Sunday, 5 July 2015

How to win at Fantasy Football

I am a huge NFL fan, I have watched it for over 15 years and I have been lucky enough to see my team, New England Patriots win the Super Bowl four times. Yet it was only three years ago I started playing NFL Fantasy Football along with my friends from north of the border in Dundee and Dan Ferdinand.

This has led to a better appreciation of the NFL and a better understanding of the game by paying more attention to the stats and figures of the game based on individual performances from week to week. It was this statistical analysis and love of numbers that first drew me to the game, the yards per carry, per reception, pass completion, win percentage and so on.

Personally, I have been fortuitous in my leagues, I have been to the final of one league two years running and been competitive with others regularly. So to make the game better and spread the word, I am going to give a breakdown of how to do well in leagues and how to enjoy it.

Take it seriously, but enjoy it
It is a fantasy football league, it is not real. Succeeding does not make you a potential GM of your favourite team, but it shows you are capable of understanding players strengths and teams weaknesses by selecting a certain player against this team to another. Yet enjoy it, yes cheer when your player makes a big grab but don't forget it is fun, so best to avoid leagues that involve money at first these will come along in time. Bragging rights and Twitter traffic are what you play for at first.

Play in different leagues
Try different varieties of leagues from Dynasty and keeper league, to straight draft selection to 2QB leagues. Personally I have not enjoyed 2QB leagues due to the nature of picking the bottom of the heap due to draft order or having bad luck with player injury and form, this guy picked Matt Schaub when he threw a pick six every week seemingly and I got the awful post-Super Bowl season of Joe Flacco.

Research 
You have to do your research. Read injury reports so you don't have a scratch player on your starting team. Don't pick players with the same bye weeks as this will leave you short handed against your week's opponent. Pick players who are sometimes consistent and not necessarily productive, you need a 16 game player not one who sits out, for example, the walking concussion Wes Welker is someone to avoid.

Listen to specific podcasts
The ESPN Fantasy Football podcast is my go to for chat and discussion and good tips such as handcuffing your QB and RB or WR such as Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson, as is the combination of Frank Gore in Indianapolis with Andrew Luck, Gore is one of those trusted backs who plays every week and will have much success in Indy making Luck a better player if that offensive line has improved.

Watch the first two weeks
Pay attention to teams stats, do they spread the offence or is Matthew Stafford still aiming at Calvin Johnson 25 times. This is where you find your potential sleepers and pick ups like Odell Beckham Jr became last year. This goes hand in hand with your research.

Also to consider is the theory of garbage time, the fourth quarter period of any game when a team is so far behind on the scoreboard that they start throwing the ball instead of running the ball to try and score quick touchdowns against a defence playing deep safety coverage and avoiding injury on the tackling front.  Teams renowned for this in recent years are the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders; so perhaps try and see when a second or third receiver gets the majority of his yardage. Despite the deficit, a team having to throw will not go to the first choice receiver too often, meaning a Jaguar third option will pay dividends even the Raiders who although have a good back in Latavius Murray need to be ahead to get reward from him.

Trust your judgement 
If you think Andrew Luck will have a better year than Cam Newton, trust your judgement and stick with it. Only drop Luck if he is injured. Do you think Rob Gronkowski is better than Jimmy Graham, then chances are you are right. And on the subject of Graham his signing to Seattle changes the fantasy profile of two players; Russell Wilson although a great dual threat QB becomes a better option due to the space and double man coverage Graham will receive in the red zone and Marshawn Lynch will now get the ball thrown to him less due to the potency and capability Graham provides.

Enjoy your season and follow me on Twitter @JamieGarwood

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

In praise of...Breaking Bad

Last night, I had the pleasure of completing my first box set. Breaking Bad. It has taken just about five weeks but me and my girlfriend, have witnessed countless deaths, numerous cooks and shady dealings in Alburqueque. We have followed the transformation of high school Chemistry teacher Walter White from fighting lung cancer to the horrific Heisenberg, the empire builder who would stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Oddly enough, when the conclusion of series 5 first aired in America on AMC I avoided any spoilers as best I could, thankfully the Internet community found it necessary not to ruin it for non-watchers as it is something best experienced first hand, much like The Mousetrap.

