Friday, May 04, 2007

Viva Espana

The Spanish are coming. But hopefully nobody will be playing bowls this time. Hampden hosts the UEFA Cup Final in a couple of weeks with either Sevilla and Espanyol set to take the trophy home to Spain.

Financially it's great for Scotland. And it puts us at the centre of European football for the night – although admittedly it would be preferable if we could achieve this by having two Scottish teams playing in a final in Spain.

I can’t help but think that people will be underwhelmed by Hampden though. Of Scotland’s four big stadiums it surely trails in a fairly miserable fourth place. Going to the toilet is a demonic exercise in patience and bladder control that really shouldn’t happen in a modern football ground.

At the moment this isn’t a problem for the SFA. They can brag about a UEFA Cup Final to go with their Champion’s League Final of a few years ago.

Hearts, however, are set to host to Barcelona at Murrayfield in July. A sell out crowd there, with a good atmosphere and facilities to match, will increase the clamour for certain games to be played in Edinburgh. And the SFA will not like that one little bit.

Good. Hell mend them. They mucked up the new Hampden by doing it on the cheap. For all the emotional resonance of the National Stadium – and yes, the Hampden Roar etc, Real Madrid etc, I know the list – it was redundant in a country of our size when three stadiums already existed that held more fans.

The money they did spend could have been put to better to use. Instead we’re lumbered with a monumental folly that we neither need nor like.

Another fines mess

If you’re going to slag somebody off you better make sure its not football’s decision makers. Hearts were yesterday fined £25,000 for Vladimir Romanov’s infamous "monkey" rant at Scottish referees and the media.

Rangers, on the other hand, were fined just £8,820 for sectarian chanting in the away fixture against Osasuna in the UEFA Cup.

UEFA explained that the decision was made because Rangers have been trying to stamp down on sectarianism. A larger fine for the Spanish club also suggested that UEFA did not hold Rangers to blame for the other problems at the fixture.

UEFA admitted that there was sectarian behaviour displayed – for the second year running – by travelling Rangers fans. But they still cut the fine compared to last year’s £10,000. It’s hard to see UEFA as anything other than cowardly. If Rangers are not held to account for their fans’ behaviour then the fans will continue to behave badly.

It might be unfair on the decent fans and those that are working to cure the club of this blight but, unfortunately, this is a situation where the tail wags the dog. Until Rangers are properly punished the idiots will continue unabashed. Sadly UEFA don’t have the stomach for the fight.

In the light of UEFA’s inaction the SPL might look to have treated Hearts harshly. And, no doubt, the news will send paranoia levels soaring at Tynecastle. But because UEFA are cowardly shouldn’t mean the SPL follow suit.

The punishment is a sign of impatience at Romanov’s increasingly tiresome rants that were making his club - and by extension the Scottish game - an object of ridicule. Like everyone else the SPL feel it’s time for Hearts to do their talking on the pitch.

Scottish football gossip: Part two

Truth, lies and Joseph Barton

Giddy with signing Scotland international Brian Kerr (three caps, as you ask) John Collins is going to swoop for Chelsea’s Belgian ‘keeper Yves Makaba-Makalamby. Try putting that on the back of your shirt.

All is not bright on Mr Collins’ horizon though. Michael Stewart is ready to spill the beans on the whole sorry saga of the player rebellion. Human beanpole and club captain Rob Jones is rumoured to have played a far larger part in the uprising than previously thought. From teacher to Grimsby to Leith’s very own Fidel Castro in the blink of an eye.

As laughing Jim Jefferies waits for Gordon Greer, Gary Locke and Peter Leven to sign new contracts Killie’s crown jewel Steven Naismith is set to join Hearts as Vlad splashes the cash with the abandon of a submariner on shore leave in a brothel. Hearts are also on the scent of Jason Scotland – with Craig Levein also sniffing around in a bid to get Scotland back to Tannadice.

Rangers hope to sign Alan Smith. I presume they are hoping for the Manchester United striker and not the nasal voiced whiner that once played for Arsenal. Meanwhile Nacho Novo is set to leave Glasgow and join Zenit St Petersburg.

Rangers fans still insist that emotional ties will persuade life long Gers fan Scott Brown to Ibrox. Tottenham, however, are confident that £4.5 million will see Scott leave his Rangers scarf at Edinburgh Airport as he scampers down south to cuddle up Martin Jol. Larry Kingston might help soothe Walter Smith’s feelings of rejection.

Neale Cooper could revisit past glories with a managerial return to Ross County – the job was advertised in the Daily Record today so feel free to send in a letter.

Joey Barton might be moving to Glasgow as Gordon Strachan lines up a bid for the midfield psychopath. This may or may not be the breathtaking signing Celtic fans have been promised. Strachan is also going after Watford centre half Danny Shittu. Ah, Celtic and their defenders. Rafael Scheidt anyone?

Meanwhile Royston Keane is after Thomas Gravesen and will offer Martin O’Neill outside as the fight for Artur Boruc gets tough.

Tam McManus is set to repay Dunfermline for giving him another crack in the SPL – by buggering off if they get relegated. Rats, ships, sinking etc.

And Maurice Malpas going is on an mad shopping spree. Scott Agnew, Jamie McLen (Hamilton Accies), Curtis McDonald (Cardiff City) and Daniel Severino (unattached) are all going straight in Mo's Costco trolley.

Keep football on the pitch - not in court

Dave Whelan, sugar daddy of Wigan Athletic, wants to sue West Ham and the Premier League. Terence Brown, largely discredited ex-West Ham Chairman, wants to sue West Ham. Ousame Dabo is threatening legal action against "loose cannon" Joey Barton.

OK, all the stories are down south and something should certainly happen to Joey Barton. But they show a worrying trend. Football is big business and that means people are far less likely to keep things in house. It’s one of the reasons that Hibs appointed an employment lawyer to their board this season.

But football is not all about the money. Essentially it remains about clubs and their fans. We shouldn’t run to the courts at every opportunity. The people who think referee Steve Conroy should have taken legal action after Laryea Kingston’s racism slur are wrong.

I don’t think they would be quite as keen if it was one of their best players doing the slurring.

And where would it stop? Another Duncan Ferguson case every week?

The football authorities need to change their disciplinary procedures. Nobody can argue with that. But the spirit of the game, already diminished, will be lost forever if every decision, every fight, every argument is dragged through the courts.

So here’s my advice: the authorities need to develop a spine, become more open and clarify their rules and everyone involved in the game should grow up.

So football can be a real bastard sometimes? That’s why we love it. But we want it on the pitch not in the High Court.

Play off, play off and play the game

First Division Play-Offs

Brechin City 1 (Russell) – 3 Airdrie United (Harty,2, Twigg)

Raith Rovers 0 – 0 Stirling Albion

Second Division Play-Off

East Fife 4 (Reilly,3, Gibson) – 1 Stranraer (Moore

David Longmuir accepted the post of Scottish Football League Chief Executive today. He made no mention of the play-offs. He probably didn’t know they were being played.

Anyway they were. Wednesday night in fact. Three games. And nine goals between them. Which is nothing to be sniffed at.

Queues formed early at Glebe Park
Raith Rovers actually drew a crowd of over 3000 for their (and is this not just Sod’s Law) goalless draw with Stirling Albion. Unfortunately the other three games (including the one at Hampden on Tuesday) drew a combined crowd of 2670.

I don’t know. Maybe it means a lot to the clubs and their fans. But the play offs strike me as a monumental waste of time. The SFL needs major surgery. The play offs are a miserable piece of cosmetics.

As for Mr Longmuir:

He loves football – would he admit to hating it?

He has a strong background in the alcohol industry and he will be charged with revamping the marketing of the three divisions, the CIS Cup and the Challenge Cup.

Good luck to him. But having come from drink it may only be a matter of time before he is turning to it for solace.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Hearts fans come out - but is it enough?

Regular readers will know that I am occasionally perplexed by the Romanov regime at Tynecastle. Occasionally perplexed and often supremely cynical.

But Vladimir promised to bring the fans back into Tynecastle. And, in that, he has been successful. This season Hearts’ total attendance has risen to 428,000. This figure would have been far closer to the half million mark if their Champion’s League and UEFA Cup fixtures had worked out differently.

The figures, somewhat obviously hailed as "fan-tastic" by the Evening News, are, to borrow punnery from the Edinburgh tabloid, heart-ening. Yet they also show the size of Romanov’s task if he is to compete with the Old Firm.

Based on their last home attendances it would take Celtic just over seven games to achieve the same total. Rangers would surpass it in little over eight and a half games.

Lies, damned lies and statistics? Possibly. But it shows the disparity that any Old Firm challengers face.

