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.