Saturday, December 16, 2006

Dear John

Anyone reading the Scottish media over the past few weeks would be forgiven for thinking the nation’s scribes are trying to woo John Collins.

Hardly a day goes by without a paean to Collins and his matinee idol looks appearing. Even defeat at Rangers could not dent the ardour of his admirers. Like a John Wayne character Collins’ fallibility seems to have made him all the more attractive: it’s easier to court a mortal after all.

Amid all this blether there is a serious point. Collins – with apparent ease – is changing things at Easter Road. A Scot who has travelled, he seems to be having much more success bringing continental methods to Edinburgh than Frenchman Paul Le Guen is having in Glasgow.

Training every day? No problem. Collins did it in France so they can do it at Easter Road.

Youth players struggling with a target of 25 dips? No problem Collins can do that himself. The young players should be aiming for 64.

This should not be revolutionary thinking. Look at France where players often train seven days a week. Look at Scotland where players shy away from a five day week. Is there a correlation between success and attitude?

And this week Collins was more refreshing than ever. A calm post-match interview. No shouting, no naming names, no talk of refereeing bias for the Old Firm. But also no hiding the fact that he wanted the players to know they had let the club down.

And Ivan Sproule, sent off at Ibrox for throwing the ball away, will have extra training during his suspension and a “heavy” fine.

No moaning from Collins that a Rangers player and a Celtic player were not punished from similar offences. Sproule was stupid, Collins punished him. Simple. No nonsense about the desire to win that Strachan wheeled out for yet another defence of Neil Lennon on Sunday.

It is discipline of this sort that Sproule needs. Go to Easter Road when he’s playing. Amid all the teenyboppers screaming his name you’ll find more than a few of the old sages shaking their heads and wondering what Ivan the terrible could achieve if he’d been blessed with a brain to go with his speed.

Collins might just have what it takes to turn Sproule and his teammates into the players their talent suggests they should be.

Mixed Fortunes for Old Firm in Europe

A novel feeling, watching a European draw in December and seeing two Scottish clubs come out. Israel’s Hapoel Tel Aviv should hold no fears for Rangers. True, another trip to Israel might not be everyone’s choice but the Ibrox side should be looking to progress from what is a pretty favourable draw.

And no that’s not an endorsement of the increasingly prevalent view that Rangers will be marching all the way to Hampden for the UEFA Cup final in May. That’s not going to happen, although the thought of it is probably a welcome distraction for their fans. Hampden has shut up shop as far as fairytales are concerned. Just ask Sir Alex Ferguson.

Celtic have a far more daunting task. AC Milan, although not on fire at the moment, are never going to be easy opponents. And Celtic’s away form in Europe would have made them underdogs whoever they met. I’ve heard more than one Celtic fan say that an 8 goal lead after the home tie should be just about enough to see them through the second leg. A draw or a one goal victory at Parkhead will be nowhere near enough at the San Siro.

For my money Celtic’s best bet was Arsenal. Despite Thierry Henry being the world’s greatest player, at least in the eyes of Thierry Henry, I think Celtic could have sneaked a result at home and then held on in the second leg.

But that’s all hypothetical now. It’s AC Milan and, I strongly suspect, the end of Celtic’s Champion’s League campaign.

Shock: Big Games Not at Ibrox!

It’s a shame that our continuing obsession with the Old Firm will overshadow two other games being played this weekend.

With the Ibrox clash holding all the appeal of being hit in the face with a wet fish, Edinburgh and Falkirk might be the places to go for thrills.

At Tynecastle this afternoon Hearts meet Aberdeen and third versus fourth looks more appealing than the battle of the top two.

Aberdeen are on a roll. They’re by no means strolling through games but they are getting results and seem to be carrying a touch of luck. Jimmy Calderwood has taken his time at Pittodrie, tinkering here and there, but now seems to have found a team capable of achieving something.

Hearts need no introduction in this blog. All we need now is for Vladimir Romanov to marry Pedro Lopez for the everyday story of an extraordinary football club to replace The Archers.

That said Hearts enjoyed a great result last week, finally finding their goal scoring touch to bring an end to a nine game run without a victory. If the Paul Hartley story has not unsettled them too much they’ll be hoping to continue that form against Aberdeen today.

Make no mistake – the Hearts players still believe they are a top three side. Having Aberdeen above them will be an insult to their pride.

Expect a cracker. A draw, but a cracker.

Today’s other game of note is Falkirk against Hibs. Both teams suffered defeats last week but in very different ways.

Falkirk stuffed Aberdeen in the second half of the game at Pittodrie and should have had at least a draw. The best that can be said of Hibs’ trip to Ibrox is that at least they didn’t lose the second half.

So the two Johns will be looking for different reactions this afternoon. Hughes will ask for more of the same. Collins will ask Hibs to show that last week was an aberration

What we can be sure of is that both managers will ask their players to pass the ball and entertain. If Aberdeen and Hearts promises explosions, Falkirk and Hibs looks like being a treat for the purists.

And, if you want a prediction, I’ll go for Falkirk to pull off a shock and get a result.

