Monday, April 07, 2014

Premiership preview: Hibs v Aberdeen

A funny thing about yesterday’s Ramsdens Cup final and Raith’s dramatic last gasp win over Rangers - Raith have now won more games at Easter Road in 2014 than they’ve won at Stark’s Park.

And their two wins in Leith mean they’ve won as many games at Easter Road this year as Hibs have managed.

Such slim pickings at home help explain why you’ll not hear too many people arguing that Hibs are too good to go down.

On recent form they’re every inch bad enough to go down if they end up in the play off spot.

With Terry Butcher’s side not in action until this evening they had to just sit and watch the weekend’s results coming in, a sequence of games that served to concertina the five teams fighting to avoid the play offs.

Hibs, in seventh place, now sit just four points above Partick Thistle in eleventh. And, with just one win in 13 games since the 2nd of January, it’s little wonder that BetBritght’s odds have Aberdeen as favourites to win this evening.

With Aberdeen 26 points ahead of Hibs and more concerned with matters at the other end of the SPFL Premiership table it’s hard to see Hibs halting their spiral of decline.

And that’s a problem. Six games from the Premiership finish line and every game Hibs fail to win further hits their confidence and encourages the teams below them.

Terry Butcher has chopped, changed, cast players out and ushered them back in. A lot of fiddling but little progress.

For their part Aberdeen have drawn their last three games 1-1 - but they’re on an eight game unbeaten run, have a double cup success in their sights and saw their hopes of securing second place in the league boosted by St Mirren’s win over Motherwell, the result that did so much to haul Hibs back into the chasing bottom six pack on Saturday.

They've also had the better of the head to heads with Hibs this season - with a 1-0 win at Pittodrie and a 2-0 win at Easter Road this season.

Hibs might take succour from their last league win over Aberdeen - a 2-1 away win in 2012 when Pat Fenlon's side were desperately trying to avoid relegation. But that was a very different Aberdeen side.

It looks like being another tough night for a Hibs side that desperately need someone, anyone to put in a dominant performance in a side lacking leaders.

Aberdeen look to have the more proficient match winners. Persistent rumours that looking after the pennies cost Hibs the signature of some of those match winners might just add to the anguish in the stands and in the dugout at Easter Road.
  • Hibs v Aberdeen, kick off 7.45pm, live on BT Sport.

Friday, April 04, 2014

SPFL Premiership: Buddies need help from their friends

As St Mirren prepare to host Motherwell on Saturday they need to start picking up points and hoping results elsewhere go their way.

With only Hearts, still stubbornly refusing to be officially relegated, below them in the league St Mirren's 28 points leave them two points adrift in the play-off game. They remain favourites with Betfair to be in the play-off match against the second placed side from the Scottish Championship.

With the Premiership's annual split about to kick in, a win against Motherwell might give them a bit of momentum going into the final five games. That won't be easy with Motherwell tied with Aberdeen on 60 points in second place. The Steelmen will start the game as heavy favourites with Betfair.

Partick Thistle hover two points above St Mirren after taking a point on the road against St Johnstone. On Saturday they become the latest side to try and relegate Hearts as the Edinburgh side travel to Firhill with four points from their last two games.

Ross County will look to take inspiration from their 1-1 draw at Celtic Park, a point against the champions of the division which proved to be a big upset among Betfair punters. They'll be looking for a similar result in tonight's derby with a stuttering Inverness to keep the pressure on Kilmarnock and a badly out of sorts Hibs above them.

St Mirren manager Danny Lennon will be hoping his side’s home advantage this weekend will help his team gain maximum points and ensure they are in as strong a position as possible to face the crucial final five games of the season. They will be second favourites to get the better of Motherwell and need other results to be favourable to move off ninth place.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Just the ticket?

"All the lads really felt for the fans at the end of Saturday’s game, with most of them facing something like a six-hour drive home. Hopefully this will help them with the cost of travelling to our next away game at Fulham."
Norwich captain Russell Martin announcing that the players would refund the ticket costs of all 899 fans who made the lengthy trip to see their side lose 3-0 at Swansea.

A nice gesture from the Norwich squad.

I've tried to avoid the usual social media pessimism that it might have unleashed - and I'll concede that a club with Norwich's away record might consider any grand gesture worthwhile to keep the fans on side for the crucial home games to come.

But still.

It's not often you see anyone in football actually do something - however small - to address the sheer cost of being a football fan.

