Friday, 8 January 2010

2003: Politics Fail To Overshadow England's Sporting Jubilation !

Viewers tuning into the news were greeted with shocking scenes in March 2003 this year, as pictures of bombs exploding over Iraq were seen day after day. A year in which the news was governed by politics, at least there was a little more to cheer in the sports world, although that too was overshadowed at times by off pitch wrangling. Another year in the chapter of the noughties … here goes !


At the start of the year, it was clear that the threat of war in Iraq was around the corner. In London, on the 15th February, more than two million people marched the streets to demonstrate against the conflict, by far the largest protest ever in Britain.

Although the “Gulf War” officially ended in the mid nineties, trouble was never far away, and in March 2003, allied forces invaded Iraq, to rid the country of “weapons of mass destruction”. The invasion went on for the best part of three months, and although notorious leader Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006 after being found in hiding, the country still remains dangerous to this day.

The 3rd May saw the “Scottish Parliamentary Election 2003” and the “Welsh Assembly Election”. The Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition, led by Jack McConnell won the majority of seats north of the border, retaining their position as leaders. The Scottish Green Party and Scottish Socialist Party, however, both significantly increased their representation, while the Tory Party’s popularity continued to wane. In Wales, the Labour Party remained in power, with few surprises there.

Ian Huntley, the brutal Soham killer, was at the centre of the news. In a turbulent week in June, he took an overdose, from which he recovered without lasting damage. The following Sunday, the “News of the World” reported a crisis in prison security, after one of their undercover reporters was able to gain employment as Huntley’s guard, and took photographs from within his cell.

The High Court in Glasgow imposed a minimum sentence of 27 years imprisonment on Al Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of bombing “Pan-Am Flight 103” over Lockerbie in 1988. He served just six years, being released in Autumn 2009, apparently suffering from terminal illness.

The U.K.’s first toll motorway, the “M6 Toll”, through part of the West Midlands Conurbation opened on 9th December. It is still the only toll motorway to date in the U.K.


Single sales in the U.K. took a huge 34% plummet in 2003 from the previous year, in fact it was the first year since 1993 where there was not a million seller. This saw less movement and more stagnation in the charts, whereas in previous years it had not been uncommon for singles to sell hundreds of thousands, be at number one for a week and exit the charts less than four weeks later.

Controversy and outrage prevailed amongst the militant groups after Russian teen “lesbians” “t.A.T.u” with their hit “All The Things She Said” went straight in at number one in February, and stayed there for a month. The video was said to be too raunchy, with scenes of the two girls kissing passionately, although it was later revealed that this was no more than a publicity stunt, which clearly worked.

Manufactured pop did well again in 2003, with the likes of “Girls Aloud” seeing in the New Year with their debut “Sound of The Underground”, Gareth Gates, in a collaboration with unfunny television “family” the “Kumars” had a number one with the official “Comic Relief” single, a cover of Norman Greenbaum’s Sprit In The Sky”. Boyband (who actually also played some token instruments), “Busted” had two number ones this year, both for a week each, firstly “You Said No” in April, and then “Crashed the Wedding” in November. Will Young also enjoyed another successful year with “Leave Right Now” hitting the top spot at the end of November.

Alternative metal band “Evanescence” had a debut number one in June, which stayed at the number one for four weeks, entitled “Bring Me To Life”, they also had three other top ten hits during the year. The biggest anthem of the summer however, was the uplifting hit “Crazy In Love” from Beyonce. Later in the year, after being used in a rather amusing Sky Sports commercial, Elton John scored only his third U.K. number one single with an updated version of “Are You Ready For Love ?” His reign at the top was ended after just one week, though, by the biggest selling track of the year, “Where Is The Love ?” by “The Black Eyed Peas”. It stayed there for six weeks, the longest time a single had been at the top since Cher’s Believe” in 1998.

The race for Christmas number one was a dour affair, with some rather second rate “festive” hits vying for the title, including Bill Nighy with “Christmas Is All Around”, “Proper Chrimbo” from Avid Merrion, Sir Cliff Richard with “Santa’s List” and “The Darkness” with the slightly sordid sounding “Christmas Time – Don’t Let The Bells End”. However, the battle for the top spot ended up being between a collaboration between father and daughter Ozzy and Kelly Osbourne with “Changes” and a remake of the 1982 “Tears For Fears” hit “Mad World” from Gary Jules, the latter eventually taking the honour.