No X-Factor at Ibrox

If, in our world of sporting cliché, there can ever be a meaningless Old Firm match surely this Sunday’s encounter is a contender.

Whatever the result, Sunday is unlikely to tell us anything we don’t already know.

Celtic will still be unreachable at the top of the league: a Rangers win won’t change that. A victory for Paul Le Guen’s men will merely be further evidence of Celtic’s shortcomings. Gordon Strachan does not need to be beaten at Ibrox to know that his team is far from being the finished article.

If Celtic win it will simply be further proof that Rangers are a work in progress. Evidence, depending on your personal taste, of Le Guen’s inability to manage a decent team or of the continuing toils of a good manager trying to settle in Scotland.

Celtic go into the game as favourites. Rangers have won two games in the past week but the Ibrox side seem only to turn corners in the hope of finding another dead end to run up.

The chances of the game being a spectacle – of football, of passion, of anything – are slim. This is a battle, despite their European progress, of two very average teams. So far this season Celtic have been slightly less average than Rangers. Don’t expect that to change on Sunday.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Stokes Lesson to Want Away Youngsters

"I'm doing well for myself, I'm scoring goals and what more can I ask for?

"At the moment, I don't see why I would go back to Arsenal unless Arsene Wenger says that I am in the first team or first team squad then I am better playing regularly here.

"I'm in regular contact with Liam Brady and I think Falkirk are in talks with Arsenal about me but there is still four weeks left on my deal here so there is no rush but it would be good to get it all sorted. But it's up to Arsenal at the end of the day."

A refreshingly honest and sensible appraisal of his career from Falkirk’s on loan striker Anthony Stokes.

Picking up his well deserved Young Player of the Month Award for November Stokes did mention that he might, one day, enjoy playing for Celtic.

No doubt the Celtic message boards will be in meltdown right now. But note Stokes was speaking about the future.

This was an interview with a young player just content to be paid for playing football. He hopes still to make it at Arsenal but he thinks he’s giving Arsene Wenger more to think about by playing and scoring regularly with Falkirk.

It’s an admirable, mature attitude that a lot of young Scottish players would do well to copy.

Let’s hope Anthony Stokes sticks to his guns because it won’t be long before another agent or another club come to try and turn his head.

A Chick for Christmas

Christmas is nearly upon us. And the pantomime horse of Scottish football, Chick Young, is at it again.

In yet another column devoted to Rangers, the die hard St Mirren fan, waxes lyrical about Jock Wallace and the relative merits of Paul Le Guen.

The Murder Hills at Gullane beach are mentioned as Chick harks back to a simpler time when football was stuck in the dark ages.

Chick, never the brightest of boots in the kitbag and a man whose career defies any measure of quality, is entitled to his opinions.

But why does he mention Rangers signing Scott Brown in particular? I would guess that in January there will, at the most conservative estimate, be 50 players available for less money than Brown who could improve Rangers.

Indeed Chick himself would probably improve Rangers. At least he’d play for the jersey.

I’m sure Chick laughs at non-Old Firm fans when they speak of media conspiracies. Mostly I’d agree with him.

But Scott Brown is a Hibs player on a long term contract who has had a transfer request turned down.

So why does Chick mention him other than to stoke the flames of rumour and gossip that are licking at the doors of Easter Road? And in the week before Hibs play Rangers?

It’s that kind of journalism that annoys people who get their football fix away from Ibrox or Parkhead.

Chick Young. The most popular Buddy in Govan.

Congratulations to the SPFA, Time for Others To Wake Up

Congratulations to the SPFA for coming out and making a stand against Vladimir Romanov.

Fraser Wishart, secretary of the Scottish Professional Footballers Association, said:

“The SPFA condemns in the strongest of terms what it regards as the wholly unjustified treatment of Heart of Midlothian FC towards our member, Steven Pressley.

"The SPFA and its parent body, the GMB union, have long been concerned about the unorthodox managerial and employment practices of the club and the effects this has had on the personal and professional welfare of our members at the club.

"Steven Pressley has had and will continue to enjoy the full support and backing of the SPFA.

"We, along with our legal team, will offer Steven every assistance to enable him to seek redress via internal football procedures or other means."

I’ve said before that Pressley is the only person to come out of this whole mess with any dignity and he deserves the full backing of everyone in the game.

I almost hope this does end in a Scottish courtroom and Romanov’s running of the club, good or bad, is exposed once and for all.

George Burley and Phil Anderton also still have issues with Romanov that may only be resolved through some kind of legal process.

At the same time Romanov, and his represent on earth, Pedro Lopez, are trying to ensure that any staff leaving Gorgie sign confidentiality agreements that keep a lid on the Tynecastle drama.

The mysterious Mr Lopez now seems to be calling the shots as Director of Infrastructure. Does any other club in Britain have a Director of Infrastructure?

But the fact is that individual disputes, even those backed by trade unions, will not go far enough. The SFA, the SPL and UEFA need to act.

Hearts seem to be in the process of being ripped apart by the personal whims of a man that still has no official role at the club.