Last month Hibs told me and everyone else on their ticketing database that season ticket prices were being frozen.

Frozen but beginning to thaw out - last year a season ticket plus a cup top up cost me £405. This year it will cost £430 or £455 depending on when I buy.

"Frozen" is either a lie or a touch of badly transparent marketing gobbledegook.

Either way season ticket for me (an adult) and my dad (a senior) will come to £630 with cup top ups piling on an additional £40 or £80.

Hibs released these prices with chat of a top six finish hanging in the air. Since then they've lost five games, conceded 13 goals, scored five, secured a single point and dragged themselves into a battle to avoid the play-off spot.

So they've actually increased prices without guaranteeing that I won't be watching them in a lower division.

The tyranny of habit means I'd follow Rod Petrie to Lidl. But I'd object to paying Waitrose prices when I got there.

Later this month I'll be visiting St James' Park and Old Trafford for league games that can reasonably be described as bog standard.

Two adults and a senior going to Newcastle and two adults going to Manchester United rack up a fairly sizable bill.

I'm lucky enough to be able to afford it and unlucky enough to be stupid enough to pay it.

But being daft and able to squander my cash doesn't make football's treatment of supporters right.

Cheaper options are available. Lower division games with lower admission prices cry out for bigger attendances.

But if your lifetime allegiance lies elsewhere then it's a difficult bond to break.

The risk for club is that prices do break those bonds - and once broken they're exceedingly hard to rebuild.

While they remain, however, emotional attachments make football an easier product to sell.

There are variables. Kick off times, lifestyle changes, the success of your club and, for the aesthetes among us, the style of football among them.

Sorting out your team on the pitch might be difficult but I've felt for a while that coming up with a ticketing structure that does more than take the piss out of loyalty should be possible.

So far I've been disappointed.

Maybe the traditional season ticket model is actually outdated, an income stream that depends on blind faith that has no place in a game that embraces ever changing kick off times and ignores how lifestyles have changes over the last 50 years.

Thankfully brains more potent than mine are being applied to the problem.

Including two MBA students at the University of Strathclyde who are researching the attractive - but in Scotland unproved - issue of dynamic pricing:

  1. Do current football ticket pricing methods meet the needs of fans (in terms of value and ticket options) and clubs (in terms of revenue and ensuring a stable and loyal fan base)?
  2. How effective can dynamic pricing be for UK football matches (individual matches) when there is a "floor" set by the "season ticket average cost per game" beneath which you cannot drop prices without the risk of affecting season ticket sales (primary source of ticket income)?
  3. What could the impact of dynamic pricing be on supporter (customer) relations/goodwill?

They want to find out if dynamic pricing might be the answer to some of football's pricing issues.

And they want help.

They've set up an online survey to allow football fans to inform their research:

Complete the survey

The idea that Scottish football's business model has long since gone to the dogs is nothing new. But maybe, with the right people asking the right questions, we might just be closer to a solution than we think.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Malaise on Leith

New ways to suffer derby defeats: traversing the elongated series of roadworks that make up the road from Edinburgh to Stratford-upon-Avon relying on Twitter, text and Roddy Forsyth's sporadic updates among the cricket, Formula One and English football chat on Five Live.

The end result is pretty much the same though.

The Hibs fans arrive for the game in good heart and full of enthusiasm for what lies ahead (even if the deeper "meaning" of Sunday's game had a slightly engineered feel to it.)

The Hibs players arrive looking like perfect strangers and not the sort of strangers minded to take up arms and form a temporary band of brothers.

Do Hearts wish they could play Hibs every week? Bloody right. One third of their league wins, a sixth of their league points and a seventh of their league goals have come against Hibs.

It's possible to enjoy a decent season while being hapless in derbies. The loss of what every commentator is contracted to call "local bragging rights" niggles but the team's form elsewhere compensates.

Unfortunately Hibs have mainly been hapless against Hearts and hapless against everyone else.

And with a derby defeat comes despondency. A despondency that means glancing at the league table suddenly brings thoughts of Hibs having a horrendous run in the bottom six, a disastrous experience in the play offs and then, just like that, playing Championship football next season.

It all seemed so unlikely.

As December slipped into January, Hibs held their nerve to beat Hearts at Easter Road. That was a third straight win and the penultimate game in a sequence of nine matches that saw Hibs lose only to Celtic. So springy was the Terry Butcher bounce that even Lewis Stevenson scored a goal.

