A decade when avarice and delusion took hold

At the end of the noughties sport is bolder, brasher and more visible than it has ever been. But after 10 years of money lust has it lost its connection with the public, asks Chris McGrath
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The prodigal is back at the gate now, too good for League One, and no doubt confident of finding a seat at the banquet during the decade to come. After all, it was not so long ago that Leeds United dined at the very top table. On New Year's Day, 2000, they were the team to catch in the Premier League.

Their traumatic descent since, to the third caste of English football, doubtless contained lessons pertinent only to their own situation. But as a token for years of delusion, incompetence and avarice, it was a parable for us all. Even, perhaps, for their old rivals, who meet them in the FA Cup tomorrow after ten years during which their own hegemony has barely been interrupted.

Leeds nosed into 2000 a point clear of Manchester United. During the second half of the campaign, Leeds picked up 25 points; United, 48. Arsenal crept between them to claim second; Wimbledon, Sheffield Wednesday and Watford were relegated. Wednesday fired Danny Wilson in March, and Wimbledon discarded Egil Olsen in the final act. The only other sacking, all season, had come at Newcastle, when Ruud Gullit was replaced by Bobby Robson.

To put that in context, yesterday was the first anniversary of Billy Davies's appointment at Nottingham Forest. He is already 43rd of 92 in the table of longest-serving managers.

For this was a decade when much of sport became so infatuated with its commercial possibilities that it shamelessly abandoned some of its defining tenets: fairness, perseverance, community. Garry Cook, the Manchester City chief executive, has expressed a desire to make the club "a successful business whose core competency is football". They haven't looked terribly competent in defence, admittedly, but then as Cook put it himself, when Aston Villa gratefully took the player off his hands, Richard Dunne doesn't sell shirts in Beijing.

Those recently delighting in the private imperfections of Tiger Woods have ostensibly done so on the basis that he had become a template for the corporate hawking of sporting genius. You can ask a cocktail waitress for a quickie; or you can ask your sponsor for a fast buck. But apparently you can't do both.

Woods, of course, is just one man, with his own confusions, his own lack of normal connections. But the image of all sports stars is nowadays managed so tenderly that they are almost contractually prohibited from being interesting – from doing anything, in other words, that might make a meaningful connection.

Of course, there remain many decent and humble characters among the sporting elite. But the best sport is now so expensive, whether in the Twickenham grandstand or via satellite, that the relationship between champions and punters has been sterilised. Only one human imperfection can infect that relationship. And that is poverty, which will cut it off altogether.

Elite sport is now covered better than ever before, with dedicated channels and wall-to-wall live action. (Take care of those geese, mind, if you want their golden eggs. Cricketers are set so greedy a schedule that the world-class Test all-rounder is not so much an endangered species, as extinct.) And it costs a lot to put on the show. If we are to pay for it, we must be made to feel as though we cannot afford to miss out.

We still have "protected" terrestrial events. Unquestionably, the 2009 Ashes failed to ignite public attention the same way as 2005. Equally, broadcasting is changing so quickly that it might be asked why the BBC can be so contemptuous to many mainstream sports, and still expect to get the cream more or less gratis.

For now, its power remains immense. Some would argue that the Beijing Olympics restored an organic relationship between viewers and elite athletes – partly because they, too, were ordinary people. But as we must vigilantly remind ourselves, on the way to 2012, the reach of terrestrial coverage could never excuse the hysterical exaltation of minority past-times. Happily, evolving skills and standards continue to fortify our passions against all but the grossest exploitation.

In 2000 Roy Keane, as the first player to be paid over £50,000 a week, promptly embarked upon his famous "prawn sandwich" rant. Before long his own club and Liverpool would both be sold to "investors" who borrowed the funds and brazenly absolved themselves of repayments, instead vesting debts in the club. Dozens of smaller clubs meanwhile melted into insolvency.

But remember that the same decade ends with one of the most captivating club sides in history, Barcelona, persuading coaches around the world that the most productive means to an end also happens to be the most beautiful.

Remember, also, that 10 years ago Hull finished 14th in the bottom tier of the league. Doncaster, meanwhile, came 12th in the Conference. So take heart, Burton Albion! Hold fast, Cambridge! There are always reasons to be cheerful.

Football: The decline of England's industrial heartland

Ten years ago, Leeds United were halfway through the last season in which they would qualify for the Champions League. When they failed to make it one year later, they were sent spinning into a decline from which they are still yet to emerge.