Many people will enjoy one side of Edinburgh being made a mockery of. But the whole of Scottish football is suffering whilst this pantomime is being played out.

For the good of the game Vladimir Romanov must be brought to heel by the football authorities.

Monday, December 04, 2006

SPL2 - The Sequel We Don't Want To See

The SPL2 is a misguided plan wrapped up in a monumental folly.

We don’t need a second tier of the SPL. We do need a debate on the way all our leagues are structured but the SPL2 is a muddled compromise that will do little good for Scottish football.

We have too many clubs, in all divisions, playing for nothing. We play too many games in all our divisions. We don’t have enough movement between the top league and the First Division. We have an SPL structure that includes a split after 33 games that is mind blowing in its stupidity.

So let’s have a 16 team SPL. Teams play each other twice, home and away. The fixture list is drawn up on a simple home and away basis, so fans know that if they’re away one week then they’re at home the next.

Admit two more sides into the football league and have two divisions based on geography with 14 teams.

Relegate up three teams from the SPL every season. The bottom two to be replaced the two lower division champions. The third team to play in a round robin with the runners up from the two regional leagues.

And admit up to 3 teams from the junior ranks every year as well. The bottom of each regional league to be relegated and the two second bottom teams to be involved in a play off with the third ranked non-league side.

I know we might need to be slightly open with our geographical definitions and that clubs would play fewer games. The former is a pedantic argument, the latter can be solved with a beefed up League Cup.

Celtic and Rangers would still be favourites. But lower down things would heat up – if three teams are to be relegated then scraping the odd draw to pull away from the bottom side wouldn’t work.

With fewer games the league would become more competitive - two or three losses in a row would become a massive problem. Teams would have to go and win games.

Obviously everyone has their own opinion on this. But what I think is clear is that the SPL2 is just an attempt to create a bigger buffer between the elite and the also rans.

The system I propose would allow romance back into our game. And it would circulate some much needed fresh air around our stagnated football world.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Fall Guy Fletcher is Inspirational

“The brazen Scottish argument that teams who aren't good enough to qualify under the current system should be allowed in because, um, that would be nice, should be dismissed with the same blend of pity and scorn that would greet Darren Fletcher if he called for Fifa to make football a 20-a-side sport just so he could get into the Manchester United starting line-up. Because the result would be the same: messy mediocrity.”

Excellent work on The Guardian’s blog site from Paul Doyle on Thursday. In one pithy, 40-something word sentence the master of brevity calls the Scottish football team rubbish and picks on the United fall guy.

On Saturday evening Fletcher scored the winner in a game that took his side six points clear in the Premiership.

He may not have the talent of Wayne Rooney or the flashiness of Cristiano Ronaldo but he has a work ethic and passion that makes him a valuable squad member at United.

Why the United fans choose to pick on him eludes me. I might be wrong but the criticism seems to get worse when Fergie’s going through a bad patch.

Perhaps, unwilling to stick the boot in their boss, the supporters use Fletcher, another Scot, as a conduit for their abuse.

We should support Fletcher. He’s fighting a lone battle in the upper echelons of a league that once pulsed with a Scottish heartbeat.

Let’s use him as an inspiration for other young players to prove that they can make it at the very top down south. We might want to keep our talent in Scotland but we are a small pond.

The more players we have playing for top European sides the easier Walter Smith’s job becomes.

SFA Chase Rich Rewards For Mediocrity

The SFA wants to increase the European Championship to a 24 team tournament.

Lennart Johannson, aiming for reelection as UEFA supreme is in favour. Mainly because it will mean more teams can qualify and so should win him votes from the smaller nations.

It’s tempting. I grew up expecting Scotland to qualify for tournaments. Expectation has been replaced by a kind of forlorn hope.

But the European Championship should be about excellence. I know we’re all supposed to be inclusive these days but an event for the elite shouldn’t be expanded to include the also-rans.

Scotland will qualify when they are capable of doing so. That’s how it should be. With the team improving qualification shouldn’t be far away. The SFA should have confidence in the team and Walter Smith.

Instead, they’re trying to erect a back door that will see their coffers boosted by qualification.

They should remember that Scotland being awarded for mediocrity will do little to boost the future of the game in this country.

The Week in Scottish Football

The runners and riders in Scottish football over the last seven days:

Well Done You!

Until this afternoon Kilmarnock were going to get this for performance of the week. But Falkirk made a late charge and came through on the inside after putting Rangers to the sword.

A special mention to Scott Brown. After building up a reputation as the player other teams love to hate he’s achieved a double whammy by becoming the player the Hibs fans love to hate. A transfer request months after signing a new contract is not endearing. A transfer request minutes after an abject performance is insulting.

Oh Dear!

Stephen Kenny went back over the water to win the FAI Cup with Derry City. Congratulations but after a 6-1 loss yesterday Dunfermline fans will be asking where the manager’s thoughts have been this week.

Paul Le Guen. Turning the corner on Saturday. Hits a dead end on Sunday. Much work still to do.

Villain of the Week

Management at Hearts. Some optimism had returned. Then Steven Pressley was dumped again and the gloom descended once more.

