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.