Whatever else Romanov brings to the party he’s going to need come up with some way of levelling the playing field. A new stadium might be the start. We can only watch and wait.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Scottish football gossip: Part one

A few snippets of (possibly untrue) gossip:

Hibs' Shelton Martis is to rejoin Darlington after falling foul of John Collins following the player revolt at Easter Road. Greg Shields is also on his way with Michael Stewart hoping to start again in the English Premiership with old mate Roy Keane’s Sunderland: the two kept in touch after Stewart left Manchester United and met up again when Keane joined Celtic. Faced with the prospect of playing a seven-a-side team next season Collins is to snap up MK Don’s striker and lower league journeyman Clive Platt

Hearts have filled Hibs' boots and now look set to host Barcelona at Murrayfield in July – Dundee United will also play the Catalan minnows. Larry Kingston is staying at Hearts. Or Kingston is going: with his agent and dastardly Vladimir Romanov in cahoots to use his appearances at Hearts as a way of bumping up his transfer fee.

John Hartson is not ruling out a return to Celtic Park. Although as nobody seems to be ruling it in, the giant Spam Man’s comments seem somewhat optimistic. Thomas Gravesen will not leave Celtic despite interest from LA Galaxy and Roy Keane.

Gordon Strachan does have his eye on Southampton old boy James Beattie and Reading’s Steve Sidwell. Sidwell has now been linked with 5006 clubs. But Artur Boruc is offski – Aston Villa are primed and ready to pounce. Strachan himself is staying put despite alleged interest from serial flirters Manchester City and Newcastle.

Swiss defender Stephen Keller is on trial at Falkirk. Dutch side RKC Waalwijk are happy to see him go. Sorry, that should have read happy to let him go. John Sutton will be playing for Yogi next season after signing a pre contract agreement - but John Hughes is to ship six players out.

More, almost unavoidably, soon.

Another SFA cock-up

It’s a prophecy I am not proud of. Yesterday I commented on another website about the ludicrous rule that meant both Tam McManus and Stephen Glass would not be allowed to play for Dunfermline in the Scottish Cup Final.

McManus was an unused substitute for Falkirk earlier in the competition and Glass had performed the same role for Hibs.

Dunfermline had seen light at the end of the tunnel when it emerged that Queen of the South had played Jamie Adams in two ties after he had warmed the bench for Kilmarnock when they lost to Morton.

Yesterday I said the SFA should rescind the rule but that I felt they were more likely to punish Queen of the South. I was half joking. Today it has emerged that they will not allow McManus or Glass to play. They will however investigate the Adams case and Queen of the South may face censure - although they offered no explanation about how they missed it at the time.

Sometimes they just astound you.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

SFA Hammer Kingston

A three match ban for Laryea Kingston. Hearts lose arguably their most consistent performer for the remainder of the season.

Kingston, who had already been on something of a rampage, was dismissed by referee Steve Conroy at which point he launched a tirade at Conroy using "offensive, insulting and abusive language."

This included accusing Mr Conroy of being racist. Mr Conroy is married to a black woman which added to the publicity the case received at the time.

The three match ban is serving to massage the combined neurosis of the Hearts fans but the fact remains that Kingston was in the wrong – and if the incident hadn’t taken place on the football pitch he could quite easily have faced legal action.

The SFA have chosen to make an example of Kingston but NOT because he is a Hearts player. Rather there is very little precedent for this type of incident so Larry has been dealt with in a way that shall hopefully discourage others.

Where the Hearts fan may have a case is in the way the SFA handle all these cases. There should be far more transparency in these disciplinary procedures. And, perhaps more importantly, the disciplinary system should be streamlined. The incident occurred in the second week of March. It should not be dragged out until May Day.

But the SFA have their methods and they like to stick to them. It was ever thus. In the meantime Hearts’ appeal should see Larry face Aberdeen this weekend in the crucial UEFA Cup qualifying match that Hearts can’t afford to lose.

By apologising Kingston essentially accpeted his culpability and the SFA were forced to act. It would be unfortunate however if the player was to feel that, having apologised and having served his time, his stay in Scotland has become untenable.

Spiders Trap Red Lichties

Second Division Play Off First Leg

Queen's Park 2 (Weatherston, Trouten) - 0 Arbroath

Play-off time again. Don’t understand why they are played. Don’t understand why the Scottish Football League promote them so miserably.

I have an idea that faced with the realisation that the lower leagues need a major overhaul the SFL chiefs hurriedly scribbled down a compromise on the back of a fag packet but agreed not to mention it to anyone except the teams involved. So play-offs it is.

And first up tonight Queen’s Park against Arbroath. The first leg of a fixture which promises the winner the chance to play another two leg tie for the right to play in the Second Division next year.

And it’s advantage to the Spiders after David Weatherston and Alan Trouten scored late goals. I believe there was nothing fishy about Trouten’s penalty. Boom Boom. Arbroath’s misery was compounded by Robbie Raeside’s dismissal in the lead up to the penalty.

The game was brought forward by 24 hours because the UEFA Cup Final means Hampden can’t be used for two weeks after this evening. Which seems a silly rule and also leaves me wondering what Queen’s Park will do if they hold on to their advantage.

Arbroath had to rely on the largesse of Roddy Black’s firefighter colleagues to ensure he had the night off after the last minute change of schedule. Try dealing with that kind of difficulty, Jose Mourinho.

Jose, incidentally, may well have been in the 974 strong crowd at Hampden because he certainly seemed to be watching a different game to everyone else at Anfield.

The second leg is on Saturday – and away goals don’t count so the Red Lichties will be hoping to turn things round come the weekend.

Dunfermline Close the Gap - But Saints Can Cling On

St Mirren 0 – 1 Dunfermline (McManus)

Time for me to eat my hat then? Having written Dunfermline off, they’re doing their best to prove me wrong.

This crucial victory, in a classic "six pointer," has moved them to within a point of St Mirren and their current momentum suggests that they might kick off next season’s European campaign in the SPL.

But, and there’s always a but, I still think St Mirren will pull it off. For both teams, and excuse the cliché, the next three games are cup finals. Dunfermline have been in that situation since the turn of the year. And, with the added factor of their epically convoluted semi final against Hibs, I think the players are going to run out of steam.

With the recent sale of Love Street St Mirren could probably, at least financially, cope with relegation better than Dunfermline. But, with the memory of the struggles to get promoted still fresh, I can see the players digging deep and clinging on – just.

Rather like Gretna and St Johnstone, early season form will be rewarded at the expense of a late push.

What then happens to Dunfermline is anybody’s guess. The Scottish Cup Final and the UEFA Cup will swell the coffers. But which players will stay is unclear. Stephen Kenny has proved he is a decent manager and he will fancy chances in the First Division – but other clubs will already have noted his potential.

So there it is – another of my unpredictable predictions. Dunfermline to go down. And, if I'm pushed, to stay down for some time.

The crowd tonight was fantastic - over 10,000 filled Love Street. Both teams will be looking for more of the same over the next couple of weeks.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Gretna Make the Grady

Have you got your breath back yet? An incredible afternoon brought the curtain down on an enthralling season of First Division football.

And, at the death, when St Johnstone looked to have secured promotion up popped James Grady to snatch the title for Gretna.

Yes. Gretna will play SPL football next season. We don’t know where or what manager they will have. But all the players and the fans care about is winning. And they’ve done that in the most dramatic way possible.

Four games Gretna had gone without scoring. But in came Grady to grab a double in a three two victory. Ross County fought valiantly but Airdrie United’s victory over Queen of the South consigned them to relegation. Airdrie will now take their chances in the play off.

As I’ve said before Gretna getting promotion raises more questions than it answers. They need a ground, they need more money and better players and – at the moment – they need a manager.

The SPL don’t want them and the feeling persists that not all at Gretna really wanted the SPL.

But they’re there now. And not many people will ever write them off again.

For now though let’s look at the positives: Gretna have secured three promotions in a row and they’ve done it by scoring goals.

And Brook Mileson could not be more different from the usual SPL chairmen who think that romance in football begins and ends with a glass of port whilst reading a balanced set of accounts. Brooks might be the kick up the backside they need.

St Johnstone, of course, will be devastated but Gretna have been rewarded for their early season form. Owen Coyle’s side made a late charge that just wasn’t enough.

And maybe we need the romantic Brook Mileson rather than the pragmatic Saints Chairman Geoff Brown who had this to say before the game:

"When we played Gretna at McDiarmid Park in January they only brought 160 fans. They won't bring many to the party - if they do it then good luck to them.

"I think Brooks Mileson has a dream and he's taken it up and done extremely well. It's his money. But, at the end of the day, it's false.”

Sorry Geoff. You were horribly, horribly wrong. At the end of the day Gretna are very, very real.

Extra: read my post here to see how I wrong I called today’s events.

What's Eating Celtic Park?

Life with Les Battersby didn't prepare Gordon Strachan for Glasgow
You’ve won the league and you’re staring down the barrel of a double. You’d think Celtic fans would be jumping with glee at the moment.