Willie McKay or Rod Petrie. Petrie must wonder how keeping his mouth shut has meant becoming involved in a war of words. McKay says Petrie is in the wrong. Thomson and Brown act like children. Somewhere along the line football becomes the loser.

Friday, December 01, 2006

A Bitter Taste for Hibs Fans

Kevin Thomson and Scott Brown.

It’s getting a bit boring, this saga they’ve engineered.

They’re young men and they feel they should get paid what they’re entitled too. Fair enough.

They’ve drafted in Willie McKay as their agent, no doubt impressed by tales of his life in Monaco and his incredible story of how he made Jean Alain Boumsong a millionaire.

But the players were happy enough with the contract extensions they signed only recently. And that should put Hibs in a position of strength.

Except player power is becoming an unstoppable force and it looks unlikely that this will end happily for Hibs fans.

McKay has already stated that Hibs have proved they are “selling club.” Aside from the fact that all clubs, except maybe Chelsea, are now selling clubs, McKay seems to have been going out of his way to antagonise Hibs.

He may be doing right for his clients but the media campaign that the Glasgow tabloids have allowed him to orchestrate has done the public profile of agents few favours.

Brown and Thomson would have been better shutting up and living up to their potential at Hibs this season. The summer would have been a far better time for these discussions.

Instead they’ve made themselves look like mercenaries dabbling in the ugly side of football.

It seems like being a footballer no longer suffices. Players now want to be painted in the media as spoilt and manipulative as well.

If Thomson and Brown do go they will leave Hibs, like so many others, with nothing but ill will. Many Hibs fans will actually want to see these two favoured sons fail.

They’ll have nobody to blame but themselves.

Larsson to Light Up Premiership?

Something of shock move for Sir Alex Ferguson today as he signs up Henrik Larsson on loan.

It will, of course, leave some Celtic fans scratching their heads about why the golden boy wasn’t persuaded to stay at Parkhead. And why the Scottish league leaders couldn’t have made more serious attempts to get him back in the summer.

For United fans it might be greeted with no little bemusement. But an experienced striker who can offer an alternative to Saha might help freshen things up for the title run in after Christmas.

His stay will be brief but, in his three months at Old Trafford, Larsson just might prove to be a far more valuable acquisition than Schevchenko at Chelsea.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

McCarthy on Road to Big Time?

Spare a thought for 16-year-old Hamilton Accies midfielder Jamie McCarthy.

Being linked with Manchester United must be nice, but it surely brings with it a whole different kind of pressure.

Let’s hope things work out for him. Other teams are in the chase but United would appear to offer him the best chance of development. Sure Rangers, Celtic, Aston Villa and Bolton are big clubs.

United, though, are on a different planet. A move to Old Trafford offers a genuine chance at becoming world class.

As Liam Miller would testify it doesn’t always work out but when it does the rewards are incredible.

And two Scotsmen should offer McCarthy hope. Brian McClair and Darren Fletcher have passed Sir Alex Ferguson’s all important loyalty and reliability tests.

He, in return, has stood by them. He seems to like at least one Scot in his dressing room.

McCarthy might well be a name to watch!

No Return for Casuals

Well done to Lothian and Borders Police for arresting the Hibs and Hearts casuals involved in disturbances in Edinburgh last month.

The eight arrests, made after dawn raids on addresses in the Edinburgh area, are said to be just the beginning of police action after the incident.

Good stuff. Let’s hope those found guilty are properly punished and barred from football.

And barred for life. Earlier this month Izak Cowie, a 38 year old nutter and a member of Airdrie’s infamous Section B casuals, was banned from every football ground in the UK until 2009.

Leaving court he spoke some rubbish about returning to the game to see Airdrie in the SPL in three years.

He should never get into any football ground again.

The problem of casuals has never really gone away. But for a few years it was underground and, to an extent, out of mind.

If recent events in Edinburgh show that it is returning to the fore then the football authorities should begin to crack down hard. Lifetime bans are a start. Any clubs that aren’t seen to be dealing with the problem should face harsh penalties.

There is no room in the game for this brand of violent head case.

Reports in Edinburgh suggest that some of the people who were involved were forty something men who were returning to the battlegrounds of their youth.

Ask yourself what forty year old that would willingly go out and have fight after a football match? And if he chooses to do it he should be locked up.

Football has moved on. Not all the changes have been for the better. But the casual problem has no place in the modern game and no place in modern society.

Back from the USSR

So he’s back.

Chapter 752 in the Tynecastle saga as Valdas Ivanauskas returns to the club and promises to focus on getting three points on Saturday – although at least the hapless Mr Malofeev and his translator managed to avoid dropping into the British manager’s cliché handbook.

Still that Valdas is prepared to risk his health to work for Vlad the Impaler and has started making the right noises about Steven Pressley should come as a relief to Hearts fans.

But the questions remain.

On the park the team needs a victory. Teams they swept past last season are holding them to draws or worse.

Can Valdas reignite the passion in a team that looks disjointed and flat?

