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!