But now someone has put a stick in the spokes of their bicycle of joy. Ex-Celtic player Charlie Nicholas has had the temerity to suggest that Neil Lennon won’t go down in the history books as a Celtic legend.

Now this is Charlie Nicholas of the often almost incoherent punditry (which explains why he doesn’t appear in Colemanballs more often – they don’t know what he’s saying) and whose own talent was largely wasted by an attitude that once saw him proclaim: "See, four, five, six pints. That to me isn’t a real drink."

So why should the Celtic fans care about Charlie Nic? Because to some any criticism is a chance to play the victim card. Witness this comment on the Scotsman website:

"Nicholas is and always has been driven by his ego. He betrayed Celtic, failed at Arsenal, came back to Celtic as a badge kisser, failed again, ended up getting a job in the media and like most ex-Celts in the media, is compelled to be anti-celtic by the bigotted authorities just to keep his job.

"Ex huns get media jobs and maintain their bias, anti-celtic, pro hun agenda, whereas ex-celts get media jobs and turn against their old team so that they keep their highly paid media jobs.

"Nicholas, Provan, Walker, et al, you are a disgrace.

"As for Lenny being a legend...I will always remember Lenny as loyal, committed and commanding. He is, and always will be a legend. As for Nicholas, he is a snivelling little git."

As The Proclaimers once sang "everybody’s a victim, we’re becoming like the USA."

Unfortunately it is these attitudes that make the Old Firm so hard to love. Because any Rangers fan would argue the exact opposite. Enemies everywhere, you see. Behind the door, under the bed, everywhere.

And as Glenn Gibbon’s reports elsewhere in the Scotsman it is this paranoid belief that anyone from the outside is involved in some kind of anti-Celtic conspiracy that leads fans to shout things like this, overheard on Sunday as Celtic WON the title:

"Strachan, you're hopeless! Even John Barnes was better than you!"

Strachan apparently, for some fans, is not Celtic minded enough. Which means he beat Celtic with Aberdeen and grew up in Edinburgh. And, if you ain’t one of us, you can never become one of us. Go and figure that one out.

The best supporters in the world? Or a massive club with a generally decent support that contains a sizeable minority that need to grow up, get a life and give the whole victimised, conspiracy theory bleating a rest?

Friday, April 27, 2007

George Hargreaves: You're the devil in disguise

Scottish Football and the Scottish Elections Part One: Christian Crazies

This was going to be a short article telling footballers to stay out of the Scottish election. But that post will come later.

For now let’s tell politicians to stay out of football. Read this statement from George Hargreaves of the Scottish Christian Party concerning Manchester United's 'satanic' themed crest:

“We will urge Wayne Rooney not to honour the devil by wearing this shirt nor kiss this badge. We will urge Christians to put their money elsewhere than Manchester United and its sponsors of Satanic worship. Repent and put The Cross of Jesus Christ or at least Star of David on your shirts. Manchester can never be United under Satan. Manchester can only be United under the Christian-Jewish God. We advise Christians in Manchester to support Manchester City, Bolton, Stockport or Burnley until the board of Manchester United change the official club symbol of Satan on all shirts, merchandise and their website."

Ah, the brave new dawn of Scottish democracy. It was ever thus – extend democracy and every nut case with an ego will try to get elected.

So please step forward Reverend Hargreaves: policies include a referendum on capital punishment, teaching school children that the bible is the ultimate authority on ALL matters and teaching school children that homosexuality is an abomination.

A couple of things George: you can do nothing about Manchester United as you are trying to be elected in Scotland. You might want to cast the good book aside and read Scotland's devolution settlement before talking absolute tosh.

More importantly you say that your policies are about freedom but what freedom do Jewish, Muslim, atheist or children of any other belief system have when you force your beliefs on them. But, then, it doesn’t matter because George would allow corporal punishment to beat the heathenism out of any child dissenters.

And how would George tackle sectarianism in football? I don't know because he steers clear of any mention of it in his manifesto (think Mein Kampf without the humour). That is almost certainly because lovable old Georgie thinks there is absolutely nowt wrong with a bit of sectarianism (provided it's directed at the right people of course).

George you are as dangerous as the BNP. And you are as far removed from showing true Christian values as anyone in our society. Hardline nonsense like yours will contribute to this country becoming Godless much more effectively than the efforts of a million atheists.

And of all the things Wayne Rooney has done in his life kissing the badge of his club is probably more Christian than paying to sleep with a grandmother.

Sorry to get political but if you don’t believe that George is dangerous look at his namesake Bush in America. The Christian right can influence people and can influence presidents.

And anyone that forces us to give up the moral high ground and stop us laughing, with a casual superiority, at America does not deserve our support.

Vote Rooney, Vote for the (Red) Devil, Vote for Choice Not for the Cross!

Lennon's Old Firm fairytale (Sorry Neil, not you)

Old Firm games always matter or so I’ve been told – often quite forcibly by Old Firm supporters.

Celtic fans might well be willing to argue with that today after their team’s annihilation in the Scottish Youth Cup final yesterday.

But how the Rangers fans will revel in the irony that a young man named Lennon scored a hat-trick against the old enemy.

I dare say Neil will not be unduly bothered by young Steven’s achievement but it will no doubt raise a titter in Govan.

Youth teams, of course, can promise much and not translate that potential to the bigger stage but let’s hope the Rangers team can make an impact in Scotland – and that their hooped counterparts can recover and make similar strides.

Young Scots playing in Europe for the Old Firm can only be a good thing for the Scottish national team – however much that sticks in the craw of those of us who seek succour outside of Glasgow’s dominant forces.

The next challenge is for the players – and their clubs – to show the desire and commitment to stick with it and progress. That is often easier said than done – although John Kennedy’s return to action shows that Old Firm youngsters can prosper in adversity.

Perhaps the bleakest note of the night was the attendance. That 11,486 supporters watched the match at Hampden should fill us with joy. That 3000 less people watched two SPL sides in a Scottish Cup semi final only 48 hours earlier is on a par with any embarrassment the young Celtic players felt.

Hampden this week has provided a forensic examination of the Scottish game: and the future is far from rosy.

McCall over bar the shouting

Another season, another club, another departure.

Just what is wrong with Ian McCall?

His “amicable” split with Queen of the South marks the end of his sixth spell in management.

It is suggested that his next stop will be Partick Thistle. Which seems obvious enough because Thistle are a club crying out for a manager that seems to offer no stability whatsoever.

Clydebank (during which time they tried to move to Dublin), Airdrie (the last manager in their history), Morton (too expensive), Falkirk (jumped ship after 30 games), Dundee United (28 games won, 40 games lost) and Queen of the South (different ambitions from the board). Six clubs, six departures, no periods of stability.

Now, there is bad luck, there are misunderstandings and there are personality clashes.

But McCall seems to attract all three with unerring regularity.

Yet still he gets jobs. He’s underachieved as a manager as he underachieved as a player but a scary number of clubs seem to want his services.


Firstly, and it’s only my theory, McCall is a media darling. He lives in Glasgow’s West End which remains Scotland’s media centre. He’s the BBC’s main analyst despite having the incredible ability to make one pine for the commentary of Jock Brown.

But the media deem McCall a character: this relates to anecdotes from his playing days when he first defecated from a step ladder at Rangers (leading Graeme Souness to boot him out) and then defecated in player-manager Simon Stainrod’s shoe at Falkirk (what boot Stainrod kicked him out with is unclear).

Clearly this is a classy guy with a frightening level of sophistication.

Secondly, Scotland is a small country. That’s why the same actors appear in Take the High Road, Taggart and River City. And it’s why the same managers keep cropping up at different clubs. And, to short sighted club directors, McCall is attractive because of the high media profile that his moments of comedy excellence have so deservingly brought him.

So McCall keeps getting jobs and fans keep getting promised great things only to be awarded with mediocrity and abrupt departures.

But perhaps anyone hunting for new managers should study McCall’s comments yesterday: "The First Division is not easy, and will be even harder next year."

The challenge is never quite so appealing when you know the BBC will keep you in beer money.

Rubbish Football Products Part Two

Jesus Saves! And Denis Law scores on the rebound.

Substitute the Lawman for your own favourite striker and I’ll bet you’ve heard, or read, the joke somewhere.

It’s a lame joke of course. But now it appears it’s a joke based on a lie. Jesus was not a goalkeeper but was – and still is – an outfield player who liked to take on two teams of children at the same time.

This quality ornament can adorn your mantelpiece for a little over 30 dollars. I believe the Chelsea players have similar monstrosities that read “Jose is My Coach.”

There is no mention on the website of this being available for different teams but I guess you could quite easily paint JC’s robes in whatever colours you like. And, as a crowd pleaser bursting with show stopping tricks, surely white sandals would be his preference?

JC? I meant a portrait of John Collins
And, to complete your collection how about this painting of Jesus bursting free from the cross to hunt for the ball as his child followers look on. It was, apparently, a first draft of the Sistine Chapel ceiling!

