The Best XI Never to Win the Champions League

Building the perfect XI from the unlucky geniuses who never won Europe’s greatest prize.

The Champions League final for 2017 is approaching, and with it comes a possible fourth crown in the offing for one Cristiano Ronaldo. If Real Madrid were to clinch their twelfth European trophy, and become the first team of the modern era to retain it, they’d make not only Ronaldo but a raft of their players multiple-time winners.

The Portuguese winger-turned-poacher already has three winners’ medals to his name, while the likes of Ramos, Kroos, Benzema and Modric all have two apiece.

But of their Italian opponents, there’s one man in particular who must be dying to get his hands on the one trophy that has eluded him for over two decades. In a career spanning 22 seasons, Gianluigi Buffon has tasted success in Serie A, Serie B, the Coppa Italia, the Supercoppa Italiana, the UEFA Cup and the World Cup — but it is the greatest club competition of them all that remains so tantalisingly out of reach.

Should he fail for the third time in his endeavours to become a European champion, he would join a supremely illustrious list of footballers never to have got their hands on club football’s most famous trophy.

You can forget Ronaldo, Messi, et al; these are the very best of the rest*.

*For the sake of argument, players eligible for the list must have played in the competition since its re-invention in 1992 as the Champions League.

GK — Gianluigi Buffon

With the likes of Schmeichel, Kahn, Casillas and Neuer already in possession of a coveted Champions League winners’ medal, there’s really only one man whose name could fit snugly amongst this pantheon of giants.

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A more reliable custodian of the goal you’ll be hard pressed to find throughout the history of world football, the 39-year-old Buffon has still yet to claim Europe’s biggest prize despite appearing 109 times in the competition.

DF — Lilian Thuram

In a career that saw him turn out in Europe for Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona, the powerful French full-back – who counts Serie A, Coupe de France, Coppa Espana and Coppa Italia medals amongst his collection – and never once got his hands on a Champions League winner’s medal.

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Like Buffon, he fell short at the final hurdle in 2003, when Juventus were defeated by Milan at Old Trafford, but for a man who was part of the dominant French national side of the ’90s and ’00s, it seems incredulous he never reached the illustrious summit of club football.

DF — Fabio Cannavaro

There are few footballers who win the Ballon d’Or, and there are fewer still who win it in spite of being defenders. Yet the elegant Italian, the leader of Italy’s victorious World Cup side in 2006, managed just that, becoming the fist centre-half to scoop the accolade since Franz Beckenbauer in 1976.

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However, although Cannavaro played for giants like Inter, Juventus and Real Madrid, the classy centre-back finished his career without a winner’s medal in the Champions League; one which would’ve completed an extremely enviable personal collection.

DF — Sol Campbell

Whereas Cannavaro embodied the elegant, graceful side of defending, Sol Campbell was all about sheer power. The hulking centre-back, who acrimoniously leapt across the North London divide from Spurs to Arsenal, was the man at the heart of a defence which became the first in Premier League history to go unbeaten in 2003/04.

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However, it was the 2005/06 season where Campbell came so close to tasting European glory. In the final against Barcelona, the centre-back had opened the scoring for the North London side, only to see the Catalans register two late goals and take the trophy back to the Camp Nou.

MF — Michael Ballack

The legendary German midfielder, who was an integral part to the successes of Bayern Munich and Chelsea in the mid-’00s, ended a tremendously profitable career in 2012 without ever tasting glory in a European competition.

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The heartbeat of every midfield he performed in, Ballack drove both Chelsea and Bayer Leverkusen onward to European finals, only to suffer defeat in both. Frustratingly, the story for Ballack was familiar on an international level: he was a runner-up in the 2002 World Cup with Germany.

MF — Daniele De Rossi

The highest-scoring midfielder in Italian post-War history, the Roman icon has had fewer chances for European glory than most on this list because of his utter devotion to boyhood club Roma.

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Despite being on the end of a 7-1 thrashing to Manchester United in 2008, De Rossi ranks as one of the finest ball-winning midfielders of his generation, and looks finally set to assume club captaincy of Roma at the sprightly age of 34. So there’s still time to get himself off this list.

MF — Lothar Matthaus

Perhaps the man on this list who, both figurative and literally, came closest to lifting the famous trophy, Lothar Matthaus was substituted off in the ’99 final at the age of 38 with his Bayern Munich side leading an under-performing Manchester United 1-0.

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Yet, in the final 90 seconds, the legendary playmaker’s dreams of a first – and at his age, possibly last – European crown went up in smoke. For a man who remains Germany’s solitary Ballon d’Or recipient, football can seem a cruel sport.

MF — Pavel Nedved

When the Italians were dominating the football landscape in the ’90s and ’00s, playmaker Pavel Nedved was at the peak of his powers in a Juventus side gleaming with stars. Gliding across the grass with unmatched grace and poise, he’s recognised as easily the finest player the Czech Republic produced.

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The 2003 Ballon d’Or winner came closest in 2003 when Juventus lost on penalties to Milan. Somehow, the UEFA Cup, Coppa Italia and Serie A medals aren’t going to make up for missing out on the big one.

FW — Ruud van Nistelrooy

For a man that claimed the Champions League golden boot in three out of four seasons during his time at Manchester United, it’s a staggering injustice Ruud van Nistelrooy never even reached a final, let alone had the chance to win the competition proper.

