This weekend sees the national finals of the Fred Perry Table Tennis Urban Cup. This tournament has been created by the Premier League 4 Sport programme and clothing company Fred Perry, and in conjunction with the English Table Tennis Association and Sport England’s Sportsmatch to get youngsters involved with competitive sport.
All 22 Premier League clubs have got involved with the initiative and children from their local areas have represented their club throughout a number of regional tournaments. Over 100,000 kids between the ages of 11-14 have taken part in the competition, giving them the opportunity to try their hand at the table tennis. Arsenal are one of the clubs to have made it to the finals day and
Sport.co.uk was given the opportunity to visit the Emirates and speak to Arsenal legend Nigel Winterburn. The Gunners full-back showed some decent skills with a bat as he rallied with British table tennis star Darius Knight and the kids representing the north London club in the final before we got to talk to him about the tournament, table tennis and all things Arsenal.
So Nigel, do you play much table tennis?
I used to play. I haven’t played for a while but I do have a table at home. I play against my kids as well, so I am alright at it but don’t claim to be anything else.
Was there ever a table at the club during your time at Arsenal?
When we used to go on tour we used to play occasionally, but now, with all the new facilities at the training ground they incorporate areas where the players can play table tennis, darts and other things like that. I think it is getting competitive not only on the football pitch but in all the other sports as well.
Do you know if any of the players are any good?
I don’t know personally but Darius Knight [British table tennis star] told me earlier Robin Van Persie is very good.
I’ve heard he is very good at darts as well.....
Oh right, he must have too much time to practice then.
You are here today to help promote the Fred Perry Table Tennis Urban Cup, it is a great competition and a fantastic opportunity for youngsters to play competitive sports and also wear their football teams colours.
I think it is amazing because with football being the national sport and to get all 22 Premier League the clubs getting involved along with the sponsor Fred Perry is great. To get 100,000 kids to come out and take part and play is absolutely amazing. To get them all playing in their strips is fantastic. To me it doesn’t matter what level of Table-tennis you play, obviously the best ones will get through to the final this weekend, and that will be competitive but table tennis is something anyone can play and you don’t need much to do it. You don’t really need a table as such; you can just get planks of wood and play on the dining room table. That’s what I used to do as a kid. The game is accessible to a lot of children but this tournament gives them the opportunity to try it and see if they like it. If one of them eventually becomes a world champion that would be amazing but also it might drive them on to do something more educational or some other sport. It just gives them a taste of what they can achieve.
It could also provide Arsenal with their first bit of silverware for a while?
It could do. Can we claim it?
Darius took Winterburn back to school
Not so sure. Talking of Arsenal, they are still fighting on four fronts this season. What have you made of the team's progress this season and do you think they can claim their first major trophy in six years?
Recently Arsene Wenger and the players have come under huge pressure because they haven’t won anything for so long, but they have been there or there about for a few seasons. They were there last season but the losses to Wigan and Tottenham really dented the confidence and unfortunately they couldn’t go on to lift the title. But they are there again this year. I think most players at top clubs will tell you there is a very fine line between winning things and falling at the final hurdle. Arsenal are very close. They have reached the Carling Cup final this year and at the moment they are involved in all competitions but as we have seen before, if you are not careful the competitions can disappear very quickly. Arsenal have a fabulous chance this season. They have got a good chance in the FA Cup, they have difficult games coming up against Barcelona and chasing Manchester United in the league. They have got lots to fight for but the entire club can do, in terms of the league is win as many games as they can and hope United slip up along the way.
You talk about the fine line between success and failure at the top level of football. What do you think the difference between this Arsenal side and the sides who failed in the last couple of seasons? Have they improved mentally?
You’ve hit the nail on the head. They have more mental strength this year and a belief that they can win. They also have a desire to win. For the last couple of years I have talked about the fact that when this particular Arsenal team win its first trophy they will win the second quickly. As a player when you win something you realise how much you want to win again. I’m sure this will happen to the current Arsenal side. But listen, we are in a very competitive environment. Nothing gives you a divine right to win something. You’ve got to go out and earn that right and be in the right place at the right time and play some good football. Arsenal have come up in recent seasons against good teams like Chelsea and Manchester United. Now you have Manchester City and Tottenham getting stronger, so we live in a competitive world. Arsenal just have to believe in what they are doing and I’m sure a trophy will come their way.
