Why we should all, for this season at least, be Middlesbrough fans

The world of football loves its fairytales. Castel di Sangro. The Miracle of Istanbul. Jimmy Glass. But for each last-gasp survival story, every ecstatic victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, somewhere there are also eleven men wandering aimless and heartbroken, or slumped down on the turf with their heads in their hands.

Last season should have been Middlesbrough’s fairytale, and it is a town and a team that could do with one. The football club had stood on the brink of liquidation in 1986, before being saved by a consortium led by 28-year-old home-town boy Steve Gibson. In 1997, it reached the FA and League Cup Finals and lost both, in a season which would also see relegation from the Premiership after the team was docked three points for pulling out of a game against Blackburn following a massive illness and injury crisis. Since its latest demotion from the top table in 2009, it has sat in the shadows and watched Newcastle and Sunderland drag the proud name of North East football down.

Meanwhile, the steel industry that kept the town afloat for so long has drifted into anachronism. The shedding of jobs over the course of a decade or so by first British Steel and then Corus in Teesside’s manufacturing heartlands seemed to have been staunched by a 2007 takeover by Indian giants Tata, but the following years have seen the drip-drip of redundancies continue, culminating in the mothballing of the Redcar plant two weeks back. An area that is, as actor Neil Grainger sang in his late-season motivational videos, “built on steel and iron” is on its last legs.

On the pitch, though, things seemed at last to be looking up. A team anchored by Ben Gibson, an England under-21 international and the chairman’s nephew, driven by a beard for the ages in Adam Clayton and spearheaded by the most likeable man to come out of Chelsea in decades, Patrick Bamford, had been up with the leaders all season, and with two games to go, remained in contention for automatic promotion. An agonising defeat at Fulham – a comeback with ten men from 3-1 down, foiled at the last after the hosts broke from a corner for which Boro keeper Dimi Konstantopoulos had been sent up – put paid to that; but a win over Brentford in the play-off semi-finals took them back to Wembley, where they would face a Norwich side they had beaten at Carrow Road barely a month earlier.

The Teessiders barely even turned up. On the back foot from the start after their bus to the stadium got stuck in the London traffic, they were 2-0 down within a quarter of an hour, Cameron Jerome capitalising on a mistake from former Norwich defender Daniel Ayala after 12 minutes, and Nathan Redmond slicing through the back line three minutes later.

Meanwhile, the man who could have topped off the fairytale, who had made what was meant to be his final home appearance with a few seconds as a substitute against Brentford at the Riverside Stadium the week before, sat glumly on the bench throughout.

The career of Jonathan Woodgate, born 35 years ago in the Middlesbrough suburb of Nunthorpe, has been an itinerant one. After starting out in the Boro youth team, he left for Leeds at 16, making his debut two years later and coming to be known as the ‘jewel in the crown’ from an academy that had produced players of the calibre of Paul Robinson, James Milner and Aaron Lennon. But as everything behind the scenes at Elland Road began to unravel in the early noughties, he was sold to Newcastle, whom he would help to the UEFA Cup semi-finals, and then on to Real Madrid.

Even then, however, his body was showing signs of the fragility that would never stop plaguing him. Already far from injury-free in England, he was forced by a series of niggles to wait over a year for a Real debut that was memorable for all the wrong reasons, and featured just 12 more times for Los Blancos before his first return to the Riverside in 2006. Back home, though, he blossomed, and within eighteen months, he had earned a move to Spurs.

Perhaps fittingly, the defining game of his career to date – his fifth for the North Londoners – was the first he had started at the top level alongside Ledley King.

John Obi Mikel – who played for Chelsea in the game in question – has, at the age of 28, two league titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, a Champions League and a Europa League to his name, not to mention the Africa Cup of Nations. Woodgate and King share their sole triumph, the 2008 League Cup that Tottenham Hotspur won in ungainly fashion with an injury-time goal from the former after Petr Cech had punched a Jermaine Jenas free-kick into his face.