These classy items come from America and I dare say a thesis could be written on soccer moms, the Bible belt and neo-conservatism.

But it might be more effective just to laugh in their faces!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Goodbye Lennon

Goodbye then. Mr Lennon.

It’s been, well, fun isn’t really the correct word.

Compelling? Possibly. Entertaining? At times perhaps.

Because let’s be honest Neil Lennon and Scottish football have been a combustible mix.

The good stuff: five SPL titles, three (possibly four) Scottish Cups, two League Cups, qualification from the Champion’s League group stages and a UEFA Cup Final.

It is an honours list that proves the value of Lennon’s contribution. And, having seen the way that the UEFA Cup final passed him by, it is a testament to his commitment that he’s lasted this long, as combative as ever.

But that is part of the problem. The combative nature and the simplicity of his play has made him hard to love. His behaviour has often made him impossible to defend.

Off the field, of course, events outside his control (the kiss and tell stories, the Neanderthals that pass for football fans in Northern Ireland, the bigotry that has spewed from the stands at Ibrox) have contributed to the controversy.

But Neil Lennon has never shied away from controversy himself. Opposing players, opposing fans, referees, his own players, his own fans.

It’s never really mattered to Neil who he fights with. The fight was part of the game and the game was all about winning.

It’s fashionable now to laugh at the irony when supporters are offended by players reacting to the jibes from the terraces. That might be a fair point but footballers are paid well enough to stay above the mob. Lennon never could. The sectarian abuse he received was at times sickening – Lennon, perhaps because of his experience with Northern Ireland, seemed unable to shut it out.

Lennon liked to dominate referees. Snarling petulance greeted decisions against his team but he could – and would – use all his experience to get other players cautioned. He collected bookings like Henrik Larsson collected goals – but he was almost always too cute to be booked twice in a game.

Steven Pressley, now a colleague at Celtic, branded Lennon ‘the common denominator’ in a litany of controversies. It was a statement of fact that was ignored, at least in public, by Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan.

They knew, unlike an often vocal section of his own support, that Lennon’s simplicity let Celtic play and that the team benefited from such a skilled manipulator of football’s dark arts.

And now he will, in a likelihood, bow out with a double – winning as he always wanted to. The honours list will long be tinged by the controversies but, at the same time, Lennon’s stay in Scotland has coincided with a prolonged assault on sectarianism.

That unlikely by product of the whirlwind that has surrounded Lennon might just be his greatest contribution to our game.

What now at Easter Road?

There appears to be something in the water in Edinburgh – and it's not coming from the burst sewage pipe at Seafield.

A season of smug satisfaction for Hibs fans looked like it might get even better. One cup was already locked in the trophy cabinet. Kevin Thomson was dumped and Scott Brown returned to equilibrium. European football – and a shot at the Scottish Cup – lay only 90 minutes away. And Hearts were still rudderless and uncertain.

Alas hubris is a terrible thing.

Since the euphoria of the Hampden victory that captured the CIS Cup Hibs have lost to Hearts, failed to score in three games against the bottom team in the SPL, seen European football disappear and experienced a player rebellion. And still the Scottish Cup hoodoo hangs over them.

The player rebellion apparently stemmed from John Collins management style. Too strict, too regimented. No consistency in team selection, no empathy with more experienced players.

Fans and the media gathered round Collins, and his assistant Tommy Craig, and berated the players for acting like spoilt children (fans and the media, of course, are major factors in creating an environment where players can act like spoilt children but that is another story) but, tellingly, there was no official statement of support from the aloof Chairman and Chief Executive Rod Petrie.

The lack of goals was blamed on the loss of the injured striker Chris Killen. The strict regime was a nod to Collins’ experience in France. The chopping and changing was Collins way of finding out which players he could trust.

The press were then treated to the bizarre sight of Collins – so often painted as a thoughtful, intelligent guy – being fed lines by Craig in a press conference. Something was amiss.

Eventually the players apologised – but they chose to do this after a miserable draw with Dunfermline in the Scottish Cup.

And that, essentially, is the crux of the matter. While a dream cup double and European football were a possibility the fans could hope and cracks could be papered over.

But on Tuesday night Hibs' world collapsed. The replay defeat to Dunfermline has left fans angry and bemused. Where, they ask, do Hibs go from here?

Thomson’s departure is almost certainly going to be followed by transfers for Scott Brown and Chris Killen. David Murphy and Steven Whittaker may also go. Thomas Sowunmi, a January signing, has failed to convince. Goalkeepers Zibi Malkowski and Simon Brown are on their way out. Guillame Beuzelin is struggling for form and Ivan Sproule is increasingly exposed as a speed merchant without a football brain. Michael Stewart is on his way, along with Stephen Glass, and Shelton Martis may also be packing his bags.

The sales of Thomson and Scott Brown alone should raise in the region of £6 million. Which is where the silent Mr Petrie reappears in our story.

Because John Collins will see very little of that money for players. In fact, he’ll not see a penny. No transfer fees, no increased wage structure.

Which means more youngsters and more untested free transfers. Almost certainly not the experienced campaigner that Collins could so desperately use on the pitch.

For Mr Petrie this means a balanced budget. For the fans it means a lack of ambition and mid table mediocrity. For Collins it means that a board that would not publicly support him against the players is unwilling to back him in the transfer market. It is a situation where almost everyone loses.

Fans are happy to be impressed by falling debt and new training centres. But only if it is matched on the park. If that doesn’t happen they vote with their feet. Mr Petrie will be the target of the fans ire. John Collins will almost certainly get caught in the crossfire.

Collins enamoured the whole of Leith when his side lifted the CIS Cup. It looks like being a shining moment in a brief and unhappy return to Easter Road.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Alan and Jim: Memories are made of this!

Ooh, Aah, Alan Ball's Da'?

Alan Ball has died. England’s youngest World Cup winner (or England’s eleventh oldest World Cup winner) succumbed to a heart attack at the age of just 61.

Down south, of course, this gives the media the chance to revel in the kind of mass grief that they have perfected since ‘The People’s Princess’ died.

For those of us in Scotland it means we are reminded once again about 1966 and all that.

Ah, those painful memories of non goals and pitch invasions!

But at least it allows us our own spot of navel gazing: 1967 and Alan Ball’s entry into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame.

Ball it was that Jim Baxter targeted to feel the full force of his genius at Wembley that day. Sir Alex Ferguson has said that Baxter’s performance could have been set to music. It would be the sound of Alan Ball being tortured.

When Denis Law urged Baxter to cut the fancy stuff and go for goals Slim Jim just smiled and continued with his repertoire of tricks. This included exchanging more than 20 passes with Billy Bremner and Tommy Gemmell as Ball scurried between them trying in vain to get the ball. The masters became the tormented slaves.

Baxter would dine out on the story for years, often pretending to forget Ball’s name: to Slim Jim Ball would always be the “wee ginger boy, squeaky voice an’ that.”

And Jim, in his pomp, couldn’t resist ‘sledging’ Ball either. “Is it true” he enquired, “that Jimmy Clitheroe wis your faither.”

Jimmy Clitheroe, of course, was a comedian who happened to be Lancastrian, squeaky voiced and very, very short. The short, squeaky voiced Lancastrian Alan Ball recognised the force of the insult.

To his eternal credit Ball, though furious, kept his head. One always got the impression, however, that he was never quite able to forgive or forget the day Jim Baxter stole Wembley.

Both Baxter and Ball are gone now. They followed different paths in both life and death. But both left memories of great games and great talent. That, not the mocked up hysteria of the English press, should be their lasting legacy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Rubbish Football Products Part One

For the football fan who had everything in life and wants the same in death.

You need no longer be content with having Simply the Best played at your funeral or having the ashes that the crematorium think might have something to do with you scattered at Fir Park.

Now your coffin can be adorned with this aesthetically questionable (alright, absolutely dreadful) football shaped wreath.

It’s from the Co-op and it’s made of chrysanthemums apparently.

I’m not sure if they deliver to the walking dead but Steve McClaren can be found c/o The FA, 25 Soho Square, London.

Friends like these

So you've watched your league lead dwindle to one point. You're mystified about the lack of goals coming from your once prolific attack.

The last thing you probably want is your own match "announcer" taking the mickey.

But as Gretna's players slumped to the turf on Saturday after a goalless draw with Clyde - which left St Johnstone not so much breathing down their necks as enveloping them in a half nelson - they were assailed by Queen and David Bowie's Under Pressure blaring out from the tannoy.

Nice, if nothing else, to see gallows humour alive and well in Gretna.

Back (again). Apologies (again)

OK. So I’m back again after another inexcusable absence.

What’s happened since I’ve been away? Well, Celtic have won the SPL – finally. St Mirren remain ahead of Dunfermline – but only just.

And Gretna are making hard work of wrapping up the First Division.

