Saturday, September 13, 2014

Happy birthday Pat Stanton

I know best.

No, I know best.

Really?

We'll run a poll and find out.

OK. But if you're running a poll I'll run a poll as well.

My poll's better than your poll.

It's not the future of the country.

Hibs are more complicated than that.

So we seek solace in our heroes.

The Famous Five.

Joe Baker.

Turnbull's Tornadoes.

And, from Turnbull's Tornadoes, the main man.

Mr Hibs.

Hibs fan. Hibs player. Hibs manager. Hibs ambassador. Hibs legend.

Pat Stanton.

70 today.

Hibs will celebrate his birthday. He'll be roared onto the pitch.

Roared onto the pitch by guys that grew up with him, who saw him live their dreams.

And roared onto the pitch by those of us who didn't see him. Denied by birth.

Lucky enough, maybe, to see a Sauzee vintage, a Latapy vintage. Or maybe a Mowbray vintage when youth ruled the world and Rod Petrie was a younger man.

We'll rely on fathers to explain to sons how good Pat Stanton was. Or, as time marches on, maybe it's now grandfathers explaining to grandchildren how good Pat Stanton was.

I'm too young (yes, that's true) to have seen Pat Stanton play football.

My first memory of him is a sad one:

Hibs sacking him as manager.

That's a thing Hibs have done over the years.

Sack managers.

I remember my brother, older than me but only eight then, writing a letter to Hibs berating them for treating a legend like that.

The letter would be ignored. That's been Hibs for too long as well.

I never saw Pat Stanton play. But this week I can't walk half a yard on Easter Road without bumping into someone and having to ask:

"How good was Pat Stanton?"

"Fucking brilliant."

Fucking brilliant.

My legs get a bit wobbly whenever I see Pat Stanton. He talks about Hibs - he points out what's going wrong, what could be improved, how simple steps could solve big problems.

And I think "why can't Pat Stanton be in charge of everything Hibs do?"

His love of Hibs comes through constantly. And maybe, as much as it's nice to dream, it's too much love to run a football club.

But our greatest player? Our greatest ambassador who should have a bigger role in our Petrie-fied landscape?

Probably.

Greatness recognises greatness: Jock Stein took Pat Stanton to Celtic. Pat won medals, Hibs got Jackie McNamara and everyone was - eventually - happy.

Pat Stanton got medals because Jock Stein wanted to sign him.

That might say it all.

Hibs shouldn't need to ask thousands of people to turn out for him for free. Thousands should turn out for him without the freebie.

He was that good.

This summer he was prepared to stand up and say exactly how it felt to see his team relegated, prepared to say it because he's never lost the determination, the pain, the struggle of being a Hibs fan.

He was prepared to put his head above the parapet. Not being overly political, not being particularly militant but being passionately critical as he remembered what had once made his football club a great club. The genius looking forlornly at the mess that followed him - could anybody at Easter Road use that against him?

They wouldn't dare.

When I meet Pat Stanton I'm starstruck. Every time. And I've met him a lot. It's embarrassing for me, it could be worse for him.

But that's not Pat. I really just need to look at his approach to life and study his demeanour to be reassured me that I'm just meeting a fellow Hibs fan.

I'll still feel awkward though. Because I'm meeting the best of us.

He's a modest man with very little to be modest about. He could scream his brilliance from the rooftops.

He won't.

But he should.

Hibs have given their fans the opportunity to do that for him today.

And, as bad as things might be, it's an opportunity that shouldn't be missed.


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

2014 World Cup: Van Gaal thrives as Oranje charge

Germany's Joachim Löw characterised last night's semi final as a "battle of the continents." Europe 7. South America 1.

Tonight it's time for round two. Argentina v the Netherlands. It will take a stunning performance from one of them to dislodge Germany as tournament favourites on betfair.com.

Argentina will, once again, rely on the genius of Messi. The Dutch will look to Arjen Robben and hope Robin van Persie's guts have cleared up.

