wednesday – that will live in my memory forever because that’s the year United won the league for the first time [in 26 years], and it was the first Premier League season.

I suppose you always think of that Kevin Keegan interview [in 1996]. I think of that as being the beginning of mind games – manager vs manager. That was a huge moment for Sky, for television, for football.

Then I would say the Sergio Aguero goal, last minute at the Etihad [to beat QPR to claim Manchester City’s first Premier League title, in 2012]. Horrific moment for me – one of the biggest moments, but not a good one. I was at the Etihad, stood at the window with about 5,000 City fans to my right screaming, veins popping out of their necks, jumping on top of each other. It went from the best place in the world to be, with United winning the league, to possibly the worst.

Those three moments are the ones that stand out – one good one, one dramatic one, and the third one was traumatic.”

Choose your greatest Premier League moments from the last 23 seasons at SkySports.com/PLmoments

MMA superstar Ronda Rousey on talking trash, falling in love with 18,000 people and why the Joker wins over Batman
Ronda Rousey

The best athletes graft, strive and hone their skills in order to reach the top of their sport.

Ronda Rousey has had to do all this – and generate and grow a sport around herself at the same time. Five years ago, she was a judo athlete who had won World Championship silver and Olympic bronze medals (remarkable success for a US judoka) embarking on a career in mixed martial arts. Nobody knew who she was. Nobody gave a shit about her sport.

Want proof? Dana White, president of by far the biggest organisation in MMA – the Ultimate Fighting Championship – looked down a TV camera in 2011, after being asked when we would see women fight in the UFC, and replied: “Never.” Today, Rousey is easily the most famous crossover star the UFC has, its most dominant champion and – by most recent estimates – its biggest current pay-per-view draw. Some turnaround.

So, was creating a niche for herself in the sporting world actually a tougher challenge for the 28-year-old Rousey than any fight she has gone through in the octagon?

“Not the toughest, but it required the most creativity,” she says in a warm southern California drawl. “I really had to look at: what is the difference between men’s and women’s MMA? Because there were great women’s MMA fighters, but no one cared about their fights. Then I started paying attention to the fact that the guys’ fights have storylines. They had protagonists and antagonists, power battles and arguments. That would sell the fight.

“I figured out that I have to somehow make a fight between me and someone become personal to people sitting on the couch. It’s not about making everybody like you. It’s not about being Miss America. Everybody was trying to be Batman [the hero], but there were no Jokers. And The Joker is the most interesting character in the story! If you think about it: the protagonist does nothing until the antagonist shows up and forces there to be a story. But everybody was so scared of criticism that no one wanted to assume that role. And, after being booed in about 30 countries [as part of the US judo team], it was not too hard to take on that role. I didn’t really care.

“The way that I associated success was: if I walk into a fight to booing, then I walk out and everyone is smiling, I did a good job. Or, if I walk in and they’re booing and I walk out and they’re booing even louder, I did a fantastic job.

“Then I was thinking that there’s advantages to being a woman, because there are even more things that you can do to get attention. Everyone is always like: ‘Are things so bad that you have to play up the looks side of things in order to get more attention for your sport?’ I’m like: ‘No – I just think it’s awesome that I even have the option to play up the looks side, so I can get more attention for my sport.’ A lot of the dudes don’t even have that option!

“Now I’m at the point where I don’t have to, which is cool. But, y’know, I really feel like I’ve found my nitch [sic] and I like it.”

Strike one

Let’s rewind. Before she learned how to sell a fight, Rousey had to learn how to fight. Or at least, how to hit. “Learning striking,” she says when asked about the biggest challenge she faced when going from judo to MMA. 

“A lot of people would look at my training and say: ‘Oh, you’re gonna forget your judo – all you do is strike, all the time.’ I’m like: ‘Forget my judo?! That’d be like forgetting how to walk because I’ve been sitting in bed for a week.’ A mistake a lot of people in MMA make when they come from another sport is they really specialise. I wanted to throw myself entirely into everything that made me uncomfortable. I wanted to fall in love with everything that I was bad at, until I was the best at it.”

Rousey wasn’t the complete package back in 2012 – but an opportunity came along in March of that year that propelled her career upwards. She was fighting for MMA organisation Strikeforce when a bout was arranged between her and the company’s highest-profile female fighter, 135lb champion Miesha Tate.

Social media spats, heated radio interviews and fiery head-to-head meetings stoked their feud. Their headline fight was a major success: both commercially and, for Rousey, professionally. She won via her now trademark armbar submission four minutes and 27 seconds into the first round (pictured below).

“She’s a rock star, man,” assessed Dana White, presumably struggling to talk through mouthfuls of humble pie. After just one further Strikeforce fight, Rousey became the first female fighter signed to the UFC in November 2012. The company created a woman’s bantamweight division and world title, purely so that Rousey could come and defend it against the world’s best. To give White his due, he has no qualms now in openly accepting that he was wrong about women in the UFC. 