That Wembley high point came in March; the Lilywhites’ cup run that season had started, coincidentally enough, back at White Hart Lane in September of the previous year with a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough, courtesy of goals from Tom Huddlestone and an 18-year-old left back by the name of Gareth Bale. When that game was played, Woodgate was still on the Middlesbrough staff; but while both sides put out strong starting XIs for the fixture, neither he nor King made it onto the pitch.

Infinitely sadly, it is that, rather than the Wembley victory, which more accurately defines the careers of a pairing that, in an era that lionised glory-day throwback John Terry, could have redefined English defending for good.

King broke into the Spurs team at the age of 18, after a youth career which had fuelled expectations that the North Londoners might have found a long-term partner for Sol Campbell. He was destined for central defence, but even in his early appearances in midfield, King radiated class, never seemingly sprinting but always first to the ball, never flustered, always in control.

I remember watching a game at White Hart Lane one year, relatively early on in King’s career. The Paxton Road end – the North Stand – is behind the goal, and I was sitting off towards one side, with the left touchline stretching out ahead. The home defence was in its usual disarray, and a simple pass lifted along the line in front of me was all set to unleash all manner of hell. But even as the opposition’s left winger scented blood and their attacking forces began to hotfoot it towards goal, King, already showing the lightness of a gazelle and the most gossamer of touches, stretched out a leg as the ball looped over his head, brought it down from the heavens and executed a 180 degree turn in one smooth movement. Making the impossible look effortless – that was Ledley King.

As it had Woodgate, injury dogged King from the start – a tackle from Rory Delap (then of Derby) on his full Spurs debut ended up necessitating surgery – but it did not keep him from making his England debut in 2002, at the age of 21. At the European Championships in 2004, he neutralised Thierry Henry in a game that England would have won but for a missed David Beckham penalty and a last-minute team meltdown; and despite what was by then a total lack of cartilage in his left knee, he was taken to South Africa by Fabio Capello for the World Cup in 2010, only to pull his groin within three minutes against the USA in what proved his final international appearance. He bowed to the inevitable at club level two years later.

Meanwhile, Woodgate, who played just 28 times in total alongside the man who should have been his footballing soulmate, soldiers on. Having refused to retire in the wake of last season’s heartache, he is now in the fourth season of his third spell back at Boro, having returned home from North London via a year at Stoke. His body remains a jigsaw one false step away from falling apart entirely, and he has made only a shade over 50 appearances in the red and white in those four years, but with England (after a mere eight caps) long gone, he has one burning desire left. “My career hasn’t been as fulfilled as I wanted,” he told the Guardian on the eve of Wembley last year. “Winning promotion would be one of the best moments of my career. Probably the best.”

Many will tell you that football is all about the late winners, those triumphs against the odds, or even as Danny Blanchflower once said, about glory. But I think, at heart, it is nothing of the kind. Football is about hope. Come the end of this season, two of the most stylish defenders the English game has ever seen will almost certainly be reunited in retirement. When that day comes, Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate may still have only one tin-pot trophy between them. That too would have its poetry. But for now, let us have the hope. The Championship title may no longer be what its name suggests, but it is something. For what has gone, and what may be by the end of this season after Teesside’s agonies of the last – all the best, Woody. All the best.

The England cricket team: Pick ’em and stick with ’em

It looks very much like England will go into the first Test against Pakistan on Tuesday with Moeen Ali opening the batting alongside Alastair Cook. Moeen has come in at nine twice in his last three Test innings, and never batted higher than six in a Test for his country. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is Alex Hales, who is yet to make his long-form international debut, and averages 9.3 in his last six ODI and T20I innings.

The fact that a touring squad, going to a country where Pakistan have never lost, contains not just one, but two candidates for an opening berth who have never fronted up first in a Test before and whose form and suitability for the role are questionable is not, in itself, a problem. Moeen deserves a go as opener, if only to allow a simple rejigging of the side in what will be twirl-friendly conditions in the UAE. Hales, too, has earned any opportunity that might come his way, with over 1,000 Division One runs for Nottinghamshire in 2015 at an average in excess of 50. And last summer, Adam Lyth deserved his chance, as did Sam Robson, and Michael Carberry, and Nick Compton before any of them, all the way back to the sorely missed Andrew Strauss.