And they'll also look to the touchline, seeking inspiration from Louis van Gaal. It's safe to assume that he'd have it no other way.

After the understated (maybe overwhelmed) approach of David Moyes, his successor at Manchester United is unlikely to be blown off course by a lack of confidence.

The stories of Van Gaal's often unconventional methods abound, the managerial heavyweight literally prepared to show his players that he's got the balls for the job.

Yet when he was announced as Manchester United manager a feeling persisted that this might be a fading superstar, still capable of talking the talk but with the true glory days left behind, now just statistics in the record books.

Intentionally or not, Van Gaal has spent the last few weeks in Brazil roaring against that theory.

There was the demolition that dethroned Spain in just the third game of the tournament. There was the water break tactical switch against Mexico that left him telling reporters that "this manager wanted to win."

And then on Saturday night the brinkmanship of replacing his goalkeeper just before the end of extra time.

The drama and sense of timing meant it must have appeared to some Costa Ricans that Tim Krul wasn't just a fine goalkeeper but also a penalty saving Superman who could read their thoughts.

A gamble but a calculated one. Krul confident that his manager needed him and believed in him. The Costa Ricans left wondering what the hell was going on. The manager got his calculations right. When a gamble pays off people forget what the original risk was.

Adaptable. Ready to spring a surprise or two. And absolutely comfortable in the cult of the manager. Throughout the tournament - perhaps to shield his players, perhaps through narcissism - he has in fact tossed the press line after line to help write the cult of Louis van Gaal.

Whatever happens tonight, the Dutch have made the final weekend of the World Cup. There were concerns that such protracted engagement in Brazil might work against Van Gaal making the quick impact at Old Trafford that Manchester United to make up the ground lost during the non-season they endured under Moyes.

Yet such has been his appetite for the fray, it seems that United will now welcome a manager rejoicing in his own ability and apparently ready to find a way past any obstacles in his way.

Louis van Gaal might not win the World Cup. But few managers will have ever found a month of tournament competition such a rejuvenating experience.


2014 World Cup: German brilliance shatters Brazil

Any team shipping seven goals in a World Cup is unusual.

Brazil shipping seven goals in a World Cup semi final?

In Brazil?

Astonishing, shocking, unbelievable. But real. A dream destroyed in Belo Horizonte as the world watched.

We knew this Brazilian team had its limitations. Limitations that made this an unfortunate Seleção vintage with which to hunt down the ghosts of the 1950 World Cup final.

And we knew that this was a richly talented Germany.

We couldn't have imagined that Brazil's deficiencies would be so ruthlessly exposed, that Germany's superiority would be so utterly complete.

Thomas Müller being left unmarked for the opening goal seemed to amplify Brazil's failings and fortify Germany's superiority. A perfect storm stirring up the almighty mismatch that followed.

A record semi final defeat. A record defeat for a host nation at the World Cup. A record defeat for Brazil. A first competitive defeat at home since 1975.

Because this is Brazil, because this is Brazil's World Cup, it's inevitable that even in defeat they remain central to the narrative.

We shouldn't let that detract from Germany's achievement. They saw weakness and set about dismantling the most successful national team in history.

They did it brilliantly, thrillingly. 7-1. And it could have been more.

It's Joachim Löw who takes his side into Sunday night's final. At 7-0 I felt his main challenge might be getting his players to forget the semi final and focus on Sunday evening. Then Brazil scored and the German players raged at themselves for conceding.

This is a team determined to meet its own high standards. The goal, maybe the most futile ever scored in a World Cup finals, robbed them of the perfect performance and that was, however briefly, intolerable for them.

And what now for Brazil? First, the huge anti-climax of Saturday's third place play-off.

And then the inquests, inquiries, recriminations, blame and villains.

A country that pimped itself out to Sepp Blatter's FIFA for the chance to announce its arrival as a global power. Let down by the very export that sustained its global profile for decades before its economic emergence.