But for Rousey, as an up-and-coming fighter in 2011, was it not disheartening to hear MMA’s most powerful mover and shaker say that female fighters would never appear in his company?

“I felt like he was entitled to think that, because he didn’t have the information in front of him to make an accurate assessment,” she says. “He saw one women’s MMA fight years ago; it was a really lopsided mismatch and it really soured his view of it. I always thought that he’s a very smart, rational businessman – and he only thinks that women’s MMA isn’t viable because he hasn’t met me yet. And, lo and behold, when I was able to meet him, his mind started to change.”

Rousey and White have forged a close working dynamic – although neither could have foreseen how rapidly her unbeaten run in the octagon has seen her cross over into the mainstream fame. She’s modelled; hit Hollywood, with acting roles in Expendables 3, Entourage and the seventh film of the Fast & Furious series; and built up millions of followers on Twitter and Instagram. She’s also had an autobiography (My Fight, Your Fight) published, which charts her life story.

Whether it’s her childhood undergoing speech therapy, the loss of her father at the age of eight, her bulimia while struggling to make weight in her early judo days, or her let’s say ‘colourful’ dating history, it’s an engagingly candid read. But then, Rousey isn’t shy about opening up.

Rousey vs Hogan

“Yep, that’s right. I slept with Hulk Hogan.” An image to conjure with, but Rousey is referring to the Hulk Hogan Wrestling Buddy: a two-foot pillow version of the Hulkster from which a three-year-old Ronda was inseparable. She appeared at WrestleMania 31 in March 2015, an event that also featured Hogan. So, having slept with him, did she finally get to talk to him?

“I still haven’t met him!” she says, sounding exasperated. “I saw him walk out at WrestleMania – and I flipped out! I lost my mind. I knew that I was about to be a part of the show later, but nobody else knew [Rousey made a ‘surprise’ entrance from the crowd]. So I didn’t get to meet him.” 

Rousey’s brief team-up with The Rock produced a huge pop from the 70,000+ audience. “I enjoyed it way too much to never go back – I just don’t know how soon that is.” she says of her future WWE plans. “Scheduling is the number one challenge in my life. 

“Also, it’s funny. Everyone thinks of Dana as this big hard-ass, but he treats me like I’m a porcelain doll. He’s so worried about everything I do all the time. I sent him a video of me by an explosion in Expendables 3 and he’s like: ‘Oh my God! Why did you do that?’ Relax – it’s fake! He just worries that I’ll get hurt or injured, whereas I’m crazy enough where I’m like: I wanna skydive, I wanna bungee- jump, I wanna wrestle...”

There is, however, a more serious health threat that Rousey is continually vocal about: the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs.

“I’ve fought plenty of people who were doping – if you think every single Olympic athlete is clean, you’re crazy,” she says. “And I was just taught that: you need to be able to be so good, that you can beat anyone despite the advantages they have that they haven’t earned. But that being said, I still think taking steroids in a combat sport is criminal.

“Because in boxing, six people die a year, I think, on average – and in MMA we haven’t had it happen yet. But if people will keep taking steroids, the danger gets higher and higher. And one day, if anybody ever dies in that cage, it could be because the other person was taking steroids. That’s brutal. You could almost call it negligent homicide, because someone took a weapon into that cage and they have hurt you with something that legally they weren’t supposed to. I just really hope that never happens. It would be so bad for sport – and I really believe that everyone who competes with honour will suffer for it.”

Grudge match

She might be happy to play the pre-fight antagonist, but Rousey lists only two occasions when an MMA bout has become truly personal to her: 

“The second time around with Miesha [their 2013 rematch] became like that – and this time with Bethe Correia [above] is definitely like that.”

You might assume that Rousey is simply promoting her next fight against the undefeated Brazilian. But Correia’s pre-fight trash talk, alluding to driving Rousey to the point of suicide, has struck a nerve. Rousey’s father, who she recalls in her book with great affection, suffered a horrific back injury when she was young. After years of living with chronic pain, knowing the condition was gradually killing him, he took his own life.

How does Rousey respond to comments like the ones from Correia? “I use them as motivation,” she replies. “I made my statement: I sent it out on Twitter so that no one would have to ask me about it – and the way I respond to it is I beat the shit out of her on August 1st. In front of my family. Who will think it’s hilarious.”

Rousey’s bold pre-fight statements are designed, in part, to heap expectation upon her own shoulders. “I need that pressure,” she says. “A lot of people speak in a way that they are giving themselves a way out, so they have something to fall back on. They say: ‘I’m just gonna try my best,’ so if they lose they just say: ‘Oh well, I tried my best.’ I don’t want that. I wanna paint myself into a corner. I want the only option to be that I win.”

Slice of reality

Rousey shrugs off suggestions that her outside-of-the-octagon activities are a distraction to that goal: “I was working up to three jobs – bartending and more, while training full time for first my year in MMA. It’s not that I have more work now; I just have different, more glamorous work.”