The ending was to me a complete finite ending deserving of the legacy that Vince Gilligan and his team have created.  Usually when series come to a finish, it is perhaps two series past its sell by date or the characters have outstayed their time.  Breaking Bad was good because it did not take a series as  the same temporal period for the viewer, for example, the original audience did not witness a White family Christmas when they did. The action started in series one around Walt's 50th birthday and ended a day after his 52nd, therefore the condensing of all the narrative action in to a timeframe of five years served a greater reality to the drama; things change dramatically from day to day in our lives, so why can that not be reflected in our viewing pleasure?

A lot has been made of the writing by Gilligan and his writers, yet while the show has been rightly heralded as the perfect amalgamation of talent, special mention must go to the acting of Bryan Cranston and the ensemble who infused all the characters with not just a belief but a humanity not seen before in American television drama. Whereas, characters in the West Wing or The Sopranos, where highly stylised versions of political and gangster conventions, in Breaking Bad these were actual people doing what comes naturally to survive and exist.

Yet that was the appeal and motivation for Walter to begin with. We meet a man on his 50th birthday, who feels unfulfilled in his life. A teacher who is not respected, mocked by his alpha male brother in law who works for the DEA. Had things been different for him he would have been a CEO of a Fortune500 company, yet fate dealt him a bad hand seemingly, and he cancer diagnosis leads him to reassess his options. His lack of insurance coverage means his family will be bankrupt should he die, so he attempts to cook Crystal meth and get close to the $700,000 he requires for the medical bills and pay his disabled son through College in his absence.

In the final episode, when Walter and his wife Skylar talk for the last time, she believes he will say he did it all for the family. Yet he surprises her by saying he did it for himself and he liked doing it. That was a good line to have Walter say, as the series has predominantly been about pride and the things people do when their ego is out of control. And it was this battle of wills sometimes between Walter and Jesse. I say sometimes as too often Walter seemingly got away with his malicious acts of violence, in contrast to the mindset of Jesse who has seen too much bloodshed and wanted to avoid it as best he could.

The story would ask if it was possible to avoid violence, or if it was the only course of action with say the murder of Gus in the nursing home.  It would also make you root for the villain as Walter slowly became one, and made you root for Hank and Mike who were oddly purveyors of justice and attempted to make you get the bad guy.  Through the last series, you were still rooting for Walter until he crossed the line of domestic violence in the episode containing Hank's death, that was the act that made you want to get caught, or die and ultimately the act that made him leave New Mexico and go into hiding.

I saw an interview with Gilligan, where he said his writers stole from the best in reference to their ending matching The Searchers. I think they also stole from The Godfather, in that Walter is similar
to Michael Corleone played by Al Pacino; a man so vastly different from that young idealistic soldier,
that he is almost unrecognisable. Yet the way in which he slips into the skin of malevolence and murder is the most unsettling aspect of it all. Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel was as a watershed moment in American film history, as is Breaking Bad in American television history.

Is Walter the devil or just a bad man, I believe he was not a changed man, he was a man who learnt a lot about himself and became a version of himself he did not know was possible nor capable of such acts. How do we know what we are capable of doing until we do it the first time?

Breaking Bad is as close to the perfection people have envisioned in this box set culture. A show that was brilliantly written, wonderfully acted and produced week in, week out not missing a beat and containing surprise that kept you gripped throughout without going for cheap way outs and belittling the audience it treated with intelligence and respect.  The ending was as close to perfect to, because it tied up all the loose ends with a sense of gravitas and humanity befitting a show about living and dealing with your own mortality.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Thirty One Nil - Interview with James Montague

Following on from my review of Thirty One Nil last year, I was pleased to be afforded the chance to interview the author James Montague (@JamesPiotr) with the paperback release of the book by Bloomsbury Sport.

- What is the appeal of travelling to watch football around the world?

Doesn't everyone want to do that?! For me, the highest form of the game was international football. From a young age, before the internet, it was a window on the world. I vividly remember my Panini sticker album from Mexico 86 and it was glorious. The Iraq team! They all had these tremendous moustaches. So I grew up fascinated by the rest of the world and was lucky enough to get a job in the Middle East in my mid 20s, and started going to local games.It all started from that.