It will be interesting to see if anti-World Cup protests gather pace in the next few days. Interesting too to see how a country that doesn't do footballing humiliation raises itself for the Olympics in two years. Brazil's politicians got what they wanted - the world came to Brazil.

The football team being found wanting in such staggering style was never part of the plan. Spending $11 billion has been an expensive way to find out that their footballing powers have, for now, deserted them.

Modern football's marketing machine demands that we treat almost every game, every goal, every transfer, every bite as an incident of historical significance.

That is, of course, bollocks. But last night felt like it could have been football's first "I remember where I was..." moment of the internet age. The sort of game, the sort of result, that will be passed down the generations.

Like Real Madrid at Hampden in 1960. Like Brazil's win over Italy in the 1970 World Cup final.

And like Uruguay's win over Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final.

Brazil set out to right the wrongs of 64 years of hurt. They ended up as little more than helpless incompetents as Germany wrote another chapter of football history.

And finally...


A fantastic quirk of scheduling on BBC 2 England after the game:

World Cup TV listing, the Scottish Football Blog




Friday, July 04, 2014

Going for Gauld

Losing a young talent from the Scottish game is not normally a reason for rejoicing.

But Ryan Gauld's decision to leave Dundee United for Sporting Lisbon is surely an exceptional case.

Not for Gauld the well worn path of the lower reaches of the English Premier League or the English Championship.

And not for Gauld the irresistible lure of Glasgow.

Instead he gets the chance to further develop his already abundant skills in a completely different football environment.

It's a strangely expansive choice from a Scottish youngster and an entirely refreshing one.

The road to superstardom is rarely smooth. If he was a reality TV contestant Gauld would acknowledge this as being nothing more than the start of his journey.

But if that journey is successful his stay in Portugal could bring huge benefits to a national side that is already improving under Gordon Strachan.

A huge opportunity for Gauld himself, a potentially huge bonus for Scotland and, for Dundee United, a multi-million pound windfall and vindication that their youth policy can deliver huge dividends.

If this transfer is unlikely to become a template that all Scottish youngster will aspire to, it should at least act as inspiration for other clubs to strain every muscle into developing youngsters with the technical gifts to interest clubs across Europe. And, as an added bonus, that means they'll also be developing youngsters with the market value to make our clubs far more sustainable.

From a youngster overcoming the narrow horizons of so many of his predecessors to a Scottish club enjoying a whopping win in Europe.

Last night Aberdeen overcame the usual Scottish angst of an early start to European qualifying by knocking five goals past Latvia's Daugava Riga in front of over 15,000 fans at Pittodrie.

With the Latvian league well underway and the Scottish Premiership over a month from kick off the normal excuses for underperforming were in place.

Aberdeen ignored them with some style.

The second leg should be a formality but will hopefully allow Derek McInnes to build up even more momentum before a clash with FC Groningen in the next qualifying round.

The World Cup might be going on without us. We might have lost one of our most talented young players to a foreign league.

But the last few days have given Scottish football at least a couple of reasons to be cheerful.

Small steps for sure. But maybe, just maybe the "New Firm" are ready to breathe life into the game again.

It might not be long before we're partying like its 1983.


2014 World Cup: Welcome back

There was a moment, a fleeting moment, after Belgium v USA.

Just a moment when I thought, "know what, a couple of days off might be just what I need."

Somehow Belgium and the United States turned the final last 16 game into an exhilarating, exhausting delight.

Fantastic to watch. But even neutrals like me were left knackered by the relentless commitment of it all.

Had the second stage matches lost a little of the steam that Brazil 2014 had been building from almost the first kick of the ball?

Certainly the goal average dropped. And while some of the games were tight, the eagle-eyed punter on www.sportsbettinginfo.com will have noted that form asserted itself - all the group winners progressed to the quarter finals for the first time since the advent of a 32 team tournament.