She also claims that her career and profile taking off outside of sport has intensified her focus on MMA.

“Because it’s the most real thing in my life,” she explains. “I mean, you can fight somebody in a movie or [get] a picture of yourself looking pretty – but nothing is ever going to be as real and as present as ultimate fighting to me. Even doing crazy stunts or really high-level wrestling – they’re awesome, but nothing is as real as a fight. And I think that’s what helps me to retain my sanity, despite all of the chaos going on around me.”

Rousey describes the feeling of winning as euphoric. “Every title fight, right afterwards, I feel like I just fell in love with everybody in the room. Even if they’re booing me! You feel like you just fell head over heels for 18,000 people all at once. That buzz doesn’t last forever, but that one little moment, it defines me. I walk on sunshine for, like, a week afterwards. I float. And I don’t know how I’ll be able to accept it when it gets to the point where I have to get on with my life and not be chasing that high.”

It’s a pertinent point. Rousey is at her athletic peak at age 28, but prize fighters in particular often struggle to adapt to life when their bodies are no longer capable of doing the thing that’s defined them for so long. Is the fact that Rousey can go on chasing that buzz only for so long something she tries not to dwell on?

“I actually think about that so much,” she says. “That’s why I do all the acting and the stuff outside MMA – so that I have some other quest to go on afterwards. I don’t think anything will ever beat fighting, but I won’t be back bartending again.”

It seems unlikely. But, even if she did, that’s probably not a bar you’d want to start any trouble in. 

My Fight, Your Fight (Official UK Edition) by Ronda Rousey, published by Century, £14.99 

Sport’s under-appreciated overachievers
The Great Unloved

Has Sport taken leave of our senses?

Can we really claim that in the realm of the pampered, hero-worshipped sporting superstars, there are some in Britain who are actually underappreciated? You bet. Because, for every hyped-yet-average Premier League prima donna or ‘personality’ competitor whose outspoken character far exceeds their talent, there’s a counterweight. The athletes who, despite a terrific CV, haven’t quite won public hearts. They’re the disliked, the undervalued or – even worse – the barely known. Not for any of these high achievers a top-three place at the Sports Personality of the Year Awards (with one notable exception). But we’re here to tell you why they deserve acclaim – and offer a few tips on how they can get it.

Chris Froome

The perception

Not as funny as Bradley ‘Wiggo’ Wiggins. Not as exciting as Mark ‘Cav’ Cavendish. ‘Fro’ – as he’s never known – has a bland face to match his bland personality. Sure, he’s just won the Tour de France for the second time, but half the people there watching seem to think he’s cheating – and is he even British anyway? Wasn’t he born and brought up in Kenya? Screw it: let’s watch Wiggo’s hour world record attempt instead.

The reality

Has won two Tours de France in three years, which makes him indisputably the best road cyclist in the world. And does it matter that he was born in Kenya (to British parents)? That makes him more English than half the England cricket team. Probably. A nice guy paying for the sins of some real cheating bastards, Froome and Team Sky are going out of their way to try to show that he’s doing all this 100 per cent clean.

The solution

Grow a pair of mutton chop sideburns. No, Froome will never be a Wiggins – as with his racing, this will have to be a triumph of attrition. Has just won the Tour de France through fan piss and spit, which surely sells his grit. But if he can show, over the long term, that his performances are on the level, he could be the dominant winner of a new, cleaner era for his sport. The saviour of modern cycling? Sounds good to us.

Stuart Broad

The perception

It’s not that StuBro is disliked (outside of Australia), more that he isn’t really adored either. Fine, he’s not a cricket folk hero like Ian Botham or Freddie Flintoff – few are. But he doesn’t even seem as appreciated as bowling partner Jimmy Anderson, who at least has his own crowd song. Has he been too mercurially inconsistent? Or does the handsome blondie seem too well-marketed – even smug – for UK tastes?

The reality

Broad is already an England great. At age 29, he has around 300 Test wickets at an average under 30; he’s capable of matchwinning spells of hostile fast bowling and he slashes aggressively – if erratically – with the bat. He rises to a challenge and was one of very few England cricketers to perform with credit in the 2013/14 Ashes down under. He’s also an articulate, rather amusing chap in interviews.

The solution

Slim chance of Broad being any less fiery, competitive and – dare we say it – Aussie-like on the pitch. Frankly, we wouldn’t change this about him anyway. Could his public image simply appear too slick? Maybe we just love a glaring flaw to humanise our cricketing heroes in Blighty. If so, the England cricket team is off to South Africa in the winter: time to get liquored up and jump aboard a pedalo, Broady.

Wayne Rooney

The perception

Touted early on as England’s answer to Messi or a Ronaldo (either vintage), but has ultimately proved a disappointment. A fine striker who’s never maximised his raw talent because of a thuggish temperament/hot-and-cold scoring streaks/big-stage fright (internationally) or a less-than-Spartan lifestyle: delete as applicable. Allegedly held his current club to ransom over his wages, which he then spent on Weetabix hair.