Each of the latest four to be tried – omitting the short-lived, ill-advised dabble with Jonathan Trott, and sidestepping the shuffled-around Joe Root – had his faults. Lyth flapped too much, Compton perhaps too little; Robson left too big a gate, Carberry faced too big a challenge. None of them has made it to ten Tests.

Now Steve Waugh averaged 20.84 in his first ten Tests – lower than all save Lyth have managed in their stints so far – and 53.01 in his next 158, but that’s not really the point. Lyth, Compton, Robson and Carberry might have proved better Test cricketers than Steve Waugh had they been given the same opportunities, but let’s be honest, it’s much more likely that they would have proved worse. No, the point is that all of them are clearly pretty good, but none of them is much better or worse than the others.

The constant need for change more in hope of magic than in expectation of competence is not just a feature of the England cricket team. Since Stuart Lancaster took charge of the rugby lot in 2011, there have been 14 different partnerships at centre. Even allowing for injuries, loss of form, the emergence of some players and the fading away of others, that is an extraordinary figure. Meanwhile, the England football team is going the same way. It had six managers between 1946, when it became a full-time post, and 1990; Roy Hodgson is the 11th incumbent in the 25 years since.

Undoubtedly, international rugby – and international football for that matter – suffers from the fact that some games are more important than others. No one cares too much about the Six Nations, or a friendly kickabout with Norway; but fail at a World Cup (particularly, Stuart, if your country’s hosting the tournament), and there will be hell to pay. So change has at least some endgame in mind – if you aren’t going to be there in four years’ time, there’s not much point in having you around now.

The England cricket team (or at least, the Test team) doesn’t really have that problem. An Ashes series is special, but it isn’t the pinnacle of the game in the same way. There are only two possible winners, for a start, and it comes along so often that you – yes you, Ian Bell – can be 33 years old, have lost a few, and still won five of the things. And yet, over the last three years, through Andy Flower, Peter Moores and Trevor Bayliss, the selectors have lost the courage of their convictions at the top of the order.

Change begets change. A constant flow of new batters coming into the team means less familiarity between partners and less trust in those to follow. That, in turn, leads to tension out in the middle, lapses in concentration and uncharacteristic dismissals. Even worse, uncertainty can build in an excuse for the very failures it has helped to create. Beleaguered management can explain away poor results and performances by arguing that a team is in transition, while a struggling player can blame the disorientating effect of upheaval. Meanwhile from the outside, fans, who cannot be held to account for their views, find it much easier to wish for the dazzling, unlimited potential of the unknown than accept the niggling imperfections of reality.

English cricket has come a long way since the dark selectorial days of the 1990s. The current vacillation at the top of the order, though, risks them staring down that same old barrel. The opening batsman question has become A Thing, and that’s not helping those who are being selected. So come on, England. Pick someone that plays the way you want – maybe it’s the bombast of Hales, maybe the elegance of Moeen – and then let’s just stick with him.

Wimbledon FC: The end of the dream

To be part of a football crowd is to experience a whole range of soundtracks. At San Siro for a Derby della Madonnina, the prevailing atmosphere is a whirling, roiling, smoking waul. Around White Hart Lane on a typical Saturday afternoon, by contrast, it tends to be the surly rumble fermented where cynicism meets demand. In the Holmesdale Road End at Selhurst Park at around a quarter to five on May 6, 2000, it was noise – a terrible, mind-mangling roar.

For Wimbledon, tenants of Crystal Palace from 1991 until they were unceremoniously carted off to Buckinghamshire 11 years later, facing up to life after Joe Kinnear had always threatened to be difficult. Kinnear may have been reduced by his recent exploits in the North East to an anachronistic figure of fun, but back in the 1990s, he was a feisty fit for an agricultural team.

Over the course of his seven years in charge of the Dons, a club which hadn’t played in the professional leagues until 1977 was never seriously threatened by relegation from the top flight. Granted, they had sunk like a stone the previous season, picking up just two draws in their last 11 matches, but even that run, precipitated after Kinnear suffered a heart attack on the day they beat Sheffield Wednesday in March, only left them 16th, and a comfortable six points clear of the drop. Their style may have won them few friends, but this was a unit, it seemed, that was hard-wired to survive.