And yet. There at the last Belgium and the US were battering each other with any and every ounce of energy they had. Tim Howard making more saves that any other World Cup goalkeeper. The US pulling a reverse Alamo on the Belgian goal in a riveting but ultimately futile second half of extra time.

So I felt like I needed a break. A feeling that lasted right through until I woke up on Wednesday and mournfully realised the next match was more than 48 hours away.

2014 World Cup, the Scottish Football Blog











The wait's almost over though. And it looks like being worth it.

France v Germany.

Brazil v Colombia.

Didier Deschamps v Joachim Low.

Neymar v James Rodríguez.

Few people would think you daft if you said the winner of either of these games could win the tournament. But I'd defy you to predict who that might be with any confidence.

Colombia have impressed but they've impressed so far in games that don't carry the same pressure that will come with playing Brazil in Brazil during a World Cup.

And Brazil have kept finding ways to win despite being under the constant pressure of being Brazil at a World Cup held in Brazil.

France, with the hissy fit, toys out of the pram nonsense of 2010 long behind them, have progressed pretty serenely. 10 goals scored and just two conceded in four games.

Germany have scored nine and conceded three. But they needed extra time to find a way past Algeria and are now contending with an outbreak of 'flu.

Brazil, of course, remain favourites to overcome Colombia and to lift the trophy.

But I'm as gloriously confused as I have been since the start.

Will Neymar, home advantage and a determination to believe in destiny be enough for Brazil?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Colombia have often looked inspired as a team. James Rodriguez has rarely looked anything else. The current top scorer against the current favourites.

The natural narrative still suggests this is a World Cup for Brazil to win. But tonight we'll see three other teams with their own destiny to believe in.

It's tome to be amazed, enthralled and knackered all over again.


Friday, June 20, 2014

2014 World Cup: Goals, despair, joy and even more goals

Eight days. 23 games. 66 goals.

So far this has been a World Cup to savour.

There’s been the odd disappointing game. That’s football. But there’s also been just about everything else you could want from a World Cup.

And, so far, no clear indication of where the winners will come from. Take a look at bestbettingwebsites.com and you'll find great deals - but no clear contenders looking certain claim the trophy.

The champions humbled and sent home to think again. The Netherlands imperious against Spain and then almost tripped up by Australia.

Goals, scrappy goals, tap-ins, spectacular goals. Goals.

Goalkeeping errors, refereeing errors. Goalline technology and commentators spontaneously combusting.

Messi scoring but apparently still disappointing many of those who expect nothing but brilliance. Ronaldo a passenger as Germany thrashed Portugal.

Wayne Rooney finally getting that World Cup goal. An ultimately futile goal. Futile not because Rooney was playing left or centre, past his best or because his is another tale of unfulfilled potential. Rooney was the story but never England’s main problem. Uruguay knew that. Luis Suarez took full advantage.

Brazil entered the fray carrying the baggage of 1950 and the baggage of a fractious build up, counting the cost of paying big bucks to give FIFA the run of your country.

A nation reliant on a team doing well. A team reliant on Neymar doing well. A 3-1 win over Croatia looked generous. A scoreless draw with Mexico looked laboured.

A World Cup in Brazil seems to have inspired many to commit to attack and turn their back on caginess. Could it be that the weight of expectation will prevent Brazil themselves from doing the same?

Or are the hosts, like Spain and England, simply not equipped to perform at this World Cup. Suddenly the standard bearers for Spain’s cherished continuity looked to be shown up as tired old men.

England arrived without the attacking thrust needed to cover for their deficiencies in defence and in defensive midfield. 2-1, 2-1 was the inevitable conclusion.

And Neymar seemed strangely isolated against Mexico, Brazil’s midfield struggling, Fred only rarely conceding that breaking into something more than a jog might give his side more of an attacking focal point.