But more of that later. In the meantime welcome back.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The computer that hated us all

The much maligned SPL computer

It seems the powers that be at the SPL are scared that Celtic won’t officially win the title until they play Rangers at Celtic Park a week on Sunday. If that happens then the fear is that there will be a repeat of the scenes that marred Rangers capture of the title back in 1999.

That was the match when the “misunderstood” Stephane Mahe was sent off, the maligned Hugh Dallas got hit on the head by a coin and a mad Celtic fan launched himself from one tier of the stand to the one below.

Those problems came in a season when the title was still an outside possibility for Celtic. This year if Rangers were to win 15-0 they would still not win the title. And, in 1999, the crowd was watching their arch rivals take the title on their own ground. This year the majority of the crowd will be watching another leg in the stately coronation of their heroes.

So I don’t see the game being more of a tinderbox than usual. What grabbed me about the story was the SPL blaming their computer for the scheduling faux pas.

Up and down the country, when fans complain about fixtures they are told that the computer is to blame. I hate that computer. Obviously the SPL care about the fans and told the computer to sort it out. Will the computer listen? No. Season after season the heartless machine churns out a fixture list so confused that it is practically impossible to follow.

Obviously life for the computer isn’t easy. TV coverage means that games don’t always kick off at 3pm on a Saturday. Rangers and Celtic and Hibs and Hearts can’t play at home on the same day.

It’s all quite confusing. I’m sure the computer gets quite upset at times. Especially when it looks at the newspaper and reads that all the nasty people at the SPL are blaming it for all the ills of the fixture list.

So here’s my suggestion. Let’s give the computer a break. Allow it to concentrate on simpler things, like beating Bobby Fischer at chess.

In the meantime the SPL bosses can sit down with a sheet of paper and work out 33 rounds of fixtures. They could even do things like give each team a fixture list based on the revolutionary principle of home, away, home, away. From that list they can chat to their Setanta friends about television coverage.

Should they feel, like the computer, overtaxed by that I’m sure there is a school somewhere that is looking for a maths project for a Primary 7 class.

Dundee United and Dundee sorted out a fixture clash by tossing a coin. I believe they used a virtual coin provided by the SPL computer.

Browned off...but USA happy!

Diana Ross lost her looks after the USA 1994 World Cup
In what’s not, by most estimations, been a storming few days for Gordon Brown, I’m sure the Chancellor has not been paying much attention to Sepp Blatter.

But Fifa President Blatter’s refusal to confirm that the World Cup will return to Europe in 2018 looks pretty bad for the Chancellor’s dream of leading a successful English bid. It strikes me that Blatter – not the most transparent of football administrators – might know more than he’s prepared to admit. Particularly regarding the United States bid.

When I heard Sunil Gulati, US Soccer President, announce his intention to bid I put his supreme confidence down to his American-ness. Now I think he may know something that we don’t.

So my guess is that we’ll see the next five World Cup’s held in South Africa, Brazil, the US, Australia and then Europe in 2026. When Gordon Brown will probably not be Prime Minister.

Which means a return to the US – on the back of the Beckham factor – and memories of that opening ceremony, Maradona’s crazy eyes and the Divine Ponytail’s least divine moment. But Fifa are determined to crack the US and 2018 might be the time.

If South Africa isn’t ready – a huge possibility - then Australia might jump the queue and Europe, because Australia is now in the Asian federation, might be bumped up to 2022. But it’s still a long time.

A lengthy wait might work in England’s favour – as long as the Olympics are a success - because it will diminish the memory of the failed 2006 bid, the Wembley wobbles and head scratching craziness of the initial Olympic budget projections.

And if Scotland get their act together to bid for the 2016 European Championships then the longer England have to wait the more attractive we will be to voters. UEFA won’t follow a Scottish Euro 2016 with an English World Cup 2018.

That, of course, is all conjecture. But I feel that Scotland (maybe with a partner across the sea) could make a decent bid. As long as nobody currently involved in running the Scottish game or running Scotland from Holyrood is allowed within a hundred miles of the project.

Can The Saints Go Marching On?

St Johnstone’s cup runneth over.

A second semi final in the same season. And the chance to go one better in the Scottish Cup. They’ll fancy themselves against Celtic, of course, but will hope for Hibs (who they could have beaten in the CIS Cup) or Dunfermline (who would probably be underdogs against the Saints).

The real treasures lie, inevitably, in the SPL and St Johnstone aren’t done there yet either.

Ten points behind Gretna, St Johnstone have two games in hand and still need to play everyone’s favourite fairy tale. A one point deficit and it’s suddenly, in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, squeaky bum time.

And, right now, I’d say that St Johnstone are probably better suited to coping with the SPL. I don’t know what Gretna will spend in the summer and they may splash out big style if they get promoted.

But people often overlook the divide between the two leagues. It is easy to create a team that can storm the First Division and be suddenly caught cold in the SPL. The best players in the lower league might be just that – First Division players.

St Johnstone have a streetwise attitude that manager Owen Coyle always had as a player and is now embodied by their more experienced players. Gretna, under Rowan Alexander, have lacked that quality in some one off games this season.

The First Division run in is one to watch and Gretna hosting St Johnstone on April 7th is not to be missed.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

It's the Football Stupid!

When Graeme Souness was asked to revolutionise Scottish football he immediately scoured England for players that would form a talismanic spine for Rangers. Martin O’Neill did the same at Celtic. Jose Mourinho, with Cech, Terry and Lampard, has it at Chelsea.

Amid all the bluster about debt, media monkeys and Old Firm shenanigans of late it was this central question that most Hearts fans would have wanted an answer to at this week’s AGM.

Roman Romanov, in a performance that reportedly fluctuated between impressive, paranoid and sarcastic, didn’t adequately address how Hearts will replace the troika of Gordon (when he finally leaves), Pressley and Hartley that he and his father inherited at Tynecastle. Or how the gap left by the most impressive of their signings, Rudi Skacel, will be filled.

Football fans are not all that interested in business and media feuds. Only when the performances on the pitch falter do the fans look around for other problems at a club. And that, for all the diversionary tactics of the owner and his chairman-son, is what’s happening at Tynecastle.

Not since the departure of George Burley have Hearts looked like title contenders. This year the Champion’s League is disappearing over the horizon and the UEFA Cup is far from guaranteed.

And along with Burley, the highest rated coach that the Romanov’s have attracted, Skacel, Pressley and Hartley have all jumped ship. That is a major hole that journeymen, loan signings and youngsters have been unable to adequately fill.

With Roman Romanov confirming that any new coach will have, at most, a 60% say in team affairs it seems likely that any world class coach would have to be down on his luck to take charge of Hearts.

Picking a football team requires a great deal of pragmatism. It is pragmatism that has seen David Beckham returned to the Real Madrid team. It is pragmatism that will, in all likelihood, see Gary Neville marshalling the Manchester United defence at Anfield as we sit down to lunch on Saturday.

Contract disputes or the looming presence of Celtic and Rangers should not affect team selection. But Roman Romanov has promised that these considerations will be taken into account when the team is picked. That may well be asking too much of any big name coach.

There is more comfort for Hearts fans this week than there was last week. The stadium plans seem to be moving on apace and a new shirt sponsorship deal has the potential to expand the club’s commercial operations.

But Valdas Ivanauskas is in a vacuum of uncertainity and the playing squad doesn’t measure up to the team that achieved so much last season. The Romanovs seem happy to forget this as they continue their paranoid slanging matches. For the fans that is the only thing that really matters and it will take more than a new top and a massive stadium to truly persuade the doubters.

Roman Romoanov is wrong: the fans don't want to see him beaten up. All they really want from him is a team that can beat up the Old Firm week in, week out. If Vlad and son get in the way of the that they really will have a battle on their hands.

O'Connor Should Wait Outside Last Chance Saloon

"I saw Garry as a talented young player and I didn't want him to ruin his football life. We have to look at this from a human point of view but Garry knows it's last chance saloon."

So said Alex McLeish as he apparently opened the door slightly on a return to international football for Garry O’Connor.

Sensible of McLeish to leave his options open. Sensible also to make the announcement to the press. An operator as shrewd as McLeish is sure to gauge public opinion before making this call so early in his tenure as Scotland boss.

And McLeish may feel more than a certain empathy for O’Connor. After all, playing for Scotland is a far more effective shop window than Russia as O’Connor tries to engineer a move to England. It was, I’m sure, this principle that guided McLeish as he thrust himself on every media outlet in England in his attempts to land a Premiership job in the six months before he settled for the Scotland job.

Perhaps, however, O’Connor should be made to stew a while longer.

Firstly his indiscretion was not his first example of bad behaviour or stupidity.

Secondly, he cites family responsibilities as an excuse for his irresponsibility: in fact, for a long time, Garry O’Connor has been a daft laddie unwilling, or unable, to grow up.