And then things started to go wrong. Defeats to Aberdeen, St Mirren, Celtic and Raith Rovers ended the feelgood factor - with the loss of 11 goals.

A home win against Ross County and a point at Kilmarnock promised to stop the rot but seven games have since slipped by without a win.

Dundee United, Motherwell and Partick Thistle have each scored three goals against a pallid Hibs defence. St Johnstone and Hearts have managed two each. In seven games Hibs have scored just five goals while conceding 14. Only Inverness failed to breach the defence in a 0-0 draw.

It's wretched. Butcher has cajoled, cuddled, berated, bemoaned. Whatever worked when he first arrived has stopped working. Now he looks and sounds like a man who can't believe any club would embark on a league campaign with this group of players. And who can't quite believe it's his job to now see them through to the end of the season.

Seven games without a win. And six games left of the Premiership season.

Hibs have still to play Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Ross County, Partick Thistle, St Mirren and Hearts.

They lost their most recent games against Aberdeen, Partick Thistle, St Mirren and Hearts, drew with Kilmarnock and beat only Ross County.

These are not heartening statistics.

What has perhaps been missed in the gnashing of teeth since the derby is that Hibs are six points clear of St Mirren in eleventh place and have a superior goal difference compared to the rest of the bottom six.

Current form might make them the worst of the worst but points on the board - always the best place for points to be - make them, for now, the best of the worst.

Given that the other five teams have to take points off each other it's likely that Hibs won't need to add massively to their current points total to stay up.

I'm normally optimistic only when gauging how much alcohol I can consume without risking a hangover but I'm actually still sort of, kinda, a little bit confident that Hibs will avoid the play off.

But it's become far too close for comfort.

Not for the first time, of course. This is a fourth straight season in the bottom six.

Two seasons ago - when Pat Fenlon replaced Colin Calderwood at much the same stage of the year that Butcher replaced Fenlon this season - it took until the penultimate game to guarantee safety.

(For what it's worth I calculate that Butcher has taken six more points from his first 19 league games than Fenlon managed. But that might be a case of two bald men wrestling over a comb. Neither record would concern a Manager of the Year jury.)

The most pressing thing for everyone at Hibs to focus on is getting the points (three or four might be enough) to avoid the play off.

Then they have to analyse what on earth is happening at Easter Road.

This is a club that should be able to compete financially, a club with a much vaunted infrastructure and a crowd that averages higher than most even in the bad times.

What leaves a club like that with such a propensity towards weakness in games that really matter for the fans?

What leaves a club like that with Alan Maybury, signed as emergency cover, as the only natural full back in the senior squad?

What leaves a club like that with a number of apparently impressive individual players who consistently look less than the sum of their parts?

What leaves a club like that with a signing policy so addled that two of your summer recruits are ditched in January?

What leaves a club like that in the bottom six four years running while at the same time losing two cup finals with an aggregate loss of eight goals, running up a record European defeat and losing to, among others, Raith Rovers and Queen of the South?

John Hughes, Colin Calderwood, Pat Fenlon and now Terry Butcher have been blamed.

Players - and recruitment has been plentiful but underwhelming, so many have come and gone that there are names I can barely remember - have been blamed.

But the pattern repeats itself and repeats itself.

I hope Terry Butcher has the ability and drive to find answers to these questions.

I fear, however, that he'll be powerless to change the one constant in all of this.

If anyone ever asks you to give a lecture on the dangers of staying in a position too long just stick the last four league tables and a picture of Rod Petrie on the screen. Job done.

We're told that everything Petrie has done, from the fantastic training centre to the new East Stand to the cost cutting and the managerial madness, has been for the good of Hibs.

If his shareholding and relationship with Sir Tom Farmer mean he can't or won't walk away he at least needs to relinquish as much control as possible.

Appoint a chief executive who can sell the club to potential players, who will take the odd three figure risk on a player's salary and who will rebuild the relationship with fans who are reaching breaking point.

These chief executives exist. Some of them might even be working in Scottish football right now. They'd love the opportunity that Rod Petrie is currently failing to make the most of.

Nobody would argue the case for financial mismanagement.

But what if prudence mixed with bad decision making means another flirtation with relegation?

What if prudence mixed with bad decision making means failing to find the right managers and having to constantly overhaul the playing squad?

What if prudence mixed with bad decision making means plummeting season ticket sales?

What if prudence mixed with bad decision making means your club is one that agents tell their players is best avoided?