Will he be allowed to do it his way or will Romanov continue to have his say? And how many Hearts fans believed Romanov when he said that he doesn’t influence team selection?

Will UEFA and the SFA step up investigations into the way Mr Romanov does business?

Will the January sales at Tynecastle make Princes Street look like a ghost town?

Recent events off the park are a step forward. Ivanauskas is a sign of stability. The truce between supporters and owner will settle the team.

But this story is certainly not over. And the unanswered questions might yet point to more gloomy days ahead.

A Lesson in Lennonism

Has Kevin Thomson realised that the nonsense he helped create around Hibs last week was over the top?

After the ridicule he found heaped on him following his farcical Daily Record ‘column’ last Tuesday, today he was in a more conciliatory mood.

No mention of his mummy and his yearning to free her from the chains of wage slavery.

Rather positive talk about winning silverware and fighting for second place. Even some well placed displays of his Hibee credentials – and his distaste for Hearts.

If this really is a sudden change of heart the reason behind it might well be hidden later in the column. Thomson’s half hearted protest about his disappointment with Neil Lennon for trying to get Scott Brown sent off can’t conceal the nagging admiration he must feel for the Celtic captain.

Lennon is much maligned by fans up and down the country. Often the criticism is fair. And as Hibs battered Celtic for much of the match Lennon must have wondered why he still puts his body through 90 minutes week after week.

More than once Guillame Beuzelin made Lennon look as lumbering and dimwitted as a carthorse approaching the knacker’s yard.

But from somewhere Lennon found the strength to orchestrate the comeback. Referee Mike McCurry will not be proud of the way he allowed the Irishman to dominate him in the second half.

Thomson thought Lennon looked “beaten” when Hibs went two up. Lennon doesn’t know the meaning of word. With Beuzelin and Ivan Sproule tiring Hibs needed the pace and work rate of that other, allegedly, want-away Hibee Scott Brown.

Lennon sucked Brown into a personal dual – which they were both lucky didn’t result in red cards – and the young midfielder was duly posted missing.

Thomson too, trying to play the captain’s role for which he is not yet ready, spent too much energy trying to placate Brown. Lennon and Evander Sno duly took over the midfield.

He didn’t score but it was Lennon that hauled Celtic back into this match. If he wonders why he often doesn’t get credit for contributions like that he need look no further than the way he taunted Brown after Celtic’s equaliser.

Neil Lennon is not a man many people could claim to like as a footballer. Much of his game is psychological. It’s ugly. But he gets away with it and it gets his team results.

Physically and mentally he has a strength that Kevin Thomson and Scott Brown lack. They’re more likely to discover that strength learning in the heat of the SPL with a wonderfully talented Hibs side than toiling with their old mates Derek Riordan and Ian Murray in the reserves at Parkhead or Ibrox.

Maybe Kevin Thomson has realised that in time to pull back from the brink.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Learning from Rugby

The news that UEFA are considering rugby’s rule of only allowing team captains to talk to referees during matches should be welcomed.

The petulance and arrogance of players in surrounding officials and berating decisions is becoming a blight on the game.

Of course football is a passionate game and, with adrenalin flowing and win bonuses at stake, players will lose their heads. That’s unavoidable.

But if you were walking down the street and six or seven young guys started shouting and swearing at you, would you not think it was unacceptable behaviour? Footballers can’t be exempt from the normal boundaries of society.

In fact rugby should be the inspiration for some other rule changes in as well.

How about UEFA making the 10 metre rule that they have already experimented with permanent?

Managers would quickly stamp down on dissent if it was costing territorial advantage and leading to dangerous set pieces.

How many times have you seen the opposition team take turns to kick your star player?

Why doesn’t football follow rugby’s example and allow the referee to tell captains that the next player on their side to commit a foul will be booked? Even if it’s his first offence.

The sin bin also offers possibilities for football. How many games have been ruined by senseless red cards when the player in question would probably have benefited from simply cooling off on the sidelines for ten minutes?

The arrogance that pervades the football authorities is absolutely mind blowing at times. But they have to realise that the game can be improved for the fans if they take on board lessons from other sports.

Friday, November 24, 2006

A New Era For Scottish Football?

Finally it’s happened. After 35 years of huffing and puffing Celtic and Rangers will both be in Europe after Christmas.

Obviously anyone who takes an interest in Scottish football but doesn’t follow Rangers or Celtic might feel that it is an achievement that means very little.

And they would be right. Kind of.

That two clubs of their size and stature should have failed to get beyond Christmas simultaneously since the 1971-72 season is embarrassing.

The lack of competition domestically is most commonly cited as the reason for their failings.

But the Dutch league – not universally famous for fierce competitiveness – has produced four European Cup winners as well as UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup champions in those 35 years.

The bleating about a poor domestic league shouldn’t hide the failures of the Old Firm, as big, big clubs, to cut it in Europe.

Having said that, their progress this season should be applauded. Successful European runs by any Scottish club bring the game benefits – not just in UEFA ranking points but also by making other people take an interest in our game.

And, funnily enough, any outsiders might be quite surprised by how competitive our top league actually is at the moment.