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One of the most lethal penalty-box strikers in the world, the hulking Dutch forward made goal-scoring look the simplest thing in the world. But, despite illustrious tenures with Manchester United, PSV and Real Madrid, he never did get his hands on the elusive big-eared trophy.

FW — Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Of course, for the mercurial Swede, there is technically still time for him to scrub his name from this list, but with the clock ticking on, it might just be one step too far. Incredibly, the supremely-talented Ibrahimovic has actually never reached a Champions League final.

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Instead, he’s fought off accusations of mediocrity to hammer in 49 goals in the continent’s top club competition, which were it not for a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, would’ve won him a golden boot or two during his time with PSG.

FW — Gabriel Batistuta

Like De Rossi, Batistuta never really came within a sniff of lifting the Champions League trophy, but nonetheless made his mark in the competition with Fiorentina, where he proved he wasn’t just all about smashing goals past Italians only. Are you reading, Mark Bosnich?

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The most feared striker of his – and probably any other – generation, Batistuta was the complete forward: lightning quick, supremely athletic, strong in the air and a powerful finisher with both feet. In his prime, he was untouchable — and his talent warranted at least an appearance in a Champions League final.

The 9 greatest albums of the ’90s

It was the decade dominated by the boyband, but the ’90s had more than a few gems to offer.

It’s the decade that saw the rise of the boy band, the beginning of Britney Spears and the unstoppable tide of girl power, but sift amid the detritus left behind by the decade’s most famous pop juggernauts, and you’ll find genuinely some of the best records ever produced.

While many pine for the golden days of the Beatles and the swinging sixties, the prog rock heyday of the seventies, or the new romantic movement of the eighties, it was the nineties where the journey of musical evolution reached its zenith.

So, take a trip back in time to see why the nineties really was the best decade for music. (For the purposes of some kind of fairness, there’s only one album from each artist included.)

9. Metallica — Metallica (1992)

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More commonly referred to as The Black Album, Metallica’s eponymous record thrust the LA metalheads firmly into the mainstream, having spent the best part of ten years and four albums pioneering the thrash metal genre along with the likes of Megadeth and Anthrax.

With hits like ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’ proving that Hetfield and co. could produce music without smashing the living shite out of their instruments at a tremendous tempo, the album rushed to the top of the UK Album Chart and peaked at number 7 on the US Billboard 200.

25 years later, it’s still regarded as their finest piece of work to date, as they proved when they headlined Glastonbury in 2014 and tore the place down to the booming bellows of tens of thousands of revellers singing, “Enter night, exit light!”

8. Nirvana — Nevermind (1991)

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When grunge exploded onto the music scene in the early nineties, it was largely down to Nirvana’s seminal record Nevermind. Sure, The Pixies had set the tone at the end of the eighties, but it was Kurt Cobain, with his oversized jumper, tatty jeans and raw and unapologetic vocals that thrust alternative rock into the spotlight.

Initially expected to be a commercial failure by the band’s label, the album took off — eventually topping the Billboard 200 — thanks in no small part to the phenomenal success of the lead single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Ably succeeded by ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Lithium’, Nevermind solidified itself as one of the greatest albums of the decade.

In ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ an anthem was born, and Cobain was elevated to the pantheon of rock greats — a position that became all the more poignant following his tragic suicide in 1994.

7. Rage Against the Machine — Rage Against the Machine (1991)

ratm.jpgThe album that inspired an entire generation to voice its defiance with the oft-uttered line “F*ck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”, rap metal outfit Rage Against the Machine found international fame with their debut album — a fame that was rekindled 20 years later when the lead single ‘Killing in the Name’ became the Christmas number one in the UK following a protracted Facebook campaign against Simon Cowell’s X Factor.

Long before Linkin Park were incorporating elements of rap into their music, Rage were bridging genres and breaking boundaries with their defiant brand of politically-charged rap metal, that was unabashedly devoid of pretension or perceived grandeur.

Instead, their fledgling musical career burgeoned off the back of a truly stupendous album that pretty much set the template for how to bend the rules of convention when it came to music.

6. James — Laid (1993)

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While plenty of critics will the cite coma-inducing work of Radiohead as the pinnacle of British music in the nineties, it was the efforts of Manchester band James that really flew the flag for Britain at the beginning of the decade.

Most recognisable for their quintessential anthem ‘Sit Down’, the six-piece found near critical and musical perfection with 1993’s Laid. Recorded with Brian Eno, the album revels in beauty and melancholy in equal measure, producing the tender hits ‘All Out to Get You’, ‘Say Something’ and perhaps the most poignant of all, ‘Sometimes’.

Yet, despite the sentimental nature of much of the record, it was the risque title track ‘Laid’ that became the album’s most famous export. So much so that it appeared in the American Pie films and made the band a staple on US college radio.

5. Iron Maiden — Fear of the Dark (1991)

fotd.jpgThough undoubtedly Iron Maiden enjoyed their heyday in the 1980s with a string of practically flawless metal masterpieces, the British rock legends did manage one album in the nineties that nearly replicated the success of their golden era.

It came in the form of 1991’s Fear of the Dark, which happened to feature the last appearance of vocalist Bruce Dickinson until 2000’s Brave New World, and which was fronted by the epic 7-minute masterpiece that bore the same name as the album.

In fact, the album could simply contain the track ‘Fear of the Dark’ alone and it would stake a strong claim for album of the decade, so momentous and utterly enthralling a musical tale as it is. But, supported by the likes of ‘Judas Be My Guide’ and ‘Chains of Misery’, Fear of the Dark served as Iron Maiden’s last great record before their renaissance in the new millennium.