At times against Spain the Netherlands looked irresistible. At times against Australia they looked vulnerable.

Germany stomped past Portugal but need other tests to prove their mettle. Argentina have a win and they have Messi. Do they need more than that.

And the winner is...


So who will it be?

Checking my own World Cup predictions I see my four semi finalists listed as:

  • Spain
  • Brazil
  • Portugal
  • Argentina

One defintely won’t be there. Portugal probably won’t be there. And right now I’d be surprised if both Brazil and Argentina make it.

If not them who?

The Netherlands and Chile have the luxury of qualifying from what looked like this year’s Group of Death with a game to spare. But one of them will face - barring a Monday night shock in Group A - face Brazil.

Italy will look to close out Group D, perhaps flinging England an unlikely lifeline in the process, and - if Colombia close out Group C - back themselves against Ivory Coast, Japan or Greece.

Colombia against Uruguay - if they capture second place behind Italy - could be a cracker but Uruguay need to prove they are not too reliant on the goals of Suarez.

Just one game into their tournament and Germany’s progress through Group G looks assured - and on the evidence of the opening games they’ll be relatively untroubled by the prospect of facing a Group H team in the last 16.

France and Switzerland meet tonight - if that game dictates the winner of Group E it’s likely also to decide who faces Argentina in the last 16.

Suarez completing the journey from operating theatre to hammer of England is maybe the most predictable to happen at this World Cup.
Few saw the total collapse of Spanish hegemony coming. The glut of goals has been a pleasant but unexpected surprise.

And the more unpredictable the tournament is, the more open it becomes. Long may that continue. But I might need to invest a little something in Germany, just to be on the safe side.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Hibs: What's next?

Back in March as I considered Terry Butcher’s impact at Hibs for Norway's pre-eminent Hibernian fanzine, I wrote that, were the unthinkable relegation to happen, I'd:

“Go down to North Berwick and cast him adrift off the Bass Rock myself.”

At the time I thought he’d avoid relegation. I was wrong.

And now he has been cast adrift. He might not be floating off the Fife coast but Butcher has gone. The latest in a long line of Hibs managers to hurry or be harried to the exit door with unseemly haste.

It was hard to see how he could survive. Relegation is bad enough but the nature of this relegation, that awful run of form, the failure of everything Butcher tried, made it even worse. This wasn't a plucky manager inspiring a struggling team as they narrowly failed to pull off a great escape.

This was a manager of a team that was limited but apparently safe. A manager tunnelling that team right back into the heart of trouble.

Would Pat Fenlon have kept Hibs up? On the evidence his part season he would have. On the evidence of all his time in charge it's a moot point, Fenlon would in all likelihood have run into another dip in form and Rod Petrie would have let him go before he got the chance to preside over a run as calamitous as Butcher's. For all that his recent interviews have suggested Fenlon feels somewhat vindicated, he would probably also admit that he was running out of lives at Hibs.

So Fenlon went and Butcher arrived. And shortly after beating Hearts at the start of the year it went horribly wrong. So horribly wrong that Raith Rovers have enjoyed as many victories at Easter Road as Hibs have in 2014. It feels like achieving that sort of statistical anomaly is so difficult as to be almost impressive.

Butcher’s experience at Inverness - down, straight back up and consolidated in the Premiership - looked to be his trump card in the fight to keep his job. On the other hand he wasn't brought to Hibs to battle his way into and then out of the Championship.

Terry Butcher was a wretched manager for Hibs. That's the succinct story of his time at Easter Road. His impact might be long remembered but there won't be much fondness. Talking the talk, he looked like someone who could galvanise a club that seems to drift rather than plan, panic rather than strategise. He failed at almost every turn.

Yesterday he paid the price.

But, if form dictated that this was the most justified of any of the multitude of Easter Road dismissals, Hibs now stand at another crossroads. And don't, as yet, give much impression of knowing where they're going. They've lost their Premiership status, they've lost their manager and you do wonder if they've also lost the plot.