Kinnear’s health problems forced him to step down in June 1999, and prompted concerns about a culture shock, but with ambitious Norwegian owners Bjørn Rune Gjelsten and Kjell Inge Røkke having taken over the club two years previously, there was at least an obvious choice to replace him.

Egil Olsen had taken a previously slumbering Norway to USA 94 after topping their qualifying group, a 2-1 home win over the Netherlands and a 2-0 victory against England the particular highlights. His rugged brand of success (reportedly, his favourite player at his new club was Ben Thatcher) seemed to make him the ideal man for the Dons, while at his introductory press conference after joining from Vålerenga, he commented that he would only have left Norway for Wimbledon or Brazil. The uncompromising style that he had brought to the national team suggested that if he really meant either of them, it was most likely the former.

Sure enough, the opening day of the season brought promise, with a 3-2 win at Watford that reunited Olsen with Graham Taylor, the man he had seen off as England boss. But it was a false dawn. Victory at Vicarage Road would prove their only win on the road all campaign, while a run of five points in nine games culminated with a 5-1 shellacking at Hillsborough against a Sheffield Wednesday side that themselves had lost five in a row in the run-up, conceding 15 goals (including eight to Newcastle) while scoring none. The defeat left the Dons in the relegation zone for the first time.

Initially that looked like being the wake-up call the team needed. The next game, a 3-2 win over Bradford on 16 October, saw them climb back to 15th spot, and they would lose only once more before Christmas, going down 2-1 to Leicester despite taking the lead through an expertly-struck volley from Marcus Gayle. But if the coming of the New Year brought a sense of foreboding to Wimbledon fans in light of the collapse of the previous campaign, this season they would excel themselves even by those standards.

Thirteenth after beating Newcastle at home on 22 January, they suddenly started to ship goals again, three to Everton and Chelsea, four to Derby, before embarking on an eight-game losing streak, with the 3-0 defeat at Valley Parade that topped it off thrusting them back into the bottom three for the first time since they had last met Bradford, six months earlier.

That game, which would prove to be Olsen’s last, could easily have been so different. Wimbledon took control early on but couldn’t find the opening goal, and then either side of half-time came a pair of refereeing controversies. First, a handball that wasn’t from Thatcher gave Bradford a penalty that Peter Beagrie converted, and then another that was, from the hosts’ Wayne Jacobs, went unnoticed and started an attack from which a speculative Beagrie effort somehow squirmed past Neil Sullivan.

John Hartson was sent off for arguing with referee Jeff Winter in the aftermath of that goal, and despite the ten-man Dons continuing to look the better side, an 83rd-minute Dean Windass effort wrapped up victory. Suddenly Bradford, a team that had looked dead and buried at five points adrift with four games to go, had safety in sight. For Wimbledon, meanwhile, defeat meant Terry Burton, who had been part of the backroom staff since 1988, coming in as manager for the last two games, and with a one point deficit to the Bantams to make up.

Burton’s first match in charge, that game on 6 May was at home to Aston Villa. The atmosphere had already begun to crackle when, 15 minutes in, his side took advantage of the luck that had deserted them the previous week, Ugo Ehiogu nodding a Michael Hughes cross into his own net. Villa, however, chasing fifth place and with an FA Cup final appearance to come, came straight back into the game, and second-half goals from Lee Hendrie and Dion Dublin put them 2-1 up with a quarter of an hour remaining.

From that position, John Hartson’s injury-time equaliser had all the hallmarks of a fairy tale – a last-gasp header from the club’s record signing, in front of his own fans, in his second game back after a knee injury which had kept him out since the previous December. Meanwhile, Bradford had done their part, losing 3-0 at Filbert Street to a Leicester side that was finishing the season in style, and back in South London, a stadium heaved.