The reality

Will almost certainly end his playing career as Manchester United and England’s all-time top goalscorer. For those who say he doesn’t do it when it counts: he’s already top scorer in competitive England games (ie. ones that actually matter) with 34 goals. Without Rooney, England really might not have even qualified for some of the big tournaments that they have, admittedly, flopped in. Has won it all at club level.

The solution

Making a major impact at an international tournament for the first time since Euro 2004 would silence many doubters. However, it might also help if his PR reins were loosened a little. Sport has interviewed Wazza and he is – genuinely – one of the more down-to-earth, likeable and honest footballers out there. If Joe Public saw a bit more of that, they might warm to him again. We can’t defend that thatch, mind.

Christine Ohuruogu

The perception

Forgetful 400m runner who was suspended from competition after missing three out-ofcompetition drug tests in 2005/06 (the last one because she failed to inform testers of a last-minute change of training venue after a double-booking). Also, the cheery but slightly distant Ohuruogu has simply never warmed public cockles in the way the likes of Jess Ennis-Hill or Paula Radcliffe have.

The reality

Has had more gold around her neck than Mr T. An Olympic gold-medallist, a two-time world champion and more, her wins often coming via dramatic, last-gasp finishes. When she appealed her ban, both Europe’s Court of Arbitration for Sport and an Independent Committee emphasised that there was: “No suggestion, nor any grounds for suspicion, that the offence may have been deliberate in order to prevent testing.”

The solution

No matter what any committee says, the taint of her missing tests will always be in the minds of some doubters. She can do nothing about that now. It isn’t too late, however, for Ohuruogu to add to her already staggering medal collection. She will be 32 at Rio 2016 and, if she can be one of those rare bunch who medals at a third Olympics, it will hammer the message home: this is one of Britain’s all-time great athletes.

Chris Robshaw

The perception

There’s a school of thought that Mr Robshaw is in the England rugby team only because he’s captain. He leads by example, but his ability to cover the entire back-row has seen him play out of position, and – altogether now – “England need an out-and-out seven”. Rucking, mauling and tackling is fine, but where are the massive carries, the tries and the Hollywood moments?

The reality

The stats don’t lie, as Shakira almost sang: Robshaw consistently tops workrate charts (he led England’s 2015 Six Nations tackle count with 82), and Stuart Lancaster has never wavered from his captaincy choice. Robshaw has led England back to the top of the world game and his ability to play as a ‘false 10’ is second to none. Richard Hill was the quiet man of England’s 2003 World Cup success, and Robshaw is becoming a similar figure. The team is poorer without him.

The solution

Lifting the World Cup aside, it’s hard to work out just how Robbo can win over his doubters. Maybe it’s his straight-talking seriousness that people dislike, and the fact he toes the party line perhaps stands him out as the teacher’s pet a bit too often. Have a go at the regime a bit more, Chris, that’ll show everyone. Failing that, just jump off a ferry or go throw some dwarves. Hell, if you can’t beat ’em...

James DeGale

The perception

Either one of an Olympic gold medal or a boxing world title has been many an athlete’s ticket to fame and glory. DeGale owns both of these – yet his profile is a problem. In that he doesn’t have one. The wider public simply don’t know who he is, while boxing fans were turned off by his cocky cock act before his 2011 fight with bitter rival George Groves. He also wasted years treading (Blue)water with curious, shopping-centre bouts.

The reality

Has been boxing beautifully after an overdue groin operation in late 2013. His pro record is 21-1 (that ‘1’ being his hotly disputed points loss to Groves) and his previous win was easily the best of his career. He floored the tricky American Andre Dirrell twice early on, before gutting it out late, to win a version of the super-middleweight world title on US soil in May 2015. Sure, he’s a bit mouthy – but he is a Londoner, innit.

The solution

In the wise words of Mortal Kombat: “Fight!” DeGale needs big fights pronto if he’s to fill the gap left by Carl Froch as Britain’s supermiddleweight superstar. A rematch with Groves – if he wins his own world-title showdown in September – offers multiple benefits to DeGale. It’s an opportunity for revenge in a high-profile unification fight, and a chance to show that he’s not really the tool he acted four years back.

Lewis Hamilton

The perception

Murray Walker once described Nigel Mansell as having the British public “by the throat”, so much did we care about the mustachioed driver’s results. Britain prefers to keep Hamilton at arm’s length, eyeing him suspiciously. He’s always been fast, but he’s also an arrogant, image-obsessed chump who only requires a pet chimp and to drive in one rhinestone-encrusted glove to complete his transition to full-blown oddity.

The reality

Has graduated from quick but reckless into becoming the best driver in Formula 1. Makes brave moves stick on and off the track (it’s easy to forget how many people criticised his leaving McLaren for Mercedes, which now looks a masterstroke). Prone to the odd foot-in-mouth gaffe, but that’s partly because he’s passionate and often speaks before he thinks. Hang on, isn’t that what the sometimes dull F1 world needs?