How has English football changed in the last ten years? The broadcast contracts have got bigger and wages have grown exponentially. Manchester United are still the dominant club. But along the way, the Premier League has lost some of the big clubs from the great industrial cities of England whose teams have slipped off into Football League mediocrity.

As well as Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday were relegated from the Premier League in 2000 and are yet to return. Newcastle United, third in 2003, are now in the Championship. Bradford City were in the Premier League ten years ago but now they are 15th in League Two. Coventry City were playing their 33rd consecutive season in the top-flight ten years ago but they were relegated the next season and have been unable to make it back.

In the place of clubs like Leeds and Newcastle, who both once qualified for the Champions League, have come Chelsea – the biggest example yet of the power of one man's money to transform the sporting landscape. They might yet be eclipsed by Manchester City, powered by the millions poured in by Abu Dhabi.

Ten years ago, the England team had never been managed by a foreigner, but since then we have had two. Kevin Keegan's 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign hit the rock in October 2000 and Sven Goran Eriksson was expensively hired, setting the template for foreign managers in charge of the national team. For many, that broke the sanctity of international football.

Sam Wallace, Football Correspondent

Boxing: Hope restored yet again

There are not many so rule changes you can make in boxing. It is, after all, the most elemental of sports, and the essential work was endorsed by the ninth Marquess of Queensbury in the 19th century.

You can nibble at safety by reducing a championship fight from 15 to 12 rounds, you can be vigilant in the matter of medical supervison but we will never remove the possibility of those periodic tragedies which make us wonder if pugilism really has a place in an allegedly modern and civilised society.

However, it will never be banned, no more than the chicanery and opportunism of promoters and their reluctance to put the purity of competition before the forces of hype and guaranteed profit.

Yet, always, there is the one great redemption. It is provided by the men who do it. Men like Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali and, now, Manny Pacquaio and Floyd Mayweather Junior.

Such fighters remind us of an enduring appeal, a desire to see men perform with all their skill and their courage and at their very limits. The beauty of Pacquiao-Mayweather, and one that is sure to triumph over passing contract disputes and drug-testing controversy, is that it promises to recreate the conditions and the intrigue that became such underpinnings of the last great age of boxing, the eighties of Leonard and Duran, Hearns and Hagler.

Every epoch of boxing has confronted the skull's head of exhausted talent and dwindling appeal.

One of the greatest of the heavyweight champions, Louis, fought so many one-sided fights his victims were prejudged as the bums of the month.

Yet the certainty has always been that someone will rise up and capture a huge audience. A great fight will always announce itself. And so it remains. Boxing thus reminds us that it is not so much a sport as part of the human condition.

James Lawton, Chief Sports Writer

Athletics: An era for fallen idols

For much of the decade – much too much of the decade – they were not so much the Noughties as the Naughties for top-level track and field. They started with Marion Jones being hailed universally as some kind of superwoman, on her "drive for five" (gold medals) at the Sydney Olympics. They finished with the Olympic women's 100m crown from those 2000 Games being left embarrassingly unclaimed, the star spangled superwoman having been unmasked as a drug-taking cheat (actually a lying, drug-taking cheat, having served six months in jail for making false statements to US federal prosecutors during the Balco drugs investigation) and the International Olympic Committee not being able to bring themselves to hand the prize to the athlete who finished runner-up to Jones in the Sydney final, Ekaterina Thanou, who still faces charges in the Greek courts about making false statements concerning the circumstances of the drug tests she missed on the eve of the 2004 Games in Athens.

In between times, there has been a succession of champions who have been unveiled as frauds of the fast lanes: Justin Gatlin, Tim Montgomery, Kelli White, Dwain Chambers and others. Still, the signs are that the drug testers are catching up with the cheats. The snaring of the seven Russian athletes, mostly female middle distance runners, using false urine samples on the eve of the 2008 Olympics suggests as much. We can only hope that is so, because athletics cannot afford another decade of druggies – ahem - taking the piss.

Simon Turnbull, Athletics Correspondent

Tennis: Baseline is bottom line

Technological improvements in the last decade have brought major changes to the way tennis is played. Advances in racket technology and the increased use of synthetic gut have enabled players to hit the ball harder than ever, which in turn has encouraged them increasingly to conduct rallies from on or behind the baseline.

Serve-and-volley specialists were already on the retreat at the end of the 1990s, but now they are nearing extinction. Coming to the net is a perilous tactic against opponents who have the equipment to club passing shots with huge power from almost any position.