After the excitement of the World Cup in 2002, the world of football was of course slightly less chaotic in 2003, but none-the-less still spawned some contentious stories, as well as the usual tales of glory and woe for those at either end of the tables.

One of the biggest talking points in the football world was the saga which surrounded Manchester United’s superstar defender Rio Ferdinand, after he failed to show up to a random drug’s test. His “forgetfulness” resulted in an eight month ban from taking part in all fixtures, which stretched into the start of 2004.

October 2003 saw England qualify for the 2004 European Championships, the goalless draw against Turkey in Istanbul cementing their place. The match is well remembered for a melee in the tunnel at half time, where Alpay taunted David Beckham, which effectively drove the Turk out of Aston Villa and the Premiership. Controversy on the International scene once more prevailed in the match against Denmark at Elland Road, when Alan Smith launched a bottle into the crowd which had landed on the pitch. However, on the field, Goran-Eriksson guided the team to a period of stability and consistency. Mark Hughes guided Wales to the play offs for Euro 2004, but went out to Russia, while Berti Vogts Scotland took a memorable 1-0 win over Holland at Hampden Park in the first leg of their play off match, but were crushed 6-0 in the return leg.

Chelsea F.C. were the beneficiaries of pennies from heaven, with the takeover of their club by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, whose chequebook shaped the face of football as we know it today, and earned the West Londoners the nickname “Chelski”. Ken Bates sold the Blues for £140million, which totally changed the face of a club who up until then, had been knocking on the door of the administrators. £100million was spent in the summer of 2003, to mount a serious title challenge in the 2003/04 season.

Manchester United bounced back from their third placed Premiership finish of 2001/02, to regain the crown in 2003, in a dogged battle with the previous year’s winners, Arsenal. However, the Gunners did take the F.A. Cup, with a 1-0 victory over Southampton. United’s Premiership title was assured following a Leeds United victory over Arsenal at Highbury. However, this was a season to forget for Leeds – Terry Venables was sacked after eight months at the helm, along with a mass cull of playing staff. His successor, Peter Reid was given even less time. The season ended in disaster for the Elland Road outfit, with debts of £80million and talk of administration, and finishing fifteenth, a less than comfortable five points from the drop zone.

Elsewhere, Liverpool took a deserved 2-0 win in the Worthington Cup over Manchester United. A fairly bland Champions League final between Juventus and AC Milan was played out at Old Trafford, with AC eventually triumphing on penalties. The Premiership said farewell, for the time being at least, to West Ham, West Brom and Sunderland, and welcomed Portsmouth, Leicester City and fifth placed First Division Club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, who took victory over third placed Sheffield United in the play offs. The biggest transfer news of the season was David Beckham’s £25million move from Manchester United to Spanish giants Real Madrid.

Celtic had a fantastic season in Europe, but not so memorable on the domestic front. They got all the way to the U.E.F.A. Cup final in Seville, casting aside the likes of Liverpool and Blackburn along the way. Approximately 70,000 Bhoys made the trip to Spain, only to see Martin O’Neill’s team go 3-2 down after extra time, to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. Perhaps it was the distraction of Europe, but Celtic had no answer to Alex McLeish’s Rangers, who claimed a rampant treble to dominate the Scottish football scene, although the teams did finish level on 97 points apiece in a thrilling climax to the season. Basement club Motherwell could also breathe a sigh of relief, avoiding relegation as First Division winners, Falkirk, could not be promoted as their stadium did not meet the criteria for entry to the S.P.L.

The biggest sporting story, certainly in the British Isles, of 2003 was the Rugby Union World Cup, and a memorable victory in the final for England, the first Northern Hemisphere team to lift the trophy. Jonny Wilkinson, the hero of the competition became very much a household name, his drop goal in the dying minutes of Extra Time against Australia, helping to secure the Webb-Ellis trophy. The England fans, at least, could forgive him for his error in the 2001 deciding Lions test ! The victory brought England its first major sporting trophy since the Football World Cup in 1966.

