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.