The slowing-down of surfaces and an increasing uniformity in the speed of courts – meaning that ground strokes are easier to strike – have contributed to that process. Most players today are also supremely fit, meaning they can slug it out all day from the baseline and do not need to shorten points by attacking the net.

Andy Murray, who has so much variety, is a rarity in an era of increasingly one-dimensional players. With tactics not changing significantly from one surface to another, for the most part players can no longer be divided into clay-court or fast-court specialists.

Meanwhile video replay technology and the challenge system have taken the sting out of most umpire-player confrontations at the highest level, which may also partly explain why there appears to be much less friction between today's leading players. Have there ever been two champions with as much mutual respect as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal?

Paul Newman, Tennis Correspondent

Formula One: Getting back on track

A decade ago Michael Schumacher sat on the starting grid in Melbourne poised to begin his utter dominance of the sport. When he lines up in March for his return, it will be in a very different climate. For a start the opening race of the new decade takes place in Bahrain, for reasons that have everything to do with cutting Formula One's cloth to suit these straitened times.

Around him on the grid will be the cars of four new teams. Ahead of him lies one of the five circuits that have been introduced to F1 in the last five years. It is a sport that has been buffeted by declining interest, scandal and an increasingly dour financial outlook, but emerged actually looking to a bright future, at least on the track.

The tracks themselves are perhaps the major difference in the sport. Shiny, purpose-built, but some would say characterless venues, subsidised by government money, are seen as the way ahead. Silverstone has survived, just, but the likes of China, Abu Dhabi and Singapore's night race appear to be where those driving the sport want to go. What was once a largely European affair has set off in search of the new world.

Schumacher dominated the first half of the decade with five straight championship wins, which actually did nothing for the sport, interest waning as the German proved a ubiquitous presence on top of the podium. In race terms, that, for all the tweaking with cars and qualifying, is where the biggest change has come. As the 41-year-old sits in his cockpit on 14 March it will be as a part of a line-up that is perhaps more competitive than it has been at any time in the last decade. Hamilton, Button, Alonso, Massa, and, of course, Schumacher, make an impressive cast list.

Robin Scott-Elliot, Sports News Correspondent

Rugby Union: The sad passing of the ruck

It is all too easy to blame the biceps, although "improvements" in musculature certainly had a negative impact on the union code during the noughties. The gym culture – all that lifting and heaving and grunting – proved catching: everyone was at it, from the little bloke at scrum-half to the fat bloke at loose-head prop. Identikit body-builders played identikit rugby, and with law changes reducing the need for the specialist technicians who once commanded a place in every team, the playing fields were full of 16st sleek machines making 20 tackles a game.

But the rugby of the last decade was defined by the absence of something else: the ruck. The dynamic that made union a sport of light and shade was outlawed – quietly, without fanfare, almost shamefacedly – by certain Mary Whitehouses on the International Board who felt that boots on bodies, the inevitable consequence of rucking, made for bad television. As a result, there were more people laying around on the floor, more flankers killing the ball stone-dead, more dangerous collisions between static "guards" and horizontal "clearers-out", more uniformity and infinitely less quick possession for attacking teams to use.

The ruck's slow death was painful in the extreme for those raised on the glories of a light, well-drilled, mobile pack out-manoeuvring heavier, slower, mauling opponents by hunting as a unit and staying on their feet. Happily, a resurrection may be at hand. Having failed to come up with new solutions for the problems around the tackle area, the law-makers are beginning to talk about reviving the old one.

Chris Hewett, Rugby Union Correspondent

Cricket: The bat revolution

Twenty20 might have changed everything forever but it could not have done so without the new bat. One revolution needed the other and the upshot is a vast increase in the number of big hits. Boundaries are now two-a-penny, coming off edges which carry not into the hands of waiting catchers, but over ropes 70 yards away.

MCC, guardian of the Laws, has done its utmost to protect the traditional balance between bat and ball – probably with one eye on favouring the batsman, as has always been the case throughout history. It has insisted that bats are made of wood and, two years ago, carbon fibre handles, which would have enabled heavier blades, were banned.

But the technology has still moved rapidly. Weight has been redistributed from the edge to the middle, bats are pressed less, are much thicker than their predecessors and still have a light pick-up. If it has been the making of Twenty20 – and has also hugely increased the number and type of boundaries in Test cricket – it has been another blow for bowlers.

For 200 years they have responded as dastardly batsmen have continually had things their own way. It is still happening: boundaries are shorter, pitches are blandly homogenous the world over – T20 merely exacerbated the whole thing.