The solution

Do nothing. Hamilton is the ‘exception’ we mentioned at the start – the reigning SPOTY is and always will be a marmite character. There’s millions worldwide who love his style and a great number of racing fans who will just never warm to him. But you know what? They all have an opinion on him. He might never be loved like Mansell or Damon Hill, but Mr H.A.M. is carving out his own niche. Let’s hope he never changes.

Not Ronnie O’Sullivan

The perception

You look up and see the snooker is on TV. Is Ronnie playing? If so, stay with it. If not, flick over to Fish’O’Mania. Snooker’s golden age is long gone and only O’Sullivan – even at 39, erratic and threatening to quit as often as he sinks reds – is worth watching. Mark Selby? Boring. Shaun Murphy? Boring. That bloke who won the World Championship and then said: “Winner winner, chicken dinner”? Boring – and a crap speech.

The reality

It takes two to tango, and world number one Selby has had some ding-dong, down-to-thelast- frame thrillers with O’Sullivan. And if his attritional play doesn’t appeal, Murphy boasts a smooth, attacking style. Judd Trump, meanwhile, has the most jaw-dropping long-pot power that snooker has ever seen. World champ Stuart Bingham might not be a man you’d trust with a wedding speech, but he’s a stand-out gent.

The solution

If you’re not a wildly charismatic type like O’Sullivan, Alex Higgins or Jimmy White, two things get you noticed in snooker: domination or rivalries. None of the Brits above have really managed to build a triumphant legacy – and it might be that modern competition levels make that impossible. So, failing that, a few feuds might stoke things up. Trump and fiery Aussie Neil Robertson in a few more big finals, please.

Greg Rutherford makes his first appearance at London’s Olympic Stadium since 2012 this weekend. But his focus is on making it four golds from four major championships
Greg Rutherford

Next month, Greg Rutherford will aim to make history at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing.

He will also be out to erase the bad memories from the previous time he competed in a major championship at the Bird’s Nest: the 2008 Olympic long jump final. Stood on the runway preparing for his opening leap, Rutherford was suffering. He had felt the physical pain of ruptured ligaments and tendons before. But this time it was not his body that was in agony – it was his mind.

“I was a drained, emotional wreck,” he recalls when Sport spends a morning with him at the cottage he shares with his girlfriend, nine-month-old baby Milo and three man-sized dogs. Shortly before the Great Britain team left for Beijing in 2008, Rutherford’s grandfather – with whom he had always been tremendously close – passed away. Under the heightened stress of his first Olympic final, the then 21-year-old went to pieces. He recorded a no-jump, then a disappointing 5.20m, and finally registered a relatively average 7.84m to finish 10th. In a results-driven business, Rutherford’s performance was labelled as another disappointment for an athlete whose career seemed destined to become a story of what might have been.

Four years later, Rutherford tore up the script, winning Britain’s first Olympic long jump gold in 48 years at London 2012.

“Nobody expected me to win this,” he beamed on a surreal Saturday night in Stratford. “I think it was just me who thought I could be Olympic champion. This is just the start for me. I want to become double-Olympic champion, triple-Olympic champion, five-time world medallist. These five years, I want them to be my glory years.”

Rutherford’s high lasted just a few months before the departure of his coach Dan Pfaff (the man he credits with turning him into an Olympic champ), a ruptured hamstring and the return of his doubters threatened to derail his golden plans. But last year saw the Olympic champ get back on track. By the end of 2014, Rutherford had set a new British long jump record, in San Diego, and added two more gold medals to his tally by winning the Commonwealth and European titles. He also became a father for the first time when he and girlfriend Susie welcomed baby Milo into the world in October.

All of which means that, as Rutherford starts his build-up to the competition that could deliver him a unique full house of gold medals (Olympic, European, Commonwealth and world), he is an entirely different athlete to the one who “buggered it up entirely” in Beijing seven years ago. He remains hungry for success, however – mainly because he feels there are many who still believe his Olympic victory was a fluke.

“It’s about proving myself again,” says Rutherford, who is determined to win over the doubters. After all, he’s won almost everything else.

Ahead of Beijing, all the talk is about you potentially holding all four major titles. Is that important, or do you simply want to be world champion?
“It’s a mixture. I try not to get too hyped up about the things that come with holding all four at the same time. Ultimately, I don’t have a good reputation at the World Championships. I think fifth [in 2009] is the best I’ve ever done, and I normally get injured in qualification. So touch wood that doesn’t happen again. On one level it’s like proving myself again, because every time I win something I get called a fluke or something similar. I’m not sure what I’ve done to annoy people. But, whatever it is, it has cut them deep. I get a lot of stick.”