Does your prudent decision maker not then become guilty of financial mismanagement himself?

And if your greatest asset becomes the liability that's harming your club isn't it time to move on?

I only hope that Rod Petrie can make that decision this summer with Hibs preparing for another season of Premiership football.

Because forget the talk of an exciting Championship next season - I don't fancy it at all. And I'd fancy it even less with Rod Petrie's influence remaining as powerful at Easter Road.

Friday, December 13, 2013

McCoist downplaying star exit

Rangers boss Ally McCoist has insisted the club have no plans to offload any of their star players in the January transfer window, including key defender Lee Wallace.

The ongoing financial difficulties at Ibrox have been well documented over recent years and the club continue to struggle as a new company, losing £14.4 million during their first 13 months of trading.

Clearly the lack of top flight football and European action is playing a major part in Rangers' struggles and there has been talk in the transfer betting news of a few players leaving the Old Firm side next month.

After an impressive start to the season for both club and country, Scotland left-back Wallace appears to be at the top of the list of potential candidates to make a move away from Ibrox in January.

However McCoist has made it clear that he is under no pressure from the powers that be at the club to sell his prized assets.

The former Scotland striker told RangersTV:

"I've had discussions with board members and the chief executive and there has certainly been no indication at all that we have to sell. If that's the case, I'm sure I'll be informed of that but until that moment comes we obviously want to keep hold of our better and best players."

"You'd have to say Lee certainly comes into that category and in moving forward, which the club hopes to do, we'd be delighted to keep our better and best players."

Rangers look set to win the Scottish League One title at a canter, something the current Scottish football odds clearly suggest, but if they want to make their return to the top flight as quickly as possible, they can't rest on their laurels and keeping players like Wallace is clearly important to the ambitious McCoist.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Lennon rues fitness setbacks

Scottish Football Blog, Billy McNeill, European Cup winning captain, Celtic
Celtic’s hopes of continuing to play in Europe after Christmas already look bleak in the football betting odds but they might have become even less likely after Kris Commons picked up a hamstring injury and Scott Brown was handed a three-match ban.

Having already been beaten by AC Milan and Barcelona, a Champions League double-header against Ajax would appear to give Neil Lennon’s side the chance to gain at least third spot in the group and an opportunity to play in the Europa League in the new year. But full back Mikael Lustig, is also a major doubt for the visit of the Dutch side to Glasgow after sustaining a hip injury during Sweden’s World Cup qualifier against Austria, which forced him to sit out his country’s 5-3 home defeat to Germany.

Adam Matthews is out for three months with a shoulder injury so Lennon’s right-back options are extremely limited.

According to betfair, the 42-year-old former Leicester City midfielder said: "We have two very good right-backs who may not be fit for the Ajax game.

"Mikael's hip locked against Austria. He does have hip and groin problems and we will have to manage him during the week. Efe Ambrose had played international football at right-back so he is a possibility."

Dutch winger, Derk Boerrigter, is still struggling with an ankle complaint and he is unlikely to be back for the game against his former club, who have only picked up one point from their first two Champions League group encounters.

Joe Ledley's fitness might not allow him to play the full game although Emilio Izaguirre has recovered from illness.

Lennon has also revealed that the club will be appealing against the three-game European suspension imposed by UEFA on Brown following his red card in the Champions League defeat by Barcelona.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Confident Pars ready for fresh start

Dunfermline, The Scottish Football Blog (Attribution: davefalconer)
Hopes are high that a successful new era for Dunfermline is about to start after supporters group, Pars United, officially took over their club.

The Pars entered administration in March and were docked 15 points as a result. The deduction contributed to them finishing ninth in the Division One table and they were relegated after losing a two-legged play-off to Alloa Athletic.

The team has regrouped this term under the experienced former Hearts, Bradford City and Kilmarnock manager, Jim Jefferies, and they are currently third in the third tier of Scottish football, behind current title favourites in the football betting, Rangers, and Stenhousemuir.

It has been quite a fall from grace for Dunfermline as they were playing in the SPL just two seasons ago. As was reported in the press and the live football commentary, their problems escalated 12 months ago when they failed to pay the players’ wages on time and it was discovered that there were unpaid tax bills due to HM Revenue and Customs.

When they were faced with a winding-up order, the Pars opted to go into voluntary administration seven months ago but there are now signs of the green shoots of recovery at East End Park.

