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.