Do you find that stick comes from the general public, or from people within the sport?
“It’s a bit from the general public, but a lot of people within athletics as well. They always have a little dig at me. Things went so well for me in 2012; I won nearly every competition; I became world number one and won an Olympic title [above, right]. It was the best year of my career. Then, in 2013, because of circumstances I had no control over, I lost my coach, my physio, my set-up – it all disappeared. I also picked up a major injury, rupturing a hamstring. It all went wrong. I got slated beyond belief [after failing to qualify for the final at the World Championships in Moscow – not least from British rival Chris Tomlinson, who publicly declared he should have been granted the sole Team GB spot] and I thought it was incredibly unfair. It seems we are a country of building people up only to destroy them, and I’ve experienced it firsthand. It’s not nice. In the USA, if you do well, they champion you. Here it’s: ‘Yeah, you’ve done well, but keep quiet about it.’”

Do you think your achievements get overlooked because of the event you compete in?
Would it be different if you had won what you have in the 100m, for example? [Laughs] “Yeah, I’d be living in a mansion! Ultimately, long jump is never gonna be a blue-riband event like that. Obviously I think it’s great. But, when they show it on TV, the coverage is pretty awful. Nobody ever gets an idea of what’s actually going on and the battles happening out there. The 100m generally takes less than 10 seconds. We’re out there for an hour and a half and often five or six people will have been in the lead at some point, then others have to respond. But no one ever sees that. All they see is the odd athlete run down the runway and jump. The general public can’t relate to it. Everyone at school ran, but jumping is a bit of a niche thing – so we need to build it up. We need to show those head-tohead battles that are going on because I think that’s a bit more relatable to general life – rather than just showing who can jump the furthest.”

Do you think having a rival would help?
“That does help. In previous years there was me and Chris Tomlinson, and now Dan Bramble is coming through – but it’s still different. No disrespect to them, but if you’re really pushing the distances that I’ve been doing and bettering or equalling them, then it turns into a real rivalry like [Seb] Coe and [Steve] Ovett – with one person winning one week and someone else the next. That’s what you need for a real rivalry.”

This season is your first as a father. Has it had a big impact on how you train and prepare?
“Yes, from the point of view that I was so keen to have more things located closer to home. I used to travel into London and train with my group there. But on a bad day you spend three or four hours travelling and I don’t think you feel very good from that. Now I’ve got Milo, I wanted to be at home a bit more. So, naturally, you build a track and long jump pit in your garden. I started off by putting a gym in last year. It just has some weight plates, barbells and a rack, but it’s everything I need. Once the pit is finished I’ll be very self-sufficient and able to spend as much time as I can with Milo. The nice thing is that when I’m with him I’m completely switched off from the track. I think you need that.”

Will it be tough training on your own, as opposed to with a group?
“I do like having a group around me – it’s good for having a laugh and sharing the pain you sometimes go through. But I’ve been used to training on my own at different times of my career, so I’m not too worried about it. Motivation-wise, I never really struggle. And I’ll bring people in – either my coach, Jonas Dodoo [with whom Rutherford started working with at the end of 2013] or a biomechanic called Paul Brice, who’s worked with British Athletics for a long time – to keep an eye on my technical sessions. And I can always rope my dad in, too, because ultimately he’s been watching me since I was 10 years old – so he’s got a good idea of what things look like.”

You seem like an athlete who thrives on the big crowds and atmosphere of a major championship. Is that something that has developed over time?
“I actually found really quickly that I loved big stadiums and big crowds more than anything else. I’m quite good at separating myself from what’s going on. I tell myself that people aren’t really worried about me anyway. We do the long jump, there’s not many people watching, so it doesn’t matter. As a kid, I was in no way a performance type – if anything, I was usually hiding. Even now, when I have to give a speech or something, I get exceptionally nervous. But when it comes to jumping in front of a massive crowd – I think because I know it so well – I don’t get as nervous.”

Do you have to love having a crowd to do an event where the focus is only on you for a good 10 seconds at a time?
“Every time you step on the runway, it is just you. But what’s fascinating is you see other athletes who don’t enjoy it at all. They look like a rabbit in the headlights. There was an Australian called Chris Noffke who went to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. I remember being out there with him and the whole time he was really wide-eyed, saying: ‘I think I’ve forgotten how to jump.’ I could see the moment really getting to him. He was an incredible junior, but when it came to big crowds he didn’t respond well at all.”

You had junior success too, winning the European title and setting a British junior record [8.14m] in 2005. But after that you began to pick up injuries. How frustrating was that?
“It was incredibly tough. After 2005 went so well for me and, though 2006 started terribly [Rutherford tore his hamstring in the second round of the Commonwealth Games final in Melbourne], I went on to win a European silver medal and was still 19. I thought: ‘Brilliant, I’ve won my first senior medal and I’m still super young.’ I went on to say stupid things like: ‘I reckon I could probably jump nine metres.’ Then 2007 came about, and that was by far the worst year of my career. I ruptured an ankle ligament, which put me out for a long time. Then I came back and tore my hamstring a month before the World Championships in Osaka.”