14 players have been shipped out since relegation. Others look like following.

Pre-season training is just weeks away.

Season ticket sales have slowed.

Not enough players, no manager, reduced funds and the added cost of the Butcher experiment going haywire.

The malaise is amplified by the ongoing desire to see the back of Rod Petrie, a campaign that seems to have struck a chord with a hefty enough chunk of the support.

While many among the Petrie Out camp will be glad to see the back of Terry Butcher they'll also have noted that Rod Petrie's name cropped up in yesterday's statement from the club.

Does Rod Petrie’s non-involvement, the stepping back from the front line that has been promised in this latest summer of change, actually involve Rod being somewhat involved after all?

Did Rod simply let Terry Butcher have the awkward conversations with the departing players then let new chief executive Leeann Dempster have the awkward conversation with the departing Terry Butcher without ever planning to relinquish that much control?

Everything about Rod Petrie these days is open to interpretation and conjecture. And most of the conclusions aren't that charitable. At best he's now a distraction that Hibs could do without. Terry Butcher has to be his last expensive mistake.

The feeling within Easter Road might have been that sacking Butcher two weeks on from relegation would be a way of lancing the boil, letting some of the vitriol aimed at Petrie drain away.

If that was the plan, I’m not so sure it’s going to work.

Yesterday Leeann Dempster gave the impression of being unhurried in both the decision to dismiss Butcher and in the hunt for his successor. You have to hope she was bluffing.

I’d like to think work has being going on behind the scenes, the sort of work that could see a new manager unveiled by the end of the week. A new non-executive chairman would also be a boost and, at the very least, remove Rod Petrie from the public eye.

Then Leeann Dempster and her new appointment need to offer a coherent and cohesive long term plan while bringing in players as quickly as possible.

That’s a hell of a job. Getting it right could offer a new dawn. Get it wrong and Hibs will continue to stumble around in the darkness.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Missing Brazil but looking forward to Euro 2016

After failing to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil, the focus for Scotland is to build a team that could make the finals of Euro 2016 in France.

With results continuing to improve, manager Gordon Strachan will be using a relatively young squad as he aims to make it through qualification for the major tournament.

Leigh Griffiths is a player who can really shine for the team ahead of 2016. The Celtic striker moved to the Scottish Premier League from Wolves earlier this year and since then has done well in the top flight in Scotland.

If he can transfer his club form where he scored seven goals in 14 games - and stay clear of off field distractions - he could find himself as a regular starter and finish the qualifying campaign as their top goalscorer which can be backed with Betfair.

Ross McCormack has been linked with a number of Premier League clubs this summer. The Leeds forward is now a regular for Scotland and will feature throughout the qualifying campaign. He is usually popular in the first goalscorer market at Betfair.

McCormack made his debut for his country in 2008 but struggled to hold his place in the squad. As soon as Strachan was appointed as Scotland manager, he recalled 27-year old back and has been a regular ever since.

Scotland Euro 2016, the Scottish Football Blog
Strachan will also be hoping the experience of Steven Naismith will be beneficial as Scotland look to qualify for France. The former Rangers player has been at Everton since 2012 and was part of the Toffees side which just fell short of the Champions League last season.

Naismith currently has three international goals to his name. His first came against Spain in 2010, while more recently he has also found the back of the net against Lithuania and Croatia to reward backers with Betfair.

In midfield, Scott Brown still has an important role to play. He is one of the most experienced players in the squad and will captain the side once again in Euro 2016 qualification.
Brown helped Celtic win their third straight SPL title last season. They are favourites with Betfair to make it four leagues on the spin in their next campaign.

The centre of defence has become something of a problem position for Strachan and Grant Hanley is likely to be given a chance to shine, despite the fact he is still relatively inexperienced at international level. The 22-year old has 13 caps to his name and did play English Premier League football for Blackburn between 2009 and 2012.