Third, he should have immediately distanced himself from the comments his father made in the aftermath of his withdrawal.

And, finally, he should have apologised himself, not through his agent.

Still the dispute was with Walter Smith and McLeish should start with a clean slate. But if O’Connor is rushed back to the Scotland squad and finds another double header all too much for him then McLeish needs to be aware that his reign will be weakened before it has properly begun.

Hibs Need to Bring Sunshine Back to Leith

Hibs have been away this week in Spain. They come home on Friday before facing Rangers on Sunday in what can’t really be described as a crucial league game but is one that neither team will fancy losing.

If Rangers win their push for second place will continue. For Hibs it’s a chance to show that a breather and a nice training surface is all they needed to recharge their batteries.

Because, on recent form, John Collins is facing his first real struggle as manager. A final and a semi final to look forward to doesn’t seem to back up that verdict. Of late, however, Hibs have been poor, at times very poor.

In the league they were woeful against Dundee United after playing an unnatural game in losing to Celtic. In the CIS Cup semi final St Johnstone were desperately unlucky to lose 3-1. The Queen of the South game on Saturday appeared to be between a team wanting to cause an upset and a team dreaming of alcopops in a Spanish beach bar.

Players that should be taking responsibility are apparently struggling: Rob Jones is not commanding as he did earlier in the season and Guillame Beuzelin looks, ominously, to be marking time. Chris Killen’s absence has proved that his contribution was much greater than even his fine scoring record suggests.

If the players have enjoyed a break this week you can bet that Collins and Tommy Craig will have been searching around for the spark that will reignite their team.

The Romance of the Cup?

The SFA website was last week trumpeting how the weekend in Scottish football would be dominated by the exciting quarter finals of the Scottish Cup.

Can’t really argue with that I suppose. But only two games kicked off at 3pm on Saturday. To watch the Celtic game, if, like me, you live in the one area of the developed world that Rupert Murdoch can’t transmit to, you would have to have been of the opinion that the best way to get Saturday night out of your system was to be back in the pub by midday on Sunday. The Scottish Cup – football for alcoholics.

And the fourth fixture? Wednesday night in front of a crowd so paltry that I began to wonder if they’d all stayed at home to watch Relocation, Relocation on the TV. Because I’d wager that the BBC’s live coverage of the game wasn’t top of the TV pops last night.

(That, incidentally, could be down the truly awful combination of Paul Mitchell and Ian McCall in the TV gantry but that, as they, is another story.)

I find nothing remotely romantic about any game played on a Sunday. Midweek games I’ve always enjoyed but, unless it’s a replay, I think they ruin the feel of a Scottish Cup tie.

What about the draw? Even that is a television event (although one that is always fatally flawed by the people doing the draw. Is it just football people? Or would Helen Mirren look like a Woodentop picking numbers out of a Perspex bowl?) brought to us live by the BBC and Sky. Families up and down the country will no doubt be gathered round their sets for that!

Still I suppose football’s moved on. It’s just that on TV Scottish football always has the feel of an amateur dramatics group rehearsing Hamlet. All the ingredients are there but seem fatally undermined by a lack of professionalism. That’s not a dig at the players but from commentary to camera coverage to the complete disregard of the fans convenience we always seem to be trying to ape other people and failing miserably.

Money, alas, makes the world go round!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Cryptic Vlad Hits Out Again

Well, I suppose it has been a week since he last spoke out. Once again using Hearts' official website as the conduit for his tirade, Vladimir Romanov has waded back into his row with the media.

The latest statement read:

Dear Monkeys,

Today I will not be showing your portrait to you. It is pointless. You are one step away from becoming human beings.

Go and carefully have a look at yourself in the mirror. Don't you see a human in it?

Stop fighting for the values which the ex-captain of Hearts was fighting for.

Education and truthful information - that should be your input to humankind.

Your leader Mowgli is not taking bananas any more, now he is taking money for lies and untruthful interpretation. However he is greedy and makes you collect rotten information from cesspits and poisons readers with it.

This is unworthy even of a monkey.

Today I will express my opinion in English about refereeing in order that your Mowgli will not make you tell lies.

To discuss whether referees take money or not is the same as discussing a woman who gives herself with no love.

Isn't it better to concentrate on the standard of their work instead of looking for reasons for their poor performance?

A woman cheats herself and nature if she gives herself without love. If a referee officiates a game based on his personal love, he commits a cynical crime, especially when the public has trusted him.

I respect those referees who take money from two stupid teams and then honestly officiates a game. They do not harm football in any way. Though it is bad, still everybody is equal for them. Perhaps that is the reason why football in Italy will never die despite all the scandals that continuously shake it.

I think that is much better than being the champions for 40 years while building up the same system for further 40 years.

Now it has become obvious to me why you, the Monkeys, were trying to ruin Hearts not only in the Championship, but in European competitions as well. I think it was not without your help that the 'frozen' referee from Russia was selected to officiate our match and that in the games against the Greek side we got three red cards.

It is not without your help that traitors were presented as heroes thus showing the road to children for betrayal.

You will always call teachers silly because unlike you they lead children along the correct path.
Protecting your values in that way just spoils not only football, but also a Scotsman's proud name.

I beg you Mowgli, take the monkeys back to the Safari Park!

What is that all about?

I really have no idea.

The media are obviously targets again. Steven Pressley - who surely now must regret that confidentiality agreement - is again accused of betrayal. And the Scottish press will be delighted to learn that they can influence the officials in European games as well as dictate the winners of the SPL!

Bribery of officials is, it seems, just about acceptable as long as the officials remain honest in their dishonesty. And we now know that as well as being a fan of Sir Walter Scott, Romanov is also not beyond the odd Rudyard Kipling reference as well. Although, of course, Mowgli was a prisoner of the monkeys not their leader.

Other than that? Who knows? As a statement intended for clarification it fails miserably. I guess all I can say is that when outsiders choose a football value system for their children to follow they'd probably opt for Steven Pressley's above Vladimir Romanov's right now.

Where does it leave Hearts?

Again I don't know. But it does ensure that the owner will again be on the back (and front) pages of the papers tomorrow. And nobody will be discussing the team. If that is Romanov's aim then you've got to congratulate him on successfully completing his mission!

The saga continues...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Christie the Redeemer?

Good to see Charlie Christie questioning the value of the SPL split in the papers this week.

The Inverness manager asked if, eight years into the experiment, it was really beneficial for the game. Again this year the SPL title and relegation battles are all but over (barring a Dunfermline revival of increasingly grand proportions) before the split.

European places are still up for grabs but it's unlikely that the team in fifth or sixth place will be able to make a sustained run for second, or even third, place.

Which leaves Christie – and a lot of other managers – looking at the Scottish Cup as their main target. Christie even doubts the financial benefits of a top six finish (although there are television and match day revenues to consider).

As Christie concede: "I think it needs to be looked at again, although that is me coming up with a problem, not a solution."

I still don’t know what the solution is but I would consider a 16 team top division. The argument would be (particularly from the Old Firm) that fewer games means less revenue from home matches.

But a brave revamping of the League Cup could fill the fixture vacuum as well as helping money filter down to the lower league clubs.

Why is any of this relevant at the moment? Because the proposals for a second tier of the SPL are still bubbling under.

Which does beg the question: if we can have a two league SPL of 20 teams, why can’t we have one SPL of 16 teams?

No other European country has followed our lead and adopted the split. That, if nothing, else suggests it’s now time to go back to the drawing board.

Rangers Reprieve But Problems Remain

How to feel about the news that UEFA have accepted that Ranger’s fans were not giving Nazi salutes at their recent UEFA Cup game in Israel?

Given recent events in Italy, and now France, along with Ranger’s fractious relationship with the authorities last season, the risk could have been that UEFA could have decided to make an example of Rangers and give them the order of the boot.

We should, I suppose, all be grateful that Rangers have been cleared: had they been found guilty it would have been an unthinkable stain on football, on Rangers, on Scotland. That’s not to mention the crass stupidity of people swathing themselves in Union Jacks and giving Nazi salutes.

But, as Rangers' Chief Executive Martin Bain conceded, a bitter taste remains:

"Some Rangers fans continue to give Red Hand salutes, which the club and the vast majority of supporters discourage because they will be misinterpreted. Our supporters will be bitterly disappointed that the club is once again the focus of UEFA attention because of a handful of people who continue to put our club at risk through their mindless actions."

Because how can we be grateful that, far from invoking Nazism, a group of Rangers fans went to a country blighted by religious divides, a country that has seen too many deaths caused by religion, and happily invoked the prejudices and memories of another sectarian conflict?

I know the whole debate about sectarianism and bigotry can appear boring. That it can get in the way of football. But until the Scottish game is completely clear of the zealots it is our duty to point out the absurdity of their prejudices.

People in Northern Ireland want to move on. It’s time for Rangers to do the same. Let’s applaud Bain for tackling bigotry. But his club have to act against the minority or UEFA will act – and Scottish football will be the poorer for that.