But you were still selected for the GB squad...
“Yes, and because I was a bit young and naive I thought: ‘I’ll go anyway, I’ll be fine.’ But I got knocked out in qualifications, and finished 21st. That was a hard one to take. It just felt like a waste of my time. I’d spent a month away from home to crash out after three rounds and be an absolute joke, really. All because the injury had meant I’d hardly trained.”

When you suffer repeatedly from injuries like that, how hard is it to stay motivated?
Did you consider leaving the sport? “Completely. In early 2008, I was considering looking for a job in marketing or sales and started searching online a bit. I wasn’t happy at that point, and I wasn’t enjoying the sport at all. The scenario I was in at that time – coaching and where I was living – it didn’t work for me. I was training at Brunel and living in Uxbridge, where I didn’t know anyone. So I was just this incredibly sad young man, sitting in a flat, knowing nobody, doing nothing and constantly injured. It was because my grandad got seriously ill that things changed, because I moved back home so that I could visit him every day in hospital. It was a really tough time. I’d still train when I could, but to me it wasn’t important at that time.”

How did you turn things around?
“At the end of 2009, my racing agent took me to meet [American athletics coach] Dan Pfaff at this grimy Harvester restaurant near Lee Valley. I knew who Dan was and had read lots about him, but I was sitting there thinking that he’s come from California to this horrible restaurant in the middle of Picketts Lock with this kid going: ‘Can I please join you?’ He must be wondering: ‘What on earth am I doing?’ Fortunately, he said yes. It’s no lie to say that if Dan hadn’t come to the UK, there’s no chance in hell I’d have been the Olympic champion. He changed everything for me – my running mechanics and how I jump. I fell in love with the sport properly again after joining him, and that has followed through to today.”

Rochelle Gilmore on her passion for cycling and why, ahead of Sunday’s La Course, establishing a women’s Tour de France event never did run smooth
Rochelle Gilmore

This Sunday sees the second edition of La Course – the elite women’s race run by the organisers of the Tour de France – on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. It will finish shortly before Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome and their company of players bring the curtain down on the biggest event in cycling.

It is, says Rochelle Gilmore, former pro-rider, manager and owner of the Wiggle-Honda team, a midsummer afternoon’s dream scenario for women’s cycling.

“It’s massive for the sport because the women now have a Tour de France event, on the Champs-Elysees on the final day of the men’s Tour,” she says. “We couldn’t really ask for a better stage to perform on. So to achieve that was a huge step forwards in women’s cycling.

“It gives a lot of recognition to our sport. In comparison to the men’s Tour de France – yes, we have an event, it’s a professional sport, same structure. So it’s much easier to acquaint with men’s cycling.”

La Course will cover 89km over 12 laps of the Champs-Elysees before finishing, as the men’s will, in a bunch sprint. Straightforward enough, maybe. But, Gilmore explains, a lot of work went into getting it off the ground in the first place:

“There were a lot of petitions for many years, and a lot of female cyclists, fans and members of the public questioning: ‘Is there a women’s Tour de France?’ Or: ‘Why is there not?’

“So there was for many years women crying out for a Tour de France event. Obviously there’s a lot of challenges for the organisers, but the fact it was achieved last year is massive.

THE PRESSURE OF PUBLICITY

Emma Pooley, the British former time trial world champion and pro rider, told Sport last summer that La Course was the equivalent of having a 10km running race for women on the morning of the London Marathon. Does Gilmore agree?

“I can see her point of view, but instead of seeing the massive achievement that we’ve made, we’re asking for something that could take another five or 10 years,” she explains. “Which is to develop it into a full-size Tour. Women’s cycling is a much younger sport than men’s cycling, especially in terms of professional sport. We need time to develop – but if we continue to take steps every year, we’ll get to that point.

“And, if you talk to the women in the peloton, everybody is extremely happy with the calendar of races we have; we have enough tours that are long and difficult enough. We have a Giro d’Italia, a women’s Vuelta, Tour of California and a women’s Tour of Britain.

“The women’s Tour de France is something different for women than it is for men. For men, it’s a tour. For us, it’s a PR event that is the most prestigious race in the world. Everybody wants to win it. It has the biggest audience that we will ever have in cycling. The pressure is to win that race because it’s viewed by the most people.”

Gilmore does not, however, see La Course developing into a tour – or, at least, not yet.

“And I don’t see that as a problem for women’s cycling,” she explains. “Why not allow this event to be something very special – a one-day race – and if it’s logistically too difficult to expand into a tour, why not create another event?

“Race organisers and ASO [which organises the Tour de France] are very passionate about women’s cycling. We have the UCI [on board], we have a whole team of people working to further women’s cycling. This event is special the way it is. It’s super-special to race on the Champs- Elysees before the men come in. Do I want to see it develop into a longer tour? Of course I do. I’d like to see it be a 10-day tour. But that might require a different organisation, or a different location, or a different time on the programme – just because of the difficulties with logistics.