However, it was not all sugar coated fairytale stuff in this event. The tournament had critics from all corners. Some of the pool matches were seen as farcical and a waste of time, with the likes of minnows Namibia and Uruguay shipping over 100 points in single matches. While there were no major surprises in the group stages, at times all of the home nations looked shaky. Wales were pushed all the way by Tonga, Scotland were mediocre in their victory over Fiji, and England looked nothing more than ordinary while scraping a win over Samoa. As it happened, the predicted quarter-final line-ups were spot on as Australia took on Scotland, France lined up against Ireland, New Zealand faced South Africa and England were pitted against Wales. France, with the inspirational Fly Half, Frederic Michalak, looked impressive, and looked like the team to beat, however, they met their match in an all-singing, all-dancing England in the semi finals, and Michalak froze under the pressure. The stage was set for a grudge match between old adversaries England, and Australia, who had defeated New Zealand 22 points to 10 in the other semi. England took a lead of 14-5 into half time, but an Australia fight back saw the scores level in the final after eighty minutes. Deep into extra time, and only 26 seconds from sudden death, England surged forward and Wilkinson made his move. The ball left his boot … and the rest is history ! Except to add that for his outstanding contribution, Wilkinson was subsequently made BBC Sports Personality of 2003.

Earlier in the season, England had dominated the Six Nations tournament with a Grand Slam showdown in a match against Ireland which they duly won. At the other end of the table, Wales looked very sorry for themselves, taking the wooden spoon, losing to Italy (who had not won in the Six Nations since their debut match against Scotland in 2000) in their opener, then never took off after that in a lacklustre display.

There was another World Cup in 2003, though, in which Australia were triumphant. They beat India by 125 runs in the final of the Cricket World Cup, held in South Africa. Unlike the Rugby Union equivalent, there were some surprises to be had, with the likes of England, Pakistan, West Indies and hosts South Africa failing to make it to the “Super 6” stage, while Zimbabwe and Kenya did so, indeed the latter making it all the way to the semi finals. England made life hard for themselves, deciding against playing Zimbabwe in Harare for political reason, with fears over safety and terror being paramount, thus forfeiting points. Similarly, the Kiwi’s felt that their match in Nairobi could be treacherous against Kenya, and too conceded the game, while contentious rules over games hit by rain ruined chances for South Africa and the West Indies to capitalise and marred their tournaments. Although there were celebrations in Australia following their homecoming parade, the biggest cheers were definitely reserved for the heroes welcome in Nairobi for the non-test side, Kenya.

Elsewhere in cricket, opinions were divided by the coming of the “Twenty20” game, with a focus on all-action, entertainment packed cricket, with Surrey taking the inaugural County Cup.

It may have looked like motorsport faced the same year of turgid dominance in Formula One and MotoGP, as Michael Schumacher of Ferrari, and Honda’s Valentino Rossi dominated their respective sporting arenas. However, in taking his record clinching sixth world title, Schumacher had to demonstrate all his brilliance after a resurgent season from McLaren and Williams. Three young drivers shone in this year, namely Kimi Raikkonen, Juan-Pablo Montoya, and rookie Renault pilot Fernando Alonso, one to watch in the future, perhaps ? While Rossi shook off the challenge of Honda team mate Sete Gibernau, his decision to leave the all conquering outfit in favour of Japanese rivals Yamaha for the following season generated as much debate as the racing itself.

In other sports news, the Athletics world was dogged with controversy surrounding the usage of performance enhancing drugs, namely steroids. The biggest name to be banned in the aftermath was British sprint star Dwain Chambers. Lennox Lewis was still king of the ring, successfully defending his W.B.C. Heavyweight Championship title against Vitali Klitschko in June, but he laboured to victory, and many were left debating whether or not he would be retiring from the sport in the near future. In golf, the major story was of Tiger Woods failing to secure a single Major victory for the first time since 1998. The Open, held at Royal St. George’s was won by little known American Ben Curtis, after Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn threw away a three shot lead with just four holes left. In snooker, Welshman Mark Williams dominated, winning all four major competitions, the first man to take the unofficial “grand slam” since Stephen Hendry in 1990. A rather rain hampered fortnight at Wimbledon saw Roger Federer emerge as the men’s singles champion, and an all Williams final in the ladies singles saw Serena triumph over sister Venus. Tim Henman crashed out in the quarters to the usual disappointment of the crowds on “Henman Hill”, while fellow countryman Greg Rusedski went out to Federer, after which he stunned the media and crowds with a four letter tirade ! In racing “Best Mate” retained the Cheltenham Gold Cup, while “Persian Punch” rolled back the years in dominating the flat season.

Had it not been for the conflict in Iraq, then 2003 could be looked back in most instances as being a year to remember, at least for bringing some of the less desirable criminals to justice. Certainly, it is a year English Rugby fans will always look back upon with fond memories. Next up is 2004, I have no idea what to expect, and the research will be interesting for this one ! Did nothing happen that year, or was it that I was too immersed in beer and poker to be bothered with the outside world ? I guess we’ll find out next time !

Thanks for reading,
Mountain Man


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