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Coleman's rise to the top, Jim McClean's forgotten glory years at Dundee and the week's best sportswriting

Plus, the last days of Aaron Hernandez’s life before his death this week.

1.

Sport - Ultimate Fighting Championship 95 - The O2 Arena Source: PA Archive/PA Images

TO AN OUTSIDER, UFC fighting can seem an ugly business which ends when a barely conscious man or woman is pinned to the floor of a cage and pummelled into oblivion. Boxing fans witter on instead about the gravitas of our preferred sport. We are helped that the sporting and political landmarks of boxing have been carved out by fighters as resonant as Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, Emile Griffith and Muhammad Ali. Hardy also stresses that an excellent boxing writer in Paul Gibson helped him capture the nuances of his fighting life.

Yet if it was once easy to dismiss Mixed Martial Arts and its brash standard-bearer in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, even blinkered boxing supporters have conceded there are compelling and complex stories within this rival sport. Conor McGregor, UFC’s most outrageously successful fighter, is the obvious example; but Hardy is the more interesting man.

‘The tranquillity of Dan Hardy’s post-MMA and UFC life is a world away from the brutality of the world he used to inhabit. So why is he planning a comeback?’ – Donald McRae writes for the Guardian.

2.

Golf has been called many things – “an expensive way of playing marbles” (Chesterton), “an insult to lawns” (National Lampoon), “a plague invented by Calvinist Scots as a punishment for man’s sins” (James Barrett Reston) and Twain’s famous “good walk spoiled”. The late and very great Arnold Palmer, unexpectedly, thought it a possible vehicle for world peace. Golf for him was a universal language brimming with the forging of new friendships and with deep and ancient traditions of honour, respect and personal accountability.

Eric Trump, the president’s son, thinks so, too. In a New York Times interview, he praised his father’s unusual capacity to make connections on a golf course, with Mar-a-Lago being the perfect venue for world diplomacy. 

“If he could do that with Putin,” he said, “if he could do that with some of these horrible actors around the world who only want to compromise us as a country, and if he can make friends and they can trust one another, he just did something that not many presidents have been able to do.”

Timothy O’Grady writes about how Donald Trump has become the golfer-in-chief for the Guardian.

3.

Across his second murder trial, across what would be the final days of his life before his prison cell suicide on Wednesday, there was the slightest change in Aaron Hernandez. It was a behind-the-scenes betrayal of his public face, one that stared down homicide cases and life sentences with a carefree attitude and a hauntingly happy smile.

Hernandez began to talk more. Talk to whomever was around him – lawyers and court officers and courthouse workers and the few confidants who dared to show their faces. He’d always been an engaged defendant and a defiant presence, but this was different. Maybe it was four years penned up. Maybe it was the realization that this, sitting inside a courtroom, was the most contact from the outside he’d ever again get. Maybe it was a sign of what was to come, years and years, decades and decades of emptiness and regret.

So Hernandez began to talk, especially about the world that was barreling along without him. Not much, but something. From the weather to the NFL news to how his old college teammate Tim Tebow was attempting a baseball career to the traffic on the highways to and from prison. He was open to small talk.

Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel reacts to the death of Aaron Hernandez and writes about the final days of his life.

4.

Six times last fall, on the eve of every football game that Stanford hosted in the 2016 season, Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips shared a room at the Crowne Plaza Cabana in Palo Alto, California. The Cardinal defensive linemen had been close since arriving on campus in 2014, and while they talked often, these nights were different. They provided a chance for the pair to wade into conversations while shut off from the rest of the world.

Sometimes the sessions were casual, a couple of kids just shooting the shit. There were other nights, though, when one of the most fraught political climates in recent American history set the stage for the two to talk about what was happening across the nation. They discussed racial inequality, police brutality, Colin Kaepernick’s protests, the formation of modern Chicago, and the lack of opportunities afforded to unprivileged youth. “Stuff like that matters to me a lot,” Thomas says. “I’m just trying to educate myself as much as possible, to try to have a better understanding and know that if I say something, I can back it up. I have my opinions, but I’m still learning.”

Nearly five months after the duo’s final stay at the Crowne Plaza, many of the issues facing society haven’t changed, but Thomas’s standing within that society is about to. 

Robert Mays of The Ringer spoke to rising NFL Draft prospect Solomon Thomas. 

5.

SCOTTISH SOCCER Source: EMPICS Sport

Arriving at United, McLean quickly realised that his grand ambitions could be satisfied only if he developed his own talent – the average attendance in his first season was just 9,743. So he restructured the club’s youth system, at the same time cementing himself as its sole source of power. And it worked! Though United remained in mid-table, in 1974 he led them to their first Scottish Cup final – they were walloped by Jock Stein’s Celtic, McLean later admitting to being in his thrall – and things continued improving thereafter. The lean years were over; now it was time for the McLean years.

That summer, an 18-year-old attacker from Ellon in Aberdeenshire arrived; Paul Whitehead Sturrock went on to play 385 times for the club. And in his first season he scored six goals in 12 league appearances, helping the team to a fourth-place finish – its highest ever. Though this came at a cost: Andy Gray, and his 46 goals in 62 appearances, left for Aston Villa. He was 19.

McLean was less than gruntled, having spent hours working with Gray on the training ground. “It was no use plying him with good balls for he scored too easily,” he said. “It was the bad balls that helped him. His right side was not nearly as strong as his left side. We helped him develop that.” Accordingly, he ensured that never again would he be so burned.

The Guardian’s Daniel Harrise explores Dundee United’s glory years under Jim McLean.

6.

Seamus Coleman Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Séamus Coleman’s recent injury in the Republic of Ireland’s battle against Wales illustrated the precarious nature of professional football and how a lifetime of hard work can be threatened in a split-second through an opponent’s rashness.

The fact that the Killybegs native was actually on the field at the Aviva Stadium in the first place is, however, remarkable in itself. Coleman moved to Everton in 2009 as a 20-year-old League of Ireland player having not captured the attention of British scouts as a teenager. He was the first player from the south-west area of Donegal to ever play league football in England with Carl McHugh since doubling that tally. While north-east Donegal has a strong tradition of soccer that dates back to the 1880s, the south-west area would today generally be regarded as a Gaelic football stronghold.

Donegal has produced more players that have gone on to play professional football in England than any other peripheral Irish county, although admittedly these figures are quite low.

Conor Curran maps Coleman’s rise to the top and the transformation of football through the years in Donegal for the Irish Times. 

7.

“Honestly, the stuff I’ve seen in academies. Coaches can be vile with the kids, because they think they’ve got to kiss someone’s arse. I’ve sat in meetings with them, when they discuss the development of the five Cs in a player – confidence, commitment, control, concentration, communication.

“They’ve got their head down like the school swot, writing furiously in their notebook. They walk down the stairs, and nobody’s around now. They see a player and they’re like, ‘Oi, what are you doing? That’s rubbish.’ I said to this one guy “you should read what you just wrote down. The way you are talking to that child is horrendous.’”

His voice breaks, in a mixture of incredulity, sadness and contempt. McCool is at pains to stress his respect for the vast majority of his peers yet, emotionally, the dam has burst. Bad experiences manifest themselves, like muggers emerging from a heavily-shadowed alleyway. Another episode, on a tour to Belgium, looms large.

Michael Calvin looks at football youth development in an extract from his new book, which was published in the Guardian this week. In this piece, he speaks to Tony McCool. 

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