Friday, 20 November 2015

The decline of a legend: Mitchell's memories of Lomu

John Mitchell remembers Jonah Lomu sitting forlornly in the All Blacks dressing room in Wellington following a game against Fiji in June 2002.

They had won the match convincingly, but Lomu had again performed poorly and coach Mitchell was unable to pinpoint why.

"An unknown winger had gone around Jonah very easily in the game to score," Mitchell, 51, told me.

"And I can still picture him sitting there in the changing room afterwards, looking bewildered. He was a shadow of his former self and we were at a loss to explain why.

"Afterwards I had to sit down with him and his manager and explain that he was not meeting the performances expected. It was very tough to do that.

"As an All Black, you have to meet incredibly high levels of performance, regardless of your reputation or how much I like you as the coach. And I really did like Jonah."

The reasons for the decline became clearer in 2003, when Lomu was diagnosed with a rare kidney disorder called nephrotic syndrome.

He had a transplant in 2004, but the complaint continued to dog him for the rest of his life, heavily contributing to his death on Tuesday at the age of just 40.

The warning signs had been there during a 2002 training camp in Coromandel, just a short time before that Fiji game.

"Jonah was really struggling with the anaerobic work we were doing," recalls Mitchell, who was All Blacks coach from 2001 to 2003.

"The data was telling us he was degenerating and we didn't know why. I don’t know if we were ever told the whole truth about it."

The winger managed to get into the All Blacks squad for the Autumn 2002 tour to the UK, but these games were to prove his last in an All Blacks jersey.

He came off at half time in the win over Wales in Cardiff after complaining of double vision and was taken to hospital.

"It was distressing to see this 180kg winger lying on a bed with lots of wires coming out of him," says Mitchell, who now runs a manufacturing business in South Africa.

"If I'm honest, I knew then that this was the end of his All Blacks career."

Mitchell's defining memory of Lomu is of the rampaging, unstoppable teenager he faced in the All Blacks trial in Napier in 1994 though.

The number eight had recently won his first cap, making him the 940th All Black. Lomu was soon to become the 941st, at just 19 years and 45 days of age, making him the youngest All Black in history.

"I remember sitting in a small aeroplane with him going to Napier for that probables v possibles match," Mitchell adds.

"He was a very quiet and unassuming young man, but when he got out of his seat after we landed I thought, 'wow, he's massive'.

"And in the game he was almost unstoppable, he really was. His pace, allied to his size and power, was just unbelievable. He also had soft hands and a lovely balance.

"They named the team after that game and Jonah was in, which was quite something at his age. We all went to the pub afterwards and I can remember going over to him to congratulate him and wish him luck.

"He was very humble and respectful. Who would have known at that stage that he was going to be the star of the World Cup the following year?

"The coach, Laurie Mains, drove him to become even better physically and mentally within the space of just a year. And I don’t think we will see anyone like him again.

"He transcended the sport. He was phenomenal."

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Leeds Fans United proposed takeover

I know this is emotional ground, because a lot of Leeds United followers would love to see the club fan owned.

I'm an advocate of fan ownership and there seem to be few clubs where this would be more appropriate than Leeds United, who have a massive, passionate fanbase and a recent history of poor ownership.

I don't have any agenda or allegiance here, although a few will inevitably say otherwise. I've spoken to Dylan Thwaites previously and he seemed a decent man with good intentions.

However, I am cynical, as some have accused me of being on Twitter. I think journalists have to be.

On Friday, LFU announced it had reached an agreement in principle to buy Massimo Cellino's majority stake in the club. This followed a meeting between the Italian and LFU's Sharon Reid, though not with Thwaites as I understand it.

Cellino was feeling brittle and emotional following the reaction he had received from the home fans at Elland Road during the 2-0 defeat by Blackburn Rovers on Thursday night.

The level of vitriol shocked him and he decided overnight that he would be willing to sell. He feared for his safety; his wife, who had moved to a rented house in Belgravia in London, did not want to return; and Cellino was beginning to have serious doubts about his ability to deliver success.

So this was the background to the meeting. And Cellino's response to LFU was basically "if you can pay me the money then I will sell to you."

He didn't see this as being so strong as an agreement in principle, but I guess this depends on semantics. And he was surprised when LFU came out all guns blazing in the press, I'm told.

LFU are aware that there are other parties who are actively interested in buying the club and they want to ward them off, before committing money to a potentially losing cause or being used as a pawn, hence they want a legally binding exclusivity agreement in writing.

This would mean that Cellino could not negotiate with other parties during a certain period of time. My understanding is that the Italian is not willing to do that, but let's wait and see.

If you were him, would you sign such an agreement, potentially kiboshing a sale to another party?

LFU seem to have been a little hasty with their announcement, though perhaps they hoped it would really get the ball rolling and bring other investors on board.

They admit £500,000 has been pledged so far and that several "high net worth individuals" have shown an interest. They are also talking to institutional investors.

So this is very much a fundraising stage, hardly a "poised to go".

Thwaites also talked about using a "debt deferral system" to raise cash, so that loans could be paid back with interest "when we get in the Premier League".

Now, Leeds fans must be tired of hearing that presumption after it has been espoused by a procession of owners, including Cellino. "When we get in the Premier League": unfortunately easier said than done.

Thwaites says Leeds' value, in terms of equity, as stated at Companies House, is £30million. But the playing squad needs revamping and the club doesn't own its own stadium or training ground.

There are also other outstanding debts, running costs and a whole host of potentially expensive legal cases in process.

Thwaites believes LFU could "probably" complete the takeover within three months. And we will have to hope so.

Because Sam Byram is out of contract in the summer and I'm told the one real jewel in the playing squad, Lewis Cook, has a clause in his contract stating he can leave if the club is not promoted this season, which, let's face it, is not going to happen.

The mood Cellino is in at the moment, he doesn't want to invest any more of his own money in the club. He's hurt and has decided he wants out, at the right price.

There is a worrying potential for decline. So let's hope something positive does happen in the coming months.