Milan Impress But Celtic Still Alive and Kicking

Celtic playing host to AC Milan in front of one of the most passionate and atmospheric stadiums in Europe should be a meeting of two footballing aristocrats.

Instead, as Celtic woke up to the realities of life at the top table of the Champion’s League, this was an enthralling clash between the aristocrats of Milan and the artisans of Glasgow.

That Celtic are still very much in the tie, that progress to the last eight remains an unlikely possibility, is a testament to the spirit that Gordon Strachan has rebuilt in his team since they crashed out of this tournament in the qualifying round last season.

The feeling persists, however, that Celtic will struggle to raise their game in the return leg. Or that even if they do Milan will simply step up a few gears of their own. Strachan’s admission that he would give his side on five out of ten for technique was a stark reminder that dominance in Scotland is not preparation enough at this level.

Celtic’s defence was sound. The goalkeeper Artur Boruc was called upon to make only one save that could be described as out of the ordinary. But it was a solidity that required two holding midfielders in the centre of the park. That undoubtedly robbed Celtic of the chance to attack Milan through the middle. In his 100th Champion’s League game Paulo Maldini will no doubt be relieved that his aging legs were never tested by the pace of Kenny Miller or the strength of Jan Venegoor of Hesselink.

In the centre of midfield Neil Lennon and Evander Sno performed heroically for Celtic. But it must be noted that Milan’s Rene Gattuso was able to perform their two man job on his own, in doing so freeing up Kaka and the rest of Milan’s rich talent to drive forward. And when they came forward it was with a pace and skill that we rarely see in Scotland.

Aiden McGeady and Shunsuke Nakamura didn’t receive the service to impact on the flanks: and even when drifting inside were too well marshalled to create opportunities.

And yet. Miller had a couple of half chances that a striker with more confidence might have converted. Nakumara’s two free kicks were disappointing but showed that Milan are not immune to giving him opportunities on the edge of the box. Thomas Gravesen’s introduction, as Lennon visibly tired, gave Celtic an impetus that proved they could ruffle Milan.

And, but for that one save from Gilardino, Boruc was barely troubled.

Still though the feeling persists that Milan looked at this game as one to come through unscathed. The football equivalent of “rope a dope.” Celtic will hope they can put that strategy to the sword in the San Siro.

That will, as Strachan conceded, require an improvement in technique and self belief that Celtic have rarely shown away from home in this competition. And few will have been shaken from the belief that spirit and effort are highly commendable but will only carry you so far in this competition.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

It's Only Words...

As I’ve been a blogging chancer of late you’ll excuse me if I go over a couple of stories that I missed. You might call this the 'Scottish Football Guide to Saying What You Mean':

"I was just laying back relaxing in the dressing room and the manager sat beside me and told me he wanted to make me club captain – I had to take a wee breath because I was not quite sure if he was telling the truth or not! It is a very big honour, I’ve been a Hibernian supporter all my life so to lead the team out for the first time on Sunday was a massive thing for me. It is something that every young boy would like to be."

Kevin Thomson, July 2006, on assuming the Hibs captaincy.

"At that moment I would have run across the M8 in my bare feet to get the deal done.This is the best day of my life and I can't put into words how excited I am to call myself a Rangers player. It's a boyhood dream come true."

Kevin Thomson, January 2007, on signing for Rangers.

"While these players have signed the contracts just recently then there has to become a responsibility on a player. I think where they will be disappointed is when they do sign their players on a contract then they are looking to get out of that contract without taking a great deal of responsibility for it."

Walter Smith, December 2006, on Thomson and Scott Brown honouring their contracts with Hibs.

"Walter Smith has returned to Rangers as manager, putting pen to paper to a three-year contract. Smith, who revived the fortunes of the Scotland national side, still had 18 months remaining on his contract with the SFA."

Yahoo News, January 2007, as Smith shows how to handle a contract responsibly by ripping his own up.

"Rangers have beaten Celtic and several English clubs to the signature of Kevin Thomson after paying Hibernian £2m for the midfielder."

BBC Sport, January 2007, as Smith allows Thomson to follow his example.

"Walter's departure is a serious blow to the Scottish FA. We are very disappointed that he has chosen to leave us at this critical time. No agreement has been reached with Mr Smith or Rangers Football Club on any compensation payment to be made for the early termination of his employment, which is in breach of his contract with the Scottish FA."

David Taylor, January 2007, as Smith ditches Scotland and the SFA search for compensation.

"It's a different thing altogether."

David Taylor, Ferbruary 2007, as he follows Smith out of the SFA.

Just a snapshot. But it’s these kind of things that leave the fans so frustrated and add to the impression of football – and everyone connected with the game – as a bloated, money grabbing monster.

But we always come back for more.

Pars Sign But Can't Score

Well done to Scott Wilson and Greg Shields for committing to Dunfermline.

The beleaguered East End Park fans need something to shout about at the moment – unlikely Scottish Cup run aside.

But, although Stephen Kenny still believes, the chances of the Pars pulling of a great escape look increasingly unlikely. When does a drought become a famine? Nine league matches without a goal would seem to qualify. Over 900 minutes without a goal? That’s more than just off form strikers. Is there a curse?

The lack of goals, more even than the points gap, leads me to think the bookies can shut the relegation book now. But Wilson and Shields have given some cause for optimism.

Whichever way the board choose to treat the contracts – solid foundation for a promotion charge or cash boost to build a new team – Dunfermline should hold some advantage over their rivals in the First Division.

Stephen’s Sensational Season

If Dunfermline are relegated and hold their luck in the Scottish Cup it will have been a remarkable year for Stephen Kenny:

Derry’s first European adventure in 40 years: including wins over IFK Goteburg and Gretna (who may replace Dunfermline in the SPL) and a goalless draw with Paris St Germain.

Second in the Irish league on goal difference.

FAI Cup winner.

Relegated from the SPL?

Scottish Cup?

The man is in danger of becoming a pub quiz question!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ivan't A Break

I’m sure it’s of some comfort to Hearts fans to know that Mr Romanov is not the only man in Edinburgh with a monkey on his back.

Step forward Hibs winger Ivan Sproule. Ivan does everything quickly: running, talking and losing his temper. All in the blink of an eye. Arguably the only thing he does slowly is think.

On Saturday Ivan, sent on as an impact substitute against Celtic, got sent off. The decision was probably a bit harsh but Sproule’s recklessness meant that, once again, he put himself in a difficult position.

Apparently Ivan felt hard done by because if he’d been booked for an earlier foul (on the same Celtic player) he would never have made the second challenge. Which shows some sort of logic but I’m not sure I can find it.

Anyway it’s been bit too much for Ivan:

"I'm really annoyed and down and I just can't understand it. [Stuart] Dougal has sent me off before, and the boss said things about me 'tightening the nut', which I felt was unjust. I just can't understand it but it's the kind of thing that will maybe force me out of Scotland. I would hate to leave Easter Road because Hibs have been fantastic to me. All my team-mates have backed me - they have been brilliant as we are a close-knit team."

Ivan Sproule is 25 years old. He should, by now, be able to understand what happened. The referee gave a close decision against him. It happens.

Stuart Dougal sent off Sproule at Hampden in the Scottish Cup semi final last year. Hibs were being hammered by Hearts. Sproule stamped on Mikoliunas. It was a red card. No argument. In Ivan world, however, it appears that Dougal should not send him off again.

His other red card came at Ibrox. A second yellow for throwing the ball away. Harsh, not always punished, but a bookable offence. No argument.

The common theme is not victimisation. Big games, big temper. Ivan blows a fuse. All of which would have made John Collins perfectly correct to tell Ivan to screw the nut. Except he didn’t.

Collins said: "It was definitely not a red card. I think it was harsh - but I'm biased. I think it was a yellow card."

"I always ask my players to be committed in the tackle and put everything into it but we have got to screw the nut I suppose sometimes as well."

Not the words of a man victimising his own player. Three years ago Ivan Sproule was playing part-time football in Northern Ireland. He’s come a long way since then but on the football pitch he still has a lot to learn.

Off it, perhaps, he is learning more quickly. Having seen the fuss caused when Scott Brown and Kevin Thomson asked Hibs for transfers, Ivan has maybe come up with a plan: “Play the victim and say I can’t handle it in Scotland any more. Then big money move down south and I’m blameless.”

Ivan Sproule. Not as daft he might seem?

Vlad's Back Part Four

The latest statement from Tynecastle pulls one of Vladimir Romanov’s favourite tricks. He is the wronged party, attacked at every turn by a Scottish establishment that seems to mistrust any new kids on the block.

Interestingly enough Tam Cowan and Stuart Cosgrove made a point about the media’s treatment of Romanov being in some way racist on Off the Ball a few weeks ago. I disagree with that analysis and, it must be noted, Vladimir doesn’t seem to have too high an opinion of Scots.