- Do you see it as an alternative or escape from the mainstream of Sky Sports coverage?
I can't stand what's happening to the game. The Sky-ification of football. It's an idiotic gentrification that is stripping football of its identity and will, eventually, kill the goose that laid the golden egg. You don't have to travel far to find the game's true soul, but for me travelling to different countries, understanding them through football, shows me that the game as we all remember it, the game we fell in love with, is still out there. It's messier sometimes, and fucked up, but who wants everything to be perfect? 

- What was your total mileage?
Christ knows. But if I wanted to offset my carbon usage I'd have to replant a forest the size of East Anglia.

- Were you afraid of anywhere you did travel to?
Yeah, there were times when I was properly scared. Egypt post revolution. When it was all falling apart. I remember being in Port Said, after the announcement that 20 people were being sentenced to death for their role in 72 Al Ahly fans killed at a  match in the city. Protests broke out there, dozens were shot dead, a curfew had been put on the city. I managed to get in just before the curfew started. It was chaos and terrifying. It seemed so far removed from football, but you have to follow a story all the way. Or you've failed.

- Would you visit these places if there was not a football match taking place (I have the same belief with cricket, would I travel to the sub-continent if a test match was not happening)?
Luckily, we live in a world where a football match is taking place in every country on earth every day. So there is nowhere I could possibly go where a football match isn't going on. Expect perhaps Antarctica.  

- Do you feel the minnows are closing the gap on the world powers, will the extra teams in Euro 2016 close it further?
Yeah. There was a lot of criticism of the expansion, but it has proved to be a genius move. Sport lives or dies on competitive balance so what was seen as a weakening of the tournament has motivated teams to up their games. Every game counts now because every team believes they have a chance. Hope is important. Look at Armenia, Albania, San Marino even. Everyone benefits from this system.  

- Why are smaller nations getting better?
Hope is a big factor. But football is getting smaller. You can watch any game in the world at any time online. Football across the world is becoming increasingly professionalised. That will improve hugely in the next 20 years. But the main reason some countries are making huge strides is money. Iceland is a case in point. They narrowly missed out on being the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup. It would be a record that would never have been broken. They invested heavily on indoor halls, for their harsh winter, and in training up coaches. They are lucky. They are one of the richest nations on earth so can afford it. But it shows what resources can achieve.  

- What are your thoughts on Russia and Qatar hosting the World Cup?

There has been so little scrutiny of Russia's World Cup. There is a very strong case that it should be moved elsewhere given Putin's actions in Ukraine. Qatar is little trickier. I was pleased the Middle East won the chance to host it. it is an important region that loves football. And having lived in the Gulf i wasn't at all surprised they won. Qatar and the UAE have been perusing these mega events for years. What is clear is that there is some very important scrutiny of Qatar including the kafala system. I started visiting worker camps when I lived in Dubai, in 2005. The treatment of humans in them is a disgrace. And the UAE has zero interest in reforming it. Qatar on the other hand has been forced to confront it. It is a far more reform minded place than the UAE or Saudi Arabia. So for that reason alone I hope they don't lose it. Kafalla is one of the world's great evils and if the World Cup can in any way help bring about its timely demise then I can live with a winter World Cup in 2022.

- What are you working on currently?
I'm typing this out in an Irish pub in Macedonia, covering the protests out here. I've moved to Belgrade and working on my next book, about money in football. But first I've got to get out of this god damn pub. They've had the same CD on for four hours now and if I have to here that Ke$ha song again I might kill someone.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Boring?

It's a strange word, boring. Boring by definition connotes mundanity and mediocrity, a mind numbing sense of lack of direction and purpose. And yet, when it is used in football to connate a type or brand of effect that is not of the appealing sort, pundits and fans jump at the word to prompt negativity and in effect jealousy.