4. Pulp — Different Class (1995)

pulpIn an era when Blur and Oasis were battling it out for chart supremacy, it was Pulp, fronted by the maverick Jarvis Cocker, who stole a march on everyone when they released this seminal masterpiece that would help define the Britpop wave that swept the UK in mid-nineties.

Helped by the chart successes of ‘Disco 2000’ and ‘Common People’ (the latter of which is a staple at practically every SU indie night up and down the country), the album rocketed to number one and scooped the 1996 Mercury Music prize. In Britain alone, it’s gone 4x platinum as of 2016.

A wondrous cross-section of synth-pop, Different Class serves as a grandly theatrical record full of bitingly clever witticisms and catchy pop melodies.

3. Blur — Parklife (1995)

parklife.jpgWhen it comes to the age-old choice of Blur or Oasis, there was only ever going to be one winner. For all their swagger, the Mancunian rockers could never quite match the simple brilliance that became a hallmark of their greatest rivals.

Blur perhaps reached the summit of their endeavours in 1995 when they released Parklife, an album that defined Britain at the time. Often irreverent and effervescent in its commentary of contemporary culture, the album spawned hits like ‘Girls & Boys’, ‘End of a Century’ and ‘Parklife’, as well as the criminally-underrated ‘Tracy Jacks’.

Not only did it sell 5 million copies worldwide and top the UK album charts, it cemented itself as an integral part of pop culture in the nineties and created a legacy that has lasted until this day.

2. R.E.M — Out of Time (1991)

rem.jpgWhile it’s been argued that R.E.M’s following album, Automatic for the People, represents their greatest achievement across a long and successful career, it was their earlier record, Out of Time, which propelled them from their modest surroundings into international stardom.

Fronted by the iconic single, ‘Losing My Religion’, Out of Time is an eclectic plethora of songs that cover the length and breadth of human emotion; from the almost painfully joyous ‘Shiny Happy People’ through the wistful ‘Near Wild Heaven’ to the lugubrious ‘Country Feedback’.

It may have set them on the road to Automatic for the People, but Out of Time in its own right is a fundamentally superb album, and one that goes down not only as one of the greatest albums of the nineties but of any decade.

1. Red Hot Chili Peppers — Californication (1999)

caliFor a band that were seemingly at the end of the line following years of torment and turmoil, with their lead singer plagued by serious drug addiction and their greatest guitarist languishing in his burnt-out LA home battling his own narcotics-induced demons, it’s astonishing the Red Hot Chili Peppers managed to make any sort of comeback, let alone record quite possibly the greatest album ever made.

With their classic lineup restored once more, a reinvigorated Chilis created a far more ephipanic album completely swollen with magnificent songwriting. From the lyrical masterpiece ‘Scar Tissue’ with its mellow guitar tones, to the masterfully sombre ‘Otherside’; through the rambunctious ‘Around the World’ and the bone-rattling ‘Easily’; to the eponymous title track with its evocative examination of  the intricacies of life in their famous home state.

Fittingly bringing the nineties to a close, Californication bridged the decades and signalled a vibrant new era in the career of the Chili Peppers. It simply is the greatest album to have graced the nineties.

The Greatest Wrestlers of All Time

From the golden age of the ’80s to the sheer carnage of the Attitude Era, here are the true greats of wrestling.

Throughout 2016, nostalgia has been high on the agenda for WWE.  And reached its peak this month with the resurrection of wrestling legend, Goldberg, who faced off against another WWE stalwart, Brock Lesnar, in a titanic clash at Survivor Series.

So, with everyone’s gazes firmly set firmly on the past as the WWE tried to remind us what made Goldberg such an unstoppable wrecking machine in the first place, albeit largely in WCW, it seems the perfect time to roll out the often-divisive “Greatest of All Time” list.

Seeing as the current crop of WWE superstars are hardly living up to the “super” or the “star” in their job titles, I’m delving into the annals of wrestling history to pick out the ten greatest performers.

To minimalise the arguments, this top ten is compiled using a number of factors: actual wrestling ability; sheer popularity; ability to connect with the fans; capability to cut promos; and proficiency at telling a compelling story.

So, without further ado, here we go!

10. Randy Orton

Although by far the youngest wrestler on this list, Orton deserves his place due to the incredible longevity he’s enjoyed in his career despite his relatively young age.

Still only 36, he’s held the WWE Championship/World Heavyweight Championship a staggering 12 times, winning it for the first time at 24 to become the youngest champion in the company’s history.

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But it’s not just his title reigns that earn him a spot in this list. As a heel, he’s one of the most authentic WWE characters in a hell of a long time. Whether during his Legend Killer run, or as the sly and slippery Viper, Orton knows how to get a crowd to loath him.

Add to all that the fact he has one of the most effective finishing manoeuvres in the business, and you have a genuine contender for the Hall of Fame.

9. Triple H

He might have drawn ire from some quarters for his supposed marrying into the ruling hierarchy, but putting this aside, Triple H has enjoyed a fantastically successful career.

The Cerebral Assassin was not just a terrific singles competitor – winning the WWE/World Heavyweight Championship no fewer than 14 times – he was also behind two of the biggest stables in wrestling history: D-Generation X and Evolution.

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On top of that, Triple H has competed with many of the WWE’s biggest stars over the years, and has headlined Wrestlemania a record seven times, bringing him equal with Hulk Hogan.