“It’s doable, but it’s going to be difficult to make it happen. The easy challenge is to put a new tour on somewhere else. But to run a women’s Tour de France event alongside the men’s is very challenging. If we do achieve that in the next five years, it’s a massive achievement.”

THE REALITY OF BUSINESS

One criticism of women’s cycling is that it cannot attract the same calibre of long-term sponsors as the men’s side of the sport. In Gilmore’s experience, she says, that’s not the case:

“We’re just coming to the end of three-year contracts with all of our partners, and it’s a renegotiation phase for the next three years. So keeping them in terms of having them come and say: ‘We definitely want to re-sign, let’s lock it in for another three years.’ That’s pretty much been a walk in the park. That means we were able to give return on investment to our sponsors. easier to achieve for a lot of teams.”

Gilmore says it has only recently hit home now, in her third year of running Wiggle-Honda, that she is running a business.

“It’s not a hobby, it’s not a hand-out,” she says. “It’s a business... I think I wanted to deny it for a long time because it’s my passion. I’m probably only now getting to the place where I’m not an elite athlete anymore. But I still find myself wanting so badly to be one of the riders on the bike. That will never leave me.”

Rochelle Gilmore is the owner and manager of British professional cycling team Wiggle-Honda. Sponsored by Wiggle – wiggle.co.uk

Allyson Felix on making the most of her talent, clean sport and returning to race in London
Allyson Felix

Legendary American distance runner Steve Prefontaine famously said: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

The quote is one of Allyson Felix’s favourites.

“I like that one,” Felix explains. “It’s really about taking advantage of every opportunity that you have, and really using the gifts that you have as well.”

Felix’s gift is for sprinting. She has four Olympic golds – three from London, in the 200m, 4x100m relay and 4x400m relay; one from Beijing, also in the 4x400m – and no fewer than eight World Championship gold medals (three in the individual 200m, the other five shared among the two relays) earned over a period stretching back to Helsinki in 2005.

Sport spoke with the 29-year-old prior to her second place in the 200m at the Birmingham Grand Prix, where she was beaten by fellow American Jeneba Tarmoh. Since then, she has won her 10th US Championship title with a 50.19s in the 400m, as well as running the third-fastest 200m of the year in Lausanne (she also has the fastest). This weekend, Felix comes bearing gifts to the Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford.

“I love competing in the UK. The atmosphere was amazing [at London 2012], and it’ll be great to be back – hopefully in front of another full house. I’m assuming I’ll run between the two and the four, but I always love coming here to compete. I have good memories here, the crowd are very knowledgable and are very passionate about the sport – so that makes it fun. I feel like I’ve seen pretty much most of the sights, and taken tours and things like that. It’s funny, Nando’s has become one of my favourite places to go when I come to London. So I always manage to make it there. I like the wings and I like spicy food, so I like to go pretty hot.”

“I’m impatient only when it comes to athletics. It’s very difficult to be patient. I think any athlete has a difficult time with that. You always want things to happen right away. For me, the 400m is about being more patient and allowing things to take place [at the right time] to be able to put a complete race together. The 400m is more of a strategy race; and the more you run it, the more comfortable you get with it.”

“I have a bye in the 200m [as winner of the 2014 IAAF Diamond League 200m] – that’s what I’m on the [World Championships] team for. If I’m able to make the team for the 400m as well, then I’ll have a decision to make. But, right now, I’m on the team for the 200m.”

“There’s always a lot of depth in competition. At 200m there’s definitely a lot of people in contention at the worlds: [Jamaica’s] Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, [Nigeria’s] Blessing Okagbare, if she does the 200m distance, is always in top form. There’s a lot of young people coming up as well. Shaunae Miller, from the Bahamas, posted a great time [at the Jamaica International Invitational, with a new Bahamian record of 22.14s, in May]. That’s the great thing about athletics – there’s always someone new.”

“I always have prayer with my mum before a race. Wherever – we’re not always together, but I always give her a call and we always have that time. That always helps me see the bigger picture. My faith is really important to me – I feel like there is a bigger purpose to my running, so that time is special. I still get the nerves, but that puts me in the right place moving into the race.”

“Right now, since nothing’s set in stone, I don’t feel too comfortable speaking on it [the allegations that Alberto Salazar bent anti-doping laws]. The right people are investigating it. And when the findings come out, I feel like I can talk about it. I understand I will be asked questions about it. I want to see our sport in a positive light, but it seems like there’s always something. It’s difficult to see something like that come up in your sport, because it definitely takes focus away from the positive things that are happening.”

“For me, my faith is so huge, that sort of path for me is just not an option. I came through at a young age, and Marion Jones was someone I looked up to. It was devastating to find out what had happened [Jones was stripped of her five Olympic medals after admitting, in 2007, to steroid use]. That’s a moment I’ll never forget.”

The Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games returns to London’s Olympic Stadium from July 24-26. Tickets are on sale at britishathletics.org.uk