The monotony of Celtic’s recent run and massive cushion at the top apart, every other club looks capable of taking points off everyone else.

And Hibs, Hearts and Aberdeen will all fancy their chances of nicking second spot and consigning Rangers to third (or worse) for the second year in a row.

Added to Scotland’s continued improvement this should all mean that our fortunes are beginning to look up.

Let’s hope so!

Paul's Perplexing Problem

Nobody will have enjoyed Kris Boyd’s equalising goal against Auxerre last night more than Paul Le Guen.

But his pleasure will probably have been more diluted than that which Gordon Strachan felt on Tuesday.

True, Le Guen will be satisfied that his return to France didn’t end in defeat and that the point they gained has extended his club’s involvement in Europe until after Christmas.

But he will remain baffled by the same perplexing problem that bothered Alex McLeish last season.

How does a team that can exceed expectations in Europe fail to replicate that domestically?

Le Guen needs to find his answers quickly. His last two victories on home soil – against a managerless Dunfermline and a rudderless Hearts – have brought little comfort.

Far from cementing Rangers’ hold on second place they seem to have almost reignited the battle for the runners-up spot.

Hibs and Aberdeen have matched Rangers win for win. Hearts remain alive and must surely start kicking again at some stage.

If any of those three can mount a sustained challenge Le Guen’s team look ill equipped to match them.

He may spend in January – but he knows that will be a tacit admission of failure, prove that the players he brought in during the summer have not delivered for him.

Looking at some of his match winners and success stories this season will offer him little comfort: Adams, Novo, Boyd, Burke, McGreggor.

All names that were in the Ibrox programme before Le Guen crossed the channel.

So where does he go from here? The SPL is, barring a miracle, beyond him. But the fans will demand that there is no meek surrender when Rangers meet Celtic in December.

A performance that day that proves his team have the stomach for a fight will help him.

His next challenge will be the January transfer window. Buying – and buying big – might be a mistake.

Even if results improve in the short term Le Guen will be at the mercy of the next dip in fortunes. He will have proved that he lacks the confidence to back his own judgement. In turn the board’s confidence in him will never be the same.

So don’t be surprised if Le Guen sticks with what he’s got. Another couple of wins in Europe would dangle the carrot of a UEFA Cup Final at Hampden in front of the supporters.

Consolidating in the league – and clinching second – will give him a launch pad to attack Celtic next season.

And he will have a much clearer idea of where he needs to strengthen and who he needs to get rid of – allowing him to get his chequebook out in the summer.

Rangers got a completely new type of manager when they snared Paul Le Guen. Don’t be surprised if he thinks that splashing the cash in January would do little to solve his problems.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Why England Will Always Say No

Let’s not turn Celtic’s victory on Tuesday into yet another debate about the Old Firm going down south.

We’ve had the arguments so many times it’s tiresome. Yes, on their day they can live with anyone. Yes, they’ve got a huge support.

But these factors have been constant for close to a decade. And still nothing’s happened. The truth is that however much Peter Lawwell and David Murray want it to happen it never will.

And it’s their own fault. Why would English football, with the image problem that hooliganism has caused it over the years, willingly invite Celtic and Rangers to join.

As long as their fans continue to spew vitriol out of the stands at every opportunity the Old Firm will be pariahs south of the border.

The irony is, of course, that officials at both clubs have repeatedly stuck their heads in the sand over the sectarian issue.

So for the foreseeable future Murray and Lawwell will be stuck in no-man’s land of their own making: staring wistfully at the cash cow of the Premiership but covering their ears to the reasons for their exclusion.

The Tynecastle Stadium Mystery

Have you heard the one about the team that lost three managers and had an invisible owner?

No. Neither had I, but it’s unlikely to raise much of a titter in Gorgie at the moment.

Let’s recap.

Captain Steven Pressley has been dropped for speaking out against the Romanov revolution.

But Romanov, the most visible of all the SPL owners, has turned pretty much invisible.

Valdas Ivanauskas is still officially head coach but is recovering from a stress related condition in Lithuania. But he’s got to come back now to go to court for speeding.

Eduard Malofeev is acting head coach. But, at the age of 64, he was supposed to leave on Monday to start his UEFA coaching courses.

John McGlynn, who has been caretaker so many times that Harold Pinter is working on his biography, left this week for Raith Rovers.

Eugenijus Riabovas was supposed to take over on Monday. But now he’s back in Lithuania until next month.

But will he return before Mr Malofeev begins his two match touchline ban?

And, if not, will Hearts play those two games with only a translator in the dug-out?

Are you still with me? Thought not. There are, it seems, no answers at Tynecastle these days.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Torquay to Shun Divers

Congratulations to Torquay United’s chairman Chris Roberts for having the guts to threaten to sack any players at the club caught diving or feigning injury.

The club will give offenders three chances before either sacking the players or placing them on the transfer list.

I can’t see it catching on in Scotland – or anywhere else – but if more club chairman start bringing in initiatives like this then the authorities may well begin looking at harsher punishments for players.

Roberts himself is waiting for other clubs to join his initiative.