There was absolutely no way he was going to ever miss being on the list.

8. Chris Jericho

In terms of sheer charisma, there are very few performers who can match Chris Jericho. Through tenures in WCW and WWF/E, he’s forged a star-studded career on the back of electric promos and compelling matches.

Not just an excellent performer, Jericho is also a near-flawless wrestler, combining mat skills with impeccable aerial ability. And every kid in the ’90s and ’00s was trying out the Walls of Jericho on his mates.

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It was testament to his dedication to the art of wrestling that he was chosen to be the first Undisputed Champion back in 2002, beating both The Rock and Steve Austin in the same night.

Whether face or heel (and he was one hell of a heel!), Jericho is a hero, and a perplexingly unsung one at that. A true legend.

7. Sting

Loyalty is the word that springs to mind whenever Sting is mentioned. Even when WCW was being driven into the ground in the final years of the Monday Night Wars, their longest-serving star refused to abandon ship.

An exemplary wrestler, Sting coupled a mysterious presence, akin to that of The Undertaker, with superb technical ability. He could take part in a match with absolutely anyone and make them look fantastic.

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A six-time WCW Heavyweight Champion, Sting was the face of the company throughout the 1990s, surviving the waves of high-profile superstars that came from rivals WWF to ensure he was still Ted Turner’s most important asset.

Following a stint in TNA later in his career, he finally made his WWE debut and was rightfully inducted into the Hall of Fame. Whether he made the right call to avoid the calls of Vince McMahon for so long is up for debate, but no matter what, he still goes down as one of the very best.

6. Hulk Hogan

Urging kids to “take their vitamins and say their prayers”, the Hulkster drove the then-WWF to enormous heights of popularity in the ’80s and was the first wrestler to genuinely crossover into the mainstream public eye.

Hulk Hogan is practically synonymous with the wrestling industry, thanks to his tenures in WWE and later in WCW as Hollywood Hogan. From national icon and boyhood idol, to arrogant villainous heel, he was a guaranteed box office hit.

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For many, he was the reason they got into wrestling, especially back in the glory days in the 1980s. However, for all his appeal, Hogan wasn’t the most gifted of wrestlers. “Hulk Up”, big boot, leg drop, pin. For the most part, that was literally all he could manage.

Still, despite the notable in-ring limitations, missing his name of the list off all-time greats is about as close to treason as you can get in the wrestling business.

5. Ric Flair

For wrestling fans of a certain generation, it might come as something of a surprise not to see the 16-time world champion higher up this list. Where Hulk Hogan was the face of the WWF in the 1980s, Ric Flair was the face of just about everywhere else.

Travelling the territories, the record World Heavyweight Champion turned regional competitors into wrestling stars, such was he guaranteed to give a scintillating performance every time he stepped inside a wrestling ring.

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Following his performances in the NWA in the ’80s, Flair continued to establish himself as one of the industry’s top performers throughout the ’90s in WCW and finally in the ’00s in WWE.

Whether he was bellowing “Woo!”, handing out knife-edge chops to everyone in sight or cutting one of his rampant promos, Flair was in a league of his own when it came to having the audience in the palm of his hand.

4. The Rock

When it comes to wrestling stars who have successfully transitioned into pop culture icons, there are none as recognisable as The Rock. Even eschewing his famous moniker for his actual name these days still doesn’t detract from his phenomenal wrestling career.

In terms of charisma, The Rock had no equal. He cut some of the finest promos in the business and holds the record for Raw’s highest ever rating when he and Mick Foley took to the screen to celebrate the Great One’s birthday.

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Inside the ring, The Rock was an athletically-gifted performer, even if he did sell the many Stone Cold stunners he received to within an inch of his life… He knew how to get a crowd to react and he did it with aplomb.

It’s a testimony to his career that he was welcomed so vociferously back into the WWE fold when he returned in 2011 and regained the WWE Championship in front of a new set of fans.

3. The Undertaker

One of WWE’s longest-serving stars, The Undertaker is practically synonymous with longevity. In a captivating career that has thus far spanned three decades, The Deadman is routinely regarded as one of the greatest the business has ever seen.

This is down in no small part to his ability to adapt and re-invent. Over the years, his character has encompassed a mute western mortician, a supernatural dark lord, a badass biker and an amalgamation of all three. No matter what incarnation, The Undertaker has engrossed audiences.

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Renowned for being an excellent wrestler in spite of his enormous stature, The Undertaker has been involved in his fair share of compelling matches, with his bouts against Shawn Michaels going down as two of the most exciting spectacles in wrestling history.

While he may not have reaped the title gold that the likes of John Cena, The Rock and Randy Orton have accumulated, his legacy has been cemented. There are few superstars with as much presence in the wrestling world as The Undertaker.

2. Shawn Michaels

If you ask many professional wrestlers who their choice is for the greatest of all time, there is one name that pops up with deserved frequency. The Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Michaels, established himself as a heroic performer in the 1990s – and his legacy lives on to this day.

He pretty much carried the then-WWF throughout the mid-’90s when most of the company’s high-profile names were jumping ship, and if it wasn’t for a horrific back injury suffered during a match with The Undertaker, HBK’s career wouldn’t have been put on indefinite hiatus.

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He returned in 2002 following a four-year absence and it was like he’d never been away. His story-telling skills weren’t dulled, his in-ring ability undiminished and his sheer charisma as wild as ever.