Jealousy because rivals are not liking a certain team succeeding.  This was most apparent during Chelsea's 0-0 draw away from home at Arsenal on Sunday. A result that left Chelsea ten points clear with five games to play, requiring them to win only two more games to win the title. Such deliberate tactical planning by Jose Mourinho led critics to claim that Chelsea were doing a disservice to the league by not attempting to win in style at the Emirates. Admittedly, it was not a classic but the tactical battle was great to watch.

Mourinho is a good poker player, although his histrionics are not so on the touchline, he is one with his players who know what they have to do for him and he entrusts his players to do the job, hence why he has used a small batch of his squad in a throwback to the days of Liverpool in the 1980s with their 14 man Championship side.

Yet it does strike you as odd that Chelsea are being called boring, when they are trying not to lose. And since when has winning been boring? If Arsene Wenger was in the box seat, he would do the same thing. Remember the Invincibles of 2003/4, a great fabled team yes but a team that once it had the title claimed they struggled through the remaining fixtures to not lose, instead tamely playing football that was anything but invincible.

So while playing devils advocate you can perhaps see Wenger's point, the labelling is wrong and it is this type of football you expect of Mourinho in the sense that he is tactically astute and prepared to foresake flair for the need to succeed.

Mourinho is like New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in that sense. Mourinho is the guy you love to hate, a guy you actually loathe to hate, but you cannot ignore the level of sustained success he has had over the years. Belichick bends the rules without breaking them, but do not forget for a defensive minded coach he had the highest scoring most dominant regular season of any team in NFL history; and Mourinho's charges have scored more goals than anyone else bar Manchester City.

But as Mourinho stated, the league is based on points won not goals scored. If you won 38 games 1-0, the thrill of victory and glory would outweigh any guilty feeling of boredom. Since when has celebrating been boring?

Monday, 13 April 2015

Pellegrini's Personality

The current Premier League champions, Manchester City, are in the doldrums. Their league defence is going off without a fight. Today's date is Monday 13th April and they have no chance of retaining the title they won last season. They have won only four games from the turn of the year and fingers are being pointed all over the Etihad.

But who is to blame? Do you blame the players who are not fulfilling the expectations put upon them by winning two league titles in three years? Do you blame the scouting system for not buying quality players to sustain this period of dominance? Or do you blame a manager who refuses to change the system that he believes serves him well?

In fact it is all the above, but more than likely the one man most likely to be unemployed come the end of May will be Manuel Pellegrini. The man who won the title more so down to another manager's inexperience of winning a title.  Whereas there is no challenge of Brendan Rogers this year, it should be said that Man City have not been a good team this year even before the woes started in January.

After winning the title you would expect the champions of England to attack the transfer market yet when the big names post-World Cup became available they were nowhere to be seen. Why did they not put in offers for Alexis Sanchez, James Rodriguez or even Enner Valencia, who went to West Ham. Instead they purchased Fernando, a like for like same figure to Fernandinho; Mangala the Central defender from France who they over paid for at £23m and Bacary Sagna, another purchase from a top four contender who has not fulfilled that expected from him.

For months last season, it was clear Vincent Kompany was struggling in the centre of defence and needed a mainstay next to him rather than the fallible Demechillis. They needed more goals than those provided by Sergio Aguero, as Dzeko and Jovetic came up short. Even the transfer window signing of Wilfred Bony smacked of desperation and one they could not utilise immediately and thus far he has only scored once since he first appeared in February, whereas he was prolific for Swansea.

Pellegrini has not been helped by his supposed spine figures Joe Hart apart. Kompany looks slower, Yaya Toure is not the force of nature he was in the last three months of the season last year and Aguero is injury prone.  Too often Pellegrini fits his best team into a system that does not utilise them appropriately, too many fancy players indicative of the tika taka kind do not go well in the counter attacking culture of the Premier League. While teams like Arsenal show the way forward, Man City have been left standing still.

Even their neighbours, Man United, who were being laughed at in November have come good and in Louis Van Gaal they have a manager who is getting results out of players like Ashley Young and in Juan Mata a star thanks in part to the injury of Robin Van Persie. Yet LVG has adapted and found his best formation is 4-3-3 not the 3-5-2 he favoured and left him red faced against Leicester City. United will probably secure a Champions League place before their city rivals.