Wimbledon were back out of the relegation zone. The two teams were level on points, but Bradford’s goal difference was worse by five, and they would have to face Champions League-chasing Liverpool on the last day of the season, while Wimbledon travelled to the south coast to face a Southampton side that had already switched off.

Perhaps, then, there was an element of complacency, an assumption that Bradford would lose and that the Dons’ part would be irrelevant. If so, it lasted 12 minutes into the final round of fixtures, before the Bantams’ Gunnar Halle, a key part of the Norwegian national team that Olsen had led to America all those years before, floated in a cross that David Wetherall headed past Sander Westerveld.

Bradford hung on as Liverpool hunted an equaliser, while down at The Dell, Wimbledon pushed forward in vain. The absences of captain Kenny Cunningham and playmaker Michael Hughes, both injured against Villa, hit them hard, as did Hartson being suspended, but at 0-0 at half-time, they were far from down. Yet the clock ticked on. At Valley Parade, Halle cleared off the line and Bradford keeper Matt Clarke denied Patrik Berger, Michael Owen and Emile Heskey; and then with an hour gone, teenage Southampton full-back Wayne Bridge crashed a free-kick in off the bar. Suddenly needing two games to swing, the stunned Dons had nothing left, and Marian Pahars finished them off in the closing minutes.

It had all been for nothing, the cathartic dismissal of the eccentric outsider, the appointment of the beloved club servant, that glorious finale at Selhurst. After 14 straight seasons, the Premier League days were over.

Would the controversial move to Milton Keynes, ratified two years later, have been avoided if Wimbledon had stayed up? In truth, probably not. The team’s attendances had been low for years, and a succession of owners had resigned themselves to the need to relocate. Dublin had been mooted under Sam Hammam, and had even received Premier League approval before being blocked by the Irish FA; Milton Keynes itself had been mentioned before, under the late-70s stewardship of Ron Noades.

So now, fifteen years later, AFC Wimbledon flies the flag for supporter-owned clubs. The fans still sing of the “Norwegian bastards” but would probably accept, if pushed, that both the relegation and relocation of their former incarnation were, at some point, inevitable. Nowadays, their budget, their ethos and indeed their crowd numbers mean that they are unlikely ever to see the top flight again; and they are at peace with that. But in that moment in May 2000, as Hartson’s header hit the net, a great many of those same fans were letting it all out, and daring to dream about one more, just one more season in the sun.

2015: The year Switzerland reached eight major tennis finals (and won six)

The herculean effort that Andy Murray put in to drag both his body and his team over the line against Australia in Glasgow last weekend certainly made for a great story.

When Leon Smith took charge of Great Britain’s Davis Cup team in 2010, they had just lost to Lithuania; a similar fate in his first match, against Turkey in July 2010, and they would be down among the dead men – the Andorras, the San Marinos – floundering away in Europe Group III.

Smith’s first selection, comprising Jamie Baker, James Ward, Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski, dropped just one set across the five rubbers, and that on a tie-break. Since then, they have lost two ties in five years, most recently away to Italy in last year’s quarter-final, and last weekend’s victory over Australia takes them to their first Davis Cup final since 1978. There, they will face Belgium – as it happens, the only team other than the Italians to have beaten them during Smith’s time in charge.

The Belgians, what is more, may have an even better story. Belgium hasn’t seen a Davis Cup final for even longer than Great Britain – 37 years of hurt? Try 111, and even that 1904 final ended in a 5-0 defeat to the British – and builds its team around a man, David Goffin, who lost to Andy Murray in straight sets at last year’s Wimbledon.

Like Britain, who in 13 ties under Smith have played just three away from home, Belgium have enjoyed the luck of the draw. Davis Cup hosting rules are scrupulously fair historically – for any given match-up, the competing nations take it in turns to put forward a venue – but allow for some fortunate wrinkles year-on-year; and since travelling to Tallinn in September last year to see off Ukraine, the Belgians have not had to leave home turf. But for all that, they have still beaten Argentina (who themselves knocked out Serbia), they have thrashed Canada, and they pulled off the shock of the first round, beating defending champions Switzerland by three rubbers to two.