Few wrestlers can make you feel like Shawn Michaels can: he made viewers privy to his pain and share in his triumphs. When it comes to connecting with an audience, no one can top Shawn Michaels.

1. Stone Cold Steve Austin

In terms of sheer popularity, there was absolutely no one bigger than the Texas Rattlesnake. He led the WWE resurgence at the end of the ’90s, eventually turning the tide in the infamous Monday Night Wars.

His brash, beer-swilling, finger-flipping redneck anti-hero persona resonated with millions of fans and propelled him to the very top of the pile. He spawned the 3:16 movement, popularised the “What?” chant, ended every promo with “‘Cause Stone Cold said so” and had tens of thousands on their feet screaming “Hell yeah!” at the top of their lungs each and every night.

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It’s somewhat of a tragedy that his phenomenal career was cruelly cut short by a recurrence of a neck injury he suffered at the hands of Owen Hart in 1997, but for the six or so years he was active in WWE, he was untouchable.

His feuds with Mr McMahon, The Rock, Triple H and The Undertaker were legendary; his Stone Cold Stunner finishing move is about as iconic a manoeuvre as has ever been invented; and he made the company more money than anyone else in its history.

There is simply only one Steve Austin. And that’s the bottom line…

Review: The Grand Tour’s great, but can a bit more go wrong, please?

The Grand Tour is off to a great start but there’s something missing — a healthy heap of calamity.

If there’s one thing The Grand Tour had going for it on its release, it was that it was always going to be compared with the new incarnation of Top Gear, and seeing how that was utter shite, Jeremy Clarkson’s newest venture was always going to come out favourably.

However, now the dust has settled and the image of Chris Evans’ ginger bonce nodding up and down excitedly as he bellows to camera about what you could expect in the next VT has faded, we can appreciate The Grand Tour for what it really is — faults and all.

While it may have been labelled “Top Gear on steroids” there seems to be a slight departure from the type of programming that made the trio of Clarkson, Hammond and May so unique and so likable. Sure, there’s lots of cars going very fast. Granted, there’s plenty of banter between the three. Yes, there’s a new track and a (semi) tamed racing driver.

But there’s one thing it’s been strangely lacking thus far. A colossal dosage of calamity. That was where the three really came to life: when they were attempting to build amphibious cars and drive them across the Channel; or when they chauffeured celebrities to the BAFTAs in self-made limousines; or that time they raced across Florida and annoyed just about everybody.

Yes, larking about in extremely fast cars is all well and good, but there’s only so many times you can watch three middle-aged men hurtle through pristine scenery in a car worth more than your house.

Perhaps it is something to do with the enormous budget gifted to them by Amazon. But sometimes it’s just terrific viewing to watch them tanking around some unremarkable part of the world in three crap cars, while everything goes wrong, Jeremy shouts, James gets annoyed and Richard crashes into things.

Thus far, and admittedly the series has only just begun, there’s not been enough of that utter stupidity and the impending feeling that everything is about to go absolutely tits up. That’s where the real funniness manifests.

The show is hardly a failure: the Celebrity Brain Crash section of the show is great, the camaraderie between the three is as strong as it ever was and visually the whole thing looks impeccable, but it’d be great to see the presenters in a less artificial setting, where there are no scripts to work off and the humour develops naturally, with as little cajoling as possible.

But there are signs it’s coming. The show touched upon this with the Jordan section – albeit that segment  was appalling and suffered from far too many planned events – and the montage from the first episode did show James May traversing a river in some godforsaken contraption that was rapidly falling apart.

A lot of people want the Top Gear of old back; and others want something bigger, more explosive and more expensive than that. Really, all it needs is a few more things going wrong.

7 Fantasy and Sci-Fi classics you need to have on your bookshelf

Celebrating the rich heritage of fantasy and science fiction, I’ve tried to put together a list of my favourite works of fiction the two genres have to offer. From lands of elves and dragons, to worlds inhabited by hostile aliens, these are the novels, series and novellas you need to have on your bookshelf.

The Wheel of Time — Robert Jordan

Series begins with: The Eye of the World

eye-of-the-worldWhen it comes to building a world of staggering depth, complexity and unbridled imagination, there are few writers who can claim to be as proficient as the late Robert Jordan. His epic series spans 14 novels, covers 12,000 pages and is told in no fewer than four million words. This isn’t a series for the lighthearted or the uninitiated; it’s a truly masterful weaving of multiple tales, following the unfolding fates of dozens of beautifully-crafted characters, perhaps none of whom are as profoundly important as Rand al’Thor.

Though Jordan died in 2007 before he could complete his epic body of works, the series was finished in style by fellow fantasy stalwart Brandon Sanderson. It’ll take up room, but it’s an absolute must have for your collection.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — Philip K Dick

do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep.jpegAlthough the novel became perhaps more famous for its use as the basis of the classic film Blade Runner, Philip K Dick’s bleak futuristic tale of Rick Deckhard’s quest to retire rogue androids as a means to achieve his life goal of owning a real animal goes down as one of science-fiction’s most engrossing reads. Eschewing titanic space battles, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a masterfully somber affair that explores what it’s like to be human against a post-apocalyptic backdrop.

It’s an altogether different experience to the film, and doesn’t deserve to fall foul of comparison. Ultimately, Dick created one of the genre’s most lasting pieces of fiction — moving, thought-provoking and utterly brilliant.