Now Nigel, you were part of one of the greatest back fours to have graced the game. The current Arsenal defenders have faced their fair share of criticisms over the last few years, but there are signs of improvement. How do you think the Gunners back four has performed this year?
The one thing I’ll say about the defence is that I have been surprised by the amount of criticism that Laurent Koscielny and Sebastian Squillaci have come in for. They are new to the football club and to English football, we are talking less than six months into their careers, but people are making massive judgements on them when Arsenal play open attractive football. The open style at the Emirates places huge pressure on the centre-half positions.
Could the same be said about the left-back position because on a number of occasions this season Gael Clichy has been left exposed in defence. In the art of defending how important is it for midfield players to track back and support the defence?
Yeah, there are a number of different things you can look at. To have a solid back four, first of all the four defenders need to work in tandem. Arsenal have a tendency, particularly at home, to push both full-backs on quickly and if they lose the ball early the two centre-halves are exposed to the counter attack. So I would never judge Koscielny and Squillaci so early on in their careers. If it comes to the end of next season and we are still talking about the same things, I will then make my judgement call.
So why does everyone jump on the back of the defence at the first sign of trouble?
Well, because Arsenal haven’t won anything and everyone associated with the club wants success, now everybody is looking at why we are not winning things and unfortunately it is always the defence that will come under pressure and scrutiny.
Let battle commence...
It’s been the same with goalkeeping position at the Emirates, firstly after David Seaman retired and then when Jens Lehmann left. Out of the current crop of keepers who would you most like to play in front of?
To make that judgement call you really need to train with them, see their personalities and play with them in games. One thing I will say is Szczesny is rated very highly at the football club. Personally I think he will end up being the number one. Obviously Fabianski is going to have something to say about that but Szczesny has done well recently. I’m not sure about Almunia, I think he is a decent goalkeeper but it looks to me that he is thinking his career lies somewhere else. So at the moment it looks to be a straight fight between the two polish keepers.
So what is it you expect of your keeper as a defender?
As a defender all you want your goalkeeper to be is commanding and consistent. If they do that then there is nothing else you can ask of them.
On Monday it was transfer deadline day and the football world seemed to go mad with clubs paying huge sums of money for players. What did you make of the cash being splashed?
If you’re asking me if £50 million for Fernando Torres and £35 million for Andy Carroll is worth it, I’m not so sure. For me it is a ridiculous amount of money but if you are trying to prise players away from clubs in January it seems you need to offer huge amounts of money to get them. The only justification for that money will be if the players become successful at those two teams. So Torres’ performances at Chelsea and Carroll’s at Liverpool will be the only way you can judge it. I still think the amount of money in transfers is huge at the moment. I’m not sure how it is justifiable but it is the market forces driving it forward. It is the world we live in and the current day prices.
With the position Arsenal are in at the moment were you disappointed Arsene Wenger didn’t chose to reinforce his squad?
No not really because I knew Arsene wouldn’t do anything in the transfer market. They never really do it anyway; it is not the club’s style.
The gladiators post-duel...all smiles
Lastly Nigel, it is a big month or so ahead for Arsenal with the League, Barcelona are coming to town in the Champions League, the FA Cup moves to the fifth round stage and the visit to Wembley for the Carling Cup final. Realistically what do you think the Gunners can achieve this season?
They can certainly win a trophy. People say to me it will obviously be the Carling Cup but if it is only the Carling Cup then to me it is a start because it gives you the drive to go on and win something else. They are in a great position though, and they just have to make sure they secure the League Cup against Birmingham. That is coming up very quickly and could be a good springboard for the club. But they have to guard against complacency as things can turn around pretty quickly. If you get too complacent, where you’re in four competitions you could find yourself only in one. That is how quickly things can change and how brutal football can be. What is for sure is Arsenal are heading in the right direction and I would like to think they can win something this season.
Fred Perry and the Premier League 4 Sport programme have teamed up to give 100,000 kids across the country the chance to play table tennis representing their football club. The Fred Perry Urban Cup finals are this Saturday.