It’s safe to say about that March victory, though, that the Swiss probably aren’t too bothered. The team they sent to Liege was led by world number 265, and Swiss number three, Adrien Bossel; meanwhile, the two countrymen ranked above him haven’t done too badly for themselves.

Stan Wawrinka, for one, remains at the peak of his powers. He has now reached at least the quarter-finals in eight of the last nine majors, and this year backed up his 2014 Australian Open victory with a come-from-behind victory over Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros that was the only thing to stand between the Serb and a calendar grand slam. Meanwhile, Roger Federer reached the final at Wimbledon and again at the US Open, making 2015 the first year since 2009 that the 34-year-old has reached multiple major finals. Oh, and Martina Hingis won the mixed doubles with Leander Paes at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, as well as the women’s doubles at the latter two tournaments, alongside Sania Mirza.

What has led Hingis, in her third crack at the sport following not one, but two extended retirements, to her best year since 1998, when she won all four women’s doubles (the Australian Open with Mirjana Lucic, and the French, Wimbledon and US with Jana Novotna) as well as the Australian Open singles? Well, For a start, she has had two very good partners. Mirza, now the world doubles number one, was already a three-time major champion even before teaming up with her; and if fellow Indian Paes and the ‘Swiss Miss’ can somehow find a way to win the French Open next year, the 42-year-old will have completed a career grand slam in both mixed and men’s doubles.

Hingis is also undoubtedly benefiting from the freedom which comes with having already enjoyed success; and furthermore, there is the technical side of her experience, which perhaps allows her to play more on instinct than younger rivals. Indeed, Paes said something very interesting about Sam Querry and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, their opponents in the US Open final. “When you look at the other side,” he said, “what I see on them is their minds are thinking. They are thinking a lot.”

Meanwhile, it’s not just the old guard leading the way for the Swiss, with Belinda Bencic moving into the world top 20. The 18-year-old – the youngest player in the top 50 for either gender – has picked up two WTA titles in her breakthrough year on tour, including a stunning run at the Rogers Cup where all six of the players she beat were previous grand slam champions or winners. Meanwhile, even 26-year-old Timea Bascinszky is getting in on the act, a semi-final appearance at the French Open and a run to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon capping a year in which she won back-to-back titles in Mexico in the spring, and reached a career-high ranking of 13 in August. It was Bascinszky, too, who played the Andy Murray role in Switzerland’s World Group Play-off win over Poland in April, winning both her singles ties (for the loss of just five games in total) before teaming up with Viktorija Golubic to claim the deciding rubber 9-7 in the final set.

So it has been a good year for Britain, and an even more historic one for the Belgians; even the Americans, with representatives at seven major finals and six titles of their own, haven’t done as badly as many seem to think. But the world of tennis in 2015 – albeit thanks largely to a still-smiling schemer who played her first grand slam match 20 years ago – belongs to Switzerland.

From the Archives: 2015 Tour de France previews (and a debrief)

Some rider preview pieces I did for Cycling Weekly in advance of the 2015 Tour de France. And, because it’s important to hold oneself accountable (and also for the lols), a sentence or two each by way of follow-up.

Alberto Contador

From one angle, two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador’s season is coming to the boil at the perfect time. After a quiet start to 2015, he brushed off an early crash at the Giro d’Italia to throttle the life out of the race in its final week, and his single-minded drive up the Mortirolo on stage 16 was something to behold. His main Tour challengers, though, were elsewhere. While he left a Quintana in his wake in Italy, it was Dayer rather than older brother Nairo; and it was the latter who took the honours at Tirreno-Adriatico in March, when the Spaniard could only manage fifth. Chris Froome beat him at the Ruta del Sol, and Richie Porte and Alejandro Valverde saw him off in Catalunya. Reason enough to worry? Maybe not. Contador remains a formidable rider when he hits the front – briefly losing the lead to Fabio Aru after being caught behind a crash on stage 13 of the Giro was the first time he had ever had to surrender a Grand Tour leader’s jersey. But his rivals will have noticed the little wobble in the race’s penultimate stage that cost him a couple of minutes. If he is going to pick up his first Tour win for six years, he will need to be rock-solid.