I do have a doubt about this scheme though. Torquay are in the lower reaches of Football League Two at the moment.

If their survival was at stake on the last day of the season and their centre forward took a tumble to earn a last minute penalty to keep them in the league would Mr Roberts punish him?

All White on the Night

Wanted. Male or Female. Capable of asking John Collins intelligent questions and being reasonably polite to Gerry McNee. Must be able to follow a game of football despite the mindless interjections of Archie McPherson.

Is the media world in Scotland not large enough to fill that job description? Surely someone is out there?

The reason I ask is that yet again Telegraph journalist Jim White hosted STV’s Champion’s League coverage last night.

This isn’t a racist quibble, I prefer him to Jim Delahunt who still looks at the autocue as if it’s his enemy. I just think that if we have to put up with Archie’s inane ramblings then we really should go the whole way and have a Scottish presenter.

Not an Englishman who has made a reasonable living in the past by trading on his status as a professional Manchester United fan.

It would also have been wise to have someone on hand to work out that Celtic had actually qualified for the last 16. A fact that nobody (Jim, John, Gerry, Archie or Andy Walker)picked up on.

Could STV not take a risk and train up someone from another field? Or even use Scotsport’s Grant Stott?

Or could it be that the ever amateurish STV actually believed they were rehiring the other Jim White, formerly of Scotsport and the Brian Laudrup Fan Club? Just a thought.

Jim White's Manchester United Book

Kenny and Dunfermline Step into the Unknown

When Dunfermline take on form side Aberdeen on Saturday new boss Stephen Kenny will take the reigns for the first time.

It says much for the way that the travails of Rangers and Hearts have dictated the media agenda that Kenny’s appointment has been, to say the least, overshadowed.

Jim Jefferies has already complained this season that ‘other teams’ – like Jefferies’ Kilmarnock and Kenny’s Pars – are overlooked by the football press.

But slipping under the radar is maybe just what Kenny and his new employers would want.

A team propping up the SPL, with huge injury problems, that failed to respond to Jim Leishman’s motivational skills does not suggest a happy East End Park.

Yet the board have gone for a manager that has no experience of the SPL. His track record is said to have impressed. Yet that track record has come in Ireland – not, with all respect, a top European league.

Finances are tight at Dunfermline. And it is doubtful if Kenny’s availability and low profile didn’t make him attractive for the bean counters as well as the football men on the board.

And yet, just maybe, Dunfermline have pulled off a masterstroke. The board will be hoping that by plucking Kenny from obscurity they can trigger something similar to Tony Mowbray’s revolution at Hibs.

Some of the signs are good. The bottom of the league is incredibly tight and Dunfermline – when they come through the other end of this injury crisis – have a larger and more experienced squad than, say, Motherwell or St Mirren.

It will take a few games to really get an idea about what kind of manager Kenny will be. That Dunfermline have turned their backs on the Duffy,Williamson Largs mafia-type choice means that both he and his side deserve some good luck in the meantime.

Strachan Casts Off O'Neill's Shadow

It will be remarkable if Gordon Strachan resists the temptation to say 'I told you so' after his Celtic side stole a most unlikely victory over Manchester United last night.

Over a year ago it seemed as if the Parkhead faithful would never accept Strachan, the wee east coast scrapper with the big mouth, as a replacement for the sainted Martin O’Neill.

Of course that was after Strachan had presided over a calamitous five goal mauling by Artmedia Bratislava.

Strachan did then as we might have expected. He faced the world as he always has and got on with the job in hand. The result was Celtic coasting to the SPL title last season and Strachan buying himself both some affection from the fans and a crack at the Champion’s League proper.

Last night – despite all United’s possession and the vast superiority of their players – Gordon Strachan was able to claim his reward.

The shadow of Martin O’Neill may hang around the east end of Glasgow for a while longer yet but Strachan has surpassed him by taking Celtic to the knockout stages for the first time.

That he did so against all the odds, and by somehow outwitting his one time mentor and long time enemy Sir Alex Ferguson, will make his achievement seem all the sweeter.

United may well fancy themselves as being unlucky. But the fact remains that Celtic took their chance and United, for all the breathtaking slickness of their passing and movement, couldn’t score. Better teams than Celtic will dish out an even harsher punishment if the Reds can squeeze past Benfica.

Celtic can now enjoy the final game of the group stage. They won’t win the Champion’s League and last night’s results, despite the bragging rights it brings, does not make them a top European club.

But it does make them a richer European club and UEFA’s cash windfall will send a shiver down the spine of everyone playing SPL catch-up at Ibrox.

And it might just make Strachan feel at home in Glasgow.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Time for Hibs Board to Stand Up and Be Counted

A new manager. A league cup win over you city rivals. Two SPL wins on the bounce. What could possibly go wrong for Hibs?

Well, the transfer window can open in January and that same old combination of an agent engineering a handsome fee for himself and a board petrified of any financial risk can rip the heart from your side.

So your new manager will be incandescent that the assurances he was given on taking the job are worthless.