But the statement, in my opinion, doesn’t fully convince as a disavowal of the earlier interview. Romanov concedes that there is no corruption in the Scottish game. That seems to take care of the allegations of “buy-offs” in the Daily Record transcript.

But – and inevitably there is a but where Vlad is concerned – the talk of player “betrayal,” “hooped shirts,” “kids being pushed” and “seduction of the soul” seem to chime with comments in the earlier interview.

Does that mean the much maligned translator has made only one or two mistakes? Or that the Daily Record deliberately and knowingly included “distortion” in their story? Or that the Russian journalist – who must be bemused by the storm this has created - lied in the original interview?

The Andy Webster comment and the national team remarks leave me quite bamboozled. Given his extensive knowledge of UEFA’s rule on club ownership and loan deals, I would have felt that Romanov would have few quibbles with a player exercising his legal right. I’m not sure which Hearts players have badly let down the national team while on Romanov’s payroll.

George Burley, Phil Anderton, Graham Rix and George Foulkes probably all agree with Romanov that there is very little “heroic” about betrayal. But will Romanov now only sign players that are out of contract. Or will the lure of his wages and a maroon shirt not “seduce” players from other clubs. Will that be a betrayal of their clubs?

As for the Edinburgh section at the end. Well, you tell me? Who are these monkeys? Is it a dig at Tom Ponton for questioning the valuation of the land around Tynecastle?

The bizarre Photoshop monkey would seem to point at the media but Edinburgh’s paper, the Evening News, tends to display only sickening acquiescence to the city’s clubs and – thank God – does not rule the city.

So it was Vlad’s day. Again. But we’re not really any closer to finding out the truth about the interview or what his motives were with the statement of denial. If the statement was intended to calm things down it has failed. The monkey picture is a PR disaster that the media will pounce on.

Does he love publicity? Once again he has put himself and Hearts at the centre of a media storm that has now gone global. A Google News search reveals the story is being run in Australia, America and the United Arab Emirates. But surely nobody craves this kind of publicity?

Is he creating an exit strategy by showing that despite his efforts he can’t succeed against the obstacles that Scotland has put in his way? Only he can tell us that and I doubt he’ll do that anytime soon. So we wait and we wait. We hypothesise and we gossip but we don’t really know.

It will be up to history to judge if Pressley and company betrayed Hearts or if the Romanov rollercoaster will derail. All we can say is that, with this interview and this statement, Romanov has done very little that could be called “heroic” for Hearts. But as if to prove that his unpredictability is his only consistent trait Romanov has ordered Craig Gordon back into the squad for this weekend's game.

Truly Vlad moves in mysterious ways.

Vlad's Back Part Three

We'd be waiting for a Romanov reaction...and then it came.

He undoubtedly brings something new to the Scottish game.

Today Vlad gave us a lesson in how to dig yourself out of a hole with all guns blazing. Excuse the mangled metaphors but the Romanov statement on Hearts’ official website was spectacular. Here it is in full as it appeared on the site (along with the illustration above).

Read Vlad’s Back Part Four for my attempt to make sense of it:

It's a pity that papers are not able to get an interview from me direct.

Thank God I haven't come across any corruption in Scotland.

I don't expect anything except lies and distortion of my quotes. I want to say that I'm surprised with many things, like, for example, the situation when betrayal is portrayed as an act of heroism.

To my mind, there are no values in this life that are worth betrayal, even if we're talking about hooped shirts. If kids are being pushed towards betrayal, I call it seduction - but seduction of their souls.

Let's see where it led in Webster's case: he hung around in different clubs and didn't play for the Scottish national team for a whole year.

Other players who fell under this pressure showed miserable results while playing for the national team despite all the chances it had to win.

Edinburgh is an amazing city. I'm so impressed with the genius of those who created it. It fascinates and captivates you immediately.

Its beauty was created during the times of the kings of old, and now I see how everything that people were gathering for centuries - a culture, all Walter Scott's heritage, is being ruled and destroyed by monkeys from the safari park.

Vlad's Back Part Two

The key phrase from the interview with Vladimir Romanov (carried in Russian football magazine Futbol) was:

"Celtic and Rangers? Even Kaunas are a match for them on the pitch. The thing is they've turned football into a type of show business with their underhand games. They buy off players and referees."

At this point what might have been another Vlad rant turned into something much bigger.

Speaking to every football fans favourite morning show, Radio Four’s Today Programme, Celtic chairman Brian Quinn said:

"I think it is absurd. Absolutely ridiculous. If he is saying this, I will take legal advice."

Rangers chief executive Martin Bain added:

"If the comments are confirmed, it is a matter we would refer to the club's lawyers and the SFA."

Despite this, many supporters – even from other teams – were siding with Romanov: claims of Old Firm favouritism are always music to the ears of the faithful at the "wee" clubs.

And of course, as Quinn conceded later in the day, the Daily Record carried only a translation of an interview that had been conducted in Russian: Romanov may have been caught out by a translator that saw a larger fee for a more sensational story.

On Real Radio a Russian language expert confirmed much of the Record’s translation of the offending paragraph, continuing: "he then says that there literally is bribery going on in the Scottish game."

Then Romanov’s spokesman, Charlie Mann, seemed to almost inadvertently confirm that Romanov had made the claims:

"We know that does not happen - he doesn't. He is saying it because he is not from these shores and thinks that's the way it happens. It's a cultural thing and we have to get that across to him."

Mann then want on to specifically deny that his boss had made the "buy-off" statement. Which seemed contradictory but, good spin doctor that he is, was probably a frustrated Mann just muddying the waters.

Because, after all, walk into any pub in Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Dundee and you’ll hear tales of insidious favouritism for the Old Firm but far fewer specific claims of backhanders.

At this stage Jim Jefferies got in on the act and raised a good point: it is not only the integrity of Rangers, Celtic and Scottish referees that Romanov appeared to criticise – Steven Pressley and others were also mentioned.

Which, at the very least, would suggest that the confidentiality agreements that Pressley and Paul Hartley reportedly signed in no way stop Romanov from speaking about them.

Still, however, we had little more than hot air to add to the original interview: "he meant this," "he meant that," "translators get things wrong."

Yes, it was a bad day for paid up members of the Russian to English Translator’s Union, but we’d still not heard from the man himself...

Vlad's Back Part One

It seems like I’ve been away for almost as long as Vladimir Romanov. But, now that he’s back with a bang, it’s time to shake off the blogging lethargy.

Below are some excerpts from Vlad’s interview in Russia that began the storm that’s currently engulfing the Scottish game:

When you took over you declared that Hearts would in a few months be mounting a real challenge to Rangers and Celtic and would be battling for the title. Nobody took you seriously then but you soon returned the club to long forgotten heights. What was the secret of your success?

Celtic and Rangers? Even Kaunas are a match for them on the pitch. The thing is they've turned football into a type of show business with their underhand games. They buy off players and referees.When it comes to weaker teams then nobody can help but if two opponents are equally matched, then the referees can have a real influence on the outcome.

You've got the same thing happening in England where Abramovich's Chelsea are being undermined. Opponents operate using a standard strategy: press-manager- players. Once players have achieved their aims, you need to sell them. Once the manager has got what he wants, and become a star - let him move on and prove it somewhere else. If he's allowed to stay, then he can easily destroy the team and then he will take players with him when he goes.

Things have got that bad in Britain?

That's not the word for it. I went there with the hope that I'd be able to avoid all the dirty stuff that we've all grown used to here. I thought that there everything was clean, ideal, (that I would be dealing) with gentlemen. But it turned out that there everything is even worse.

Worse than here?

Yes, by some way.

In what way is that visible?

They have a different mentality. A different culture, or to be more precise, lack of culture. What do I mean by that? Here, for example, I can say to German (Tkachenko, the Russian football magnate who runs the agency that represents players such as Laryea Kingston and who was sitting next to him during the interview): 'Why are you trying to deceive me?' (German Tkachenko interjects: 'And I would feel ashamed'.) And he would feel ashamed. But if I say that to a British person, they give you an innocent look and say, 'Me? Deceive you? I'll see you in court!' That's the difference.

What we would call base behaviour is the norm for them. It's normal for them to betray one's own club and conduct talks with another club behind their back or not to give their team everything on the pitch because someone has seduced them by waving the shirt of another club at them.

But fans there deserve something much more. They are not like the tiffosi in Italy. British supporters are well-versed, they understand everything, they live for football. But they are being served up a rotten product, even if it is well packaged.

What was the reasoning behind appointing Eduard Malofeev, who failed to win a single game and became the worst manager in Hearts' 132-year history?

Well, if you've got five people in the team working for Celtic and Rangers, then what more is there to say? What could Malofeev have achieved.

Steven Pressley, who recently moved to Celtic, was presumably one of those? Who are the others?

One might say that the captain of the team is already the whole team.