Key Support

After the UCI dropped its biological passport case against Roman Kreuziger, it looks like Tinkoff-Saxo’s big guns – Kreuziger, Michael Rogers and Ivan Basso – will come together for the Tour this year. All three were with Contador at the Giro and emerged unscathed, and they look to have put good mileage in their legs this season without being overworked. The trio can boast eight top-ten GC finishes between them at the Tour, as well as around 40 years of experience, and Rogers and Basso in particular will offer the wise old heads that every Tour winner requires.

The Debrief Contador had a disappointing Tour, all told. He keeps up his record of just once having surrendered a leader’s jersey in one of the big three, but only because this year, he never actually assumed it. In retrospect, he was hampered by his successful targeting of the Giro, and maybe is also starting to feel his age, although he was outflanked (again) by the even older Valverde. If he is to win the Tour de France again, it looks like it will have to be to the exclusion of everything else. A word too for Ivan Basso, who was sadly forced out of the race after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Vincenzo Nibali

Last year’s Tour victory was a surprise to those who saw Vincenzo Nibali as consistent but unspectacular. One of just six riders to have won all three Grand Tours (after adding the Giro in 2013 to his 2010 Vuelta triumph), there should be little doubting the Italian’s class. he has gone under the radar again this season, with his best result a forgettable tenth at the Tour of Romandy, behind Chris Froome, Thibaut Pinot, Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet. At Tirreno-Adriatico he was 16th overall, again failing to mount a challenge to his Tour rivals. It was, however, a similar story last year, when he went on to spend just two days without the yellow jersey on his shoulders. He seized control of the race before Froome hit the deck on stage five and Alberto Contador on stage 10. The 30-year-old Italian, who is strong on the descent as well as the climb – a legacy, perhaps, of the BMX and mountain biking days of his youth – has been relatively lightly raced this season, with just 35 days in the saddle compared to the 45 he had put together before the 2014 Tour. Last year his build-up was meticulous yet unspectacular – will it work again this year?

Key Support

It looked touch-and-go for a while, but Astana will be taking the start line in Utrecht. And duly reprieved by the UCI, Alexandre Vinokourov will undoubtedly put out a strong supporting cast for his lead rider. Michele Scarponi, part of a rich vein of Italian blood that runs through the squad, has been around for years and has a Giro win under his belt, while GC stalwart Jakob Fuglsang is in fine form. Add in Lars Boom, Lieuwe Westra and Tour veteran Andriy Grivko, and this is a fearsome unit.

The Debrief With Team Sky around, a slow start was always going to be difficult to overcome, but to Nibali’s credit, he certainly didn’t give up, and was rewarded with a victory on stage 19 that enabled him to finish the Tour in fourth. If next year’s parcours offers a few more tricky descents, and the Italian can hit the ground pedalling, he could certainly be a serious challenger again.

Romain Bardet

The man who has spent the last few years juggling his burgeoning cycling career with studying for a diploma at the Grenoble School of Management had not, until recently, claimed a WorldTour win. Ag2r, however, saw enough in 2014’s stirring sixth place at the Tour (and a string of other strong results last season – fourth in the Tour of Catalunya, fifth in the Critérium du Dauphiné, 10th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège) to sign up the 24-year-old until 2018. At this year’s Dauphiné, he showed why he was worth that investment, with an expertly controlled descent off the treacherous Col d’Allos to take victory on stage five. Even more significant is the fact that the win took place at Pra Loup, on a stage that is virtually a carbon copy of what faces the riders on stage 17 of this year’s Tour. Having pulled away on the taxing descent, Bardet single-handedly held off a Team Sky-driven peloton on the 6.2km climb. Even concerted efforts from Chris Froome and Tejay van Garderen – which proved too much for Vincenzo Nibali – couldn’t bring Bardet back. He is yet to prove his time trialling credentials, but could be a significant threat.