The Kingkiller Chronicles — Patrick Rothfuss

Series begins with: The Name of the Wind

wind.jpgPatrick Rothfuss’s compelling if atypical fantasy series may not have reached completion yet, but deservedly earns a spot on the pantheon of all-time greats. Impeccably written and beautifully composed, it tells the story of Kvothe in the form of a wistful autobiography told to a mysterious chronicler. Full of intrigue, exquisite prose and sheer adventure, it’s a fantasy novel for people who don’t necessarily enjoy fantasy.

The first two novels, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear have since been joined by a delightfully enigmatic novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things which explores the strange and wonderful realm of Auri; while the third eagerly-awaited installment in the series is already in the works.

Starship Troopers — Robert A Heinlein

ST.jpgMany will recall the 1990s cinematic satirical adaptation that placed a great deal of emphasis on blowing up aliens, but the source material for the film was far more complex than that. If you’re after a traditional story, then Starship Troopers isn’t for you: its pacing is unorthodox, its plot structure a little odd and its themes definitely not mainstream. It follows the exploits of Sgt. Juan “Johnnie” Rico, who enlists in the futuristic Mobile Infantry, and the trials and tribulations he faces.

It’s less a traditional adventure story and more a commentary on society and human nature in general. And though it espouses some fairly radical militaristic views, its a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking read. Oh, and some aliens get blown up too.

The Legend of Drizzt — RA Salvatore

Series begins with: Homeland

homeland.jpgRA Salvatore is about as prolific as they come. The revered author, responsible for the most famous of dark elves, Drizzt Do’Urden, writes almost exclusively in the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting of Dungeons and Dragons. Of his many series, the core tales surrounding Drizzt and the Companions of the Hall are the most engrossing, yanking the reader by the arm and hurtling them along through a series of fast-paced, action-packed novels that take in everything from evil wizards, marauding orcs, sinister drow and conniving assassins.

The Drizzt saga now spans 27 novels, with the debut Icewind Dale trilogy and the Hunter’s Blades series being particular highlights. But, quite simply, just start with Homeland and read the whole bloody lot.

I Am Legend — Richard Matheson

legend.jpgBlurring the lines between sci-fi and horror, Richard Matheson broke ground with his 1954 novel I Am Legend. Credited with introducing the modern vampire, Matheson’s creation belongs more in the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction and directly influenced the rise of the contemporary zombie outbreak. The novel is bleak, dark and – and times – cripplingly lonely; so much so, it was once described as the “greatest novel on human loneliness”.

Don’t draw parallels with the film — it’s far, far better than the cinematic adaptation. A genuine science-fiction horror story, it moves slowly, creates tension superbly and ultimately leaves you with an unmatched bittersweet feeling.

The Lord of the Rings — JRR Tolkien

lotr.jpgWhere would fantasy be without the man who popularised the genre over seventy years ago? A renowned scholar, Tolkien painstakingly crafted an entire world down to its most minute details. His finest work, The Lord of the Rings, takes place in the Third Age of his epic mythology and is undoubtedly one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever written. Pitting good against evil, exploring friendship, heroism, love and heartbreak, Tolkien’s masterpiece transcended the genre and became an integral cornerstone of Western literature.

It’s not only a stunning read that you cannot help but be enthralled by, it’s an entire universe to lose yourself in. Before you read it, however, make sure to read The Hobbit, the prequel in which the events of its successor are set. Plus, it’s a much easier read than its larger cousin!

Ranking every Top Gear special from worst to greatest

It’s only a few weeks now until the eagerly-awaited Grand Tour debuts on Amazon Prime, returning our beloved — if occasionally controversial — petrolhead heroes Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May to our TV screens.

And with the return of the iconic trio comes the restoration of spectacular road trips, the likes of which proved extremely popular during their Top Gear run. In total, eleven specials were produced over an eight-year period, and over the course of their run, morphed into two-hour epics that swallowed up two nights of viewing.

So popular were the specials that the Grand Tour threatens to be nothing but extended road trips full of calamity and chaos.

So, to prepare for the inevitable mayhem that is about to come, here’s every Top Gear special ranked in order from worst to greatest.

India Special (2011) 

The India Special arrived during a period in which Top Gear was suffering somewhat of a series slump. With the average viewership down from 7+ million in 2008-2009 to below 6 million in 2010-11, when watching the farcical trip across the Indian continent it’s not hard to see why.

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Largely directionless, the hour-long programme knitted together a series of woolly scenes around a weak premise (a British trade mission) and relied far too heavily on several instances of forced humour. There was the odd chuckle (like James May’s errant autonomous lawnmower going AWOL), but, on the whole, the India Special deservedly goes down as the worst effort produced by Wilman and the team.

Middle East Special (2010) 

This period of lacklustre programming also happened to include the next special on the list, the Middle East Special, which, although was a slightly sharper and tighter affair, still suffered from an over-dependence on engineered laughs.

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It contained a bit more of the camaraderie for which the three presenters are renowned, but a relatively exciting start soon tailed off into incessant meandering through uninspiring scenery, and sadly ended in a thoroughly underwhelming fashion as the three lads delivered presents to… Baby Stig. Sigh.

It speaks volumes when the best part was James May suffering a potentially threatening head injury…

Africa Special (2013) 

The African Special profited from a well-timed two year hiatus, being the first special since 2011’s Middle East venture, and it was far more reminiscent of classic Top Gear programming.