Even yesterday Pellegrini stars with a formation of 4-5-1 that suggested he went there with a team looking to not lose rather than get the win they required following Chelsea's victory an hour earlier and keep some pressure on them.  Instead he maintained his dogmatic approach of not losing and got promptly punished by a confident United side, it was a formation and strategy that allowed United to dictate tempo and not trouble a United defence which is prone to error.

Manchester City have become very much the definition of their manager - dull, monotone and lacking in inspiration.


Monday, 23 March 2015

Sweet 16 Preview: ACC dominance

After the first mad weekend of March Madness, where all teams play two games in three days over the second and third round before the semi-finals of the regions that we call the Sweet 16.  Numerous things occur including shocks and surprises aplenty culminating in the removal of 48 teams since Thursday.  Here are my thoughts along with the prediction of the Sweet 16

Izzo and Pitino stand firm
Following regular season campaigns that brought all manner of inconsistency, it is telling that some teams can be relied upon come the tournament when parity is established by only playing what is in front of you.  In terms of Michigan State who had a problem with depth and talent, come the tournament they have a coach in Tom Izzo who now has more Sweet 16 appearances than first weekend eliminations. 

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Tom Izzo - Michigan State

Izzo out-coached Virginia's Tony Bennett for the second season in succession schooling them in a 60-54 victory helped by a breakout by Travis Trice who had 23 points as they held the Cavaliers to under 30% shooting.  Michigan now play Oklahoma, for the right to play either Louisville or NC State; again this is a tough one to call, but as Rick Pitino has showed, he is capable of fitting in a system that benefits the nervy tension of tournament play as they stifle offenses and allow their own dynamic players such as Montrezl Harrell to be explosive in transition.

Can we play you every year?
Rock Chalk Wichita Shock. Kansas Jayhawks are the big noise in Kansas, the blue chip program but it shares a state with Wichita State Shockers who have now had the better tournament resume than the Jayhawks in the last three years now.  The Shockers keep asking to play Kansas year in, year out in a non-conference match that will help both programs. Kansas refuse and Wichita State feel disrespected and feel Kansas are scared to play them on the road or at a neutral site.  Sunday in the third round in Omaha held court for this in-state battle and the Shockers swept aside Bill Self's side in a convincing 78-65 win.  They now play Notre Dame on Friday with the prospect of facing Kentucky in the regional final.

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Ron Baker - Wichita State
The Shockers are a tight unit who hustle and can score from deep led by Ron Baker in points and helped by Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton.  The defeat makes sure that Kansas will likely not play Wichita State again until they absolutely need to again.  As for Kansas, they need to come back next year - hopefully reloaded with talent as no-one looks likely to leave for the NBA - but return with a scorer possibly Clint Alexander who was suspended for academic reasons.

Duke have the answer
Watching Duke's dominant performance over San Diego State on Sunday, their play showed the answer to possibly to defeating the Kentucky Wildcats who they can only meet in the National Championship.  That is my selection for the title game and whilst I think Kentucky are too battle hardened for this tournament, perhaps Duke remain the best team to combat the Wildcats procession to historical perfection.
In Jahlil Okafor they have one of the best three players in the nation, his size and scoring prowess can combat Towns and Cauley-Stein in the paint.

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Justice Winslow - Duke
 Yet it was the tempo of Duke's play in transition that made me stand up and take notice; led by Tyus Jones dishing it out to Quinn Cook and sometimes you will get a breakout game like you had from Justice Winslow (26pts, 6rbs) did on Sunday to help matters.  Duke will be happy with the match up versus Utah this weekend and then probably Gonzaga who have been impressive thus far, but you get the sense that Duke are aware of the possibility of their own run to the Final Four.

ACC is the best conference
All regular season it was touted that the Big 12 was the best conference in the nation due to the possibility of 8 teams - only 7 got selected - making the dance, yet that was due to the fact that so many teams beat each other that no team separated itself from the rest as Wisconsin did in the Big 10.  The first day eliminations of Baylor, Texas and Iowa State left the Big 12 sheepish at best, and now the presence of five ACC teams in the sweet 16 (ND, NC, LOU, NC State, Duke) means that the argument is dead, the ACC is best league because it is the toughest game and makes players ready for the tournament due to the high intensity and close matches they experience in the regular season.