Key Support

The longest-standing French squad remaining in the peloton, Ag2r picked up the team honours at last year’s Tour. Blel Kadri’s solo triumph on stage eight – as GC contenders lined up for the minor places two minutes down the road behind him – was the highlight. There may be some awkward discussions to be had this time round if ex-mountain biker Jean-Christophe Péraud continues his late-career blossoming. His progress took him to second last year, but he will surely fall into line if Bardet is in contention.

The Debrief Another man who started slowly before claiming a late stage win to remind the watching public of his talent. Could have done with a bit more support, though, with last year’s runner-up Péraud finishing over two and a half hours back in 61st. Bardet’s bike handling remains excellent, but he will need to get stronger.

Thibaut Pinot

Thibaut Pinot has been stayed out of the limelight for much of this year. What we have seen, however, has been promising. The young Frenchman has put in good showings at the Tirreno-Adriatico (where he finished fourth, ahead of Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali), the Tour of the Basque Country (10th), the Tour of Romandy, where an excellent win in the penultimate stage saw him claim fourth place overall, and the Tour de Suisse. His Tour performances so far are promising too, finishing 10th on his debut in 2012 followed by a spot on the podium last year. Pinot’s first shot at La Grand Boucle showcased some serious talent when he stayed with Chris Froome when the Sky rider moved away from Bradley Wiggins on La Toussuire. Pinot then outsprinted Froome to take second place on the stage. It may still be too early to tout Pinot as a likely winner – he is yet to really prove himself in a time trial, and questions marks remain over his descending ability. His country has been crying out for its first winner since the glory days of Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon. It may have to wait a bit longer for Pinot – but the 25-year-old is not too far off.

Key Support

FDJ continues to develop homegrown talent. Aside from Pinot, Arnaud Démare knows his way around a sprint, Jérémy Roy is an able captain, and Arthur Vichot stood up well at Paris-Nice. But it is a foreigner who may be of most interest to Pinot this year: the experienced Swiss Steve Morabito. The 32-year-old was an able lieutenant to Cadel Evans during their five shared years at BMC, and will be expected to provide Pinot with similar support.

The Debrief The Frenchman fell back early, but will have taken encouragement from a top-twenty finish in the individual time trial. Give him another year or two – and more support (Matthieu Ladagnous, back in 71st, was the only other FDJ rider to crack the top 100) – and he will be back.

Nairo Quintana

The sight of Nairo Quintana riding away from his rivals on Monte Terminillo in driving snow at Tirreno-Adriatico dispelled any doubts over the Colombian’s physical or mental toughness. The stage win sealed the overall impressively, ahead of a shell-shocked Alberto Contador. A consummate climber, Quintana returns to the Tour this year having been sent to the Giro in 2014 – which he duly won. He may have taken the Tour by storm in 2013, but his Movistar team made the dreadful decision to back Alejandro Valverde at the race in 2014. Quintana returned to the classics this year, as he had before finishing second in the Tour in 2013. His experience at Flèche Wallonne in particular should help him on this year’s third stage, which will finish on the Mur de Huy. Alongside a solid fourth at the Tour of the Basque Country, he has taken on the Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, leaving no cobble unturned in building up his experience on the pavé in readiness for this July. The Colombian will join Contador at the four-day Tour du Sud, but those are his only scheduled racing days between May 3 and the start of the Tour. Having been back in Colombia training at altitude, he will take the start line at Utrecht with his form largely unknown – but do not write him off.

Key Support

Last year’s main man Valverde tops the bill for what is a climbing-heavy parcours, and is coming in on good form after wins at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But can the Spaniard be relied on to see his more talented Colombian team-mate through the mountains? Spaniard José Herrada was perhaps the key lieutenant in Quintana’s Giro victory last year, before putting in a gutsy effort in support of Valverde at the Vuelta. And Herrada will have gained confidence from taking his first victory for five years at the Klasika Primavera in April, however low-key the event.

The Debrief Had the chips fallen other ways, we could have been looking at the first Colombian winner of the Tour de France. For one thing, Valverde was perhaps stronger than expected, which led to some dicey moments for the maillot jaune. Quintana was, though, (unsuccessfully) playing catch-up to Chris Froome from the moment he got caught behind the winds on the road to Neeltje Jans on stage two.