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The premise — which had been shaky in the Africa and Middle East specials — was far more stable, and presented the trio with the genuinely interesting challenge of locating the true source of the Nile. This produced a number of laughs and exciting moments along the way, which included the now-infamous “We’ve just come into Jezza!”, as well as Jeremy’s woeful attempt at utilising a log as a handbrake.

Winter Olympics (2006) 

The inaugural Top Gear special paved the way for the development of the feature, even if it didn’t quite follow the now-recognisable format.

It saw the trio attempt to run their very own Top Gear Olympics with a predictable serving of utter chaos and abject failure, as they fired a jet-propelled Mini down a ski slope, raced a bobsleigh against a rally car and participated in a thrilling motor biathlon.

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It was a solid special and the banter between Clarkson, May and Hammond at its absolute finest; Richard Hammond building a barrier out of chairs at the bottom of the wrong slope being a memorable moment of calamity.

Bolivia Special (2009) 

The Bolivia Special was an example of Top Gear at its finest. Set against a beautiful backdrop, the three boys blundered their way along a tortuous route and drove their 4x4s to the absolute limit.

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James May falling off a barge, Richard Hammond discovering a snake in his cab, the perilous trip along Death Road; and the epic final stretch when the boys barrelled down enormous sand dunes to the sea — this special had the lot.

Polar Special (2007) 

The Polar special followed on from the success of the Winter Olympics and USA specials, and by now had transformed into the classic format which was followed practically unto the end of the series’ run.

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James and Jeremy raced Hammond to the North Pole, car vs dog sled, in a contest fraught with peril (Polar bears and melting ice), tantrums (Richard Hammond) and gales of laughter (toilet-based shenanigans galore!). It was a truly epic piece of programming.

Patagonia Special (2015) 

It garnered infamy for the events that unfolded towards the end of the trip, but the Patagonia adventure was a pretty solid special in its own right, minus the unsavoury drama.

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The cars were magnificent, the trip took them through some spectacular vistas and there were a plethora of cock-ups along the route. The idea of ending up in Ushuia to play a car football match against Argentina also had the promise of sheer entertainment.

Sadly, it was all marred by a group of Argentine nationalists who perceived Jeremy’s licence plate to be a direct reference to the 1982 Falklands War. Thus, the episode ended with the presenters and crew being hounded out of the country amid scenes of violence.

Burma Special (2014)

Another of the two-hour instalments as opposed to the earlier 60-minute specials, the lorry trek across Burma was Top Gear at its best.

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Whether they were causing mayhem in Rangoon, playing football on a motorway or making an absolute pig’s ear out of building a bridge over the River Koq, the drama rattled along at a terrific pace.

It is simply one of the most epic adventures undertaken.

USA Special (2007) 

Despite its age, the USA road trip is still one of the finest specials to date. The premise of having to buy cars for less than it costs to hire them from the airport allowed for dozens of brilliant moments as the  boys took their £1000 rides all the way from Florida to New Orleans.

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There was American Stig, Jeremy’s love of Florida (“everybody’s very fat, everybody’s very stupid and everbody’s very rude”), the roadkill challenge, the alligator-infested wood, and — who can forget?! — the infamous run-in with the gang of rednecks on a petrol station forecourt in Alabama.

Pure brilliance from start to finish.

Botswana Special (2007) 

Who can forget Oliver? The relationship that bloomed between Richard Hammond and his terrific little car was nothing short of beautiful.

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In a trip that saw the trio cross Botswana in its entirety, in the most unfitting cars possible, the boys barely survived the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, and undertook a hilarious route through the stunning Okavango Delta.

Somehow, in their fleet of woefully-prepared road cars, all three presenters made it, genuinely against all the odds. If anyone wants to try and count the number of times Jeremy broke down, feel free — you’ll need a day off work it was that many!

Vietnam Special (2008) 

Okay, so it doesn’t technically involve any cars, but the Vietnam special is by far the most complete road trip Top Gear ever undertook.

From Jeremy’s initial reluctance to engage in riding anything that resembles a bike, the narrative develops into a astoundingly good road trip that contains everything you’d want from a TV show.

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The boys buy each other comedy gifts, purchase tailor-made cashmere suits, get on the wrong train, crash into things, fall off their bikes, encounter the most terrible traffic, soar along breath-taking mountain roads, and generally have a bloody good laugh.

And then, when you think it can’t get any better, they have to transform their bikes into boats and sail for the finish line amid the myriad of islands in Bahang Bay. Absolutely stupendous.

A bittersweet take on United’s season thus far

United fans of the past three decades have enjoyed a pretty good life, what with Sir Alex Ferguson sweeping aside all that stood before him, conquering both England and Europe with a swagger that garnered as much ire as it did admiration.

He built and re-built teams that were as dynamic as they were dominant, familiarising Manchester United fans with success. Success that many of them hadn’t witnessed since the heyday of Sir Matt Busby.

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So, it’s with the last 25+ years in mind that Manchester United fans have had to temper their expectations. David Moyes floundered beneath a deluge of expectation; Louis van Gaal — despite winning the FA Cup — alienated supporters with his stagnant brand of possession football; and so, following these disappointments, faith was placed in a man who had long coveted the head role at Old Trafford.

The thing is, in spite of all his undoubted brilliance, José Mourinho hasn’t exactly restored the club to its winning ways.

There is certainly an arrogance about United fans — even being a fervent one myself — that demands success, as if it is some God-given right, rather than earned through graft, guile and sheer bloody-mindedness.