New chairman, Bob Garmory, knows it won’t be easy but believes plans are in place to ensure the club’s long-term survival.

He said:

"This is a proud day for me. I’m delighted we’ve managed to negotiate our way through it because there have been serious issues to resolve.

"But we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of Pars supporters who have come forward with their skills and enthusiasm. We’ve tackled everything thrown at us.

"There has been a huge amount of work done by so many people - and all for no recompense. It sounds an awful thing to say but with the fans now owning the football club they’re going to have to pay for that privilege."

Monday, October 14, 2013

David Moyes: 100 days of solitude

An American president is said to be at his most powerful in the first hundred days of his presidency.

Get it wrong in those opening few weeks and he - so far it's always been he - is unlikely to ever be trusted to get it right.

David Moyes, the first hundred days. Scottish Football Blog.
Even in the increasingly twitchy world of football it would seem harsh to judge managers by the same timescale.

It happens though. And many minds will have been made up about David Moyes as Manchester United manager even before he passed one hundred days in charge last week.

The international break might have allowed Moyes a period of reflection last week.

United got through another test at Sunderland, perhaps uncovering a new star in the process.

That brought down the curtain on a couple of months where iffy form segued with an apparently cack-handed approach to the transfer window.

Replacing Sir Alex Ferguson was never going to be easy.

When United appointed Ferguson all those years ago they thought they'd finally found the heir to Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein.

When they appointed Moyes this summer they hoped they'd found the heir to the heir.

It took Ferguson time to find his feet. Moyes won't have that luxury.

Not only has the game moved on and the fevered press grown worse but Moyes inherited champions. His job was to build on success not to rip everything up and rebuild from scratch.

That's perhaps a bit unfair. Ferguson's final championship wasn't delivered by his finest side. While he didn't sell Moyes a stuttering jalopy, he did leave a motor that needed some attention.

Moyes has quickly discovered that patching up a second hand football team isn't as easy as identifying what spare parts you need and visiting to get the problem car sorted.

This first post-Ferguson summer made the release of David Peace's Red or Dead, a fictionalised account of Bill Shankly's reign at Liverpool and his apparently melancholic retirement, seem even more timely.

(It's certainly written in a unique style but I felt that was essential for building the "Shankly" Peace wanted to create. For those of us who know Shankly only through the soundbites, the achievements and the second hand memories that fictional version seems somehow real. My own view is that the book is a triumph. And here endeth the sub-Higher English literary criticism.)

By calling it quits and then talking about how he's embracing retirement and leaving the new man to it at Old Trafford, Ferguson's desire to avoid the various fates of Stein, Busby and Shankly seems almost too conspicuous at times.

Shankly left Liverpool to a reluctant but incredibly successful Bob Paisley. Busby left Manchester United to a succession of men who couldn't match him until Ferguson - and a patient board - came along to get it right.

100 days of David Moyes isn't enough time to decide whether United have made a huge mistake this time.

He could argue that he's six points off the top of the league, undefeated in the Champions League and enjoying the performances of a restored Wayne Rooney.

All true. None of it enough.

He can't do anything about the transfer window right now but he needs to follow the international break with a sustained run of wins.

Getting Adnan Januzaj tied to a longer deal would also be a sound move - as a player he offers only potential but his capture would at least be a signal of intent.

Above all - and this will only come with wins - he needs to move the story on from his ability to do the job.

In the past couple of weeks I've read Moyes defending himself, Ryan Giggs defending him, Alex Ferguson defending him, Dion Dublin defending him and Luis Saha defending him.

That's an awful lot of David Moyes. And I'm not sure continually protesting that someone is the right man for the job is the best way to convince people that someone actually is the right man for the job.

It could be, after a successful few seasons, that we look back on Moyes' first hundred days as the weakest period of his reign.

That would be understandable. The pressure of replacing Ferguson, a new chief executive further complicating the transfer window, players adjusting to the day after the knight.

But Moyes needs to recover - at least in the short term - with a team that so far hasn't looked strong enough to cope with the biggest challenges.

After 11 games in charge Moyes might reflect on a few things.

Firstly, he might ponder, the first 11 games are hardly enough of a window in which to draw conclusions about a manager.

Secondly, he might worry, the first 11 games have undoubtedly made his dream job even tougher than he might have imagined.

Thirdly, he could think, the first 11 games better not be fodder for another David Peace book. Because nobody wants to provide the sequel for the Damned United.