On reflection, T20 was waiting to happen and the Indian Premier League, in which it has come to be embodied, has also changed the perception of the game. Test cricket remains the purest, most alluring format, but it is losing the battle for hearts and minds. The next decade will tell us how much.

Stephen Brenkley, Cricket Correspondent

Golf: Ten years of balls and bucks

Balls and bucks. They have been the biggest golfing changes in the Noughties. That and Tiger Woods's reputation, of course.

In 1999 one player on the PGA Tour, Chris Smith, produced a drive of 400 yards or more. In 2009, 48 players achieved the same feat. In 1999 one player, John Daly, breached the 300-yard marker with his average drive. In 2009, there were 13 different 300-yarders. Kirk Triplett finished 100th in the distance charts this year. A decade ago, his 286.4 average would have placed in him the top 10.

The reasons for this dramatic increase are varied, although most credit the advance of ball technology as the primary factor. And despite the danger of revered layouts such as the Old Course shrinking into irrelevance, the authorities have yet to do anything about the turbo-charged ball. They claim driving distances have plateaued and they may well be right. Certainly, the driving stats in 10 years will make interesting reading.

As will the balance sheets. Can professional golf really continue the staggering growth in finances which has seen the money list winner on the PGA Tour increase his on-course earnings from $6m in 1999 to more than $20m in 2009?

That player was, of course, Woods. But this has been more than a personal success story. The new wealth has been distributed throughout the tours, throughout the world. Take this continent. In the 1999 season, five European Tour players managed to mass more than €1m. In 2009, that exclusive club expanded five-fold.

So why shouldn't the gravy train keep on chugging along? The recession and Woods. While banks have understandably reined back their sponsorship, the endorsers who do still have access to mountains of the green stuff have reportedly been stunned by Woods's recently revealed infidelities. When the hero returns, will the money river start flowing again? Come back in 2019 and find out.

James Corrigan, Golf Correspondent

Racing: Straightening out

The decade ends as it began. Going into 2000, Tony McCoy was well on the way to his fifth consecutive championship; this season, he will win a 15th. But while the most prolific jump jockey in history remains a symbol of constant renewal, the sport as a whole seems in dread of stagnation. Much hope is duly being vested in the Racing For Change project, seeking fresh audiences and ambitions.

Recent augurs are mixed. A new course at Great Leighs proved a disaster, but Ffos Las has been an instant success. Prize money is suffering, especially in Ireland, and the breeding business depends precariously upon the ruling family of Dubai. And while the sport's relationship with the bookmakers has become increasingly Mephistophelian, it is also increasingly irrelevant. For the advent of Betfair – one of the decade's most spectacular successes – transformed the betting landscape forever.

Betfair also contributed to the sport's disciplinary catharsis. The chance to profit from losers introduced a new temptation to unscrupulous opportunists. At the same time, however, Betfair provided an unprecedented paper trail.

Admittedly, various past and serving police officers succumbed to such clumsy misapprehensions that they risked the sport's reputation far more than any petty conspiracy – notably when the credulous prosecution of Kieren Fallon somehow got as far as the Old Bailey.

But the general assumption that the game is straighter now, however valid, itself counts for plenty. It reflects a genuine culture change, one that arguably vindicates any amount of paranoia in the meantime.

Chris McGrath, Racing Correspondent

Rugby League: The grassroots explosion

The most significant change in rugby league in the Noughties has not been at the top end, in Super League and international competition – although it has wide-ranging implications for both. The best thing to happen to the code in its last decade has been its steady growth as a participation sport throughout the British Isles.

For the first time in its history, it is now possible to play or watch rugby league just about wherever you live in these islands. From the River Tamar to the Moray Firth, from Limerick to Essex, there are clubs playing the game, in the Rugby League Conference and its Welsh, Scots and Irish off-shoots. The standard varies wildly. At the bottom end, you are looking at pub teams, but more ambitious outfits are already refreshing the game's gene pool.

At Harlequins RL, for instance, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook (from Croydon) and Tony Clubb (from Greenwich) are already England internationals and Huddersfield's Darrell Griffin (ex- Oxford Cavaliers) is not far behind them. They represent the tip of a huge iceberg and they would not be there were it not for the Conference.

The Scots and Irish club competitions have produced players who took part in last year's World Cup, while the biggest reservoir of talent will feed into the new South Wales Scorpions from next season. You can argue about what it means to be a "national" sport", but rugby league fits the description better than it has ever done.

David Hadfield, Rugby League Correspondent