Sweet 16 predictions (selection in bold)
Kentucky v West Virginia                                   NC State v Louisville
Notre Dame v Wichita State                              Oklahoma v Michigan State
Wisconsin v North Carolina                               Duke v Utah
Xavier v Arizona                                                UCLA v Gonzaga

Elite 8:
Kentucky v Notre Dame - Wisconsin v Arizona - Louisville v Michigan State - Duke v Gonzaga

That leaves your NextToTheAisle Final Four of Kentucky v Wisconsin and Louisville v Duke
What an amazing line-up of talent, teams and legendary coaches going head to head in Indianapolis. The Louisville-Michigan State match-up should it materialise is a toss-up and too close to call. For me it remains there for Kentucky to lose, although the possible matches versus the Fighting Irish and Badgers will be as true a test as they have faced all season.

Follow me @JamieGarwood


Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The NFL: Head over Heart

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Chris Borland - San Francisco - Retired at 24
Sunday night and Monday morning is usually the time during the NFL season when decisions and reactions are made after the quota of NFL games and you reflect upon the week ahead and what changes are your teams going to make.

For the San Francisco 49ers, the season does not start for another six months and already they probably want the season to end. Having lost head coach John Harbaugh to the University of Michigan, and last week the retirement of linebacker Patrick Willis, the defense lost another player to retirement.  In this instance, it was all the more shocking as it came from rookie linebacker, Chris Borland, who retired from the game at the age of the 24.

"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," Borland told "Outside the Lines (on ESPN)." "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."

Borland has left the decision until now as he wanted to talk at length to his family, doctors and some team-mates before telling the team.  He stated it was nothing to do with the franchise itself, this was a decision based on his health.  Borland, who earned a bachelor's degree in history at the University of Wisconsin, said he plans to return to school and possibly pursue a career in sports management. He had a four-year contract with the 49ers worth just under $3 million, which included a signing bonus of $617,436.

Borland becomes the fourth player under the age of 30 to retire. Along with Willis who was placed on injured reserve in November, you have Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds, 27, who wanted to pursue other interests. And Tennessee Titans quarterback, Jake Locker, 26, said he had "lost the burning desire necessary to play for a living".

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Patrick Willis - San Francisco - Retired at 30

The NFL is going to have a serious problem on its hands within the next three to five years.  The turnover of talent exists always, due to the quality of the draft, yet the worries and fears of concussion research is having a profound effect on young men who play the more dangerous positions, such as the linebackers with their sheer force and power in big hits delivered in the pursuit of injury.

Borland was referring to former NFL greats who were diagnosed with the devastating brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, after their deaths. Duerson and Easterling committed suicide. And do not forget the impact of Junior Seau's suicide, irrespective of his soon to be Hall of Fame induction, the fact that Seau ended his life after a 17 year career had more impact than the deaths of Duerson or Easterling.

The fact that more information is becoming available to these young men, who are learning that the physical wellbeing is not worth the financial reward and the threat of serious brain damage in later years is not worth the trouble.

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Jason Worilds - Pittsburgh - Retired at 27

That is where the NFL have to come to the fore of the research, firstly pay these former players, put better procedures in order for physical assessment - you tell me Julian Edelman did not finish the Super Bowl with a concussion, and you are not a doctor - and put financial punishments at the teams who do not allow independent doctors to do these assessments.

The product of the NFL is at its height of popularity currently, but it needs to look after its stars and journeyman by equal measure as they are to some extents being treated like disposable assets that are easily replaceable due to the college conveyor belt of talent; yet four retirements is worrying and will only go up.  The game is getting played faster and harder with hits replayed constantly on media outlets and perfect for this Instagram/Vine age of social media with its cache of impact and bravado.

Chris Borland should be applauded for his conduct and taking the time over a very serious decision, he should be happy that he has done the right thing for his personal safety and long term health.  Borland convincingly has used his head to rule over his love for the game, it is not about the money it is about playing well and without fear of damage to your health.