And despite your favourites tag your new lightweight midfield will be overrun by a well organised team sent out by either your old hero Yogi Hughes or your old nemesis Jim Jefferies in the League Cup final.

Admittedly that’s the worst case scenario but the Hibs board might need to find the stomach for a fight on this one and find a big enough stick to beat the predators circling Kevin Thomson and Scott Brown away.

John Collins, new in management but already a breath of fresh air, would be right to feel massively aggrieved by any sales in January unless they are directly sanctioned by him.

Rangers are continuing to toil and an extended run in Europe won’t help their SPL struggles. Hearts are in a maelstrom of destruction at the hands of Vladimir Romanov.

Which means Collins may well be in charge of a side that can make a real run for second place and the silverware that Leith craves so badly.

He needs his best players to do that. So it’s time for Rod Petrie to do what he has so frequently asked the fans to do. Stand up and be counted.

Petrie asked for increased attendances to ensure financial stability. The fans have delivered. Garry O’Connor was sacrificed to Russia for the good of the balance sheet but the fans forgave the board.

Now that faith needs to be repayed. Every one of the players that destroyed Motherwell on Saturday needs to stay at Easter Road until the end of the season at least.

Hibs might still win nothing and finish sixth. But at least Collins will have been given every chance to achieve something special with his young side.

Hearts: End of the Affair as Fans Wake Up to Vlad?

On Friday Rangers and Hearts sat second and third in the SPL table. By Sunday evening Rangers had moved back into second and Hearts had fallen to fifth.

But has a game between two sides occupying such lofty status in the top division ever been overshadowed to the extent this one was?

Sure Rangers haven’t exactly been resting on a bed of roses this season but Paul Le Guen must at least be grateful that it’s David Murray that wields the axe at Ibrox and not Vladimir Romanov.

Last season as the Jambo’s won the cup and split the Old Firm in the league the Tynecastle faithful were on top of the world. The west coast media, they claimed, had done everything they could to pour cold water on the Romanov revolution. Now with the silverware locked up in the trophy room and the Champion’s League just around the corner Mad Vlad was exonerated.

Sure there were concerns over the number of loan deals, over the revolving doors to the manager’s office and Romanov’s constant tinkering. But so what? Why not just get on with it and see if Hearts could actually break the Glasgow duopoly on the title this year?

And what’s more the spine of the team, Gordon, Pressley and Hartley, were there to ensure continuity and Scottish passion. It was these three who would let the newcomers know what it meant to be Hearts players, would ensure the traditions of the club would be upheld.

And now? Hearts are to all intents and purposes managerless. The only remaining Scottish coach, John McGlynn, no doubt sprinted across the Forth Road Bridge as he escaped to Raith Rovers. And what of the big Scottish three?

Pressley has been dropped for the last two games for having the temerity to speak out at the Romanov grand plan. Hartley and Gordon, who sat next to their captain as he finally broke the united front on the Lithuanian takeover, are being tolerated in the side but look set to join Elvis on the transfer list in January.

So the fans have woken up. Dropping Pressley, the talisman, who has acted with nothing but dignity through the whole sorry saga, was the final straw for many of them.

The protests after the Rangers game only amounted to a couple of hundred disgruntled supporters. But at football clubs these thing snowball and there was many more than that booing the ineffectual Lithuanians who filled the team on Sunday.

That was nothing more than racism according to Sports Director Alex Koslovski, neatly sidestepping the reality of the growing unrest towards the regime he represents by accusing his own fans of bigotry.

It was nothing of the sort – it was a protest at inferior players. No doubt Vlad and Alex had a good laugh at their cleverness in attacking their own fans. Perhaps the SFA and UEFA would like to challenge that by slapping a fine on Hearts for racism, with their own Sporting Director as the chief prosecution witness and all right minded football people on the side of the defence.

The truth is Hearts are in turmoil. Expect Romanov to make some principled declaration about wanting only good men, honest and true, in the dressing room when he sells Pressley, Hartley and Gordon (probably along with Robbie Nielsen).

The truth is all three are a drain on resources and Hartley and Gordon can still command large transfer fees.

By speaking out, by acting with integrity, Pressely gave Romanov the chance to act. He’ll exercise his power by bringing in much needed revenue to offset his eccentric handling of the club’s finances.

Like George Burley and Graham Rix. Pressley and co have become pawns in the game that Vlad is playing. So from January young Scots will take to the field with a ragbag of Lithuanian loan signings. For the good of the club Romanov will say. Perhaps, but also the cheaper option.

Maybe Mr Romanov knows where this is going, maybe he doesn’t. Certainly nobody else at the moment is willing to predict a happy ending for Hearts, indeed, many are predicting the death of the club.

Only time will tell. In the meantime it is the fans who are suffering most at the hands of Mad, Bad Vlad. By treating an honourable man like Pressley the way he has, the submariner had torpedoed the hopes of the faithful.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Welcome to the new Scottish Football Blog. Your first stop for rumours, gossip and news on the strange and frustrating world of Scottish football.

From Le Guen's labourings to the Romanov revolution, from the Easter Road January sales to Celtic's romp to the title you'll find it all here.

Stay posted.