With Mourinho, there is the expectation success will follow, especially when the club shells out in excess of £130 million in transfer fees for some of the footballing world’s most promising names.

But with United stuttering through an indifferent start to the season, what’s missing? With the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Rooney, Mata and De Gea, Mourinho has a glittering squad at his disposal, yet this behemoth of a club languishes in 7th place, having been soundly beaten by Chelsea, outplayed in the Manchester derby and staunchly boring the entire of Merseyside to death.

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First off — play people in their actual positions

As anyone who’s played football to any half-decent level will testify, attuning your game to a host of different positions is tricky. Sure, there are the gifted few for whom versatility is second nature, but understanding the tactical and positional differences of a winger and a striker take time to comprehend.

And that’s going some way to explaining United’s sheer lack of both excitement and proficiency this season.

It may be a sign of the lack of genuinely talented wingers in the squad, but sticking Marcus Rashford out on the flanks is doing nobody any favours. With his fearless nature and direct running, the last place you want the young England star is 30 yards from goal and approaching the byline rapidly. The same goes for Anthony Martial.

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Their frightening pace would be far better serviced through the middle, but not necessarily at Ibrahimovic’s expense. Late on in games, tired legs are going to have a hell of a time keeping up with Rashford and Martial.

Concerning the wide areas, United have a man in Henrik Mkhitaryan who was at the top of his game last season; drifting in off the right-wing to register 11 goals and 15 assists in the Bundesliga as Dortmund finished runners-up.

But it seems as though this United squad has an abundance of talent, all of whom want to play in that coveted ‘number 10’ role — Rooney, Mata, Pogba — and who are similarly bringing a distinct lack of balance to the side.

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Let’s take Paul Pogba. Undoubtedly he possesses a wealth of talent, but he has the positional awareness of a man registered blind. His inclusion in the side warrants a solid base in midfield, potentially robbing the side of creativity going forward. There’s no scope to play Pogba in a midfield two — he too often leaves his partner woefully exposed.

Which brings us neatly onto the next point:

Mourinho needs to establish his first-choice XI — quickly

Unfortunately for United fans, Mourinho has too often got his starting XI and tactical set-up completely wrong for the big games.

Struggling to piece together the jigsaw of how the fuck you fit Paul Pogba in this United side, Mourinho has frequently opted for the lumbering figure of Marouane Fellaini in centre midfield. A curious charge when you consider the big Belgian’s talents as a footballer: he can head the ball. Aaaaand that’s about it.

In years gone past, United have dominated the English and, to a lesser extent, the European scenes thanks in no small part to their strength in centre midfield. Keane, Scholes, Butt, Carrick, Ince would all walk into today’s side without a concern.

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But if you insist on playing Pogba, who anchors the midfield? Do you entrust the energetic and criminally-underrated Ander Herrera, sacrificing his creative instincts in the name of solidarity? Or do you trust in Michael Carrick who, although is certainly into the winter of his career, has a proven time and time again he has the ability to dictate play from the centre of the park.

And what of Morgan Schneiderlin? The aggressive ball-winner seems to have been entirely overlooked alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger when both can offer more consistency in the centre of the pitch that Fellaini.

But that’s not the only area of the pitch Mourinho is struggling with. The right-back berth seems to have been filled, albeit we pray only temporarily, by Antonio Valencia; a man whose ability to defend is less compelling than his attempts to speak English. So many times the Ecuadorian is caught out by even the merest hint of intelligence in an opposition winger; sure, most won’t beat him for pace, but the man doesn’t seem to know what offside is!

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Similarly, Mourinho’s proclivity for playing Young and Lingard in important fixtures beggars belief. These are two men who epitomise one of the bleakest problems that English football is facing: we seem to appreciate a lack of actual footballing talent as long as it is compensated for by a willingness to “put a shift in”.

Since when did top-level international footballers rely solely on their ability to work hard? Carlos Tevez works bloody hard, but he’s also a terrific goal threat to boot; the same goes for Luis Suarez, who never gives defenders a moment’s rest. Cafu would steam up and down Brazil’s right flank in the 90s, yet he could cross a ball like no one’s business and tackle like a bull.

Panicking is going to help absolutely no one

Football fans are fickle, and perhaps none more so than Manchester United fans, many of whom expected a continuation of the club’s phenomenal success once Fergie had waved a fond farewell in 2013.

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Moyes’ head was called for extremely early on, while van Gaal hardly lasted much longer before the masses turned against him. Already there are rumblings of disquiet amongst the United faithful who seem to have once again rolled out that old chestnut “playing the United way”.

Well, what is the United way? Rampaging wingers and an attitude that boldly proclaims, “You score four, we’ll score five”? See how far that gets you against Barcelona! The modern game is changing and so is the entire landscape of football.

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Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the last old-school managers, who ruled the club from top to bottom, and in José Mourinho, United, at least, have a man of similar ilk. Players desire to play for him; they want to impress him. And that’s what the club needs.

Scholes, Giggs, the Nevilles, Keane — all players for whom playing for Manchester United meant something. United fans were blessed indeed to witness such a crop of players come through their club at one time, and it’s a feat that will likely never be repeated, but United still possess the tools to re-establish themselves at the pinnacle of the game.

This season has been lukewarm to say the least, but it has produced moments of startling potential. So despite the current lowly state of affairs United find themselves in, with City dropping points, Chelsea’s slow start still hampering them and Liverpool’s complete inability to beat anyone in the bottom five a title challenge really isn’t that far off.